Chapter Nine: Secrets of the Sword
Aradia watched the Romans advance from the summit watchtower. They bore the standards of Aurelian and the Emperor. Aradia felt her stomach sink at the sight of the Imperial Eagle. The Legions were still at least a day away, but Aradia felt a sense of urgency. She just wanted this over with, one way or another.
The thought of being captured again almost threw her into a panic.
"No way," she whispered to herself. "I will fall on my sword first." Then she felt a cold fear wash over her at the thought of Aryn in Roman hands, Roman chains. "I will kill her myself before I will ever let happen to her."
The queen turned to see Thraso standing there. Her hair was tousled and her face was flushed by exertion.
"Yes, Thraso?" said Aradia.
"We have surprise for you," said Thraso, beaming. "Can you come with me?"
"Of course," said Aradia, frowning in puzzlement.
She followed her Second in Command down to the lower where she was greeted by a platoon of Amazon Warriors on horseback.
"What ... how did you ...?" began Aradia, stunned almost speechless.
"Aryn told me that the Kaskan patrols were mounted," began Thraso, almost breathless with excitement. "I started thinking. The Kaskans were never horsemen - not like their neighbours, the Scythians. They must have stolen the Amazon horses. I went to the old stables and just beyond the paddock, I found a trail, mostly hidden by trees and brush. It led down and into the valley to where these were running wild. A cavalry unit should give us a bit of an advantage over the Romans, shouldnt it Aradia?"
"It will help indeed," said the queen. "Thraso, this wonderful - except for one thing."
"Whats that?" said Thraso.
"That trail you mentioned is a breach in our defences," said Aradia. "No matter how well hidden."
"Ive already thought of that," said Thraso, grinning. "We need to keep it open to move the horses from the stables to the battlefield, but I have posted a squad to defend it. I kept it small enough to keep hidden, so they wont draw attention to the trail itself, though."
"You are incredible, Thraso," said Aradia, smiling at her proudly. "I am so happy I chose you for my Second."
Thraso blushed and grinned happily. Then she signalled to the mounted warriors and they rode off towards the old stables.
"I would like to see this hidden trail," said Aradia as they watched the horses ride off.
"Of course," said Thraso, leading her. "Aryn was there when we got the horses. She wants one."
"Naturally," said Aradia, chuckling. "What did you tell her?"
"To ask you, of course," said Thraso.
"Of course," said Aradia. "I think when this is over, I will let her try for one of the wild herd. If she can train and ride, she can keep and care for the horse."
"Thalia was a rider, wasnt she?" asked Thraso.
"Yes," said Aradia. "Leader of the cavalry."
"You were a rider, too, as I recall," said Thraso.
"That was a long time ago," said Aradia, shaking her head.
"For them, too," said Thraso, nodding in the direction the horses had gone. "But they said the body never forgets. Oh, Aradia, you should have seen them! They just vaulted on the backs of the wild herd and rode like the wind. It was like magic!"
"It is magical - the feeling of riding is incredible," said Aradia, thoughtfully. "Maybe I will take Aryn to get her horse before the battle - and get one myself. Perhaps I should lead the Amazons on horseback."
"Oh, Aradia, that would be a sight to see," said Thraso, wistfully.
"You think so?" said Aradia, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, yes - the Amazons would love it," said Thraso. "Aurelian is mounted, isnt he?"
"Yes," said Aradia, shortly. "Where is Aryn?"
"With Mhari," said Thraso, quickly looking away from Aradia.
"Doing what?" asked the queen. Thraso shrugged. "Am I going to be annoyed by the answer to that question, Thraso?"
"Its not for me to say," said the warrior.
"Why not?" asked Aradia.
"I was asked not to," said Thraso.
"I see," said Aradia. Unwilling to ask her Second in Command to betray a confidence, she kept silent the rest of the way to the hidden trail.
Suddenly, Thraso stopped and pointed. "There," she whispered. She let out a peculiar whistle and the Amazons set to guard the trail emerged from their hiding places and saluted their queen.
"Thraso, thats not like any bird I ever heard around here," Aradia said with an amused chuckle.
Thraso grinned and shrugged. "Theres the trail," she said, pointing again.
"I dont see it," said Aradia, walking closer. She had to push vines and brush away to see a faint trail leading down to the valley. It was only slightly less treacherous than the climb up the steep rock wall to the lower town, but it was, indeed, a trail. Aradia made her way down it, followed by Thraso. Again the Second in Command whistled and the Amazons guarding the bottom stepped out and saluted.
Aradia looked around at the bottom of the trail and saw the valley opened wide before her. Tall grasses waved and the scent of the water from the river came to her, bringing bittersweet memories from that time before. She caught another scent, as well, the scent of horses. Aradia looked to see a great herd, still grazing riderless. Then one in particular caught her eye. Tears sprang up and Aradia whispered, "It cant be."
"Whats wrong?" asked Thraso, alarmed.
"That mare - the black one," said Aradia.
"Oh, yes," said Thraso. "She cant be caught - believe me, the others tried. Magnificent, isnt she?"
"More than magnificent," said Aradia, never taking her eyes from the midnight black mare. "Shes either my horse or her daughter. Bring Aryn to me - now, please."
Thraso signalled to a couple of the guards who swiftly made their way up the trail. "Do you want a halter and bridle?" she asked.
"No - not necessary," said Aradia, watching the mare prance among the herd, a queen in her own right. It was only a few moments before Aryn arrived, escorted by the sentries, but for Aradia, time froze.
"Did you want me, Aradia?" asked the girl, breathless from her swift descent down the trail.
"Watch - and learn," said Aradia, slowly approaching the herd.
"Wait," said the girl, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a large red apple. Aradia looked at her in surprise and nodded approvingly before taking the apple.
The queen walked among the horses, unafraid of the huge beasts looming all around her until she came close to the black mare. The mare saw her, watching warily, looking for a bridle or something like the other Amazons had carried into their midst. The other horses, scenting the apple in Aradias hand, gathered close to the Amazon queen, but the mare, the object of the queens focus, tossed her head and sidestepped away.
"Come on, Beautiful, you know you want it," Aradia, crooned, holding the red fruit out to her. "Been a long time since youve had one of these, hasnt it? Come on, Sweetheart, take it."
The mare looked at the queens offering, then sidestepped away, whinnying a warning.
"Come on, take it from me," whispered Aradia, skilfully manoeuvring the mare away from the rest of the herd. Aryn watched, tensely silent, both fists clenched tightly down at her sides. She closed her eyes, willing the horse to come to Aradia. For what seemed like hours, Aradia stood, her arm outstretched, the apple resting on her open palm. Finally the mare bowed her head and lipped the apple into her mouth. Aradia smiled widely and stroked the long neck, allowing the mare to finish her treat before swinging herself up onto the horses back. The mare reared up, trying to toss the burden off of herself, but Aradia clung tightly with both knees pressed into the black flanks. Horse and rider sped across the open field in a mad ride, circling both herd and Amazons several times before the mare finally tired and came to rest at the foot of the trail, Aradia still clinging to her back. Her hair was wild, her eyes sparkling and she smiled brightly as she rode up the narrow trail to the stables.
Thraso and Aryn followed her on foot and watched as Aradia crooned gently to the mare, walking her back and forth in front of the stables for a bit before dismounting to lead her within. Aryn watched as Aradia led the mare to a clean stall and began to rub her down, speaking softly all the while.
"Aryn, find a brush," said Aradia. "And bring some more of those apples."
Aryn nodded and ran off. She returned with an armful of supplies, all given to her by the other riders. Aradia grinned and plucked a brush from the top of the pile. "You can set those things on the shelf over there," she told the girl. Aryn did as Aradia told her, then stepped up beside her foster-mother to watch.
"What are you doing, Aradia?" she asked.
"Watch and learn - again," said Aradia. When she was finished, the black mare shone in her stall, munching sweet oats and apples.
"Thraso said that she might be your old horse, Aradia," said Aryn. "Is she?"
"No," said Aradia, shaking her head a bit sadly. "No, shes too young to be Kalika, but I believe she must be one of her daughters. I think Ill still call her Kalika, though."
"She sure is beautiful," said Aryn, looking at the mare, wistfully.
"Yours will be just as beautiful to you, Little One," said Aradia.
"Really, Aradia?" said Aryn, excitedly. "You mean I can have a horse?"
"If you can catch and train it, then yes, you may ride and care for it - but always remember that she will be your friend and battle companion - not your property," said Aradia.
"Oh," said Aryn, nodding. "Yes, I know what you mean - like Hekau. I know that shes ... well, Who She is, but I miss her as a cat."
"So do I," said Aradia, giving the mare a final pat. "Damn rodents are all over the place."
"No, its not just that," said Aryn. "I could tell Hekau anything. She made me feel warm ... and safe. I cant explain it."
"I know what you mean," said Aradia, looking up at Kalika and stroking her velvety face. "You can still tell her anything, you know - its called prayer."
"Its not the same," said Aryn, looking down.
"I know," said Aradia, turning to the girl and putting an arm around her shoulders. "You will feel that way again, Aryn."
"I know, but right now, I feel pretty much alone, Aradia," said the girl, quietly.
"Well, small comfort that it might be, you do have me," said the queen.
Aryn looked down. "Unless of course, you would prefer otherwise," continued the queen.
Aryn looked up at her and shook her head. "Oh, no Aradia!" she said, quickly. "It isnt that. Im afraid."
"Of what?" asked the queen.
"Of you dying in battle," said Aryn. "That scares me more than even dying in battle myself." Aradia pulled the girl into a hug.
"I wish I could promise you that wont happen," she said, quietly.
"I know you cant," said Aryn. "You never make promises that you dont know for sure you can keep."
"Not anymore," said Aradia, grimly. "Come with me, Aryn."
She took the girls hand and led her to the summit watchtower. "Look. There they are," she said, pointing to the Roman army, marching ever closer.
"Oh, Sweet Artemis," Aryn whispered, clutching the rough stone rim of the watchtower. Her eyes widened at the sight of the eagle standard. Suddenly, in a wave of dizziness, Aryn felt herself carried back in time.
Long before the Amazons became a Nation, before the Goddess had any name save, "Mother", Her people were children of the Earth. They lived as one with their mother, the Earth and with one another, as well as Her other children. Above all, they honoured the mothers as the source of all life.
The Aryn saw a cloud of dust rising on the horizon, beaten from the earth by the hooves of a hundred or more horses. Their riders came and attacked the gentle people, slaughtering them and conquering the land which had been their mother. They prayed to the male gods of the sky and did not honour the Mother at all. They hunted those who had escaped, but the people who fled took refuge in the caves, the womb of their mother. There, they left a record of who they had been before the raiders came. Then they were re-born as warriors from the earth. They rose and fought their conquerors, but still they were pushed north to the frozen steppes.
Aryn saw them, now mounted as were their mortal enemies, then a voice came to her, whispering in her ear, "No, my Child - that is enough. You are too young to be burdened with this knowledge ...." And the images faded from before Aryns eyes.
"Aryn, are you alright?" asked Aradia, alarmed.
Aryn looked up at the queen and nodded. She looked at her hands, knuckles white, clutching the rim of the watchtower and slowly released, welcoming the burning aches as sensation returned to her hands.
"Im sorry - theres just so many of them," said Aryn.
"Yes, there are," said Aradia. "There must be at least three legions down there - they outnumber us, two to one. But thats not the worst - look there - at that wagon theyre pulling. Do you see whats on it?"
"Some kind of ... machine?" said Aryn.
"That is a siege engine - or catapult, if you will," said Aradia, her lips pressed together. "We are hardly prepared for that."
"They wouldnt have gotten that through the trees if we were still in the tree village," said Aryn.
"No, but they would have felled every tree in Artemis sacred forest if we had stayed there," said Aradia.
"What are we going to do? We havent had time to store enough food for a siege," said Aryn.
"The three cisterns are full and they cant reach them - even with that catapult thingy - but we wont have enough to feed all the Amazons."
"They know that - see the extra supply wagons?" said Aradia. "They think we will surrender when we get hungry enough - thats how Aurelian works. Bastard."
"How did they even know we were here?" asked Aryn.
"Well, it was only a matter of time before they figured it out - remember, we almost expected them to be here waiting for us both trips," said Aradia.
"You dont really believe that, though," said Aryn, looking intently at the queen.
"No, but its far preferable to the alternative," said Aradia with a sigh.
"That we were betrayed again," said Aryn.
"Yeah," said Aradia, quietly. "Come on - we have things to do."
"What can we possibly do against that?" asked the girl, looking again at the Romans, marching inexorably towards the Amazon city.
"Im about to show you," said Aradia, grimly.
The two made their way down the upper town, stopping briefly to collect Mhari. They descended the steps to the lower town and Aradia brought Mhari to the paddock to show her the horses.
"How splendid!" cried the shamenki. "That should even the odds a bit."
Aryn looked at her, then shook her head.
"What is it, Child?"
"Aradia took me to the summit tower," she said quietly.
"Ah, I see," said Mhari, her eyes twinkling. "And you think well need more than a few mounted warriors?"
"They have a catapult," Aryn told her, her eyes wide.
"And we have this," said Aradia, scooping up a handful of fresh horse manure.
"Ew, Aradia, thats gross," said Aryn, wrinkling her nose.
"Oh, no - its beautiful," said the queen, her eyes gleaming.
"It is?" asked Aryn,
"Yep - and I think it will affect the length of the siege theyre planning," said Aradia, dropping the manure and wiping her hands on a rag. "I think we need to round up the rest of that herd, though - no sense in letting the Romans have access to them."
"Good idea," said Mhari, looking at Aradia and frowning in concern. She shook her head and started back up towards the upper town.
"What are you going to do with that?" asked Aryn, pointing to the lump of horse manure.
"Dip our arrows and a few darts in it," said Aradia, going to the stables and washing her hands in a basin.
"Why?" asked Aryn.
Aradia looked at her closely for a moment before answering. "Horse manure carries a poison in it," she said slowly, gauging the girls reaction. "The poison causes a slow, painful death if it enters under the skin."
"Yes, that would shorten a siege, if all the warriors got sick," said Aryn, nodding.
"Well, not all the warriors hit with the poison arrows or darts would get sick - especially the cavalry and others who have been around horses a lot," said Aradia. "But it gives us just that much more of an edge. Obviously they are planning a siege and we are not prepared - weve not been here long enough to build up any food stores."
"We have plenty of water - the cisterns are full and inaccessible to the Romans - even by catapult," said Aryn. "Anything that can shorten the Romans stay here, Im for it."
"Are you sure, Aryn?" asked Aradia. "The men infected will die a horrible death."
"It isnt clean, but what they intend for the Amazons is far worse," said the girl, grimly. "Yes, Aradia, Im sure."
"Very well," said Aradia with a sigh.
"Can I help with the horses?" asked Aryn.
"Naturally," said Aradia. The two went and gathered the other horsewomen. Aradia mounted Kalika, then pulled Aryn up behind her. "Hold on tight!"
The riders made their way down the trail to the valley below. Aradia rode into the centre of the herd of wild horses and deposited Aryn in their midst.
"Aradia, wh- what are you doing?" asked the girl looking at the horses, rearing up all around her.
"No fear, Aryn - they'll smell it on you and run away," said Aradia, flashing her a grin before riding off.
Aryn took a deep breath. She looked at all the horses surrounding her until her eyes locked on the soft, liquid brown eyes of a beautiful chestnut mare with a gold mane and tail. Aryn released the breath with a sigh of pure delight.
"Oh," she whispered, enraptured by the sight. Aradia saw the object of Aryn's attention and smiled. The mare stood a little apart from the rest of the herd. Aradia signaled to the other riders and they began the gather the rest of the herd to drive them up the trail to the paddock.
Aryn began to slowly walk towards the mare, oblivious to all else. "Oh, please come to me," she whispered as she approached. She pulled a shiny red apple from her pocket and held it out, just as she had seen Aradia do. The mare saw the girl and her offering and watched Aryn's approach warily.
Slowly, horse and girl approached one another. Aryns focus narrowed until only those two existed. She heard both hearts beating in harmony, like a shamenkis drum. Aryn saw herself on the back of this exquisite creature, the two of them riding across the open fields. She smelled the fresh grass as it turned up under the mares hooves. She felt the wind in her face, blowing through her hair.
At last the mare bent her head and gently took the fruit from Aryns hand, allowing the girl to stroke her neck as she ate it.
"Stand by, Princess," said one of the riders, approaching with bridle and halter in hand. Aryn raised one hand to her.
"No, she doesnt need that yet," said the girl, never taking her eyes from the horse. Aradia rode up to them.
"Aryn, you do not yet have the skill or the strength to ride her without those," she said.
"Kaiyanta doesnt want that thing on her head - at least not yet," said Aryn, looking up at her foster-mother with pleading eyes.
"Kaiyanta?" Aradia raised one eyebrow, but motioned the others to back off away from the mare and the girl. Aryn moved closer still, still rubbing the mares neck and gazing into her eyes. Finally, the mare knelt, allowing the girl to climb upon her back. Aryns eyes shone as the horse rose back up.
"Isnt that the damnedest thing!" said another rider called Tuva as Aradia put the halter and bridle on the mare for Aryn. "You ever seen anything like that, Danaela?"
Danaela, an older cavalry member who had survived the Battle of Chadesia chuckled. "Sure," she said. "Her mother Thalia had that way with horses. Thats how she came to be cavalry leader and finally, Aradias Second."
"Heh, I heard Thalia became Aradias Second on the merit of her other skills," said a younger rider, smirking.
"You shut your disrespectful mouth, Dosa," said Danaela, sternly.
"Well thats what I heard," said Dosa, sullen at her scolding. "I heard that Thalia caught the queens eye and - "
"Dosa, will you shut up?" said Tuva through clenched teeth, looking past her. Dosa turned to see Aradia standing behind her, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, no - by all means, Dosa, pray continue," said the queen. "Im terribly interested in what you heard - and from whom."
"I ... I ... it was really nothing," said Dosa, looking down.
"Really? Nothing? So why repeat it? You know, in the old days, an Amazon convicted of causing harm by her gossip was sentenced to drink a scalding brew of tongue-bane - rendered the gossip mute for about three days. The Gorgons are a bit more harsh in their punishment. They take a wooden pin about so," Aradia held finger and thumb a few inches apart to indicate the size, "and the use it to pierce through the tongue and both lips. Then they fasten it by a means even I dont want to know about. They leave her that way for, oh, I dont know, a few months, feeding her through a hollow tube until she is left with a permanent hole in her tongue and lips. They feel that any gossip will fall through those holes before it falls upon the ears of others."
Aradia looked at Dosa for a moment to gauge the young womans reaction to her words. Dosa looked at her, eyes wide.
"I - I didnt mean to -" she began. Aradia held up one hand, silencing her. She was aware of Aryn listening behind her.
"I, on the other hand, believe that the best way to dispel gossip is with the truth," she said. "Thalia was my Second in Command because she was the very best one to lead the Amazons after me. Thats the plain simple truth of it. Anything else we were to each other is nobody elses business. Are we clear on this, Dosa?"
"Yes, your majesty," said Dosa, dipping her head in a quick bow.
"Good - come on, we have work to do - I want these horses in the paddock before sundown," said Aradia, motioning for the women to get moving. She waited until she and Aryn were alone at the foot of the trail. "You okay, Kiddo?"
"Yeah, Im fine," said Aryn, gently patting Kaiyantas flank.
"Listen, Aryn, what Dosa said about your mother and me - " began Aradia.
"Like you said, its nobody elses business - not even mine," said the girl, smiling up at her foster mother. "We should probably get up there, huh?"
"Yeah, you okay to ride?" said Aradia.
"Were fine," said Aryn, starting up the trail. Aradia followed, shaking her head.
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