ForevaXena's FanFic . . .
Until It Ends There
Is No End
by Phantom Bard (a.k.a. J. Nakamura)
Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, N.Y., May 2001
Disclaimer: This is an uber tale, based on the TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess, and its characters and concepts, which are the creation and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended towards the characters or concepts of this excellent production. I would like to express my thanks to their creators for sharing them with us. As always, this work of fan fiction is offered for non-profit entertainment only. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement.
This story is a sequel to my earlier story "CYCLES", and relates to characters and events in it, as well as to characters and events in the TV series, Xena: Warrior Princess.
This story contains violence, personal trauma, questionable language, and relationships based on the subtext present in the TV series. There is no intent to offend; however if you find any of these topics uncomfortable, illegal, or undesirable, please read something else. There's plenty.
CANON AND SYNOPSIS
For those who have not read the earlier tale "Cycles", let me clarify some background. Xena, the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis was the daughter of the innkeeper Cyrene, and throughout her childhood and youth believed herself to have been fathered by the warrior Atrius. Her quick mind and prowess in battle became twisted by the cruelty of her fate, until she became a ruthless and ambitious warlord. Yet through the intervention of the demigod Hercules, and the mounting guilt inside her, she resolved to leave the destructive life she had lived. Her resolve was supported by the love of her soul mate, Gabrielle, the Bard of Potidaea, later the Amazon Queen. There came a time in which Xena was trapped in the body of her archenemy Callisto of Cirra, and during that time she briefly held the Sword of Ares, the God of War. It had lasting consequences, for as was later explained, Xena held a special heritage. She had never been the daughter of the cuckold, Atrius. She was, in fact, the daughter of Ares himself. Contact with Ares' sword activated a latent divinity, and she became the Goddess of War and Strategy. For two thousand years she managed to conceal this fact, a task made easier when Ares became mortal and died.
Eventually, sensing the threat of an unknown enemy, and frustrated by the progress of mankind, she created a defense force. In 2006, there came two invasions, and with a resurrected Ares, she defeated challenges from the last of the Gods, and the aliens under their dominion. Eventually she was reunited with Gabrielle and became mortal again. Then followed generations of reincarnations, and the growth and partial destruction of mankind's empires in space. Finally, the 64th reincarnations of Xena and Gabrielle returned to Earth in the year 8,722. Eventually, they died. It is now Anno Domini 9,392.
UNTIL IT ENDS THERE IS NO END
Begun 4/20/2001 Completed 5/13/2001
Revised 5/16/2001 First Posted
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART 1: THE 65TH RETURN
CHAPTER 1: THE FALL OF STRYMA VALE
In which Dena of Amphilios and her mother flee their home before invaders.
CHAPTER 2: THE ROAD TO THERMA
In which Dena acquires a horse.
CHAPTER 3: WHAT DREAMS ARE FOR
In which Dena meets Priestesses and the Goddesses
CHAPTER 4: WINNING THE ROAD TO CORINTHIA
In which Dena acquires a sidekick and follows a dream.
CHAPTER 5: OF UNDERGROUND SPARATA
In which Dena learns nerve attacks and names her horse.
In which a young warrior becomes a hero and prepares for her
destiny as a Goddess.
PART 2: MEETING DESTINY
CHAPTER 6: ONCE IN A LIFETIME
In which Dena celebrates her 18th birthday, and overhears a plot.
CHAPTER 7: THE TEMPLES OF ATHENAE
In which Dena saves the King, a Priestess, and assorted innocents.
CHAPTER 8: MOHEGALA THE RED KHAN
In which Dena meets unexpected allies.
CHAPTER 9: THE WRATH OF THE PRIESTESS
In which Dena loses a friend.
CHAPTER 10: I WILL BRING YOU COMFORT
In which Dena finds a soul mate.
In which a Goddess fulfills her destiny.
PART 3: DESTROYER OF GALAXIES
CHAPTER 11: ALL THESE WORLDS ARE MINE
In which Dena confronts Ares in battle.
CHAPTER 12: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
In which the Destroyer of Galaxies is born.
CHAPTER 13: 135 B.C.
In which a new cycle has begun.
◄PART 1: THE 65TH RETURN►
CHAPTER 1: THE FALL OF STRYMA VALE
In the 19th year of the reign of King Liasis II, Overlord of New Hellas, it being the 205th year since the Death of the Goddesses, a girl child was born in the city of Amphilios, trading center of the province of NeoSerres. It was the Year of Our Lord 9,392. It is said that her mother bore her pregnancy with unusual comfort until the final month, at which time the babe began practicing the kicks she would one-day use in battle. It is said that her birth was rapid, as though she could scarcely wait to engage the world. Of her father, little is known save that he was a liege-warrior in the service of the Overlord, who died in battle defending his city in the 22nd year of his lord's reign. Of her mother it is well known that she was keeper of an inn frequented by soldiers, travelers, and locals alike. It was from guests at the inn that the girl learned the legends of the Gods, and the history of times long past. Through the years of her girlhood, she increased her love of ancient knowledge, and yet like her older brother, she felt her father's blood in her veins, and so she committed herself to learning the arts of war.
At the age of 5, she joined her elder brother in his practice with weapons, always determined to match his prowess, and overcome his 4-year advantage. Her devotion to the eventual mastery of the sword, bow, spear, staff, and other arms of her times drove them both forward, and by their will they became known as prodigies. On his 18th birthday her brother accepted a commission as a liege-warrior in the army of the Overlord, now in the 33rd year of his reign, and followed his father's ghost to war.
At the age of 14, she was bereft of her training partner, for no other youth was near her match, and indeed she would soon best several grown warriors at sparring to first blood. So, using the knowledge of the legends she had heard she began to develop the inner focus, and the weapons of the mind. In the next three years, she learned to read what was hidden in the hearts of those around her, to see what passed in distant places by the rumors in events, and to perceive the true consequences of actions. She sharpened her senses and her intuition, learning to trust both, to aid her reflexes and strength. What she taught herself in those days gave her the advantage of strategic thinking, the tactical advantage of knowing the future course of available options, whereby she could often bring her will into reality. Yet the wisdom in the legends she had learned restrained her, forcing her to weigh her desire against the greater good.
By her 17th year, she was known to the army, assured of a liege-warrior's commission on her 18th birthday. She hoped to rejoin her brother in the king's ranks, and live her dream of following in their father's steps. Yet fate had greater plans, and on the night of high summer, the solstice of the sun, the eastern barbarians returned from the steppes, 16,000 strong. It was 14 years since their last incursion, the very invasion in which her father had died defending Amphilios. Within two weeks they had fought their way from the Straits of Constantine into the lands of Thracae, crushing the army garrisons, and laying waste to the lands in their path. Their ferocity bred mortal fear, and in terror people fled, like forest creatures before a wildfire, ahead of their enemy. Behind them the battlefields stank of the blood that had soaked into the once fertile soil, now rotting in the summer heat. In each overrun city or town the bodies impaled on spike or cross fell to pieces as they decayed, the sated carrion birds unable to further gorge on their flesh. Fields of grain, trampled down by the armies, now ripened their crops of bloated carcasses, of both horses and men, and rather than the songs of the field workers, the air was split by the fighting of feral dogs as they contested over the bounty of meat. A fell wind drove the stench west into unconquered lands, announcing the barbarians' advance. In the third week of the invasion, her mother closed the inn, and took flight with the majority of the population of eastern Macedon. It was the Year of Our Lord 9,409, the 36th year of the reign of King Liasis II, and the 222nd year since the Death of the Goddesses.
The refugees withdrew beyond the vale of the Stryma River, which the king's retreating soldiers turned into a no mans land laced with myriad cunning traps. Where the land rose on the western side from the valley, the army created defensive fortifications and awaited reinforcements from the king. The undefended section of Eastern Macedon was overrun by the barbarian cavalry and then secured by their infantry in the following days. On the third day after the evacuation of Amphilios the enemy tried to advance across the Stryma. Seeking to cross the river under cover of night's last hour of darkness, the barbarian cavalry fell victim to the traps of King Liasis II's army, and as dawn broke, the enemy counted the loss of over 500 horsemen. Some drowned in quicksand pools, some in pit falls lined with spikes. Auto-bows killed dozens as the horses released trip-wires. Trenches filled with fire ignited, and their banks crumbled, dumping advancing troops into flames that clung to their bodies. Log drops and rock falls killed scores of others. As the invading infantry hastened to join them in the gray morning, the pent up waters of the Stryma were released, surging down the riverbed to carry almost a thousand foot soldiers' bodies to the sea. The enemy retreated to the far side of the vale, regrouping for the next attack. For the first time their advance was halted bitterly. On the western side of the river the troops of King Liasis II breathed a sigh of relief, and prayed for added forces. Their warriors numbered less than 300, they being the garrison of Amphilios and a few dozen wounded survivors of the defenders to the east.
"Stand! Who walks there? Answer on your life!" the sentry ordered as he whipped his spear towards the telltale squish of a footstep in the soft earth of the path and held it ready.
"Hail, Marik, and well met. It is Dena, daughter of Cyrea and Atraeus of Amphilios," she answered formally.
"Ahh, Dena, hail and well met," replied the sentry, relaxing as her tall figure became visible in the light of the watch fire, "what brings you to the camp so late."
"Well, I've settled mother with the other refugees after this morning's scare, and I've finally had some time to come by. I hope to ask the eastern garrison survivors if they know anything about my brother, Taris. He was barracked at Neopolis. I haven't heard from him, and my mother fears the worst."
Marik's heart softened at her request, for he knew a little about Dena and Taris, and their father Atraeus. In the six months since his posting at Amphilios he'd spent a few evenings leave with his friends at Cyrea's inn, and he appreciated the friendly atmosphere she promoted. She'd made them feel welcome, though they were just young liege-warriors. On a couple of those visits he'd met Dena briefly. He'd heard soldiers who'd been in the garrison for a full tour talk about her weapons prowess, and mention her brother. He appreciated her beauty and her poise. It was hard to believe she was still too young for the army, yet he'd heard she'd beaten soldiers in armed sparring on several occasions...when she was 15 and 16. He wasn't sure what to make of that.
"Dena, I don't know any of the survivors myself, and I've not had the chance to talk with them," he said, "Lt. Hagnon is commander of the watch. You could ask him if you could talk with them. I think since you're seeking news about your kin he might approve."
He sighed, for he knew the chances her brother still lived were very slight. If he hadn't contacted his family already then he was either lost, or was gravely, perhaps mortally wounded. Marik glanced up and caught the worry in her aquamarine eyes. She glanced down, her face shrouded in the shadows from the fall of her ebony hair. The flickering light of the watch fire danced across her shoulders as they straightened, evincing her resolve. Ever the young are hopeful, he thought, and catching himself wondered when he'd become so dour.
"My thanks, Marik," she said, "I will speak to the lieutenant. May the Gods grant me good news. Gods' fortune, and blessed be."
"So mote it be, Dena," Marik replied in sympathy, "give this soldier's regards to your mother. Like many here I fondly remember her hospitality. Gods' fortune, and blessed be."
Like second nature she had read his heart while they talked. His doubt of her brother's survival added to her own and she barely felt her steps as she made her way to the commander's tent. All army encampments were much the same and she walked towards the center, finding the tent she sought by the standard atop its pole outside. She presented her request to the sentry on guard and he relayed her words to the lieutenant's aid inside. She had come in the late hours of the "dog watch", knowing this was the least busy time, and hoping her request would stand a better chance of being granted. Now it was four candle marks before dawn, and the camp was quiet. Shortly she was bid to enter, and the tent flap was held aside.
"Hail, Lt. Hagnon, and well met," she said giving the formal military greeting, "I, Dena, daughter of Cyrea and Atraeus of Amphilios greet you."
"Hail and well met, Dena," Lt. Hagnon replied with a smile as he rose from his desk and indicate a chair, "have a seat."
He had been posted in Amphilios long enough to become a family friend, having spent many evenings relaxing at her mother's inn. He had watched her grow from a serious and driven girl of 11, into the young woman who stood before him. He felt almost like an uncle, and when his captain had asked his opinion, he had wholeheartedly recommended she be offered a liege-warrior's commission, as he had three years before for her brother. He'd seen the sparring she'd done, and he'd won money betting on her against his own men. The last time he'd sparred with her had been over a year ago. He'd nicked her arm, as slight a wound as he could inflict to win, but he didn't kid himself. It had been close. He'd killed many men in real battles with less trouble, and he wouldn't have wanted to fight against her if it was to the death. Not then, and certainly not now. He'd always suspected she wasn't fighting with her full intensity. Like most of the soldiers in his command he also thought she was gorgeous...they'd be lining up when she finally turned 18. He shook off his woolgathering and returned to the present.
"So what brings you to the camp this time of night, Dena?"
"Sir, I am searching for news of my brother Taris," she said hopefully, "he was garrisoned at Neopolis before the barbarians attacked, and we've had no word of him since. My mother and I bear faith that he's survived. I request to speak with the survivors of the eastern garrisons in hope of news."
"I see," Lt. Hagnon sighed, "the survivors have been in the care of the healers, and only a few have been debriefed about the battles. We have simply been too busy, and many of them were badly wounded. Also, it is the fourth candle mark of the third watch, and most are sleeping."
"I understand, sir," Dena said, looking down at her hands, "Taris is a soldier, and he has sworn his life to our king and our land, even placing them above family. If he lives I know your officers should question him first. I don't wish to cause a problem."
"Hmmm," the lieutenant thought for a moment. He remembered Taris well, having spent his first three years at Amphilios while Dena's brother was still at home. He'd been a strong fighter and he'd impressed the lieutenant with his good heart. Lt. Hagnon knew how close the brother and sister were. He realized that he too would like to know if Taris had survived. Finally he asked, "You have some knowledge of the healing arts don't you, Dena?"
"Yes, lieutenant. I studied battlefield aid with my brother when we were younger," she answered, "we dressed each other's wounds, and helped with neighborhood accidents."
"I seem to remember you saved several children in the spring flooding a couple years back, and you and your mother helped that family after the fire they had at their farm."
"Yes, sir, mother knew their father. He was a liege-warrior and died with my father defending Amphilios," she said with pride, "we had to help them. They stayed with us until they healed and could rebuild their farm."
"Well, Dena, as you may know we are low on man power," the lieutenant said with a grin, "and I believe the healers would be grateful for help from someone who has had practical experience. I think it would give you a chance to ask a few questions as you treat the wounded."
Dena's eyes lit up, and she had to keep herself from bounding over the table to hug the lieutenant. Though she recognized the practical value of her skills, she knew Lt. Hagnon was doing her a favor. She'd always felt he was a friend, and over the years she'd listened to everything he'd taught her. She had always been grateful for the tips and the coaching he offered her through the years when he came to the inn. Her brother had looked up to him, and she understood he was concerned about Taris too, though his duties had prevented him from doing anything to find out about him. If she heard anything she could set his mind at ease as well.
"Sir, I'd be glad to help the healers," she said with a heartfelt smile that lit her eyes as well, "and I'll let you know anything I hear. Thank you, sir. So when do I start?"
"Start in the second candle mark of the first watch, Dena. In the meantime, tell your mother about our agreement, and get some sleep."
"Yes sir, lieutenant," Dena said, placing her right fist over her heart in salute, "I'll be back to serve as long as needed."
"Ok," he said, smiling and returning the salute, "now get going."
General Garza had been ordered to appear before his Lord. As always the subject of his audience had not been revealed, leaving him with a twinge of uneasiness, for he knew his Lord's temperament, and some who had displeased him had been roasted alive...at least so the stories went. Gen. Garza had few doubts about the stories he'd heard. His Lord was all-powerful, and had ruled since before the general was born. The general was a successful member of the military, in a society dominated by warriors. He was in charge of the weapons development program for the new generation warships, and as in everything he had ever done, he was determined to succeed. Failure was never an option. He felt certain the status of the weapons was to be the subject of this audience. If not, he had a will...not a comforting thought, but rather a realistic precaution.
The doors of the throne room opened before he reached them, and he saw no one there to open them. This was the case every time he'd ever come here, and it always gave him the creeps. He immediately bowed his head, and saluted by placing his right fist over his heart. Then he walked forward, approaching the throne at a stately pace, his eyes cast down at the floor. To either side stood the figures of warriors from the past, black marble statues twelve feet high, silently commemorating the heroes. A hundred of them watched the approach to his Lord's throne. The throne was a fantastical celebration of conquest and death, frozen phantasms of the battlefield, carved of the same black marble as the statues, and raised on a dais of many steps, increasingly wider toward the bottom. When the general reached the bottom step he knelt on one knee, again saluting with his fist.
"My Lord," said the kneeling warrior, his eyes cast at the patterns in the granite floor before him, "you have commanded my presence, and I obey."
"I command you to speak, general," his Lord's voice rumbled, "What is the status of the ships?"
"The construction of the first thirty is underway, my Lord. The redesign factors are being incorporated as we speak."
"Have the scientists succeeded in testing the new weapons?"
"Not yet, my Lord." The general said with disgust. "They report that their power sources are insufficient to bring the carborundum to lase. I have chastised them as ordered, my Lord, and they promise to correct the problem by upgrading the on-line fusion capacitors. At present they have only been able to produce 1.5 x 1011 joules."
"I see, general. Know that when such weapons were first developed, almost 7,500 years ago, it took those scientists 14 years from concept to execution," the figure on the throne said, "their facilities were primitive compared to ours, but they had the incentive of their survival to encourage them. Tell them that if they don't produce a working class 11 weapon in the next thirty days they shall all die."
"Yes, my Lord. It shall be as you command," the general promised. He would relish terrifying those sniveling whiners. Like most of the warriors of his world he had little sympathy for failures. It would almost be worthwhile to see them fail. It would be a good lesson to the other civilians.
"And, general," his Lord added, as if reading his mind, "if they don't seem impressed, you may also offer them the lives of their families, their friends, even their pets...use your discretion."
"Why yes, my Lord," the general said, and he couldn't keep the smile off his face, "it is a pleasure to serve."
"May the Spirit of Battle guide you, general, you have leave to go."
The general rose from his knees, keeping his head bowed, and saluted with his right fist held over his heart. He backed away from the throne, showing the proper respect by never turning his back on his Lord. Somehow he didn't think he would even if it was acceptable.
"Thank you, Lord Ares."
The keeper of the watches had just announced the second candle mark of the first watch when Dena entered the healers' tent and presented herself for duty. The chief healer was glad to have another pair of hands. His patients ranged in injury from the walking wounded who could be back on duty in a week, to men who would be lucky to recover at all. The triage had been done, but while the defenses held, even the worst cases would be given maintenance. The emergency treatments had also been done, in the last couple of days, and now most of the work was in changing dressings, distributing medicines, and assisting with the feeding and washing. The officers were slowly beginning to question the wounded about their battle experiences, but they were still pressed for time, and most of their attention had to be given to renewing the traps in the Stryma River valley. No one knew the hour when the next attack would fall, but there was no doubt it would come. Without reinforcements there could be only defense. Attacking the invaders was out of the question. There simply weren't enough troops to mount an offensive across the open ground of the valley. Their small force would be too easily outflanked, cut off, and destroyed, leaving the refugees at the barbarians' mercy, (a jest, for they had none), and the lands to the west open to invasion.
Dena was put to work from the moment she arrived, carrying meals, washing bandages, changing dressings, and emptying bedpans and chamber pots. Like a good soldier she did what was requested of her, regarding it as her duty, and performing what she knew, or learning what she didn't. She found the healers and the patients alike to be friendly and for the most part willing to talk. The soldiers in particular were willing to tell their stories, for none minded having the helpful and very pretty young woman nearby, and as the morning passed into afternoon, they found themselves competing for her attention. It reminded her of nights in her mother's inn, when the common room filled with soldiers and travelers, telling tales, and drinking, and vying for her company at their tables. She had long ago become adept at fending off the occasional lewd advance, but here, where the alcohol was only for cleansing wounds, and military discipline prevailed, the level of courtesy was actually higher than at home.
Dena was taking a lunch break, for the keeper of the watch had just announced the sixth candle mark of the first watch. She sat gnawing a lump of hard cheese, an apple, and a quarter of a round loaf of sourdough, standard camp fare for the noon meal, which she washed down with cider, a treat from her mother that she'd brought in a small skin. With her back against the trunk of the oak tree that shaded her, she was near the healer's tent, in easy earshot if they called her, and quite comfortable. As she chewed she closed her eyes, watching the dappled light play on her eyelids as it dodged the leaves above, and sensing the camp around her with every sense save vision. It was a type of training, and she had gotten better at perceiving her surroundings without sight. She heard and smelled the man approaching her while he was beyond striking range, and she opened her eyes, seeing he was a soldier with his left arm in a sling, and his head bandaged. She remembered he'd been badly sword cut, and the healer had spent half a candle mark stitching his wounds.
"Hail and well met," she greeted him as he came close, "I'm Dena, healer's assistant."
"Hail, Dena, and well met," he said, smiling at her, "I'm Castor of the Neopolis garrison. The shade here looks good, would you allow me to join you?" he asked, holding up his meal sack.
"Sit please, Castor," Dena replied, scooting over and offering to share the trunk if he wanted to use it as a back rest.
"Thanks Dena," he said as he settled against the tree trunk, pulled out some bread and cheese, and set a water skin by his side. He smiled at her and took a bite of bread, chewing slowly to spare the stitching in his scalp, and thinking, she has the most beautiful eyes. Close up he found the rest of her very attractive too.
"You were garrisoned at Neopolis?" Dena asked, to confirm his earlier statement, and he nodded 'yes' in reply. "Did you know Taris of Amphilios, a liege-warrior stationed there for the last year and a half?"
Castor swallowed, and washed the bread down with some water before speaking, but he nodded 'yes' again as he swallowed, and he knew his news would make her happy.
"I got to knew Taris well since I was posted to Neopolis at winter solstice, and I like to think of him as a friend. I heard the other men say you are his sister, and search for news of him, so I felt I should seek you out," Castor told her, marking the expression of hope on her face as he spoke.
"I saw him last after the garrison was overrun, and we were in retreat. I had already been wounded, and was being evacuated with the other casualties. Taris was in the rear guard covering us, being handpicked by the captain for his sword prowess. His company held off the enemy as we crossed the bridge at Krostas Gorge. Then when we broke the bridge behind us, they retreated into the steep wooded hills inland where the cavalry couldn't follow. I lost sight of them as they crested the first ridge of those hills, but they were uncontested. I didn't see him fall in the fighting, and I believe he escaped the battle that day. Have faith Dena, for their plan, if they were separated thus, was to circle north of Lake Cercin, and cross the Stryma before marching south to rejoin us. Though the enemy holds the coastal lands, they have not secured the inland. They have had no time."
Castor was about to bite into the lump of cheese, when he was startled by Dena grabbing him into a tight hug and planting a kiss on his cheek. Then she leapt up, giving him her most beautiful smile.
"Castor, bless you for the best news I have heard in weeks. I thank you, and my mother thanks you. If we return to our inn in Amphilios you will be welcome there at any time."
Then she ran off to try to find Lieutenant Hagnon and report her news. Castor sat back and bit into his cheese. He'd just been hugged and kissed by the most beautiful woman he'd ever sat next to, and it had happened so suddenly that he felt he had missed it. Still a smile settled onto his face, and he scarcely noticed his wounds as he finished his noon meal. He didn't realize it at the time, but her actions meant more to him than he could have believed, for they condensed the hope and love that are the cause of faith. When the invaders took him and tortured him, and finally impaled him on a six-foot spike, that faith would stay his tongue in defiance from answering the questions they would ask. And his defiance, and that of those he would inspire, would be rewarded by the salvation of many who otherwise would have died in torment, and these souls would commend his courage in the fields of Elysia.
Now Dena made her way through the camp in search of Lt. Hagnon, and she went from the commander of the watch's tent, to the mess tent, to the officer's bivouac, but she didn't see him anywhere. Finally she asked a soldier who was armed for duty, and he told her she might find him on the rallying grounds, for the troops had been called to action. It was at the rallying ground that she realized most of the camp was mobilized, and it was there that she found the lieutenant as well. He was standing with some other officers waiting for the troops to amass in formation when she approached him, and his expression was grim.
"Lt. Hagnon, I have searched all over for you," she said, still joyful, but concerned by the activity, "I have met a soldier who gave me news of Taris."
"Gods' fortune is granted you, Dena," he said smiling, "speak to me of this quickly, for time presses and I have much to do."
"Sir, Taris was seen retreating into the hills with the rearguard of the Neopolis garrison, after they broke the bridge at Krostas Gorge. He was unpursued, and planned to go north of Lake Cercin to cross the Stryma and then come south to rejoin us," she reported quickly, noticing how this news made him think deeply.
"I rejoice that you have news of your brother," he said, "and I pray for his safety, but I don't know if he will find us here. You describe a four-day march, and he could be close to our position, but soon we may have to retreat. Scouts report the enemy on the move both to our north and south, flanking our position, and bypassing the vale of traps. Already I have sent a company of men to escort the refugees into the highlands. They will guide them to the city of Therma, and report to the commander there. We will attempt to buy them time, and harass the invaders here and along the coast, but we can do little better than slow them, for our force is too small."
Dena looked at him absorbing his words. "Sir, allow me to take arms and join your soldiers. I know I can help, and every hand would add to the defense. I would be here when Taris and the others join you from the north, and..."
He cut her off, "Dena, I can't allow you to fight with us here. First you are not old enough to join the army, though I know your abilities surpass many of these soldiers. But ours is most likely a suicidal fight, to stand then run, again and again, and to fall in a battle of attrition against a force still almost fifteen times our size. Our reports suggest this company of the enemy may number over 3,500, and we can muster barely 250 against them. Theirs is but one company of many. And I fear your brother may already be separated from us by the invaders to the north."
But, sir, I can..." she started.
"No, Dena," he silenced her, "I would order you to join the refugees, and help protect their retreat. If you would help us, then do this and free a soldier I have sent there." His voice softened from its tone of command, "If I had a daughter she would be like you, Dena, strong, brave, and good. Live to fight another day...grow up to be a warrior like your father and brother. Your time will come, 'for in this world without Gods, battle ever rages anew, and it is the lot of mortals to struggle, to fight, and perhaps to conquer'. Go now, Dena, for already the refugees are departing their camp."
Then he turned away from her and began shouting orders to the soldiers. She stood looking at him while his words sank deeper, and against her desires, she accepted the wisdom of what he had spoken.
"Gods' fortune to you Lieutenant Hagnon," she whispered to his back as he moved towards his troops, "blessed be."
She turned and ran from the field, to leave the army's encampment, and race along the path to where the refugees had stayed. He felt her leave with the sixth sense of a battle wary fighter, and though he knew she would not hear, the lieutenant whispered, "Gods' fortune be with you, and keep you safe from the darkness of this day. May you walk with the sun, and dream with the moon. May the Great Power bless thy eternal journey...So mote it be." It was an ancient prayer, and Lt. Hagnon was not used to praying.
The enemy came swiftly, barely two candle marks later, their cavalry over running the defenses from the north and the south. 1,800 horsemen laid siege to the camp of King Liasis II's soldiers, and they were worsted in the battle. When the infantry assaulted their position, the fighting became yet more bitter, and even the wounded bore arms in desperation against them. Within three candle marks it was over. The tents burned and the dead were left where they had fallen, to feed the packs that now followed the army.
Of the few defenders who had survived, only a handful outlived their wounds long enough to be questioned. Castor was one of these, and though he had been run through the shoulder with a spear, he was beaten and burned to extract the secrets of where the refugees had gone, and where the remainder of the soldiers lay in wait. The barbarian commander believed a much larger force of king's soldiers were prepared to ambush his army nearby, and he was loath to advance against their threat. In all the time they tormented him, Castor said nothing. No word of anger or pain passed his lips, for he had retreated into his dreams, leaving behind the world of pain that crushed his body yet a while longer. And in his dreams he saw a young woman's smile, and the flashing beauty of her deep blue eyes. He heard her voice as it thanked and blessed him; he felt her touch and her kiss. Against these memories, his anguish as they tore at his belly and hoisted him onto the stake became the dream instead, and he said no word to them. Then the four other soldiers who had watched and waited their turn for torture felt his strength, and his resolve, and it kindled a fire in their hearts that burned in defiance against the cruelty in their last moments of torment. And to the amazement of the enemy, not one gave up any information, neither confirming nor denying the commander's false fears, and in this way they bought precious time for the refugees to widen their lead towards safety.
For the first time in their campaign, the barbarians removed their victims from the stakes, and to show respect for these five silent men, their enemies, they gathered wood, and built pyres, and sent the smoke of their bodies to the heavens, and their spirits to Elysia with honor.
"...for in this world without Gods, battle ever rages anew, and it is the lot of mortals to struggle, and to fight, and perhaps to conquer. But always, it is the lot of mortals to die. Yet in death one may conquer, though the victory is celebrated with pain and tears, and then, in memory, one may live forever." -Ancient quotation attributed to Chelle Martin, "The Way of the Warrior". Anno Domini 2,084 : 28 A.D.
So it was that when Taris and the company of the rearguard of Neopolis came down out of the hills by night, they found not the camp of the king's soldiers, but the thousand watch fires of the enemy. They perceived the dark slaughter that had befallen their comrades-in-arms, and they climbed back into the night, scaling the heights above the vale of the Stryma, and turning west to march for the city of Therma. They were a half-day and more behind the refugees, and though they traveled faster, they never caught up with them before they reached the city six days later.
CHAPTER 2: THE ROAD TO THERMA
It is written that in ancient times, the fathers of men attained to the mastery of space, and with their wives and sons and daughters, their livestock and their crops, their books and their machines, they fled to the heavens. But of all the things they took from the world, none were missed so sorely as the Gods, for these they took as their leaders, and the fathers of men followed them into the void. Then there was chaos in the world, and nations fell, and the wonders of the fathers of men slid down into ruin. The bright world that was faded, and as night dawned again, the light of campfires spread across the world. Into this world countless generations were born and died, but the slow steady struggle that was the legacy of men asserted itself anew, and in the absence of the Gods, mankind regained a measure of its ancient accomplishment. So it was that when the Gods returned they found not an empty world, but a world of small cities, and small nations armed with sword and spear, bow and staff, dagger and shield, constantly waging small wars.
The Goddess of War and her favorite, who came to be known as the Goddess of History and Knowledge, lived among the people for 465 years, rekindling the light of ancient days, and teaching the people about the Spirit of Battle, and the Balance of Dark and Light. During that Golden Age they ruled from Mt. Olympia, and all mankind benefited from the lessons they taught. They, and the Colonists who accompanied them, gave to men a measure of prosperity, and a civilizing influence that had been absent through all the Years without Gods. But like all things golden it was not meant to last. On a day of winter, in the Year of Our Lord 9,187, there came a great storm, borne on a fierce wind from the far north, and in its midst fell a time of calm, the eye of the storm, and the sky opened all the way up to the clear high blue of heaven. Then for a moment, a golden light shone down on Mt. Olympia. As if in response, the priestesses of the temples on Olympia reported a white light, which rose from the mountain and ascended to heaven through the opening in the clouds. Then we knew that the Goddesses had died. All felt the loss in their hearts, and afterwards, the lands began their slide back down into the darkness, for the legends say, that when no God of War holds wrath in check, then the common man is ruled by anger, and each fights for himself alone.
Within decades the temples on Mt. Olympia became abandoned, for they were remote, and they stood empty but for the occasional pilgrim seeking to stand where the Goddesses had stood.
Shortly after the Death of the Goddesses a priestess of the Goddess of History and Knowledge came to the city of Athenae and spoke a prophecy before returning to her temple.
"Two rings that hold the dark and light, and through eternity remain. What mortal hand shall claim the right, and join them in the Goddess' name? Cycles since the dawn of time have brought them back where they began, to seek the one whose Spirit holds the Balance in her righteous hand." -Prophecy of the Goddess of History and Knowledge, delivered by her priestess at the City of Athenae. Anno Domini 9,187 : 7,131 A.D.
The words meant little at the time, yet through divination, and spirit dreams, and ancient legend, it came to be believed by some to foretell the return of the Goddess of War, for in her had lived the Spirit of Battle, and the Balance of Dark and Light. Many hoped to see this resurrection in their lifetimes, but the decades wore on, and the nation splintered into kingdoms, and the kingdoms into city-states. And with the splintering came war, fought between the cities and the kingdoms, and against the barbarians to the east. Accompanying war other cruelties reappeared from the Years without Gods; slavery, human combat for sport, baiting of dogs, bulls, and other beasts, and the rise of warlords.
One of these was the son of a deposed king, named Phillip of Attica, who rose to power at the head of a mercenary army, and succeeded in conquering the Mediterranean states surrounding the Gulf of Corinthia. He proclaimed himself King of New Hellas, taking the name Liasis I, in the 183rd year after the Death of the Goddesses, and died in combat two years later in Thessal. His son succeeded him in the 186th year after the Death of the Goddesses, taking the name Liasis II, to honor his father, and consolidating the kingdom of New Hellas. Unlike anyone who had ruled before, he looked to the teachings of the Goddesses for guidance, and governed with justice, trying to balance force and mercy. Though it could not be proved beyond doubt, King Liasis II claimed an unbroken line and a heritage from the Colonist Pilot who had helmed the Goddess' ship across the void. His subjects and his army were loyal, beyond the expectations of any warlord, and by conducting himself like a great king became revered as a great king. He ruled for 42 years, and New Hellas enjoyed peace within its borders for most of his reign.
The greatest enemy of King Liasis II, and the people of New Hellas, was the Barbarian Horde of the eastern steppes. Like their ancestors over 8,000 years before, they were nomadic horsemen, brought together under charismatic and powerful military leaders like the Khans of old. Their border raiding was constant, but they also attacked in larger numbers on many occasions, and two of their invasions into Thracae and Macedon brought about their eventual and utter destruction.
Dena rejoined her mother and the refugees at their camp above the vale of the Stryma River after her offer to fight was refused, and she aided any who needed help to ready themselves to travel. Her mother greeted the news of her son Taris with tears of joy, yet she guarded her heart against false hope, knowing the fickle nature of fate. She rejoiced that her daughter was safely returned from the army's camp, for she had a bad feeling about the coming battle, a sense perhaps developed when she had been the wife of the liege-warrior Atraeus.
In the time before the refugees moved, Dena put off the everyday clothes she had worn as a healer's aid, and dressed herself in black fighting leathers, attaching the four dagger sheaths for the throwing daggers. She buckled on the bronze breastplate the armorer of Amphilios had made for her that spring, and slung her broadsword across her shoulders. On each forearm she laced a bracer of hard leather with a half-dozen half-round steel bars sewn to the surface. These she knew could turn a sword blow, or break the arm of an assailant when she used her forearms to block. She pulled on the tall boots with their steel toes and built in lamellar grieves, added the boot knives, and lastly strapped the coiled braided whip to her waist. She covered all with a traveling cloak, and from that day on she dressed and conducted herself as a private warrior, the equivalent of a knight errant, in the service of none save the Greater Good, and owing allegiance to no rulers save the Spirit of Battle, and for a short time, the king.
In that time private warriors were not uncommon, but most were little more than brigands of varying skill who had mostly fallen to the dark side of the balance, and made their livings as mercenaries. A few were renowned heroes, sought for their prowess by kings and the ruling councils of cities when the need arose. They sometimes charged exorbitant fees, and functioned as commanders of local armies or militias, but truth be known, many spent more time on the roads aiding those they found in need, often earning nothing but good will. Dena's intent was simpler that day when she finally took up the garb of a warrior. She knew her weapons intimately, and intended on helping in any fight the refugees encountered. The column of roughly 2,200 civilians, men, women, and children, were setting out over the highlands guarded by twelve soldiers, and possible pursued by 3,500 murderous barbarian invaders. Dena figured they'd need all the help they could get.
She came out of the tent she had shared with her mother and began pulling up the stakes, preparing to pack it for the trip. As she worked, the summer heat added to the heat of her labor, and she soon stripped off the cloak, working in the more comfortable if somewhat revealing fighting leathers. It wasn't long before she drew the attention of some of the soldiers assigned to protect them.
"Well, what have we here," one of the four soldiers who had come towards her said, leering at Dena, and speaking to impress his friends, "a pretty girl playing dress up for the journey?"
The others laughed, but one said, "Leave her Jarras, we have to make sure these civilians are ready to move within the candle-mark."
The remark affected the one called Jarras like a challenge, and he was determined to show off at the expense of the tall and very pretty girl who stood before him dressed as a warrior. He didn't notice the refinements of her gear, or the intense focus in her gaze as she appraised him. He was young, inexperienced, and had he been a seasoned warrior he would have noticed and understood things like the sword nicks on the rods in her bracers, or the wear on the weapon sheaths.
"I asked you a question, girl," he said loud enough for many standing nearby to clearly hear, "are you playing dress up?"
"I'm dressed as a warrior," she replied evenly, raising her left eyebrow into her bangs, and giving him a small smile that looked more like a sneer, "are you playing dress up, trying to look like a soldier?"
His friends started laughing at him, and their ridicule drove him to his second mistake. He strode towards Dena with a cruelly twisted smile, intending to humiliate her in front of the small crowd that was starting to gather.
"I'll teach you to talk back to me you underdressed wench," Jarras exclaimed. He made a grab for her right shoulder with his left hand, but she wasn't frozen in fear as he had thought.
Dena brought her right arm up, snapping her forearm into the underside of Jarras' left arm, the bracer striking his forearm hard enough to knock it away and bruise his flesh. It was a simple block, and she didn't move anything but her arm, looking him in the eyes the whole time.
"Looks like I'll have to teach you to keep your hands to yourself," she said with a wider smile that somehow looked threatening, "unless you behave and go on your way."
If he'd been a seasoned warrior he might have noticed the subtle shift in her weight as she spoke to distract him, but he was young and inexperienced, and so he made his third and last mistake of the afternoon. He pulled back his fist to strike her in that insolent mouth of hers, but as he shifted his weight behind the blow, Dena stepped forward with her left foot, turning slightly, then her left arm shot out. Jarras had expected her to try to duck away. Instead his right arm flew uselessly along the outside of her left, and his body weight moving towards her helped drive her lead jab into his jaw, snapping his head back, and tearing his lips open against his teeth. Dena's fist snapped back to guard position as her weight shifted back, and she stood looking down at him unconscious on the ground, his bleeding lips and nose rapidly swelling.
Jarras' three companions were rooted in shock and hadn't moved, but Dena was ready to counterattack from her guard stance if they threatened. To her right someone laughed loudly, and while still facing the three soldiers ahead of her, chin down, hands up, her eyes alone snapped over to find his identity. When she saw who it was she let a smile spread across her face.
"Hail and well met, Dena," the approaching soldier called out to her with a smile, "I see you're dressed for the occasion. Do you have to go picking on these green kids?"
"Hail and well met, Aliksander," she replied, relaxing her guard a bit, "one of your guys didn't like my sense of fashion. Couldn't let him grab me, though, or take a swing at me either, sergeant."
The remaining three soldiers had come to attention when they realized who she was talking to, and the fact that their detail commander knew her made them more uncomfortable. They really got nervous when the dour sergeant actually hugged the girl.
"So," he said addressing them sternly, "ganging up on a girl, huh? You're lucky she didn't sweep the path with all three of you."
"Actually it was just him, Aliksander," she said, pointing to the soldier on the ground who was just beginning to regain his senses.
The sergeant turned away from his men, and winked at her, saying, "I have to maintain discipline Dena, your father and brother were liege-warriors, I'm sure you understand."
Dena just smiled back, looking over his shoulder at the very uncomfortable troops, while he continued his lecture.
"This is Dena, daughter of Atraeus and Cyrea. Her mom runs the inn, and her father was a defender at Amphilios in the last invasion. You haven't been at the garrison very long, so I'll fill you in. She started weapons training at five, fighting her brother who is a liege-warrior. She has beaten five soldiers in sparring to first blood with swords, myself included, I'm sorry to say...lost half a week's pay on that bout." He turned and gave her another wink before continuing, "no hard feelings. Anyway, that was two years ago when she was fifteen, old history. Now where was I...Oh yeah, she'll kick your asses if you give her a hard time. And if I hear of you giving her a hard time, I'll kick your asses too. Now pick him up and get out of here." He finished, pointing at the groggy Jarras who was finally sitting up.
After they had looked at her sheepishly and left, Aliksander spoke to her. "I'm sorry about Taris, I guess he was at Neopolis when the barbarians overran the garrison. I remember him, and I liked him a lot..."
Dena cut him off, "Aliksander, I think he's still alive. A wounded soldier from the Neopolis garrison told me he'd seen him escape the battle." She quickly related the story Castor had told her, and he smiled broadly at her.
"Well, Gods' fortune smiles on you and your brother, Dena. I'm sure your mother must be very relieved." Then he clasped her forearm warrior fashion, and turned to leave. "I think you'll not have any more trouble from those kids after this, Dena." And he chuckled as he walked off.
Sergeant Aliksander was right, she didn't get any more trouble from the soldiers on the way to Therma. It made sense. She'd beaten two of them, including their commander two years before, and another three she knew were no threat, but the twelve soldiers were too busy with the refugees to brawl with her. She kept her place with her mother, helping the others when she could. At first they seemed to make slow progress, climbing into the highlands above the Stryma River Vale, though fear of pursuers hastened them, yet the sergeant seemed satisfied with their pace. Dena had never been on a forced march like this, and when they talked, his contentment with their progress quelled her fears, and she stopped constantly looking back down the trail they'd taken. On the fourth day out the sergeant took her aside at the noon meal, and spoke to her in a low voice.
"Dena, I don't want to frighten you needlessly, but our flight is being followed," he told her, watching her reaction. When there was none but an attentive look in her eyes he continued, "look back up the mountain towards the notch we passed through last night. Watch and wait."
She looked between the trees where he pointed, and he heard her exhale a little more sharply, "I just saw a flash, sergeant, as of the sun reflected on a buckle or sword blade."
"Yes," he said, "I have seen several such the last few minutes on that slope, and yesterday I saw several as well."
"They would be 14 candle marks march behind us if they rest at night as we do," she stated, then asked, "Have they drawn nearer since yesterday?"
"They have drawn only two candle marks closer in the last three watches," he told her, pleased with her question, "we shall make Therma 12 candle marks ahead of them if they keep their pace. What else?"
"Well, they are too far behind us to waylay with the number of troops we have," she said thinking, "so unless they close the gap tonight, I say we continue as we have."
"Very good," he smiled, letting her know she'd reached the same conclusion he had, "unless they close to 8 candle marks by the morning, I will not even tell the refugees of them. They are not a threat, and I will not spread panic needlessly."
"Yet if they do close on us overnight, then we should walk two candle marks later, and start two candle marks early in the morning of our last march," she said, looking at him.
Neither Dena nor the sergeant could have known then that they fled from Taris and the rear guard of Neopolis, or that the flashes they saw were a signal from them as they followed in their trail. Taris and his companions could not tell for sure where ahead of them the refugees walked, for there were no roads and many trees in that upland. So their signals could not be aimed at any certain place ahead, but rather were flashed at the whole wide space in which travelers going to Therma might be. He hoped they would either know their backs were guarded, or hasten faster thinking themselves pursued. In order to provide that rearguard cover for the refugees, they pushed no closer, but rather paced them, and if assaulted, would start a smoky fire, and hope its meaning, by association with war and destruction, would be guessed, and cause them to flee for their lives.
It was the changing of the third watch to the first the next morning, and Sergeant Aliksander was checking the perimeter as was his habit at dawn, when he came to a tree under which he saw a pile of weapons and a breastplate. He recognized them at once, and reading the signs of displaced leaves and scraped bark, he stepped close and looked up the trunk. Sure enough she was about thirty feet up, sitting comfortably where the trunk split into three large branches. Trust her to pick a perfect lookout tree, he thought to himself. She glanced down at him and smiled, and in a hushed voice reported that the flashes had held position since first light, still 14 candle marks march behind them. He smiled up at her, and moved away, far enough to avoid being bombed by chunks of bark as she climbed down, but still close enough to appreciate her legs from below.
"Glad you thought to remove all metal before you went up," he said, then recoiled in mock pain when she slapped his shoulder.
"That's for staring up my skirt when I was climbing down," she scolded with joking indignation, "and you should know I'd never give away our position with a reflection."
Then they laughed together, but the sergeant's admiration for her had gone up another notch. None of his soldiers had thought to spy the position of their pursuers at dawn when the sun was low, and the shadows it cast were long. He never mentioned to her that he hadn't bothered to tell anyone in the camp but her, and if that seemed unfair, well the sentries he'd posted hadn't seen their pursuers either. Knowing everything around his post was his job as a commander, but knowing how much to tell his soldiers was his prerogative as a sergeant, and after twenty-three years in his king's army he was very good at his job. Next to him she was rearming herself, and humming a tuneless song.
"Sergeant," Dena said, breaking him away from his thoughts, "I think the pursuers are friendly."
He hadn't expected her to come to this conclusion, and he wanted to find what she had realized, so he asked, "Now you are making a judgement, what do you base this on?"
"Well, sir," she said, "the flashes have come at regular intervals since first light, and the pursuers have paced us for several days."
"The flashes are intentional, meant to let us know their position, and they make no move to close the distance to assault us."
"So they hope to let us know they cover our retreat, and they pace us at a speed expected of such a march, confirmed by the condition of our past campsites. I believe they are the rearguard of Neopolis, and if so then the Vale of Stryma is lost, and the enemy may have moved far down the coast. Yet even on horseback they will take another 16 days or more to reach Therma, for the coast is rough in Chalcidic, and they will have to overcome the garrisons at Argil and Stargir."
"And what would be your course for us?"
"To continue as we have." Dena said with a sigh, "If they are the rearguard, then they will either follow us to Therma, or fight at our backs. We should not delay while we have the refugees, yet I would do anything to know if my brother lives, and if they are also pursued then he may die fighting a half-day behind me."
Aliksander sat digesting all she'd said. His heart went out to her, for what she said of her brother was true. His decision was simpler than hers, for he had his orders, to guard the refugees to Therma, and report the status of the war. Her observations would be added to the report though, he hadn't known the flashes were regular, or so intentional. His guess that the pursuers were friendly was based on their constant distance as they paced his march.
"Dena, you will be a commander of soldiers one day, mark my words. I have fought for most of my life, twenty-three years in our king's service. In that time I have never met anyone near your age with your abilities, and I don't just mean with a sword. You think, and you know what to look for before a battle so you have the information you need to make the right decisions. If your brother is like you, then I believe he will join us in Therma the night of the day we enter the city. Have faith Dena, the God's fortune is with you."
He looked into her glowing eyes, watching her weigh the words he had spoken, and he saw the looked for smile grow on her lips.
"I believe you Aliksander, in fact I know you're right."
"How do you know that, Dena?"
"I think they were never followed. Pursuing us wouldn't be worth their time...that army has bigger fish to fry."
"Speaking of which, let's get some breakfast."
They were nearing the end of the fifth day's march, and the keeper of the watch had announced the fourth candle mark of the second watch. Dena was near the middle of the refugee column with her mother, and they spoke of the city of Therma, which Cyrea had traveled to once, as a young wife on a holiday with her husband Atraeus. She was describing the size of the market place, and the caged beasts from strange lands, when a commotion broke out at the column's rear. Dena could hear men yelling, and the sounds of people screaming, then came the push of bodies as refugees fled forward towards them. Dena pulled her mother with her, out of the column to stand between several large trees, where they couldn't be trampled. Looking back at the rear of the column she could make out fighting, and several men closing in from behind on horseback and brandishing swords.
Without a second thought, Dena ran towards the action as fast as she could, and as she drew closer she saw about a dozen men on foot attacking the four soldiers who guarded the column's rear. With the horsemen rapidly approaching, the situation looked bad, and it was about to get worse. She saw the attackers were roughly dressed, wearing no standard uniforms, but rather a variety of uniform parts from different armies, scruffy fighting leathers, and civilian clothing. Their weapons were just as varied in style and quality, but against unarmed civilians any sword would be deadly. They were brigands, criminals outlawed by the king, intent on banditry, and all too willing to victimize helpless refugees who had already lost so much.
She was closing in on the fighting quickly, but already one of the soldiers had fallen, and several refugees were cowering on the ground. Dena looked past them and saw a bandit swing his sword, cutting an old man across the chest. Nearby another was slamming the pommel of his sword across the cheek of a large woman who had defied him, and she crashed to the ground. The slaughter had begun. She drew her sword. The first bandit she got to was a dirty looking young man barely older than Dena herself, and she drove her sword into his ribs from the left, then kicked his body off her blade. He hadn't even seen her. The man standing next to him turned from threatening a boy as his body fell, and Dena sliced him across the neck as he raised his eyes from the corpse. He sprayed her with his blood. She heard hoof beats behind her closing fast, and she turned to see a horseman preparing to ride her down. She dodged away, spinning, her blade lashing out at a footman coming towards her from the other side. Now she was behind him, shoving him away. The horseman tried to turn his horse to follow her move, and ended up running down his own man instead. Dena spun her sword, reversing her grip, and stabbing down to finished him. The horseman was wheeling his mount around, to come back for another try. Dena switched her sword to her left hand, and pulled her whip off its hook. As the horseman finished turning his steed, she lashed out and cracked the whip before the horse's face. The horse was spooked, rearing violently, and throwing the unprepared rider. He struck the ground hard, hitting his head and shoulder first. He didn't move. Dena could tell from the odd angle of his head that his neck was broken. The horse had shied away from her, prancing into the group of bandits on foot, and scattering them away from the refugees. She saw two more soldiers had joined the original three, and they were fighting two horsemen and four bandits on foot. The last horseman was riding towards them, and with the riderless horse hiding her, she approached him. As he closed on the soldiers, she struck with the whip, and the end curled around his sword arm. She gave a violent jerk, pulling the whip hard, and dragging him out of the saddle. He fell right in front of a soldier who impaled him by reflex, as surprised to kill him as the bandit was to die. One of the other horsemen had retreated, the leg of his pants showing a widening stain of blood. A soldier had managed to slash him deeply on the thigh. Another of the bandits had been run through, and sat, dazed, holding the hole in his stomach before slowly falling over onto` his side.
The remaining bandits turned tail and fled. Dena sheathed her sword, coiled her whip, and after several tries, snagged the reins of the riderless horse. It was still skittish, and pranced nervously, the whites of its eyes showing as it stared at her. She stood still, speaking low, and trying to sooth it. She studied it, noting the spur cuts in its flanks and the marks on its hide from an ill-adjusted girth. The saddle was an abomination no beast should have been subjected to, she decided. It would have to go. Slowly, the horse calmed down, and she gradually moved nearer to it, now humming the tuneless song she used to occupy her own mind while concentrating on something else. It was a habit she'd had so long she couldn't remember when it started. It seemed to set the horse at ease, and she reached out a tentative hand for it to sniff. It sampled her fingers with its lips, and allowed her to stroke its nose. Soon she was able to stroke its neck and sides, and she worked her way to the saddle girth, unbuckling it and heaving it to the ground. The horse sniffed it, regarded it, and peed on it. It turned to look at her, and she could swear it was smiling at her, then it nickered softly, and laid its neck across her shoulder. And that was how Dena got her first war-horse.
That night, when the column stayed its march, Dena learned the mutual comfort of grooming the mare she'd acquired, and in doing so, satisfied herself that it wore no brand, and if it had been stolen originally, well, no one could make a claim for it now. After the session with the brush, she was amazed how good the animal looked. She was also amazed how thirsty it was. Luckily it could graze nearby. Cyrea was completely taken by the horse, but she really loved animals in general. The horse also seemed to like Cyrea, nuzzling her, and drooling on her, and offering its head for scratching. In the twilight of the camp, the horse's coat seemed to glow, like a ripening field of wheat in the afternoon sun. Its mane and tail had the color of corn silk. Both she and the horse were happy it had decided not to follow the other bandits when they had fled. Dena found herself thinking of names for it as she ate her evening meal.
In the evening, after their meal, Sergeant Aliksander came to speak with her. He thanked her for helping during the attack, asking if she was alright, and giving her a look that said he understood the possible reactions a person could have to killing in battle for the first time. Over the years he'd seen it all, from hysteria and bedwetting, to disassociation and bloodthirsty mania. He found Dena as calm as could be expected, and realized that taking the horse was a therapeutic distraction. Still, he could see the tremor in her hands when he mentioned the dead bandits, and the uncomfortable look in her eyes. Aliksander saw she had cleaned her weapons and set them aside without inspection or sharpening. A few speckles of blood still clung to her neck and the scrollwork of her breastplate. He thought she'd be ok given time.
"Dena, you did what was needed with speed and efficiency," he told her, searching her eyes, "a first kill in battle makes one think, wondering at the necessity and the waste of life. Never hesitate when you must act, yet never stop questioning the need. By doing thus you shall save many lives, but more important you shall save your soul. You see, Dena, it is easy to learn how to take a life, harder to know when mercy should be shown instead, but it is near impossible to redeem your own soul. Such redemption requires a special kind of love, and in this time without Gods, such love is often sought, but seldom found. So guard your soul, show mercy when you can, and kill without hesitation when you must. This is the wisdom I have learned in my lifetime of war."
Dena nodded, a tear overflowing and tracing her cheek, catching a glint of firelight, then dropping from her chin. She drew a deep slow breath, sniffling slightly, then closed her eyes and slowly let it out. She raised her eyes, seeing the sergeant's concern, and let herself give him a small smile, then she said, "Thank you, Aliksander, I'll try."
He also let her know the soldiers who had seen her fight were telling their fellow troops about how she had come out of nowhere, killing the first two attackers before they even knew she was there. Pulling down the two riders with her whip was also becoming a story for the taverns on future nights. Now he was sure she'd be admired rather than threatened by his troops.
Though they were still in the highlands it was summer, the weather was warm, even at night, and few pitched their tents, knowing they would have to strike them first thing in the morning. Most of the refugees simply found a comfortable spot and wrapped themselves in a blanket on the ground. Dena and her mother found a place near the edge of the camp where she could tie a rope around the horse's neck and wrap it around a tree nearby. Using their bags as pillows they lay down and drifted off to sleep. Sometime that night the fact that she had killed four men, and pulled a fifth from his horse to die at a soldier's hand came to haunt her dreams.
She was in a clearing with the carnage of war surrounding her, and by her prowess she had bested many men, yet when she finally stood alone, the voices of the dead assailed her, and their shades rose from the corpses to accuse her. There was the young man she had first killed, and his voice wheezed with the lung wound, saying he had left his parents' farm for a richer life as a warrior, and he had never actually killed anyone. Here was the second man, blood still spraying from his neck, demanding a fair contest and wishing to die facing her with his sword ready. Next the man ridden down by his ally's horse, holding his chest where her thrust had finished him, saying he had died in her place. Last came the man fallen from his horse, his neck still unnaturally bent, calling her horse thief, and upbraiding her cowardice for scaring the animal rather than fighting him. They surrounded her, speaking all at once, closing in from all sides, speaking louder and louder, coming closer and closer, until she could smell their corpse breath in her face. Her pulse pounded at her neck, and her head throbbed. She thrust her hands over her ears, and finally to escape their glare, stared upwards at the sky.
Above her was the dark vault of night, gateway to the endless void, lit by a billion stars, and in it hung a giant moon. Then in the void above her a constellation outlined itself, a ring encircling an s-curve, and this glowed revealing its shape, burning its form into her mind. Next the constellation separated into the eight points of the compass, and these glowing points fell to earth. She was back on the battlefield with the shades of the dead around her, but behind them the eight points of light glowed, encircling them all. Then the points widened, and the glow began to fade, and each multiplied into eight again, so that now they were encircled by sixty-four. And each was a figure, and their glow was gone, and she saw they were the figures of women, dressed from all ages of the lost past. Dena saw they were alike in form, they were like her twins, and the first and last were dressed alike as warriors of her own time, and they smiled at her, and all of them spoke with one voice, her voice.
"Daughter of the ages, you are called to walk the blade's edge, between vicious brutality and helpless passivity, balanced between the dark and light by your commitment, and your iron will. Before you stand the generations of warriors who have given their lives, with courage when even hope was lost, and behind them stand the millions through the ages who have died in the service of the Greater Good. You shall be compelled to act by the Spirit of Battle, and you shall be constrained from action by the Balance of Dark and Light. To you is given the choice to fall or to fly, and such is the choice given to all mankind. If you fall you shall fall lower than any living thing, yet if you fly you shall touch the stars."
Then one dressed as a warrior of her own time came forward, and with a glance forced the shades to their knees. And in her dream she took Dena's hand, and spoke softly to her so that no one else heard her words, as though for her such talk was hard.
"Dena, I was the first, and I lived in an age so long ago that it is forgotten on all worlds save one. You are here because of your conscience and your doubts, and without these you would be lost, and this vision would not have been. I will tell you that your actions were right. You are called to stand, and to bring back to the world that which was lost, and perhaps even that which was never found. You have a destiny which comes down to you from above the Gods, but you will not have to face it alone, and together you will succeed."
Then she stepped away from Dena to rejoin the others, but as she turned away she whispered in a voice barely heard, "Beware the God of War."
Then Dena saw visions of war throughout the ages, and in strange times and places she saw women so like herself fight and die. Like a kaleidoscope the fractured pictures filled her vision, and she saw generations that had traveled the void, and fought in space, on alien worlds, and in strange lands. But through them all, and more often than not joining her in the fight, there stood beside her a compact woman with emerald eyes and pale hair, and Dena thought her beautiful. The vision exploded in a blaze of light and a blast of air, and she opened her eyes.
The horse had pulled its rope and had leaned over her, shading the bright early morning sun from her eyes. It blew through its lips, its breath like the wind blowing her hair. Then it raised its head, and the sun blazed into her eyes again. Dena covered her face with her hands and shook her head. She could still see the dream, and even years later she would be able to clearly recall it to her mind. Her empty stomach grumbled and her full bladder grumbled, and with a sigh she got up to start the day.
It was the final day of the refugees' march to the city of Therma, and Dena walked beside her mother, the horse following them with no rope or halter. Like the others she was excited, for their flight would soon be over, and they would be seeing a city greater than most had ever seen. Behind them the flashes came, closer now, yet still beyond threat, and the sergeant didn't hasten them. Between the second and third candle marks of the second watch they came down out of the highlands, and soon rounded a point of land. There spread before them in the distance, still two candle marks march away, lay the great city of Therma and its massive walls. Within them stood a hill with temples to the Goddesses from which the smoke of incense rose heavenward, and before the temples a wide market space bustled. But Dena's eyes, and the eyes of the soldiers were drawn not to the wonders of the city, but to the area outside the walls. There before the gates stood an encampment of many thousand tents, and about it a palisade with sentries, and towers with watchmen, and troops drilling on the plain before the city.
"Dena," said Sergeant Aliksander, who had come to stand beside her, "before you is the Third Army of New Hellas, with the Lion of Macedon on their standards; 15,000 men at arms, and 3,000 liege-warriors, three full divisions. They mass to drive the barbarians from the king's lands, and my hope is that it will be with such slaughter that the land shall be free of them for a generation to come. Fourteen years ago but one division drove them back to the Strait of Constantine, but now I think King Liasis II tires of their incursions, and means to crush them to dust."
Dena could only stare in wonder at the sight before her, for in all her years she had never seen so many people in one place, let alone so many men at arms. The army only massed on rare occasions, a single division being sufficient for most engagements, and Dena wondered what kind of man would have the will and the strength to command so many fighters. What sort of mind made the decisions and maintained discipline in his king's name? Who was it that with a word could give life or death to thousands, both the enemy and his own, in an afternoon on the field of war? What would such power be like, and how would a soul escape being crushed by the responsibility and the guilt and the horror?
As she watched, a mounted column left the camp, and twenty horsemen in two rows came towards them. From a watchtower on the near side of the camp came a series of flashes, and as Dena looked back she saw them answered from the highlands behind, no random pattern, but true coded words crossing the miles between. She watched Aliksander's lips as he read the words the flashes carried, and then she saw him smile.
"They report our number, and our composition, and it seems they have marked you and your horse."
He drew his sword, and catching the light of the sun on the blade tilted it rapidly, sending his own message to the highlands and its watchers. Shortly he had his reply.
"I have assured them we are safe, and can make the city unassisted. I have reported those following us for the last three days, and the presence of the bandits to them as well," he told her, then added with a grin, "and I have also said you are on our side, and the horse is yours. No one will try to commandeer it for the army."
He looked at the shock on her face, and then he burst out laughing, rapidly covering his head as she slapped at him when she realized his jest.
"Ok, ok," he said through his laughter, "I told them you had distinguished yourself fighting against the bandits. Don't worry about your horse, the army breeds its own, and is loath to accept untrained steeds."
So it was that on the sixth day of their march, nine days after fleeing their homes, the weary refugees of Amphilios entered the city of Therma. There they found comfort and aid, and healers treated those who had taken injury in their flight, but none could heal the losses of their homes, or their livelihoods, or their dead. They were given rooms in the city hostels, and when those were filled, in private inns. In one of these, Cyrea took work as a hostess, managing the inn in its owner's absence, and thereby providing room and board for herself, and her daughter, and her daughter's horse. Dena found a used saddle she could afford, and which the horse consented to bear, and she took comfort in caring for the animal and bonding with it through riding and grooming. But the highest point in their stay those first days was when Taris returned late the first night, with the remainder of the rearguard of Neopolis, and his joy was as great as hers and their mother's, for he had seen the destruction of the Vale of Stryma. Then he was off to the army camp, to be debriefed about his actions and the status of the war, and afterwards he was reassigned to the Fifth Corps of Liege-Warriors, Second Division, of the Third Army of New Hellas, the Army of Macedon, for the army was preparing to move.
On the third day of their stay, Taris, having finished duty joined them for the morning meal, after which the three spent two candle marks telling each other all that had passed, and sharing in the affection of a family beset by war. Then Dena took Taris to see her horse, and the instant trust between them warmed Dena's heart.
"Has she a name?" Taris asked his sister, stroking the horse's neck and offering a slice of apple.
"No, I've not found one that appeals and seems to fit," Dena replied, studying the horse as it crunched the slice of fruit, then looked to Taris for another, "it needs to feel right, and I'm still learning her temperament."
"Well, just make sure it's a name you feel attached to as well, so it will comfort you to call it. Many times, a horse is a warrior's best friend."
"I'll think about it. I find myself talking to her, and at those times I know she needs a name. Quit looking at me like that, a lot of people talk to their horses. Don't they?"
He kept looking at her with a raised eyebrow and a hint of a grin, saying nothing.
"Well, they do don't they?" she asked, a little less certain, "well...?"
Finally he couldn't keep from sniggering, and she blew up in mock anger, slapping his shoulders and swatting his back. He gave in to his laughter, for though he loved his sister dearly, he could never pass up an opportunity to tease her, though never in a way that hurt. For all the years since their father had fallen in battle, he'd felt responsible for her and their mother. From the time he was a boy of seven he'd been the man of the house, and their house had been an inn filled with strangers. It had driven him to learn the arts of war, as much as his desire to make his father's spirit proud, and it had driven him fast and hard. The army had offered him a commission as a liege-warrior on his eighteenth birthday, an honor, for such appointments usually had to be won in sparring matches. The captain of the garrison at Amphilios had known him for years, and when his lieutenants had both concurred, the offer had been made and accepted. In the three years since, he had challenged and advanced his position within the liege-warriors' corps at the Neopolis garrison, so that by the time of the invasion he commanded a squad of ten warriors. He had managed to bring nine of his ten men, and nine men at arms out of the retreat from Neopolis, through the highlands, then to the city of Therma while protecting the flight of the refugees.
Dena was still smacking him, but now she was laughing as she did it. "Very funny warrior, teasing a helpless girl about her horse. I ought to beat your ass to teach you a lesson."
"You and what army, little girl?" Taris shot back like he had a hundred times before, though now she was only three inches shorter.
"I don't need any help to take you down, you aren't so tuff little boy."
They had walked out of the barn and were headed down the street towards the city gate, both knowing where this argument would lead, and both grinning through the insults they hurled, finding it hard to wait.
"You think I'll take it easy on you 'cause you're just a girl, well don't bet on it."
"Hey, I can take anything you've got. You think you're a big deal 'cause you're a warrior, well let me tell you, I'm not impressed."
They were starting to get the attention of some passers by, and heads were turning, some puzzled by the harsh words and familiar smiles. Most thought it was a lover's spat.
"I don't have to impress you," Taris said, "your opinion isn't worth horse feed."
"Leave my horse out of this," Dena threatened, grinning, "or you'll be sorry you got up this morning."
"I've killed warriors way meaner than you just to work up an appetite for breakfast. I'll shut you up twice as fast."
"Yeah, you and what army, little boy?"
"I don't need an army to take you down, you aren't so tuff little girl."
And so they continued back and forth, accompanied by a small crowd of curious onlookers, until they found an empty space outside the city walls and drew their swords. They circled each other warily, wondering what the other had learned in the last three years, wondering if old habits and faults were still there. They heard voices in the crowd exchanging small wagers over the outcome, and their grins widened. Then Dena opened with a high attack, swinging at Taris' head, and recovering quickly when he ducked and jabbed his blade toward her legs. Instead of withdrawing, he pressed her, bringing his blade strait up where she blocked it to the side with her bracer, and continuing the turn slashed with her blade at his neck. Taris knelt, bending one knee and sweeping his sword across his back, but instead of blocking Dena's slash, he just redirected it over his head. Her momentum carried her past her target, and Taris leapt up, the strength of his bent legs propelling him into the air where he flipped completely over Dena to land behind her and swat her back with the flat of his blade. It was over.
"Wow," she said in admiration, "when did you learn that?"
"Two years ago," he said sheathing his sword, "a guy from Illium, the windy city. I learned a whole style of fighting from him."
"Teach me everything," she demanded.
He spent four candle marks showing her the aerial swordplay of the swordsman of Illium, and by the end of their session, both were soaked with sweat and exhausted. It had been like the old days of their youth at home, and they had missed it dearly. They went back to the inn, and after soaking in baths joined their mother for the noon meal. In the heat of the afternoon Taris slept, preparing for his duty on the third watch, and Dena helped her mother until the day's heat faded, and then she went for an easy ride.
She was walking the horse down a street towards the inn when a young woman in a black robe approached her. The woman's robe fell half way to her knees and she was girt with a sash, but across her back she carried a sword, and the cords attaching the scabbard crossed over her chest. On the front of the robe an emblem was embroidered in gold and silver threads, and this more than anything else held Dena's attention, for the emblem was a ring, divided across its center by an s-curve. The woman was of medium height, with pale blond hair, cropped short like a boy's, and ice blue eyes. Dena could only describe her features as sharp; pointed nose and chin, angular cheeks and brows, her expression appraising and focused.
"Hail and well met," said the woman in greeting, "you are called Dena of Amphilios, I have heard."
"Hail and well met," Dena replied, curious that anyone knew her, "you've heard right, but I don't know you. What's your name?"
"I am Najilla, priestess of the Goddess of War. I was sent from Her temple by the Priestess Inquisitor to request your presence. The Priestess Inquisitor wishes to question you about your dreams."
Dena was shocked silent. How could anyone know what she dreamed, well, what she had dreamed once, for she could only imagine one of her dreams being of any interest to anyone, especially the priestesses of the Goddess of War. Suddenly she was wary; the warrior in her dream had said, "Beware the God of War", just before vanishing. Dena narrowed her eyes.
"This is a request Dena," Najilla reassured her, "we wouldn't try to force you into the temple, but you might find some answers if you come. The choice is yours."
"Well, I wish to stable my horse, and care for it after our ride. Where is the temple? Maybe I could come there afterwards."
"Come to the city center. The temple is marked with the symbol of the chakram," she said indicating the emblem on her breast as she regarded Dena intensely, "you can't miss it. Just tell anyone there your name."
Dena turned towards the horse, stroking its neck, and giving herself a moment to think. She was curious about the dream, and it was a temple to the Goddess, and it was a request, not a demand. She decided to tell Najilla she'd be there, and turned back to find her gone. They were in an open lane, but the priestess in her distinctive robe was nowhere to be seen. Wish I could vanish like that, Dena said to herself, and turned to lead her horse back to the inn.
CHAPTER 3: WHAT DREAMS ARE FOR
It was the sixth candle mark of the second watch when Dena came to the city center and found the temple of the Goddess of War. Above the stylobate Doric columns rose to the architrave, carved with a design taken from the scrollwork of the Goddess' breastplate. Above this, in the metopes, the emblem of the chakram was carved a dozen times. Topping all, in the cornice below the slanting roof, was a tableau of figures depicting the Goddess and her favorite with the leaders of the colonists. The central figure, of the Goddess of War, was a portrait of the woman in her dream, identical in her gear and features. It could have been a statue of Dena herself. I look pretty good, she thought to herself, grinning. Then she noticed the chakram at the Goddess' side where she wore her whip. That sobered her.
She climbed the steps and passed into the temple between the central pair of columns, finding the interior lit by many lamps, and scented with incense. Priestesses went about their business moving purposefully through the space, and Dena understood the disappearing trick. Though the fronts of the robes were black, the backs were white. Dena realized she had probably looked right at Najilla as she walked away, and never recognized her. The Balance of Dark and Light she thought, remembering the words from her dream. Several of them glanced at her as she stood near the entrance, most doing a kind of double take that they tried to suppress. Dena grinned and approached one who stood close by.
"Hail and well met," Dena began, "I am Dena of Amphilios..."
"Here to speak with the Priestess Inquisitor," the priestess finished, "please come with me, we have been hoping you would come."
She followed the priestess through the antis and into the cella, where the priestess bid her wait while she hurried into a side chamber. She soon returned and ushered Dena into a larger chamber that they reached by descending a flight of steps. Here the light was subdued, and the incense of a different and spicier scent. They passed through a curtain that gave privacy to a small space that was bare save for a statue of the Goddess and her favorite, and a bench before it. The figures were painted in lifelike tones as was the style, and Dena felt she was looking at another portrait of herself. She was possessed by the thought that she had stumbled into the lair of someone who had the world's biggest crush on her, and she stifled a bark of laughter. Things seemed a little strange. Maybe it was that incense, Dena thought.
"I guess you appreciate the décor," a voice behind her said, carrying a touch of humor, "I can imagine what you must be thinking, seeing yourself venerated in stone all around this place. I suspect you'll get used to it."
"It is a little strange," Dena admitted, then asked, "are you the Priestess Inquisitor?"
"Yes, I am Diana, Priestess Inquisitor of Therma," she answered directly, "and I'm interested in dreams, yours and mine."
Dena digested this while appraising the priestess. She was dressed like all the other women she'd seen in the temple, and she also wore a sword. She was perhaps 4" shorter than Dena, with a medium build and graceful movements. Dena guessed her age was in the mid-thirties. Her hair was a mass of dirty blond curls, draping her shoulders and falling down her back. Her reddened eyes were a medium brown and conveyed intelligence and focus, though they also held a light of humor, keeping her from seeming severe and balancing her somewhat imposing title. She seemed at ease, though she looked tired, displaying an open and slightly lopsided smile, and the direct manner that put Dena at ease. Diana sat on the bench and indicated that Dena should join her.
"My dreams and yours?" Dena asked, sitting down, and thinking that maybe the conversation wouldn't be just an interrogation.
"Well yes, Dena, I've been dreaming about you a lot," she stated, "and the Goddess, and the God of War."
"The God of War?" Dena repeated, thinking of the whispered warning in her dream.
"You have a tendency to repeat me," Diana said, with a smile at Dena's momentary confusion, "that's not actually a bad thing, if it means I'm understood."
Dena laughed. "Guess you think I'm kinda dumb, and you might be right. I'm having a little difficulty absorbing all this," she said gesturing at the statue of the Goddess.
"Well, let me give you some background." Diana said. She paused, collecting her thoughts, then began an extended monologue which Dena found mind-boggling.
"According to legends taught by Val, the Goddess of History and Knowledge, the story starts long, long ago on a planet far, far away. About 14,000 years ago, Zeus, Father of Gods, brought his wife and two brothers from their home world. They fled here as renegades, carrying two rings of steel, stolen from their father, which had been passed down from the dawn of time. They were created by the Great Power to hold the Essences of Dark and Light. They could be joined to create a weapon of surpassing potency, but only by one holding the Balance of Dark and Light in their soul, and only such a person could keep the combined chakram. For millennia the separated rings lay on the altar in their temple, and all attempts to remove them were fatal. Finally they were taken by a mortal born warrior woman, though she had to personify first the dark of evil and then the light of innocence to remove them unharmed. It is said she had to die to do it. She had also become the Goddess of War and Strategy. She was the daughter, favorite, and beloved of Ares, son of Zeus, and God of War. It is said that she lived for over 2,100 years before giving up her godhood, and dying as a mortal woman. She passed the chakram to Ares, who had died as a mortal and was resurrected by the Great Power as a god, and he kept it for the next 6,666 years. In that time it is said that mankind founded a great empire in the void, and when Ares led them to the stars, earth fell into the Years without Gods. Finally, there was war between the worlds of the void, and worlds were destroyed. The God of War fell into the darkness, and losing the Balance of Dark and Light, the chakram was taken from him by Dale who became the Goddess of War. She came from the stars with her favorite, Val, whom we know as the Goddess of History and Knowledge. They brought the Balance back to the world, and they lived at Olympia for 465 years. Then in 9,187 they died. The chakram was separated into the rings of dark and light, and the world began to fall into the twilight we live in now. That's the quick version. It's really more complex, but I guess you get the idea. Mankind gets unbalanced without a God or Goddess of War. The Spirit of Battle is dispersed, and conflict gets out of hand. The Balance of Dark and Light fails, and people act out of selfishness and greed without the constraint of conscience. Usually that means civilization falls apart for lack of cooperation and fear of violence. I must say though, King Liasis II is doing a great job considering the times."
Diana shook herself, and took a few deep breaths, then she looked Dena in the eyes and asked, "Well, any questions?"
Dena just looked at her. That incense was making her feel thick headed, and she was numbed by all the information she'd just gotten. She'd listened to every legend she'd heard growing up at the inn. It all amounted to nothing compared to what she'd just heard. Almost everything except Dale and Val's reign and death was unknown. The stuff about the chakram was totally new. The God of War she'd never heard of, and the idea of an empire of worlds out in space was pretty much unbelievable. At least she agreed that King Liasis II was a good king.
"OK, since there are no questions I guess its time to share," Diana said, throwing another lump of resin on a brazier and inhaling deeply, "as I said, I've been having some very busy nights in my sleep. For the last few weeks I've been seeing you, mostly walking and killing people, the Goddess, showing me things I don't understand, and a couple times the God of War building weapons I can't comprehend. It all adds up to trouble I'm sure, and I'm really hoping that you can help me see what's going to become of us. Ok?"
"Well, I had been walking a lot lately, but now I have a horse," Dena stated, realizing how dumb that sounded as soon as it was out of her mouth. That smoke was making her feel giddy, "and I did kill a few bandits recently...does that help?"
"It's a start," Diana said in encouragement, "since I know you had to march for six days from Amphilios, why don't you tell me about the bandits."
So Dena told the story of the bandit attack, and the four men she had killed, and how she got her horse. Diana asked her about various points that seemed to interest her, until they finally reached the part about Dena's dream. Diana sat in rapt attention throughout the story, absently chewing her lips, and cracking her knuckles. When Dena finished the priestess sat motionless, closing her eyes, then she threw more resin on the brazier and calmed herself with a few deep breaths.
Finally Diana spoke. "Well, I have never met a Goddess before, but it seems clear to me that one day you will become the Goddess of War." Then the priestess looked at her with an intensity that made Dena very self-conscious, and without thinking about it she began smoothing her hair. Seeing this, Diana started laughing hysterically, and this made Dena even more uncomfortable, for she was now convinced she was in the company of a mad woman who had snapped...no one was near, and she had a sword. The other priestesses who filled the temple seemed to hold Diana in high regard. Not good, Dena thought, getting paranoid, only one exit and I'm badly outnumbered here.
"Maybe I'd better go," Dena muttered, rising from the bench, "sorry I upset you." And she began retreating uncertainly towards the stairs, unwilling to turn her back. She reached the cella while Diana was still laughing, so remembering that self-preservation is often the better part of valor, she headed for the peristyle at a dead run. Dena didn't stop until she was out of the city center. On her way home in the dark, in a strange city that had just gotten stranger, Dena knew she didn't feel a bit like a Goddess. She was spooked, and she longed for the company of her horse. Instead she did what she had done at home when she needed to be alone. She climbed the walls of the city, and found a place where she could sit and gaze at the stars. Eventually the clean air cleared her head. Thus by chance she sat in that high place at the changing of the watch, and below her in the camp of the Army of Macedon there was a great movement of troops. And she sat without moving, humming a tuneless song as the candle marks passed, and below her the First and Third Divisions, 10,000 men at arms, and 2,000 liege-warriors, marched out of the palisade. Down the west road they marched two short miles to the sea, and there they took ship, and at the fifth candle mark of the third watch, the armada sailed from the port of Therma, disappearing into the east to prosecute the war.
At the opening of the second watch, in the afternoon the next day, Dena sat again in that high place on the city walls, and she watched as the Second Division, of which her brother was a part, marched into the foothills of the highlands to the east. Each of the 5,000 men at arms carried on his back a two-gallon jar filled with a mixture of oil and fat, and each of the 1,000 liege-warriors carried a pouch of iron nails, or a carpenter's tool.
There was a place on the eastern coast of Chalcidic, south of Stargir, where the highlands ended in cliffs above a narrow plain before the sea. A little further south there was a low massif jutting into the waves, the headland sheltering a bay to the south, and in that bay there landed the armada of the king's army. Then 12,000 strong, the kings forces awaited a signal from the ships keeping watch at sea. In the highlands the Second Division labored, and after their march from Therma, these 6,000 had constructed 200 small trebuchets easily capable of lofting a two-gallon firebomb to the plain below the cliffs. An expeditionary force landed at night near Stargir had kept the enemy from passing the fort.
When all was ready, and the preparations confirmed by signal flashes between the highlands and the ships, the forces at Stargir retreated south along the coast, moving slowly with the enemy massed behind. Soon they reached the cliffs, and there the king's forces fled from their enemy at highest speed, drawing them in pursuit into the killing ground. The enemy's cavalry and infantry found themselves bombarded from the cliffs above by thousands of firebombs, their retreat cut off by a solid wall of flames. Then, as the bombardment dwindled, 12,000 of the kings men poured over the headland, charging north to slaughter the enemy survivors. As that battle raged, the Second Division came down from the highlands several miles north and began a march up the coast towards Argil, slaying any invaders they met. Behind them the First and Third Divisions wrought a bloodbath on the coast, and by nightfall no living barbarian remained from Argil south. At Argil on the next day, the three divisions reunited, and then they marched north clearing the land of the invaders. In a week they retook all the land below the Stryma Vale, and in another week they had passed Neopolis. Three weeks after Dena watched them marching from Therma, they stood at the Strait of Constantine. Behind them the bodies of 16,000 invaders had been thrown as fish food into the sea.
The Army of Macedon, having learned of an enemy stronghold fifty miles from the strait, marched north into battle on foreign soil, and arriving at the barbarian's city, besieged it and broke its walls. Then with great slaughter, the king's men burned and leveled the city, leaving the ruins as a warning to the enemy to respect the border.
Twenty-three cowering men stood before him, their eyes downcast in fear after his tirade. Correct that, he thought, these aren't men. They are living tools for the achievement of my Lord's desire.
The scientists had this last chance to save their lives, and the lives of their miserable families, and their miserable families' pets. If the laser failed to produce a beam this day, they would all surely die. General Garza couldn't decide which he'd enjoy more, seeing his Lord's will achieved, or slaughtering these sniveling scientists and ending their endless excuses. He'd even dreamed of having both. Perhaps he could make sure the weapon worked, then report a failure and get permission to slay these whiners. Later he could demonstrate a working prototype for his Lord's pleasure, and reap the praise himself. It was tempting, but he'd heard stories of men roasted alive after failing to deceive their Lord. He wasn't sure about those stories, but he didn't want to take the chance, especially when his Lord could simply appear anywhere he chose, anytime he chose.
Below his observation platform, the scientists retreated behind a force-wall and put on shield helmets. A klaxon sounded. Suddenly there was a whump, but no visible beam sizzled the air. Still, in under a second the x-ray laser had pierced a six-foot thick steel plate. The beam stopped dead where it met a force-wall, then it ceased. He could smell ozone. The scientists examined the plate, and congratulated each other. One of them looked up and made a "thumbs-up" sign. General Garza was disgusted by that puerile display. Next to him the air shimmered, and with flames and lightning his Lord appeared. General Garza fell to his knees, bowing his head, nervous due to his proximity.
"Rise General," his Lord's voice rumbled, "you are to be commended on the success of your underlings...a good thing too, for their failure would have been your own as well."
General Garza gulped, and he nearly lost control of his bladder. "Thank you my Lord Ares. We all had motivation to achieve your desires."
"Yes, it's always that way, isn't it." Ares said with a smile like a shark.
"My Lord, I live by your command!" General Garza replied by reflex.
Ares favored him with a smile, which made him feel like a prey animal, and vanished with flames and lightning. The general looked down and searched the floor for the scientists, but they had fled.
"I dreamt of battle impossible to behold, of warships in a sea of night bedecked with endless stars. And they fought for worlds that I shall never see, their valor passed in an ancient age before I came to be. For though these heroes spent their blood in wars I cannot comprehend, none in later times will their honor strip, nor years fade the triumphs of one red ship."
"Aggghh damn! That's not it either," Dena exclaimed in exasperation as her horse watched with mild interest. "I guess poetry just isn't one of my skills. Too bad, that dream was so vivid it deserves to be...oh never mind, lets go."
She mounted her steed, and they galloped back to Therma.
I dreamt of war, the timeless void,
Impossible to behold.
Of ships that flew the sea of night,
Where space is heartless cold.
They fought for worlds I'll never know,
Beyond the stars I see.
Their valor passing in an age,
Before I came to be.
These countless heroes spent their blood,
For honor we cannot strip.
Nor fade through years the triumphs won,
The flights of one red ship.
-Opening stanza, Anonymous, "A Dream of War". Anno Domini 9,409 : 7,353 A.D.
In a narrow bed, in a nondescript inn, in the city of Therma, Dena of Amphilios turned and twisted in her dreams. They were becoming a nightly occurrence, and she looked forward to them with the same thirst she had once had as a girl, for the legends and tales of travelers at her mother's inn. Tonight she had quickly fallen asleep, and soon the dreams had come.
Dena stood in a temple, and looking through the colonnade of the pteron she could see the tops of clouds. The site had to have been on the heights of a mountain taller than any she had ever climbed. It could be only one place. Mt. Olympia, home of the Goddesses.
"Very good, daughter of the ages," her voice spoke from behind her, "you stand in my temple on Olympia, and to you I shall reveal the secret of this temple. One future day you shall stand here and you shall find what I show you now."
Dena turned, and she looked into her own eyes in the face of Dale Sherril, the Goddess of War. Next to her stood the Goddess of History and Knowledge, Valerie Havarr. Dena tried to be discreet in her drooling over the blond goddess, who grinned at her, then turned her expressive eyes to her partner. The look that passed between those two let Dena know she was busted, and she barely overheard a comment between them about "youthful hormones". They turned their attention back to Dena, and Dale beckoned her to follow them.
Together they walked through the antis and the cella, finally entering the pronaos, with its monumental statue of Dale. Dale led them around the back of the colossus where a panel in the wall was inscribed with a cutout of the chakram. Dale pulled the weapon from its hook at her waist and set it into the receptacle in the wall, then she grasped the s-curve, and turned the chakram to the right. Dena heard a click and a panel in the base of the statue popped open an inch. Before leading her further, Dale cautioned Dena not to make the mistake of turning the chakram to the left.
"If you turn it the wrong way you will die, cutie," Valerie said, winking at her and causing Dena to gulp.
Dale made a comment about "cruelty to children", and pulled the panel open, revealing a stairway cut into the stone of the statue's base. Leading the way she guided them down the stairs to a passage that also sloped down. They came to a round spiral of metal that blocked their path, and Dale pressed her palm against a small window inset in the red wall. Dena nearly jumped out of her skin as the spiral sprang open like an iris.
"Welcome aboard the Colonial Warship Ares." Valerie Havarr said from behind her as she prodded her into motion with a slap on the butt. Dena was mortified, and turned a deep red as she walked into the most advanced warship in the galaxy. Behind her Val giggled.
"So what you do is just push this button," Dale said, indicating a red button on the console next to the captain's chair, then she hissed, "NOT NOW!" as Dena's finger started towards it.
Dena pulled her finger back like it had been burnt, and asked Dale, "What does it do?"
"It blows up in your face," Val deadpanned, then lapsed into hysterics as Dena blanched.
"Enough, Val!" Dale admonished, "This is serious."
"Yeah, yeah," Valerie said, still chuckling, "couldn't resist ya know?"
"Ok...Dena, this button activates the auto control modes for the ship's systems. After that you just have to think of what you want it to do, and it does the rest. We did some upgrades. It's not actually the Ares anymore, and it's really pretty smart for a machine."
"You have to watch this holo," Val said seriously, "you have to know what it can do."
Dena spent the next half candle mark watching a 3-D movie of the warship Ares on exercises, the images moved in the air above a round translucent dish in the counter top. It was utterly amazing, but she managed to absorb it. Well, what are dreams for, she thought to herself. Behind her, Dale and Val were whispering, but she managed to catch a few phrases, like "robbing the cradle", and "get what you deserve / promise?". While she was watching the holo, Val slipped a scrap of paper into her hand, and she absently tucked it into the bodice of her leathers. Dena decided to watch part of it again, and she pushed the button on the holo projector, but it blew up in a flash of sparks and light. She woke up with the sound of Valerie's laughter ringing in her ears. Something was scratching her between her breasts, and when she reached for it she came up with a note on a kind of paper she'd never seen before. Dena unfolded it, and read the script. It was the poem she'd tried to write after her dream the night before, the one that just wouldn't come out right. Except now it worked. At the bottom Val had penned a short message.
"Poetry is one of my skills. Copy this verse, and then destroy this note. Eating it wouldn't be a bad idea...to make sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands."
Dena could almost hear Val laughing at the thought of her eating the note, but with her heart beating a rapid tattoo she copied the lines on a parchment, and grinned as she chewed the paper no one on her world could make. It tasted like chocolate.
CHAPTER 4: WINNING THE ROAD TO CORINTHIA
The runner had come down from the hills east of Therma in the fourth candle mark of the second watch, and though he staggered through the gates of the city, he went first to the temples and offered incense to the Goddesses for his safe return. Then, having had water and a little food, he went before the council of the city and proclaimed his news. Moments later the bells of the city began to ring, announcing the victory of the army over the barbarians, and the freeing of the lands of Macedon and Thracae by the warriors of the king. People ran into the streets, and there was a celebration that the citizens spent two days recovering from. There was feasting, processions giving thanks to the Goddess of War, more feasting, and dancing in the streets. Wine flowed freely in every tavern and inn, people reeled through the streets, and the gutters ran with vomit. Fine citizens and beggars alike shared the public spaces, sleeping in the parks, too inebriated to find their ways home. Dena and her mother were overjoyed, for now they could return to Amphilios and take up their lives again. They waited only for word of Taris before they headed east to their home. So they thought.
That night Dena lay in her bed, listening to the revelers in the streets, turning from the window in disgust as someone began heaving in the alley outside. She heard him hit the cobbles, and then relative quiet returned. She gathered her blanket around her and drifted off to sleep.
Dena found herself on a field of battle, and the most ancient of her "ancestors" approached. Somehow Dena only met this one on some battlefield, in the quiet after a slaughter, with the corpses and cadavers underfoot, and the stench of blood assaulting her nostrils. She'd have to ask her about it some time. To her right a dead horse lay like a toppled statue, bloated, stiff, and with its legs sticking straight up in the air. The warrior woman came closer, giving her a slight smile that could almost have been a sneer. Dena returned it, and saw the woman's left eyebrow rise.
"Don't get uppity just 'cause your alive," she said, "you've got a lot to learn if you want to stay that way for long."
"I intend to be around a lot of years, thanks for the concern," Dena replied, "and what's with all these scenes of mayhem we always meet in anyway?"
"This is the aftermath of the battle of Kratis," Xena said, in a menacing tone of voice while staring into Dena's eyes, "my army destroyed the forces of the city, cheap mercenaries. I was a month younger than you are at the time, and I already had 200 men at my command."
"What did you do then?" Dena asked, a little awestruck.
"I raided the countryside, pillaged and stuff to keep the men happy, and then went south to attack Corinth."
"I don't think I'm really interested in bringing chaos and slaughter to my own people..."
"Good. It was a mistake." Xena said, looking down for a moment, "I have...had a lot to make up for, and I was never sure if it really balanced out. Anyway, I'm here to tell you that you can't go home..."
"Like I said, you have a lot to learn, so you need to head to Sparata in Peloponnesia."
"Sparata??? That's practically on the other side of the world."
Xena was looking at her and tapping her toe impatiently, hands on her hips, brow furrowed. Dena knew she was about to snap at her, and decided to wait her out. Sure enough...
"You spoiled little snit, Sparata is less than 250 miles as the Odin's crows fly, and over land by horse it should take you less than two weeks." Xena was gesturing with her index finger, leaning forward as if she was looking down on someone shorter. It was comical because they were the same height. "It's not like you have to slow down for someone walking with you."
As she said the last, Dena became aware of the short blond woman coming up and standing unnoticed next to Xena. It was her version of Val. She was pretty much the same except she showed more skin, and she usually acted more mature than Valerie. Dena liked her.
"Xeeena, quit trying to scare her," the little blond said, "we need her. Mankind needs her, and at the rate you're going you're going to give her a sleep disorder. And I heard that comment about slowing you down."
"Gabrielle...it was true for the first four years, and anyway..."
"Don't change the subject," Gabrielle said, "she's still a kid mostly, just like I was, so have some patience with her."
They stared at each other for a few moments, then Xena sighed and turned back to face Dena.
"Alright, look, I know you planned to go back to Amphilios with your mom, but you need to learn how to use pressure point attacks. In Sparata there is a woman named M'lanta who will teach you...trust me, I know...knew someone like her once, and history tends to repeat itself in some respects. Take care of your legs. Was that ok, Gabrielle?"
"Much better," Gabrielle said giving the warrior a big smile, "see, she's convinced, aren't you?"
The last was directed to Dena, and wasn't really a question. Dena shook her head "yes", thinking to herself that learning another fighting technique might make it worth going to the armpit of New Hellas. She did wonder what Xena's comment about her legs was for, it had sounded a little ominous. Gabrielle and Xena were already walking off across the battlefield in an animated discussion, both gesturing vigorously, and Dena woke up to a drunken brawl outside her window. It was morning, and in Therma the party was still going on. She contemplated emptying the chamber pot out the window, but settled for slamming the shutters closed instead. Then she sat there for a while trying to figure out how to tell her mother she'd be heading the other direction when Cyrea started back to Amphilios. An opportunity presented itself.
As Dena sat thinking, she heard the brawl outside getting louder, punctuated by the sound of something hard striking meat, a yell, and another hard blow. Then quiet. Dena went to the window to investigate. Suddenly the shutters swung open. Dena grabbed the hooded figure outside and hauled it through the window, locking one of its arms behind its back and slamming it to the floor. She held the person down with her knee, and twisted their head around. It was Najilla, the priestess of the War Goddess. She was dazed and Dena checked the condition of her pupils. They were still the same size, if a bit dilated.
I don't have time for this, Dena thought, slapping the groggy priestess.
"Wakey, wakey...what are you doing coming in my window?"
"Huhhh, uhhhh," the priestess sputtered, then her eyes focused on Dena, and she recoiled in terror, "Goddess, Please Don't Kill Me!"
"What are you doing here?" Dena hissed.
"I had to talk to you and I can't let anyone know I'm here and I had to tell you I left the temple 'cuase Diana's nuts except she dreamed you're going to Sparata and I want to help you get away from here and I had to beat up those two drunks outside but they're just like a guard dogs aren't they."
"Yeah, they are," Dena said, getting up and letting go of the priestess. She was beginning to get the idea for a plan, "and you're going to help me alright."
"Really, and here's what we're going to do," Dena said, helping the priestess to her feet.
It was the second candle mark of the first watch, and Dena sat with her mother in the common room of the inn having their morning meal, when a priestess of the temple of the Goddess of War entered the room. She scanned the tables, studying the faces of the seated patrons until her eyes stopped on Dena and her mother.
"Another one," Cyrea muttered, as she swallowed her mouthful of eggs, "I'll be right back, Dena, I've got to seat someone...the serving wenches will take care of her after that."
It wasn't necessary, Najilla came right to their table, looking at Dena and ignoring Cyrea.
"Can I help you young lady..." Cyrea asked, before Najilla cut her off."
"You're Dena of Amphilios, aren't you?" Najilla asked, still ignoring Cyrea, "You are just as the Head Priestess described you."
"You mean me?" Dena asked, as her mother looked on in silence.
"Yes, Dena. She wants you to meet with the Head Priestess of the temple in Athenae. She has dreamed that you will become a great priestess."
"Me," Dena asked, acting incredulous, "a priestess of the Goddess of War...in Athenae?"
"I will take you to Athenae, where the main temple to the Goddess of War is." Najilla offered, "Those were her orders to me."
"Why would I want to become a priestess of the War Goddess? I always planned to join the army."
"Well, you would be fighting evil in the Goddess' name, serving justice, helping people, learning ancient wisdom." Najilla persuaded, "The Head Priestess thinks you have a destiny with us, to become a champion in the service of the greater good. In the army you could win honor and the peoples' thanks, but as a priestess you could win honor and the Goddess' thanks."
"Uhhh, I have to think about it, I mean go to Athenae?" Dena asked, "I was going home."
Cyrea shook her head "yes", looking back and forth between them.
Najilla looked at Cyrea, staring into her eyes, and said to Dena, "You have to decide soon. Our ship leaves from the port of Therma tonight. It sails for Athenae at the sixth candle mark of the second watch. If we miss it, it will mean a much longer trip on horseback. I think we need you."
Cyrea thought of all the things that could happen to her daughter in the long ride to Athenae. Then she thought of all the things that could happen to her daughter in a boat on the sea. She thought of her daughter dying in the wars the army fought, just like her father, and maybe her brother, and she thought of her daughter as a priestess, off to Athenae with this crazed girl standing at their table. In the end she couldn't make up her mind, and just sat shaking her head.
"Let me think about it for a while," Dena told Najilla, "I'll tell you what I decide soon."
"I hope you'll join us, Dena," Najilla said to her. Then she smiled at Cyrea, and walked out of the common room and into the street. Once outside she circled around, walked down the alley, and climbed back in Dena's window.
"Well, Mom, it sounds like there might be something to it. I mean I'll get to learn all about the ancient legends. I don't know, what do you think?"
"It's kind of sudden," Cyrea said, trying to deal with what had just happened, "I mean I'd always thought you'd join the army, still, she made being a priestess sound good. But you'd have to go off tonight?"
"Yeah, it is kind of sudden...I'm interested though," Dena mused, "I mean it's something I never thought of...they don't have priestesses in Amphilios."
Cyrea clamped down on a sick expression and looked away. She knew her daughter, impulsive, willful, and always intrigued with something new. She had a feeling she'd get swept away with this new idea of becoming a priestess, and go off with that crazy girl. Cyrea didn't think Dena's independent streak would be an asset in the clergy, but she had a feeling about this for sure...mother's intuition.
"I have to think," Dena said, "I'm going to go groom my horse. Talk to you later, Mom."
Dena got up and left, leaving her mother staring at the walls and wondering what would happen. She went to the stable, picked up the brush, and started brushing the horse. She tried thinking about names again. So far so good.
"You did great," she told Najilla when she got back to her room, "I think Mom's completely convinced."
"I hope it works."
"It will, trust me," she said, practicing a menacing look she'd learned from the "Ancient One", "by the time she sees through this, we'll be a week away." She watched Najilla flinch, then she started packing. She knew better than to take much besides her weapons.
At the second candle mark of the second watch, Dena came down from her room and found her mother in the kitchen. They spent most of another candle mark talking and arguing over Dena's decision before Cyrea finally gave up in frustration and wished her daughter well in her attempts to become a priestess. Then she did what mothers have done since the dawn of civilization; she started stuffing food into a saddlebag for her daughter to take on the road.
Dena went out into the market and bought a few things for the trip, a length of rope, a couple of blankets, water skins, soap and maps. At the fourth candle mark, she met Najilla at the corner of the market to coordinate. Najilla had her horse, and it was already packed. Najilla had been on a few missions for the temple and had her standard traveling gear. Dena noticed a second sword at the front of her saddle, with a curved blade like a falchion but more slender. A short bow and a quiver of arrows were attached to the back of her saddle, with a couple bags and a bedroll. She carried two water skins, one large and one small, the smaller one strapped to a shoulder bag. Dena also noticed that Najilla had a pair of large, curious looking boot daggers. She'd have to ask about them sometime.
Back at the stable, Dena packed her things onto her horse, and went back into the inn to say good bye to her mother. It was the fifth candle mark of the second watch. It started as an uncomfortable and self-conscious meeting, Dena feeling guilty, her mother feeling confused. Finally they both managed to say the heartfelt things they'd rehearsed, and broke down crying, holding each other. Dena said she thought she'd have news to send in a couple weeks, when Cyrea was safely back in Amphilios, and she promised to come home as soon as she could to visit. Cyrea promised not to touch a thing in Dena's room, (a joke, since they both believed the inn had been burned by the barbarians), and she assured Dena she'd tell Taris everything. Then she walked out to the stable and hugged her daughter, and watched her get on her horse and ride out to meet the road, she and that crazy priestess girl who she now noticed was bristling with weapons. Gods, they're just a couple of teenagers, she thought, as the two heavily armed young women rode off into the sunset.
"Well that was easier than I thought it would be," Dena mused as they headed down the west road into the evening.
"You're great at tactics," Najilla said, "I could never fool my Prioress...still can't usually. But then you're the Goddess."
"Yeah, well I'm just glad I won't be around when she figures it out. I really hope by the time I get home she'll be happy to see me. Anyway, you did great, Najilla, thanks."
"I am pleased to serve, Goddess."
"And will you quit with that 'Goddess' stuff...just call me Dena, I don't want to give my identity away."
"Oh, ok. I got it."
It wasn't that Dena was particularly crafty that day. She'd usually failed at fooling her Mom. It wasn't that Cyrea was particularly gullible that day. She had raised two kids, and knew how Taris and Dena had hatched the most ludicrous plots. She knew how her daughter was given to scheming and getting her way. She wasn't fooled by Najilla's act either. They were off to party, no doubt about it. All those weapons, she thought, shaking her head, what is it these days with kids and weapons?
As a God had once said, "Many powers inhabit this planet, but they inhabit different planes. Some we can see, and some we cannot see." So it was that the Spirits of 64 generations of Warrior Princesses concentrated their wills, and Cyrea's skepticism remainder in check, and Dena started her journey to Sparata in the company of a hero worshipping teenage priestess bristling with weapons. And Dena followed the call of her destiny; to follow the Way of the Warrior and the Spirit of Battle, yet be tempered by the Balance of Dark and Light.
They had been on the road two nights when Dena brought up the topic of Najilla's boot daggers. They had been sitting by their campfire inspecting and cleaning their weapons, and Dena had been watching as the priestess absently spun them in her hands.
"I've never seen daggers like those," she said, indicating the spike blades and the curved guards.
"Well, " Najilla replied, "they're called Sai, and they were the weapons of the Goddess of History and Knowledge. They're a great defense against a sword."
"How do they work?" Dena asked, always intrigued by new weapons.
"Come on, I'll show you," Najilla said, as she stood, and gestured to Dena to draw her sword.
So Najilla demonstrated defenses and attacks to a very attentive pupil, and then she left the weapons with Dena so she could practice. And eventually she fell asleep to the sounds of Dena practicing in the dark. The next morning Dena was still there, and Najilla was beset with requests to, "attack me, again, now from the other side, faster, harder, that's good." Dena had managed to gain a working knowledge of the weapons overnight. Najilla wasn't surprised. After all, she was the Goddess of War.
The next day, in the fourth candle mark after dawn, the entered Methain, a fishing village near the mouth of the Haliacon River. The town stank, of rotting fish, and drying fish, and curing fish, of glue factories, and midden piles of shellfish, and dead animals floating in the river. It was a funky town of irreputable types, swindlers and quack doctors, black marketers and carnival denizens. Everyone was either con man or shill, and strangers were unwelcome except as marks. The town's fisher folk were a depressing lot of chronic drunks, who reeled out to sea in leaky ships. They sometimes didn't come back, and often weren't missed. Dena and Najilla decided to do some dining.
"Ya got anything besides fish?" Dena demanded of the sweating blob of a waiter in the tavern they'd stopped at. The seats and tables were greasy. The air was worse.
"Uhhh, no." The man replied, picking his nose in nervousness, "No one here does."
"This is disgusting. Najilla, lets get out of here, I'm getting the creeps," Dena whispered to her friend, motioning towards the door with her brows.
Najilla knew better than to argue, and she didn't think she'd trust this filthy little man in front of them to feed her horse. She got up, with Dena backing out behind her, apologizing for their lack of appetite, and shoving her out the door.
"I hate this whole town," Najilla confessed, "I want to get back on the road. This whole town is creepy, everybody leering at us and shit. They were eyeing our horses too, did you notice that?"
"Yeah, that was really disgusting. And those old men rubbing up against us in the market."
"I know, I felt them trying to touch me," Najilla said, "I really hate this town. Can we just leave, please."
"Ok, ok. I thought it would be better than this, I mean, Gods, Amphilios was out in the sticks, and people didn't act like this. Ok, we're going."
They mounted their horses after checking the gear, and rode out of the town, following the road to Pydnum. There it was worse, for Pydnum was the center of the slave trade in northern Thessal, and Dena and Najilla had two altercations and an armed skirmish before they got away from the city that night, galloping down the road towards Dium in the dark. They stopped midway between the two cities, and made a quick camp on a hill above the road, where they were hidden between large rocks. The next morning they debated their plans. Najilla was getting hysterical and Dena slapped her to shut her up.
"Look, you can't just stop going into towns. They can't all be as bad as those two," Dena reasoned, "and anyway, yes we can skip Dium. I need to go on to Olympia. There's something there that I need to see."
So they bypassed the city of Dium which was fortunate, for they were having their first harvest festival and they sometimes stoned people. And the carnival was on, and the drunken mobs were out pillaging and raping, and there was even cannibalism. It reenacted the worst of the Years without Gods, and it relieved the tensions of the people in a free for all. In truth, most of the bad things happened to strangers and travelers. But Dena and Najilla bypassed Dium in a five-mile detour, and headed upland towards Olympia and the ruins of the Goddess' temples.
Two candle marks after starting their ride, Dena and Najilla approached the ancient temples of the Goddesses. The two buildings were set side by side on the mountaintop, and were totally unlike in structure. The Temple of the Goddess of War was a larger version of the one in Therma, a rectangular block with columns. The Temple of the Goddess of History and Knowledge was a circular colonnade, with an entablature and a low dome above. On one side was a façade, and attached to the façade was a tower.
Dena went to the Goddess of War's temple, walking up the steps of the stereobate and passing between the columns of the pteron. She entered the antis, walked through the cella, and finally into the pronaos. She and Najilla stood and stared at the statue of Dale, Goddess of War, 30 feet tall, looking exactly like Dena. It gave Najilla the creeps. Dena walked to the statue and went around the back of the base where she checked the wall. Sure enough, carved into the wall panel was the chakram, the s-curve dividing the circle vertically. In the base of the statue Dena could faintly see the outline of the door she knew led down to the warship, hidden beneath these tons of stone.
Dena walked across the mountaintop between the temples, Najilla following behind with the horses, and came to the façade of the temple of the Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. An open doorway between the central columns led to a hallway within. Dena followed it, and found herself following a maze of passages, confusing until she finally closed her eyes and followed the slight breeze she felt on her face. They ended up in the center of the temple, in a soaring space like a park, under the center of the dome that was open to the sky. Dena went to the statue of the Goddess in the center of the park and stood before it on the glass chakram emblem embedded in the base. The statue of Valerie was life size, bronze, and held a media crystal in her right hand. Dena touched the crystal, completing a circuit through the glass emblem she stood on. The machines long dormant under the temple recognized Dena's combination of brainwaves, DNA, and physiology as being the match it sought for one of several messages, and began to play it back.
"Hi Dena," Val said, smiling at her in a suggestive way, "I'm glad to be able to talk to you besides in dreams. Well, since I know Dale will never do it, I'm going to fill you in on a couple things. A little history I guess, huh, cutie? Anyway, this is how it was when Dale and I started out."
And the hologram played on showing Dena the training and flight of two teenage girls from a long destroyed world in the void. It showed them training in the warships, and their battles in the company of the God of War. How Val had destroyed a planet, <cool>, and how Ares fell from the Balance. It showed Dale destroying the attack ships with her new powers, <way fuckin' cool>. It showed the final duel between Ares and Xena, fighting in Dale's body, <awesome>, and then their flight to Earth. It showed their reign and the establishment of the colonies. Then, too soon, it showed an aged Val, lying in Dale's arms as she died, <really sad>, and Dale's disincorporation, <freaky>. It showed finally, the separated rings on an altar, but it didn't show where.
"Not yet, young one," Val teased, "when you're ready they will be there. But first, you need to name your horse, and you then need to find your counterpart...your me."
Dena had committed every detail to memory, which was good, because, having played the message once, the machines under the temple deleted the file, and the words and images of Valerie Havarr were lost forever. Dena looked over and saw Najilla asleep under a tree. She noticed the shift in the shadows and realized the massage from Val had taken several hours. She shook Najilla awake.
"Come on, let's get out of here."
"Uhhh, ok." Najilla muttered, "what was all that about anyway?"
"It was a message from the Goddess Valerie, didn't you see anything?"
"Just a shimmering in the air. You were petrified. Eventually I fell asleep waiting."
They left the temples and rode a few more miles, then pitched an early camp. Dena was lost in thought replaying the images from the message. The thing she kept dwelling on was the look Dale and Valerie had when they looked at each other. It was the same thing she saw between Xena and Gabrielle, and a couple of the other incarnations she'd dreamed about.
Eventually she drifted off to sleep. She was aboard a warship in the void, and she knew she commanded that warship, and that it was the Ares. It could kill two dozen worlds. She was lifting from a planet, having just won a great duel, and the Spirit that had won that duel was receding, letting Dale return to command. The warship knifed through the atmosphere, parting the clouds as it accelerated away, just a red blur in the afternoon sun, shields rendering it impervious to the hungry lasers tracking it from the planet. Soon it greeted the black of space by jumping across the void, to rejoin the deserters and her beloved. Now she was aboard the Icarus III leaping back and forth across the void, finally bringing the Colonist's ship to Earth, a Cardinal planet, a world without end, fulfilling the promise in Gabrielle's directions from 9,000 years before. And then came a lifetime of 465 years together, helping their adopted people, a long lifetime of love.
Dena awoke the next morning with tears on her face, feeling strangely at peace. Najilla was sullen. They packed in silence and started south into Thessal. They traveled in silence most of the morning, and finally Dena had had enough.
"So just what is your problem now," she demanded, never very good at sensitive chats, "you've been pissy ever since we were at the temples, and it's getting me down, so spill it, now."
"I said enough with that Goddess stuff!" Dena snarled, getting a reflexive recoil from the priestess.
"Yes, Dena," Najilla said, contrite, "I'm ok."
"Oh, bullshit! Don't give me that crap!"
"Ok...Ok! I'm just jealous, I mean I'm a priestess and all, and you get visions and dreams of the Goddesses, and messages from them and stuff, and I don't see anything, and you don't tell me anything, and I really feel left out, and I'm depressed, I'm not feeling well, ok?"
"Oh, ok I guess. Well, most of it had to do with the personal background of the Goddesses before they became the Goddesses you know. Anyway, they were really nice, and yes, I've met them in my dreams, and I'm just overwhelmed by how normal they were, even though they went through all this stuff together."
"Really? Will you tell me about them?"
"Well ok, I guess." Dena said. "People should know, maybe not every one, but a few people who really know about the Goddesses."
"I want to hear everything!!!"
"Uhhh, well, I'll tell you some of it to start with."
And after that, the sense of camaraderie returned, and Dena found Najilla a great listener, absorbing every detail she presented, and questioning her at many points. She was insufferably nosey though, and Dena had to say, "she didn't know", more often then was believable. Still, she stuck to her bows, and never gave Najilla more information than she wanted to. So it went, ride after ride, settling into a comfortable pattern of travelling days and camping nights, staring up at the stars. And Dena found herself seeing patterns in the constellations; the bow, the eagle, the dragon, the horse, the cross, and many others, which she recorded on a chart that she added to every night, drawing a line as the sky advanced each night. As Gabrielle had done on a march nearby, 9,400 years before, Dena made the star chart, knowing one day it might bring someone home.
They passed through Thessal without incident, and began crossing the peninsula of Boetia, riding towards the city of Thebes. It was a misnomer. It should have been called the city of Thieves. At the first inn they came to their horses were stolen by children, and for two blocks, the tykes thought they were getting away with two laden warhorses. They might have gotten three blocks if they had actually given the horses the apples they'd tempted them with, but being dinar wise and drachmae foolish they hid them. Then the horses had turned on them, kicking two, and scattering the rest, before returning to they mistresses. In the mean time, the girls had beaten up three men in a brawl at the inn. The dispute began over the "traveler's lunch special", which they soon discerned was a combo platter of spoiled cheese, stale bread, and rancid meat. The inclusion of watered cider was the final straw. Their anger turned to glee as they trashed the dining room, and the host, waiter and cook spent the next week nursing bruises, cuts, and minor burns. Right after this, the innkeeper's family tried to attack them to even the score, and they fought their way past seven of them, cutting several, before finally meeting their horses on the outskirts of town. They fled with their lives, and their property, and headed south, across the isthmus to Corinthia.
"I hate cities," Najilla whimpered, tossing in her sleep and clutching at herself, "save me Goddess."
Unbelievable, Dena thought watching the priestess writhe in her nightmare. I hope I don't look like that, or worse. The priestess was high strung and accumulated a lot of tension over the course of a day. She released it in her sleep. Dena rolled away, feeling like a voyeur peeping at Najilla's performance. Over her shoulder she heard the moaning start. It was much the same every night. Pretty soon the priestess would come to a climax, and then she would sleep. Dena pulled her blanket around her shoulders and dozed off.
She was on a battlefield. As far as the eye could see there was scorched earth and crumpled bodies, many on spikes. Beyond them stood the walls of a great city. Dena knew it was Corinth, and the time was about 100 B.C. Xena strode across the wasteland, invincible, imperious, totally feral, completely in her element, a blood spattered sword held in her right hand, the chakram in her left. It was terrifying. Xena was an eighteen- year-old maniac, war crafty, worshipped by her army, feared by her few living enemies, and she had no friends. She figured she was two days from breaking the siege and taking Corinth, thereby freeing Amphipolis from its growing influence. It took three days, but in the end, she was victorious, and she entered the city at the head of 2,000 men. Then she slaughtered the royalty, dissolved the council, and proclaimed herself military ruler. In the end she executed 7,000 people.
"Glad you could join me," Xena said, gesturing at the mayhem around them, "it's as terrible as anything I remember, but it allowed me to free Amphipolis and Potidaea."
"It's pretty extreme," Dena agreed, " but I guess the strategy achieved its goals, so you're to be commended, general."
Xena nodded, a glint in her eye that spoke of bloodlust. This was not Dale, or even the later "reformed" Xena, who had a balance within. This was the power obsessed, animalistic, killer the histories had described. There was definitely a lesson here.
"That's the thing, young one," Xena told her, "you have to be willing to do what ever it takes to win a battle once you start it, using every tool you have, the military, terror, poison, disease, fire, explosions, intrigue," she was panting now, "atrocities", she proclaimed, gesturing at the heads on spikes. Dena was getting the idea. Total war.
"That's it!" Xena agreed, "Total War!"
Then she turned away to rally her troops, and supervise the catapults preparing to launch decomposing soldiers' bodies into the city. 100 Baskets of Rats bearing the Plague had been launched earlier. Later they'd throw the horses. The water supply was already poisoned. Dena was chilled, and she woke up shivering. Total War.
CHAPTER 5: OF UNDERGROUND SPARATA
Corinthia was one of the largest cities in New Hellas. It had been founded some 11,000 years before as a trading center and port, controlling the land routes between the Peloponnesia and the rest of Greece. It was said you could buy anything in Corinthia, jewels and gold, slaves and animals, books and foods from many lands, weapons, musical instruments, clocks, telescopes, even schooling. People bought and sold in Corinthia with a mania and obsession reserved in other places for religion. It was a city populated by salesmen, swindlers, con artists, traders, hustlers, and quacks, always looking for the next sucker. Surrounding the city were the partially finished development schemes for foreigners to invest in. In the city, empty real estate sat everywhere, these tail ends of various schemes rotted in various states of completion, and tax collectors roamed the streets in packs. Many of the people were lawyers, and most of the lawyers sleazy, and the rest were gossipmongers and usurers and thieves. Dena and Najilla soon found conflict.
They had stopped at an inn for the noon meal, and had found a table in the back, away from the floor traffic. Having finished thick horsemeat sandwiches and diluted cider, they decided to check out the rest of the establishment. The inn was a front. After passing down a narrow stair, the space widened into an underground arcade, a true den of inequity, and the first chamber featured animal baiting. Below, in a dug out corral, a pack of five feral dogs circled, eyeing the spectators with hatred and viciousness, yapping and snarling, while some of the bolder gawkers pounded on the sides of the pit. As Dena watched, a young boy returned to his parents with a struggling ball of fur. It was a cat, but one of its hind legs had been wrenched, and it scampered awkwardly when he flung it into the pit and jumped up on the side to watch. The pack of dogs flung themselves at the injured cat, which shrieked and launched itself straight up the pit wall. For a timeless moment it hung in mid air at the top of its leap. Then it started to fall, screaming and clawing, down into the jaws that awaited it. The dogs drew and quartered the cat, pulling it apart from the limbs, and the fifth pinned the struggling torso with its jaws, then crushed and shook. Then all five crazed hounds descended on the carcass, tearing and shredding and fighting for their share. After a few minutes, the pack returned to circling, and the boy returned to his parents, and they went off into the arcade.
Dena dragged Najilla further into the underground. A candle mark later, they'd both gotten their belly buttons pierced, and they each sported a small tattoo. They were a little tipsy from some wine they'd had at a café where drunken men leered at the girls who danced naked on the bar. Dena had left a mortified Najilla, and danced with the girls, collecting tips even though she hadn't stripped completely, and Najilla was embarrassed by how obviously the girls liked Dena. She finally sat down, flushed, and breathing fast, and reported to Najilla how they had offered her work, and wanted to buy them drinks. Najilla was horrified, and dragged her away. They were both naivetes and country yokels, and they were teenagers.
Dena was sitting on a park bench, while her horse grazed nearby. She had a nice buzz from the wine. Najilla's horse was peering at the priestess as she heaved in the bushes behind the bench. Dena giggled. Najilla retched. The wine had been pretty cheap. Dena had had a good time, especially dancing with the girls who were mostly really cute, and watching the dogs eat the cat, and wagering at another pit where a bear killed three dogs. She was liking the big city alot. A grimy man in a threadbare rat skin overcoat sat down next to Dena on the bench, staring off into the distance. Dena decided he was harmless, or at least unarmed, and she looked back to see if Najilla was feeling any better. The priestess was lying on her side gasping, sweating, shaking...guess not, Dena thought.
When she looked back at the man on the bench, she caught him smiling at her, and she started to return his smile, until she noticed his coat was open, and he was rubbing his... She gaped at him, and he just shrugged and kept...ewwwww, Dena thought, disgusted, but only becoming angry when he slid alongside her and started stroking her thigh. She twisted his wrist until she heard the bones grating, then she kicked him in the ribs, knocking him off the bench. He lay on the ground, holding his damaged wrist against his side, and rubbing his ribs with is other hand. Dena watched him warily. He lifted his head and noticed Najilla, on her side in the bushes. Dena saw him start again, and drew her sword. She slid down the bench until she could hold the blade to his chin.
"You'll lose more than just Mr. Weeny there, if you don't find another bench, you perv," Dena threatened, glaring at the grimy man, and prodding him with the sword, "and don't you even think about bothering her."
The grimy man got up, grinned at her, and slunk off, like a jackal, to the next bench. Dena hauled Najilla onto their bench, and gave her water to rinse her mouth out with.
"I hate cities," she whimpered, "and I want to leave, like right now." She'd eaten some meat pastries that Dena had thought smelled funny, and with the wine...
"Those things were dog meat, Najilla, and they were probably at least a week old, out there sitting in the sun...you're lucky to be alive."
"I didn't know, they seemed ok to me...I don't feel well, Dena." And she started heaving again. Dena patted her back and tried to keep from giggling out loud.
What a killjoy, she thought, but regretfully she said, "Ok, we'll go."
As they rode towards the highway leading south from the city, Dena stopped at an armory shop. Leaving Najilla, queasy in the saddle, she hunted around the stalls and tables, until she found what she wanted. They were old, rusted, and they had no sheaths, so she got a bargain, and she left with a pair of the Sai. She lashed them to the outsides of her boots the way Najilla did, moving her boot daggers to her thighs. Then, taking the reigns of Najilla's horse, as she nodded in the saddle, she guided them out of Corinthia. Less than a mile down the highway, Najilla had a final heaving fit, shivered violently for a few minutes, and then started to feel better. She looked like a sweaty drowned rat.
About time, Dena thought, spinning the Sai absently, now very accustomed to the feel. She'd also bought a few more of the bronze curlicues she kept sewing onto her leather armor. She was looking more like the "Ancient One" all the time. Ok with me, Dena thought, she was totally awesome.
Because Najilla was skittish, Dena consented to skipping Nemaea, and Tegaea, and at last they made their way into the long valley that led to Sparata. The Eurotas River flowed down the valley, as it had for perhaps 160,000 years, and the sides of the valley rose to peaks that weak children had once been left on 10,000 years before. They immediately felt hemmed in and watched, with a background of depression pervading all, and these sensations increased as the valley narrowed and they approached Sparata. Dena rode in the lead, absently humming a tuneless song, eyes shifting over the road ahead. Najilla trailed a couple yards behind, staring around in increasing nervousness as the valley walls rose on either side. High above, falcons snatched songbirds in flight, and wolves howled in the nearby mountains. They encountered few other travelers, mostly soldiers, for Sparata was what it had always been, a city of warriors.
In the first candle mark of the second watch, Dena and Najilla came to the gate of the city of Sparata. Before them a wide moat was spanned by a drawbridge, and the drawbridge ended in a massive fortification. It held a monumental gate of iron, counter weighted cunningly and hedged on either side with towers. A portcullis backed the solid gate, and this had a large door-sized cut out, next to which stood a guard with a spear. Past the towers the walls continued in a rough circle, enclosing five miles, and the walls were 60 feet high, and 30 feet thick. Massive towers rose from the walls at intervals, and in front of them in a continuous work, the wide moat, filled with disease, guarded all approaches. Dena was fascinated, Najilla was terrified.
The guard tested them. Najilla defended against all five of his standard attacks with the spear, and then she rolled up his weapon, stopping with her blade across his throat, eyes wild with fear. That was disturbing enough. The tall one was worse. First, she didn't draw her sword, she just stood there insolently, and she slipped aside, leisurely confronting his first two attacks. Second, as he pressed his third attack, she leapt completely over him, and before he could recover, he felt the flat of her sword slide from the base of his skull to his hips. When he turned towards her, the look on her face was absolutely feral. That was fucked up. He granted them entry. He didn't want anything more to do with them. They were both dangerous, and very heavily armed.
"Well, that was easy enough," Dena remarked, as they walked their horses up the road from the gate.
"You think that was a game?" Najilla said, showing a lot of the whites of her eyes.
"Of course it was, loosen up, geezus!" Dena said, appraising her companion, "are you feeling alright?"
"I'm ok," Najilla gulped, swallowing a mouthful of bile, then breathing deeply.
"Good," Dena said, playing along, "lets go find somewhere to eat."
Najilla gagged, Dena giggled, Najilla heaved. Dena stroked her back and gave her water.
"I just hate cities," Najilla whimpered.
Dena wanted to slap her around. Instead she picked up the priestess and dragged her to a tavern. Najilla feared it would be another one with the dancing girls, but it appeared nondescript. Dena ordered them a mid-afternoon meal, went to a booth in back, and then leaned into the shadows, waiting for the food. Najilla glanced at the crowd. They were mostly warriors from various provinces, and soldiers of the city. Utilitarian men at arms so common in the armies of New Hellas. She did notice a priestess of the War Goddess, who scanned the room, stared at Dena, and left. Since they weren't looking for trouble, it found them in a hurry.
Dena had just finished the last of her goat pot pie, having deemed the meat inedible, and Najilla had managed a few bites of bread and water, when a crew of five filthy mercenaries entered the room. They were loud and obnoxious, and elbowed their way to the bar. Dena eyed them discreetly. Almost on cue, four priestesses of the Goddess of War entered the tavern, staring around at the crowd. Najilla tried to hide Dena, sure they were looking for her. Dena tried to watch for the start of the brawl. Sure enough, a mercenary tried to fondle a priestess, she kicked him, his buddy swung at her, and the fight was on. The nine of them were doing a pretty good job of wrecking the room, and to Dena, raised at an inn, these were the best of times. Najilla was pretty sure Dena was trying to shove the bodies that came her way into the tables of uninvolved warriors, hoping to widen the conflict. A couple soldiers had already entered the fray when their table had been knocked over. Dena was crouched on a bench, yelling advice to the fighters, laughing, eyes wild, swigging, oh my Gods no, Najilla thought, that's port. She's getting drunk. By the time the military police arrived to restore order Dena was way drunk and disorderly, and Najilla supported her as they staggered through the ruins.
"You egged those fighters on, and now you're sloppy drunk, and...oh you're so horrible," Najilla scolded, as she dragged Dena across the room. Dena looked at her, trying to focus her eyes, then gave up, giggling.
"Not so fast there, miss," one of the police called, motioning to Najilla, "what happened to your friend there."
"Self-inflicted wound, officer," Najilla offered, "toxic overdose of port, sir."
The cop laughed, Najilla smiled, then his face turned stern, and he directed them to a bench.
"Those two are to be questioned," the policeman told a pair of guards, indicating Dena and Najilla sitting on the bench, "I'm sure they're guilty of something. Keep them here."
The mercenaries and the priestesses had already been removed to holding cells.
Najilla happened to be looking away when a small figure in a cloak was escorted into the room by two guards. The figure surveyed the room and its gaze fixed on Dena and Najilla sitting on the bench. Suddenly the figure broke away and began fighting the guards for its freedom. Dena was transfixed, watching this wraith evade every attack, even when their two guards left the bench to join the fight. It seemed to be able to anticipate every grab, every attack, dodging even the swords and spear of the guards. At one point the cloaked figure leapt into the air, grabbed a post and spun around it, ending up behind a guard. Then, with a blinding fingertip attack, it rendered him unconscious. As he slumped to the floor, the figure jumped over him, kicked another soldier in the neck, and landed beside him. The guard to his right tried to stab the figure with his spear, but he was too slow, and gouged his comrade instead. Then the figure stabbed him in the throat with its fingertips, and he dropped to the floor. It knocked the wounded guard out with a kick to the head, and slammed an elbow into the lower back of the last guard, causing him to stagger. Then, to Najilla's horror, the figure used its pointed fingertips as a spear and impaled the fourth guard, the hand penetrating his abdomen, blood gushing from the wound, entrails uncoiling onto the floor.
The figure approached them, whispered something to Dena and walked to the door. In an act beyond comprehension, Dena staggered up and followed.
"Are you crazy?" Najilla raged, as she followed Dena and the cloaked figure out of the tavern, "what are you doing, where are we going, who is this person?"
"Trust me," Dena reassured her, giving Najilla her most sincere smile, "anyway there're four dead cops here, wanna stick around to explain?"
So Dena and Najilla dragged their horses down a series of alleys into the heart of Sparata, following their cloaked and anonymous guide. Eventually they came to the back of a large building, and stabled their animals there. Then, taking a few items, they followed the figure down several levels and into the maze of hallways and rooms inside.
"Do you have any idea where we're going?" Najilla whispered.
"I lost track a long time ago," Dena claimed, having been so drunk she didn't really remember arriving at the building, "I have no idea."
"Oh great!" she whined, "We are so going to die."
The cloaked figure turned to examine them more closely. Najilla grinned, Dena stared, the figure snorted and motioned for them to continue. They followed through large open chambers and connecting hallways, rooms built into walls so thick they had to be at the base of the city. Dena noticed the silence, cool airflow, and the smell of thousands of tons of masonry above. They came to a large chamber lit with many lamps. The figure beckoned them to the center.
"Attack me," it said.
"Like, now?" Dena asked, still not sober even after the walk, "Really? Oh fuck!"
Najilla grinned and shook her head, 'no', feeling ill.
The figure chuckled and shook its head, 'yes'. "Now."
Dena opened with Iranian boxing, driving the figure to dodge in one direction so she could kick it. Najilla attacked from the side, trying to sweep the figure's legs. As the figure leaped over Najilla, Dena leaped into the air, landing behind the figure, and striking the base of its neck with her knuckles. Then she leaped back in front of it and spun, kicking solidly to the head. The figure went down. Dena and Najilla gathered by the figure as Dena lifted the hood. It was a girl, possibly fifteen, certainly no older. Dena cradled her head, stroking her hair.
"Well, I see you have beaten the gatekeeper, and shown her compassion," a woman's voice said from behind them, "don't worry, she'll be fine."
Dena and Najilla whirled towards the voice. It was an exotic looking warrior woman, a short brunette, probably in her late twenties, and two attendants in hooded cloaks. She motioned to her helpers to lift the fallen gatekeeper and take her away. Dena looked at her expectantly.
"M'lanta?" she ventured.
"Did the ancient one send you?" the warrior woman asked, ignoring her question.
"Sort of," Dena admitted.
"Yeah," Dena confirmed, shrugging, "well, she's dead."
The warrior woman looked at her like she had three heads, then chastised her, "Oh no honey, she's anything but dead, her and that blond sidekick of hers. All of them, actually. They talk to different people in different ways."
Dena was entranced. Anything having to do with the "Ancient One" captivated her. She was hooked.
"Teach me everything you know," Dena asked, her eyes sparkling.
"Not nearly," the woman said, "but we will teach you what we have been asked to teach."
"Well, ok," Dena said, figuring it was a start, while Najilla nodded, "yes".
The warrior woman, who introduced herself as M'Kronta, took them to quarters in the wall near the field they'd fought on, and they were warned not to stray. The apartments in the wall were a nightmare beehive warren of tunnels, long narrow stairs, twisting chambers, and low passages, dimly lit with untrustworthy lamps. It seemed to go on forever. No window ever looked out of the building, though some looked into rooms or passages. They didn't stray far. A person could die in some of those rooms, the beating rooms, the rape rooms, the torture rooms, and the humiliation chambers. The screams of the tormented occasionally pierced the air. Those screams became one of the worst parts of their stay. The labyrinth went on and on and on.
Meals and chamber pots were brought, along with cider. A couple books had been left in the room, and they set to work reading them in their spare time. One was a history of the Order, which had been around practically forever, and had stayed on Earth when the Gods went to space. Millennia before they'd crossed paths with the Destroyer of Nations. They still talked to her, most often when the "Ancient One" wanted someone trained. It happened every couple hundred years or so, someone looking exactly like Xena would appear, and the Order would provide basic training. Then the person would leave, and the Order never heard anything more about them. "The Xenas", M'Kronta called them, and now they had another one, youngish, naive, and impulsive as always, but as good a fighter as the others. Her friend the priestess was coming along nicely too.
Three times a day they were given instruction on the field. Najilla was learning the aerial fighting Dena already knew, and Dena was learning the secrets of pressure point attacks. She spent many hours hardening her fingers by striking a side of beef. She spent more time striking a bag of steel shot. They both spent time learning how to evade multiple attacks. After two weeks of basic conditioning, Najilla was learning how to focus her strength by breaking bricks, and Dena was training with a nerve site dummy, striking all the vital points, striking the release points, striking the killing sites. After another two weeks, they were staying on the field, long after their usual lessons, when they would practice and show each other what they'd learned. Najilla had been striking the bag of steel shot, and Dena had been breaking bricks. M'Kronta came towards them.
"Well, I need to see how much you've learned," she said, as she attacked Najilla with a flying kick.
Najilla sidestepped the attack, and countered with a kick to the stomach that M'Kronta leaped over. Dena jumped in front of Najilla, allowing her to recover, and attacked M'Kronta with a series of kicks, which she evaded, weaving in closer. Najilla attacked again from the side with a series of finger stabs that M'Kronta barely managed to evade. Finally she sprang forward to attack Dena's solar plexis, and Dena leaped over her blow. While still in the air Dena attacked, striking down with both hands against the sides of her neck. She landed behind M'Kronta, who stood gasping, then crumpled to her knees. Finally Dena released her nerve attack, and M"Kronta lay wheezing and choking on the field. Slowly she caught her breath and sat up, regarding them for several moments.
"Pretty good you guys," she finally rasped, "you've been practicing hard. Still a few things to teach you though."
"Well, thanks, I guess," Dena said, offering her a hand up.
A couple more weeks, M'Kronta thought, then they should be ready for what ever the "Ancient One" has in store for them, Gods rest their souls. It wasn't like they ever returned in triumph or anything, and the last one had been a long time ago. Well, of course there'd been Dale, but she just remembered everything, being the wild card with all 63 past lives stockpiled like cordwood in her head. In the end, they hadn't taught her a thing, and she was the only one who'd ever told the Order anything about their lives.
That night, while Najilla lay in her bunk, whimpering and moaning, Dena dozed off over a book of ancient lore, the only other book they had. It was a translation of the scrolls of Gabrielle of Potidaea, dealing with the adventures of the reformed Warrior Princess...the "Ancient One" these people all looked up to. What would they think of the blood-crazed killer Dena had met a couple times? If anything these congenital warriors would have loved her. Everything about Sparata had to do with war. It was a pervasive obsession in every aspect of popular culture. In Sparata a lot of people went over the edge on group inertia, the warlike culture bringing out the violence in a brutish people, and they wound up committing murder and atrocities. In Sparata it was best to be part of a gang.
Dena was on a battlefield, and it was dawn. Somewhere below her the army of Sparta had fallen, the last 300 hand picked warriors were all dead, and now the Persians were advancing. She was outside a tollhouse by a bridge, and the gorge below it was of sickening height. Inside the house Xena's soul mate lay dying of a poisoned wound. Somewhere out there a sniveling little skank had a vial of antidote. Shit's life was worth...
Xena thought about the inventory of weapons she'd stashed here years before. Yes, she'd make a stand against their elite guard. There were two or three dozen deaths she could count on. At least. If Gabrielle died...no...she would not think about that...she would just kill until she had the vial of antidote. She would kill them all if Gabrielle died! She would become a demon. Her senses told her they were coming. A lot of them.
They came, and Xena killed, dozens, and the whole time she was flying through the air, or spearing or stabbing or kicking, she was thinking of Gabrielle's life slipping away. She slaughtered the enemy, and finally, with the antidote, Gabrielle was saved. Xena flung bodies from the roof. Then she taunted them, telling them there were thousands more like her waiting for them. It was a great military victory, but it was won in the war of love, and for Xena, beating the Persians had become secondary to saving her friend's life. It was very much like a story in the book. She woke briefly, then dozed again.
She was on a warship, and she was in command of that warship, and she knew it was the Ares. It was the Ides of March, and the year was 2006.
"Xena, we are crossing the Hellespont, forty seconds to Athens." Lt. McClellan, her Executive Officer, reported before she left the ship. Then, "I watched my ship from a cave on the north side of the Acropolis as it wheeled over the city. There was a resounding blast, and one of the enemy ships exploded, then the Ares back-flipped and hurtled towards the ground, coming in low over the city to continue its attack. I worked my way into a courtyard behind the Erchtheion...finally I had a straight line of sight. For a moment I was a young warrior again with a freshly bloodied sword. There under the canopy, in the light of the sun, stood Ares, the God of War." Then came a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Archangel Gabrielle. Then standing beside Ares in combat on the White House lawn all those ages ago, and the return of Gabrielle and the chakram, and the resurrection of Ares as a God. Gabrielle and I becoming mortals again. Living and dying together, and living again. And there came a montage of lifetimes, images from each one flickering past: Diana Miller watching Michelle Martin winning an award for her writing. Mariel Havarr watching Annika Sherril dying as Ares whispered in her ear. The starship Osiris breaking up in space. Dale and Valerie terminating a jump in a stolen starship above a dead world, and being saved by a red warship flown by the God of War. The Balance of Dark and Light passing from Ares to Dale. The chakram and the Goddesses returning to Earth. Dena hovered above Ares as he gave his army a pep talk before a battle. There were sixty-four warriors, and they all had Dena's face...Dale's face...Xena's face. They all drew their swords, and as they raised them overhead they screamed, "Kill Them All!" A transport scuttled in near space, and a squadron of twenty-seven warships waiting, never sleeping, each capable of destroying eighteen worlds. Dena woke up petrified.
How could a person command the Third Army of New Hellas, with all those lives hanging in the balance? Those warships could destroy 486 worlds, and the Ares another 24. 510 all together, Dena thought, as she shivered under her blanket. Of course they had other weapons, but how could a person command such warships? Total War, Dena thought, Total War.
Dena and Najilla spent the final two weeks of their training learning the finer points of the nerve attacks, and the evasions, and the breaking. They practiced almost constantly, and Dena continued dreaming. In the six weeks they spent in underground Sparata they became very proficient with the Order's fighting system, and at last M'Kronta tested them severely. This time they each managed to overcome her separately. They were lucky they did, for losers ended up suffering in those rooms in the walls. M'Kronta told them the "Ancient One" knew a destiny awaited them, and they would be more ready to meet it now. What that destiny was hadn't been revealed to M'Kronta. The "Ancient One" told her very little beyond what she wanted done. So their training concluded, and they were shown back to their horses, and they never did meet M'Lanta.
They were feeling pretty good as they left Sparata, until they were accosted by a surly gang, the same five mercenaries they'd watched fighting the priestesses in the tavern on their first day in Sparata. They recognized Dena as that drunk chick whose yelling had brought the attention of the military police. While Dena and Najilla had been training for six weeks, the mercenaries had spent six weeks in jail, and they were ready to settle the score. Dena remembered vaguely about some disturbance she'd seen before following the cloaked figure into the underground of Sparata, but she'd been too drunk to remember anything so specific as faces. Najilla remembered them, though she'd been more concerned about the police, since she and Dena had been, "removed from custody", by the cloaked figure, which had killed four officers. Still, the present danger is the present danger, she thought.
"Hey, she's the girl with the loud mouth at the tavern," Segli, the first mercenary to spot them yelled, pointing Dena out to his buddies.
"Yeah, the drunk chick. Cops showed up because of her," agreed the second, Marko the Mighty, reaching for his sword.
"Because of you we spent six weeks in jail, and I wanna flatten your face for that," Big Gary said as he pulled out a war club.
"And I wouldn't mind entertaining her little friend," a fourth mercenary, "The Gaul" boasted, leering at Najilla and clutching his crotch.
"Yeah, especially since she's a priestess like the ones that started the whole fight," the fifth mercenary said.
Having convinced themselves it was a good idea to attack, the five advanced on Dena and Najilla brandishing their weapons and egging each other on. Having been convinced it was a good idea to defend themselves, Dena and Najilla drew their swords and stood ready to meet them. The first three converged on Dena, propelled by hate and vengeance. The remaining two came after Najilla, driven by lust and opportunism. The third mercenary swung an overhead blow at Dena with his war club, and the fight was on. Dena cut his hand with her sword and kicked him in the stomach so he staggered into the first mercenary, Segli. Najilla kicked "The Gaul" in the crotch, breaking his hand, and dodged a punch from the fifth mercenary, Capt. Sam, who styled himself a pirate. Marko the Mighty and Dena were fighting sword to sword, and though she had managed to inflict some minor cuts, she'd been pressured when Big Gary and Segli recovered. She had to keep kicking and punching just to keep them away so she could swing her sword. Najilla had managed to knock Capt. Sam down, but he was staggering back to his feet as she slammed "The Gaul" across the cheek with her sword pommel. As Dena traded blows with Marko, she heard a voice in her head. It was the "Ancient One".
"What the hell are you doing?" Xena's voice demanded.
"I'm fighting, thanks for asking," Dena replied.
"Not if you're listening to me you're not. You should be so focused on taking out this worthless excuse for a fighter that you wouldn't even think about talking to me."
"What's the point, I'm busy?"
"If you don't get your ass in gear, you'll be dead. Kill this worthless fuck!"
"Damn right!" Xena's voice chortled. Then she muttered to herself, "they're getting dumber every year."
Dena's awareness came back to the fight, and for the first time she focused every sense, every muscle, every nerve on one goal, the goal Ares troops had when they'd yelled...Kill Them All! For the first of many times, the Spirit of Battle possessed her. Marko saw it in her eyes, as though she'd just woken from a trance. It was the scariest thing he'd seen in twenty-two years on the fields of battle, like suddenly being revealed to an enemy camp, miles from his own troops, and with a screaming wound. She was right there in front of him as he swung his sword, then she was gone. She'd back flipped over him. A sword slid into his back from behind, then he was flung from the blade, clearing it as it spun in a full circle when reversed in her grip. He watched as she turned away from him, slashing the reversed blade across the belly of Big Gary, passing it to her left hand where she spun the grip back and impaled Selig without a glance. It was like she'd known where he'd be. Then she was moving again, two strides up the wall, and a back flip completely over Capt. Sam, but she dragged her blade across his neck as she came down, dropping to sweep "The Gaul's" legs. She leapt up a last time, spinning the blade again, and impaling "The Gaul" as she landed. Then she lifted Najilla with one arm as she resheathed her sword, and in a moment they had taken the reigns of their horses and led them away. This is what he told the police moments later when they responded to the disturbance, and they gave chase, trying to capture the Warrior and the Priestess.
Dena and Najilla kept to the back streets and alleys, wrapping their heads in scarves, and covering themselves with robes. Behind them they could hear the shouting of the pursuit. They finally made their way out the city gate, though they had top knock out the guard. This started another uproar and brought more police, who chased them on horseback for miles down the valley from the city at a breakneck pace.
They didn't feel safe until they were in a room at a large inn in the city of Argos, far from Sparata, and the Eurotas River valley. "I hate those freako bastards", the host had said, a sentiment echoed by many. Argos and Sparata had been rivals since before Christ, the Sparatans believing the Argonauts to be decadent, promiscuous, effete, and heretical. The Argonauts thought the Sparatans crass, bigoted, bloodthirsty, and heretical. At ground level, this meant the Argonauts were friendly, helpful, and kind. The Sparatans were drunk, distrustful, and obsessive. Dena and Najilla spent several days in Argos, regaining their sanity, doing mostly mindless touristy things, and sticking to good basic food. After a few days of relaxation they ceased checking all doors and windows every time they entered a room. They threatened fewer people in the course of a day. They bathed more frequently, and they went about wearing fewer weapons. Najilla got a second tattoo. Dena made friends with some dancers who took her out drinking and got her in trouble. They had a great time, and Dena returned with scratches, bruises, no memory, and a lot of money.
"Dena, where have you been?" Najilla scolded, when they dropped her off, laughing. "It's already the second watch."
"Oh my Gods, Dena where did you get all this money? Dena you're totally drunk!"
"Dena what did you do? What do you mean you don't remember!"
"Are you like, going to end up having a baby now or something??"
"Well what if you got an infection???"
Argos was good for them after their immersion in the paranoia and martialphilia of underground Sparata. Anyplace would have been. They were both still haunted, and their nights were still shattered by the screams from those rooms. Some nights it had gotten so bad that Dena had to hold Najilla and rock her to sleep as she shivered and whimpered about how she, "hated cities, and all that screaming", or, "two dozen goons lined up for that rape room." Eventually she'd sink into the usual nightmares, the embarrassing ones, but now Dena was trapped, holding her as she bucked and thrust with her hips. Soon she'd go rigid, and then she'd relax and sleep snuggled against Dena. It was weird and embarrassing. The next mornings Najilla always felt good and Dena always felt used. One afternoon Najilla dragged Dena into the temple of the Goddess of War in Argos. She wanted to visit a temple like the one she'd trained in, and introduce Dena to the inspiration of the services. Conduct was lower key than in Therma. Priestesses actually did double takes when they saw Dena. Worshipers stared at her. Najilla sprinkled incense that made her head spin. Dena was uncomfortable, and Najilla was manic. Dena gave Najilla the slip at a small shrine and escaped from the temple into an alley, then onto a main street. She was half way through a meal when Najilla finally caught up with her at the street side café.
"What happened to you? I looked for you but you had disappeared. I think you would have liked the service."
"Sorry, but that incense was making me sick and I had to get out of there." Dena said. "What's in that stuff anyway? It always makes me feel confused and dull witted."
"It seemed ok to me," Najilla objected halfheartedly, "it's hashish mostly, but I don't think it was as good as the incense in Therma."
Her clothes stank of the incense, and she looked like she had just escaped from somewhere, sweaty, cow licked, and wild-eyed. Temple worship looks unhealthy to me, Dena mused as she looked Najilla over, that service definitely took a lot out of her. She can have it...and now that I know what's in that incense, I don't think I'll ever set foot in a temple again. Najilla joined Dena at the table and ordered all the available kinds of pastries, which she immediately started scarfing down. Dena watched in amazement. Her friend seemed to gain weight on her hips, butt, and thighs as Dena looked on, and though she knew it was an illusion, it was a constant fear and remained convincing. Najilla was bolting her food like a dog, guzzling cider between mouthfuls, and saying nothing. After clearing most of her plate she seemed to calm down, eating slower and losing the manic frenzy that had possessed her. Eventually she yawned, belched, and regarded Dena with bloodshot eyes.
"I always feel better after praying." Najilla confided, and Dena looked over at her skeptically, "and now that we've completed our training, I guess we're ready to be heroes of the Greater Good."
"Well of course," Dena agreed, "that's always been my plan."
It was their last night in town, and Dena did one final thing before they left Argos. She was in the stall where they'd stabled their horses, and she had talked her choice over with her mare. In deference to the city which had welcomed them, and in which they had relaxed after the fanaticism of Sparata, she'd decided to name her horse Argo. And she thought it was a really original name too, after all, who would name a horse for a city, especially when the horse hadn't been foaled there. It was really the only town they'd come to that they had liked. She drank a toast to the good fortune of the name, gave Argo a whole apple, and anointed her forehead with olive oil. It seemed right, and Dena was happy as she drifted off to sleep.
She woke abruptly, having been lifted from her blankets and shaken violently.
"...and you just think you're so smart," Xena yelled, her face an inch from Dena's, "of all the possible names for a horse you had to choose Argo."
"What's the matter with Argo?" Dena groused, shaking herself free, "It's a good name, and the people there treated us good, and she liked the name, and..."
"There's only one Argo, wise ass," the "Ancient One" said, in a quieter more threatening tone of voice, "and that's MY horse!"
"Your horse? You named your horse Argo too?" Dena questioned. "Of course you did, and I'm supposed to be a mind reader! What are you getting so bent for anyway, they're like 10,000 years apart?"
"I don't care...and what's with you anyway? Don't think I haven't noticed you sewing bronze curlicues to your leathers, just like mine, and you've been using MY expressions too. What is this anyway, 'somebody's gotta be Xena' this lifetime?"
"Well, it's a cool look, and that's kinda been the drill so far, learning all your fighting techniques, dreaming about the past so I'm impressed with your legacy, and being taught stuff so I can fill in for you...since you're dead."
"It's a good job if you can get it." Xena sneered at her.
"It's your job and it sucks!" Dena yelled back. "The only time I've been happy was going out to party with the dancers. But of course I have to come back and catch your attitude about naming my horse."
"I don't care if you name your horse, just don't give it MY horse's name!"
"Your horse was done with that name 10,000 years ago, and now you're bitching like you own it. Just can't let go can you?" Dena accused. "Well that was then and this is now. My horse is named Argo, and that's that."
And when I get pack animals I ought to name them Argo II, III, IV just to spite her, Dena thought, as she and Xena regarded each other through slitted eyelids.
"What are you two arguing about now?" a sleepy voice from inside the bedroll by the fire asked, yawning a couple times, "waking the dead over nothing probably." The bedroll stretched, and an arm appeared, pulling the blanket away from a groggy Gabrielle who looked at them accusingly and rubbed her eyes.
"Uhhh, sorry Gabrielle," Xena said turning toward her, "just correcting our guest here."
"Yeah, sorry Gabrielle," Dena added, "seems I didn't consult her first before naming my horse."
"Oh," said Gabrielle, rolling back up in the blankets, "just name her Argo, Xena had a horse named Argo once, and she was a really great horse."
Xena and Dena just stared at each other as Gabrielle started snoring softly.
"Look, you aren't supposed to be me exactly." Xena finally told Dena after they calmed down. "Every time I'm resurrected, Gabrielle gets resurrected too, and we continue our fight for the greater good. Each lifetime has had a purpose, and some have taken longer than others. Seems like we have a deal with the Great Power...eternal lifetimes together in trade for being the good guys. You have a mission in life too, and anyway, you need to be yourself, not just a copy of me. A lot of the skills you'll need are the same as mine, so you tend to be more like me than like Annika or Dale. Just remember Dena, you have a destiny to fulfill, yours, not mine, but until you meet your version of Gabrielle, it's all still training anyway."
Dena was fading out of the dream, for in her world the sun had risen and they would be leaving Argos that morning.
"Just make sure you take care of my horse." Xena muttered as Dena's dream ended.
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