Ever so slowly Draganis lifted her head to take one last peek at the two riders ambling along as if merely out for an evening's ride. Beside her lay Hyacinth, a warrior ten years her junior with only a fraction of her experience. Draganis much preferred to operate on her own and she viewed this slim, affable girl with the auburn hair to be about as useful as a yoke around the neck. Her captain, Mycinia, was always doing this--pairing her off with some little minnow in the hope the youngster might learn from the best. It was not that she disliked the girl. In fact the warrior had found her to be good company. It was just that she was getting tired of being bothered by these young whelps. Still, Draganis understood Mycinia's reasoning and accepted it. As a loyal Amazon she always obeyed orders. That, however, did not mean she had to like it.
The two men were so close now Draganis she could hear every word. With great nimbleness she eased her powerful body up into a very low squat. In a quiet whisper she said to Hyacinth, "Don't move, don't even breathe."
She was surprised and yes, angry in a way about their apparent lack of concern over where they were. From the moment the men crossed the river they were in Amazon Territory and they knew it. Yet from their nonchalant manner it seemed to her they were not expecting serious trouble.
Fools! she silently raged. Do you think we are milk maids; to run and hide at the mere sight of you? If so, Draganis was fully prepared to show them just how wrong they were.
Technically the imminent slaughter of these two was not part of her mission. Manning one of four forward positions which covered the avenues of approach, she and Hyacinth were only supposed to signal the appearance of the enemy's vanguard. These two rascals were merely scouts slacking on the job and she could just as easily let them pass. She, however, was not about to do that. Taking her sword into both hands, Draganis leaned forward, shifting her weight to the balls of her feet. The way she saw it killing these two pigs now would only save someone else the trouble of doing it later.
They were in plain view now. Hold on, she reminded herself. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet...
Like the sleek panther she was, the great warrioress sprang up out of the high weeds. There was no accompanying war cry or warning sound of any kind. There was only the soft swishing sound as her sword cut through the air.
The two unsuspecting scouts never knew what hit them. With a mighty, double-fisted swing of her big sword, Draganis caught her first victim right above the hip, slashing open a terrible gash in his abdomen. The man cried out in agony and instinctively looked down. What he saw horrified him. Blood was gushing forth from his side like an Athenian fountain and there, lying in plain view on his right thigh, was part of his large intestine. So swiftly and neatly had Draganis done her work that even as he screamed the stricken man still as yet had no idea who or what had caused his wound because she was already gone.
Before the shocked man could even raise a hand to the gaping hole in his side Draganis was around the back side of his horse and launching herself on the other man. This one, though startled, did manage to fumble for his sword but it was too little too late. The Amazon simply grabbed a handful of his tunic and with a low guttural growl pulled him down off the horse.
Behind Draganis the first man leaned over and then toppled off his horse as the Amazon slammed the butt end of her sword against the Adam's apple of the prostrate second man, crushing it. The first man was instantly put out his misery by a blow to the head from Hyacinth's sword. The second man tried to scream but all that came out was a sickly gurgling sound. He too did not have long to suffer because in one swift motion Draganis was upon him. Sitting on his stomach and pinning his arms under her knees, the Amazon deftly extracted a dagger from her right boot and plunged it straight into his heart.
And just like that it was all over. In less than ten breaths she had taken the lives of these two men who would have done her village harm. But what to do with the horses? Draganis was loathe to kill them but she could not take the chance of driving them off because there was always the chance they might run straight back to the enemy and thus warn them. Besides, they were fine looking animals and she knew Melosa would probably let her keep them for herself.
What then? She took a quick glance up the road. Nothing yet but others would be coming down it very soon. Then it came to her. Of course! The kid! In a low rasping voice, she commanded, "Hey, kid, come over here." Immediately the younger Amazon was by her side. "You all right?" asked Draganis.
Hyacinth nodded that she was.
"Good." Draganis angled her head toward the horse standing next to them. "Get on."
"Get on. I want you to take these two horses back."
"No, damn it, at the next full moon!" Draganis growled. "Now go on, there's no time to lose."
Though puzzled by this, Hyacinth was not about to question the great warrior. Obediently she got on the horse and was handed the reins to the other horse. "Get going," said Draganis.
Worriedly Hyacinth asked, "But, how will I explain my leaving you to Mycinia?"
Tying the reins to the saddle horn, Draganis grinned and said, "Tell her it's that time of the month for me and I was getting too cranky."
Hyacinth managed a half-hearted smile at this. Then, with a sharp nudge to the flanks of her horse, she took off across the meadow.
Ephiny walked out on the point of the ridge and, taking a deep breath, swept her eyes over the surround terrain. What she saw was the same old thing--nothing. Nobody is going to come through here, she thought. She turned to face west and held her fist out at arm's length to measure the sun's height above the horizon. Now that it was just over a fist's width she reckoned she had ought to report back to Phillipia. I hope Solari remembers where to meet me, she thought.
She was half way down the hill when she heard what sounded like the whinny of a horse. At this exact same moment she detected movement off to her right and there she saw Solari, tearing down an adjacent hill as fast as her sturdy legs would carry her. One did not have to have the wisdom of a philosopher to understand that these two events were related and in that one moment Ephiny realized her earlier assessment was wrong.
For that reason the daughter of Meelah did not wait for Solari to come to her but instead hastened off to meet her. The two friends met a little way up Solari's hill. At first Solari, wide-eyed and breathless, could barely speak. Unlike most other Amazons who seemingly could run all day she had never been much of a runner.
"Eph!" she gasped. "My gods..."
Ephiny took her by the arm and gave it an impatient shake. "What is it, Solari? What did you see?"
Solari gulped and said, "Soldiers, maybe...fifty...I..."
"Put your arms on your head," Ephiny advised. "You'll catch your breath faster."
Her friend complied and after a few more deep breaths was finally able to speak. "Eph, there are maybe fifty men--right over this hill!"
"Moving this way?"
"Not when I left," Solari replied.
"Well, what are they doing then?" asked Ephiny.
Solari's face grew graver still and her lips tightened into a tight line. "Eph, they've got Tylda and Calliope."
"Sweet Artemis!" Ephiny heard a voice gasp. It was her own.
With both bloody corpses now safely stashed in the weeds, Draganis took a moment to look back over the wide meadow in order to check on the progress of Hyacinth. There she saw the girl streaking toward the forest, her auburn hair streaming in the wind behind her. Hmm, she doesn't ride half badly at that, thought Draganis. For a kid.
At almost precisely the same moment that Ephiny was alerted by the sound of a horse, so too now did Draganis' experienced ears begin to pick up the distant but unmistakable sounds of an army on the move. "Our guests have arrived," she muttered.
Looking down at the two dead men, she said, "Stick around, boys. You'll soon be having plenty of company crossing the River Styx."
For her part Draganis was not surprised that the enemy had chosen this route. Indeed she had expected it. Mycinia obviously had as well else she would not have posted her best warrior here. Skirting along the edge of the meadow, Draganis streaked toward a nearby hilltop to get a better look. This was to have been her post all along but she and Hyacinth had been held up by the sudden appearance of the two scouts.
As she neared the crest of the hill the warrior ran straight into another scout. This one was armed with one of those battered old cavalryman's lances that Draganis guessed he had probably stolen somewhere. Upon espying this lone woman warrior on foot, he immediately lowered it and charged. On his face was a look of triumphant exultation as he assumed he was about to be the first to kill one of the stinking Amazons.
Naturally the fierce Draganis had other ideas. Having fought the Centaurs she was not unnerved in the least by the onrushing horse and rider. She even took a moment to cast a quick glance past him and there in the distance at last saw the main body of the enemy force swim into view. She could have used the classic Amazon maneuver to take down the horse but upon sighting the enemy horde decided she needed that horse for herself.
So cool was this great warrior that she did not even bother to draw her sword. A quick
scouring of the ground around her feet revealed just what she was looking for. With a smug
little smile she snatched up a stone, smooth and round and about the size of a robin's
egg. Yes, she thought, this will do nicely--just like the old days. Pivoting backward on
her left foot, she turned and waited.
In her restive youth Draganis had yearned to see what life was like in the great big world that lay outside what she then perceived as the suffocating boundaries of Amazon life. Queen Penthesilea, who in her own wild youth had been just as restless, understood this and so gave the girl permission to strike out and see the world. Not before, however, she secretly put ten pieces of gold in the girl's bag--just in case.
So with the queen's blessing Draganis spent the next eighteen moons wandering the northern Mediterranean. In that time she traveled to Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Pella--where one day would be born he who would conquer most of the known world. Brashly she dared to climb Mount Olympus and indeed managed to ascend half-way up the fabled peak before a terrible thunderstorm drove her back down. She visited both Methones, consulted the fabulous oracle at Delphi and spent one night in a backwater little village in Chalcidice called Poteidaia. Later she crossed over into Latium and there ate a meal of smoked fish and moldy barley bread in a dreary little clump of huts called Rome.
Of course the ten pieces of gold had not lasted long and over the course of her
adventure what hard money the young Amazon was able to pick up came by the way of
gambling. In many of its forms she was very proficient but it was of course in contests of
skill that she really cleaned up. Many an unsuspecting local was sent home coinless and
grumbling by this pretty girl with the sharp eye and unerring hand. In fact the twenty
pieces of silver that paid for her voyage home had been separated from a fat Maltese
merchant after winning a series of bets. Dressed in the well worn tunic of a Illyrian
soldier, she had five times in a row knocked pears down from their lofty perch with
nothing more than a rock.
The eleven years since then had done nothing to diminish her accuracy. When her present adversary was close enough she merely leaned back and cracked him hard right between the eyes with her stone. The onrushing rider tumbled to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The horse, startled by this, reared up only to be easily caught by Draganis.
Before she mounted she took a moment to look at the latest of her countless victims. The groaning man was in bad shape. He was twitching and blood was pouring out of his left nostril. Seeing this, the Amazon took the time to hurry Death along his way. She was certain the main body was still too far away to notice her. Besides, there was not much need for stealth now anyway. Very soon they would be getting their fill of Amazons. As she kneeled down beside him the man jerkily raised his arm in a feeble attempt to defend himself but Draganis merely swatted it away.
When the man then tried to speak, she took his head into her strong hands and with a sweet smile laid a finger across his lips. "Shhh. I wish I could stay and chat, love, but I have to run." With that she snapped his neck one with powerful jerk and, mounting the dead man's horse, sped away to warn Terreis and the rest.
Terreis stared off in the direction of the as yet unseen enemy. "You're certain it was the main body?"
"Yes, Princess," said Draganis. "Coming three abreast, right down the main road just as we figured."
"Very well. Thank you, Draganis," said Terreis. "You may rejoin your group." With a respectful nod Draganis went off to find Mycinia.
Rejoining Terreis, Pycea said softly, "I guess this is it."
Terreis' only response was a solemn nod. After another few moments she asked "Have all those in the forward positions returned?"
"All but Elsinore," came the reply.
"Well we can't wait. Everyone! Mount up!" commanded the princess.
Pycea peered through the trees to the meadow beyond.
"Nervous?" asked Terreis.
Pycea had to admit that she was. "I'd rather be at the mineral springs," she said. "Taking a nice warm bath."
"I know what you mean," said Terreis, smiling at the pleasurable notion despite herself. She then furrowed her brow in thought and added, "I guess that's the way it always is. I guess all battles are fought by people who would rather be somewhere else. But we have a job to do. Any minute now the enemy is going to be coming down that road and the queen expects us to do our duty." Sitting in the saddle, Terreis pulled her sword and laid it across her thighs. "And we will."
"Highness!" a voice urgently whispered.
Terreis turned and saw a warrior named Kirah sitting astride her pony and pointing out toward the meadow. There Terreis saw the head of the enemy column just emerging from the small wood on the opposite edge of the meadow. "Amazons," she said in a calm voice. "Form on me and when we get out there conform to my movements. Be sure to wait until I get the order before breaking off."
From her horse the princess looked down on Hyacinth who was still waiting for further orders. Since her return her desire had been to have Terreis ask her to go along but now that it was clear this was not going to happen she rather hoped to be allowed to once again join Draganis for the coming battle.
Terreis was about to grant her her wish. "Go back and tell Mycinia and Colsethme that the enemy is here and that we are moving out."
"Yes, Highness," the warrior replied. Trotting down the narrow trail, she soon disappeared amongst the trees.
So as to appear having been caught in the open, Terreis and her band would approach the enemy left in a wide circle. It was hoped this maneuver would also serve to allay any enemy suspicions about a trap until it was too late.
Keeping back in the forest just enough to remain out of side, Terreis and her band set off to bait Melosa's great trap.
Flat on their stomachs, Ephiny and Solari eased their way up to the crest of the hill and ever so carefully peeked over.
"See?" Solari hissed.
Down at the foot of the hill Ephiny saw a large gathering of men on horses and men. After some scrutiny she guessed Solari's fifty was actually closer to forty. Not that it mattered. Forty was still far too many for the puny two of them to deal with. All but a few of the men were still mounted with the majority of these forming a semi-circle around five other figures who were all on foot.
"That's them!" Solari anxiously whispered. "See? Oh gods, they've got them!"
It was all too true. There were Tylda and Calliope all right. For a fleeting moment Ephiny wondered where the bitch herself was. This passed in an instant, however, as she began to observe what was happening. Both the scouts had their hands bound behind their back and at the moment poor Tylda was being battered from pillar to post by two burly men. As their laughing comrades looked on, these two men kept shoving Tylda from one to the other, punching and kicking the defenseless Amazon with each new encounter.
Watching from the hilltop, Ephiny felt the rage building within her. Fists clenched, she for the first time in her life felt a real desire to take another person's life.
"By the gods!" said Solari bleakly. "They're killing her!" With misty eyes she looked anxiously looked to her friend but unfortunately Ephiny had no answer for her. In the face of such odds what could they do? Nothing, and for one to try would be pure suicide.
A particularly brutal blow Tylda sent reeling to the ground. One of the men bent over and grabbed a handful of her long black hair and, pulling her up to her knees, then proceeded to viciously snap her head back. "Tell us, bitch!" the two friends heard him bellow.
Still holding her by the hair, he leaned over and gave her head a violent shake. "TELL US! Where are the rest of your Amazon sluts?"
With great difficulty Tylda leaned back and nodded. The man, smugly triumphant in the knowledge that he had broken this, one of the so-called "fierce" Amazons, leaned closer still. What he got was not information but rather a great, bloody gob of spit right in the eye. And that was not all. Summoning forth every last bit of strength, Tylda slammed her forehead into the man's nose, instantly breaking it.
The man squalled in pain and reeling backward, landed on his behind as the other soldiers howled with laughter. Enraged and embarrassed, the man struggled to his feet and then viciously kicked Tylda in the ribs with all his might. Even from her vantage point Ephiny thought she could her the cracking of the Amazon's bones. At this Solari let out an anguished little cry while Ephiny with gritted teeth silently raged. You bastards! The gods damn you!
However the worst was yet to come. Ignoring Calliope's pleas to stop, the soldier pulled his dagger. Seizing the limp Tylda by the hair one more time, he clumsily cut her throat.
And for the first time in her young life Ephiny saw it all so clearly. All that ceaseless rhetoric about courage and honor and duty and sacrifice was not just so much indoctrinating mush, ladled out by their instructors to be mindlessly choked down. Nor were they any longer vague concepts to be bandied about in academic discussions around cozy camp fires. For there, lying in the dust below with her life oozing away, was the very epitome of what those words, in all their wretched, valiant glory, were all about. Tylda had given her life for the sake of the tribe and in that burning moment Ephiny truly understood that this was what it meant to be an Amazon. For her it was one of those defining moments that mark the long road to adulthood and the lesson, though tragic, was one she would carry in her heart always.
Very regretfully the daughter of Meelah whispered, "Come on, we need to warn Phillipia."
Solari was aghast. "But what about Calliope?"
"Forget Calliope!" Ephiny hissed. "She's as good as dead already." It broke her heart to make such a harsh assessment but her training was coming to the fore now. She knew their duty lay not with the warrior Calliope but with the children and the elders they had been charged to protect.
However Solari lingered still and Ephiny was just about to pinch a hunk out of her friend's muscular arm when with wide eyes Solari crooked a finger and gasped, "Look! Down by that plane tree!"
Ephiny did and what she saw stunned her. Crouching behind a juniper bush was Morda! Ephiny could not believe it. With dismay she thought, That idiot!
"What is she doing?" asked Solari.
"I'll tell you what she's doing," Ephiny angrily replied. "She's about to get her ass caught." In an instant her mind played out the whole chilling scenario. Forcefully grabbing her friend's arm, Ephiny did not ask but ordered, "This is bad. Solari, you've got to get back and warn Phillipia. Now!"
A little taken aback by the blonde's sudden vehemence, Solari said, "Okay but...what are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet," Ephiny replied. "Something. I've got to slow them down."
Ephiny cut her off. "No time to explain. Just get going."
Solari nodded earnestly and was turning to go when she heard, "Solari?"
Ephiny's grim visage softened just a bit around the eyes and with a surprisingly gentle voice she said, "Watch yourself."
Despite the grave circumstances Solari could not help but grin. This was about as close as Ephiny ever came to displaying tenderness. "Don't worry," she assured her friend. "I'll be like Argus himself."
Ephiny watched Solari scramble down the hill and tried to forget that even the hundred-eyed Argus had ultimately been killed.
Suddenly the young warrior heard loud, shrieking cry of distress. Turning back to the men at the foot of the hill, she barely had time to focus in on them before realizing her fears had become a reality. One of the soldiers was gripping Morda by the scruff of the neck and roughly pulling her back to the others.
"Damn!" Ephiny muttered. She had never cared much for the acerbic Morda and left to her own ends would rather have avoided her altogether. However given the fairly small size of their village and the fact that they were close to the same age it was inevitable the two of them would often be in interaction. It was strange, Morda seemed to always be around.
Over the years Ephiny had seen enough of Morda's true character to know that for all her supposed combativeness she was not very tough mentally. Ephiny was certain that all would take was a couple of good slaps by these goons and she would be singing like a nightingale.
Or so she thought.
With a rough shove and a sharp kick to the buttocks Morda's captor sent her sprawling to the ground right at the feet of his leader, a Babylonian mercenary with the virtually unpronounceable name of R'zha. Having spent many years in and around Greece he was by now fluent in the language. With the toe of his boot he turned over the prostrate girl. "Well well well, yet another Amazon spy. Damned if these hills aren't crawling with these harpies!"
"I--I'm not an Amazon," Morda protested. "I'm a Laconian."
"Laconian huh?" R'zha snorted. "You're a long way from Sparta, girlie." With a broad grin he said, "By the fires of Ishum! I could say I was the King of Libya!" Some of the men, never comfortable with the mention of Babylonian gods, nervously laughed at his crack but R'zha's grin quickly faded into something much more sinister. "But that wouldn't make it so, now would it?"
R'zha jerked the girl to her feet and sized her up and down. "Come to think of it you don't look much like an Amazon at that." Remembering the fierce, muscular females that had routed a gang of marauders he had ridden with some years before he added, "Too damned puny."
"I tell you I'm not an Amazon," Morda repeated. "I'm just a...slave."
Five short paces away Calliope was stunned by what she heard. Never in her darkest nightmares did she ever think an Amazon would say such a vile thing. The appalled "Morda!" she blurted out did nothing more than earn her a backhand across the mouth. For her Morda's words were despicable beyond measure. Morda was now irrevocably beyond mere denial of tribal heritage. This was treason, pure and simple and for the gravest of all crimes Amazon Law prescribed only one punishment--death.
"Quiet, you," a soldier barked. "You'll be screaming soon enough."
"A slave?" echoed R'zha.
"That's right," said Morda. She shot Calliope a look of disdain and said, "Murdering harlots just like this her were the ones who killed my family and carried me off when I was five. I've been their dog ever since."
R'zha coolly eyed her and with a voice as casual as if ordering breakfast said, "You're lying. You're an Amazon." He gestured to Tylda's body and said, "As you can see we're here to kill Amazons."
"Yeah," the bloody nosed man gleefully added. "Every last one of you."
"Kill her then," R'zha ordered. "Kill both of them."
"Wait!" Morda cried. "I can be of service to you."
R'zha leered lasciviously at her and said "Little squab, you're not nearly enough woman for me."
"R'zha, we should be on our way," one of the soldiers urged. "Our lord expects us to hit the village at the same time he does."
"The attack will be coordinated well enough," R'zha said confidently. Once more focusing his attention on Morda, he said, "Where are the Amazons deployed? Tell me that and you'll live."
At this Calliope began to furiously struggle against the soldier tightly gripping her arms. "Don't you say a word, Morda!" she exclaimed.
"The gods curse you, you bitch, and your whole thieving tribe!" Morda snarled at her. "I want to live."
"They would never trust me to know such things," said Morda. She then quickly added, "But I do know something that might be just as interesting to you and certainly more profitable."
"R'zha," the soldier urged again.
"I said we will be on time!" R'zha barked angrily. "Now shut up!" To Morda he said, "So give me a reason not to gut you like a fish."
"I'll give you a hundred reasons," replied Morda.
"You just bought yourself another five breaths," said R'zha. "For your sake I suggest you use them wisely."
"Not far from here is a cave--filled with Amazon brats."
Practically foaming with rage, Calliope squalled. "Mordaaaa! You'll rot in Tartarus for this!"
"Shut that bitch up!" growled R'zha. What he intended, of course, was for the soldier to kill the young warrior. However this strapping young man, long deprived of the pleasures a woman could bring, had other ideas for her. For that reason all he did was to tear off a piece of her tunic and cram it into her mouth.
A gleam came to R'zha's eye. "Their kinsmen."
For Morda the termed seemed technically inappropriate as there were no "men" but she certainly was not inclined to correct him. "That's right," she said. "Strong, healthy children, ripe for the slave market. And the old folk, many of them are still able as well."
For a tense moment R'zha mulled this over. Amazons were known to make wonderful slaves IF one could break them. Perhaps the children had not yet been completely instilled with that troublesome Amazon fanaticism...
"All right," he said, "you will show us. Aeneus, take ten men and go to that cave. Kill all the old hags but be careful with those little seedlings. Those are drachmas on the hoof."
Once more the soldier protested. "But what about--?"
"The gods damn you!" R'zha raged. Filled with fury, he pulled his sword and in the blink of an eye drove the edge of the blade deep into the neck of the nettlesome man. Wiping the sword clean on the tunic of the unfortunate man, R'zha smirked as he challenged the rest of his command. "Anyone else care to voice an opinion?" Not surprisingly, no one did.
"All right then," he said. "Let's move."
Aeneus barked out the names of those who were to ride with him and then pulled Morda up on the back of his horse. The two groups formed up. Those under Aeneus set out to find Morda's cave while R'zha and the rest streaked off to do battle with the Amazons.
All except one named Issus. With hands still firmly grasping the gagged Calliope he stood behind a large oak tree and watched his comrades race away. Spinning the Amazon around, he licked his lips and roughly kissed her on the cheek. In an effort to resist Calliope violently shook her head and tried her best to knee him in the groin. "Ohh," he taunted her, "you've got plenty of fight in you, don't you Amazon? I like that."
Issus struck her hard on the jaw, knocking her down. In an instant he was upon her. "You like to fight? Well, come on, fight me, pretty slut."
Groaning in desperation, the young warrior bucked and writhed in a frantic attempt to keep him from spreading her legs. However, flat on her back with arms bound, she had very little leverage and moments later Issus down on his knees, firmly entrenched between hers.
Eyes twinkling with excitement, Issus began to fumble with his pants. "I'll bet you're still a cherry, aren't you? Tell me, Amazon, have you ever did it? I'll bet you and some of your little friends have kissed each other's little cunts, haven't ya? Ohhhh yes, I'll bet you have. But see, that doesn't count. You need the real thing."
Calliope's eyes grew wide with horror as she saw the grinning Issus finally manage to pull out his swollen manhood. There had been times when she overheard some of the older warriors talking about having sex with these males and, sensing the pleasure they had so obviously derived from it, wondered just what a man's "thing" might look actually look like. Indeed some of the more bawdy Amazons had spoken of the mysterious organ with almost dreamy tones but here, under these traumatic circumstances, Calliope quite naturally thought it anything but that. In fact it was absolutely the most disgusting thing she had ever seen. It was like some fat, grotesque worm.
And now the horrid worm was about to enter her.
Working his way farther up, Issus pressed down hard on the writhing warrior. Gloating, he crooned, "Give it up to me, honey. I'm gonna break you in and there's not a thing you can do about it."
Calliope closed her eyes and in her present state of duress only half heard as a strangely familiar voice said, "But I can."
There was a sickening thump and Calliope heard Issus let out a kind of gurgling little gasp. Opening her eyes, she saw a look of shock and horror on his face as he slowly sank down upon her. Looming behind him was a trim figure with unruly blonde curls holding a bloody sword with both hands.
As the figure pulled out Calliope's gag the warrior cried. "Ephiny! By the gods, it's you!"
And so it was. The moment the young Amazon saw Issus wrestle Calliope back into the cover of the trees she had begun working her way to the hill toward them. She couldn't save Tylda, but gods willing she could save this likeable young woman who so often in the past had tended her when her own mother was away.
Ephiny jammed the big sword into the ground and, grabbing the dead man by the shoulders, wrested him off the panting Calliope. In an instant the warrior bolted up into a sitting position.
"Are you all right?" Ephiny asked.
"Yeah," replied Calliope, kicking the man's arm off her leg. "Thanks to you."
Ephiny retrieved the sword and with one very easy pull cut Calliope's bindings. Never had the girl seen a sword so sharp!
Issus' horse was tied only a few paces away and as soon as her hands were free Calliope raced straight for it. "Calliope, wait!" Ephiny cried.
A moment later Calliope was mounted and holding her hand out. "Give me the sword, Ephiny."
Alarmed, Ephiny asked "What are you doing?"
"I've got to warn the queen."
"It's too late for that," said Ephiny. "You'll never beat them to the village. Besides, the battle has probably already started."
Angry, frustrated and a little ashamed too for having failed in her mission, Calliope's eyes sank as she said, "I suppose it has." Then, perking up again, she said, "But they still need me. Give me the sword, Ephiny."
Backing away from the horse, the blonde resolutely said, "No." It was no small thing for one such as her to disobey a full-fledged warrior. After all, an Amazon's first duty, above all else, was to obey.
Calliope knew this just as well as Ephiny did and was surprised by the blonde's defiance. However she was not that far removed from Ephiny's status herself and as a result was not yet confident enough in her own position to force matters. For that reason her voice had just a hint of a whine in it as she said, "Ephinyyyy!"
Ephiny, however, was adamant. Using the warrior's casual name, Ephiny said, "No, Callie. This is Phillipia's sword. She lent it to me for this scouting mission. See, I've got a job to do too."
Unsure of just what to do, the thought flashed through Calliope's mind to get down off the horse and take the sword. However she quickly decided against this. She liked Ephiny too well to fight her and, besides, she had been seen the girl on many occasions during their incessant drills and was not positive that she could in fact take the sword from the already formidable young woman. Looking over to her dead assailant she thought, All right then, I'll just take that bastard's sword instead.
"All right, Ephiny," she said with a smile. "You win. But I've got to go regardless."
The daughter of Meelah, however, had other ideas. As Calliope nudged the horse forward she quickly stepped up and grabbed the horse's bridle. "Wait!" she said again.
Exasperated, Calliope yanked hard on the reins in an effort to pull the horse free. "Ephiny, damn it, what's wrong with you?"
"Calliope the battle has or is about to begin..."
"Why in the name of sweet Artemis do you think I'm trying to shed you, you little leech!? Now let...go!!!" Frightened by all the shouting and tugging between the two strange humans, the horse reared up on its hind legs and there went Ephiny down in a heap.
In an instant the tender-hearted Calliope was off the horse and beside her friend. "Oh, Effie, I'm so sorry! My gods, are you all right?"
As she helped Ephiny up to a sitting position, the blonde could not help but flash a mischievous little grin and in that moment Calliope knew that she had just been tricked.
"You harpy!" she gasped. "You weren't struck at all, were you?"
A twinkle in her eye Ephiny replied, "I had to stop you somehow."
With a kind look Calliope asked, "Ephiny, why is it so important to you that I not go?"
The twinkle in her eye was gone and once more Ephiny was back to her old pragmatic self. "The battle," she said, "has or will soon begin."
"Yeah, you said that twice already."
"One more warrior is not going to make a difference either way."
Softly Calliope said, "But, Ephiny, it's my duty--"
"Your duty is to the tribe as a whole," Ephiny countered. "Now that your mission is no longer valid the obvious thing to do would be to come back and help Phillipia take care of the others."
Like a bolt of lightning it hit Calliope. "By the gods, the others! Oh gods, Ephiny, we must hurry!" A black scowl of revulsion came across her face as she remembered Morda's treachery. "That bitch," she snarled. "When I catch up with her I'm going to cut out her traitorous tongue and stuff it down her throat."
Ephiny got to her feet and said, "I wouldn't be too hasty if I were you."
Calliope was aghast. "What the hell do you mean?" she demanded. "Didn't you see? That little cow betrayed us. Right now she is leading them right to the children and the others!"
"Uhh no, Callie," Ephiny matter-of-factly replied. "She's not."
"I guess you didn't have a chance to notice but..." Ephiny pointed off in a direction considerably different than that of the others' hiding place. "...Morda led them off that way."
For poor Calliope it was yet another in what had become a seemingly unending series of shocks. Weakly she said, "She did? You mean she...was faking?"
"Of course she was," said Ephiny, "Morda might be a nut but she's not a traitor. What she has done is to split their force and buy us some time." What the young Amazon did not say was that the enigmatic Morda had probably purchased it at the expense of her own life.
Staring numbly at nothing in particular, Calliope softly said, "Strip those two dead soldiers of their weapons. I'll...bring the horse."
Ephiny obediently nodded and then for a fleeting moment her grin returned. "You won't run off and leave me now will you?"
"No," Calliope softly assured her. "I'll be right behind you."
Ephiny patted her friend on the arm and in the blink of an eye was gone. It struck her as odd that Meelah's daughter could remain so calm in all this. Calliope, who had never seen real battle and who had never killed anything more dangerous than a rabbit, was at the moment experiencing a multitude of emotions, most of which were anything but positive. Scared, confused, unsure of herself or just what to do, she, like Solari before her, found comfort in this girl's quiet confidence and unshakable resolve. Ephiny had just killed for the first time and yet she seemed as calm as the waters of that old pond down from the village. Intuitively Calliope understood that, though some five years younger, Ephiny was already a better warrior than she would ever be. Not that there was any shame in that and she certainly did not resent Ephiny for this. Not at all. For some reason Artemis had seen fit to bless this young one with abilities greater than her own. Who was she then, as a devoted Amazon, to question the hand of their immortal patron?
However if the shaken young woman had only been privy to the innermost thoughts racing through Ephiny's mind she would have seen a very different portrait. Trotting out to retrieve the sword of the soldier slain by R'zha, she suddenly found that her knees seemed watery, her mouth very dry and that she could not keep her right hand from shaking. And that man on top of Calliope! Never had she heard such a sickening sound as when her razor sharp sword sliced through his skin, muscle and bone. So sickening in fact that although Calliope did not know it Ephiny had come very close to vomiting right on her.
So that was what it was like to take another life, to actually kill someone! All that talk from their instructors, all the listening to the tales of the old warriors, all the reading about the great battles and heroines of the past....NONE of it had prepared her for what it was really like.
Pulling the dead man's sword from its scabbard, Ephiny was suddenly reminded of her mother. Through all those battles she had endured and survived. Suddenly all those knots of heroism her mother wore in her hair on those special occasions took on a whole new meaning. Suddenly and for the first time Ephiny understood that Meelah, one of the rocks that proud Mycinia had built her success on, was not merely "Momma" who was forever nagging her to do her chores but a great hero who had faced death over and over again in the defense of their hearth and home, always prevailing.
Oh, Momma! she thought. I'd rather die than cause you shame!
Turning back, she saw Calliope, good as her word, leading the horse toward her. In her excitement Ephiny had missed the dagger in her victim's belt and so here now was Calliope good-naturedly pitching it to her.
"You forgot one," said Calliope, smiling faintly.
"Well uhh, I'm still a little new at this," said Ephiny sheepishly. Calliope would have bet everything she owned right there that it would be a mistake the girl would not make again.
Her own sword having been tossed away upon capture, Calliope took the one from R'zha's victim as it seemed to be of better quality and stuck in her own scabbard. Around the other's hilt she tied a piece of rawhide this she looped around Ephiny's shoulder. "Hang onto that," she said.
Calliope then mounted the horse and sticking out her hand, easily swung Ephiny up behind her, big sword and all. And for the first time in her life Ephiny truly felt as if she was a real warrior, as if her long and difficult road to adulthood was about to at long last come to an end.
As if she belonged.
Pausing for a moment at the edge of the tree line, a panting Solari leaned heavily against an ash tree and tried to catch her breath. As a healthy young Amazon she was certainly not out of shape but she had never really been much of a runner--not like Ephiny or the Hermes-like Pycea. Why had Ephiny, who was so fleet of foot, not come back herself instead of sending a plow horse like me? she wondered. The Amazon did not really understand the reason but in the end it did not really matter for she trusted her friend's judgment completely. Ephiny always seemed to know the right thing to do.
Finally Solari's breathing began to slow. The cave was still quiet a way off and she needed to ready herself for this one last push. It was then she heard what sounded like a snort. Instinctively she drew back deeper into the cover the woods provided. Like all Amazons she somehow felt safer, more comfortable in the woods, the deeper and darker the better. This love of the forest was a trait innate in an Amazon, something that had been ingrained in their soul over countless generations. Given a preference an Amazon who sensed trouble always preferred the protective arms of the forest to the uncertainty of open country. In this Solari was no different.
Crouching down, she saw a horse and rider slowly approaching. The man was leaning over and seemed to be studying the ground. And then it came to Solari. Oh no! she thought. Solari realized that this was the same route the refugees from the village had taken to ascend the hill. This man was tracking them!
The man came closer still. Yes, there was no doubt about it. He was following the tracks of the refugees. Drawing her dagger, Solari eased herself into an attack position. As she waited in tense anticipation she allowed that big sword of Phillipia's would sure have come in handy right about then. The man was big and very well armed. Solari reckoned her only chance was the element of surprise. He was still out in the open field and for a moment the Amazon hoped he might break off once he got to the edge of the wood. When he reached the edge he did pause, but only for a moment before nudging his horse on into the wood.
This is it, Toad! thought Solari. He's coming right for you. And so he was. The Amazon crouched there, frozen solid in the flickering shadows. It was not an ideal ambush site by any means but if she moved now he would be sure to see her. Tightening her sweaty palm around the dagger, Solari grimly waited. It would not be long now...
Suddenly there was a fffttttt, a soft whoosh as something zipped practically right over her head. Solari flinched at the sound and, fearing this reflex movement had given her away, shot an apprehensive look toward the horseman. At precisely the same moment she heard a soft thump.
"By the gods!" she whispered.
Sticking out just below the man's sternum was an arrow, an Amazon arrow. With a hoarse gasp and bulging eyes the man leaned over and toppled off his mount. Solari shot to her feet and looked all around in the expectation of thanking her benefactor. To her surprise she saw no one. Who could it have been? she wondered.
There was, however, no time to waste playing guessing games. Taking the dead man's horse by the reins, Solari mounted and rode off. A bare thirty paces away she passed by a sturdy oak, not seeing the lean figure with the weathered but still comely face pressed up against the opposite side. After the horse thundered out of sight the figure eased out onto the path and after a brief pause to look in the direction the young Amazon had gone, flashed a faint smile of satisfaction.
Old girl, she thought, you haven't lost a thing. Shouldering her bow, she set the tip
of her staff on the ground and went to drag the body out of sight before limping off
deeper into the forest.
"Aeneus, look! Here comes Zephron!"
At the approach of Zephron the scout Aeneus reined his horse to a stop and waited. Impatient for news Aeneus, barely waited for the scout to pull up beside him before asking "Any sign of them?"
"What, the Amazons?"
"No, you idiot!" Aeneus said in sharp rebuke. "The Hestian Virgins. Of course I meant the Amazons. Wake up, stupid!" While Zephron was a man would never be confused with Pythagoras but he did have a good eye and an uncanny ability to read a track.
"Oh uh, sorry," said Zephron. "No I didn't see any sign of their warriors at all." Zephron's tone of voice, however, clearly implied that he had seen something.
"What did you see?" asked Aeneus.
"Tracks," Zephron said simply. "Scores of them. I send Malleaus on to follow them." And immediately Morda's heart fell.
Aeneus' eyelids narrowed at hearing this. "Where?"
Zephron turned in the saddle and pointed a good ninety degrees away from the direction Morda had been leading them. "That way," he said. "I didn't see any signs of carts or litters but if I didn't know better I'd say it was a village on the move. There were a lot of children's tracks."
Morda had hoped to keep the ruse up until they made the forest where she would at least have a chance to escape. However all hopes of this were dashed as soon as she saw Zephron nod in the affirmative. The game was up and she knew it. Realizing the moment of her destruction was at hand, the young woman lamented not so much for her own death as for the fact that she would never have the chance to wear the precious mask of an Amazon warrior. At least she could die a warrior's death.
"You lying little shit!" Aeneus growled.
He made a reach for his dagger but Morda's young hand was quicker. With one lightning-like stroke she snatched the dagger from his belt and drove it up to the hilt in his spine, right between the shoulder blades.
Teeth clenched in hate, Morda spat out, "Now you can join all the rest of the bastards that will die today!"
Aeneus groaned loudly and slumped forward in the saddle. In an instant Morda had him by the hips, trying to push him off so she could take control of the horse. The forest! If she could only get to the forest...
Her efforts were in vain. With his lance a nearby soldier sent her flying off the horse with a stunning blow to the head. Morda tried desperately to scramble to her feet but her head was reeling and try as she might she could not seem to regain her balance. Her knees buckling, she heard someone shout, "Kill the bitch!"
Suddenly there was an indescribable pain in her belly as the soldier first gored her bowels with his lance, and then twisted it before yanking it back out. Like snow on a warm spring day Morda melted to the ground, her lips gently kissing the dusty earth. As she descended into darkness she heard the soldiers thunder away on their horses. This left only the already dead Aeneus to keep her company as her own life ebbed away.
As she lay there in the horse dung and the blood soaked earth her last conscious thoughts were of the blonde with the unruly curls whom she had loved since she was ten years old. Sadly, she had never quite been able to work up the courage to tell her this and now she never would. And so, as Death gently cloaked her in his black shroud, Morda gasped one last, mournful, "Ephinyyyyyyy...."
And thus it was that noble Antiope spake... 'Sisters of Hippolyta!
Are we afraid of grim-visaged Death?
Have ever we cowered like beaten dogs,
Before the war cries of our merciless foes?'
'Let us therefore gird ourselves for battle.
Let us take up shield and sword and, rushing forward,
Close our hearts to pity.'
And thus it was that Claudia, daughter of proud Coreen spake...
'Let us this day give terrible Ares, that blood bloated god, heavy work.
Let us long not for the comfortable fires of home,
But instead yearn impatiently for hardship and virtuous battle.
For countless generations have we fought and bled and died,
For this, our sacred home.
The blood of our enemies will soak yon fields such,
That in future days they will see the stains and say,
Here! Here is where they stood. Victorious Sisters of Hippolyta!
And grappled with the demon children of Ixion!'"
~from the nine hundred verse Amazon "Song of War."
"And so it was that with hot blood and cool head,
I smote my enemies."
~excerpted from a poem by Claudia, grandmother of Meelah.
Owing to her head start and unexpected boon of a horse Solari was already anxiously waiting in the hollow below by the time Ephiny and Calliope arrived. As she saw them ride up a much relieved Solari was very glad to see her friend because a small part of her had feared she might not see her again at all. That Calliope was miraculously alive made it even better.
Boy, am I glad to see you guys!" she said.
"Well you can thank Ephiny for that," said Calliope. Taking the extra sword from Ephiny she tossed it down to Solari. "Here, don't say I never gave you anything."
Instead of trying to catch it Solari wisely let if fall to the ground. "Oh my," she said, picking it up. In truth the weapon was of nothing more than average craftsmanship. It was plain with no engravings of any kind. The wooden handle was chipped and there were even a couple of rusty spots on the forte. Nevertheless Solari was thrilled. Usually an Amazon came into possession of a weapon in one of three ways. They bought it, inherited it or took it from a conquered foe on the field of battle. For the untried Solari this last option was out and without anyone to bequeath her one and unable to have one made for herself this would be the first one that she could ever truly call her own.
"Oh my," she stammered, "I--I don't know what to say. Thank you!"
"Don't thank me just yet," said Calliope. "You might be using that sooner than you think."
At that moment Pomona anxiously appeared at the opening to the cave. Seeing the warrior Calliope who was the highest ranking Amazon now present, she quite naturally singled her out. "Calliope! Come quickly!"
Ephiny slid off the horse to allow Calliope to dismount and then stood aside to let the young warrior pass. As Calliope began to ascend the hill Ephiny asked, "What's that all about?"
Solari's face grew grave. "Phillipia," she said solemnly. "It's bad, Ephiny. Say, how did you manage to--?"
Bolting up the hill, Ephiny did not wait to hear the rest of her friend's query about Calliope's rescue. She eased her way through the hole and stood at the mouth of the cave. Inside she saw Phillipia lying on a blanket and surrounded by Amazons young and old with worried looks on their faces.
As Calliope knelt to speak with Phillipia, Pomona moved in beside Ephiny. "What is it?" Ephiny asked. "What happened?"
"Morda," Pomona answered tersely. "That's what happened. When we found out she was missing Phillipia insisted on helping us look for her."
At this point Ephiny figured there was little to be gained by telling what she knew about the strange girl with the fiery temper.
Pomona sadly lowered her eyes and added, "I guess the exertion of climbing those hills was too much for her."
"Ephiny!" Calliope called out. "Ephiny, she wants to talk to you."
Followed by Pomona and Solari, Ephiny waded through the mass of humanity. Reaching the venerable Amazon the three of them dropped to their knees as they felt it would have been disrespectful to merely stand over her and look down.
Phillipia's voice was weak and labored as she asked "Where's Ephiny?"
Bending down, the curly blonde gently replied, "Here, ma'am."
"Ephiny, Racillione here says it's my heart."
Ephiny shot a questioning glance to the old healer gently holding Phillipia's head in her hands. All she got in return was a doleful shake of the head. "Shhh, just be quiet and rest," the girl said to Phillipia. "You going to be all right."
"We both know better than that," the old woman wheezed. "There's nothing to be done for me. Ephiny?"
Suddenly Phillipia was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance to the cave. An irritated Calliope stood up and asked "What's going on?"
Through the mass of bodies fourteen year old Valerie, younger sister of Hyacinth, pushed her way to where Phillipia lay. She had been one of the lookouts posted by Phillipia at Ephiny's suggestion in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. "Men on horses," she said breathlessly. "Ten, maybe twelve, moving slowly up the hollow."
"Were you seen?" asked Calliope.
"I don't think so," the girl answered. "But they sure seemed to know where they're going."
Vocalizing what they all were thinking, Solari said, "They'll be here very soon."
Calliope shot Ephiny a hard look. "So she gave us away after all."
Ephiny shook her head. "I don't believe that. More likely somebody found all those tracks."
"Ephiny!" the old woman called out again.
Phillipia groped until she found the young Amazon's hand and then squeezed it with surprising strength. "Ephiny," she rasped. "I want you to take command here."
Ephiny was stunned. "Meee? But, ma'am..."
"There's no time for debate," said Phillipia. "I name you."
Despite this Ephiny continued to protest. "But, we have a warrior here. See? Calliope. She should be the one to take command."
The old woman coughed and shook her head weakly. "I know that Calliope is here. But she is a follower, not a leader. You, Ephiny! You are the one I want. Now look to your people."
Phillipia's assessment of Calliope might have seemed blunt but it was not meant in any way meant to denigrate her. As leader it was necessary for the veteran Amazon to disregard personal feelings, both hers and those under her, in order that the tribe might be best served. In her role as royal advisor she had kept an eye on these youngsters practically since the day they were born and consequently knew their individual strengths and weaknesses even better than the instructors. Through countless field exercises and "problems" those exhibiting leadership potential naturally sooner or later came to the fore. Although a solid, capable warrior, Calliope had never shown much ability in leadership roles. Ephiny on the other hand was by all accounts a natural.
Just like Claudia. Gods, thought the old woman, she even looks like her. Looking deep into the eyes of the blonde, Phillipia said, "Your moment is at hand, Ephiny. What we need is someone with hot blood and a cool head." She smiled weakly and said, "That was your great-grandmother's favorite saying. You...you didn't know her, did you?"
"No, ma'am," Ephiny softly replied.
Eyes gleaming, the old woman said, "Ohhh, she was a terror. She had more knots than Draganis, Mycinia and Colsethme combined. She was a captain at twenty."
"Yes, ma'am," said Ephiny. "Mom--I mean, mother told me."
"She taught me how to use a sword, you know. I was a scrawny, weak-kneed girl and she was this fabulous warrior yet she, she took the time to help me on her own. It was because of her that I became a great warrior in my own right. She...she cared, Ephiny. In all the years of my life I've never forgotten that."
Ephiny's eyes began to glisten. "Yes, ma'am."
"You remind me so much of her, child. I know her blood flows through your veins. You should be...very proud."
"Ephiny, take command. Use that hot blood and cool head. Defend your people!"
Ephiny shot an apprehensive glance at Calliope. The warrior's eyes sank as she said, "She's right, I don't think I can do it. Just--just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it." For practically any other Amazon being placed under the command of one so young and inexperienced would have been a very bitter draught to swallow indeed. Calliope knew this meant she would never be anything more than a simple warrior but instead of being upset or disappointed she was almost...relieved. Things were so much easier when someone else told you what to do. Yes, old Phillipia was right.
Placing a reassuring hand on Ephiny's forearm, Pomona softly said, "We're with you. All of us."
"You can do it, Eph," Solari urged. "I know you can."
Ephiny, daughter of Meelah, looked around at all the faces, young and old, who in turn were so anxiously watching her now. As with most young Amazons she had dreamed of having her own command one day. But now? Gods! she thought. I'm not ready!
"Ephiny," said Pomona, "we don't have much time."
"Ephiny, we need you," said Solari.
Closing her eyes, Ephiny heaved a small sigh, knowing her life would never be the same. "All right," she said. And with that Phillipia drifted off into unconsciousness, her face wearing a faint smile of satisfaction.
Ephiny shot to her feet. "Where's Abisinthe?"
From behind her a thin voice replied, "Here, Ephiny."
Turning to the fifteen year old, Ephiny asked. "Did you bring your bow?" Cheery Abisinthe was one of those people of whom it could rightly be said that they were a stranger to depression. She was also quite skilled with the bow.
"Hey you know me," the girl said with a grin. "I never leave home without it."
"Good. Grab your gear and wait for me outside."
"Pomona! That horse we brought in--there's a length of rope on the saddle. Get it." With a nod Pomona was off.
Nearing the entrance, Ephiny felt a tug at her elbow. It was Anon.
"I want to help," said the youngster.
"Good, because I have a very important job for you," said Ephiny.
Anon's eyes lit up. "You do?"
"Yes. You're a big girl now so I need you to stay here and help Racillione and the others take care of the children."
Disappointed, the girl answered with a dejected, "Awww, Ephiny, I want to do something really important." There was no doubt about it. The girl had the warrior's spirit all right.
Ephiny crouched down and gently stroked the hair of Anon's sister Marsa. "There is nothing more important than keeping your little sister safe," she said. "You wouldn't want anything to happen to her, would you?"
"No-oo, the girl whined, "but--"
"You've got your orders," said Ephiny kindly. "Can I count on you to carry them out?"
"Okayyyy," Anon reluctantly replied.
"Your mother will be very proud of you," said Ephiny.
While not quite understanding what was happening Marsa nevertheless could sense the anxious mood of those around her. So it was that she instinctively reached out to the one who had always been so kind to her--her friend Ephiny. Ephiny took the girl in her arms and after giving her a warm hug softly said, "Sweetheart, I've got to go now. And I want you to be brave, just like your big sister. Can you do that for me?"
The child nodded and as Ephiny stood up she said, "Effie?"
"Can we go back to the pond again? That was fun!"
Ephiny smiled and said, "Sure. You, me, Solari, we'll all go back. I promise."
After a brief word with some of the elders Ephiny and the rest of her little band trickled out through the cave entrance. As to be expected these older Amazons, being former warriors themselves, had almost unanimously offered to help Ephiny and her young warriors any way they could. Some might not have agreed with Phillipia's decision to put such a stripling in charge but a lifetime of discipline was no easy thing to overcome. They would respect the great warrior's wishes.
Ephiny in turn was grateful for their support but in the end concluded that the older ones should remain behind with the children. While many of these elders were still strong, still in fine overall condition, what Ephiny had in mind would require a measure of nimbleness and endurance that few if any of them possessed anymore. To that end she had already made up her mind that they would be her walls of Troy so to speak--the last line of defense. After clasping hands with some and taking a few encouraging pats from others, Ephiny emerged from the cave and stepped forth into the broiling light of her very first command.
"Here they come!"
At Minutia's soft cry Meelah raised up ever so slightly and peeked down the forest trail. Just barely visible outside the tree line was Terreis and the others thundering toward the forest. Looking across the trail to Celeste, Meelah thumped her own chest twice and then pointed to her face meaning, "Wait for me."
Celeste, nodding that she understood, drew her sword and waited...
Ephiny, Calliope, Solari, Pomona and Abisinthe raced down the side of the hill. At a large fallen tree they crouched down and gazed down toward the hollow that ran below. There they saw the men Valerie had spoken of. At the moment they were stopped. One man was dismounted and was bent over, intently studying the ground.
Intently eyeing the inimical men Ephiny whispered, "They've tracked us all right."
At that moment the five young Amazons saw the man Zephron straighten up and point up the hill.
"They know!" Pomona anxiously whispered. "What do we do?"
"Stay calm," said Ephiny.
"I don't get it," Calliope murmured. "Why even bother with this? If their side wins they can just dance up here with their whole force and take us. If they lose it's not going to matter anyway. Why risk it?"
"Amazon children sold into slavery would bring a lot of money," said Solari. "Maybe these guys aren't interested anymore in who wins or loses. Maybe they've decided this is one prize they'll keep for themselves."
Pomona and Abisinthe looked at Solari with some surprise. She was not known for any great stretches of logic.
Noting their reaction, Solari said, "Well it's possible. Right?"
Ephiny could not help but be touched by her friend. Solari was such a good person and she tried so hard. "I think it's very possible," she said.
Demonstrating they were not quite as mature as they thought, first Solari and then Pomona wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue at the other.
Seeing Zephron remount, Ephiny said, "Okay, let's get set up. Abisinthe?" When the girl failed to answer Ephiny gave her a look and saw her staring wide-eyed at the men. "Abisinthe!" she hissed.
Lifting both eyebrows, Ephiny asked, "Are you sure you're up to this?"
"Yeah, yeah," Abisinthe answered.
"All right then, see that big guy?"
"They're all big guys," Pomona ominously observed.
Annoyed, Ephiny said, "Damn it, I mean the one on that big roan horse. The big guy."
Abisinthe gave a nod. "Yeah."
"He's yours," said Ephiny. "When I give the signal I want you to knock that son of a bitch right out of the saddle. Ya got that?"
"Good grief, Abby," hissed Calliope. "Is that all you can say?"
Abisinthe swallowed hard and said, "Yeah."
"You can do it," said Ephiny reassuringly. "Just like you have a thousand times before. It's just another target and a big one at that. Now work your way down the hill, find a good sight line and wait. Make sure you keep an eye on me and stay under cover."
Abisinthe eased out into the dense underbrush and within a few moments was gone.
As Terreis' horse pounded past, Meelah took one last peek in order to gauge the distance. In doing so she was immediately presented with a quandary. The numbers in pursuit of Terreis and her little band were not nearly as great as Mycinia had told her to prepare for. As best as she could tell there were only perhaps a score or so following the princess.
So what to do then? Spring the trap as planned or hold off for a bigger force that may or may not be farther behind? The timing on this had to be just right and Meelah had the luxury of only the span of a few breaths to decide. Crouching there in the bushes, her mind harkened back to something her esteemed grandmother had once told her:
What she meant of course was that it was unwise to overreach. This bit of wisdom had been imparted to her very many years ago, just as she was beginning her warrior training. It was sound advice then and it was sound advice now.
Kirah was the last Amazon in line and as her horse raced past, Meelah drew back her sword. Keeping a close eye on her leader from across the trail, Celeste did the same. On both sides of the trail camouflaged Amazons heard the approach of this second group of horses and tensed their bodies in readiness. Now that Terreis was clear Meelah's chief concern was not to spring the trap prematurely. This first assault was designed to be lightning-like in its swiftness and lion-like in its ferocity but all that would be for naught if the enemy were hit too soon and allowed to wriggle free. Because of its importance Mycinia had assigned the job of leading the first attack to Meelah, her most trusted warrior, and the mother of Ephiny was determined not to let her captain down.
With the approach of the invaders she tightened the grip on her sword. Like Draganis before her Meelah now calmly reminded herself to be patient. Not yet, not yet, she thought. Wait...wait...wait...
The polished bronze blade caught a narrow beam of light, glinting in the evening sun as the sword whisked through the air to sever the restraining rope. Almost instantly Celeste did the same. As a result two ash logs, both a cubit in diameter, were sent swinging down from their former resting places in a low arc of ever increasing velocity. Meelah's timing was perfect. As was her desire the two logs slammed not into the head of the pursuing column but farther back in order to lessen the chances of escape by the rear. The logs crashed into at least four horses, sending both them and their riders reeling to the ground. Even more importantly in succeeding in effectively cutting the column in two. With the forest ringing with fierce Amazon war cries the warriors sprang forth from their hiding places and set themselves on the stunned invaders.
And so, under the watchful eyes of Ares, Artemis and The Fates, battle was joined.
With Abisinthe's departure Ephiny looked to the good natured girl of many voices. "Like it or not those guys are going to have to come up here on foot."
Solari stared down the wide swath cut through the underbrush by the ascending refugees and shook her head. "Well they certainly won't have any trouble making their way," she said.
"That's what I'm counting on," Ephiny replied. Using an old nickname for Pomona, she pointed to a sprawling elm and said, "Ducks, see that big tree down there by the path? Do you think you can get up that and do a spider on the last guy?"
"You can count on me," the girl confidently replied. Only in her own mind did she add, I hope.
"Good," said Ephiny. "Now hurry. And make sure you get out of there fast after you take the guy out." With a nod Pomona moved out.
After she was gone Calliope gave the two younger Amazons a quizzical look. "Ducks?"
"When she was little she used to go around quacking like a duck," Ephiny explained. "She did it all the time."
And then Calliope remembered. "Oh yeah. Why did she do that?"
Ephiny, not so far removed from childhood herself, merely shrugged and said, "Kids. Who knows what makes them do what they do?" And both she and Calliope smiled.
With the two youngest Amazons gone it was with great reluctance that Ephiny now turned to Calliope. For almost two years now the older Amazon had enjoyed the honor and admiration that came with that coveted mask and here Ephiny was still not even completed finished with her training. Yet it was she who was in command. Because it was Phillipia's order Ephiny was willing to assume the mantle of leadership but that did not mean she was comfortable with it by any stretch of the imagination. As an untested and untried sixteen year old who could blame her? So she did what any Amazon would do, she fell back on her training.
"Look" she said to Calliope, "I feel stupid telling you what to do."
With an understanding little smile Calliope asked "What have you got in mind?"
And there in the dirt, Ephiny quickly drew out her plan. When she was finished she looked up in time to see Calliope nod approvingly.
"With a little luck it just might work."
"As short-handed as we are it's got to work," said Ephiny. Down in the hollow they saw the men stop again and this time they all dismounted, leaving their horses behind.
"Okay," said Calliope, "I'll see you down there."
"Good luck," said Ephiny.
"Good luck to us all," replied Calliope. Like Abisinthe and Pomona before her, she too then eased off into the brush.
That left Solari. In describing the details of her plan to Calliope Ephiny had not mentioned her sturdy friend even once. Afraid of being embarrassed, she waited until Calliope was safely out of hearing before whispering "What about me, Eph?"
Surprised by the hurt look on her friend's face, Ephiny said, "Why, you're coming with me, of course."
"Well, what did you think?" asked Ephiny.
Despite the fact that Solari's heart was bursting with pride in the knowledge that at this perilous moment her best friend wanted her by her side all she said was, "Ohh nothing. Forget it."
Shaking her head in puzzlement at her cryptic friend, Ephiny said, "Come on."
"Are you as..." Solari gulped. "..scared as I am?"
"Damn right I am."
However in her heart Solari wondered if her friend wasn't just trying to be sympathetic. In all her life she had never seen Ephiny afraid of anything or anybody.
The two friends then silently melted into the foliage and soon the only sound to be
heard was the heavy grunts of the invaders as they labored up the hill.
As the last man in line Patralicus paused to warily glance all about before finally starting up the hill. Ever since entering the forest a feeling of foreboding had hung over him. Compared to the expected battle this was supposed to be easy pickings but try as he might he could not shake the feeling that something was not quite...right here.
To the man in front of him, a ruddy faced Illyrian by the name of Axtus, he whispered, "Hey, do you think they're really up there somewhere?"
Axtus was a man whose general disposition was capable of swinging all the way from black to ebony. Flinging an irritated hand out over the wide path he muttered, "Look all around you, stupid. These tracks weren't exactly made by wood nymphs."
"But what if--"
"Shut up!" Axtus hissed. "Gods, man, do you want to give them a chance to escape?"
Ominously recalling the frightening stories his uncle had told about the merciless Amazons and their fighting prowess, Patralicus began to wonder if perhaps it should be they and not those forest demons who should trying to flee.
Suddenly there was a faint rustling behind him. Whirling in panic, he raised his sword
to defend himself from what was sure to an attack from some diabolical monster. His
"monster" turned out to be a ground squirrel, out looking for its supper.
Startled by the man, it scampered off into the brush. Embarrassed and yet relieved beyond
words, Patralicus swallowed hard and slipped his sword back into its scabbard. Patralicus,
old boy, he thought, you have got to find another line of work!
Lying flat on the thick limb overlooking the path, Pomona coolly watched her nervous prey approach. For generations there had been wild tales of the Amazons' almost magical ability to move through the trees. In fact some shaken escapees from Amazon attacks had even gone so far as to swear they had seen these sorceresses slide up ropes! This was, of course, nonsense but no self-respecting Amazon would ever go out of her way to dispel such myths. After all, it only added to their fearsome mystique. Even so, Amazons were trained early on to be completely at home in the trees and indeed a great part of their tactical philosophy was centered around these devastating attacks from above. So important was this to the tribe that if any young acrophobe could not learn to cope with their fears they could forget about any dreams of earning a warrior's mask. From time immemorial it had been forbidden and so it still was to this day.
As for her Pomona had for the last few moons been practicing the "spider." In truth there was nothing very intricate about it. It was elementary stuff--the most basic of Amazon maneuvers. One simply waited in the trees for an unsuspecting enemy to pass, lowered the rope and attacked from behind.
At that moment Patralicus passed beneath her and Pomona was happy to observe that he was not as big as she expected. At least that was something. Her moment of truth was at hand. Nothing to it, she assured herself. Do it just like mean old Adele has made you do it a hundred times before.
She thought of Ephiny and how cool she had been. That girl really knows her beans, she thought. She's going to be a captain someday. Maybe she'll pick me as one of her "trusted ones."
It was time. With practiced hand the girl flipped down the rope. It made not a sound. Pomona grasped the rope and nimbly rolled off the limb. She quickly descended the rope and as she dropped to the ground, light as a snowflake, an amazing realization came to her.
Like Ephiny she was not frightened at all.
Forty paces away Abisinthe's nerves were not quite so calm. For what seemed like an eon she had with ready bow kept her eyes locked on her big soldier. Unlike Pomona who sought to focus on the positive, the normally cheery young archer could not keep from dwelling on the negative aspects of her task which admittedly required considerably more finesse than what Pomona was about to do. Over and over as her target kept getting closer she thought, What if I miss? Gods! What if I miss? She could never look Ephiny in the eye again!
From her vantage point on the hill she saw Ephiny and Solari slip into position
alongside the trail. Off to her right she saw Pomona drop off the limb. Heart racing, she
then turned once more to Ephiny. Closing her eyes, Abisinthe took a sharp breath and then
carefully laid an arrow across her bow.
From her place by the trail Ephiny was also watching Pomona. As soon as she saw the
girl take to the rope she shot a glance back to Abisinthe and raised her hand as high as
This is it! thought the young archer. Ever so slowly she raised her bow. She saw that Pomona was on the ground now and almost within arm's reach of the last man. As she drew back the string she could feel her hands shaking. Take a deep breath, she reminded herself. Let it out slowly. Despite this she found she could not seem to center on her target. Come ooooon!
At that very moment Pomona was reaching for her intended victim. For Abisinthe it was one of those strange moments when time seemed to stand perfectly still. Abby, she thought, you can split a gourd at fifty paces. Surely you can hit that monster...
As a last resort she did something she had not done in a very long time. She prayed. Great
Artemis, noble and wise, I beseech thee to steady my hand and sharpen my eye, that in your
merciful benevolence I might not let Ephiny down.
For perhaps the tenth time Patralicus thought he heard a noise. It was so very strange, he thought. How quiet the forest is!
There! He heard it again, an ever so soft creaking sound. He almost turned around but then he thought, Aah, it's nothing. Come on, you've got to get hold of yourself! If you jump every time a bug farts you'll go crazy in here. Wiping his sweaty brow, he thought, when I get back to Thebes I'm going to get so drunk I--
Suddenly a warm, smallish hand shot out from his the periphery of his vision and, blanketing his mouth, forcefully snapped his head back. Horrified, the wide-eyed Patralicus felt the weight pressing at his back and tried to wrest free. However before he could even raise his arms he saw something metallic flash under his chin.
And then Pomona neatly slashed his throat from ear to ear without so much as giving him a chance to gasp, much less scream.
At that exact instant Ephiny dropped her hand. Almost in reflex Abisinthe released the arrow to send it streaking toward the big soldier.
It was here, as Calliope was fond of saying later, that, "All hell broke loose." With a thump Abisinthe's arrow struck home, hitting the big man, just inside the left nipple. Like some huge oak tree the man teetered for a moment and then went crashing to the ground. Behind the soldiers heard another thud and turned just in time to get a glimpse of brown diving into the brush. In the middle of the trail lay Patralicus, covered in blood. There was, however, scarce opportunity for thoughts of these two dead men because up at the head of the line Ephiny and Solari rose up out of the thick brush to slash open the guts of two more of the men. At precisely the same moment Calliope rose up from the other side of the trail to gut the scout Zephron.
"The gods be damned!" someone shouted.
Like rabbits the three young Amazons darted into the brush and disappeared before a single sword could be drawn against them. In the blink of an eye half the enemy had been slaughtered.
"Who the Tartarus are they?" a shaken soldier cried out.
"Amazons, you fool!" Axtus raged back. Sweeping the seemingly empty forest with eyes full of fury, the man yelled, "Come out and fight me face to face, you filthy sluts!"
Thirty paces away he saw Ephiny's blonde locks pop up out of the brush and up the hill she went.
"There's one!" he shouted.
"She's mine!" another yelled. Off up the hill and through the thick brush he went, all the while raging violently about what he was going to do once he caught the fleeing girl. "You little bitch!" he roared. "I'm going to cut off your other tit and make you eat it!" Like many he subscribed to the myth that all Amazon warriors as a matter of course amputated their right breast in order to better facilitate use of the bow. "I'm going to--"
"Die like the dog you are!" Solari said through clenched teeth as she stepped out to ram her sword into his stomach. The saying was as old as the Amazon Nation itself and one often used upon vanquishing an enemy.
Back on the trail another soldier tried too late to duck for cover. Abisinthe's second arrow slammed into his rib cage and send him sprawling. It was here that one of the remaining soldiers panicked and began stumbling back down the trail. Abisinthe saw him and, her nerves steadier now, drew back and carefully aimed at a point right in the center of his back. I've got you... she thought.
To her surprise she felt the bow go slack. In one terrible moment she realized her bow
string had broken. Throwing down the now useless weapon, Abisinthe snatched up a fist
sized stone. Jerking free the leather strap that held her quiver, she then speedily tied
this around the stone to fashion a sling. With this crude weapon in hand she dashed off
toward the battle.
With eight of the enemy eliminated and one more in headlong flight Ephiny suddenly found the odds in her favor. Raising her big sword she stood up and yelled, "Come on!"
By this time Pomona had managed to work her way around through the brush to a flanking position and was ready to strike again. Rising up as if from the ground itself, her knife found the back of a soldier crouched behind a plane tree. It was now three Amazon swords against two of the enemy.
Holding her sword out before her with both hands, Ephiny yelled, "Give up! You're surrounded!"
"Surrender to a snot-nosed little whelp like you?" Axtus sneered. "I'll see you in Tartarus first!"
With a particularly vile slur on Ephiny's mother, Axtus attacked the young Amazon. It was no contest. Though bigger and stronger, Axtus could not match either Ephiny's agility or her skill with the sword. And now she saw the reason for all the endless drill. This was the payoff for all the monotonous thrusts and parries with those ridiculous sticks; for all those exhausting agility exercises. Now she appreciated those intense practice sessions in which stern Selena had whacked her sharply on the buttocks with her big stick whenever she made a mistake. This was what it was all about. Suddenly Selena no longer seemed like an ogre, but an angel. Ephiny vowed that if she survived she would be sure to thank the cranky sword instructor with the perpetual scowl.
As his broad sweeping swings repeatedly cut nothing nothing but air he became even angrier than before. "Damn you!" he raged, as Ephiny nimbly dodged yet another thrust. "Stand and fight!"
A sage once said, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it" and it was at that very moment that Ephiny's lightning quick stroke caught Axtus under the left arm pit slicing open an ugly gash.
From twenty paces away Solari yelled, "Get him, Ephiny!" Behind her she heard a blood curdling scream. Sword at the ready, Solari whirled and saw Calliope standing over the other soldier. Placing a foot on the body of her victim, the young warrior casually yanked her sword out from between his ribs.
Shooting a fleeting glance in Calliope's direction, Ephiny said to Axtus, "You're the last one. Give up while you still can."
In reply Axtus growled, "I told you I'll see you in Tartarus first." Raising his sword high above his head, he again charged the daughter of Meelah, roaring, "RRRRRRRRUUUUAAAHHHHHH!!!!!"
Bolting toward the two, Solari squalled, "Look out, Eph!"
Farther away Pomona, Abisinthe and Calliope likewise all dashed forward to help their friend. They need not have worried. As Axtus' sword hand came down Ephiny dived to the ground. Her perfect roll safely removed her from harm's way. Neatly popping up, she drew back Phillipia's big sword with both hands and with all her might sent it crashing into the side of Axtus' head. The choleric solider fell to the earth like a stone. Ephiny did not even bother to look. She knew he was dead.
The others swarmed to her. "My gods, Eph," Solari, said in wonder. "I didn't know you had a move like that!"
Grinning, a panting Ephiny said, "Neither did I!"
With Abisinthe shrieking a piercing Amazon war cry Solari and Calliope lifted their young leader on their shoulders. All of them then began to chant, "Ephiny! Ephiny! Ephiny!..."
For the proud daughter of Meelah it was the greatest day of her young life. She had faced the jaws of the lion and prevailed. She had passed the test.
She had won her first battle.
For the young Amazons their euphoria did not last long. Making their way back up to the cave, they were met by Racillione, the healer. As soon as Ephiny spied the woman her heart sank for she knew the sad tidings she bore.
"You have won a great victory," said the healer. "You should be proud."
"Phillipia?" asked Abisinthe fearfully. "Is she...is she..."
"Yes, child," Racillione softly answered. "One of the noblest Amazon fires of life has been extinguished for all time."
Pomona and Abisinthe, the two youngest who had only a very short time ago surprised even Aretemis with their courage, now began to softly weep amongst the trees gently swaying in the evening breeze. Tears misted Solari's sad eyes and Calliope, the only true warrior present, had to bite her lip to keep from crying. For all of them it was a moment of great sorrow. All her life Phillipia had unselfishly devoted herself to serving the tribe in any way she could. Three queens had she unfailingly served with honor and distinction. And now she was gone.
Among the young heroes only the stoic Ephiny showed no outward sign of emotion. Such was her nature but inside her heart was breaking. Phillipia had been so kind to her. Ephiny wondered how the great warrior had known even before she did what she had inside.
Holding the beautful sword out to Racillione, she softly said, "I wish I'd had the chance to give this back to her in person."
An tender smile filled Racillione's face. "No, child. The sword is yours now. With her last breath Phillipia said you were to have it."
And so, with the rest of their grateful people spilling out of the cave to gather about them, the young Amazons with heavy hearts made their way back up to the cave. Despite her sorrow Ephiny remained vigilant and ordered everyone to stay close to the cave. There, with the help of her four brave comrades, the daughter of Meelah held fast and waited in the gathering twilight for news of the great test of arms to the east.
The flickering light of the camp fire caused Melosa's dark, brooding eyes to take on an almost apocalyptic quality as she ferociously glared at Velasca. The battle had been over for the turn of an hour glass but only just now had she learned of her adopted daughter's potentially catastrophic transgression. Her body quivering with rage, Melosa balled her fists and said, "You...turned back?"
"Of course," Velasca laconically replied. "After seeing nothing I decided it was fruitless to continue on. I assumed I would be needed back her and I was right. I myself personally killed five of the enemy." With a haughty sniff she added, "I should get a least two honor knots for this."
"AT WHAT COST??!!" Melosa exploded. "Two entire generations of our people? You were sent west to make sure there was no threat. Now Willa tells me there were at least thirty who came from that direction!"
Velasca was stunned. "But..." she stammered, "...surely they are safe. I watched them find refuge with my own eyes. You, you can ask Chloe. Ask Imicin! They will tell you. We stood on the ridge and made sure they were safe before we came back."
From just outside the light of the fire a voice, cold and angry, said, "She lies."
Only Melosa recognized it. "Euset!" she exclaimed.
The old goatherd hobbled into the light of the fire and pointed a long finger at Velasca. "You!" she hissed. "At the Camel's Hump you and those two other dogs deserted Tylda and Calliope and forced them to go on alone. You left them to be captured by those butchers!"
Velasca's eyes grew wide. "Upon the pain of death it is you who lie, old woman. Tylda and Calliope were both cowards. They refused to obey my orders."
Unable to bear the sight of Velasca any longer, Euset turned to Melosa. "Phillipia is dead. And because of this cur so is the brave Tylda."
Fearing this the precursor to something much more horrible, Melosa gasped, "My gods! And my people?"
"They are safe, my queen." Casting one last disdainful look back at Velasca, Euset said, "Fortunately there are still brave young Amazons who know what honor and devotion to duty mean." To Melosa she said, "They saved them--all of them." Euset's eyes sparkled as she said, "You should have seen it, Highness. She set up a perfect ambush."
"Who?" asked Melosa. "Calliope?"
The goatherd shook her graying head. "Calliope was there, but she did not lead."
"It was the daughter of Meelah."
"Ephiny!" Velasca snorted. "You must be joking. That child set an ambush?"
"I saw it!" With a grin she then added, "And on the way I even got one myself. She's waiting there now, for word to return with our people."
Melosa quickly turned to a nearby warrior. "Draganis, take ten warriors and fetch our people home."
Turning to Hyacinth, the brave young warrior who had fought at her side all throught the battle, Draganis grinned and said, "Are you up to coming with me?" Despite herself the solitary Draganis found herself liking this kid.
Naturally Hyacinth jumped at the chance. "Sure!" she blurted out.
As the two warriors departed Euset limped over to Velasca. The old fire of a generation before returning to her eyes, she said, "You should thank the gods that I am not ten years younger because if I was, princess or no, I'd kill you where you stand."
"Euset!" Melosa said sharply.
"My apologies, ma'am," said Euset humbly. "I certainly meant no disrespect to your house."
"I know that," the queen said gently.
It was here that Terreis joined the group at the fire. As her sister expected Terreis had performed brilliantly. Indeed it had been her boldness that had practically forced the advancing army to chase her into the woods. Since the end of the battle she had been helping with the Amazon wounded and compiling a casualty list.
"How bad?" asked Melosa.
Rolling her eyes up in thought, Terreis replied, "Eleven wounded. Pythera says Jasara is the worst. She'll be a long time in healing."
"And the dead?"
"Four," said Terreis. "Kirah, Elsinore, Pylandora..." Here the princess paused.
"By the gods!" Euset gasped. For her it was almost too much to bear. First Phillipia and now this most noble of warriors? That left only Colsethme, Selena, Adele and herself from the old guard who had stood with Queen Antiope in the First Centaur War. Soon, she thought, we'll all be gone.
But that was not the worst of it. "It was an accident," said Terreis.
"What happened?" asked the queen.
"Apparently one of Porticia's warriors, moving up in support, mistook Mycinia for the enemy in the failing light and killed her with a spear."
"Who was this?" Euset demanded.
"No one seems to know," Terreis replied.
"It's not important," said Melosa. "All that matters is that the hand of my right arm has been cut off." And that was how she had always thought of the duo of Colsethme and Mycinia--Colsethe was the strong arm and Mycinia the dextrous, skilled hand.
Out in the darkness they heard the sounds of approaching horses. It was Pycea and her patrol returning.
As she entered the light, Melosa commanded, "Report."
"The enemy has retired back across the river, ma'am," said Pycea. With a grin
she added, "What's left of them."
For Melosa and her Amazons it had been a brilliant victory. It started ominously enough when a suprisingly reluctant enemy failed to pursue Terreis and her band. This was when the princess took the bow from another warrior and boldly rode up to within a stone's throw of the enemy. From her horse she planted arrows into two of the enemy, practically forcing them to chase her.
Over the hill then and across the meadow they raced, Terreis and her band followed by a score of the enemy. Mycinina had expected more and this was why Meelah was so suprised at how few were pursuing the princess. Once in the forest Meelah sprang her trap and within moments three quarters of the enemy was dead. Despite plainly hearing the death cries of their comrades, the enemy's main force still seemed disinclined to give battle and this was where the bellicose Colsethme took matters into her own hands. In an imitation of Achilles at Troy, she tied one of the fallen enemy to a horse and dragged him out into the open for all the invaders to see. There she proceeded to dismount and with a shrill war cry ruthlessly hack the body to pieces right in front of them.
For the enemy this was too much. Enraged, they charged blindly into the forest only to be hammered to pieces by the Amazons of Mycinia and Colsethme. The part that did manage to break free of the fight ran smack into Porticia's forces moving up and were decimated.
As for R'zha and his men moving in from the west, they heard the sounds of battle raging off in the forest as they came to the village. Fully expecting to meet their comrades at the village, the alarmed men rode off straight away to assist the others. Unfortunately for them they soon came into range of Willa's archers with the result that R'zha and most of his men died without ever getting a glimpse of the enemy.
Only the coming of night saved the invaders from total annihilation.
"Shall we prepare for pursuit?" asked Terreis.
"No," the queen replied. "They won't be back. Let us look to our own people. Terreis, I want you to put Mycinia's body on my horse. Tommorow we will send her in glory to the Elysian Fields."
"I will see to it at once," her sister said with a nod.
With disgust Euset angled her head toward Velasca. "What about her?" she asked.
For the queen it was the most difficult of moments. Velasca's mother had been her best friend and ever since adopting her daughter she had always hoped the girl would one day come to understand that being a royal meant so much more than the rank and privilege it afforded. There was soul crushing responsibility that went with it as well. The people depended on their royalty not only for military leadership but to be a moral beacon as well. Unfortunately Velasca was sorely lacking in the latter. Melosa had known all along that she was utterly ruthless, selfish and cruel but had somehow hoped that the virtuous Terreis would be a strong positive influence on her.
Obviously it was not to be. So it was with heavy heart that she said, "Failure to obey the queen's orders in the face of the enemy is by Amazon law an offense punishable by death."
"NO!" Velasca shrieked.
"Dog," Euset rasped, "take your punishment like an Amazon."
"However," Melosa added, "since you are my daughter and since you did perform bravely on the field of battle my judgement is this: You will be banished for the period of three moons. The other two deserters are hereby permanently banished. If you choose to return to us at the end of the three moons you must accept the fact that you will be stripped of all rank. You will no longer be a princess but an ordinary warrior."
"You, you can't do this!" Velasca sputtered. "I'm your daughter!"
Dark eyes staring coldly, Melosa said, "I have no daughter now. Now choose. Death as a princess, permanent banishment or the return as a common warrior."
"You are lucky the queen is so merciful," said Euset. For her mother certainly would not have been!
"All right," said Velasca. "I accept your..." She almost spit out the word. ..."mercy. But know this. When I return I will challenge Terreis for the right to be your heir." She sneered and said, "Even you cannot deny me that."
Coolly lifting an eyebrow, Melosa said, "Terreis will be ready. Now go."
Drawing her lanky frame up to its full height, Velasca turned with eyes straight ahead and strode out into the darkness.
As for Melosa, despite not having lifted a weapon in anger all day she suddenly felt very tired. Rest however was out of the question. There was still so much to do.
Back at the cave Ephiny sat on the hillside with her sword firmly implanted in the ground between her legs. So much had happened! As of yet there still was no word from Melosa. Sitting there in the gloom, she thought of her mother. Please let her be all right! No wait! Of course she's all right! And just wait till she hears what we did. It made her so happy to think of the pride her mother would feel when she learned of what her daughter had done.
Leaning forward, Ephiny set her forehead against the hilt of the sword. So tired! Can't sleep yet. Must wait for word...
Sitting beside her friend, Solari heard Ephiny's breathing become heavier and more rythmic and knew she had fallen asleep. With a smile she whispered very faintly, "Eph, I'm so proud of you. You have done enough today. Rest now. I'll watch for you--for both of us."
It had been a very long day. Epilogue
The next day, when the sun reached its zenith, Melosa, Terreis and the three surviving captains, all dressed in the full regalia of their respective ranks, stepped forward from the queen's logding. With Amazon war drums pounding a thunderous beat, they stoically made their way through the two long rows of Amazon warriors to the funeral pyres where side by side lay Phillipia and Mycinia. Up on a high hill to the west stood teary-eyed Euset, tightly gripping her staff as she leaned on it, watching.
When the little group reached the pyres the drums stopped and with the entire tribe gathering before her, the queen began to speak:
"Amazons...friends, we are here today not to mourn the deaths of Phillipia, Mycinia, and the others but to celebrate their lives. As the years went on the Fates wove a different path for them but each in her own turn spent their entire adulthood in noble service to the tribe. Both gave faithful service to three queens. Mycinia, joyful in spirit, peerless in battle. Phillipia, wise beyond words with matchless devotion to our way of life. Both have earned a place of honor in our hearts and in our history. For as long as Amazons walk the earth they will remember these two...these two perfect examples of what our race can be--of what it should be. Let us therefore give thanks to Artemis that we were fortunate enough to have been graced by their presence; to have been forever touched by their lives. Let us carry in our hearts always what they stood for, what they died for. We cannot hope to replace them for how can we replace the irreplacable? All we can do is carry on as best we can and let the purity of their Amazon spirit guide us. In that way will we survive, just as we always have, just as we always will. Artemis, we ask that you embrace in your blessed arms these two noble spirits that we now joyfully send to you."
With the conclusion of the queen's speech the drums again began to rumble their rythmic beat. Taking a torch from a nearby warrior, Colsethme slowly walked to the pyre where lay her friend of thirty-five years. Never had she expected to do this. Never had she expected that her best friend would cross over the River Styx before her. With eyes that had not known tears for many decades Colsethme lowered the torch and as gently as she could lit the flame. "Good-bye, old friend," she whispered. "I will seek thee on the other side."
It would be the queen herself who would send Phillipia's soul to glory. Just as she turned to accept the torch, she sensed a new presence at her side. It was the daughter of Meelah.
"Highness I am sorry," said Ephiny. "I do not wish to seem disrespectul for that is not my intent."
A little incensed by the girl's forwardness at this most solemn of moments, Melosa curtly asked, "What is it?"
Holding up Phillipia's big sword, the girl said, "I ask that you grant me the honor of placing this by her side."
This surprised Melosa. "But Racillione tells me Phillipia bequeathed it to you. The sword is yours, Ephiny."
The daughter of Meelah shook her curly locks. "No, ma'am. I am not worthy of such a beautiful thing. It is the sword of a noble warrior who has died so that we might live and I am not worthy to touch it. Maybe...maybe some day I will be, but not today."
Squinting at this unusual girl, Melosa's eyes hinted at a newfound respect. "You are wise beyond your years, Ephiny," she said slowly. "Meelah should be very proud of the job she has done in raising you. Very well, in the name of your friend and mine I allow you to do as you ask."
Bowing humbly, Ephiny said, "Thank you, Your Highness." Slowly, almost reverently the girl moved to the pyre and as carefully as she could laid the sword at the side of the old woman who had seen so much in her. As she stepped back Melosa lit the flame.
From her vantage point on the hill Euset, tears streaming down her worn face, held her fist high in the air in one last salute to old friends, to fallen comrades. With the funeral fires edging ever higher, the goatherd did not wait for the rest of the funeral fires to be lit but instead limped down the other side of the hill and out of sight.
Five days later the body of Tylda, half-eaten by scavengers, was found and she too was given hero's funeral, this time with Calliope doing the honors.
Later, in the solemn ceremony where were presented the knots of honor, it was Terreis to whom a very proud queen presented the first one. Draganis got her customary two as did Ephiny's mother, Meelah. Fifteen more warriors got one each, including Colsethme, Willa and the dead Tylda. And last in line, the very last one to receive this ancient symbol of bravery, was sixteen year old Ephiny.
At the next full moon, per Amazon custom, Ephiny, Solari and Pomona received their warrior's masks. Naturally all three of them were very proud but it for Solari that the moment was especially sweet. She had waited so long for this! As a gift for this momentous occasion Meelah presented to Ephiny the staff that her own mother had given to her so long ago on the night that she received her mask.
Though proven in battle, Abisinthe was still just a little too young. However Melosa had personally assured the girl that her mask would be waiting for her once she reached the proper age.
Morda's bones were not found until many years later and as they were thought to be those of the enemy were never given the decency of a burial.
Two nights after the presentation of the masks, a lone Amazon warrior stole out into the forest. Since the death of Mycinia she had barely been able to sleep. It had been she who had plucked up the enemy spear and in the darkness sent it hurtling on its way to strike down Mycinia. No one knew. No one had seen it. But Porticia knew for it was she who had killed the great Amazon captain.
And so, unable to cope with the guilt any longer, Melosa's youngest captain sought out the place of her deed and there in the stillness of the night quietly asked for forgiveness before falling on her sword.
The battle had claimed its last casualty.