Note: This story is the fourth entry in the Adventures of Young Ephiny series and contains references to characters and events from the earlier stories. It is not necessary to read any of those in order to follow along with this latest effort; however the reader will find that many of these references are presented "as is" without any further amplification.
As a small child I used to sit by the fires and listen as the elders of my tribe spoke longingly of the old days, when our people were prosperous, when the plain was full and bountiful; days when the fierce One-Eyes from Scythia, and the men-beasts to the east, still walked the earth. In those days my mother would speak of the Mishente, the warrior-spirit who, in times of woe, would come, would come to protect those who could not protect themselves. Mighty was the hand of the warrior-spirit. I myself am an old woman now and like the One-Eyes, and the men-beasts, our people are all but gone now. The young today, when I tell them of the old days, of the mighty ones who walked the earth, they do not believe me. When I tell them of the Mishente, they roll their eyes and shake their heads. They tell me the Mishente is only the wistful shadow of an old woman's fading mind. But they are wrong. The Mishente exists. I know the Mishente is real. I know this because as a child...I saw her.
"As from the days of Lysippe, now and forever, the sole conqueror of an Amazon shall be but Death."~ Verse 96, Amazon "Song of War."
In all her life, spanning nearly three score years now, old Euset could scarcely remember such a time. Fast moving clouds, bleak and gray and endless, masked the sun for days on end. Harsh winds sweeping down from the vast plains of Scythia bore with them a cold not felt for generations. Every day Euset saw a dozen or more field dressed deer being hauled back on litters to the village--as much for their hides as for their meat. Well, that was to expected. They had just better stay from her goats, that was all.
The grass had stopped growing and the world seemed awash in brown and shades of gray. On a couple of occasions the gloomy skies had spit forth a thing previously seen only on the tops of great mountains: snow. For once the stark face of winter had shown itself in the land of the Southern Amazons.
Euset's shoulder-length hair, once jet black, was now mostly as white as those strange little snowflakes. Yet it was still as unruly as it had ever been. In sweeping it back from her face her eyes fell on a solitary figure sitting atop a distant hill.
She was still there. With a sympathetic shake of the head, Euset muttered, "Poor kid."
It was a shame too, a real shame. The mother of the girl sitting so all alone up there had been a true Amazon, one of the best, a shining example for all those who would come after to follow. And the girl, well, the kid was one of the very few of this younger breed that Euset actually liked. And of all things! To die like that, wasting away a little at a time instead of falling gloriously on the field of battle. That was no way for an Amazon to die. But then, that was how she too was dying, was it not?
It was not only the cold that made Euset shudder. Pulling her cloak tighter still, the old goatherd smacked the tip of her staff against the frozen ground and began to hobble off toward home. One last time she again mumbled, "A damn shame..."
Up on the hill Ephiny did not notice Euset struggling across the rocky hillside. The wind stinging her face, she did not notice that either, nor did she even take note of the numbing cold that left her bare arms red. Indeed, these days she noticed very little. And if by chance some small part of her consciousness was made aware of her surroundings it did not matter anyway. For Ephiny simply did not care. Her precise mind, usually so sharp and clear, could not seem to focus on anything anymore. She was stymied by the simplest things. It was as if some black fog, deep and impenetrable, had descended upon her very soul, shrouding her once incandescent inner light.
Meelah, brave, noble Meelah, her loving mother, her rock, the guiding force of her entire life...was dead.
It was some eight days now since the purifying flames of the great funeral pyre had released Meelah's gracious spirit into the welcoming arms of Artemis and still Ephiny could not seem to come to grips with the stark reality that her mother was truly gone. In a testament to Meelah's character every single member of the tribe had seen fit to attend her funeral. Even old Euset had limped her way in from the hills to say her farewell. Dressed out in her finest garments, adorned with all her many honors and lying among her battle-tested weapons, Meelah had looked magnificent. The queen's eulogy was long and moving and heartfelt. Many tears were shed among the throngs circling the body of Meelah.
But Ephiny had not wept--not in holding her mother's shaking hand as she gasped for her last breath, not in listening to Melosa's sincere praise, not even when her own hand lit flames of the funeral pyre. A change had taken place in Ephiny. Her once sparkling eyes were now dull and listless. Her trademark stoicism had been replaced by mere indifference. Her sharp, dry wit had vanished. In the span of a single moon cycle she had become a shadow of her former self. She felt nothing and cared for even less. It was as if the death of the mother had killed something inside the child as well.
Naturally her friends tried to help as best they could. Reisa, the armorer, who thought the world of Ephiny, remembered still having Meelah's old battle shield and was struck by an inspiration. Back in Meelah's very early years as a warrior there were still a few Amazons who carried shields into battle. Meelah tried one for a while before deciding it was too cumbersome and soon discarded it. Soon, Melosa's ascension to the throne would herald a seismic shift in the tribe's fighting doctrine and marked the final death knell for the use of shields altogether. Some of older warriors had elected to save their shields for sentimental reasons, others had simply turned them back in to the armorers. As a young apprentice at the time it had been Reisa's job to collect them. As was her habit--some would say her obsession--Reisa had kept them as she did everything of a martial nature. Her philosophy was, "One never knows."
From the back of a dusty old shed Reisa dug out Meelah's shield and, prying off the bronze crest adorning the front, worked day and night cutting, shaping, grinding, fashioning it into a pendant. One half bore a sweeping curve of metal which represented the wind. The other half was sharp and jagged and represented lightning. These two images were timeless Amazonian icons. Wind symbolized speed and quickness and lightning the sheer power of the attack. This she presented to Ephiny who numbly accepted it with a mumbled, distracted word of thanks. Some might have been hurt by Ephiny's apparent lack of gratitude but not Reisa. She still well remembered how crushed she had been when her own mother died. She also remembered how kind Meelah had been to her during that black time. No, the timber Ephiny was made from was too strong. Ephiny would persevere, and sooner or later she would prevail, Reisa was sure of that.
Pomona, "Ducks," the multi-talented young warrior had been Ephiny's friend since childhood. She had been there at Ephiny's side as they faced their first trial-by-fire together and in honor of Ephiny's mother had written overnight a long, poetic tribute to Meelah and what she had meant to the tribe.
As for Solari she was blessed with neither the skilled hands nor the lettered mind to create such things. All she had to give her oldest and dearest friend was her presence and her understanding. Meelah was the closest thing to a mother Solari had ever known. Many was the time the hungry girl had parked her feet under Meelah's supper table. The culmination of this was the year the tribe had withstood a near famine. If not for Meelah the ten-year-old Solari would probably have starved. Thus it was that through all the rough years of Solari's childhood Meelah had never shown her anything but kindness. More than once Meelah had woven garments for the ragged girl.
And though Solari knew better than anyone how deeply Ephiny loved her mother it now bothered her a little that Ephiny steadfastly...stubbornly...refused to vent her grief. Not once had Solari seen her shed so much as a single tear. But Solari had cried. After Meelah's death Solari stole away into the forest--that timeless Amazonian refuge. There she spent an entire day, alone with her sorrow and her tears.
During this terrible time her one comforting thought was that the very best of Meelah was still with her--Ephiny. So alike and yet so very different, these two very special people had been the shining beacons through most of her troubled young life. Now the light of one of those beacons was forever extinguished and the other burned with but a lackluster flame.
Sitting there, Ephiny knew her friend had been standing off for some few moments, watching her. Still she merely continued to sit there, motionless, silent. She was well aware of how hard Solari had been hit by Meelah's death. In a perfect world the two should have been there for each other, to share in their grief and the pain of so devastating a loss. Solari--bless her--had tried but Ephiny just...couldn't. She just couldn't.
And yet through all the rest of her days Ephiny would carry in her heart the memory of how her dear friend had suffered. Meelah's death would now bond them in a way that even their long friendship never had. All their rest of their lives it would be thus, kinsmen but heart if not by blood--to the very end.
Finally Solari could wait no longer, not with the gravity of the charge she had been given. "Eph?"
Ephiny half-turned and silently waved Solari forward.
A blast of frigid wind swept over the summit just as Solari reached the top. With a shiver she gulped, "Gods, when is this ever going to end?"
It was not lost on either of them that the dreadful weather coincided exactly with the period of Meelah's death. Ephiny knew it was mere coincidence. The gods would hardly bother to mark the passing of a mere mortal. Still, in her own mind she liked to think that perhaps maybe Gaea was somehow aware of the loss of such a noble soul and chose to make manifest in this way her acknowledgment of that. It was an unlikely notion to be sure and yet Ephiny found great comfort in it. From then on the cold would always make her think of her mother.
Solari eased in beside Ephiny and after a moment said, "Are you all right?" It was a dumb thing to say and she knew it. Ephiny was not all right, anyone could see that. Solari felt awkward being there and right at that moment it was the only thing she knew to say.
And as Solari knew she would Ephiny replied with but a simple, "Yeah."
Solari looked down at her, bare-armed and wearing skirt much too light. Ephiny stared out over the hills as the wind played havoc with her unruly blonde curls. She's not even shivering! thought Solari.
In an instant Solari shucked her coat. It was the only one she had--the one Meelah had made for her years before. Draping the coat around Ephiny's shoulders, she fussed, "Sweet Artemis, you want to freeze to death?"
Clear brown eyes looked up at Solari. Ephiny pinched Solari's coat and said, "I know you didn't follow me all the way out here just to give me this."
"Uhh, no. It's Melosa, Eph. She wants to see you right away."
Ephiny's brow furrowed. "Any idea why?"
Solari shook her head. It fell to Ephiny to voice what was on both their minds. "Must be something serious. The queen is not in the habit of paying attention to junior warriors." With a shrug she said, "Well, we don't want to keep her waiting. Might as well get this over with."
Ephiny stood up and without a word pulled the coat from her shoulders and handed it back to an embarrassed Solari. It was then that Solari saw the faintest hint of warmth creep into a face that had lately been pretty much a blank slate. Suddenly Solari did not feel so cold anymore. For a moment they paused, both holding Solari's weather-beaten old coat.
Finally Solari summoned the courage to pose the question that had been paramount on her mind since the beginning. Eyes glistening, she softly asked, "Eph? Are you going to be all right? I mean...really?"
Ephiny's lips pressed into a very tight little smile. In the last dozen years the two of them had shared adventures ranging from the traumatic to the downright silly. Together they had passed through the crucible that was warrior training. In their first battle they had stood side by side to face the foe. Together they had survived all the many trials--the hardships--of growing up. Not once had a cross word ever passed between them.
In reply Ephiny said nothing. However, as she moved past she put a hand to Solari's shoulder and for an instant gripped it very tightly. Their eyes met once more and this time Solari saw in her friend's face a glimpse of that inner fire she knew so well. Even as a child Ephiny had always seemed to know where she was going and, more importantly, what it would take get there. And even as a child Solari had vowed to follow--wherever that might be.
And then, before Ephiny pushed past, she said under her breath a simple, "My friend!"
Solari turned and watched her stride purposefully down the hill. And in that moment she knew that her question--her prayers--had been answered.
It would still take time but she was convinced that Ephiny was indeed going to be "all right." She just had to be.
At the entrance to Melosa's hut Ephiny shot a questioning glance to her friend Eponin who was posted as one of the guards. All she got in return was raised eyebrows. "You'd better get in there," Eponin whispered ominously. "She's asked about you twice already."
With that Eponin cracked open the door and stuck her head inside. "Ma'am, Ephiny's here."
Outside Ephiny heard the queen reply, "Send her in."
As Ephiny stepped inside the warm air inside the hut engulfed her. It felt good. At the hearth Melosa was just finishing up tossing a few more sticks onto the fire. The young Amazon watched quietly while Melosa used a poker to rake all the other, unburned pieces of wood back into the fire.
At first glance Melosa shot Ephiny an incredulous look. "Where's your coat?" she asked.
"Uhh, home I think."
"Uh huhh." Melosa crooked a beckoning finger. "Get over here," she said sternly.
Ephiny joined her by the fire and to her surprise immediately found a warm cup thrust into her hands.
"Drink it," said Melosa. Ephiny caught the aroma of spices as she cautiously stared down into the cup. The queen took note of the girl's hesitancy. "It's metheglin," she said. When Ephiny did not seem to comprehend Melosa went on to explain, "It's mead, heavily spiced mead."
"Ansara brought it over." Lowering her voice, Melosa added, "It tastes like hell but it will warm those insides for you." She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and wryly added, "The gods know we've had need enough for that lately."
With a hint of slyness Melosa then said, "They also say it makes women more prone to bear sons. Let's hope not."
Ephiny remained silent and continued to stare at the cup. This earned her a sharp look from her queen. "Drink it!" she commanded.
Ephiny did as ordered, dutifully downing the half cup of pungent liquid in three strong swallows. The third one required her to force it down. An amused Melosa watched the girl bravely struggle to keep from making a face. However the stubborn little cough that ensued would not stay suppressed. The queen could only wonder at the young warrior's inexperience. It was probably the first time in Ephiny's entire life that she had tasted anything stronger than sour milk. Had she herself ever been that green? Yes, once, a long time ago.
A long time ago...
For a moment Melosa's dark eyes sized Ephiny up and down. The girl was shorter than her mother but other than that she was Meelah at seventeen, no doubt about it. And like Meelah she had already proven herself highly capable. Unlike Meelah she had a touch of a rebellious streak in her too. However that in itself was not necessarily a bad thing. Ephiny had already demonstrated real leadership skills and above all spirit. The tribe needed leaders with ample amounts of both. It would be up to her as queen to channel that spirit in the right direction. She did not envision too much difficulty. Ephiny came from hardy stock. She could trace her lineage back through a series of noble warriors, including the great Claudia and others. As a woman and a warrior Meelah surely must have made the ghosts of her ancestors proud. She was an Amazon's Amazon. If Ephiny turned out to be half the Amazon her mother had been, that would be quite enough.
By now the warmth of the metheglin was beginning to wash over Ephiny. It felt strangely good--so good in fact that she would now have readily accepted another cup of the stuff had it been offered. Unfortunately no such offer came and Ephiny did not dare ask for more. Nodding her thanks, she awkwardly she handed the cup back to Melosa.
Cups in hand, Melosa moved away. So much for hospitality, she thought. Now it was time to feed the girl the sulphur. "Remember the trading mission you went on last year? With Minutia?"
"Sure. It was right after the forest challenge." In that epic struggle Terreis and Velasca had battled it out in a nerve wracking test of wills for the better part of a entire day. In the end Terreis had prevailed--barely--and Velasca had not been seen or heard from since.
"Right. Early this morning Pycea found a man staggering along the Hill Road. She only got a couple of words out of him before he just collapsed and died right there. Apparently he had no wounds. Pycea said he was just utterly exhausted."
"He ran himself to death?"
"It seems so," said Melosa. "Anyway, Minutia recognized him as one of the members of a farming village we've done business with in the past. Not the one you went to last year, another one some few leagues away."
Ephiny furrowed her brow. "Well then they of all people would know they are not to come here. So what on earth would make one lone male not only violate our borders but to run himself into ground to do it?"
Melosa picked up a small object off the table and held it up. "This."
Moving closer, Ephiny saw what looked to be a flat piece of metal. "What is it?" she asked.
"They found it on him," said Melosa. "It's called a ubanca. See this engraving? That was our ancient symbol for 'friend.'"
"I've never seen one before," said Ephiny.
"I'm not surprised. At one time we gave these as tokens of friendship to those few peoples we were on good terms with. Gods, it's been decades since we did that. I myself have only seen a couple of these."
"What do you think it means?"
Melosa looked down at the ubanca. "Only one thing in my mind." she replied soberly. "There's trouble over there. Something, I don't know what. But grave enough to cause a man to die seeking help."
"Why not just send a note?" Ephiny wondered aloud.
"These are simple folk, Ephiny. Poor farming folk. You saw them. I doubt if there's a one of them who can write."
Ephiny could see plainly enough where this was leading. "You mean to help them."
"As I said they're a simple people," said the queen. "They have been good neighbors. They mind their own business and unlike most they don't mind trading with us." What Melosa left unsaid and what Ephiny knew anyway was the fact that over the years more than one Amazon had left a newborn male child with these "simple people." Amazon law expressly forbid males. It was left up to the individual mother to decide for herself how best to carry that out sacred, inviolable dictum. At any rate it was a subject never, ever, to be talked about.
"Yes I intend to provide assistance." Melosa then got to the point. "That's where you come in."
Almost reflexively Ephiny's body stiffened. "Ma'am?"
"I know this is a tough time for you but as you well know this is a tough time for all of us. Food and fuel are our main concerns right now. I need every able body here, even our front line warriors. Because of that I cannot spare a detail to send over there. However I can spare one warrior--you. Get over there, find out what is going on and, whatever it is, clean it up, Ephiny."
"Am I to use force?"
Melosa gave her a brief hard look and in measured tones replied, "Let us hope it does not come to that. Nevertheless you are to take whatever steps you deem necessary but at any rate get it done. Now you're going in blind so my advice would be to be as inconspicuous as possible until you get a handle on things. You might even want to employ a disguise of some kind. No sense trumpeting out there's an Amazon around. Mingle with those folks, see what they're up against. It may turn out to be a simple matter. Then again, it may not. Of course, avoid confrontation if you can, if you can't...we'll you've been trained for that."
"I know you're a little young for this but I think you're up to it, Ephiny." Recalling the girl's adventures in Getae, the queen said, "After all, you've been on your own before. For a job like this I need somebody with a cool head and good judgment and, if need be, a firm hand."
Hot blood and cool head...
Melosa fixed her intense dark eyes on Ephiny in a piercing gaze. "A year ago I would have sent Meelah. Now I'm sending you."
"Does Pythera know?" asked Ephiny. When Meelah's illness finally precluded her from performing her duties Pythera, her second-in-command, had taken over Ephiny's company. Rumor already had it that should would not last.
"I've already discussed it with her," said Melosa. "So, take the rest of the day to get prepared. I want you on your way at first light."
"Now, if this proves to be too much for you, if it turns out to be more than you can handle alone, I'll...try to scrape something up to send over there, understand?"
"Yes, ma'am." Ephiny understood well enough all right. Melosa was making it quite plain that should she be forced to send assistance she would be very unhappy. Come Hades or high water, this was going to be up to Ephiny and Ephiny alone.
"Good. One more thing, Ephiny."
Melosa moved in close and in measured tones said, "When you come back, I want your head on straight, is that clear? I want this all behind you, no more moping around. You've lost your mother and that's a hard thing. I was eighteen years old when my mother was killed. Terreis was still just a child." In succinctly summoning up her many tribulations that would follow in that next year, Melosa said only, "It was...difficult."
As her queen spoke Ephiny felt herself becoming more and more rigid. After the last few days she had half expected something like this. Melosa was not one to leave loose ends untied.
"You may think this callous but this world is for the living," said the queen. "I learned that the hard way. Therefore, we must press on as best we can, however heavy our hearts may be. Always remember, duty to the tribe comes first. Always."
Her admonition over, Melosa could not let the girl depart on such a grim note. If nothing else she owed that to Meelah. And so the words she spoke to the heartbroken girl, while meant as a salve, were nonetheless straight from the heart. "Ephiny," she said quietly, "you have only lost your mother. In her ten years of service under the great Mycinia the two of them came to be nothing less than the tip of their people's sword--of my sword. Now they both gone. The sword has been blunted and we are the worse for it."
For a moment queen and grieving daughter stood there, both lamenting in their own way and for different reasons the loss of the noble Meelah. Ephiny did not speak, indeed words would have not have forthcoming even if she had tried. Besides, they were so unnecessary. Melosa had just paid her mother the highest compliment imaginable. Nothing more needed to be said.
Melosa drew herself up to her full height. "Now, any questions?"
"I know you'll do a good job, Ephiny. Take the time to get this right but whatever the problem is, fix it."
This was Ephiny's cue that her audience with the queen was now over. With a respectful nod Ephiny retreated out of the hut, back into the gloomy afternoon light. Upon emerging, she found Solari waiting for her.
There was some small sense of excitement in Solari's voice as she asked, "What did she want?"
"I've been given a mission," Ephiny replied calmly.
"Really? What? Who? Where? Am I going?"
"No, just me. You know those farmers we traded with last year? Well the queen thinks they might be having some kind of trouble. I'm to go over and find out what's going on and, if possible, straighten things out."
"Yooouuuu?" a disbelieving Solari blurted out.
This piqued Ephiny a little and it prompted her to tartly answer, "No, my twin sister."
Solari's reply was a subdued, "You know what I meant."
Immediately Ephiny felt like an ass. She knew Solari let her get away with saying things she would never take from most others. She was such a good soul. With quiet sincerity Ephiny said, "Sorry. I was just as surprised as you are."
"It's just that jobs like this are usually given to more ahh, experienced people."
'You're right," said Ephiny. As it was she had her own ideas about why Melosa had decided on her. The obvious one of course was that the queen reckoned it would help Ephiny get her mind off Meelah's death. And then too Melosa obviously did not anticipate this being a particularly difficult assignment, hence her choice of a lower class warrior. At the moment she simply did not think it necessary to shake loose an elite warrior. She could, however, spare Ephiny. This made Ephiny in a sense "expendable"--the most capable of this lowly little group it seemed--but an "expendable" nonetheless.
"Maybe I can go with you," said a hopeful Solari.
"Aren't you supposed to go out with one of the hunting parties?"
"Yeah but...I'd rather go with you."
Ephiny shook her head. "I'm afraid not. It's my baby; she made that very clear." Ephiny shot her friend a sly little grin. "Unless you want to try to change her mind."
Solari was aghast at the very thought of it. "Are you kidding? Not me!" Solari was not alone. Very few of the younger warriors could even approach within ten paces of the stately Melosa without breaking into a nervous sweat, much less actually talk to her. Solari would like to go all right...but not that badly.
"Aaah, you're better off anyway," Ephiny offered up. "I'm guessing that this is going to a long, cold ride for nothing."
"So when are you leaving?"
"First thing tomorrow. If I leave early enough I might make it there by nightfall."
Solari's only reply was a thoughtful nod of the head. Despite Ephiny's air of indifference there was something about this that nagged at her. After all, a man would not, in effect, kill himself delivering a plea for help if it was "nothing." Solari had never been accused of being a great thinker but, even so, one did not have to be a philosopher to sense those villagers' desperation. No, there was trouble here, real trouble. And Ephiny was heading straight into it.
In leaving her hut Melosa was joined by the venerable Colsethme, her most senior officer. In her late forties now, she was still one of the tribe's ablest warriors. For a time the two of them stood there discussing routine business such as changes in duty assignments. They then turned their attention to a more serious matter--the likelihood of instituting food rationing. Both agreed that with stores dropping and the hunting not as good as they would have liked, something would need to be done before much longer. In broaching the subject, Melosa was merely extending a courtesy for she had no intention of giving Colsethme the job of overseeing this should it come to that. "May" might be a great warrior but she would never be accused of paying too much attention to detail. The queen found herself wishing Meelah was there. But, since she was not, the task would fall to the diligent Willa.
As they were parting Colsethme off-handedly asked, "By the way, what about those farmers? Have you decided anything?"
"I'm sending Ephiny," the queen replied matter-of-factly.
"Ephiny? Don't you think she's a little...young for something like that?"
"She has experience being on her own," the queen reminded her.
"There could be trouble," cautioned Colsethme.
"True enough," the queen conceded. "But we might as well find out now if the girl has the ability we think she has. And then too it will help her get her mind off...other things."
Ruefully the captain shook her head and then with a weathered hand swept back her great mane of graying auburn hair. "That was a damn shame, wasn't it? Still, she's awfully young."
Melosa arched an eyebrow. "And just how old were you again when you led warriors into battle at the River Granicus?"
With a somewhat sheepish grin the captain replied, "Fifteen." Quickly she added, "But that was an emergency. All our officers in my company were dead. Your mother had to pick somebody." Colsethme thought back to the skinny girl who, upon being given command, had been forced to cross her arms in order to hide her shaking hands. "The gods only know why she picked me."
"Nevertheless, she chose wisely," said Melosa. At fifteen the youngest captain in Amazon history, Colsethme had commanded with distinction ever since.
"Well," she sighed, "maybe it will all prove to be a big fuss over nothing. But as you say, it will be good for the girl to have something to do." Colsetheme looked up to the gray clouds hanging low overhead. "Hell, I wish I was going with her."
As for Melosa, she was not given to such fanciful thoughts. "How are your people?" she asked.
"Could be better," came the reply. "At least no one is sick."
"The food stocks are really getting tight," said Melosa. "Cut your patrols back to two people. Send the rest out with the hunting parties."
"Yes, Ma'am." She then grinned and added, "Who knows, if Ephiny does end up doing something useful maybe those people will show their gratitude by sending a few sheaves of grain our way."
To Colsethme it was just an off-handed remark; for the ever shrewd Melosa, however, the thought was of course something she had already taken into consideration.
The next morning it was still well before daylight when Ephiny slipped her horse from the stable and began to quietly lead the animal out of the village. The air was crisp, she thought, but not terribly cold. Then again, perhaps she was only beginning to get used to it. At any rate she was wearing her coat. A fussing Solari had seen to that.
Solari had spent the night with her and in helping Ephiny prepare not a word had been exchanged between them. At last, with Ephiny at the door and ready to leave, Solari had stiffly broken the silence. "Eph?"
"Yeah?" On that round face she knew so well Ephiny saw the look of concern that her friend could not hide.
As for Solari she had any number of things she wanted to say, any number of potential perils to warn Ephiny about. In the end she voiced none of them. What was the use? Since she was six years old Solari had recognized and accepted Ephiny's superiority. And she was quite sure now that the very thorough Ephiny had already ran all possibilities for trouble through that razor sharp mind of hers, most likely including some she had not even considered. For her to try to council Ephiny would seem ludicrous. Therefore all she said was a limp, "Watch yourself."
With a hollow smile Ephiny nodded and said, "I will."
For the worried Solari this was not very reassuring. For her own peace of mind as much as anything she now picked up the bundle she had prepared. "Here," she said, gently thrusting it against her friend's chest, "take this."
"My bow," said Solari.
"A bow? Since when do you have a bow?"
With a hint of indignation Solari replied, "Since I made one. I can use a bow, you know."
"I know," said Ephiny softly. With that she started to hand the bundle back. "Maybe you should--"
"No!" Surprised by her friend's earnestness, Ephiny allowed her to press the bundle back. "You keep it," said Solari. "You might...need it." During the night Solari had dreamed she saw Ephiny shooting arrow after arrow at some unseen enemy. She knew Ephiny would scoff at any such notion but in Solari's mind it was possibly an omen, a sign. Perhaps the gods were trying to help her prepare Ephiny for what lay ahead. Whatever the reason rate, she was not about to take chances.
Ephiny looked at her friend for a moment and in even tones then said, "All right. I will. Thank you, Solari. I appreciate it."
A little embarrassed by her little outburst, Solari grinned sheepishly and said, "Just try to bring it back, huh? It took forever to get those bends right."
Nodding, Ephiny stepped past her and out into the night. Solari did not follow. Rather, she simply stood there in the door and watched Ephiny make her way off to the stable. Soon her friend was lost in the darkness, leaving Solari to momentarily ponder on the fragility of it all. Was this what she had to look forward to for the next forty years? More death? One painful loss after another? Given her wish, Solari would not have chosen immortality. No, what she yearned for was constancy, for things to stay the same, or rather, just as they had been.
And yet, she knew it was pointless to dwell on such things. It was said that time and tide waited for no man and that was true. Change is eternal. Life would go on with or without her approval, Solari knew that. Still, she had--and would always have--her memories. Perhaps there would be future ones just as endearing.
But somehow she doubted it.
Stepping back inside, Solari scrounged up some breakfast and prepared to begin her own day. For as eternal as time was duty and an Amazon's attention to it. Soon she would report to Pythera to receive her instructions for the day. Whatever her assignment, she would carry it out to the best of her abilities. So it had been from Lysippe on down. So it would ever be, to the last Amazon.
The night was still pitch black with no hint yet of Eos' return to the eastern sky. Sometime during the night the skies had cleared. Now the stars seemed to shine with unusual intensity. Perhaps it was the cold, she thought. Warm breath from both horse and human steamed as the two of them slowly make their way through the village. With the clearing skies had come a heavy frost and every now and then Ephiny could see a distinctive little sparkle as the bright light of the full moon hit the ground at just the proper angle. Occasionally frozen little dirt clods crunched beneath the sole of Ephiny's boots. Never did the world seem so peaceful as there in those quiet hours before dawn.
Once, it had been Ephiny's special time because it had been the one part of the day when it was most possible for Meelah to be all mother and not yet have to turn to face the responsibilities that forever bore down upon an Amazon warrior. Rarely had Meelah missed the opportunity to dote a little on her sturdy, strong-willed little "warrior." Sometimes it would be the sweet delight of a honey cake or the recital of another stirring verse from the sacred "War Song." At other times Meelah would just envelop the child in her strong arms and sit there, holding her and quietly talking to her about what it meant to be an Amazon. For Ephiny these special moments all too quickly passed for with the coming of dawn Meelah's ever dutiful mind would invariably turn to matters of queen and camp.
As she trudged along Ephiny thought that perhaps this time of day would once again hold some special kind of significance for her--but not now. Now it was just darkness and the crushing loneliness that went with it.
Suddenly a voice, quiet and rough, broke the stillness. "Damn, I almost missed you. You must be in one hell of a hurry to get started."
Lost in thought, Ephiny had not noticed the imposing figure of Colsethme standing in the door of her hut. "Huh? Oh yeah. The queen said for me to be on my way by daylight."
"Even so, kid," Colsethme said with a chuckle, "I doubt she meant you had to somehow cover the entire distance by then."
For her part Ephiny had no desire to delve into her reasons for getting such an early start. Therefore she merely replied with a half-hearted, "Well..."
In the blackness Ephiny saw the dark shape approach. In all the tribe only the queen commanded more respect. Even Terreis tread lightly around her. Together with Euset and the two senior instructors, Selena and Adele, she was the last of the "Old Guard." Ten years before Melosa's ascension to power Colsethme was already a senior officer. It had been her unwavering support, along with that of her fellow captain and best friend, the illustrious Mycinia, that had buttressed the young queen's hold on power in that crucial first year of her reign. Without the aggressive backing of these two pillars of strength she might well have fallen.
Even in those days the young queen was already well known for her hard and unyielding manner. In her dispassionate, analytical mind she honestly viewed the loyalty of her two most powerful allies as merely the faithful allegiance rightfully due her as queen. Still, it was something she never forgot. And it was this perceived debt that led many to feel Melosa was content to turn a blind eye to Colsethme's appetite for sweet-faced, hard bodied young Amazon warriors. No one in the tribe talked about it much especially her former lovers. But whether through persuasion or veiled intimidation Colsethme rarely had trouble finding someone to share her bed. As long as no one complained Melosa was willing to look the other way. No one complained. Colsethme was simply too powerful.
Ephiny did not know it but once the old warrior had even cast an interested eye her way. The one difference was Colsethme's understanding that any design on Ephiny would most assuredly have meant a tangle with the formidable Meelah. Not only was Meelah one of the very few with the guts to stand up to her, she was also one of only a handful who might have actually defeated her in a fight. Ephiny was cute--but hardly worth risking humiliation for and so Colsethme's roving eye had turned elsewhere.
"Is there something you wanted to see me about?" asked Ephiny. For the life of her she could not imagine why. Captains rarely went out of their way to even speak to junior warriors, much less see them off.
Colsethme stepped forth, bearing something Ephiny could not quite make out. "Here," the old warrior said, tossing the object to Ephiny.
It turned out to be a bag, closed up by a tightly pulled drawstring. Clutching it to her chest, Ephiny gave it a quizzical look and asked, "What's this?"
"A couple of things the queen decided you might find useful. Melosa thinks it might be best if you went about as inconspicuously as possible--at least until you've determined what's going on." Colsethme nodded toward the bag, adding, "There's an old "sack" dress in there. Put that on before you get there. That ubanca thing is in there too. That will identify you to those people. Don't lose it. There is also twenty pieces of silver in there--just in case."
Ephiny's lips formed a little half smile and she said, "Now I know the queen didn't send that along." Melosa was notorious for being tight-fisted.
"No, that's from me," Colsethme admitted. "It stinks that you have to do this all alone. But, the times being what they are..." Colsetheme's voice trailed off and this unexpected instance of commiseration left Ephiny feeling a bit awkward. A moment later Colsethme's voice was again full of its familiar forcefulness. "Try to keep a low profile, at least until you know what you're up against," she sternly cautioned.
"Yes, ma'am. Hopefully I can bring every last coin back to you."
"Subject to your mission I would expect nothing less," said Colsethme. The old warrior looked off down the hut-lined lane leading out of the village. "I'd go with you if I could." Her smile was forced as she added, "But, we all have our duty, don't we?"
"Yes, ma'am. And I appreciate that."
"Well, good luck. You have a fine future ahead of you, Ephiny. This is just one more test on the road to leadership. Get it done."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll do my best."
"I know you will." For a long moment Colsethme looked up at the stars. Then, with a resolute nod she turned and went back to her hut.
Ephiny stared after her for a moment. Strange, she thought. So very strange. Then, with a shrug, she continued on her way.
Over the course of that day Ephiny's progress ended up not being what she had hoped for. Too late she discovered the "road" Minutia had spoken of was in fact nothing more than a rut filled cow path. Expecting this turnoff to be something more substantial in nature, Ephiny simply missed it. She was a good three leagues on past before she realized her mistake. By the time she made a recognizable landmark the sun was already beginning to sink low in the western sky. To press on in the darkness over such a poor, unfamiliar road would be sheer folly, hazardous for both horse and rider. A scant two leagues shy of her destination Ephiny pulled up to wait out what would be a long cold night.
Fortunately Ephiny was prepared. Before leaving she had bundled up her three best blankets. Underneath her heavy jacket she wore an extra top. It was thick and long-sleeved and decidedly too big for her. It had belonged to her mother. For a skirt she had chosen the longest one she owned. Even at that it barely came to her knees. She had even brought along and old pair of trousers Meelah had picked up somewhere. She doubted any of the senior Amazons would have approved of such a drastic step but, by the gods, this was her mission and she had the right to prepare for it as she saw fit.
As always, Ephiny's first duty was to look to the basic care of her horse. That done, she built a modest fire, wrapped herself in her blankets, and propped herself against a thick plane tree to eat her supper. The fare, dried venison and a hunk of stale bread, was plain but filling. Off in the distance a nighthawk's distinctive cry announced its presence. With her back against the tree Ephiny drew up her knees and settled in for what she knew would be a very long night. Above her a soft breeze blew coldly through the groaning treetops. Alone, in that stark place, the world had never seemed so bleak. Ephiny closed her eyes tightly and pressed her chin to her chest. Once more her thoughts invariably turned to that which she had held most dear; whose passing had ripped open a wound in her heart, in her soul, that she doubted would ever fully heal.
"Oh, Momma!" Ephiny whispered softly. "I miss you so!"
A single tear trailed down the young warrior's cheek. In an instant Ephiny was clumsily pawing at it in an desperate attempt to wipe it off. "No!" she sniffed. "I will not cry!" There was one additional sniffle, one broken breath, and she was back in control.
She sat there for most of the night, worn out, and yet sleep still stubbornly refused to come and ease her pain. Sometime deep in the night she finally, mercifully, drifted off. Overhead the stars kept silent vigil and even the occasional cries of the nearby nighthawk seemed more muted and respectful.
Ephiny awoke to her own shivering. During the night her blankets had fallen away and so she sat there with only her coat to provide warmth. It proved to be insufficient for the task. For once, the sun had beaten her up. Its harsh golden rays streamed through the stand of plane trees where Ephiny had spent the night, glaring into her eyes. The heavy frost that had settled over the land during the night how sparkled in the bright sunshine. Squinting, the groggy young warrior feebly tried to ward off the light blasting her eyes by shielding them with the back of her hand.
It had not been a good night. Even when Ephiny finally did manage to find sleep it had proven to be fitful at best and at worst, a melancholy montage of dreams of Meelah. One that was particularly disturbing was where Meelah appeared to be desperately trying to tell her something but, strangely, the words would not come forth.
Finding herself not particularly hungry, Ephiny decided to forego breakfast and save the remainder of her food for later. It was time to press on. But before she did, she first retrieved Colsethme's bag. Then, after a deep breath, she shucked off her coat and garments and began to change clothes as rapidly as she could. On went the ragged woven dress and, finding that not enough, Ephiny pulled on the baggy old trousers as well. It took some adjustments to get them to stay up as they were much too large for her trim waist. However, once that was accomplished the shivering girl quickly threw her coat back on, punctuating the maneuver with an emphatic, "Damn!"
Only then did it occur to her that the inevitable urge was upon her, thus forcing her to take down the pants that she had just gone though so much trouble with to shore up. By all appearances it seemed to Ephiny that this was going to be yet another in a long line of bad days. She knew that back home Melosa would be having fits if she saw her now. Ephiny was late, disorganized and, most grievously, not focused. Well, thought Ephiny, we can't all be Mycinia.
By mid-morning the sun that had so rudely called her to a new day was long gone, hidden yet again by still another thick blanket of bleak, gray clouds. Presently Ephiny came upon what was supposed to be the last of Minutia's landmarks, the burned out remains of what had once been an inn. Ephiny could guess why on one had bothered to rebuild the place. In the last day and a half she had yet to encounter a single traveler. Without so much as a second glance at the desolate ruins Ephiny guided her horse past and started up a long slope rising to the west. From here on there would be no road at all.
According to Minutia, once she reached the crest she should be able to see her destination lying off to the southwest. In other times Ephiny might well have looked forward to whatever might lie ahead. Now, however, there was no sense of anticipation at all on her part, or dread, or in fact anything else at all. There was only a numb emptiness. She was simply obeying one more order, that was all.
Though not particularly steep, the slope was rather long--nearly two stadia--and Ephiny made little haste in making her way to the top of it. Once she was finally on the crest she paused and looked down across the rolling landscape to dingy little clump of huts lying off perhaps one more league. Minutia had warned her that the place was not much to look at and to Ephiny's disinterested eyes that certainly seemed to be the case.
Before continuing on she took a moment to again relieve herself. There was no cover to be found but that hardly mattered to Ephiny. No one was around as far as she could tell and, besides, she had to go. Mounted again, she patted her mare on the neck and with a sigh murmured, "All right, girl, let's get this over with." With the she nudged the horse forward and off they went in a leisurely trot toward the village.
As she dropped down off the hill the village became lost behind a large patch of woods. By the time Ephiny saw it again a renewed sense of purpose would seize her, one that, before all was finished, would grow exponentially and manifest itself in ways she would not have though herself capable of. Years later she would still shudder when she looked back on it.
Ephiny was far enough away that her sharp eyes spotted the movement even before the sound of the cries reached her. She was scanning the edge of the woods, trying to determine the best place to enter, when right out of the spot she had decided upon popped a figure, a small blotch of blue against the unrelentingly drab landscape. Straight away the figure began streaking right for her.
Startled to finally see another human being, Ephiny for a moment did not know what to make of it. Things instantly became much clearer. From out of the trees burst two men on horseback, less than a hundred paces behind the blotch of blue--a girl. From her distant vantage point that was about all Ephiny could ascertain. That the men were not really bearing down hard upon the girl made Ephiny think that they were deliberately trying to harrass the girl. Just the thought of it made her angry.
Ephiny bumped her heels hard against the flanks of her horse, springing the animal to action. As soon as Ephiny began to move the girl spotted her. Mistaking Ephiny for a cohort of her tormentors, she promptly veered off at a right angle as deftly as any rabbit. As it was this maneuver bought Ephiny just enough time to adjust her angle of approach. Only now were the men speeding up but already Ephiny knew that they were going to be too late. Her horse had the superior speed. She would cut them off. This proved fortunate because for it was here that the girl tripped and fell. She was still rolling when Ephiny thundered up to her. Lying flat on her back, the panting girl gaped up at her in wide-eyed alarm.
"Don't be afraid!" Ephiny barked out.
Exhausted, the girl in blue could only lay there as Ephiny pulled her horse around to face the men. She had not long to wait for already the men were reining in their horses.
"What ho there!" cried one of them, a short, chubby man. Ephiny took one look at him and read soft. This man would be no threat. "What is this that you think you can interfere with our business?"
"Do you make it your business to terrorize helpless girls?" Ephiny retorted coldly.
"What do you care?" said the man. "You're not one of them. Stand aside I say and you won't get hurt. Off with you!"
"That's a fine horse you have there, child, the other man suddenly opined. He took one look at the fine bridle and saddlecloth and then compared those to Ephiny's mean attire. "Where did you steal it?"
"Forget the damn horse, Aeneas!" bawled the chubby man. "Remember what we are here for."
"I don't need you to tell me my business, brother," said the one called Aeneas. "But since we're here I believe I'll just take that horse back with me. Sort of as a down payment you might say."
Down on the ground the lump of blue had been intently watching this exchange take place. Now she saw a flicker of a smirk play across Ephiny's lips. "No, you wouldn't want my horse," said Ephiny mildly. "You see, she doesn't respond well to idiots."
"To hell with the horse!" the chubby man squalled. He crooked a finger at the girl in blue. "Get up, girlie, we have business with your father."
Glancing down, Ephiny's eyes met those of the frightened girl who responded with a gulp and an emphatic shake of the head. "Uhh, she says 'not today,'" said Ephiny. "Sorry. So why don't you two...gentlemen...just...go on your way, huh?"
"You insolent little piss!" sputtered the chubby man. "Don't you know who I am?"
Ephiny's answer was disturbingly serene. "I don't care who you are." All the while Ephiny kept her eyes one the one called Aeneas. If there was to be any trouble, she pretty much figured it would start with him. She did not have long to wait.
"Enough of this!" growled a scowling Aeneas. "I will not bandy words with a grubby child."
Aeneas swung down off his horse and began to menacingly advance on Ephiny. Coolly the girl turned in the saddle and pulled out the sword tucked inside her bedroll. Without a word she laid the gleaming weapon across her horse's back. With a blade at least a cubit longer than her own, the sword was decidedly heavier than what she was used to. Even so, on the one occasion she had had to get the feel for it she found it to be wonderfully balanced for such a massive weapon. It had belonged to Meelah and in her skilled young hands it felt wonderful.
Aeneas' gait quickened. "I'll take that from you and shove it up your ass," he angrily declared.
Behind him the other man began to edge his horse around to the side. Clearly his intentions were to flank Ephiny and go for the girl. Like a pair of wolves worrying a doe and her fawn, she thought. Except this doe is perfectly capable of biting back!
When Aeneas was near enough he made a reach for the bridle of Ephiny's horse. When he did Ephiny prodded her well trained horse to lurch forward. Sweeping by the startled Aeneas, Ephiny lashed out with her foot and kicked him as hard as should could in the chest. This sent Aeneas reeling backwards to the ground. Even before he was down he was unleashing a torrent of obscenities. By this time Ephiny was already turning her attention to the man's brother. With a hard pull on the reins she veered her horse straight for the fat little man. She had already judged this one to be slow to react and only a mediocre horseman at best. Had she wanted to she could have sliced him open like a melon right there in his saddle. Instead she yanked her bedroll free from her saddle and tore directly at the wide-eyed little man. Thundering past, sword still in hand, guiding her horse only with her knees, Ephiny slammed him in the face with her bedroll and down he went to join his brother on the frozen ground. To Ephiny his cries sounded just like the squeal of a pig. How appropriate, she thought.
"The gods damn you!" raged Aeneas as he unsteadily got to his feet.
Ephiny pitched down the bedroll and used the free hand to once again take up the reins. A few paces away she saw Aeneas reach for his sword. By now her patience was running out. Enough was enough. With one deft motion she shifted the big sword to her right hand while simultaneously drawing her horse to a hard stop. And down deep within her something...seething, primeval, terrible began to stir to life. Only later would she come to recognize that this is where it had started.
In nervously grabbing for his sword there was some fumbling on the part of Aeneas. His confidence had been shaken for he could now see that this was not some scruffy teenage girl after all. Still, he was a man unaccustomed to such disrespectful treatment. Glaring at Ephiny, his hand tightened around the hilt of the sword...
Up on her horse Ephiny laid the blade of her sword flat on her shoulder. "You pull that rusty hunk of scrap you call a sword," she warned, "and those fingers will never hold anything else."
Aeneas glared at her, seething with anger--but he left he sword where it was. Instead he shot out an accusing finger at the girl in blue. "Our quarrel is with them!"
"I don't care," Ephiny bluntly replied.
"Are you dense? You're interfering in a private matter I say!"
"That's right, I am."
Only now was Aeneas' brother recovering enough from his blow to join in. "By the gods we will have our due!" It was the pathetic, impotent whine of a man who believed himself to be wronged but too cowardly nevertheless to act on it.
"Perhaps. But not today," said Ephiny.
Aeneas' eyes burned like two coals as he glared at Ephiny. "Little girl, I don't know who you are or who you think you are, but I can assure you there will be others who will not take kindly to it when I tell them of your meddling."
"Don't forget to mention how the little girl kicked your ass."
"Why you arrogant little shit!"
Ephiny backed her horse up in order that she might have both men in her line of vision. She shifted her gaze first from one, then to the other. Her eyes grew wide. Speaking, her voice was quiet and eerily restrained. "No more talk," she told them. "Leave here or die here. It's as simple as that. Your choice."
For Aeneas this was simply too much. No one was going to talk to him this way! In jerking out his sword he was practically choking on his own fury. A moment later all the pent up anger burst forth in a low growl that grew ever louder until it reached a crescendo that echoed over the land. Red faced, eyes bulging, Aeneas raised his sword high and charged at Ephiny.
The man was not a warrior, Ephiny already knew that. He was simply a brutish, clumsy oaf who was apparently used to bullying those weaker than himself. For a highly skilled, highly trained warrior like her the man, for all his size and bluster, was only a minimal threat at best. Even now she had options as to how to neutralize him without either of them being the worse for wear.
And yet Ephiny chose none of them. For as soon as Aeneas made his move Ephiny executed a well practiced rapid dismount and assumed a fighting stance to meet him head on. And when Aeneas attacked, it was his extreme misfortune to find that Ephiny was as good as her word. She easily eluded his one ponderous, arcing swipe at her and with a powerful downward slashing stroke severed his right arm halfway between the wrist and elbow.
Aeneas recoiled in shock and erupted in a horrified scream as he gaped at the drawn back bloody stump that was his arm. His brother, face ashen, ran to the stricken Aeneas. "Look what you've done!" he shrieked at Ephiny.
Ephiny stood there in silence, watching the man desperately rip Aeneas' shirt off his back for use as a bandage. In subdued tones she said, "He needs a tourniquet."
"Don't tell me what he needs!" the chubby man wailed. By now he was covered in his brother's blood. By what Ephiny regarded as something close to a miracle the man was somehow able to get the moaning Aeneas up on his horse. From the looks of the man, however, she doubted he would remain there very long.
After a stumbling, abortive first attempt the chubby man too was finally able to mount. Shaken as he was, he still managed to bleat out a warning. "We'll be back. So pray to your heathen gods for mercy. At our hands you shall find nothing but woe and destruction."
In response the young Amazon said nothing. Instead she fixed the man with an penetrating gaze that completely unnerved him. It was withering--feral--and it seemed to go right through him. It was like...death itself. Hands shaking, the chubby man took up the reins of his brother's horse. Aeneas, his groans more feeble, slumped weakly forward, his blood dripping on the back of his horse. Only when the two brothers were well away did Ephiny turn her attention back to what had been their quarry.
"You," she said. "Are you hurt?"
Still on the ground, the girl merely gawked at Ephiny in wide-eyed amazement.
"Are you hurt?" Ephiny asked again, approaching the girl.
The girl gave her a rapid little shake of the head in reply. As Ephiny came up and stood over her the girl fought the urge to try to edge backwards away from her. What would be the use? After what she did to those men...
Slowly Ephiny extended her hand. The girl gulped and thought, Will she now kill me too?
"Let's go. Up," said Ephiny, impatiently wiggling her fingers. The girl timidly took the hand and was surprised at the ease with which this terrible apparition hauled her to her feet. "You live down there?" Ephiny asked. The girl nodded that she did.
"Can you speak?" asked Ephiny.
"Oh. Just wondering. Come on, I'll take you home."
The village, if it could be called that, where the girl called home was, like the landscape around it, a stark, gray, dismal place. From what Ephiny could see none of the huts seemed to be particularly well kept. On the ground debris lay everywhere--shards of broken pottery, old rags, discarded tools and the like. This were also three carts, so badly dilapidated that they hardly seemed worth the trouble to burn. Dodging about amidst the clutter, a handful of scrawny chickens scratched at the ground in a mostly unsuccessful search for food. Above them blue smoke from the huts quickly dissipated in the harsh wind. Everywhere there was unrelenting bleakness. In fact except for the dirty blue dress worn by the girl clinging tightly to her it seemed to Ephiny that every last bit of color had been drained from the land. And yet Ephiny did not at the time feel oppressed by the place because the mood her perfectly matched the state of her own soul.
Entering the village, Ephiny kept her horse at a slow walk as she passed among the huts. From inside many of these she noticed people staring out at her, fear and suspicion blanketing their dirty faces. On her way through she came upon two or three that had been too preoccupied at first to notice the approach of a stranger. Startled, then alarmed upon seeing her, none of them would look her in the eye. Like mice they all darted to cover in the nearest place they could find.
"Friendly little place you have here," Ephiny muttered.
Behind her the girl quietly said, "They're afraid."
"Hmph," Ephiny snorted, "I never would have guessed."
From over Ephiny's left shoulder a hand appeared and pointed to yet another hovel, this one marked only by a broken cart wheel leaning up against one side of the structure. "That one," said the girl.
"This is your leader?" asked Ephiny.
"Not really," said the girl. "But he's a good man and he at least won't run from you. You see we don't have what you would call a real leader."
Ephiny was struck by the remark. Her training, not to mention her Amazon heritage, had ingrained her the unalterable axiom that someone had to be in charge. Without leadership there was chaos. Looking at the clearly evident disorder around her, the young warrior could see the proof of that.
"Who is this then?" she asked.
Behind her, the girl slid off the horse. Her thin face looked up at Ephiny and the young warrior saw something that of late had been a rare sight--a smile. "He's my father," the girl said proudly.
Once dismounted Ephiny was surprised to find the girl taking her by the hand. "Come."
Before allowing herself to be pulled away Ephiny's brown eyes darted all about to make certain no one was near the horse. With potential trouble brewing it would be nothing short of disastrous to lose horse and weapons. In truth she need not have worried. None of those dispirited people had any intention of going anywhere near either the fine horse or its mistress.
And at Ephiny's hesitation the girl told her exactly that. "It's all right," the girl said.
They were still standing by the horse when Ephiny saw the door to the hut jerkily swing open. Out stepped a man of above average height. In fact he was tall enough that he had to duck his head in order to clear the door. Despite his receding hairline and the sprinkling of gray in an otherwise full, red beard he had the look of a man who might not even be forty yet. Like his neighbors whose lives were long on work and short on food he was thin but otherwise seemed healthy enough. Unlike his neighbors he did not appear to be alarmed by the presence of the young stranger with the unruly blonde locks.
"Petrene! There you are," he said. "You're late."
"Yes, Father," the girl answered meekly.
Only now did it dawn on Ephiny that she had not even bothered to ask the girl her name. Gods! she thought. What is the matter with me?
The father's attempt at presenting a stern countenance ended there. Yes, his daughter was late all right but he simply could not be angry with her. Not since...
"I see you've found a friend," he said. "I suppose we can excuse your tardiness. After all, it's not every day one gets to make a new friend is it?" He paused and then a little wistfully added, "Especially lately."
"Father..." Petrene looked up at the man, the fear plainly evident on her young face.
"What is it, child?"
"They--they came. They were in the woods. They chased me."
Petrene did not reply right away. Just the thought of her harrowing experience was making her upset all over again.
Seeing the girl's difficulty, Ephiny took it upon herself to answer for her. "Some ass named Aeneas and this little butterball brother of his."
"Seles," the man said softly. "Yes, we know them." He cast an anxious glance about and said, "Come inside."
"Wait, I have something for you," said Ephiny. Returning to her horse, Ephiny retrieved the ubanca from her bag. "Here," she said, handing it to the man who, as it turned out, was more than a little surprised.
"You? You're an Amazon?"
This notion perked Petrene up noticeably. "Are you?" she asked excitedly.
"Your father is right," said Ephiny. "We need to go inside."
Once inside the man was careful to shut the door behind them. "What happened out there?" he asked his daughter. "Are you all right?"
In Ephiny's mind the latter question ought to have the man's first priority.
"I'm fine," Petrene assured her father. "I was just...scared that's all."
"Well thank the gods for your safety."
"Not the gods," said Petrene. She pointed a finger at Ephiny's chest and said, "Her! She drove them away. She knocked them both off their horses like they were rag dolls. And when---and when..."
"When Aeneas attacked her she...she..."
There was no doubt about it. Petrene was still having difficulty with what she had seen. So again Ephiny helped her out. "Persuaded him to rethink that."
The man furrowed his brow. "I don't understand."
Already shaken, Petrene grew a bit irritated by her father's apparent denseness. "She cut his arm off!" she blurted out.
Aghast, the man sought out a nearby stool. "Sweet gods!" he breathlessly exclaimed.
"I'm very sorry your daughter had to see that," said Ephiny. "The man left me no choice."
The man found it hard to believe, even for an Amazon. This...girl--was not much older than his own child whereas Aeneas was a mountain of a man, feared by all who knew him. How could she...? "Well, I'm glad you were there. Thank you, miss."
"Ephiny, my name is Ephiny."
"Lertes, I'm very glad you're here, Ephiny. I take it you're an advance scout. When can we expect the others?"
"There are no 'others,'" she said tersely. "Just me."
"But--I don't understand. Surely--"
"The queen can't spare anyone else," said Ephiny. "I'm sorry."
Lertes was stunned. Here nothing less than their very lives was at stake and the queen of the Amazons had seen fit to answer their appeal with this one single warrior? Insane! Worse, this "warrior" was barely more than a child. For years his people had maintained good relations with the Amazons, trading with them and sometimes even taking in their male babies as their own. And this then was how they chose to demonstrate their friendship? Still, he tried to put up a brave face, if only for his daughter's sake. "I see. Well, I'm sure you are most able."
Ephiny saw right through his weak smile. "I can assure you, sir, that I will take whatever steps necessary in order to assist you and your people."
"You're most kind," said Lertes. "Thank you." Privately he thought, But will that be enough? He could only hope it would.
"When is Cephus coming?" asked Petrene.
"The man we entrusted to seek out your help," Lertes explained.
"He's dead. I'm sorry." Ephiny's terse words of condolence sounded hollow--were hollow. In truth she simply did not much care.
But Petrene did. Hearing Ephiny's dark news she hugged her father's hip, tears welling in her eyes. "Oh, Poppa," she softly whimpered.
"Now, child, you must be brave," her father gently urged. "Your Uncle Cephus knew the risks. Good man that he was he accepted those risks without hesitation. Now it's up to you--to all of us--to be as strong as he was."
In watching this scene unfold Ephiny emotions were as impassive as her facial expression. A man died. Well, mortals did that.
As Petrene bravely tried to rub the tears from her eyes Lertes tenderly placed his rough hand on the bony shoulder of his daughter. "That's my girl." Flashing a wan smile at Ephiny, he said, "My goodness, where are my manners? You've come far. You must be hungry."
"No," Ephiny lied. "I'm fine thank you."
"Something to drink then? Sorry to say all we have besides water is some rather weak cider."
"No, I'm good." With his attempts at hospitality brushed out of the way she got right to the point. "Why are these people causing trouble?"
"That's simple enough," said Lertes. "They want our land."
Of course, Ephiny thought wearily. It was an old story, as old as mortals themselves. Be it one man, a small group or an entire nation, somebody was forever casting a covetous eye toward something a neighbor possessed. And given half the chance they would endeavor to have it, by force if necessary. It was at the root of almost every war ever fought and in this Ephiny well knew her own people were no exception. Among others, numerous bloody wars with the Centaurs and the Cappadocians had been waged over the simple matter of a river. Something ingrained in mortals, perhaps as some long forgotten punishment by the gods, drove them to never be satisfied with what they had. Rather, they forever craved still more. It had always been so and Ephiny reckoned that it would thus always be. Even if there came a day when but two mortals were left in the entire world she wagered that one or the other of them would choose to kill in order to have it all.
"So who are they?" she asked.
"They came down out of Getae, a whole disagreeable clan of them, perhaps as many as fifty. They settled in a nearby valley and within the space of a very few summers had wrested control of the entire area. Still it was not enough. They continue to expand. And now they are pushing out of the valley and onto the high plain--our plain."
"They must have some kind of leader."
"Oh yeees. A brute of a man named Efron. Those two men you saw today, they are two of his sons. It is said that he has at least four more."
Ephiny set her jaw and gave a resolute little nod of the head. "All right," she said. "I'll go see this Efron."
"That would not be wise, considering what you did today," said Lertes.
"You're probably right," Ephiny acknowledged. "But...I think I'll go anyway."
It's your head, thought Lertes.
"How do I get there?" asked Ephiny.
"North by west," Lertes answered. "Just follow the stream long enough and they'll most likely find you."
Without a word Ephiny turned to go. It was Petrene's concerned voice that stopped her. "Ephiny?"
"What will you do?"
"I don't know." Ephiny gave Lertes a hard look and said, "The real question is, what are you going to do?"
Lertes' eyes fell away. "We asked for help," he answered feebly.
"Yes, that's why I'm here," said Ephiny. "And I'll do everything I can to help. But, I'll tell you right now that it may not be enough. So answer me, Lertes. Are you and your people willing to fight for what's yours?"
Petrene gave her father's roughly woven shirt an anxious tug. "Say yes, Poppa!" she exhorted. "Say yes."
After some difficulty Lertes finally forced himself to meet Ephiny's intense gaze. "I--I don't know."
"Very well," said Ephiny quietly. In truth she had expected as much. Moreover, she could not in any real sense blame them for their reluctance. Even if they had the will to defend themselves they probably could be counted on to do little more than get themselves killed. These people were farmers, not fighters. All they wanted was to be left alone.
Still, though undoubtedly grave, the young Amazon was not ready to think the situation hopeless. For one thing such a notion was anathema to her training and her heritage. For another she rather doubted that Efron's kinsman were really all that much more accomplished as fighters. They might be aggressive--they might even be fierce--but given what she had seen earlier from the likes of Aeneas the only real thing that gave her cause for concern was simple numbers.
If push came to shove there were ways to address that too.
"You can count on me, Ephiny!" cried Petrene.
For the first time in a very long time Ephiny's lips formed something close to a smile. "I appreciate that," she replied kindly.
Standing beside his daughter, Lertes drew himself up and said, "And me too."
"We'll talk when I get back," said Ephiny. "It's imperative that we formulate some kind of plan."
"As you wish." After a moment's hesitation he went on to ask, "Ephiny, how old are you?"
The young Amazon fixed her brown eyes upon the man in a way that chilled him to the very bone. Quietly, deliberately, she replied, "Older than you."
Though this strange answer puzzled young Petrene she kept silent. She could sense something more was at work there. Lertes, on the other hand, knew well what she meant. What was more, she was right.
Ephiny knew she was being watched. Sitting astride her horse as it drank the stream's cold water, she maintained an air of nonchalance as she scanned the distant tree line. After a few moments of careful observation she caught the sight of movement by a rounded silhouette. Yes, someone in there all right. Once her horse had drank its fill she nudged its flanks and cantered straight for her observer's position.
"That's far enough!" a rough voice called out as she neared.
"Come on out and show yourself," Ephiny boldly challenged.
"I can just as easily stay right here and split your sternum with an arrow."
In the blink of an eye Ephiny gauged the relative positions and then pronounced, correctly, "Not from where you are. You haven't the angle."
There was a crackling sound and Ephiny saw the voice take form. Slowly a horse and rider began to ease out from behind a thicket. The rider was a young man just a few years older than Ephiny. With bow in one hand and reins in the other he disdainfully looked this ragged apparition up and down. To him she certainly did not look like much. He flashed Ephiny a crooked little smirk and said, "I have the angle now."
"So you do," Ephiny quietly acknowledged. Calmly then she reached across her shoulder and drew out her mother's big sword. "But you better not miss."
The young man was instantly taken aback. He was not unaccustomed to seeing swords but never had he laid eyes on such a fearsome looking weapon as that being held by this dirty looking stranger. Still he did his best to maintain a brave front. "Impressive, Rags. But can you use it?" Unfortunately this came out much more feebly than he would have liked and he cursed himself for the shortcoming.
Here Ephiny passed up the chance to return his earlier smirk. Instead she looked him squarely in the eye and said, "Why don't you ask Aeneas?"
The young man's face grew pale. "You've got your nerve coming here!" he spat out. "Damn you, Aeneas is my kinsman!"
Ephiny ignored his malediction and merely said, "I want to speak to Efron."
"Oh, I'm sure he will be addressing you all right. But in his own time and his own way. Go on back to your grain rats, Rags. I promise you we will be along directly. And if you are foolish enough to still be there when we do come, we Getae will take great pleasure in extracting our revenge for your attack on Aeneas."
"You want revenge?" Ephiny countered. "Why not take it now? Or is it you can't even relieve yourself without help from your...hmph...'kinsmen?'" In a lightning quick maneuver, she followed up her taunt by pointing the tip of her sword straight at the young man. There was no small amount of inner satisfaction on her part when she saw this gesture evoke precisely the reaction she thought it would. The rattled young man had nearly jumped right off his saddle cloth. She knew her stunt was more than a little juvenile and that Melosa would have never approved. Nevertheless it had achieved the desired effect. She had exposed the boy's fear.
In mocking tones she purred, "Oh, you've really scared me now."
It was then that an idea came to her. She would change her approach. While it was apparent this one was not going to start any trouble there was always the distinct possibility that she would encounter still others who would be loathe to show such hesitation. With the situation promising to heat up the last thing she wanted was to get banged up before the prospective main even got underway. As it was she would need all her strength and more. Because if it was to come to a fight she was going to have to rely more on brains than brawn in order to succeed.
"Tell Efron that if he continues to push south he's going to run into more trouble than he ever dreamed of," she said.
"What?" the young man snorted. "From them? From you?"
"Just tell him," said Ephiny. With that she wheeled her horse around and trotted straight away. As she did, however, she stole an occasional glance over her shoulder. She knew the man would be sure to make a beeline straight for home and she wanted to get an idea of the general direction. Sure enough, she saw him take off, skirting the edge of the wood until he disappeared over a distant knob. She rather imagined her adversary was too flushed to do much in the way of checking behind him and she therefore felt that if she was reasonably careful he just might lead her at least a good part of the way to her goal. That was all she really needed anyway. Once night fell and she regained her freedom of movement Ephiny was confident she would be able to finish up the rest. If Efron could pick and chose when and whom to meet, well, so could she. If all went well this Efron fellow was going to be in for one hell of a surprise.
It would also be his last chance. In the face of such long odds Ephiny of course would have preferred not to fight. However now, here, in this place, she strangely relished the notion. Besides, she had her orders. These clods wanted a confrontation? All right, she would oblige. And may their gods have mercy upon their souls.
At first Efron thought he was dreaming. Lying there on the rough pile of hides that was his pallet he became vaguely aware of a sensation that he was not alone. This was not a presence he could see, the hut was much too dark for that. Nor had he heard a thing. The place was as quiet as a tomb. And yet he could not shake the feeling that someone or, some thing seemed to be hovering somewhere close at hand. It was surely not one of his clan. The all well knew he hated being disturbed at night.
Was someone really there?
After all, the night had a way of playing tricks on a man's mind. At such times it was not hard for one to conjure up some wild animal out of the shape of a mere log or an armed man from nothing more dangerous than a bush. He had done it himself.
Was someone really there?
For that matter, was he even awake? Efron raised up on one elbow and sleepily peered into the blackness. No, no one was there. There was only himself--an aging chieftain spooked by his own silly imagination. Damned old fool! he silently chided himself.
Reflexively he rolled over and reached for the one that had comforted him and kept him warm on many a dark night such as this. But she was not there. Cemeris, his wife of nearly four decades was dead these two years now and still he could not seem to get used to the cruel fact that she was gone. With a weary sigh of resignation he sank back down on his pallet. Closing his eyes, Efron began to wonder if any of it was real. Was he really here, in a strange place far from the land of his birth? Had he truly seen just over sixty summers come and go? Was his Cemeris really gone? Had there ever even been a Cemeris? Would this accursed night ever end?
The sinister sensation of a sharp blade's cold edge pressed against his jugular vein forced such ethereal thoughts to evaporate instantly.
"Keep it low," warned a husky voice. For added emphasis Ephiny pressed her knife a little harder against Efron's neck.
"Who are you? How did you get in here?"
"You know who I am," Ephiny answered. "And I don't think you need be bothered with the details of how I got here." In truth it had been simple enough for her. The art of infiltration was one of the first lessons taught to a fledgling Amazon.
In the darkness Ephiny could not see Efron's eyes grow wide. "You're the butchering harpy that attacked by son!" he rasped.
"Now that's an interesting way to put it," said Ephiny. "But a lie nonetheless."
"You maimed him! There's no lie in that."
"Better his hand than my head," Ephiny matter-of-factly replied.
"I'll see you gutted and your carcass nailed to a tree," Efron growled.
Ephiny pressed the knife harder still. "Enough of this," she said coldly. "I came here to--"
"Slit my throat?"
"To give you a warning," said Ephiny. "Look no further to the south. You've got your valley. Leave these people alone."
"And if I don't?"
"Let's just say my queen takes a very dim view of those who would encroach upon our friends. Let there be no mistake--any further southerly advance on your part will bring you into direct conflict with the Amazon Nation. If you know us at all I would think you want to avoid that."
Realistically Ephiny did not think there was much chance of her bluff succeeding. Still, it was worth a try nonetheless.
Sure enough, Efron immediately called it. "Amazons, huh?" he hoarsely whispered. "I guessed as much. But as you say I know the Amazons all right, know them very well. I know your people are living hand to mouth down there. I know Melosa has every able bodied person out in search of food. I know she can't spare even one real warrior to oppose us." With a disparaging chuckle he went on to say, "That doesn't say much for you, does it?"
There was more than a grain of truth in Efron's taunt and Ephiny knew it. She had thought as much herself. That, however, was not what bothered her. After all, she was accustomed to the many indignities that went with being a very junior warrior. The thing that troubled her was how did Efron know all this? Was it just an educated guess? To be sure food stocks were bound to be low throughout the whole region but how did he know the Amazon situation was so critical? Had he received real intelligence? A spy perhaps? If so, how? From whom?
Well, that would be a problem for Melosa do deal with. Right now she had quite enough to occupy her. "One or a hundred, it makes no difference," she said. "So remember what I said."
"You think too much of yourself," said Efron. "You're one hungry little Amazon. What can you do in the face of my fifty men? So to hell with you, little girl! I'm not afraid of you."
In even, measured tones Ephiny replied, "You move against those people and I promise you'll come to know what hell really is."
"Go back to your perverted race," hissed Efron, "and leave the men of this world to their own affairs!"
There, in the darkness, Efron felt Ephiny withdraw the knife. "From what I've seen the 'men of this world' have could use a little guidance in how they conduct their 'affairs,'" she said. "At any rate you have been warned. Think about this: in the space of one short half-day I could very easily have sent you and two of your sons to the underworld. From this point forward there will be no restraint on my part. You want to fight? I'll give you one and believe me you can't even begin to imagine what I can do--what I will do."
"You don't frighten me, wench. You got in here all right, now let's see you get out."
Efron drew a sharp breath but his cry of alarm never came. Ephiny was much too quick for him. Seizing him by the hair of the head, she cracked him hard on the side of the head with the butt end of her knife handle. The blow was enough to relieve the bellicose cheiftain of any further musings about what was real and what was not--at least temporarily.
Standing up, Ephiny looked down at the dark outline of Efron's inert body. In looking at him the grim thought did cross her mind that perhaps it would be best to kill him then and there. Then perhaps maybe, just maybe, this would all be over before it had a chance to even really begin. But no, she would not do that. It might well come to that later on and if it did, so be it. She would not do it here, not this way. Though well schooled in the ways of taking another's life she was above all a warrior, not a murderer. Perhaps there were those--even in her own tribe--who would see no distinction between the two.
But she could. No, she would have to have just cause. As she stole away into the night, she had little doubt that she could count on Efron to give her one.
Unlike the dawning of the previous day Ephiny was there this time to watch the sun begin yet another ascent into the sky. Different too was her approach to the coming of a new day. Whereas yesterday morning she had been tired, even listless, today with even less rest than the night before she faced Eos' return with the heightened sense of awareness that comes with the prospect of impending action. She did not believe Efron would be able to marshal his forces and strike so soon as that very day but if he was aggressive as she thought him to be then he would surely not wait for very long. And it would be up to her to face him.
And yet such a daunting prospect did not frighten her. Partly this could be attributed to who she was. She was an Amazon after all and coursing through her veins was the blood of ancestors fabled for overcoming very long odds. Wedded to this, the very keystone of Amazon tradition, was something decidedly more practical--her training. For six long, hard--sometimes brutal--years she had worked and practiced and studied and sweat and more than a few times bled to achieve the goal that was the one, the only aspiration of every Amazon from the time they were old enough to understand such things--to be a warrior. Along with the endless work she had benefited in immeasurable ways from the vast experience of her instructors and the senior warriors who often assisted them. These old hands who had seen and done it all flung in the face of their young trainees--invariably referred to as "turds"--every possible scenario they might one day have to face. Under the critical, all-seeing eyes of these battle hardened veterans Ephiny had learned how to assess, adapt to, and, above all, overcome practically any situation. In the end, despite her mistakes, it had subtly been made known to her that she had learned those lessons as well as any Amazon within recollection.
So this then was a big part of the reason for the lack of fear on Ephiny's part. It was, however, not the sole reason. There was another, darker factor as well. The cold hard truth of the matter was that grief had numbed her once vibrant spirit. In keeping not only with her beliefs but the thing all mortals hold most dear she could not, would not, court death. And yet what was life anyway when one's very soul ached so? Perhaps the crossing of the Styx to rejoin her mother would be the only way to end the suffering she felt with every agonizing moment of her consciousness.
All mortals, no matter how dear, pass on sooner or later. The pain a mother suffers at birth is only physical and temporary. The pain the child suffers at the death of a beloved parent is just as acute and lasts far longer. All her young life Ephiny had seen it. The daughter buries the mother, life goes on, it is the natural order of things.
Nothing she had ever seen, however, could possibly prepare her for her own loss. This had been compounded by the manner in which she died. It had been unbearable for Ephiny to see her once invincible mother slowly wasting away like that, wracked with constant pain and fighting for every breath. How much better it would have been if only she had died in battle, fighting to her last to defend their way of life! But would it have been? Down deep Ephiny knew it made no difference. Either way Meelah would be just as dead and her own heart would be just as broken.
So here she was, her spirit broken, exhausted, alone in this relentlessly dreary place, far from home. And yet even here, mired in the abyss that was her sorrow, Ephiny would not allow herself to lose sight of her duty. She had her orders, she would do her best to carry them out. That would never change. What had changed was the young Amazon's attitude toward her own fate. On that she was totally ambivalent, at least for now. Would that change? Did time truly heal all wounds?
Ephiny could only wonder.
The next morning Lertes, awoke even earlier than usual. In the very early light of dawn he stumbled out the door of his hut, ready to go off and perform the same chore most mortals do when they first arise. To his surprise he found Ephiny sitting, knees up against her chest, right beside his door.
"Ephiny? What are you doing out here?" he asked. "Why didn't you just come on in."
"It's all right," said Ephiny. "I'm used to sleeping outdoors." In truth she had not slept at all and had only made it back to the village a very short time before.
"Did you see Efron?"
"I saw him."
Ephiny merely shook her head.
"What now?" asked Lertes.
Very deliberately, Ephiny laid it out for him. "You know what's coming. We need to immediately start making preparations for an attack."
Lertes knew all right. He had seen what had happened to those few inhabitants along the upper valley. All along it had been his hope that these Getae would stop there, would be satisfied with this seemingly more than ample expanse of land. But of course, they would not stop. These people rarely did. The land surrounding their village was too rich, the people too weak. It was too easy a plum to pluck.
"What can we do?" he asked somberly.
In answer Ephiny looked him right in the eye and said, "It is my intention to beat them to the punch. There is no time to lose. Tonight, I will move against Efron and his clan."
Lertes was stunned. "Wha...you mean, alone?" He stammered out.
"You can't be serious!" Her piercing eyes, however, told him otherwise. "By the gods! You are serious! How, Ephiny? You are one person, what can you possibly hope to accomplish?" Efron can call upon dozens of well armed men."
Eyes burning like embers now, Ephiny's voice was eerily calm. "Not after tonight."
"By the gods!" Lertes gasped again. He was almost afraid to ask, "What do you intend to do?" Even with all his misgivings Lertes had in the back of his mind retained at least some semblance of hope, however small, that some accommodation could be reached with Efron and his people. Now Ephiny apparently was determined to force matters to a head, to force a fight. To him this seemed madness.
"Ephiny, if you provoke them they are apt to kill every last one of us."
Ephiny was blunt. "They mean to do that anyway, whether you give in or not."
Lertes' eyes fell. "I know," he said quietly. Resigned as he was at this recognition of his likely fate now, the man seemed to recover somewhat. In drawing himself up to his full height, Lertes said, "Well then let me go with you. I can get a horse."
Ephiny shook her blonde locks. "No, you'll only slow me down."
"NO!" The young Amazon drew a deep breath, a practice she had used since childhood to control her temper. It had been Meelah who taught her this little trick. Fierce tempers ran in their line but few ever knew it, so successfully were they at keeping the beast under control. Calm once more, she went on to add in tones more even, "The time could very well come when you will get your chance to fight, But not tonight."
Never in all his life had Lertes felt so...inadequate as he did right at that moment. Here he was, a respected member of his little community, a father and before the onset of this strange protracted cold a relatively successful farmer--put in his place by a thin-waisted lioness barely half his age. In a way he was almost glad his dear Andrea was not here to see what was happening to their people--to him. All this raced through the farmer's mind in the uncomfortable moment following Ephiny's sharp refusal.
"However that does not mean you won't be busy," said Ephiny, continuing. "For I have a very important job for you."
"What do you mean to do?"
"Like you said before, provoke them into a fight," said Ephiny. "At any rate, that is my worry. Your worry will be to help me even up the odds a bit."
"How can we do that?"
"By making use of what's at hand," said Ephiny. "You don't have a blacksmith, right?"
"Wish we did," said Lertes wistfully.
"Didn't think so. Anyway, what I'm counting on is that after tonight those people up there in the valley are going to be so, ah, let's say 'motivated,' that they will most likely not bother with anything other than swooping down here by the most direct route Now, from the scouting I did today up north and what I learned was that the terrain up there is very rough, steep hills, marshes, dense forest. Because of that there are really only two viable routes of advance from the valley down to this plain. One, the one to the west, is a good ten leagues out of the way. Too time consuming. The other is the way you spoke of, along the stream. And I expect Efron and his followers to utilize the same route. That is where you come in."
Lertes stiffened in anticipation of what was coming next. He did not have long to wait.
"That field up there, where the high cliffs rise up next to stream, you know the place?"
"I should," said Lertes. "I helped clear that land about ten years ago."
"Well, that's a classic example of what we call a 'choke point.' With your help I intend to take full advantage of that."
Ephiny reached in under her jacket and extracted three sticks which she had obviously been keeping for just this moment. Each was about the diameter of a thumb and measured perhaps one third of a cubit in length. "First thing you do," she began, "is cut these to length and then sharpen them on both ends." Nimbly she took up all three sticks in her left hand, angling them out from a common point to form the shape of a pyramid.
Puzzled, Lertes nodded.
"Now, what you do is..." With her right hand Ephiny pulled out a length of rawhide. "...bind these like so." Deftly the young warrior demonstrated what exactly she wanted and then finished off by using her teeth to pull the intricate knot tight. "There now," she said, finishing. "See how solid?"
Eyebrows raised, Lertes cautiously asked, "What is it?"
"It's a caltrop," Ephiny explained. "Well, as close as we can get anyway. Usually these are fashioned out of metal. But, you make do with what you have."
"What's it for?"
"It's a nasty little tactical weapon," Ephiny answered.
With an exasperated snort the young Amazon said, "We saturate that field I told you about with these things. Then, when Efron and his goons come riding through there--"
"That's right. With a little luck we can really do some cutting down to size under those cliffs."
"Gods, Ephiny, that seems so, so...fiendish. Forgive me but...those poor horses!"
"Better those horses--and their riders--than your children. Like it or not this is war, Lertes."
"I know, I know," said Lertes. "You're right of course. Still...anyway. So how many of these will you need?"
"As many as your people can produce. Put as many hands as you can to work on it."
"It will take some time gathering the material," Lertes warned.
"Not so much," said Ephiny. She pointed to the three-sided shed Lertes used to store hay. "All the material you should need is right there."
"What? You mean the cane?" A couple of years before Lertes had thrown up the shed using cane from a nearby marsh with an eye all the while on erecting a more permanent structure at a later date. So far he had not gotten around to that particular task. Forcing a wan smile, he said, "I guess a hay barn is a small price to pay for our homes."
Ephiny in turned shot him a kindly look. The man was doing his best in the light of all this, he really was. "I'm going out to have a look around," she said. "Try to keep everyone close while I'm gone."
Lertes stood there watching as Ephiny mounted up and rode out of the village. So much was at stake, so many lives. And all of it turned on this--he wanted to say girl, and in some ways she still was. But those eyes of hers, those were not the eyes of the average free spirited youth. They were intense, hard, even a little cynical. So strange for one so young. No, the young Amazon had already seen much in her few short years. Lertes had no doubt she had also done things too that would make a common man shudder. As Ephiny disappeared among the trees, he said a little prayer to Demeter, asking the goddess of farming to watch over the solitary young Amazon in whose hands the fate of all of them now rested. And should the time come when his own moment of truth was inescapably at hand, Lertes could only hope that he would face it like a man. He felt that if he showed even a portion of the nerve Ephiny had, then he would be very well served indeed.
As she gazed intently out upon the barren meadow Ephiny was suddenly alerted by a snapping sound off to her right. Darting her eyes to the sound, she saw the girl Petrene cautiously approaching.
"It's just me," the girl said timidly.
"You shouldn't be out alone," said Ephiny.
"Don't worry, I was careful."
Without a word of reply Ephiny motioned her forward with a jerk of the head. Once at Ephiny's side the girl held out a greasy leather pouch, its mouth closed by a drawstring. "I thought you might be hungry," she said.
Ephiny looked first to the girl and then to the bag. Even self-denial had its limits. By this time she was rather hungry indeed. So, with an awkward nod of thanks, she accepted the bag, much to Petrene's relief. "How did you find me?" Ephiny asked, pulling open the bag.
"I don't know, you seem to like the woods. Just lucky, I guess."
An Amazon's affinity for the forest was an ancient thing, less practicable in this day and time but powerful nonetheless. Somehow the girl had sensed that. It made Ephiny eye her with a look of curiosity. "Well guess or not, you're right," she allowed.
Pleased, the girl smiled at her. Ephiny suppressed a return smile and bit into a hard piece of barley bread. "We're a good league and a half from the village," she said. "You walked all the way out here to bring me this?"
"Well, sure. I kind of thought you had to be getting awfully hungry."
Sincerely touched by the girl's thoughtfulness, Ephiny softly replied, "I appreciate it. Thank you."
There's a bit of honeycomb wrapped in there," said Petrene, nodding toward the bag. "Not much, but it's still good."
From here Ephiny ate in silence, her keen brown eyes studying the girl in between occasional glances at the meadow. For her part Petrene had hoped that her offering would help in opening up this remarkable young woman. She had so many questions she wanted to ask her. However it was now beginning to appear the Amazon's reticence was a chronic trait. Disappointed, a little frustrated, she wanted to ask, Why won't you talk to me? But she was afraid. It seemed like all any of her people were anymore--afraid.
Lowering her eyes, Petrene forced a thin smile and said, "I guess I'd better go."
At that moment Ephiny's tongue was waging its own little battle against a particularly stubborn little lump of the honeycomb. Petrene had already reluctantly turned to leave before Ephiny could say, "You can stay if you want."
Petrene's young face immediately lit up like noon day sun. "You mean it?"
"Why not. You can help me reconnoiter."
At last Ephiny could not help but emit a soft chuckle. "Look around," she explained.
They followed the stream for some distance, Ephiny saying little and Petrene still a bit too shy to try to draw her into conversation. So she sat there behind with her arms around the Amazon's trim waist. In her quietude she began to pretend that she too was an Amazon and that she and Ephiny were on some vital mission for queen...what was her name? Melosa! That was it. Having no knowledge of military matters her young mind could not really come up with a purpose for such a mission but, whatever it was, it had to be dangerous. But that was all right. All the Amazons knew that she and friend Ephiny were the two best soldiers in the whole...tribe! Yeah, tribe.
This went on for some time with Ephiny silently mapping out in her mind every feature of the landscape and Petrene content to daydream about adventures with her trusty companion. Presently Ephiny edged her big mare a little ways out into the stream and as the horse watered she finished off the rest of the food Petrene had brought.
It was here that Petrene finally worked up enough courage to ask the question that had been on her mind ever since her father's meeting with Ephiny. "Ephiny?"
"What's it like? To be an Amazon I mean."
"Oh, I don't know," Ephiny idly replied. "We're like anybody else really."
That answer did not wash with Petrene. She had heard the hushed tones with which those in her village spoke of the storied warrior women to the east. Quickly she countered, "Nuh uh. Who else can cause people to shudder at the very mention of their name?
Ephiny knew their fierce reputation stemmed in large part from wars of conquest fought generations ago, before the Great Split, when the Amazon Nation was still one united people. Nowadays, Northern and Southern tribes alike, were both markedly weaker and therefore more or less content to simply hold on to what their ancestors had taken. Still, old notions died hard--especially when fostered at every turn by a people who recognized a distinct advantage in being regarded as the toughest, meanest, kid in the courtyard. And so, she spoke the truth when she said, "We don't fight that much anymore." What she left unsaid was, We can't afford to.
"Have you ever...you know...killed somebody?"
"Yes, yes I have."
Ephiny turned back and gave Petrene a sharp look. "That's not important. What is important is why. I did what I had to in order to protect my home, my neighbors--our children and elderly, that's all. There are those who would do us ill if they could, Petrene. They hate us, not so much because of our past history but merely because of who we are. That is why we as a people strain so mightily to carry on the warrior traditions of our ancestors. Only in this way can we survive as a people."
To Ephiny's surprise Petrene responded to these somber words by breaking out into a smile. "Wha-at?"
Shyly, the girl answered, "That's the first time you called me by my name."
"Well, it's a very pretty name, said Ephiny. "Like you." Glancing up to the sky, she said, "It's getting late. We should get you home. Your father's probably getting worried."
"He needn't be," said Petrene.
'Oh? And why is that?"
"Because I'm with you." The tone of the Petrene's reply sounded as her confidence in Ephiny were the most natural thing in the world. Even with all of the sorrow and pain weighing so heavily upon her Ephiny could not help but be touched by this simple faith from a girl she barely knew. It gave her cause to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there could yet be purpose to her life after all.
The moment she saw them, Ephiny knew there was trouble, the various little knots of farmers grouped near the edge of the village. Their faces, grim and fraught with worry, reflected events of a tragic nature. That was when she saw the body.
Lertes, catching sight of the approach of Ephiny and his daughter, jogged out to meet them. "Ephiny! Ephiny!"
"What happened?" the Amazon asked sharply.
"Efron's men, three of them, they caught Freist out by the woods. By the gods they killed him, Ephiny." As he spoke Lertes' voice reflected the shocked sense of disbelief he felt. It had been his hope all along that for all Efron's bellicosity some sort of understanding could be reached between their two peoples. Up until the very last moment they had dragged in the lifeless body of his friend Lertes had thought matters would never come to this.
Lertes beckoned to Petrene and the girl rolled off the horse into his outstretched arms. Ephiny alit right behind her, sliding off in the easy manner of the accomplished rider that she was.
"Go home," Lertes said to his daughter.
"Do as your father says," said Ephiny curtly.
Leaving her there, Ephiny and Lertes went over to join the onlookers. They were met with an accusing finger. "This never would have happened, Lertes, if you had not brought her here!" It was Tamyrus, wife of the unfortunate Freist.
"Now, Tamyrus, you don't know that," said Lertes softly.
However the woman was not about to have any of Lertes' attempts to mollify her. "All her kind knows is to kill and loot and main and burn!" she cried. "Look what it got us! And poor Freist there is only the first I tell you, only the first! Unless she leaves now Efron and his men are going to sweep down upon us and wipe the land clean of us."
"That's foolish talk," Ephiny lashed back. "Efron means to do that anyway. He wants this land, you're in the way. It's as simple as that."
"Go home, Amazon! Go home and let us conduct our own affairs."
The irony of her words was not lost on the young Amazon. Had not Efron almost verbatim told her the same thing? No matter. For her ears were attuned to only one voice. All eyes were upon her as she sauntered over to the raging Tamyrus. They were in fact almost the same size physically and yet Ephiny unequivocally appeared to loom larger somehow. Tamyrus had a fiery reputation but everyone knew who cut the more menacing figure here. It was not even close, even to those who knew nothing of Ephiny. Like Lertes, like the dead Freist, like all of them, Tamyrus was just a farmer. These were people who knew little and cared less about Ephiny's native intelligence, her extensive education, or her innate nobility. All they did know was that she was a highly trained killer. Even so, Tamyrus yielded no ground as she stood to toe with Ephiny.
Ephiny let her have her moment of defiance and then calmly stepped back. "Listen, all of you," she began, "I did not ask to come here. My queen decided that for me. Remember, it was you who asked her for assistance. More than that, you evoked the ubanca, our ancient symbol of friendship. Among our elders this is not a thing to be taken lightly."
Ephiny paused and ran her eyes over the others. In continuing, her voice grew very deliberate. "There is...another thing. I am sure some of you know as well as I what I mean, that thing of which an Amazon can never speak other than to say there is more than friendship that binds us. Even in this simple utterance I risk the queen's wrath. So to put it plainly, nothing short of the queen's direct command will make me leave here. And I'll tell you this...I mean to defend you until my last breath. I've been so ordered and I will obey.
"I tell you Efron's men are by no means an army. If we hold fast, if we cooperate, we can win. I swear by the sacred memory of my noble mother that I will do my part. What you do is up to you."
Lertes stood over the boy of Freist and held up his hands. "Now we have talked about this and we all agreed. So everyone, please, go on home. Tamyrus and I will look to poor Freist."
"Do you bury your dead?" asked Ephiny.
"Uhh, yes," Lertes replied rather absently.
"The hard ground will make it tough, I'll help you. Just let me get my horse."
"Don't you touch him!" Tamyrus hissed. "You stay away, you hear?"
From behind Ephiny there came a small gasp. Petrene, slipping back, had seen the horrid sight of Freist's slashed throat.
In an instant Ephiny was upon her. "Get back!" she said sharply. Seizing the young girl's arm, Ephiny snapped her around and pulled her over to the old well box some distance away. There the Amazon pointed an a rebuking finger in the girl's face. "Stay here," she said sternly.
Ephiny, satisfied the wide-eyed Petrene had no intention of further disobedience, left her there and walked out to meet the approaching Lertes. "Would you see that she gets home?" he asked. "I will be a while."
"I want to speak to you as soon as you get back," said Ephiny.
The look alone in the Amazon's eyes was enough to make Lertes want to shudder. "Very well, he said quietly. "I'll see you then."
With a curt nod Ephiny left him to fetch her horse and then went back to join Petrene. There she placed firm, guiding hand on the girl's back and said, "Come on."
"Are you mad at me, Ephiny?"
With a shake of the head Ephiny sighed, "No, not at you. I'm mad at greed and stupidity and vainglorious pride and arrogance and all the other damned foolish things that forever seem to prevent us from...just living in peace. That's what I'm mad at."
Nose wrinkled, a perplexed Petrene looked up at Ephiny. How could someone be mad at stupidity? she wondered. "Huh?"
Ephiny's strong hand moved off the girl's shoulder to the base of her neck. "Nothing. Forget it. I'm just a bit...frustrated, that's all."
"What are we going to do?"
"Take you home, like your father asked."
Petrene promptly ignored Ephiny's evasiveness. "I mean about the invaders."
Ephiny thought it odd for one so young to be speaking of "invaders." "What do you think we should do?" she asked.
With a resigned shrug the girl answered, "Fight."
"Well it looks like you're just about the only one around here who feels that way."
In response Ephiny gave the girl sharp little pinch on the neck. "I mean besides me, silly."
"Don't think too badly of us for that," said Petrene. "We're just farmers. We fight drought and bugs, we don't know how to fight men."
Somebody should, thought Ephiny.
"But somebody should."
"What?" Petrene's echoing of her own thoughts startled the young Amazon.
"I said somebody should. Know how to fight, I mean. Don't you think so?"
'Yes," said Ephiny. "Absolutely. Everyone should know how to defend themselves."
Petrene saw the opening she had been hoping for. "Could you teach me how to use a sword?" she asked eagerly. At once she knew she had overplayed her hand.
"Petrene, you know I can't do that," said Ephiny gently. "You're too young. Besides, your father would never allow it."
In Petrene's path was a small stone and this she now gave a disconsolate little kick. Her eyes downcast, she did not see Ephiny's fleeting look of admiration. This little wisp of a girl was showing more fighting spirit than all the rest of the village combined.
"You know," said Ephiny. "there are other weapons besides a sword."
"Like what?" Petrene answered glumly. "A stick?"
"I was thinking of something a with little more...potential," said Ephiny.
"I'll show you," Ephiny promised. "But first, let's get you home."
In the dank, dimly lit room of the stone structure that was his home Efron rose from the roughly hewn puncheon table where he and his leading kinsmen were meeting. His challenging eyes in turn sought out each man, daring them to oppose him. "So it is settled then. We have to act now. Somehow those people have convinced the Amazons to act as their mercenaries. Therefore, for our own survival, it is imperative that we move on them as soon as possible. Agreed?"
He expected silent assent but to his surprise someone spoke up. It was his cousin, Arextas. "From what we know there is only one Amazon, Efron. What kind of threat can one measly Amazon pose?"
"Maybe you should ask Aeneas that question," Efron snorted.
"And how is Aeneas?" asked another.
It was Aeneas' brother, Seles, who matter-of-factly answered, "His arm has the red streaks. He'll be dead within the week."
Around the table no one seemed particularly sorry to hear this. Aeneas was hardly the most admired of men, even among his own relatives.
"Would it not be better to wait until this cold weather has passed?" asked Arextas.
Efron left his place and walked around to where Arextas was standing. "Arextas, if you are too afraid to fight, perhaps you should go back our former homeland and that idiot king. I'm sure these others will be more than glad to divide up your lands."
"We have this entire valley," Arextas glared back at him. "Isn't that enough?"
"Not when that whole plain is just sitting there, begging for us to take it! Perhaps you have already forgotten, Arextas, what it was like back in Getae. Remember those crushing taxes? The oppression? You had no qualms then about coming here and taking over this land. I remember your hands were every bit as bloody as my own. In Getae we were the subjects, tax slaves to the king. Who was it that said we should leave? That we should take a chance and go forth on our own? Who was that? Me!!" For added emphasis Efron thumped his chest hard with his fist. "Here we are the kings. Now, my kinsman, are you with us or not?"
Arextas looked hard at him a moment before answering, "You know I am."
"Now that's the fellow!" Efron heartily cried as he slapped Arextas on the back.
Seles joined his father and together the two of the watched the others file out of the room. When they had gone Efron stared after them and said, "It seems our brave Arextas is losing his nerve."
"He grows complacent," Seles observed casually. "He is content with what he has."
"He was motivated enough back when he was shoveling shit in the king's stables," said Efron. "Everything he has he owes to me. And the day he forgets that, is the day he will lose it. So, how many men will be ready to ride with us."
"Counting the hired men, about two score and ten," said Seles.
"Good. Good. Seles?"
"Tomorrow, I don't care about the others but I want that little Amazon bitch alive, you understand?"
"She handles a sword like it was part of her," said Seles. "She will be a handful."
"I don't care!" Efron quickly snapped. "Just do it!"
With a solemn nod Seles left. In truth he was not all that certain that Arextas was wrong. This valley held ample land for all of them. Why this push for more? Those farmers on the plain were no threat. All they wanted was to be left alone. As for the girl, the very thought of an Amazon made him uneasy. He remembered the unnerving way the girl had looked at him, as if he were more like prey than a mere enemy. His words to her had sounded brave enough but he knew how hollow they had really been. Like the rest he had heard the stories of Amazonian ferocity. These people weren't mere farmers with hay forks. They were highly trained killers who played for keeps. By the gods! Why risk antagonizing them over something over a measly few thousand arourae of land?
It was not for him to decide. Efron was his father, the leader of their clan. It had been his vision that had led them forth from the poverty of Getae here to this rich valley and the relative prosperity it afforded. If he said they would advance, he was bound to obey.
With a final tug Ephiny tied off the last knot. "There now." Holding up her creation, she asked, "What do you think?"
"What is it?" Petrene asked, wrinkling her nose.
"Haven't you ever seen a sling before?" When Petrene shook her head Ephiny said, "Actually this is what's called a "shepherd's sling." The kind most armies use today is known as a "stave sling." That one has a wooden handle that gives it more leverage. It's also harder to learn to use. For our purposes this one is just fine."
"How do you do it?"
"Come on, I'll show you."
Petrene followed Ephiny around to the back of the hut. There Ephiny reached into her pocket and pulled out three rounded stones she had picked out earlier. "Let's see...." Scanning the area, her eyes fell on an old broken bucket lying some forty paces away. With an impatient Petrene watching Ephiny walked out and set the bucket up on a fence post that was part of a neglected, long unused sty.
"All right," said Ephiny, returning, "there's our target. Now stand back." As Petrene looked on Ephiny placed a stone on the pocket of the sling. Attached to each end of the sling was a length of heavy string and these the young warrior now took up in the fingers of her right hand. On one of the strings she had tied a loop and this she now slid onto her fourth finger. "The best slings of this type are braided out of hemp or wool twine or something similar," she explained. "However those take a lot of time and skill to make. A leather one, like this, is not as effective and will wear out sooner. But, you use what you have.
"Now from just looking at it you might think you spin it around your head or off to the side. That's not the way to do it. In a way it's sort of like just throwing a rock." Facing her target, Ephiny then turned away at an angle. With a sheepish little grin she said, "I haven't used one of those in a while," she cautioned. "So don't laugh if I miss. The main thing is to show you the proper technique."
Rocking back on her right leg, Ephiny pushed off hard, stepping forward to propel the sling's projectile out with an almost overhand motion. The stone rocketed skyward and much to Ephiny's relief, slammed dead center into the target, smashing what was left of the bucket into several pieces.
"Oh my!" Petrene cried excitedly. "That was amazing."
In truth Ephiny was a little surprised at her own success. It had been a long time since she used a sling. Properly modest, she could only murmur, "Well, you see how it's done anyway."
"Can I try it?"
"Sure. Give me your hand."
An absorbed Petrene eagerly took in very detail as Ephiny fitted the sling into the girl's hand. "That's how you hold it," said Ephiny. "When you're ready for the release you just let go of the top string. That loop of course keeps the sling from getting away from you."
Ephiny selected the smaller of her two remaining stones and placed it in the sling's pouch. "Smooth stones work best," she said. "They tend to fly truer." She then took the girl by the waist and turned her to the proper angle. "Your target is that tree over there. Some people think they get better aim if they start off by pointing their left arm at the target. Really it's just whatever is most comfortable for you."
Stepping back, Ephiny asked, "All set?" Petrene nodded that she was. "All right then, any time you're ready."
Young Petrene swallowed hard and slowly extended her left arm out toward the tree. "Well, here goes." The young girl clenched her teeth and rocked back, just as she had seen Ephiny do. Surging her thin frame forward with all her might, she released the string--and hurled the stone straight into the ground in front of her with a loud thump!
"Are you all right?" asked Ephiny, suppressing a grin.
'Yeah," the girl disconsolately answered.
"That's all right, that's all right," Ephiny assured her. "You did fine. You showed good form in fact. You just..." Despite her best efforts a giggle escaped. "...held on a little too long."
For a fleeting moment Petrene saw not the stoic, polished, formidable young Amazon she had already come to admire but rather the vision of an impish teenager not all that much older than she was. And just like that, it was gone.
"Don't feel badly," said Ephiny. "I remember how hard it was for me. As with most things it just takes practice. We have one more stone. Want to try again?" Petrene nodded that she did and after a little more coaching from Ephiny managed to cast the stone about fifty paces. "There you are," said Ephiny. "Much better. You'll make a front line slinger yet."
Pleased by Ephiny's praise, Petrene offered back the sling. "I have to get supper ready."
"Keep it," said Ephiny, pushing the sling back into the girl's hands. "It's yours."
"You mean it?"
"I always mean what I say," said Ephiny.
Petrene looked at the teenager with eyes full of wonder. Never in her young life had she seen anyone quite like her. So earnest, so powerful, she seemed so much older than she actually was. She was also so very pretty. In hushed tones she timidly asked, "Ephiny, do you think I could ever be an Amazon?"
"Now why would you want to be an Amazon?"
"Well just look at you," said Petrene. "Look at what you can do, at how you can fight. How strong and brave you are." The girl dropped her chin and quietly added, "People fear you. I want to be like that."
"Petrene, more so than anything else people fear Amazons because they don't understand us. They never have. Our society developed the way it did because to a large degree others it forced upon us. We had to learn the ways of war in order to ensure our own survival. We learned those ways and more. We learned how to fight and, more importantly, what it took to win.
"And so, we have survived. But it's come at a price."
"What do you mean?" asked Petrene.
"You look at me and see something resembling a warrior," said Ephiny. "That's true enough I guess. Even so there are those in the tribe who could turn me inside out with one hand. Anyway, you see me as I am now. What you don't see is the nearly half a dozen long, hard years that went into making me what I am. I was not much older than you when my training began. I've had my share of bloody noses and more bruises than I can count. It was tough, sometimes brutal instruction."
"But, it was worth it, right?"
"For me it was," Ephiny said with a shrug. "But my point is this. I didn't have a choice. You, on the other hand, do. If you have the guts to try and are willing to work for it there's no telling what you do in life. Me, I was destined to be a warrior from the day I was born. Now, that's not a bad thing, mind you. Don't get me wrong on this. My tribe means everything to me. Those are my people--my friends." Ephiny paused. A faraway look came to her eyes. "I can honestly say, I wouldn't trade my life with anyone's. Well, maybe the goddess Artemis but other than that..."
In that moment it struck Ephiny just how much being an Amazon really did mean to her. Expressing it aloud like that, somehow the very words seemed to warm her soul. Almost subconsciously she began to murmur:
"What's that?" asked Petrene.
"That. About Phillipia."
"Oh. That. It's...part of a poem. A thing we have to learn." Only recently had Melosa added the verse honoring the esteemed Phillipia to the sacred Amazon "War Song." By strict tradition only the queen was permitted to incorporate a new verse into the massive poem and even then the addition could be recorded only after a proper period of reflection had passed. Phillipia had been dead well over a year before her name was added to the pantheon of Amazon heroes.
"Do you know the whole thing?" asked Petrene.
"Can I hear it?"
"Well, that would take some time," said Ephiny. "You see, it's over nine hundred verses long. Nine hundred and twelve--well, nine hundred and thirteen now to be exact."
Petrene was incredulous. "And you know it all?"
"Every last word," Ephiny assured her. "We're tested. You don't know "The Song," you can't be a warrior. It's as simple as that."
"Poppa said he dreams of me becoming a poet," said Petrene, suppressing her grimace.
"But you don't want to."
"I think it's silly," the girl pronounced.
"No it's not," said Ephiny. "It's an honorable calling. Poetry stirs the mind and heart. It can move us, make us think. And it can help us to remember."
Petrene noted a certain wistfulness in tone of Ephiny's words. "So, how long did it take you to learn it?"
"What? The War Song? Not as long as you might think," Ephiny answered. "I was what you might say, highly motivated. And my mother--" Ephiny's mind raced back to those countless evenings spent by candlelight in which proud mother and dutiful daughter had together pored over and discussed every verse that made up the sacred song. It was through her that Ephiny had come to understand that the work was not just words to be laboriously memorized but rather no less than the living history of their people. Returning from the sweet memory of that innocent time, Ephiny blinked hard and looked away.
The inherent sadness of the gesture this too the perceptive Petrene picked up on. "Do you still have your momma?" she asked timidly.
In answering, Ephiny could not look her in the eye. "Uh... no. I uh, I lost her a little while back. Some...malady, we don't know what."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," said Ephiny. "She lived a good life. She was well respected. She died among friends." For Ephiny the words might have rung as hollow as a drum but they were every word the truth nonetheless.
"My momma's dead too," said Petrene. "But I guess you already knew that."
"I figured as much," said Ephiny softly.
"She died early last summer. The fever got her."
"I'm sorry. You must miss her very much." The subject matter was making the Amazon uncomfortable and so she sought to change the subject. "So, what did you have in mind for supper?"
"Maza and goat's milk," Petrene replied, making a face. "We've been having a lot of that lately."
"Uh huh. Well, I can't really do anything until your father gets back. Tell you what, why don't I go out and see if I can scrounge up something a little heartier for supper, huh? I'm a pretty good hunter you know."
Now it was Petrene's turn to change the subject. It was something that had been stuck in her mind all day. "Ephiny? Are you the Mishente?"
"Mishente. My momma came from Maeonia, and she said when she was growing up there the old folks told of a warrior spirit who would sometimes appear in times of trouble to protect those who could not protect themselves. It was known as the "Mishente." She said her father claimed to have seen it once."
Leaning over, Ephiny, held out her left arm and pointed to a scratch on the back on the back of her hand. "Spirits don't get scratched, Petrene."
"Well, you could. To fool us I mean. Maybe we're not supposed to know you're a spirit. Or maybe a god sent you here, only you know don't know it."
"Queen Melosa is a powerful woman but she's no god," said Ephiny. "I'm not your Mishente. I'm just a bottom feeding grunt sent here to do a job. Nothing more."
"A grunt? What's that?"
This evoked a rueful snort from Ephiny. "Just what it implies," she said. "A grunt is a low ranking warrior. As such we always get stuck with the lousy stuff nobody else wants to do."
Petrene's eyes fell. "Is that it?" she softly asked. "Do you think being here, with us, is lousy?"
"No!" Ephiny quickly answered. "Of course I don't. Don't even think that. After all, I got to make a new friend. How can that be lousy?" Her grousing had hurt the girl's feelings, that was plain enough. But what made Ephiny most uncomfortable was a seemingly complete lack of ability to connect with Petrene--or anyone else for that matter--on anything close to an emotional level. Even Solari, her lifelong friend, had sensed her drifting away. Never one to express much in a personal way, the death of Meelah was in danger of serving to harden the heart of her devastated daughter in a very real way.
Bitter as she was, even now, she was not blind to her duty or to what the real cost of her failure to perform that duty might be.
As if to underscore that understanding Petrene chose that moment to put it into very real terms. "They're going to kill us all, aren't they?"
"No they're not," said Ephiny firmly. "I'm not going to let that happen, Petrene. What they did here today they're going to get back tenfold, I promise."
"Why couldn't they just leave us alone?" the girl asked sadly. "We never bothered them. We never bothered anybody. Why couldn't they just leave us alone?"
Ephiny knew why. It was greed, pure and simple. Many a mother's child had lost their life over a parcel of brown dirt. To Petrene, however, she said nothing and at this point she began to look for a way to put an end to the conversation. Mysteries such as the inner workings of a mortal's mind were of little concern to her at this point. Indeed her own consciousness was operating a far more primordial level. This was survival of the fittest and Ephiny was grimly determined to see to it that she would be the fittest.
"Well," she said with a stilted nod of the head, "if I'm going hunting I'd better get to it. Your father and I have a lot to do this evening. He's going to be hungry when he gets home so you'd better get busy too."
"All right." Quickly the girl added, "But hurry back."
"I will," Ephiny promised. As Petrene turned to go the young Amazon called her name. With all sincerity Ephiny said, "I meant what I said about being here."
Petrene smiled and with a nod turned back toward the hut. By the time she got to the door Ephiny was already gone.
It was well on toward evening before Lertes finally returned home. Tired, despondent over the loss of a lifelong friend, with the pressures of the last few days bearing down hard on him, he had on his way home begun to ponder on the land and if it was really worth dying for. He wondered if perhaps it might be better to just pull out and leave. Let Efron have the land. There was, after all, always more land...somewhere.
As soon as Lertes cracked open the door to his hut a pleasant aroma engulfed him. At the hearth, he saw his young daughter bending over a steaming pot. "Mmm, what's this I smell?" he asked.
"Woodcock!" the girl enthusiastically answered back. "Three of them. Ephiny got them."
Lertes' eyes shifted to Ephiny, quietly sitting at their old rugged puncheon table. More than once he had tried to kill a woodcock only to find the things far too elusive. "That was very thoughtful of you," he said. "Thank you."
"I thought we could all do with a little meat," said Ephiny modestly.
"Well it's been a while," Lertes admitted.
Proudly Petrene held up her makeshift sling. "She killed them with this, Poppa. She's teaching me how to use it."
"That's nice, baby," her father answered absently. Lertes was not entirely certain he approved of his child learning to use such a thing. However at the moment he had other concerns on his mind.
"You wanted to talk to me?" he asked Ephiny.
"It can wait," said Ephiny. She angled her head toward the hearth. "Eat your supper first."
When the birds were done Ephiny took her share right along with the rest. On this night she was going to need every last bit of her strength. Except for a few courteous words here and there the three of them ate quietly. The thoughts each of them turned over in their respective minds were far different in nature. Lertes--tired, sad, worried about the future of his people. Ephiny, growing ever more grim, was already gearing herself up for what the onset of night would bring. Young Petrene, her tummy warm and full, wished for one more helping.
At last, with the food gone, Ephiny caught Lertes' attention and in turn discreetly rolled her eyes toward the door. Once outside Lertes said, "Caleb and the others said to tell you your cal..."
"Right, caltrops. They have your caltrops. Nearly two hundred of them."
"I know," said Ephiny. "I checked. When you see your friends tell them they did a good job."
"I will. Anything else?"
As it was Ephiny was far from finished. "Lertes," she earnestly began, "I need to know. Are you and your people prepared to ride this out with me? To trust in what I'm about to do? Because you must know that after tonight there will be no turning back."
"Do not mistake the wailings of a grieving wife as the voice for the rest of us," said Lertes. "Our decision was reached in a council the day before we dispatched poor Cehpus to your queen. I assure you, Ephiny, we have the utmost confidence in you."
"You'd never know it by their attitude. One would think I am the enemy here."
In the evening light Lertes flashed a rather sympathetic little smile. "You must understand, we fear the Amazons almost as much as these invading Getae."
"We both know our history," said Ephiny. "The Amazons have always been your friends."
"And never more so than today," said Lertes softly. "So be it then. Aside from the field, I take it you have something else in mind?"
"An Amazon always has a plan," said Ephiny, a smile playing across her lips.
"Very well, my young general. What would you have us do?"
"Just this, pick a couple of reliable men to help you take those caltrops out to the field and hide them in the grass. Be sure to spread them out as evenly as possible over the whole area. Now you should wait until after dark so nobody can see what you're up to."
"I understand. And then?"
"On the far side of the stream, maybe a league from the village, there's a secluded little dell. I'm sure you know the place."
"Good. What I'd like is for your people to withdraw to that position. Take whatever might be necessary for a stay of a no more than a day. It might be best to drive your animals to some safe place as well. Again, make this movement after dark, quickly, quietly."
Lertes looked down to his feet and said, "So you've made up your mind then. We are to hide then while you, alone, do battle for us." At that moment he did not know which made him feel worse, his not facing the enemy with her or his deep down relief at not having to do so.
"It's the only way," said Ephiny. "Should your people stay they would be ahh, a distraction, if you know what I mean."
"I understand," said Lertes.
Lertes glanced up at evening sky. "It will be getting dark soon," he said.
Let it come! thought Ephiny.
"Lertes," she said, "you stay put until I come for you. If by sunset tomorrow you haven't seen me--"
"We'll see you," Lertes urgently interjected. "We'll see you."
Listening at the door, Petrene prayed her father was right.
With darkness gathering Ephiny eased her horse out of the village and headed along the stream she had gotten to know well over the past day and a half. Up past the cliffs, past her intended "choke point," she angled off to the northwest. A few leagues away lay the rich valley Efron and his people had stolen for their own. Tonight some--many she hoped--would be made to pay for that land--in blood.
For what the opening phase of Ephiny's bold plan entailed was nothing less than a one warrior invasion. Her aim was to rapidly sweep up the valley, destroying every barn, every smokehouse, granary and animal pen she could get near. To aid in her grim work she had slung across her horse two bags containing an ancient Amazon concoction, so potent, so foul, that a mere couple of handfuls of it down a well was more than enough to render it unusable for months.
In addition, slung across her back were two items she rarely carried--Solari's bow and a quiver containing twenty-two arrows. For as long as anyone could remember there had existed within her tribe a mostly amicable debate over what was the better type of bow. Most came down on the side of the old standard, the flatbow. The rest preferred what was known as the recurve bow, so named because of its small opposite curve on each end. Like her mother before her, Ephiny preferred the recurve bow. It could be shot more quickly and had a smoother draw and more range than the flatbow. The tradeoff, however, was that it tended to be less stable. To achieve maximum effectiveness with it required a clear eye and a rock steady hand. Fortunately Ephiny had both.
Had it been up to her she would not have even had it with her. Only at Solari's odd insistence had caused her to bring it. At the time it had seemed so strange. Now she was glad she had it. And for that bit of nagging Ephiny would now be sure to thank her friend once she got back home--if she got back home.
To make room for the bow Ephiny had strapped her sword to her waist. Like many Amazons she disliked carrying the weapon here. It made her feel unbalanced in a way. Still, she was not a terrible hindrance and the availability of the long range bow could very well make the difference. She would adjust. That she had in fact not used the bow in some time was no great cause for concern for her. After all, the keenness of her eye and the steadiness of her hand had not changed. Besides, as old Adele was fond of saying, it was like playing with yourself, once you learned, there was little chance of forgetting. As an archer she was naturally quite proficient, not as deadly perhaps as the remarkable young Abisinthe--the gentle girl with the unerring aim, but she was better than most.
Cresting a long hill, Ephiny looked out upon the dark expanse that was the valley. Here she stopped. Before she went any further there was one last thing to be done. So there, in the frigid night air, Ephiny stripped off her tattered dress and disdainfully tossed it aside. She then quickly donned her own skirt and one of her tops. If she was going to war, she would do so dressed as an Amazon and not some ragged wayfarer. However as a concession to the cold she wisely kept the jacket on.
Her foray into the valley the previous night had not merely been to shake up a complacent Efron. There was a more tactical reason for her visit as well. For the better part of the night she had crisscrossed up and down the entire valley, committing to memory the location of every single target that might be worth hitting. Her efforts at reconnaissance had been aided by a brilliant moon, a rarity indeed in this season of incessant cloud cover. Tonight, however, the moon was nowhere to be seen. The clouds were back with a vengeance which was just what she wanted. Ephiny took both occurrences as very favorable signs. Perhaps, she thought, Artemis had not turned her back on the Amazons after all.
Before long the great black shape of a barn loomed ahead in the darkness. It was time as the incomparable Mycinia had liked to say, to, "Commence offensive operations." And go on the offensive was what her young admirer certainly intended to do. Tonight Efron would learn the hard way what war with the Amazon Nation truly meant--even if it was really only one single Amazon.
Resonating forth from Ephiny's stomach came a low growl. Her meager share of the woodcocks had not been enough to sate her lately neglected stomach. This combined with her mounting fatigue to remind the Amazon that she was operating under far less than ideal conditions. She knew she was violating a cardinal rule of Amazon doctrine. Oh yes, she had heard it a thousand times: "A rested Amazon is an alert Amazon; a full Amazon is a strong Amazon..."
It was all of course sound policy, Ephiny knew that. However even with a fight looming such matters did not seem so important now. Not with...other things weighing so heavily upon her mind. Besides, she was "older" now, more experienced--no longer the green "turd" she had once been. She had been in a few fights, had experienced the rush, the fear of battle. She knew what it was like to take another's life. When the time came Ephiny felt confident she count on what Colsethme liked to call the "warrior's blood" to rise up within her and carry her through. It was a strange thing--strange but very real. Just about anyone who had ever experienced real danger had felt it. Ephiny too had experienced it. In battle this...feeling, washed over her. She felt stronger, quicker, more alert. At times she felt she could do things that might be next to impossible under normal conditions. Many of the warriors in the tribe were reluctant to talk about it, including Solari who adamantly denied ever feeling that way. Perhaps it was because they somehow thought it was connected to their fear, as if the very admission would somehow weaken them as warriors. And who knew? Maybe they were right. Courage could be such a tenuous quality. Perhaps it was best to leave such things alone. Still, she remembered watching those Mysians creeping up that hill toward her, how afraid she had been. And yet, at the same time how so very alive she had felt! It was all so very strange, all these conflicting emotions. She would have to think more on that--if she lived.
Leaving her horse at a safe distance, Ephiny shouldered her bags, slung the pouch holding her flint around her neck and began to carefully pick her way toward the barn. It was time.
The man of the house must have still been awake as it was not very long before the alarming scent of smoke stirred him to action. He flung the door open wide and Ephiny heard him cry out to the others inside the dwelling. Out the man yard dashed the man. Right behind him came first one, then two, then four more silhouettes of varying sizes and shapes. After the man of the house came what Ephiny judged to be a boy, probably in his teens. Next was the unmistakable shape of a woman and, last, two small children, their arms flailing to catch hold of their mother's skirts.
For a long moment Ephiny pondered on what to do about the boy. He was obviously not yet a man but he was, however, big enough to bear arms, especially against a bunch of mostly harmless farmers. His death could mean one less enemy to worry about later on. In the end, though, she decided against it. She would not kill the boy. Amazon history was rife with incidents of their raiding parties ravaging entire countrysides, slaughtering men and women alike, taking other women as slaves and the carrying off of female children to adopt into the ways of the tribe. Ephiny for one was not about to judge her ancestors. The times then had perhaps called for such Draconian measures. It was hardly her right to say otherwise. Nevertheless, it was not something she was proud of. No, she would let the boy live. Her war was with these brutes who had seen fit to profit by driving other people from their land.
The man, however, was a different matter. That this man now frantically trying to fight the blaze was a husband and father was irrelevant to her. After all, they were the aggressor. Lertes was a father too. Now would come the fruits of their aggression and if Ephiny had her way they would be bitter indeed. As for the rest, they would have their lives, that would have to be enough.
With the firelight gleaming in her eyes, Ephiny calmly drew back Solari's bow, centering her sights right between the man's shoulder blades...
So began Ephiny's war. The next full day promised to be the longest of her young life. She could only wonder if she would live to see the end of it.
Irate at being disturbed, Efron slapped away the hand urgently shaking his shoulder. "Damn it!" he fumed. "Doesn't anyone sleep at night anymore?"
Bending over Efron, his brother Pindar held a candle up close. "Get up, Efron, we're under attack."
"What do you mean? Under attack."
Breathlessly Pindar related the sketchy details as best he could. "Raiders--up and down the whole valley. Homes, barns burned. Livestock scattered all over the countryside. The grain, the wells--poisoned!"
In the candle's flickering light Efron's face turned purple with rage. "It's that girl!" he bellowed.
"No one person could have done all this," Pindar argued. "From what I've heard we have at least a dozen dead. The entire Amazon tribe must be moving against us."
Efron's reply was to angrily cuff his brother on the ear. "Fool! Then where are they? Think for once in your life. Has anyone seen this so-called army? They're damn near starving down there! The Amazons don't have the resources for a winter maneuver. It's that shit of a girl I tell you."
"What do we do?"
"What do we do?" Efron mockingly mimicked him. "Great Zeus, do I have to do all the thinking? Send out word to every available man to assemble here. Come first light we move out and wipe that worthless scum from the face of the earth. And that girl too if she hasn't beaten it back to her sister mercenaries already"
"But what about--?"
"Forget everything else," Efron snapped. "We can sort matters out once we take care of those sheep--and that brat."
"We should have been happy with what we had," Pindar mused sourly.
"That's funny," Efron derisively snorted, "you didn't seem to have that attitude before this appearance of somebody who can fight back."
"We didn't have a dozen or more of our countrymen dead or crippled then either," Pindar retorted. For Pindar to show such spine in the face of his overbearing brother was a rarity.
As such it earned him a queer look from Efron. "Be careful, brother," he warned. "Else we have yet one more casualty this night. Now do as you're told."
Efron rose and took his sword down off the wall peg where it hung. Pulling it from its sheath, he very carefully ran a finger over its sharp edge. Then and there he resolved that if he caught the Amazon alive he would personally hack her to bits and bring the remains back to feed to his pigs. Such would be a worthwhile fate for any Amazon whore who dared to meddle with his plans. Who were they to fear anyway? The Amazons were nothing more than a decaying culture whose zenith had long since been reached. With every succeeding generation now their numbers lessened. They might have been a terror once but now they were just an absurd little cadre of females desperately clinging to an arcane and archaic way of life. The world had passed them by. They were a dying race. And he for one would be more than happy to hurry one more of these freaks on the inevitable doom that surely awaited them all.
"Phineas? Phineas! Is that you?"
Lertes was understandably relived when his neighbor answered with a low, "It's me."
"Are you finished?" asked Lertes.
"Uh huh. Got every last one down, right where you wanted."
"Good. Any idea how Alcinon is doing?"
"I just left him," said Phineas. "He said he'd be along directly."
"Great," Lertes murmured, as much to himself as anyone else. "Great."
In contrast to the relatively robust Lertes, Phineas was reed thin, almost frail looking. He was a good ten years younger than Lertes but actually looked far older than that. "I don't know about you," he said, wiping his brow against his arm, "but I'm worn out."
"And smarting too," Lertes groaned, arching his back. "Those damn things kept sticking me."
"They certainly are evil looking little devils. I must say I've never sown seed quite like that before."
"Can you imagine a speeding horse running over one of those things?" Lertes asked. The very thought made him shudder.
After a few moments of silence Phineas said, "Lertes? This...Amazon girl--"
Here Lertes cut him off. "Her name is Ephiny, Phineas. The least you can do is refer to her by her name."
Properly reproved, Phineas started anew. "Very well. This...Ephiny, how can we be certain she knows what she's doing?"
"We cannot," Lertes answered honestly. "There is, however, no denying her own physical skills and we can only surmise that her acumen matches those skills or else Melosa would not have seen fit to send her. For my part she seems very astute, very well schooled. And a cool hand to boot."
"I hope you are right," said Phineas. "For all our sakes. It just that, it seems fantastic to me that she would go so far as to--"
Again Lertes cut him off. "What? Carry the fight to the enemy's very doorstep on our behalf? Alone? You call it fantastic, I call it courageous beyond words."
"Calm down," Phineas quietly urged. "I appreciate what she's trying to do as much as you do. But don't you see? After tonight there will be no longer be any room for compromise. It will be--must be, either our destruction or theirs."
Before, Lertes' mind had been much the same as his friend's. Now he knew better. It was time for all of them to face the truth as unflinchingly as young Ephiny had done. "There never was any room for compromise," he said. "And as for our destruction, that wasn't a sack of beets you and I buried this evening, was it?"
Sadly, Phineas thought back to the poor Freist and said, "No, it wasn't."
"They mean to destroy us in any event," said Lertes, echoing Ephiny's words to him.
"Aww, you're right, I guess," Phineas conceded. "Hell, you usually are. It's just that..."
"Well, damn it," Phineas blurted out. "She's so young!"
Lertes' mind went back to Ephiny's own profound comment regarding her age. "Yes, she's young all right," he said. "But, Phineas, I'll wager she has in her few short years already lived a more memorable life than you and I together ever will--even if we should make it to a hundred. I see Alcinon coming. Good. Come on, it's going to be a long night and we still have much to do."
Far into the night Ephiny waged her one warrior campaign against the Getae. The pace she set in racing from one objective to another was by necessity a blistering one. After all she had a lot of ground to cover. One by one she hit the farms of the Getae with a vengeance, wrecking utter havoc on the unsuspecting populace and sowing panic, confusion--destruction in her wake. And very often death. By her reckoning she left behind perhaps ten men that would never see another sunrise. And in truth in her present state of mind that was all those lifeless bodies were to her--a number. Each succeeding silhouette she sighted represented not a living, breathing mortal, but rather simply a target, nothing more, nothing less.
Besides, it was their fault she was her in the first place. She ought to be home, in the company of friends, reflecting on the noble life of her mother and doing what she could to heal her own wounded psyche. Instead she was here, all alone, waging nothing less than a war on people she did not know, on behalf of other people she did not know. Siding with the party being transgressed against did not do much to alleviate the sense of strangeness about it all. She still felt very much the mercenary. Perhaps, under other, less traumatic circumstances, she might have felt differently. But not here. Not now. On this night there was no place for pity--or grief--in her heart. And so in the end she was left with the thing all good Amazons looked to when all else was stripped bare--their sense of duty. To carry her through the coming storm it would be this or nothing. All the rest would have to wait.
One last target for tonight. With her typical effortless stealth Ephiny eased her way into the farm yard. The house itself was as it should be--dark and quiet. After making certain there was no dog that might warn of her presence, she strode boldly up to the well box and calmly drew up a bucket of water. It had been a long night, she had been going practically nonstop and she was thirsty. Ephiny lifted the bucket to her dry lips and drank deeply of the sweet, frigid water. Sated, she dipped her hands in the bucket and splashed water onto her face. The icy liquid stung her. It felt good. She then sat the bucket down and unslung her bag only to discover it had somehow developed a hole. What had been left of her foul concoction was gone. No matter. Once engaged, an Amazon was trained not to do things by halves. All that mattered was gaining the objective. Straight away she went to the pig sty. There she found four pigs. Peering into the dark pen, she selected the largest one she thought she could lift...
From the spotty reports Efron received during the course of the night it seemed to him that the whole valley must be in flames. For the moment things at his own place were still quiet enough. However he could look in any direction and see a distant glow in the night sky. So it was no wonder than that the jittery Pindar had mistaken the Amazon for a whole raiding party. The little savage seemed to be anywhere and everywhere, all at the same time. To be able to cover so much ground that quickly, alone, at night, was something that impressed even him. That she might possibly have help never crossed Efron's mind. He knew the people on the plain well enough. Their raiding was confined to the nests of hens. In his eyes they were far too timid for such an overt act of aggression. That girl, however, was another matter, as she was now proving.
Nervously waiting with Efron were the kinsman who had so far answered his summons--nine in all. More would join throughout the night--angry, scared men who looked to Efron for guidance. Their wait would be a long one. Efron was not about to go blundering around in the dark after someone who seemed so at home in it. No, he would wait. Morning's light would come soon enough. And when it did, they would hunt down this she-beast who had dared to foul their homeland with her murderous presence. And after they had properly made her pay they would move on and finish up business with those conniving people out there on the plain. He resolved then, to let the little bitch have her night of terror.
On the morrow it would be their turn!
Daybreak found Ephiny in position on the cliffs overlooking that place that was to be nothing less than a killing field. Down below, lying in wait, were the caltrops, her silent allies. Overhead thick gray clouds hung low in the morning sky. A stinging wind whipped around her. It looked to be yet another of those days that had become so nauseatingly familiar over the past few weeks--cold, dark, raw and endlessly bleak. About the only thing that could be said for the clouds was that it had kept the frost away. Ephiny lay face down on the ground at the edge of the cliff. From there she could peek out and check the approaches. Now that it was daylight she allowed she would not have much longer to wait.
For a brief moment Ephiny closed her tired eyes. Over the past two days she had slept very little. Well, no matter. She had work to do. And then, perhaps a very long sleep awaited her on this day. In that moment she thought of home, of the friends she missed...and of her mother. By the gods, she wondered sadly, will the hurt ever go away?
While she waited she listlessly arranged her arrows yet again. She had nine left. Back in the valley she had let fly an arrow thirteen times and thirteen times the deadly missile had found its mark. She doubted that all thirteen of those men were dead. That would have been decidedly too much to ask for. All that mattered was, dead or not, there would be thirteen fewer in the enemy force to deal with.
Ordinarily Ephiny would have stuck her arrows in the ground in order to have them more readily accessible. However the frozen ground precluded that. So she had to be content with propping them ends up along the length of her quiver. Nearby lay a rectangular stone roughly the size of a child's head. She had noticed it while setting up and, given half the chance, she would use that too.
She had made her preparations. All was ready. There was no more to be done. Numbly she fixed her eyes on the stone, and waited. By now the effects of improper diet and prolonged lack of rest were beginning to take a toll on the normally robust young warrior. She was all too aware that the fatigue was working to dull her senses as well. She could only hope it would not be enough to hamper her.
As it turned out, it almost was. For she was still staring at the rock when, clear as day, she was sure she heard a voice urge, "Ephiny, to your post!"
A startled Ephiny jerked to life and immediately became aware that the muffled rumbling she heard off in the distance was in fact the thundering hoof beats of fast approaching horses. In an instant Ephiny was transformed. Once drooping eyelids snapped wide open, fully alert. A surge rushed through her body, bringing with it renewed strength and loosening her tired, stiff joints. She had the sensation of feeling markedly lighter. As she knew it would, Ephiny's "warrior blood" was rising up.
With bow in hand Ephiny stole a peek over the cliff, just in time to see the first horseman round the cliff and enter into the field. Calmly she reached back behind her for her arrows.
Upon entering into the narrow confines below the cliffs the lead elements of Efron's force began to tighten the spread of their advance. From her vantage point up on the promontory Ephiny estimated their number at around thirty or thirty-five. Realistically she felt she could count on perhaps no more than five or six hitting the caltrops. With her final nine arrows she hoped to eliminate at least that many more. Would such further losses deter Efron? Ephiny could not say. As she saw it she had a better chance with the men following him. Perhaps their resolve would not quite match that of their leader. At any rate, in facing such numbers a good many were bound to leak through.
But one nagging question ate at her: Why were not the dead from the night before enough? She had heard the wailing of the women and the panicked cries of the frightened children. Why must there be more? After all, her sole aim was to make the price of the intended expansion too costly to bear. She had hit the Getae very hard, she knew that. Even so, it would never be something she was particularly proud of. It all seemed so damned senseless! These Getae had that whole valley from end to end to call their own. The region was more than enough for them. Why press for more? Deep within her she knew why. Men always wanted more. All right then, so be it. Their greed and Melosa's will had made this fight her own and by the gods fight she would. By her reckoning Ephiny figured maybe two thirds of the men from last night were already dead and if it took that many more in order to stop them...
For some reason she at that moment thought of Claudia, her legendary great-grandmother, and wondered if even she had ever killed as many as twenty men in one day.
The first to fall victim to Ephiny's trap was none other than Seles, Efron's pudgy eldest son. When his horse galloped onto one of the caltrops its leg buckled and down the animal went. Seles was pitched forward, right over the horse's head. He slammed face first into the ground, breaking his neck. Even before he stopped rolling he was dead. Before the rest could react two, five, seven more went down in a terrified heap. Ephiny had hoped to take down perhaps a half dozen. She got a full ten. Rising to her feet, Ephiny drew back an arrow and with grim precision sought out her first target.
The reluctant Arextas rode up to his stricken cousin Seles and immediately got an arrow buried between his shoulder blades for his trouble. Slowly he slumped down off his horse, gurgling blood from his ravaged lung. A breath later another arrow another arrow hit a nearby man flush in the rib cage. This time Efron was able to track the flight of the deadly missile back to the top of the cliffs. There he saw a solitary figure backlit by the morning light already readying another arrow. HER!
"On the cliff!" he cried. "Look out!" The warning came much too late for Altimer, only son of Arextas. Ephiny's next shot plunged into his neck, severing his jugular vein. The fellow had enough breath for one hideous scream before consciousness left him, never to return.
Another horseman frantically maneuvered his mount around a flailing horse and in wide-eyed terror rode up and grabbed Efron by the arm. "Sweet mercy!" he bleated. "We're sitting ducks here!"
Furious at the man's panic, Efron swatted him away with a vicious backhand. "No we're not, you fool!" he bellowed back. "Now get over to the creek bank. It should be safer there. Move, damn you!"
"You are the fool, Efron!" the man yelled. "You've led us straight into a slaughter!"
Livid with rage, both at this man and the marauding Amazon, Efron turned away only to see Peneus, his one living uncle, standing unsteadily in front of him. Blood was gushing from an ugly hole on his jaw line. In falling from his horse he had landed directly on top of another caltrop. The sight was truly horrid, shocking even the sturdy Efron.
Anxiously beckoning, he cried, "Here, Peneus!" Efron nudged his horse toward his stricken uncle. In the very next moment Ephiny's next to last arrow slammed into the elder man's chest with a sickening thud. Efron flinched and reflexively glanced up to the top of the cliff. To his utter dismay he saw Ephiny draw down directly on him!
"HYAHH!" Efron slammed his heels into the flanks of his horse and tore off straight for the creek bank.
Up on the cliff Ephiny ignored her thumping heart and steadily tracked him all the way. Through clenched teeth she muttered, "Run, you bastard," and with that released her last arrow.
Her angle of deflection was perfectly calculated but at the last instant Efron, through instinct or pure luck, veered away sharply and in doing so thwarted the terrible fate Ephiny had intended for him. He did not, however, escape unscathed. Ephiny's aim was just too precise. As he turned the arrow zipped past his skull, clipping away part of his left ear. His resultant scream bore out not only his pain but the frustration and rage he felt at the debacle unfolding all around him.
At the edge of the creek he met up with Dalice, the young man whom Ephiny had backed down in front of the woods on that first day. With him was Mesomer, yet another cousin. With his big paw covering his bloody ear, Efron barked, "You two, get up behind that cliff and cut her off!"
"Are you crazy?" shrieked Mesomer. "If we go back out there we'll be dead before we go fifty paces."
"Look!" Dalice cried, pointing to the cliff. "She's gone."
And so she was. In a matter of a few violent moments it was all over. Ephiny's trap had for all practical purposes torn Efron's force apart. Everywhere there was death, chaos and confusion. And on her departure the young Amazon had managed to inflict one last casualty on Efron's shattered clan. One last peek over the cliff had revealed two men desperately huddling against the rock face. Hefting up her rounded stone, Ephiny carefully sighted and dropped it straight down onto the head of one of the unsuspecting men, killing him instantly. Even before the rock impacted Ephiny was racing for her horse. Only such a very short time before her senses had been dulled by fatigue. Now every nerve in her young body was tingling with one inescapable truth: she had pulled it off!
And while she could not be certain as to the extent of the carnage she had wrought, she knew she had crippled the enemy very badly. She had hit them with what Willa, one of Melosa's captains, liked to called a "jubilee punch." Now the question would be whether or not the blow would prove to be one of the knockout variety.
"I don't care if she's flown to Mount Ida," said Mesomer. "I am not going up there. I tell you these Amazons are not human. Look out there! Look at those men! I ask you, can one mortal woman do that?"
"She's human, just like you and me," Efron growled back. " She bleeds just like you and me and she can damn well die like the rest of us too."
"What is wrong with you?" One--one Amazon warrior has slaughtered half of us. Is that little plain worth that?"
"It is now," said Efron coldly. "Our blood has paid for it."
"Not my blood," said Mesomer. "And not the blood of my son. We're going home."
"Go on home then, you coward! And take that bastard of a son with you. I'll deal with you when I get back."
Mesomer steadfastly met Efron's withering glare. "When you get back--if you get back--I will see to it that what is left of us addresses the matter of your fitness to lead us."
"You're not only a coward, but a damned traitor to your own folk as well. I'll look to you in my own good time, you dog. And when I do, it will be without mercy for I tell you now you are no kinsman of mine." As if to punctuate his words Efron leaned over and spat on Mesomer before then riding off up the creek bank.
At the point where the terrain opened back up he found a mere half dozen men waiting for him. "This is it?" he asked incredulously. "This is all? Where are all the others?"
"They have fled, father," answered one. It was Pelekoudas, one of Efron's sons. Indeed when Efron took stock of the group he saw that three of the six were from his own family. Out of all the survivors only three others had chosen to remain.
Efron swept his hard eyes over his boys. "In times like this," he said, "it always comes down to the best men. And here you are. My sons! Will you go forth with me? Will you fulfill the destiny your blessed mother saw for you? What say ye?"
As pleased as she was with the results of her ambush, Ephiny's sense of euphoria over her great success did not last long. Her mind had already turned to the next phase of the plan. As it was the operation had proved to be more successful than she ever could have hoped for. She had planned and executed her trap to absolute perfection.
And there was something else. Ephiny knew that she had taken the life of many a mother's son on this day. Enemy or not, that was no small thing. If she managed to survive herself she might even, on some future sleepless night, look back on this day and ponder the human cost of such victories. But not now. Not today. Her feeling was there would most likely be one more confrontation with the Getae. Yes, Ephiny had bled Efron's forces white, that was true enough. Still, if was he was stubborn enough, or enraged enough or simply fanatical enough to press on, if he managed to rally even a handful of men stupid enough to carry on with him, then sheer numbers alone would work against her. What she had to do in order to offset that was to keep slamming away at them, to keep them constantly off balance by visiting the kind of violence upon them that they could never have imagined.
Well known among the Amazons was the ferocious warlord Xena and her merciless battle cry of, "Kill 'em all!" Even with her mind and body locked in its present battle mode Ephiny had no great interest in following this Draconian philosophy. After all there was the chance she could be killed too. Perhaps Efron might after all just give up or his men would at last come to recognize the folly of listening to Efron and refuse to follow him further. Ephiny rather hoped they would. But if they did not, if Efron pressed the thing, then it would be nothing less than a fight to the finish. And if forced her into this last ditch option she would with every fiber of her being scratch and claw and scheme to somehow, some way, come out victorious. She was an Amazon, by birth and by training. She had held fast in the face of every new trial. So she would again.
And thus it was that in the midst of this grim test, the most daunting of her young life, that Ephiny came to at last understand that despite all life was indeed very much worth living. Her handsome mother, brave, esteemed by all who knew her, was dead, struck down in the years when her bloom was at its absolute fullest. For as long as she lived Ephiny would treasure, not only those memories of this remarkable woman, but what she had learned from her as well. Ephiny's mother was dead...but she was alive!
In a tired, breathless, rasping voice Meelah herself had spoken of it as she lay dying. "Mothers die, daughters send them off into the arms of Artemis. There is no tragedy in this. After all, this is only as it should be." Struggling to lift a hand, she had went on to say, "My child, I thank the gods that it will be you who grieve for me instead of me mourning for you. I could not bear the thought of losing you.
"So be brave, as you have always been. Keep in your heart all you have learned. Above all, never forget what you are! Serve your queen, defend your people. You are a warrior, daughter of Coreen and Claudia, proud and true--forever!"
And with a final, poignant whispering sigh, Meelah's last words: "Remember meeee...."
And so Ephiny would, through all the days of her life.
Efron threw up a hand, signaling a halt to the remnants of his devastated party. With a jerk of the head he motioned Telander forward. "See anything?" he asked.
Telander, renowned for his keen eyesight, cupped a hand over his eyes, even though there was no hint of glare to hinder his line of sight. "Nothing," he answered. "Not even a chicken."
Some half dozen stadia away, across the wide expanse of the field, lay the gray little village. Efron's men gazed at it in silence. Somehow this plain did not seem such a plum anymore. All in all they were at this point a battered group. Most were still in varying degrees of shock at witnessing the level of violence visited upon them by one single Amazon. Crushed for most of them was any sense of confidence that had been built up by their earlier successes in the valley. Their victory back then had resulted in only a few scattered deaths because, like Lertes and the people of the plain, the valley natives had been simple farmers. In the end they had proved no match for these tougher, far more experienced men from Getae and their feeble efforts at defense were easily swatted aside.
Stunned as they were, the irony of it all was not lost on some of them. While only a few besides Efron had served in the army most all of them had led hard lives. As former thugs, thieves, neer-do-wells, they were well accustomed to pushing weaker people around. Only now it seemed they were the weaker ones. Such a notion was most disconcerting.
The group sat there in silence for a little longer until finally Pelekoudas, the eldest of Efron's sons yet living, wistfully said, "Maybe she's gone. Maybe she has fled back to her people."
Efron shook his head. "Oh no, not that one. She knew our fear of running into more of those accursed spikes would slow us up. That's what she wanted--to get back here ahead of us. No, the little witch is there all right."
Such a pronouncement was hardly encouraging to the other men. One by one Efron's seething eyes searched the faces of his men. He could see the reluctance, the fear in their eyes. It angered him.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he erupted. "Look at what she has done to us!" Of course, this was exactly what his men were doing and most were hard pressed to keep from shuddering at the very thought of it.
Singling out Pelekoudas, Efron barked a challenge. "Are you thinking you'd rather slink away and leave the murder of your brothers unavenged? By the gods, tell me it isn't so!"
"Of course not," said Pelekoudas. His tone was tepid at best and the words were in fact a lie. He did not want to approach that village any more than the rest of them did. To feel this way was shameful and heart sickening to him. He knew that at this very moment his father was gauging his very manhood. Why was this place so important to him?
"We're with you, father!" young Zander piped up. Zander, youngest son of Efron--a true believer. To him his father could do no wrong--not even now with half his brothers dead. Zander shot Pelekoudas an icy glare, adding, "All of us."
Pelekoudas met the defiant eyes of his younger brother. And in that moment he knew that both of them, perhaps all of them, would never live to see the sunset. And it was with the resignation of a man condemned that he answered, "Yes, all of us."
"Good!" Efron boomed. "Now let us take possession of what is rightfully ours."
As for rest, Telander, Dalice and a man named Darian they were simply swept along on the tide of Efron's personality. They could not have refused him any more than a fish could climb a tree. And who knew? Maybe Efron could pull it off at that. Maybe he could find a way to defeat the Amazon.
Pelekoudas knew better. They were up against the real thing now, even if she were only one. Those Amazons had been wallowing in this sort of thing for untold centuries. They played for keeps. Gazing at the lifeless village, he barely heard as his father outlined his plan.
Racing back to the village, Ephiny thundered in and was relieved to find it deserted. Upon her departure early that morning there had still been some laggards in the village still reluctant to leave. Apparently Lertes had finally been able to impress on them the gravity of the situation. Incredibly, some of them seemed to have trouble grasping the danger, much to Ephiny's irritation. And in truth another factor besides the people's safety had influenced her call to evacuate. For the place was to be the final battleground. One way or another it was going to end here. Alone as she now was, she could be totally free to operate at will, without any constraints whatsoever. She would not be forced to fight with one eye on the enemy and one eye on the populace.
Beating Efron back to the village had been the critical element to Ephiny's plan. She had to be ready for her next strike. And strike she would because her only hope for victory was to attack, to keep Efron off balance, to hit and run and hit and run and hit and run some more. In her mind she had every last step mapped out to the last detail. The only variable as she could see was the resolve of the enemy. Were they really prepared to fight to the last man if need be? If they were, so be it. The young Amazon was more than ready to lay that possibility open for them.
So far everything had gone far better than she could have ever hoped for. The shock and confusion in the aftermath of her initial assault, combined with the enemy's understandable hesitance to advance quickly for fear of further traps, had allowed Ephiny to more than ample time to fall back and prepare for the next confrontation. For a fleeting moment she rather hoped Efron would not come at all. But no, that would not do. Efron could not be allowed to break it off. Not now. For if he did nothing would really have been settled at all. It was imperative that Efron not be afforded the luxury of regrouping for another try that would surely come sooner or later. No, she thought, settling into her post, this must end here. Here...
As she waited she thought of her brave mother, of how so many times she had faced long odds, always prevailing. Always. Now it was her turn. Meelah's blood coursed through her veins and in this trying moment the steadfast daughter took comfort in that. Momma, I will someday surely cross over to see you again. But not today!
Lost in thought, Ephiny vaguely became aware of the presence of someone else. Jerking her head around, she was stunned to see a rather contrite looking Petrene standing there. "What are you doing here!" the Amazon hissed in dismay.
"I-I want to help."
Ephiny wanted to be angry with the girl but somehow she just...could not. Petrene was a brave girl, a quality the Amazon in Ephiny could readily identify with. Even so, that did not stop her from voicing her displeasure. "Are you crazy? Those men could be here at any moment."
"I know that." the girl answered softly. "But look, I have my sling. I want to defend my home."
Even in this tenuous moment Ephiny had to admire her. The Amazon's eyes grew warm and she put a hand to Petrene's cheek. "You asked me if you could be an Amazon, remember?"
Ephiny gave Petrene an affectionate thump on the chest. "In here, where it counts, you already are."
Suddenly Ephiny craned her neck, tilting her head as if listening for something.
"What is it?" Petrene asked.
"How can you tell?"
"I just can." Ephiny cast a quick glance over her shoulder and said, " Take my horse. Go to your father's hay shed. Now listen to me. No matter what happens you stay there, understand? If worse comes to worst climb on her and run like hell. Those Getae nags will never run her down."
"Ephiny, I can't--"
"Go!" Ephiny exclaimed. "Hurry!"
Along with the urgent tone in Ephiny's voice was there was something else, a signal if you will, the barest hint of a poignancy that seemed to be subtly reminding Petrene that it was possible, perhaps even probable, that she might not see her new friend again. At the thought of this young Petrene's heart grew very sad. Ephiny was like no one she had ever seen in her life. Unlike the drab, dismal existence of her own life in the village, Ephiny, despite her obvious pain, was nevertheless fresh and vibrant and strong, a proud denizen of a world that Petrene could barely envision. Just as importantly, she recognized the beautiful young Amazon as this remarkable blend of intelligence, cunning, discipline and, yes, raw power, along with a kind of personal courage that she previously thought to be found only in the songs of bards, not in the hearts of living, breathing mortals. She was on the verge of tears but resolutely fought them back, lest Ephiny think her weak. What she did not know was that she was about to evoke precisely the same emotion from Ephiny.
Holding out her hand, Petrene offered up that which had already become her most prized possession, her carefully folded up shepherd's sling. In a whisper choked with emotion she said, "Here, you might need this."
For the kind of fight Ephiny anticipated a sling was practically useless. Even so, she was not about to turn down the girl's heartfelt offer. Petrene so badly wanted to help, however minutely, and Ephiny deeply appreciated that. "Thank you," she said, taking the sling. With a forced little half grin she said, "Remind me to give this back to you when this is over."
And just like that the warmth in Ephiny's intense brown eyes faded, to be replaced by a piercing look awash with pure menace. "Now get out of here. Go!"
A startled Petrene obediently took up the reins of Ephiny's horse and in leading the mare away did not dare to even look back. Once satisfied that Petrene was finally on her way, Ephiny turned her attention to the broad field across which Efron was almost sure to pass. As she watched she absently tied the straps of the sling around her waist. Beside her, leaning against on old cart, were three roughly fashioned spears. These Lertes himself had help her cut and sharpen and together they had planted similar triads at strategic points all around the village. Ephiny chose this number because she assumed that would be about all she would have time to hurl before the enemy could close on her. This then, was the very essence of her plan. Using the village itself for cover, she intended to dart in and about the huts to continually strike Efron on the flanks and rear. It was on this deadliest sort of cat and mouse game that Ephiny would pin all her hopes for victory. For even the fittest of Amazons such tactics would serve as a brutal test of strength and endurance. Ephiny--pragmatic as ever--tired, hungry, worn down by grief, looked deep within and felt cause to wonder if she could in fact pull it off. No matter. It was, as she saw it, the only way.
Crouched at her position, Ephiny watched them come. Still wary of more caltrops, they approached at little more than a trot. When they were about halfway across the field Ephiny saw them split into two groups and swing out away from each other. Clearly they meant to hit the village from opposite ends.
"Damn," she muttered. She had feared as much. Now she would have to choose which group to attack first. As she craned her neck for a better look, her sharp eyes made out the unmistakable form of Efron riding in with the group on the left. That was going to put his group at the far end of the village. Ephiny would have preferred taking his group on first, the hope of course being that maybe the others would break and run if their leader were to go down first. There were, however, more important things to worry about. Even so, her luck had held remarkably well thus far so she could not in good conscience complain.
When the nearest group dropped from sight momentarily Ephiny judged it was time to make her move. Taking up a spear in each hand, the young Amazon bent low and began to carefully work her way toward the northern edge of the village. At one of the huts near the village fringe she shouldered open the door and ducked inside.
"See anything?" Efron asked again, this time to his sons. Three sets of eyes intently scanned the village for any sign of life. They saw nothing, heard nothing. Only the wind.
Efron drew himself up and called out, "Amazon! Amazon! I know you're in there! There's been enough bloodshed, Amazon. Come away from here and we will let you go in peace, I swear."
"Father!" Zander whispered urgently.
"Shut up!" his father hissed. "Hell, Amazon," he yelled, "I might even toss in a couple of turnips to tide you over on your way home."
At the other end of the village Ephiny had no trouble picking up every booming word of Efron's offer. At that moment, however, her attention was elsewhere. Eyes locked on her approaching enemy, now a scant twenty paces away, Ephiny edged back in the shadows of the hut and waited...
Efron did not wait long for his answer, indeed he never really expected one. This girl was no fool. Voice low, he said, "All right, let's get this over with. We'll have to flush her out so spread out and move slow. Keep your eyes open and whatever you do, stay in sight."
As Efron's voice rang out, the other group halted briefly before moving on again. This only added to the tension of the moment. Behind the door Ephiny could no longer see their approach. She did not have to. At this range she could almost feel them. Inside her chest her heart was thumping. In a fleeting moment of irrationality Ephiny wondered if perhaps the sound might not actually give her away.
Her fingers tightened around the spear. To steady herself she drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled through puffed cheeks. She was scared, there was no denying that. But those insufferable old instructors she had once thought so mean had trained her well. And it was that training on which she would pin her hopes for survival. This too she had long been taught for if she had heard it once, she had heard it a thousand times, "The tighter the spot, the more you revert back to the basics. Fall back on your training!"
There was one other asset on which she could rely: her own self-confidence. Even now, with the enemy so close at hand, Ephiny could take heart in the knowledge that she had already faced danger on several occasions and she had performed well each and every time. Even at her tender age she had been, as the bards like to sing, "Forged in the heat of battle!"
By now they were almost upon her. Closing her eyes, Ephiny swallowed hard and eased to a ready position. From outside she heard one of the horses snort. Gods, they were close! Still, she could not yet see them. Not yet, she urged silently. Not yet. Steady...steady...steady...
Through the doorway she caught the first glimpse of a horse's hoof.
Springing forward with all her strength, Ephiny exploded out the door and zeroed in on the nearest available target. The unfortunate victim, the man named Darian, never saw what hit him. With a loud grunt Ephiny rammed the spear home into his ribs. His piercing cry of agony rang out over the wind swept plain.
From her hiding place in what was left of her father's barn Petrene flinched at hearing it. Desperately she began to mumble a simple, rapid-fire prayer to the gods--any god: "Please watch over Ephiny, please watch over Ephiny, please..."
Across the village Efron and his sons heard it too. "D-do you think they got her?" Pelekoudas asked hopefully.
His father thought it unlikely. Telander and the others were hardly his best men--hardly much better than the sheep that farmed this land. In fact Efron had briefly toyed with the idea of using them to bait a trap he had in mind, only to decide that this scruffy little Amazon was probably too clever for that. In the end, however, perhaps they had served this purpose after all. "Either way we know where she is," he said smugly.
Ephiny's aiming point had not been the man's ribs but rather the soft abdomen. However in her excitement she made the thrust too high and drove the spearhead into between two of the man's "false" ribs. As will often happen, her weapon then became stuck there. When Darian's horse, spooked by the scream, reared up, the spear was yanked from Ephiny's hands. This was a bit of bad luck for the Amazon had hoped to use it to gore at least one more of the men. No matter. She was a warrior and as such she well knew that, in war, even the most carefully laid plans had a way of disintegrating at the very first moment of contact with the enemy. She would adjust. In an instant she drew her mother's big sword. Deftly ducking around behind the fractious horse, Ephiny popped up on the other side and slashed open the thigh of Telander. In terror he tried to swing his horse away. Instead he plowed his horse straight into the mount of young Dalice who at that very moment was desperately clawing for his sword. The collision sent him flying from his saddle cloth. There was no forgiveness on the part of the frozen ground and when he hit a searing pain, shot up his spine. Even as he rolled over he felt his legs going numb. He did not have long to suffer. A boot stepped hard on his upper chest, pressing him down. The last thing he saw in life was a glint of highly polished bronze, the same imposing weapon that had so impressed him only a couple of days before, plunging straight into his heart. He did not even have time to scream.
Before the attack Ephiny had hoped she might get two of the three. Instead she got them all. Dalice getting thrown from his horse was a continuation of her good luck. As for Telander he had no more fight left in him. He had seen enough of this blonde apparition who had wrecked so much havoc right before his horrified eyes. How could one person be responsible for so much carnage? Hanging on for dear life, he was ready to bolt away on his horse when he saw Efron and his two sons approach. When these three got there they saw one man dead, another, impaled, slowly dying a ghastly death, and Telander, somehow still mounted, soaked in blood from the waist to the knee.
But no Ephiny. She was long gone. With blood still dripping from her sword she dashed around behind the hut. There she flung herself down flat on her belly and using a broken plow and a rickety cart for cover, began to crawl toward a small wood pile some thirty paces away. She was already halfway there when Efron and his sons thundered past on the other some huts. All she could do was lie perfectly still with her cheek pressed against the cold ground and hope they would not notice her.
They did not. They could have, had they been only looking, but their full attention was directed straight ahead, toward where those awful screams had originated. Ephiny had gambled everything on this bold flanking maneuver and had won. Once safely out of sight she scrambled to her feet and dashed to the back side of one of the nearby huts. There she found three more spears neatly propped against the an outer wall. In passing by Zander had actually seen these without recognizing their significance. For this error he would soon pay very dearly indeed.
Prior to taking up one of the spears Ephiny took care to wipe her sword clean by running the blade across the sleeve of her jacket. She had seen strange phenomenon that was ice and had to only assume that if water could do this thing known as freezing might not blood do it also? At any rate, she was not about to take chances. It would not do to discover too late her sword frozen in its scabbard.
"Where is she?" Efron demanded, as he rode up to Telander.
His face ashen, the wounded man incredulously gaped at Efron as if the man were some weird beast. "You ask me that?" he cackled strangely. "I'm bleeding to death and you ask me that?"
"He's delirious," Efron summarily pronounced. "Get him out of here."
Pelekoudas had seen enough. "Father," he said, "it's obvious we can't face up to this Amazon. We should fall back--now."
"You want to run? Scurry away like the rest of those frightened rabbits? Damn you, boy!"
Through clenched teeth his son laid it out for him. "If we don't she's going to kill every last one of us, can't you see that?"
"Shut up!" snapped Zander.
"The girl is not human! For the love of the gods--"
With a sickening thump Ephiny's deadly missile struck home. The spearhead tore its way in just to the left of Pelekoudas' spine, penetrating far enough to destroy the man's lung. Pelekoudas lurched forward his glazed eyes rolling back in his head, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. A scant two breaths later, before anyone could react, another spear pierced the heart of Efron's last remaining son. With a loud, final gasp, Zander, the youngest, his favorite, fell into his father's arms.
In a terrifying display of Amazonian skill and efficiency Ephiny had up to that point been responsible in one way or another for the deaths of over two dozen of the Getae and yet perhaps only a handful had even seen her.
"Efron!" Telander wailed. "You stay here and be skewered if you want, I'll be damned if I will!" With that he set his heels hard against the flanks of his blood-soaked horse and sped away. If he was going to die, he wanted to do it peacefully, somewhere away from that killing machine of an Amazon and this fool Efron.
Alone now, Efron, let the dead Zander slump to the ground. "Where are you!" he raged. Dismounting, he drew his sword and faced one way, then another. "Little girl, where are you!? Come out, you murdering slut! Assassin! You killed my sons! Come out! Come out and meet a man face to face, if you dare! Come out and look into the eyes of the man who is going to cut your heart out!"
The only reply he received was the nearby rustling of a thatched roof, partially torn by the icy winds. A mere ten paces away, Ephiny eased around the side of a hut and peeked out at Efron. Spear at the ready, she silently stepped out in the open. As yet Efron did not see her. He was a perfect target. At this distance she could split his sternum as easily as snapping a finger.
She never got the chance. Honed in as she was on the imposing figure before her, her worn senses failed to detect the danger looming from behind. An instant later a myriad of light and colors exploded inside her brain, followed by utter darkness.
"Mesomer!" Efron cried out. "You came back."
Mesomer pitched down his makeshift club, a hefty piece of firewood. "Yes, well, you're my blood kin, Efron. Try as I might I--I couldn't desert you."
"She killed my boys, Mesomer."
"I know," Mesomer said quietly. "That's why I didn't just run her through. I thought you would want to do that yourself."
"Before I'm through with her she'll wish you had," said Efron.
"By the way, do you know there's a kid over there in that barn?"
"A kid? Here?"
Efron's menacing eyes hardened further still. "Go get her," he growled.
With a sigh and a shrug of resignation, Mesomer left Efron standing there over the slim body lying inert at his feet. He knew very well what Efron intended to do with the child. Madness! he thought. Madness! It was moments like this that made him wish he had stayed back in Getae.
Setting the heel of his boot hard against Ephiny's shoulder, he roughly rolled her over on her back. Even now he could not believe it. This? he thought. This...child nearly wiped us out? A hundred thoughts raced through his mind, all concerning just how he could make her suffer most. In the end, he discarded every last one of them. Yes, it would be sweet to see her writhe in pain, to hear her beg for her life. But he could not wait. By the gods! For his own sanity he could not wait! Taking his sword into both hands, Efron stepped back and raised his sword high, his focused eyes on the center of the young Amazon's chest. Under his breath he muttered, "This is for Zander."
In regaining consciousness Ephiny's sense of smell began to function properly long before her eyesight did. Thus it was the foul odor of her adversary that first became apparent to her. Dully looking up, Ephiny saw a dark shape looming over her. With a sharp grunt she instinctively rolled away with as much force as she could muster. Barely a hand's width behind her Efron's sword resonated with a sharp whang! as its tip impacted the hard ground. In trying to gain further room, Ephiny found she could not move. Efron's sword had pinned her jacket to the ground. Just as Ephiny started to roll back the toe of Efron's boot slammed into her ribs. Ephiny cried out in pain and for a few agonizing moments could not seem to catch her breath.
"You just don't give up, do you?" said Efron. "I guess you're just too stupid to see that you're finished."
By now the man should have known better than to grow even the slightest bit complacent. And yet in the next instant this is exactly what he did. Brimming with confidence over his perceived mastery of the situation, Efron bent down to pull his sword out of the ground. In doing so he got a little too close and for no more than a breath, one blink of an eye, he left himself open. Ephiny, still groggy, gasping for air, her head pounding, blearily peered up at the fuzzy shadow and saw the situation for what it was--an opportunity.
She did not miss it. Summoning up all her strength, the young Amazon lashed out and caught her tormentor squarely on the jaw with a straight right hand. Now it was Efron's turn to see stars. As he reeled back Ephiny ripped free of the sword. Her vision was coming back now but when she got to her feet she found herself facing another problem. Try as she might she could not seem to keep her balance. It was as if someone with a rope was pulling her ever to the right. After a couple of unsteady steps Ephiny went sprawling into a woodpile. In an instant Efron's huge hands were at her threat.
"You bitch, I'll kill you with my bare hands!"
This was the one thing Amazons were taught to avoid at all costs. For all their fighting prowess, most Amazons simply could not match strong males muscle for muscle. Because of this stark reality it was constantly pounded into them to never, ever, allow a male to close on them, to get near enough to make a wrestling match of it. Close quarter fighting was fine, as long as proper spacing could be maintained! And so here Ephiny was, barely seventeen, bordering on exhaustion both physically and mentally, caught in the very scenario that her instructors were forever warning against.
All of Efron's massive frame was upon her, pressing her into the woodpile. Behind, sharp edges of cut wood burrowed into her back, hurting her. She tried to knee him in the groin but Efron, more wary now, managed to turn from it. His hands were like great iron tongs, clamping ever tighter around her throat. Over her, Efron reveled in watching Ephiny's face turn bright red. She did not have much time left. Desperately she clawed for her knife. To her horror it was gone! It was then she vaguely remembered leaving it behind back at the pig sty. What a stupid thing to do! she thought.
As Efron slowly choked the life out of Ephiny her left arm flailed around for something, anything, that might be used as a weapon. At last she groped a loose piece of firewood only to have Efron immediately slap it out of her hand. However, this countermeasure by necessity forced her foe to loosen his grip on her neck. It was possibly her absolute last chance for survival and, again, Ephiny did not miss it. With every last bit of her strength reserves she locked her wrists together and drove both arms straight up. The left one broke the grip of Efron's remaining hand, the other caught Efron right under the chin, rattling what few teeth he had left. With a curse he staggered back a step. Gasping, coughing--gagging, Ephiny somehow managed to right herself. Now had her space. Just as importantly, she found she was becoming much more steady on her feet.
Free at long last to use her legs, Ephiny lost no time in putting them straight to work. Efron might have been stronger, but there was no way he could hope to match Ephiny's quickness and agility--not even now in her weakened state. In a maneuver practiced more times than she cared to remember, Ephiny pivoted and drove her heel straight for his groin. This time she connected. There was a mighty wheeze from Efron and like a piece of wet papyrus he folded over. Still fighting for air herself, Ephiny swallowed hard, sucked a huge breath and whirled to hammer Efron on the outside portion of his knee with a perfectly executed roundhouse kick.
It was a raging Efron that fell first to his knees, then all fours. Sweating--even with the cold--practically slobbering with pain, he tried to howl out in agony but was cut short when Ephiny dashed forward and kicked him squarely in the face. After that all that came out was a puny little guttural whimper. It might have been a pathetic sound but there would be no sympathy forthcoming from Ephiny. For in that singular moment, for the very first time in her life she came to understand what it felt like to truly hate someone. There had been a time or two when her old nemesis Velasca might have come close--and yet not even her insufferable arrogance had ever managed to evoke emotion of this intensity.
It was a feeling Ephiny did not like.
Nevertheless, all was not yet finished in this grim business. There was still one more thing to do. Wearily Ephiny bent over and picked up her spear. The thing felt like a tree in her hands. Nearby a moaning Efron had collapsed face down upon the ground, softly grunting with each exhaled breath. As the tip of the spear came into view he laboriously rolled his eyes up its wielder.
"Go on," he gasped. "Kill me. You've---you've already taken my sons. It's all finished. Kill meeeeee!"
"I didn't ask for any of this," said Ephiny numbly. "Why can't I...why can't I just be left alone?" In truth her reply was aimed more toward herself than it was to Efron. It was almost as if she were trying to in some way justify in her own mind that which she was about to do. Efron was one of those fanatics who would forever be causing trouble if he were allowed to live. No, he had to die. And so with a deep sigh, Ephiny determinedly drew herself up to her full height. Sometimes, she thought, raising her weapon high, it was not so damned glorious to be a warrior after all.
And then, to her utter astonishment, something dark and long and slim streaked in from just off the periphery. It was another of Lertes' hastily fashioned spears. The well thrown missile tore into its target with terrible effect. At impact, Ephiny flinched and her eyes grew wide with shock. But the life the spear had taken was not Ephiny's, but rather that of Efron. For a fleeting moment she assumed it had thrown by Efron's earlier, unseen benefactor and that he had simply missed and hit the wrong person. Her own spear at the ready, Ephiny wheeled to face the new threat. What she saw gave her another shock. For there, leaning against the side of a hut, was Telander. With hollow eyes and ashen face, the look of death was already upon him.
"You bastard!" he hoarsely cried. "You overbearing, miserable bastard! Look what you've done to us!"
In looking at him, Ephiny readily saw he was no longer a threat to anyone. He was all used up. She took a quick glance around. There was still need for caution, that other fellow might still be around somewhere. Quietly Ephiny walked over to him. She knew better than to thank him. He had not done it for her. Her eyes drifted to his blood-soaked leg and she had to wonder how he could possibly still be on his feet after having obviously lost so much blood.
Telander, his cheek pressed against the side of the hut, rolled his eyes toward Ephiny and said, "You're a regular whirlwind of death, aren't you? Well, rejoice, Amazon. Rejoice in your triumph."
In that moment Ephiny hardly felt like rejoicing. Once again she looked to his leg. "IIIIIII......."
Telander feebly shook his head. "I don't blame you--well, much." A look of disgust washed over his face. "No, I blame him. Look at him! Son of a bitch! He's always fancied himself as some shitty little tyrant. Now look what it's gotten us."
"Here, let me help you inside."
Telander wearily waved her away. "No, no. Don't bother. I'm as good as dead right now. Tell me, Amazon, is your leader, your queen, is she a tyrant too? Do we all exist merely to do the bidding of tyrants?"
"No, she's not a tyrant," said Ephiny. "She's strict, demanding and her mere look can chill to the bone. But she's also fair. But the thing is, we all know that she everything she does is with the well being of our tribe---" With a soft groan Telander slumped forward into her arms. Leaning close, Ephiny heard him breath his last. One more death in a Day of Death. With as much delicacy as her failing strength would allow she eased his body to the ground. Standing up, she ran a hand through her matted, dirty blonde hair. The cold wind stung her face but she did not care. She wondered if she would ever care about anything again. All seemed gone, her mother, her idealism, the life she once knew. All gone. Only the tribe remained.
And her duty.
Dully Ephiny turned to the voice. Walking toward her was Mesomer, young Petrene at his side. "Am I going to have to kill you too?" she asked.
"I certainly hope not," said Mesomer. "This day has seen enough death."
"Then back off from the girl," said Ephiny.
Extending a palm, Mesomer obeyed. "I want no part of you, Amazon," he said. "All I want is to go home--alive."
"Then go home," said Ephiny. "But hear this well...should the Getae--or anyone--ever tread upon this plain again--"
"It won't be us," Mesomer assured her. "That I can assure you. By the gods, you've set my people back a generation."
Mesomer nodded and turned to leave. Suddenly he stopped. "Amazon, may I ask you your name?"
"Yes. What do they call you?"
Ephiny's eyes sought out those of her young friend. "Mishente," she said. Mesomer nodded and walked away. Petrene ran to Ephiny's side and together they watched Mesomer stride to his horse and ride off. As they watched Ephiny untied the sling from her waist and handed it back.
As soon as Mesomer was out of sight, Ephiny fainted dead away.
When she awoke, three days later, Petrene was at her side. She spent the next two days recuperating on a rough pallet in Lertes' dingy little hut. While she lay there, not one other soul from the village came to see her. As soon as she was strong enough to sit up she began making plans to go. She had had enough of the place and, except for Petrene and perhaps Lertes, she would not miss it. But for all the years of her life she would remember the place and all the blood spilled to keep it whole. She would remember the frail girl--how brave the child had been. She would remember what she had lost...and what she had gained.
After another day Ephiny waited until Lertes was away and, after a tender, somewhat awkward good-bye to her newfound friend, unsteadily mounted her horse and rode away. She never looked back. In their last moments together Petrene conjured up enough nerve to ask Ephiny to take her with her. And for a fleeting moment Ephiny even considered it. But no, she was not a child-stealer. Her tribe had long ago stopped doing that. In truth Ephiny did not think the girl would ever be strong enough to withstand the harsh rigors of Amazon life. And so, with a hug and a gentle kiss on the forehead, Ephiny said goodbye. When she exited the hut the broken-hearted Petrene did not follow. It was just was as well. And fitting in a way. Ephiny was once again all alone. Besides, Petrene was young. In time she would forget all about her.
That night, she camped in the same place as before and did not even bother with building a fire. Wrapped in a blanket, she took the meager supper Petrene had given her sitting with her back against the very same plane tree she had spent that first night away from her village. Far into the night Ephiny sat there, thinking. What now? For all her trying experiences of the past few days nothing had seemed to change for her. Not really. Was this then what she had to look forward to? Mindless devotion to duty until the day she was a heartbeat too slow or just a bit too unlucky? Where would it all end?
After a while a strangely red half moon began to peek through the trees. This only made Ephiny sadder still. Even the moon seemed drenched in blood. She thought of that morning on the cliff, and the warning voice she had heard. Or thought she heard. Possibly--probably--a trick of the mind. It was well known that fatigue had a way of fooling even the most disciplined mind. Still, the loving child in her liked to think that perhaps--just perhaps--it had somehow been her mother, watching out for her child one last time. Absently Ephiny raised her eyes to the heavens. Sometime during the night the clouds had broken. In the crisp air the stars seemed unusually bright--just like the night she departed her village. Off to the northeast, the young Amazon made out the outline of Cassiopeia, luxuriously stretched out upon her divan. As a child the story of the hero Perseus had been one of her very favorites, even though some said he had once fought the Amazons which she did not believe for an instant. Time after time Meelah was prevailed upon to relate the lengthy tale and time after time she put the same care and effort into it as if she were telling it for the very first time.
And in that moment, her own time for tears had finally come for the grieving daughter. The dam that had been her stubborn stoicisim now burst and like the rushing waters all her pent up emotions gushed forth in deep, racking sobs. All night long she sat there, chest heaving, gulping for breath, weeping, sobbing, crying so hard her eyes swelled and her sinuses burned. She did not try to stop it nor did she even want to. In the darkness, her face buried in battle-scarred hands, the broken-hearted girl cried until there were no more tears to cry. Sometime just before dawn, perhaps through the work of some god or perhaps simply due to her own exhaustion, Ephiny at long last closed her eyes and mercifully fell sleep. And on the cold night wind there seemed to waft a whispering, loving voice, regaling one last time the fabled adventures of the mighty Perseus.
"Damn it, Solari, wake up! You're putting the wrong end in the forge!"
"Huh? Oh. Sorry."
Striding over, Reisa, the tribe's massive shouldered armorer, seized up a pair of tongs and yanked the sword blade from the fire. "Where's your head today, girl?" In reality Reisa knew where. With exquisitely chiseled arms and back from years of hard work in the forge a hammer, a wasp waist and long stout legs, Reisa seemed right out of a sculptor's dream. In all the tribe only the equally imposing Draganis could even remotely approach her strength. But there all similarities ended. Draganis was a warrior, a captain now. Reisa, so badly hurt at age twelve that she was years recovering, was not. She made the arms, skillfully and with great dedication. But others carried them into battle. There was something else. Draganis could look a man in the eye and take his life without a second thought. Those who knew Reisa as a youth sometimes wondered if she could ever have done that. Now know one would ever know. Affable, kind, helpful to all, there were more than a few who thought the biggest of all of Reisa's muscles was her heart.
"Nothing from Ephiny, huh?" she kindly asked.
Solari shook her head. "No. Not yet."
Reisa held up the sword blade gave it a quick inspection. No harm done, she thought. Nothing a little extra work won't fix. "I wouldn't worry too much," she said. "That Ephiny is one tough little sapling. She can take care of herself."
"Yeah. I know."
"Say, uh, it's pretty slow around here today. So unless Melosa decides to declare war on the Centaurs in the next little bit you can take off if you want."
"Gosh, Reisa, do you mean it?"
"Sure, why not?" Reisa rose up to all her imposing height. With mock formality she said, "Solari, Yearling Warrior, I release you from your duties."
Solari could not help but laugh. The only good thing about being assigned to assist in the forge was this good-natured woman who never seemed to look down on all those many fumbling sets of hands she was constantly saddled with.
Gleefully Solari shucked her apron. "Thanks, Rae" she gushed. "You're the best!"
With a dismissive hand Reisa waved her away. "Go on, get out of here. And if Pythera tries to give you any guff just send her over here."
Making her way through the village, Solari took note of how sparse it all looked, But then, that seemed to be the norm anymore. Once the village would have been bustling with people this time of day. Now there was hardly anyone to be seen. Straight away she bumped into young Abisinthe, who seemed to be unduly struggling with the two ordinary buckets she was lugging along with her. Though barely sixteen, the lithe Abisinthe was fast becoming the best archer in the tribe.
'You're not that weak, are you?" teased Solari.
An eternally cheerful soul, Absinthe made a great show of sticking her tongue and emphatically exhaling in an exaggerated display of fatigue. "If you're so worried, get your big ass over here and help me." Ever since she could remember Solari's stocky build had been the subject of relentless teasing--but only by her dearest friends. "Abby" was such a friend.
When Solari was near enough, Abisinthe heaved up a bucket with both hands and with a grunt thrust into Solari's midsection. The unexpected weight surprised Solari, necessitating an inquisitive peek into the bucket. "What's the big rock for?" she asked.
"To break the ice with, silly," Abisinthe answered. "The well is frozen over again."
"Yeah and I had an awful time getting these things loose," said Abisinthe. She took up her bucket with both hands and then added, "They were frozen to the ground too."
"Really? Well I would have thought your sunny disposition would have just melted--"
Instinctively Solari's eyes tracked off in the direction Abisinthe was pointing. There to the west, out on the field that lay between the village and the Euset's hills, was the unmistakable figure of someone both of them knew so well.
"It's Eph!" cried Solari. In an instant both she and her younger friend forgot all about buckets and stones and frozen wells and off they tore to greet their young comrade.
"Hey, back so soon?" Abisinthe joked. "You miss us?"
More than you know! thought Ephiny. Aloud she deadpanned, "I had to get back. You know Melosa can't run this place without me."
This evoked a giggle from Abby. Solari barely heard the crack. Her attention was elsewhere. Her friend looked a little worse for wear but that was to be expected. Out on the road, with food hard to come by, anybody was sure to have a little of the shine taken off. No, this was something else altogether. Ephiny looked...different somehow...older.
Her face reflecting her concern, she asked, "Eph? Are you all right?"
Ephiny pulled down the corners of her mouth in sort of a facial shrug. "It's been...a rough couple of days."
"Well, we're glad you're home."
"Yeah, Eph," Abisinthe added, "it's good to see you again."
"It's good to see you guys too," said Ephiny.
Outwardly she seemed as in control as ever but Solari, long attuned to the nuances of her friend's mannerisms, thought she detected an added little measure of sincerity, perhaps even relief, in this simple statement. "So, you got things straightened out. With those farmers?"
A faraway look came to Ephiny's eyes. "Yeah," she answered softly. "Straightened out." After a subtle clearing of the throat she asked, "Do you know where she is?"
Neither Solari nor Abisinthe needed any further clarification. Both knew she meant the queen. "Uhh, no," said Solari. "I haven't seen her all day."
"I have. She's home. I think," said Abisinthe. "I saw her enter her hut just a little while ago. But you know how restless she is. She might be all the way to the river by now."
"Thanks. I guess I ought to go report."
"Damn straight," said Abisinthe. "She once chewed my butt off for that. Funny thing was, it wasn't even my--"
Quietly Solari sought to cut her off, "Abby." The willowy little Abisinthe was a dear friend but Solari sensed that right now Ephiny really did not need for her to launch into one of her protracted recollections of past escapades.
As for Abisinthe, she took the gentle admonition in stride. "Oh, sorry."
"So, go on already," said Solari, waving Ephiny along. "Hurry up. The sooner Melosa sees you, the sooner you can come back and tell us all about it."
"Yeah, Eph, what did ya do?" Abisinthe chimed in. "Slay a monster, win a war single-handedly?"
A faint smile played across Ephiny's lips. If only Abby knew how close to home her teasing little remark really was. In a way she had slain a monster, the one that had tried to eat away her very soul. She would be a long time in healing, but for the first time Ephiny could truly feel that things were going to be all right. And so, with a weary little sigh, she answered, "Both, actually."
She nudged her horse past her two puzzled friends, only to have Solari call out after her, "Oh, Eph, we're down to two captains now."
"It's Colsethme. She's dead."
In the muted light of her hut Melosa's perceptive eye took in the rather disheveled apparition that was her young warrior. "I didn't expect you back so soon."
"For a while I didn't expect to be back at all, ma'am," replied Ephiny.
There was no sense trying to honey coat it. Melosa would learn all the particulars sooner or later. As her mother had so often told her, "The truth will only hurt you a little while. Lies have a way of tormenting us forever."
"I botched it, ma'am. I failed--miserably. Lertes and his people were being pressured...events broke down quickly. I wasn't able to get a handle on it. I failed, ma'am."
"I sent them a warrior, not a diplomat," the queen pointedly reminded her. "And as for your course of action I'll be the judge of that. What happened?"
"I was ahh...I was unable to provide deterrence."
Melosa intently studied the face of the young Amazon. "You had a fight."
With a reluctant nod Ephiny replied, "I had a fight."
"I take it our friends are secure?"
"Yes, ma'am. If any threat is posed to them it will come from some...other quarter."
The shrewd Melosa immediately picked up on the significance of the young warrior's words. She wanted to know more--would know more. But not today. Melosa was no fool and by and large she had already put two and two together. Besides, the girl was obviously exhausted. She had been through a lot these past weeks. Melosa would not press her. "Very well. I understand. I believe you did well, Ephiny. My guess is I'll be awarding you another knot for valor."
This was not at all what Ephiny had expected to hear. She had come before the queen with a report of failure and now she was possibly coming away with a knot for valor? It was all too much for her weary mind to comprehend. Then again, perhaps there was no need to. Queens were not obliged to explain themselves to anyone and history had shown that Melosa's take on the shape of the world was almost always keenly incisive. Standing there, Ephiny could not shake the feeling that her queen was leaving something left unsaid. Even if that were true, there was little more to say except a muted, "Thank you."
"You look beat," Melosa noted. "Go home, try to find something to eat. Get some rest. You can fill me in on the details later."
Once more Ephiny felt obligated to present things as she saw them. "I have to tell you, ma'am, you may not be pleased to hear them."
And once more her queen brushed aside any notion of failure. "That's for me to decide, Ephiny. Not you." There was no harshness in Melosa's tone, she was merely stating fact.
"My apologies, ma'am." There was a stilted moment of silence and Ephiny took this as her cue to leave. With a respectful nod she turned to go.
"By the way, I don't suppose you've heard. May is dead."
"Yes, I heard. I saw Solari on the way in. She told me."
"It's strange how the Fates toy with us," mused Melosa. "All those battles, thirty years as a frontline warrior--and she goes in her sleep as peacefully as a priestess." For a fleeting moment Melosa thought back to a time long past when she was barely more than Ephiny's age. Back then it had been the steadfast support of the twin pillars of Colsethme and the equally powerful Mycinia that had ensured her own very tenuous hold on the seat of power. It was something the grateful young queen had never forgotten. After that, through thick and thin, amid criticism and wild speculation and just plain envy from others, she had stood by her square-jawed benefactor. Now she was dead. Except for the ailing Euset and the seemingly ageless instructors Adele and Selena they were all dead now, all the "Old Guard" that had won battle after battle, securing their borders and providing stability and security in troubled times. Phillipia, Mycinia and the rest--all gone. And now Colsethme too. She would be missed.
Of course, the queen would hardly tell Ephiny any of this. Even Terreis, her only sister, was only rarely allowed a glimpse past that impenetrable wall that was Melosa's inner feelings. Besides, to her way of thinking sentimentality was a sign of weakness and as such a luxury that an Amazon queen could not afford. Let holy people mourn. She had a tribe to take care of.
"Anyway," she said, continuing, "the heart of it is we have lost two captains in the last moon. I need not remind you that these are extraordinary times we're facing. As such they require extraordinary measures."
"Ma'am?" Melosa was building to something, something big. Ephiny could feel it.
"Since you're here you might as well know...Cordelia, May's second-in-command, is able enough I think to move up and take command of the company," the queen announced. "However, I am not happy at all with Pythera's performance thus far. Therefore, I have decided to place Terreis in command of your mother's company."
A princess? thought an incredulous Ephiny. A princess commanding a mere company? Naturally she kept her reservations to herself. It was not her place.
Noting the subtle look of bewilderment on the face of her young warrior, Melosa said, "As I said, these are extraordinary times. I need people of ability, people I can trust and to hell with experience! Terreis will assume command of your company." The queen's dark eyes honed in on Ephiny. "And you, Ephiny, you will be her second-in-command."
For a moment the queen's stunning words had difficulty registering in Ephiny's disbelieving brain. Had she just said...? "Meee?"
"There's not a better Amazon for the job," said Melosa. "You're intelligent, resourceful, brave and, most importantly, you have already proved you can lead. What more is there?"
For once Ephiny had no answer. At the moment she could not even think straight. All she could do was stare at her queen.
"You've got what it takes, Ephiny. I've known it for a long time and, in your heart, so have you. Just remember, with higher rank comes heightened responsibility. I'll be expecting great things from you. Now, unless you want to question my judgment--again--you will go home and rest like I told you."
Somehow a dazed Ephiny managed to extricate herself from Melosa's hut--but not before clumsily bumping into two chairs and a support pole. Outside she was pounced upon by the eager Solari.
"Well? What did she say?"
With furrowed brow, Ephiny absently answered, "Pythera is out. Terreis is taking over."
Solari wrinkled her nose at the news. "Terreis? You sure?"
"Ahh, yeah. Melosa said these were extraordinary times."
Solari scraped the frozen ground with the toe of her boot. "No foolin'," she sniffed. "Anything else? C'mon, Eph! What did she say about you?"
Ephiny puffed her cheeks and said, "What she said was, I am to be Terreis' second-in-command." With that she simply turned and walked away.
A gaping Solari stood there and watched her go. And for the first time in her life she was left utterly speechless.
Late that night Ephiny related to Solari the events of her trying days on the plain. When she had finished neither spoke for a long time. Finally, Ephiny started vacantly into the fire and said, "You know the really scary part? It was as if I almost enjoyed killing those men. Isn't that a terrible thing to say? I found myself thinking...I can't take Momma's death out on the gods--but I can take it out on these men. Ephiny plaintively looked at her friend and. A tear rolled down her cheek. "Sweet gods, Solari," she asked sadly, "what's happened to me?"
Sniffing back her own tears, Solari put a hand to the arm of the dearest friend she ever had or ever would have. "Nothing!" was her emphatic reply. "Eph, stop it! You had a job to do and you did it. No one could have done better than you did. You saved those people.
"You've lost your mother. You're just hurting, that's all. I loved her too--we all did."
Eyes glistening, Ephiny forced a smile of sweet remembrance. "She was something, wasn't she?"
"Yes she was," said Solari, her own eyes misting. 'And you know what?" Solari tapped Ephiny's chest. "She's still with us, in there. In your heart, in both our hearts. For as long as you and I live she will always be there."
"You're a good friend, Solari. You always have been."
Solari's strong chest shuddered. "I've loved you practically my whole life. You know that." Awkwardly she then tried to clarify what she had said. "I mean...well...not like...you know..."
Ephiny put a tender hand to Solari's broad shoulder. "I know," she said softly.
"I'll always have your back, Eph."
"And I yours, to the end."
Wiping away a tear, Solari leaned forward and hoarsely whispered, 'But the next time, bring my damned bow back!"
The ensuing laughter felt good--for both of them.
That night, Ephiny slept as one at peace with the world. Heartache and sadness would still visit upon her from time to time but from now on she would look forever forward, not backward. Many things had changed in the last few weeks. She had faced the two biggest challenges of her young life and had somehow survived. Her "reward" for this was to be saddled with responsibility far beyond her tender years. Well then, so be it. It was just one more challenge in a life full of challenges. But there was one thing she realized she had been wrong about all along. With friends like Abisinthe and Pomona and Eponin--and Solari--she never had and never would be--alone. And when one got right down to it that was the greatest victory anyone could ever hope to achieve.
The next morning, Ephiny awoke to a new day, in more ways than one. Firstly, the air was much milder, the oppressive clouds that had smothered the sky for so long were nowhere to be seen. Amazons, young and old, lured out by the brilliant sunshine, mingled about, talking, smiling, turning their appreciative faces to the sun's warm rays. By now word had gotten out of Melosa's bold shakeup and Ephiny found others looking at her in a new way. Some were clearly pleased, some were skeptical--but all were respectful.
Ephiny was just beginning to enjoy her newfound sense of place when who should she run into but mean old Adele, one of the senior instructors who had done so much to make her what she was today. In that rasping old voice Ephiny knew so well she said, "I heard about your promotion."
"Strange news travels fast, I guess," said Ephiny modestly.
"Bullshit," the old woman snorted. "Seems like everyone but you has known this was coming for a long time."
"Don't you think I'm too young?"
"Young? Hell, at fifteen May for a time commanded two companies at once. No, child, guts and ability are never too young. They will out." Adele squinted up at one of her favorite pupils and said, "Which reminds me, in your last drill you were a little weak with the javelin. I know you're going to be a lot busier now but come by when you get a chance and we'll work on that."
With a shake of the head Ephiny watched her hobble away. There are still some things, she thought--most joyously--that never change.
I never saw her again. Later, we learned of her people's great war with the man-beasts, a war that left both sides forever weakened. It was said that for a time she became their queen, and that she was slain by the descendants of Troy. This I do not believe. For one so strong and noble and pure in spirit as the Mishente could never die. No, I believe the Mishente, the one called Ephiny, is with us still, if not in the body of her youth then surely in another form. Someday, before I breathe my last, I would like to look into those clear eyes of my long ago youth and see again that which cannot be bought or sold, that quiet dignity and selfless sense of purpose that so very few mortals have. This I beheld in the eyes of the young Amazon and should I ever see those eyes again, then I will know that once again she is among us, that once again I am in the presence of the brave Mishente. Perhaps this time her aim would be to take the hand of a tired old woman and lead her to her place of eternal rest. She would not take it then, perhaps she would take it now. And this, this I would do and not be afraid. For as she had in the time of my youth, so too now would the Mishente again protect me from harm. This I know.
Alas, perhaps it is as the young ones say. Perhaps I am but a dreamer. But oh! Should all have a dream so sublime! A great memory to hold for one's very own across the decades. It has been more than three score years since I saw her, a precious lifetime bought for me with her skill and courage. For this I thank thee, noble Mishente. Never since has the sun set on a day in which I have not remembered thee. Brave warrior, hero, long-ago friend...Mishente.
I miss you still.
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