Chapter Five : Visions of the Sword
With a sigh, Aradia stepped into the arena, taking up a wooden practice sword as she went and began drilling against a practice dummy.
Thraso arrived and watched her for a few moments. The queen moved with deadly grace and precision, "killing" the straw mannequin many times over. Thraso noticed that Aradias eyes were empty of all life and spirit. It was as if the queens body was a puppet and Aradia herself controlled the strings from somewhere far away. Her face held neither the passion nor the determination of the other Amazons in the arena, all involved in their own practice drills. Aradia moved as if by rote, though she made her killing strokes with a graceful flick or flourish.
The Second in Command waited until Aradia took a water break before approaching.
"I thought you werent entering the competition?" she said, wiping the queens face and neck with a linen towel.
"I wasnt, but I have it on excellent authority that Myrina is coming to challenge me," said Aradia, her voice quiet and devoid of emotion. She shook off her Seconds ministrations with an annoyed sigh. "Sorry, Thraso, Im not very good company right now. In fact, Im downright lethal to be around." Aradia left to her treehouse. Thraso watched her walk away, then shook her head and picked up her practise sword to spar with some of the others who were practising in the arena - and to do a little strategic rumour control.
Aradia climbed the rope ladder and sat down at her table. The Tournament was tomorrow and she didnt want to fight. As soon as Artemis had asked her, though, her decision had made, despite her refusal. She had just needed the goddesss explanation to justify that decision.
"What am I?" she said to herself. "Do I really enjoy fighting and killing?" She put her head into her hands. "By the gods, what have I become?"
She wished for Thalia, but knew that her dead Second in Command would not come to her, not here. Perhaps in the old place, but not here where she had returned after becoming a monster. Roma had created her in its image - a murderer.
You dont have to kill her. Thalias voice spoke in her head. Aradia jumped, looking around the treehouse. Thalia was nowhere to be seen.
"No surprise there," Aradia muttered to herself. Still, whether the words came from Thalias spirit or from somewhere deep within her mind, buried there long before she had been tainted by Rome, they were true words.
The Tournament was intended to build morale among the Amazons. Already with the sudden forced re-location of the majority of the women, that goal was thwarted; yet Aradia still felt obligated to go through with hosting the games. She could not cancel them now, especially since sending the message which allowed Myrina to compete.
Aradia arose and began to pace. "I dont have to kill her," she said. "I wish I knew that were true. I just dont know if I can stop myself once I step into that space. Oh, Thalia, how I wish you were here with me! You could always make me see what I needed to see. You could always show me the light even in the darkest of situations. I need your vision and guidance now - oh, gods, I just need you!"
Aradia felt hot tears making her eyes and throat ache terribly. She sat down again and again lowered her head into her hands, holding the weeping at bay until the ache passed. Aradia dropped her hands from her hot face and went to bed feeling completely drained. She was so exhausted she was asleep as soon as her eyes closed.
The queen found herself walking through the forest. She looked down and saw to her mild surprise that she was completely naked. Still, she kept walking. The trees loomed huge and ancient over her head creating a living canopy through which the light filtered, casting a greenish glow over everything. Small unseen creatures made their presence known to Aradia with their furtive hiding sounds in the brush and leaf covering and in the leafy tree tops above.
As she walked, Aradia became aware of the cool breeze caressing her skin like a lover. She smelled the gentle decay of the fallen leaves under her bare feet and the rich earth beneath the fallen leaves. She could hear the wind singing through the living green leaves high above her. She heard the twittering of birds and the buzzing of insects all around. Then she heard another sound that was not of the forest, but was still a part of this place. It was Thalias voice singing a lullaby.
Aradia came upon her sitting on a rock. In her arms, she cradled the Sword of Artemis and crooned. She looked up as Aradia approached and smiled.
"Thalia, what are you doing?" asked the queen. "What is this place? Am I dreaming?"
"Perhaps you are, Aradia, but what are dreams?" said Thalia arising and approaching her.
"Leftover garbage from the waking day?" asked Aradia, shrugging.
Sometimes, maybe," said Thalia with a chuckle. "Dreams are sometimes messages from our deeper mind, messages which our waking mind cannot always comprehend. Sometimes they are messages from the spirit realm or even the gods at times."
"So, are you here to give me a message?" asked Aradia, frowning.
"What do you think?" said Thalia.
"I think I would like a straight answer, Thalia," said Aradia impatiently.
"Dream messages aren't like that, Aradia," said Thalia, shaking her head slightly. "Haven't you ever noticed how distorted things are in dreams? And yet, within the dream, it all makes sense, even distorted."
"Only to be forgotten or confused again when the dreamer awakens," said Aradia, nodding in agreement.
"I'm sorry, Ari'; the answers you seek must come from within <you>. I cannot just tell you," said Thalia.
"What is the point of this dream?" asked Aradia, frowning.
"Perhaps I just missed you and needed to see you again," said Thalia.
"Thalia, I " began Aradia. She looked down and saw that she was wearing the tattered rags she had worn on her flight from Rome. "I miss you, too. A part of me died the day you did."
"I know Aradia, but that part must be resurrected - for my daughter's sake, if not your own.," said Thalia. "You are her guardian now. I'm counting on you to help her realise her destiny."
"What destiny is that?" asked Aradia.
"That is yet to be written," said Thalia with a smile. "But I believe she is to be great."
"Of course," said Aradia, returning the smile. "She is your daughter."
"And now she is yours as well," said Thalia, handing the Sword of Artemis to Aradia. As soon as the Amazon Queen's hand touched the hilt, the Sword turned into a silver key.
"What ?" said Aradia, turning the key over in her hand.
"Remember, Aradia - the symbol is the language of dreams, but the reality is life," said Thalia as a silver chariot drawn by a winged dragon appeared behind her. Thalia turned and walked toward the chariot then stopped and turned back to Aradia with a wistful smile. "Ari', please don't forget me - and please don't let my daughter forget me, either."
"Never," Aradia whispered, tears streaming from her violet eyes. Thalia turned again and stepped into the chariot which then flew off.
Aradia sat up in the dark of her treehouse, tears still flowing from her eyes, the key clutched in her left hand. She looked at it in wonder.
"What does it all mean?" she whispered into the dark.
Aryn felt her frustration with the Amazons growing. They had arisen just before dawn and she had been struggling with them for the better part of the morning. The Amazons were apprehensive about leaving the cover of the forest for the wide open fields which stood between them and their home.
"And I thought the hard part would be the climb," she commented to one of the warriors. "Does Initiation confer such cowardice?"
"Dont be so hard on them, Aryn," said the warrior with a sympathetic smile. "Most of them have been through all four of the hells since the battle of Chadesia. They have found their Amazon selves again and they are terrified of losing it."
"Amazons arent afraid," said Aryn.
"On the contrary - most of us have known nothing but fear for the last ten years," said the warrior. "Fear of discovery by the Kaskans, mostly. But also fear of betrayal by a sister after the Gorgons treachery. Fear of being abandoned by the goddess - they have known such fear and despair over the years. They have lived through it, though, and the last thing these women are is cowardly."
"I didnt know," said Aryn, quietly. "In the village, the Kaskans were terrible - and I think Silas was more afraid than I was that they would learn who I really was, but I have never known such fear as they have. Im sorry I judges them so harshly. But we still need to get moving - well never make the town before nightfall otherwise."
"I wonder what Aradia would do?" asked the warrior.
"Or even Thraso - she can always get the Amazons to do what needs to be done," said the girl, thoughtfully. "Ill go and talk to Mhari. We have to figure something out fast."
The girl made her way to the shamaness, who was strapping a pack on her back. She stood amidst the elders, who were already packed up and ready.
"Ah, Aryn," said the older woman, smiling in delight at the sight of the girl. "We thought it might be easier if we went in groups - the elders are volunteering to go first."
"Artemis bless you, Mhari," said Aryn, relieved.
"Well, we thought if someone went first, it might help the others," said one of the elders. "And since we have the least to lose ..."
"Dont say that," said Aryn. "Nothing is going to happen to you - I wont let it - Im going with you."
"Aryn, you - " began Mhari.
"No, I promised Aradia I would look out for you, Mhari - Ill come back and make the trip with each group, but I am going with you," said Aryn.
"As you wish, Child," said the shamaness with a sigh. "But by the end of the day, you will probably regret it."
Aryn moved swiftly through the Amazons, putting them in groups of one hundred and assigning a platoon of warriors to escort each group.
"There are groves of hazelnut trees growing wild at the foot of the hills," said Aryn. "I want everyone to wait there until all the groups have come across the fields. Well make the climb together."
Aryn stayed close by Mhari as they led the group of the elders, flanked by the platoon of warriors, across the wide open fields. The elders spoke rarely during their trek. They looked around the familiar surroundings with a quiet joy. They were coming home.
Aryn saw the group safely to the grove of hazelnut trees at the foot of the steep hills they must later climb, then returned for the next group. She looked back at the women and was struck with the thought that this was the last time most of those women would make the impending climb. She thought of Mhari and realised that the old shamaness would never again leave the town. Quickly, she brushed away the tears which sprang to her eyes before the warrior who had insisted upon accompanying her could see them.
The young girl made the trip back and forth seven more times. As Mhari predicted, she was utterly exhausted by the time all of the groups were in the hazelnut groves, waiting to make the climb. By consensus, the Amazons decided to wait until dawn to climb the steep hills to their home and Aryn was grateful. It was dusk and they would have been foolish to try it in the growing darkness as tired as they all were. Instead, the women made a cold camp just below the hills. No fires were lit and most of the women were sleeping at least two to a bedroll. Aryn snuggled down next to Mhari, Hekau purring between them, sharing her feline warmth between the two.
Suddenly, Aryn was startled awake. She sat up and looked around, seeing the sentries patrolling the perimeter. With a sigh, she lay back down, but could not go back to sleep. Something was still not quite right. She sat up again and felt Mharis chest. The slight rise and fall of her breathing eased the young girls mind somewhat. Still, something was amiss, Aryn could feel it. She arose and walked over to one of the patrolling sentries, a woman she didnt recognise which was strange.
"Princess," said the sentry, smiling at her.
"Just call me Aryn, please," said the girl.
"Very well. What are you doing awake?" asked the sentry.
"I dont know," said Aryn, frowning. "Something woke me, but I dont know what ..." She looked to see another sentry whom she didnt recognise approaching.
"Never mind - were watching over you," said the first sentry, softly. "You will be safe. Right, Anu?"
"Very safe," said the second sentry. "Absolutely no one will pass by us."
"So you can rest easy, Little One," said the first sentry, gently brushing Aryns hair out of her eyes.
"Okay," said Aryn, feeling suddenly very sleepy. She went back to her bedroll and curled up next to Hekau. The cat was sitting up, staring at the sentries on patrol with some intensity. Then she yawned and stretched. She walked over to the sentries, sniffing, then looked back at Aryn who was once again fast asleep.
"Hm, nice disguise, Lady," said the first sentry, bending to pet the cat. Hekau stretched once again, then stood up as the woman who had freed Aradia from the Gladiator barracks.
"Dont ever pet me, Thraso," said the woman, glaring. Then she broke into a grin. "Its one thing for those who know no better, but you do."
"Sorry, Lady," said Thraso returning the grin with a shrug.
"You Amazons," said the woman, shaking her head. "I love the way your reverence is so tempered with your mirth."
"You made us this way, Lady," said Anu.
"Yes, I did, though my reasons at the time escape me now," said the lady, smiling fondly at the two. "Dawn is near. I think they are safe enough now - you may go."
"Lady," said Thraso, glancing at the sleeping Aryn.
"Of course - go ahead, Thraso," said the lady, kindly. Thraso went to her daughters bedroll and knelt, gently brushing the girls dark hair away from her face and kissing her forehead. Mhari sat up, startled, then smiled.
"Careful - shell see you," said the shamenki.
"She already did," whispered Thraso, looking wistfully at her daughter. "She just didnt recognise me. I thought she might but ..."
"Shes young and untrained, Thraso," said Mhari.
"I know - but Im sure youll remedy the last," said Thraso, smiling.
"Perhaps," said Mhari, frowning. "If there is time. But as always, that will be for the goddess to decide."
"Of course," said Thraso. She arose and looked to the pinkening east. "I must go - good-bye, Mhari - I will see you again."
The warrior walked towards the brightening sky and disappeared from Mharis sight. The <shamenki> sighed and lay back down to sleep, dreamlessly, until morning.
Aradia arose from her fitful sleep unrested and unready for the day. Still, she got up, splashed water on her face and dressed in fighting leathers, then made her way to the armoury. Thraso intercepted her.
"Aradia, are you alright? You look terrible!" she said.
"Thanks," said Aradia, continuing on to the armoury, which was located next to the Tournament Arena.
"Im sorry - I didnt mean it like that," said Thraso.
"I know," said Aradia, hefting a sword and swinging it experimentally. She set it down and picked up another. "Have the Gorgons arrived yet?"
"Not yet, but I have assigned a special group to greet them and escort them to the arena when they do," said Thraso.
"Good," said Aradia, testing yet another blade.
"Aradia are you alright?" asked Thraso.
"I just want this over with," said Aradia, wearily. Thraso looked down quickly.
"Yeah, I know," she said with a sigh. "This isnt turning out like I thought it would - not at all."
Aradia blinked once, then looked at her Second in Command. "Im sorry, Thraso," she said.
"No, its okay - Im sorry this has become so screwed up," said Thraso. "Damn Gorgons - I hope we kick all of their collective asses - especially Myrinas."
"Well, Ill do my best," said Aradia hefting another sword and swinging it, just barely missing the messenger who came through the armoury door.
"Whoa, your majesty," she said with a slight chuckle. "Myrinas out <there>."
"Theyve arrived, then," said Aradia, nodding once.
"Not they, <she>," said the messenger.
"Myrina came alone? No honour guard? No Second?" said Thraso, frowning.
"Nope," said the messenger. "Shes warming up now. Well be starting soon?"
"Yes," said Aradia, nodding to Thraso.
"Right, lets get going," said the Second in Command, leaving the armoury with the messenger.
"Blessed solitude," Aradia whispered as she finally found a sword to suit her. "Alright Artemis - if I have to fight, so be it; if not, that would be even better."
The queen emerged from the armoury and made her way to her seat on a dais at the end of the arena. Aradia kept her disappointment to herself, knowing Thraso must be even more disappointed than she as she gazed out over the empty spectator seats. She scanned the faces of the few hundred remaining Amazons, all of whom were competing in the Tournament. There, standing a little apart from the rest of the women stood Myrina. Aradia looked appraisingly at the other warrior. She felt Thraso come up beside her and spoke without taking her eyes from her probable opponent. Thraso followed the direction of her queens gaze and swallowed hard. She dropped her own eyes and spoke very quietly.
"Will you announce the games, my queen?"
Aradia looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
"Why dont you do the honours, Thraso? Youve earned it," she said smiling at her. Thraso returned the smile and stepped forward. She raised her arms, calling for silence.
"Let us begin!" she cried and the Amazons cheered - all but Myrina. With a quick, business-like nod she took her place to the side to hear the contest rules and to await the calling of the first match.
Shes going to make me wait for the inevitable, thought Aradia, grimly staring at the Gorgon. She saw Myrina looking at the dais as Aradia took her seat there, the only spectator. Thraso took charge of the games, announcing each match. All Aradia had to do was hand out the prizes to the winners. She glanced at the parchment in Thrasos hand on which she had written the roster of participants, including the Tribal mark of each, inscribed next to the names. Myrina was not yet paired up in a match.
"Thraso, whats going on?" asked Aradia, pointing out the discrepancy on the parchment.
Thraso frowned. "She hasnt declared a challenge against any of the others yet," said the warrior. Aradia sighed.
"Shes counting on one of the Amazons to call her out on the basis of the betrayal," said Aradia, shaking her head.
"The Amazons know better," said Thraso. "Theyve all been ordered to be on their best behaviour around her - and especially since there seemed to be no Gorgons accompanying her."
"You think theres a trap? An ambush of some kind?" asked Aradia.
"What else can I think," said Thraso, quietly. "Sure wouldnt be the first time."
"No, it wouldnt," said Aradia, grimly. "Well, we are prepared for that, but I hope it doesnt come."
"So do I, Aradia," said Thraso, looking at Myrina. Aradia couldnt read what that look meant, but she believed that Thraso meant those words with all her heart.
As the day progressed, Aradia found her focus wandering from the contests before her to the sisters on the road to the old town. She worried for the elders and began to regret that she had made Aryn responsible for Mhari. If anything happened, the girl would be sure to blame herself. Aradia was waiting patiently for Myrina to make a move - something, anything to tell the queen why she was even here.
So far, the Gorgon had simply stood by the side, a little apart from the others, and watched the competitors critically.
"What is she doing, gauging our fighting strength so that she can attack us in the future?" asked Aradia.
"Maybe," said Thraso, grimly. "Though I would have never thought it of her - its far too obvious."
"Hm," said Aradia, watching the Gorgon. "So, what do you think we should do? She came here to compete."
"Well, the way the Tournament is set up, she has to offer a challenge to one of the victors," said Thraso.
"Why dont you go down there and talk to her," said Aradia. Thraso looked at her as if the queen had slapped her. "What? Whats wrong? You said knew her before."
"I - I did," said Thraso. "But ... theres history between us. I dont think shell tell me anything."
"You might be surprised," said Aradia. "Go and talk to her - consider it an order from your queen, Thraso," said Aradia, troubled. She couldnt have her Second in Command intimidated by a potential enemy - no matter what the history between them.
Thraso met Aradias violet eyes with her own dark brown ones for an instant. Aradia read defiance there, as if Thraso was considering refusing the order from her queen. Then Thraso looked away towards Myrina, her jaw setting in determination. "As you wish - my queen," she said and left Aradia, making her way to where Myrina stood. Aradia felt bereft at that moment, as if she had just lost something precious and irretrievable, though she couldnt say what - or why.
As Thraso made her way from the dais to where Myrina stood, her heart pounded and her ears burned. She felt angry with Aradia, though she couldnt say just why - maybe it was the not so subtle reminder of their respective ranks. It wasnt like Aradia to just throw it around like that. Thraso sighed. Aradia was right. She was the queen and Thraso her Second in Command. There was more at stake here than Thrasos personal feelings. Hadnt Aradia just made that painfully clear? Painfully - yes, Thraso was hurt, stung by Aradias apparent disregard for her feelings, but the queen was right - they had to find out why Myrina was here and the Gorgon would be far more likely to reveal her purpose to Thraso than to Aradia.
As Thraso neared, Myrina looked up, her dark brown eyes unreadable. Then the Gorgon grinned at her.
"I was beginning to think the Amazons werent going to acknowledge me until they dragged me down there to tear me apart," she said, chuckling. Thraso smiled back.
"Nah," she said, stopping a few feet away. "We wont tear you apart - at least not until were sure that your warriors arent waiting in the trees to attack as soon as we make a move."
Myrina raised an eyebrow, not sure if her old friend was kidding. "Is that what you think?"
"Of course not," said Thraso. "We already scoured the area - youre the only Gorgon around for miles."
"Figures," said Myrina, shaking her head.
"What did you expect? said Thraso, stepping a bit closer. "Why are you here, Myrina?"
"To compete," said the Gorgon with a shrug.
"With whom?" asked Thraso, producing the roster and unrolling it. "You havent declared a challenge against any of the victors."
"Yet," said Myrina, scanning the contestants who had ceased for a water break.
"So who do you like?" said Thraso nodding towards the circle of warriors, milling around the water carrier.
"You want to wager? asked Myrina.
"No," said Thraso. "Thats hardly fair - I know these women. You dont. I just want to know who youre planning to fight."
"I dont know yet - I havent seen anyone who can offer me a challenge," said Myrina with a shrug.
"Blessed Artemis, Myrina - your hybris hasnt shrunk an iota," said Thraso, angrily. Her only reply was another shrug. "Aradia could kick your ass from here back to Hesperia."
"But Aradia isnt competing, is she? said Myrina.
"Say the word," said Thraso, hotly.
"Fine, the word," said Myrina.
"Oh, you are impossible!" said Thraso, calming a bit.
"Does Aradia really want to fight me? asked Myrina, looking intently at Thraso.
"No, she doesnt - Aradia doesnt want to fight anyone in the arena again," said Thraso with a sigh. "But she will if she has to."
"What about you?" asked Myrina. "What do you want?"
"I - me?" said Thraso, frowning. "I never thought about it."
"Yeah, I know," said Myrina. She gazed off into the trees. "All I want is to go home. I miss Hesperia. Ive been here since I was a kid and all I can ever think of the lake."
"Why dont you, then? Go home, I mean?" asked Thraso. Myrina looked at her with a sad smile.
"I would - but the Romans stand in our way," said Myrina. "They are determined to take Amazons back to Rome - it isnt safe for any Amazon or Gorgon on the road."
Thraso frowned, thinking of the Amazon exodus to the old town.
"What?" said Myrina.
"Nothing," said Thraso. "I - I hope you get home safely." She turned to leave.
"Wait." Myrina placed a hand on Thrasos arm to stop her. Thraso felt her skin tingling under the Gorgons touch. Her face flushed and she kept her eyes down.
"For Goddesss sake, Myrina, let me go," said Thraso, not looking at her. Her voice was the merest whisper.
Myrina nodded and took her hand away. She watched Thraso walk back to Aradia.
"I already have," she said, too softly for Thraso to hear her.
"Usually when the god of war chooses a champion, its because shes a fighter - not a lover," said Ares, materialising behind the Gorgon. "Which are you, Myrina?" The Gorgon started and turned around.
"What are you - ?" she began. The god put up one hand.
"Dont worry - youre the only one who can see or hear me," he said.
"Theres no one here worth fighting," said Myrina, looking pointedly at the group of contestants who were playfully fighting over the drinking gourd.
"Aradia is sitting right there," said Ares, pointing to the queen on the dais, watching the Amazons in amusement. "Challenge her now - your patron commands it." Ares disappeared. Myrina rolled her eyes and turned towards the dais. "I saw that," she heard behind her. Myrina turned swiftly, but Ares was not to be seen. Still, she could sense him watching her.
With a sigh, Myrina stepped into the centre of the arena before the next match was called. The Amazons, warned not to confront her except in competition, watched in silence, waiting to see what she would do. All that could be heard was the wind through the trees. Myrina looked up at the dais, her eyes meeting Thrasos for a moment before she turned her attention to Aradia.
"I offer a challenge," she said. Aradia arose and stood in anticipation of the Gorgons next words.
"Name your opponent," said Thraso, stepping forward. A slow grin spread over Myrinas face.
"I choose you, Thraso," she said.
Thrasos eyes widened and Aradia stepped back, chuckling.
"What the hells is so funny?" whispered Thraso.
"Nothing - its just pure relief," said Aradia, sitting back down.
"What am I supposed to do?" asked Thraso, still whispering.
"Go kick her ass - in my name and with my blessings," said Aradia, still smiling in amusement. "To the glory of Artemis."
Thraso set her lips in a grim line and unsheathed her sword, flipping it upright in a swift, practiced move.
"You got it, Aradia," she said, then raised her voice and called out to Myrina, "In the name of Aradia, queen of the Amazons and to the glory of Artemis, I accept your challenge."
The Amazons cheered as Thraso stepped down from the dais and entered the arena. She joined Myrina in the centre of the arena and turned, saluting the queen. Aradia returned the salute and Thraso turned to face her opponent.
"Are you absolutely sure about this?" she asked Myrina. The Gorgon replied with a curt nod and unsheathed her own sword.
"In the name of Ares, I am pledged to fight the Amazon champion," she said.
"Ares?" said Thraso, wrinkling her brow in puzzlement. "What has Ares to do with anything?"
"Im his champion," said Myrina, circling.
"What?" said Thraso as Myrina lunged, thrusting her sword at her. Thraso stepped neatly aside, evading the sword by a wide sweep. "What are you talking about?"
"Ares said if I would enter this Tournament as his champion, he would see that the Gorgons got safe passage back to Hesperia," said Myrina. "Now would you please try and make this look good?"
"I cant believe you!" said Thraso, angrily. "You sold out!" She went in, slashing and lunging. Myrina evaded every strike, smiling at her.
"Thats more like it," she said, causing Thraso to fight even more fiercely. Myrina had to concentrate just to parry her blows. Finally Thraso found an opening and opened a wide gash across the Gorgons cheek, ending the match by drawing first blood.
"I hate you!" Thraso cried, throwing down her sword and walking out of the arena. Myrina watched her go. She raised her hand and felt the blood dripping down her neck.
"Well, this scar should just about match the one I gave you - on your heart," she whispered after the retreating warrior. She turned to the dais and bowed to Aradia, conceding her defeat before leaving the arena and the village of the Amazons to return to the Gorgons.
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