Chapter 9B: Secrets of the Sword
by L. M. Townsend
Disclaimers: Some violence and a little "gory angst".
Aradia oversaw the horses being settled into the paddock outside of the stables. Then she made her way up the steps to the the upper town. The Queen was exhausted after the days work; she wanted nothing more than a hot bath, a warm supper, and a soft bed.
"I suppose I will have to settle for leftover rabbit stew and the bedroll in front of the hearth again," she said to herself with a sigh.
Wearily, Aradia made her way through the crowded streets of the upper town, raising her hand in greeting several times. She opened the door of her house to be greeted with the smells of baking bread and roasting fowl. There was a large wooden bathtub in front of the hearth and Aradia could see the steaming buckets of heated water waiting for her. Mhari was bustling about and greeted Aradia with a wide grin.
"Aryn wanted to surprise you," said the shamenki.
"She did all this?" asked Aradia.
"Most of it," said Mhari. "Remember, she took care of Silas from the time she was little."
"Yeah," said Aradia, allowing Mhari to lead her to her chair before the hearth and hand her a steaming cup of tea. "Listen Mhari, about Silas - "
"You think he betrayed us to the Romans," said the shamenki, sitting in the chair beside Aradia with her own cup.
"I think its a good possibility," said Aradia with a sigh. "How do I protect Aryn from that if its true?"
"Aradia, we dont know that is was Silas," said Mhari, shaking her head. "Whats wrong with you these days? You have never been one to worry so about what might be."
"Maybe if I had, things would have been different," said Aradia, looking down into her cup.
"Oh, for crying out loud, stop it," said Mhari, sternly. "If you are going to keep undermining yourself, maybe you should just step down and let Thraso lead the Amazons."
"Mhari, what - ?" began a bewildered Aradia.
"I will not listen to you whine about how it was all your fault, or if only you had done this or that, things would be different," said Mhari, rising and taking both cups to the kitchen where she continued her scolding of the queen. "Do you really have the hybris to think that you were solely responsible for what happened? Blessed Artemis, Aradia, you are not that key a piece in the great game the gods play with us mortals. Maybe ... if only ... - Im sick of your whining. Get over yourself, Aradia; you are not that important. All you can do is your best and if you keep wondering if thats going to be good enough, then it wont be."
She emerged from the kitchen to see Aradia, red-faced, almost choking, with tears streaming down her face.
"Oh! Oh, my, Aradia!" said Mhari, rushing over to her. "Oh, dear, I didnt mean to sound so harsh! Its just that ...." Then the shamenki realised that the queen wasnt weeping; rather, she was struggling to not burst into laughter. Mhari stood and glared at her until Aradia, wiped her eyes and regained her composure.
"Im sorry," she gasped. "Its just that .... youre absolutely right. My goodness, Mhari, you havent scolded me like that since I was Aryns age."
"You havent needed it since then - until now," said Mhari.
"You are right, though," said Aradia, with a sigh. "I need to do something to change this feeling that no matter what I do, I will fail."
"Yes, you do," said Mhari, pouring the steaming buckets of scented water into the wooden tub. "Tell you what, why dont you have a bath now? I know those horses might possibly be the salvation of the Amazons, but the smell ... "
"Okay, Mhari," said Aradia with a chuckle. "I get it." She looked at the shamenki for a moment. "Some privacy, if you dont mind?"
"Oh, please, Aradia - I use to change your nappies," said Mhari.
"That was a long time ago," said Aradia. "Fine. Stay - just dont say anything."
"About what, Dear?" asked Mhari, as Aradia began to disrobe. Mhari gasped at a series of horrible scars laced all over the queens torso.
"Not a word, Mhari," warned Aradia as she slowly descended into the tub. "Life as a Gladiator is not all glory and acclaim. There are certain punishments if one doesnt perform as expected."
"I see," said Mhari, nodding. "Well, Ill just leave you to your bath and collect Aryn. No doubt shell not mind the bath house for her wash up."
"Just hurry - that dinner smells wonderful and Im starving," said Aradia, leaning back and closing her eyes as Mhari left the house.
Aradia relaxed, breathing in the aromatic scent of the steaming bath. She felt the soreness in her limbs begin to ebb.
"Must be some herb Mhari put in the water," she murmured to herself. There was a pleasant tickling sensation at the back of her neck as the water gently rose and fell in rhythm with her breathing. Her skin tingled and her breathing grew slower and deeper. Aradia felt herself being just at that place before sleep took her, not quite awake, but aware.
Images of every battle shed ever fought replayed before her closed eyes several times. Every possible outcome based upon Aradias actions was shown to her. She watched with detached interest until the Battle of Chadesia replayed itself. Aradia felt her body grow more tense, then consciously, she eased it; this was the one battle she needed to see all the way through.
She and Thalia fought side by side. Suddenly, she felt a blow to her head from behind. She whirled around and saw a Gorgon warrior, a fierce sneer upon her face, attacking her. She moved behind Thalia and the two fought back to back, as did the other Amazons. But it was no use. They were trapped. Briefly she turned her head and saw Thalia was battling one on one with Yarg himself. She saw that Thalias Amazon sword did not have the reach of Yargs long sword, putting her Second in Command at a severe disadvantage. She could only spare momentary glances at Thalia, but it was enough to see that her friend was being hard-pressed as were all the Amazons. Suddenly, she felt Thalia slump against her. She whirled around to see Yarg pulling his sword from her breast. With a howl of pure rage and agony, Aradia turned and began to fight Yarg. Her eyes saw only his blood all over her hands as the way to wash away the grief she felt at the loss of Thalia, but that was not to be. In her blind fury and battle lust, she saw only Yarg. The Gorgons behind her hit her again and again, though Aradia did not feel it, until at last she fell, wounded and unconscious. When she awoke, she was on a Roman slave ship, bound for the Gladiator Arena ...
Again, she and Thalia were fighting side by side. She moved behind Thalia and the two fought back to back, as did the other Amazons. But it was no use. They were trapped. Briefly she turned her head and saw Thalia was battling one on one with Yarg himself. She could only spare momentary glances at Thalia, but it was enough to see that her friend was being hard-pressed as were all the Amazons. Suddenly, she felt Thalia slump against her. She whirled around to see Yarg pulling his sword from her breast. With a howl of pure rage and agony, Aradia turned and began to fight Yarg. Her eyes saw only his blood all over her hands as the way to wash away the grief she felt at the loss of Thalia. She fought the Gorgons first all around her, then turned her attention to Yarg. She fought him one on one, finally running him through. Aradia suddenly saw only darkness as a Gorgon hit her from behind. When she awoke, she was on a Roman slave ship, bound for the Gladiator Arena ...
Aradia fought alone, having left Thalia and Aryn with Silas. One on one, she battled the Kaskan chieftain, Yarg. Suddenly, she heard a familiar voice uttering a blood-freezing battle cry. "Thalia, no!" Aradia screamed as from seemingly nowhere, her Second in Command appeared, fighting at her side.
"You didnt really believe Id stay away from this and let you have all the fun did you?" asked a grinning Thalia. They moved into position, fighting back to back until Aradia felt Thalia slump against her. She whirled around to see Yarg pulling his sword from her breast. With a howl of pure rage and agony, Aradia turned and began to fight Yarg. Her eyes saw only his blood all over her hands as the way to wash away the grief she felt at the loss of Thalia, but that was not to be. She saw herself, run through by Yargs sword, being dragged away and hung on a cross beside Thalia ...
Over and over, the scene replayed itself, but always with the same result; no matter what Aradia did differently in each instance, the result was the same: either defeat and capture or defeat and death. Finally, she saw herself hanging on the cross next to Thalia, dead. She felt no sensation, but watched as the crows came and ate away her flesh, turning her body to mere bones and hair.
"Thats how it should have ended," she whispered to herself. "If defeat was fated from the beginning, I should have died, too."
"You are hopeless," Aradia heard and opened her eyes to see the Great Goddess who had rescued her from the Gladiator cell. Her eyes flashed in anger. "I thought you were stronger than this; that you would be able to overcome this self-pity and self-recrimination for what is clearly not your fault. Evidently, I was wrong. Go on back, then, to what you think you deserve."
Aradia felt cold. She shivered as the chill breeze from the flapping crows wings beat upon her face. They pecked at her tender flesh. She tried to bat them away, but her wrists were securely fastened to the wooden cross-beam.
All of a sudden the crows wore human faces. At first, Aradia saw the faces of all the Amazons who had fallen in the Battle of Chadesia. They cawed at her, harsh recriminations for their deaths. She saw Athtar, cackling madly as she pecked out one of Aradias eyes and flew off with it. A crow wearing Yargs face buried his beak in her belly and tore out her entrails, dragging them along the ground as he flew away with them.
A large, glossy black crow wearing Aurelians face peered at her for a moment, as if it were looking at a particularly revolting insect before taking off her nose. Aradia saw the Roman who had bought her for the arena and beat her when she didnt generate as much money as he expected, fluttering and tearing at her throat. One by one, she saw all those who had fallen before her sword in the arena, friend and foe alike, tearing bits of her off and flying away until there was almost nothing left but her bones.
She turned her head, the bones in her neck creaking and grinding, and looked over to the cross next to her where Thalia hung, dead. Only Thalia was gone. A large crow wearing Thalias face was perched on top of the wooden cross, glaring at her with one yellow eye. She flew at Aradia, perching on her bony shoulder.
"You failed," she rasped at Aradia. "You failed my daughter." Then the crow who wore Thalias face swung down and pecked away at Aradias heart, pulling through the bare ribs before flying off with it.
Then came the wolves. They leapt up and tore her bones down from the wooden cross, grabbing them and worrying at them until every shred of meat was gone, then carrying the dry bones away to the centre of the crossroads. The huge flock of crows awaited them. Aradia somehow continued to see what was happening. The Great Mother stood in the centre of the crossroads, waiting. She gathered the bones from the snarling wolves first and arranged them in their proper order. Then she motioned for the crows, who rose up in the air and descended en masse, covering Aradias skeleton in a blanket of black feathers. They rose up in the air and flew away, leaving only Aradias re-formed, though still lifeless body and the Goddess in the centre of the crossroads.
The Goddess held up her hands and the crow who was Thalia flew down and deposited the heart in them. She perched on the Goddesss shoulder to watch.
"I am the Circle of Re-Birth," she said, bending and placing the heart inside of Aradias chest. "Your soul has been reborn, my daughter; let its wounds and scars be healed so that it may move on and do what you are destined to do."
Aradia sat up with a gasp. The bath water had grown cold. Her skin was wrinkled and water-logged.
"A dream," she whispered, allowing her heart to slow. Then she scowled. "Or a drug-induced nightmare. What in Tartarus did Mhari put in the water?"
She was out of the tub and dressed when Mhari returned with Aryn.
"Did the bath soothe you, Dear?" asked the shamenki, smiling. Aradia merely glared at her. "No? Thats odd. Ah well, are you hungry?"
"Yes, actually, Im starving," said Aradia, her mood lightening a bit.
"Me, too!" said Aryn, her hair still damp from her bath. "I never knew riding was so hard - I thought the horse did all the work. I ache in muscles I never even knew I had."
"Itll pass," said Aradia, smiling proudly at the girl.
"Thats what Danaela said - she served under my mother," said Aryn, serving up the food. "She said that I have my mothers gift with horses - what did she mean by that, Aradia?"
"Your mother had a way with all animals, but especially horses," said Aradia with a wistful smile. "When Thalia rode, it was as if she and the horse were one being. When she worked with the horses, they would do anything she wanted them to - you could almost imagine that she was asking them nicely and they were responding to that. She loved them and they returned that love. You could just feel it."
"With that gift, Thalia could have followed the path of the shamenki," said Mhari, sadly. "Instead, she chose to be a warrior."
"And died for that choice," said Aradia, bitterly. "She wouldnt even hunt - how ironic is that? She could kill a man with a smile on her face, but she wouldnt hunt an animal for food. Said it wasnt fair to use her gift to lure a creature to its death."
"I think I understand," said Aryn, quietly looking down. "Im pretty tired. Is it okay if I just go to bed?"
"Sure," said Aradia, smiling at the girl. "Tell you what, Ill do the washing up; you go ahead and get the bedrolls laid out ... What?" She looked at Mhari and Aryn who were grinning at her.
"No need for the bedrolls," said Mhari. "This girl of ours cleaned the bedrooms and managed to procure fresh, clean mattresses and bedding."
"You ... my, you did have a busy day didnt you, Kiddo?" said Aradia, obviously pleased. "Go on to bed, then. Ill take care of everything out here."
Aryn rose and wearily made her way to her room.
"Mhari, what did you put in that bath water? asked Aradia.
"Just some relaxing herbs, a little rose and lavender for scent," said the shamenki. "Why?"
"I dozed off and had a ... a troubling dream," said Aradia, frowning.
"Well, moon-dark approaches; it is a time for dreams of omens and portents," said Mhari.
"Why must you always be so cryptic?" said Aradia. "As shamenki you can interpret dreams, cant you?"
"Thats what I do, Dear," said Mhari, with a smile. "That and talking to the spirits, of course. What did you dream?"
Aradia recounted the dream with as much detail as she could remember. Already the images were fading from her memory and she struggled with them. Mhari smiled and gently patted her hand.
"The experience of seeing ones body torn apart and put back together is unsettling, isnt it?" she said.
"You could say that," said Aradia. "What does it all mean?"
"Well, if you were younger, I might say that the spirits were calling you to the vocation of a shamenki - and it may be that they are. It sounds like an Initiation. But I think the beginning of the vision is equally, if not more, significant. What do you think that part means?"
"That no matter what I do, if the Amazons are fated to lose this battle, then they will no matter what I do," said Aradia, quietly.
"Hm, I dont think so," said Mhari.
"Then what?" asked Aradia.
"You did not see the outcome of battles to come, only battles of the past," said Mhari. "Unlike the past, the future is infinitely changeable."
"Oh," said Aradia, her eyes widening slightly. "I think ... I think I see. I cant change what happened; the Battle of Chadesia was lost and will remain so, no matter how many times and different ways I re-fight it."
"And the other part?" asked Mhari, smiling in encouragement.
"Part of me died that day," said Aradia, her eyes taking on a far away look as she remembered. "And more of me continued to die, little pieces at a time during my captivity. Now its up to me to pull myself together - so to speak - and be fully alive again, no matter how painful that may be."
"Well?" said Mhari. "What will you do?"
"I think it should be obvious, Mhari," said Aradia, smiling slightly. "It wasnt only instinct and reflexes that made me fight for my life in the arena; I want to live."
Aryn lay down and was almost instantly asleep, despite the fact that her feet hung off the end of the small childs bed. She had indeed had a busy day - and a busier one to come, Thalia thought as she gazed at her sleeping daughter. Still, Aryns work was not done. Thalia waited until she knew that both Mhari and Aradia were asleep in the other rooms, then bent and gently shook the girl awake.
"What ... ?" began Aryn, sleepily. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the glowing blue figure standing beside her bed. "Wh - who ...?"
"Its alright - dont be scared, Aryn," said Thalia.
"Mother?" said the girl.
"Yes," said Thalia. "I want you to come with me - its important, Aryn."
"Okay," said the girl, pulling on her leather breeches and boots.
"We must be very quiet - dont wake the others," said Thalia, leading her to the window and boosting her out to the soft ground.
"Where are we going?" asked Aryn, not quite convinced that she wasnt still asleep in her bed.
"To the Temple," said Thalia. "I must show you something."
"Will you be there with me?" asked the girl, slipping her small hand into Thalias larger one. Aryn could feel the rough sword callouses on the warriors palm. "Are you really dead?"
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"Yeah," said Thalia. "But Im still with you; I always will be."
Aryn smiled and the two walked hand in hand through the quiet dark streets to the Temple. Thalia pulled open the heavy oak door and ushered Aryn into the absolute dark stillness of the Temple.
"What did you want to show me?" asked Aryn, shivering a bit. It was a trifle unnerving to her that the only illumination in this sacred place was the bluish glow emanating from her mothers ghost.
Thalia moved along the walls of the Temple, lighting the lamps which hung at intervals along the length of the Temple on either side before replying. In the warm flickering lamplight, she stopped glowing, appearing as real and as solid as Aryn herself. She beckoned her daughter to the front of the Temple where the altar stood.
"Do you remember where Aradia found the scrolls?" she asked.
"Yes - in fact, I put them back there myself," said Aryn. "Just in case the Romans ..."
"Yes, the Romans," said Thalia, grimly. She held out her hand and the altar slid away to reveal two wooden trap doors, side by side. Thalia stepped up and pulled open the one Aryn hadnt seen before. "Come here, Aryn."
"Wait - the last time I came here with someone I thought I knew in the middle of the night, it turned out to be Ares in a disguise he pulled from my own memories," said Aryn. "How do I know that youre really my mother?"
"I am very pleased that you learn from your mistakes, Little One," said Thalia with a small chuckle. "Unfortunately, I can offer you no proof that would make you believe what I say. You just have to have faith."
"Okay - what is that you want me to do?" asked Aryn, warily.
"Under the Temple is a tunnel which leads to a chamber," said Thalia. "Only the priestesses remembered it. In that chamber is something which will help Aradia against Aurelian and the Romans. I want you to get it and give it to her."
"Thats it?" said Aryn. "Why me? Why not lead Aradia to it instead?"
"Because only a priestess is permitted to enter this chamber," said Thalia.
"Im not a priestess," said Aryn. "Im not really even an Amazon yet."
"Oh, but you are," said Thalia, smiling at her. "You were destined for the Temple since you were born."
"What if I refuse?" asked Aryn.
"It is your choice, Aryn," said Thalia.
"It is?" said the girl.
"Of course - the Goddess does not want unwilling servants," said Thalia.
"But if I dont do Her will, the consequences will be terrible, right?" said Aryn.
"That depends on your definition of terrible," said Thalia. "I think if you choose another vocation, you will spend the rest of your life feeling unfulfilled because youre not doing what you are best suited to do, but I dont see any great catastrophe befalling you or the Amazon Nation just because you exercised free will."
"Well, I know youre not Ares now - he uses a lot more pressure - and guilt - to convince people to do what he wants," said Aryn with a sigh. "But how did you know about this secret chamber that only priestesses can enter?"
"No, Aryn, I am not Ares," said Thalia, smiling gently. " It isnt a secret. At one time all the Amazons knew about it. Only priestesses are permitted to enter it, but thats because its a consecrated place; if anyone else were to step foot there, it would lose its magic. I think when you see what is in the chamber below, you will understand more."
"Okay," said Aryn, stepping up to the trap door. She looked down into the inky blackness, then back up to her mothers face. The girl leaned up and kissed Thalias cheek, brushing a tear from her own. "I sure do miss you."
"I know," said Thalia, tears welling in her own eyes.
"Um, I dont suppose you can come with me?" said Aryn.
"Of course Ill be with you, Aryn," said Thalia. "I always am - remember that; but it takes a lot of energy to manifest this way and Ive about used mine up."
"Okay," said Aryn, nodding. She climbed down into the tunnel.
"Wait," Thalia said, reaching over and taking the Sword of Artemis from the statues hand. "Youll need this." Aryns eyes widened a bit, but she took the Sword. Thalia smiled. "No, not to fight."
Remembering how the Sword had illuminated Athtars dark cave, Aryn nodded, relieved and began to make her way through the narrow tunnel. It sloped downward in a gentle incline and Aryn walked, holding the Sword like a torch. She noticed carvings on the walls, strange symbols and pictures which told stories. She would have lingered to study them, but she was filled with a sense of urgency.
She walked until the she came to a wooden door at the end of the tunnel. She tried the door, but found it locked.
"Now what?" she whispered to herself. Suddenly the Sword shimmered and vibrated in her hand. It changed into a small silver key which Aryn fitted into the lock. The door swung open.
Aryn looked to see a woman standing before her, blocking her from taking another step. She was tall and dark. She wore black silk robes with long scarlet and flame-coloured feathers trailing from a magnificent headdress and cape. "Who are you, Youngling? Do you not know the prohibition against anyone besides a priestess entering this sacred place?"
"I do know, but I was told that I was permitted," said Aryn, hesitant before the Guardian of this place.
"Who told you this?" asked the Guardian.
"M...my mother - or her shade, really," replied the girl. "I am Aryn, daughter of Thalia."
"By what sign do I know you are to be permitted?" asked the Guardian.
Aryn held up the silver key, which transformed back into the Sword. The Guardian smiled and stepped aside.
"It is the Goddess Herself who permits you, then," she said, fading from Aryns sight.
"This just isnt possible," said Aryn, stepping gingerly into the huge chamber. "I have to be dreaming ... or something. This isnt possible!"
"Have faith," Aryn heard Thalias voice in her mind. "Suspend your disbelief, Little One - remember how you believed in this magic and this place when you were small."
She looked around, hearing the sound of running water somewhere. Giant bins, spilling over with various types of grain stood along the far wall of the chamber. Grain sacks were neatly folded in front of each bin. Other wooden chests lined the other walls and Aryn eagerly went to them, slipping the Sword into her waistband since the chamber was illuminated by some source Aryn could not see.
She wandered about, peering into chests and bins and cabinets. She found lamp oil, dried fruit and meat in addition to the grain. She also found chests of scrolls she hadnt read yet. Checking her eagerness with some difficulty, Aryn looked around for the item she was supposed to bring back to Aradia, promising herself she would return to explore further.
Then she saw another wooden door at the far end of the cavernous chamber. Quickly she walked over to it, but found it locked. She pulled out the Sword, but it remained a Sword, so Aryn slipped it back into her waistband with a shrug.
"Aryn, in this place, time stands still," she heard. She turned to see Thalia, translucent and wavering. "But outside it does not. It is nearly dawn. You must get what you came for and go back."
"But what is it Im supposed to bring out?" asked the girl, bewildered as Thalia faded before answering. Aryn sighed. Then her eyes caught a chest, smaller than most of the others. It had the Queens mark carved upon its lid. "This must be it."
Aryn picked up the small chest and carried it back with her through the tunnel and into the Temple.
(To Be Continued)
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