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Risks of Trust and Honor

by Richard Carter Jr
adapted from the on-line tale A Tale of Terreis and Ephiny

I begin with praise for the Helicon sisters. These daughters of Olympian Zeus, leader of the Gods, fill me with songs of adventure and of friendship. We are a lucky lot who find themselves touched by the Muse's kiss.
I sing too in praise of the chaste goddesses, the huntress and the warrior of the flashing eyes -- the goddess whose magnificence inspires the heroes of this tale.
I sing of Terreis and Ephiny...
Tension hung in the air of the Amazon camp. A pact of peace had been negotiated, but they were still surrounded by their enemies. Although they had settled here for many months, it was still a new land for the women warriors, now situated in Aetolia, on the fringes of Thessally -- the home of the Centaurs.
Like much of the peninsula, the landscape was strewn with low, young mountains just beginning their billion-year lives. Overgrowing these rocky buds raged a dense woods filled with the stores of nature that had fed the Centaurs for centuries uncounted. Edible flora abounded if you knew where to look, and game was plentiful. Deer, boar, oxen, and a menagerie of birds and other small creatures supplied meat for any trained hunter. And hunters there were -- the most fearful being the prides of lions that periodically culled their take from the bounteous wares.
The Centaurs, descendants of the children of Centaurus and the Pelion Mares, fearful in their half-man and half- horse appearance, were skilled hunters, and lustful creatures who didn't easily accept the appearance of the band of Amazons into their country. The women warriors were known everywhere as fierce fighters whose skill and tenacity was likely an equal to their own.
Centaur pride nearly ruled the day when the Amazons first arrived, but a series of early skirmishes attracted the attention of the most powerful Centaur, Tyldus the Great. He was preparing for a battle with a great army led by a woman who fought like the Harpies in a bad mood. Though the fight was in Corinth, many days travel from the Amazon interlopers, Tyldus feared of fighting wars on two fronts.
This wisdom ultimately saved his race from slaughter, but it did come at a price. He ceded a large area of the woods which had been over hunted to the Amazons; the Centaurs retained all of the fertile valleys and meadows, as well as those woods still lush with game. This suited the Amazons. They were extremely skilled at using the trees when they fought. Since the legs and hooves of the Centaurs were ill-equipped for battle above ground, this thick woods that the Centaurs considered to be a hindrance for battle was an ally for the Amazons, and would always give them an advantage against any intruder, be it human or Centaur. Tyldus' decision was not a popular one, but in war leaders must sometimes make unpopular choices for the benefit of their people.
Melosa, the raven-haired queen of the Eagle-head line of the now Western Amazons understood this burden well. A little over a year before, she was enjoying her life as one of the most highly ranked of warriors. Many believed that she might one day rise to become queen. One tragic day changed those happy fantasies into a grim reality.
Deiranda, the young Amazon Queen, died on a hunt. In a sense, the Amazon way of life killed her. She had become queen following the death of her late mother's sister, who had been the queen. It was not an unpopular choice. She was young, and after a series of short-lived monarchies, the Amazon nation was ready for some stability. Deiranda was intelligent and thoughtful. The Amazons were certain that she would be a wise ruler. She did have a serious weakness in that she was not a skilled warrior. It wasn't that she didn't strive to be, but that she lacked a certain essence within her to be alert, focused, and instinctual. She knew that in the course of time that this deficiency would lead to her downfall, so she took every opportunity to learn and enhance her skills. It was during her participation on a hunt where the Fates decreed that this queen's reign, too, would be a short on.
While on the trail of a group of boar, a small patch of briers separated the young queen got separated from the main party. Because of the injuries being done to her by the long and sharp thorns of these treacherous plants, the would- be huntress didn't take notice of a more malicious attack upon herself.
A slumbering snake had been surprised by her approach and struck out. Its death wielding fangs found their mark all too well. They plunged eagerly into a vein. Within minutes, the Fates drove away the queen's senses. Her mind became a fog, and she was unable to call out for help. When the fog cleared, she found herself in the company of the ferryman whom all who pass from world to world must meet.
Because Deiranda had died alone, she had not conferred her Right of Caste. Without this transfer of rank and honor, a required tradition especially among the higher ranked Amazons, there was an emptiness at the throne. After the dead queen's body had been properly sent to the gods on the pyre, the Amazons would have to decide among themselves who would be the next leader of their nation.
Unlike races such as the Centaurs, the Amazons held close and honored the gifts of learning and reason they had received from the Gods. These gifts could have allowed for a reasoned method of succession that might be considered worthy of an Athenian. However, being a warrior race, ruled by Ares and Artemis, the Amazons took it upon themselves to decide the matter as tradition dictated: by force of arms.
The camp quickly aligned itself into two armies. At the head of one army stood the wiliest of the ruling caste, Hippolyta. Though a slight woman, her skill with weapons and the martial arts was not questioned. The title of her line, the Lion-huntress, was well earned and greatly respected as it extended back into the dark past before even the reach of the oldest of Amazon stories. She was helped by the strongest of the martial caste, Lysia. No one knew more about the warring arts than this honey-haired Fury.
The second army was no less strong. At its head stood Arlora, the assumed successor to Deiranda's throne; not because of blood, but because in the entire nation, hers was the heart and soul that was most certainly Amazon in every way. Her hair honored Ares in its color, and bore also a shock of white echoing the flash of the beloved weapon of aegis-bearing Zeus. As with Hippolyta, her skills were beyond reproach. By Arlora's side stood Melosa. There never was an Amazon more honorable or as protective of her race. No one could remember another who had been as successful in securing Amazon security -- not only as a leader of soldiers, but also as a skilled diplomat.
Though Hippolyta's army had the lion's share of experienced warriors, Arlora's army made up for that lack with a greater number of young soldiers eager for victory. When the great battle was met, youth and experience made no difference in determining what the Fates had already decreed.
After six days of fighting, a spear pierced Arlora's chest and settled the matter. With their leader mortally hurt, the rest of the young army threw down their arms, as was the Amazon way in this matter. Before she crossed over to the other side, Arlora offered Melosa her right of caste. With great solemnity, Melosa accepted it. This was no idle acceptance; it carried with it a great cost. Banishment forever from the land of the Amazons was the price a defeated challenger was required to pay, and this payment was customarily made by death. By accepting Arlora's right of caste, Melosa also accepted the responsibility of honoring the punishment due to Arlora.
In an act of great generosity and respect, Hippolyta only forced Melosa into exile. She also allowed any Amazon who wished to leave with Melosa to do so.
A number of the younger Amazons chose to go, as did several of various ages and skills with strong ties to the newly banished queen. They numbered less than thirty, but if the Gods looked favorably on them, they might be able to create a new land of Amazons.
Melosa was happy that her younger sister, Terreis, chose to join her, as well as Arlora's daughter, Ephiny. Terreis and Ephiny were like sisters. Melosa was certain that Terreis, though younger by several years, would wisely aid Ephiny with coming to terms of not only her mother's death, but of their exile.
Melosa also counted herself blessed by the Gods that Eponin had also chosen to take the new path. Though not much older than Ephiny, Eponin was who many Amazons strove to be: a gifted warrior who could remain unaffected. It's a rare gift to not only be skilled in the ways of weapons and of teaching, but also to cease being a warrior when being a warrior is not needed. Eponin had that gift. Outside of the martial side of her life, Eponin was relaxed both in mind and body.
The trip to this land of the centaurs had been remarkably uneventful. The reputation of the Amazons preceded them. While that kept them safe while they traveled, it also forced them to travel long and far. Their passage was safe only if they continued to move on. Had it not been for the centaurs being distracted by other matters, this Eagle-head band might never have found a home.
Still, Melosa worried. Peace is never easy, but peace surrounded by enemies is hardly peace at all. But this was not a night to be worrying about such things. There was a more important matter to tend to: Terreis' anointment ceremony.
The anointment ceremony was a defining moment in the life of an Amazon. Until it was complete, no woman could be counted as being in the Amazon nation. Though filled with rights and sermons and the usual trappings and celebrations of a solemn ceremony, the anointment ceremony was little more than the Amazon nation, as represented by at least one Amazon from the royal line, conveying its right of caste to the initiate.
No one was ever counted as an Amazon who did not possess the soul of an Amazon, and who did not freely accept the honor being offered. Many times an initiate would fail to meet the stringent tasks required to prove themselves worthy; not one in two thousand women who tried (and who weren't born of an Amazon mother) could measure up to Amazon standards. There were tales, thought to be apocryphal, of women who turned down the honor after the intensive training. Melosa hated even the existence of these stories. To her, it was unthinkable that any woman asked to be an Amazon would turn down the privilege.
In the central area of the Amazon camp, a bonfire blazed. To the pulsating sound of energetic drums, ten Amazons in their full glory danced around the fire in honor of the Gods. The remaining Amazons chanted a mesmerizing mantra that was said to lure the specter of Artemis into their midst. Unlike the ceremonies held by men to do honor to one of their own, the Amazons did not sample special drink nor herbs to achieve a heightened state of reverence and revelry. Being women, and with other Amazons, was enough. Their trust and belief in each other was unquestioned.
As with a flame blown out by the Gods, the drums and the dancing ended in a heartbeat as Melosa approached Terreis. Heads bowed in respect as Terreis knelt at the feet of her queen.
Melosa spoke the traditional words, "The Amazons offer you the life and protection and honor of becoming one of them. What will you give them in return for their gift of loyalty to you?"
Terreis rose to look Melosa in the eyes. "I offer my blood and my flesh and my life."
With a pleased look on her face, Melosa drew a long blackened dagger from the scabbard at her waist. "Prove it."
Terreis dropped her chiton and stood free before Melosa. "The blood in this body is Amazon. The flesh of this body is Amazon. The life of this body is Amazon. Take what you will for the glory of the Amazons."
With the practiced skill of having performed this ceremony over a hundred times before, Melosa took the point of the dagger and removed a small circle of flesh, about the size of an Athenian drachma, from Terreis' right breast. Terreis never flinched. With great solemnity, Melosa took the circle of flesh still pierced on the knife's point with her to the bonfire. The quiet droning of the mantra began again, but slower and more reverent. Melosa said, "Great huntress, Artemis, we Amazons now count among us the woman Terreis. Great warrior Ares, accept this offering from our newest sister."
Melosa plunged the knife with the flesh into the middle of the fire.
Ephiny approached Terreis. In the firelight, her golden curls more nearly matched the color of Terreis' own locks. Ephiny held out her hands. Terreis clasped Ephiny's wrists in the grasp know throughout the world as being one of friendship. "Welcome, Amazon," Ephiny said. "Here."
Ephiny presented Terreis with a teardrop of amber necklace that had been a gift from her mother Arlora at her own anointment ceremony. "Eph..."
"Shh. Take it. My sister."
Terreis broke with strict tradition, and hugged Ephiny before letting her move off. Next in the procession was Eponin, the coal-haired warrior. As before, they clasped wrists while Eponin said, "Welcome, Amazon." From Eponin she received a magnificently carved war staff.
One by one the Amazons welcomed Terreis into their sisterhood. Each gave her a token, but unlike the special gifts given to her by Ephiny and Eponin, the remainder of the gifts were tokens that each Amazon reserved for anointment ceremonies with little more than symbolic value.
Slowly, the celebration grew. The drums began again, as did the dancing. Songs of joy burst forth when the spirit deemed them appropriate. Once her wound was dressed, Terreis joined in the celebration as vigorously as the rest of the Amazons.
Melosa called Eponin over to her. "Get the sword."
Without a moment's hesitation, Eponin quickly walked to a special tent. Inside it was a sword forged and crafted by Hephaestus himself. A number of these swords were made at Artemis' request, and given as a gift to each of the royal lines of Amazons. The sword had no equal in the world of man. It gleamed with the brightness of Olympus itself. Its edge would cut through all obstacles, even through chains forged by the hands of the worker god. No force would damage it. It was a gift that was prized and respected by the Amazons, and known only to themselves. Or so they thought.
Eponin rushed back to Melosa. "Where's the sword?" Melosa asked.
"It's not there."
Melosa's face blanched as this stunning news hit her. Together, she and Eponin returned to the tent. Inside, the chest which held the sword was open. Its contents empty. Melosa sniffed the air. "I smell a male."
"But who would dare.?"
"That's a question."
The Amazon celebration quickly quieted as Melosa returned and told them the news. "Amazons, the sword of our line has been taken. A man has violated our domain and taken what is ours. We need to avenge this crime, take back what is ours, and impose justice. Who will volunt--"
Melosa was firmly interrupted as the entire camp noisily volunteered to go after the thief. As they quieted down, Melosa said, "I thought so. But the party must be small. Our place in this new land is not assured, and we can't let ourselves be weakened even after such a loss. It's very possible that our enemies committed this act to make us an easier target."
Terreis stepped forward. "Then I should go."
Melosa was proud and a little surprised. "You? You don't have the experience to take on such a challenge."
"You've just made my point." Terreis paused, waiting for Melosa's prompting. When it didn't arrive, she continued, "I'm the least experienced warrior here. In a battle, now, my presence or absence wouldn't make much of a difference. However, if I am one day to become queen, then I will have had to have proven myself to the Amazons of being worthy of that trust. I can only achieve that through the deeds I perform. What better start than to retrieve the sword of Hephaestus?"
Melosa replied, "You are brave Terreis. I have no doubt that any Amazon would gladly fight with you by her side. But you are right. You are inexperienced. Ephiny!"
Ephiny stepped forward. Melosa continued, "Ephiny, do you think that you can find the sword?"
"Yes." Then glancing at Terreis, "But a pair of Amazons would have a better chance of success."
Terreis piped in, "Someone to watch your back."
Melosa stared at Ephiny, "Ephiny, you are a good warrior. You can teach my sister a lot. Make sure she learns. You set out in the morning."
Both Terreis and Ephiny bowed their heads in acceptance.

The young warriors started out on their quest at dawn's light. A few suspiciously well-placed footprints indicated a western direction, and lacking any other clues, the pair started their journey with their backs to the rising sun.
Not knowing what they would face in the coming days, Terreis and Ephiny chose to equip themselves efficiently, but sparsely. Other than weapons, they each only carried with them a sleep roll, a coil of rope, a waterskin, and a pouch with preserved food. They each carried a knife and short sword. Fleece-haired Ephiny chose to carry with her a crossbow as well as a fighting staff adorned with a fearsomely carved eagle's head given to her by her mother in happier days -- it was Ephiny's first weapon. Terreis, not yet as skilled in archery as her older companion, substituted throwing darts and a whip for the crossbow, but likewise carried with her a fighting staff -- not as ornate as Ephiny's, but no less effective..
Their clothing was generally unremarkable. In addition to the traditional leather garments favored by the Amazons: boots, skirt, halters, and gauntlets; they also wore what at first glance appeared to be capes. In fact, these leather drapes, which seemed more textile than leather in touch and appearance, could easily be tied to form a hooded half-cloak that would help to ward off the weather, and when stretched its full length, could be a warm cover at night.
An easy quiet accompanied the women as they walked through the moderately wooded countryside. Their pace was very comfortable owing to their need to keep an eye out for any clues which might divulge the whereabouts of the cowardly man who had stolen the Amazon's precious gift. Terreis took her turn at the lead, but the majority of the time Ephiny's more experienced eyes were the ones scanning the new ground before them.
Sometime after midday, Terreis said, "Thank you."
"For inviting me along."
"Melosa did that."
"Then let me thank you for giving her the opportunity."
The pair walked in silence for several more hours. This was something that suited Ephiny well. She much preferred action over words, but was adept with either. Though she spoke sparingly, she spoke plainly and directly, her words often going straight to the heart of a matter. To many, those who preferred the niceties of platitudes and diplomacy, her tongue seemed harsh and cold. Her Amazon sisters equated her economy with strength of purpose. Ephiny was no diplomat. She was a true and loyal friend -- not only to the Amazons, but also to any whose strength and abilities she respected. Like all Amazons in this regard, she would unhesitatingly put herself in harm's way, and lay down her life, if her help was needed by someone who was considered worthy.
As Apollo's chariot neared the end of its daily course, Ephiny stopped. She thought she saw something. With Terreis following, she moved through the thinning woods to a stream. There, in the perpetually damp soil was the imprint of a sword which had slipped off the nearby rocks. Close by were the eroding but unmistakable signs of a large-footed man who had stopped for a drink from the stream.
"It's our sword," Ephiny said with surety after examining the imprint closely.
"It looks like he went upstream," Terreis offered.
"The Sun's getting low. We'll camp here tonight."
That's all the needed to be said. These strong and able young women didn't have time to discuss what they needed to do. Every Amazon, almost from birth, was taught how to survive outside of a village. Ephiny went out in search of some game. Terreis, being the youngest of the party, gathered firewood -- her throwing darts at the ready in the event Artemis ushered a small creature her way.
Fortune found both hunters that first night. The true flying arrows of the golden tressed virago struck down a young hare and an otter. Her flaming haired companion's darts found their mark in a pheasant hen, which also rewarded her with a clutch of eggs. That night both warriors slept with full bellies.
Day after day, Terreis and Ephiny forged ahead on their quest. They followed every hint of a trail that the thief had left. But as each day went by, it was clear that the scoundrel was outpacing them as the clues became harder to spot due to the ravages of nature on the evidence. After little more than a week of tracking, the trail ended.
The thief was skilled. His direction constantly changed. Four days into their search, Terreis thought that the trail's general western direction would help them. But the thief suddenly turned south for a day, and then turned to the northeast for several more days before they disappeared.
Terreis and Ephiny were now in unfamiliar country. The night after they'd lost the trail, a tense silence grew, but neither Amazon spoke. When the new day dawned, Ephiny rose first and quickly made ready to break camp. "What are you doing?" Terreis asked sleepily.
"We have to pick up the trail," Ephiny replied.
"We're not going to--"
"We have to leave before the trail gets cold," Ephiny interrupted with more than a little annoyance in her voice.
"We're not going to continue to let this man control us," Terreis continued. "He's been playing us for fools, and we've let him do it."
"All the more reason to find him quickly. I'm more experienced. I think I know better what we--"
With a surety Ephiny hadn't heard from Terreis before, the red maned warrior interrupted, "Not this time, Ephiny. Be quiet and think."
Ephiny was stunned. Terreis continued, "This man obviously has a plan. He knows he's being followed, and he's using it to his advantage. He knows we have no plan other than to track him. So he leaves us a clue here, a clue there. Why?"
"He's leading us somewhere. A trap."
"And he's got us so turned around that we don't know where we are."
With that, Ephiny stopped looking like she was going to bolt at the slightest provocation. "So, what now?"
"I don't know. What if we stayed here for a few days and waited?"
Ephiny considered this. "That's an idea. If he notices we aren't following him, he might double back to see why not."
"Or," Terreis chimed, "he might continue on to his ultimate destination. Then at least he'd be in one place. What do you think?"
"I think I know why you keep winning at 'Gods and Fates'. You're cunning."
"And you're very skilled. Together, how can any man defeat us?"
Ephiny pulled out her sword. Terreis asked, "What are you doing?"
"We might as well be productive. Protect yourself."
"Can't we wait until after breakfast?"
With a flash of anger, Ephiny thrust forward and made a superficial cut on Terreis' upper arm. Terreis rolled out of harm's way and grabbed her sword. Indicating the line of blood on her arm, "What's this?"
"There's no wait until later. You fight when it's necessary."
Ephiny charged her younger opponent. Though less experienced, Terreis was no amateur with a sword. She was quite capable of defending herself. Ephiny, however, was better by several levels of skill and technique. It wasn't until after midday when the pair stop their duel. Though both were tired, Terreis was especially exhausted. She wolfed down her share of the leftover game from the previous night. Ephiny started in on her again, this time with fighting staffs. The exercise continued non-stop through the afternoon.
Unable to stand any more, Terreis was asleep before the sun had completed its unerring path. Ephiny sat with her back against a tree not too far from Terreis. The day had been satisfying. Terreis had shown herself well. But Ephiny still worried. Terreis had never been tested. She hadn't yet seen terror in the eyes of her victims. She hadn't had to overcome the terror in her own heart when death was only a missed reaction away. But she listened to Terreis because she had to. Even though younger, Terreis was now a blood princess of the Amazons, and as such her station was higher than Ephiny's. It was reassuring that when Terreis did impose her opinion, it was wise. Terreis' mind was keen where Ephiny's arm was strong. While Terreis' strength would improve with time, Ephiny knew that her own wisdom would always pale in comparison. Terreis would make a good queen someday, and that irritated Ephiny just a little.
Before Arlora's death, Ephiny had been where Terreis was now. An Amazon princess, and the next in the line of succession should anything happen to the queen. But Arlora giving her right of caste to Melosa had changed that. Though Ephiny knew in her heart that her mother had made the choice as a true Amazon would -- considering the needs of the group before the ego of one person, it still gnawed at her that she was now only a soldier.
Looking at the innocent face of her companion sleeping in the light of the just started fire, Ephiny couldn't feel jealousy. Terreis had felt Arlora's loss almost as keenly as Ephiny. Though Melosa assumed Terreis' guardianship after their mother died, in a fierce battle against the pride of griffins sent against them at the request of Aphrodite following the massacre of men at Haasikkor, Melosa was usually engaged in her considerable responsibilities. Arlora took Terreis in as a second daughter, and Ephiny reveled in having a little sister who looked up to her.
No, Ephiny didn't begrudge a moment of good fortune for her best friend and little sister. Terreis had a gift that would one day make men's hearts quake, and have legions of Amazons standing at her side in terrible solidarity.
Ephiny knew that she would always be the first in line to offer her sword to Terreis. Perhaps this was how it was meant to be. The Fates didn't act capriciously. Though she briefly entertained the idea that as her mother had given her right of caste to Melosa, so too would Terreis give it to her when the time came; Ephiny knew that Terreis had the heart of a leader and would do what was best at the time. Ephiny then realized that it was the idea of being in the royal line that she didn't like giving up -- and that's why it was important for her to now accept the fabric of her life that the Fates had woven.
As she banked the fire for the night and laid down for sleep, she once again looked at the peaceful form of Terreis lying across the fire from her. One day that innocent young Amazon would be queen. Ephiny would do everything in her power to ensure that.
That night, Ephiny slept easier than she had since her mother had died.
When Ephiny woke, Terreis was gone. She almost called out her name, but noticed the twig, broken first one way and then another, sticking in the ground next to Terreis' bed role. That was one of the Amazon codes -- an intruder might be nearby.
Terreis examined the hoof prints near a tree in the woods. The depressions weren't yet full of water from the moisture-laden loam, meaning that the horse and its rider weren't too far off to catch if she had reason to chase them, but they did have a significant lead. Terreis sheathed her sword and walked back to camp.
Before breaking from the woods, Terreis whistled an "all clear" that sounded remarkably like an owl. When she reached camp, she found that Ephiny had already prepared for their departure. "Well?" Ephiny asked.
"Someone on horseback. I think they were just passing through."
"We should be moving."
Terreis casually started donning her travel gear. "Where?"
"North," Ephiny replied.
"Why not? I figure since we don't know where we're going, it doesn't matter how we get there."
Terreis couldn't help a chuckle. "You can be so profound at times."
Terreis started walking north, leaving Ephiny stunned. Ephiny hadn't intended to be profound. She had just stated the truth.
As at the start of their quest, Terreis and Ephiny followed their noses in almost total silence. It was the Amazon way. When entering a potentially dangerous situation, you drew as little attention to yourself as possible. Though they traveled under the forest canopy, and occasionally on wagon paths and roads, they couldn't ignore the feeling all prey mammals shared: that they were being watched. Amazons had a saying, "If you think you are in danger, then you are in more danger than you think."
Terreis and Ephiny maintained their caution, which was wise. A pair of eyes WAS watching them. Before long, there would be more.

Eponin waited until she had reached the Amazon camp before collapsing. She was bruised and had several deep cuts to her arms and torso. Still, she had the strength within her to run the ten miles from the outskirts of one of the Centaur's camps back to where she was lying now.
Ebony-blessed Govana, one of the few Amazons not born of an Amazon helped Eponin to her tent. It was fortunate for Eponin that Govana was the strongest in their camp, for Eponin didn't have the energy to help herself.
As Eponin was taking a drink from a water skin Govana had retrieved from a shelf, Melosa entered. "Queen Melosa," Eponin said and tried to rise; but her body refused to obey.
"What news?" Melosa asked.
"The Centaurs are gathering about five leagues from here. They will be setting out for Corinth at the full moon."
"What happened to you?"
"A sentry ambushed me just as I was coming back." Eponin paused for a moment. to regain enough strength to finish. "There's no sign of him left. I made certain. For all they know, the Gods took him."
"Well done. I'll send in Cassara to tend to your wounds."
Eponin could only nod and sag back into her bed. Now that her mission was done, all her tortured body wanted to do was rest and heal.

A fortnight of methodical searching had yielded no clues to Terreis and Ephiny. They were getting tired and frustrated at their lack of progress. They questioned as many people on the road as they could, but learned nothing new. Though they came across many villages, most turned them away -- such was the reputation of the Amazons. Only one village welcomed them and gave them hope that their quest would not be a futile one.
The village was nothing special -- just a stop on the road for travelers. They were no threat to any one, and hospitable to all, as was the Greek custom (which strangely didn't seem to be applied to Amazons, but then they were considered by many to be foreign trouble makers -- and truth be told, that perception held a large nugget of truth). But these were dangerous times, and part of a great army that was heading south had decided to take advantage of their hospitality. They would not kill women or children or any man who would not raise a weapon against them. That being the case, no man did. That the army was true to its word was correct only in the strictest sense. No one in the village was killed, but most of the men were badly beaten, and many of the women had been ravaged. The entire town had been striped clean of everything useful, valuable, or edible. All the villagers had left when the army departed were their lives and their homes.
Luck was not with this village. That army had been gone for less than a week when a pathetic warlord descended upon the town. Though his band's numbers were small, they were more than a match for the defeated villagers. That is until a pair of young Amazons crossed their path.
Normally, Terreis and Ephiny would have ignored the pillaging of a village (such as it was). But on this day, as they approached the town, a young mother ran to them, begging for help. She dropped to her knees and then fell dead some ten feet from the warrior women, an arrow still vibrating from having snaked between her ribs and finding its new quiver in her heart. Two hundred paces away a filthy excuse for a soldier lowered his bow and laughed -- until an arrow snaked between his ribs and found a new quiver in HIS heart. He fell with a satisfying thump.
Ephiny lowered her crossbow and pulled out her sword. "Come on," she commanded, and rushed into the village. With no hesitation, Terreis followed.
The red-haired princess had never before fought in a battle where the stakes could be fatal. She was not yet counted among the Amazons when the great battle of succession had taken place. Since then, it had only been training with other Amazons.
This "army" did not impress her. With less effort than a good practice, Terreis and Ephiny repelled the woefully overmatched bullies who had tried to exact a second rape of the village. But the damage done was terrible. Eight men, three woman, and one child had been killed before their saviors had arrived on the scene.
For the remainder of the day, while the villagers prepared their fallen for the journey to the underworld, Terreis suggested that she and Ephiny hunt for the village. Though Ephiny would rather have continued on, she knew that her companion's innate compassion wouldn't allow her to leave so precipitously. Their astonishing gifts of three boar, two deer, and one great ox were received with great thanks and relief. Though the food wouldn't last long given the number of mouths to feed, it would be a salvation from the hardships that were to come with rebuilding their lives.
In exchange for their great kindness, the village elders related a prophesy they had once been given by an oracle of dubious gifts. The seer had prophesied that the village would be twice destroyed, and that they would be rescued by those who loved Artemis. That part they all remembered well. But the prophesy also included instructions on where to send their saviors, and that was less clear. While they all agreed that the direction lie to the east, they couldn't remember if the final location was to go through the mountains and end it the woods, or to go through the woods and then finish in the mountains. Most thought it was the former.
Thankful to have gotten any clue at all, Terreis and Ephiny left before nightfall. They would miss the coming celebration. Had it been that night, they might have stayed, but it was scheduled for the following day as this night was a night for respecting the dead.
And so it was that two days later Terreis and Ephiny found themselves lost in a maze of meandering valleys caught in the stand of young mountains. Because of the height of the young peaks, the sun set much earlier than the pair had expected, and before they could backtrack to a more amenable spot, they were engulfed by the shadows.
"Did you see that?" Terreis asked.
"I think I saw a pair of eyes reflecting behind that pile of rocks."
"Maybe you did. Follow me," Ephiny said before taking off down a narrow channel they had just passed.
"Ephiny, wait. That's a blind canyon!"
But Ephiny had already disappeared. Terreis had no choice but to follow. When she reached Ephiny, she saw that walls of rock surrounded them on all sides save for the way they entered. "Ephiny, what are you doing? We're trapped."
"This place has open ground for fighting, and very little cover. The sky still has enough glow for us to see. We have to fight now." Ephiny said as she dropped her staff and drew her sword.
Terreis also drew her sword and asked, "What if they wait before -- ?"
An unearthly roar echoed through the valleys, interrupting Terreis. This was joined by a second, and then a third.
Terreis and Ephiny stood back-to-back waiting for the attack to come. They could hear the heavy shuffling steps of three beasts entering the canyon. Ephiny fired a blind shot from her crossbow, but heard the arrow clatter against the rocky walls. The glow from the beasts' eyes constantly marked their positions. The trio circled their prey.
"Well," Terreis whispered, "do we wait or do we attack?"
Ephiny was just as frightened and uncertain as Terreis, but since hers was to be the voice of experience, she couldn't betray her lack of confidence. "Do you have one in front of you?"
"Get ready. Tell me when it's in front of you."
Long moments passed. "Now," Terreis said.
"ATTACK!!!" shouted Ephiny as she darted in between the two beasts closest to her -- screaming a terrible war cry.
Terreis immediately took Ephiny's direction, and charged the beast she had targeted. Her war cry had more force since it was tinged with terror.
Ephiny's plan to draw off two of the four-legged specters so that Terreis would have an even chance was successful. Almost too successful. She could feel the fiery breath of her hunters close on her back. She swung back with her free arm and luckily hit one of the attackers in its face. It hesitated. Now that Ephiny had a moment of equality in numbers, she stopped and turned. The second beast thundered its approach and leaped for Ephiny's throat. Ephiny prophesied the attack and dropped to the ground. As the murderous beast leaped over her, she plunged her sword deep within the furry bosom of the minion of death. It landed hard upon the rocky earth and skid to a stop. Fire no longer issued forth from its nostrils. Had there been light, Ephiny could have seen the look of surprise frozen in the marauder's eyes.
The other beast was charging, and Ephiny no longer had her sword. She leaped up into the air, and landed on the back of the still hunger-crazed terror.
Terreis had been told that in order to be a warrior, she would have to overcome the terror in her own heart. She had known fear before, but it had been nothing like what she was experiencing now. Though she always understood that she could die at any time, she had never been face-to-face with the fact of it. She was now standing opposite a huge shadow with eyes that glowed like embers, whose breath was as hot as a blast from a forge. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Her breath was short. She was having trouble moving easily and smoothly. Everything around her was moving in slow- motion.
The shadow leaped at the Amazon, and Terreis was suddenly shocked that the attack was so quick, and not in slow-motion at all. She raised her sword and spun in order to strike while avoiding the charge. The stinging metal of her sword hit its mark, and a trail of crimson briefly hung in the air before falling in drops to the ground as the beast passed.
The beast still had much life within it. The notice Terreis' sword had just delivered served more to anger it, than to incapacitate it. Claws slashed at Terreis, but her training was finally starting to take hold, and she used her practiced agility to stay ahead of the beast and plunge her sword into the massive body.
But while she was more nimble, she wasn't faster. The ferocious monster before her was larger, more skilled, and better armed. A giant claw-strewn paw flashed out. Though the young Amazon was able to avoid the knife-like weapons lunging for her head, she wasn't able to avoid the heavy leg they were attached to. Terreis fell to the ground, her senses lost to her for a time. If a savior didn't appear soon, the beast's teeth would finish the job its club-like limb had begun.
Though Ephiny had seen and admired the battle Terreis had been waging, she now greatly feared for her best friend's life. She was able to goad her beast into a charge toward Terreis' would-be diner, and ram her beast into the other, stunning both. Using the momentary lull, Ephiny dismounted and grabbed Terreis' sword. It was still warm and sticky from the courageous attacks made by her companion.
Ephiny charged both beasts, whose surprise caused them to make a fateful mistake: they raised their heads to get a clear view of the woman. This exposed their throats. Ephiny was experienced enough not to let such an opening go by. As she ran by the great and massive beasts, she cut a deep gash into each of their bodies, severing their windpipes as well as the arteries that fed their single- minded brains. It took several moments, but soon the beasts fell and the world was caught in a profound silence.
Ephiny ran over to her fallen princess. Though Terreis breathed, Ephiny was unable to rouse her. It was too dark to see how badly hurt Terreis was. There also was no wood to build a fire, and their position inside of a blind canyon left much to be desired.
Ephiny removed her own clothing and wrapped it around Terreis in an effort to keep her warm. Ephiny next gathered together all of their weapons. Retrieving her sword was time-consuming and an effort, but they couldn't afford to leave anything behind, especially a valuable weapon.
With their gear collected, Ephiny hauled Terreis' limp body onto her shoulders, and she carried her and all of their gear out of this mountainous deathtrap back to the safety of the woods. She soon started a fire and examined Terreis' wounds in the light.
Except for the swelling blow Terreis had taken to the head, none of the remaining scratches and cuts posed any threat at all to the young princess. Ephiny sat by the fire throughout the night with Terreis in her arms, trying to keep her warm and to comfort her.

Melosa was beginning to become concerned about the pair she had sent to find the thieving male who had stolen the sword forged by Hephaestus. That they had been gone for some time was disturbing. Where Amazons were involved, it was not normally a cause for concern. But these were not normal times.
The Centaurs, dangerous neighbors in the best of times, had grown more agitated than usual. From what they could gather from the nearby camps, Melosa's scouts reported that the battle the Centaurs were fighting in Corinth was apparently not going well. Rumor had it that at least a fourth of the army had been killed in a magnificent battle that after nearly a week was still raging against an as-of- yet unnamed woman warrior leading the greatest army the world had ever known.
Melosa's healers were even now tending a Centaur who had staggered into the Amazon camp. He wore deep festering cuts all over his body, deep spear wounds dotted his flanks, and one of his hooves had split. Added to that, the man- beast was half-starved and almost dead from thirst and exhaustion. Ordinarily, Melosa would have let the Centaur die where he fell. Instead, she decided to take a chance to offer an olive branch of peace to her rancorous neighbors. She'd heal this Centaur and use that as a gesture of good will that the Amazons wanted nothing but peace with their neighbors.
Now that his wounds had been cleaned and dressed, and his thirst slaked, the hapless soldier appeared to be improving.

Terreis sat alone in a flat meadow as all of the Gods glided past. First Artemis and Ares, then Athena and Apollo, then the rest of the pantheon until Hephaestus, the God whose work she was trying to retrieve, brought up the rear. She tried to call out, but she couldn't speak. She tried to rise, but she couldn't move. Behind her came the roar of a beast a thousand times more terrifying than the one she had fought. She was not able to turn to face it, but was severely jolted as each one of its steps pounded the earth.
Now it was quiet. She could see nothing but the meadow. From nearby she could hear humming, but she couldn't see from where it was coming. Arms gently wrapped themselves around her body and she felt safe.
In front of her appeared a monster with teeth a foot long, claws as long as a woman's leg, lightning shooting out from its eyes.
Terreis jerked out of Ephiny's arms as she woke up from her mind's ramblings. She fell to the ground like a pouch full of beans. Though Ephiny was very happy that her friend had survived her injuries, she wasn't one for emotional displays. "You're awake," she remarked, matter-of-factly.
Terreis head was pounding. "What?"
Seeing that Terreis' eyes weren't focusing, Ephiny was a little concerned: "Are you alright?"
Terreis sat back against a tree and nodded carefully. "I guess we won?"
"You're alright."
Ephiny gave Terreis some willow-bark tea she had brewed. When she finished, Terreis said, "I'm sorry I wasn't more help."
"You did fine. We survived a tough battle against strong attackers."
"Give me a man, any day."
Terreis' comment made Ephiny look at her friend with great surprise. Terreis continued, "They're much easier."
With a smile, Ephiny repeated, "You're alright."
That day was spent as a day of convalescence for Terreis. Because the injury was more severe than either of the women thought, Terreis easily slipped back and forth from her sleep-like state to wakefulness. She didn't become delirious again, but these lapses always brought Ephiny's concern. She well remembered a close friend of her mother's would had suffered a bad head wound after a battle. She, too, drifted back and forth from consciousness. One important difference that Ephiny was clinging to was that during that time when her mother's friend spoke, she always sounded drunk; her speech was slurred, and she wasn't always very coherent. When Terreis was awake, she sounded fine. Just a little tired, which was understandable given the experience of the previous night. So, for the rest of the day, Ephiny hovered near where Terreis rested, hoping that no emergency would arise.
Late the next morning, Ephiny woke with a start, and to the smell of roasting meat. She saw Terreis checking some vegetables near the fire where two skewered squirrels angled over the embers, broiling. Terreis looked up, "Good morning."
"Good morning," Ephiny deadpanned. She hadn't expected this scene.
"The meat is done, and the roots are cooked. I figured we might as well have a good meal before setting out again."
"Are you up for it?" Ephiny asked as Terreis handed her one of the rodents.
"We've wasted too much time," Terreis evaded.
Ephiny dined on the meat with great gusto. Nothing could flavor a meal a well as hunger, and she hadn't eaten in at least two days. Terreis ate heartily as well. From the streaks around her mouth, Ephiny suspected that the rusty-maned one had discovered some blackberries. Her suspicions were confirmed when, after the meal was over, Terreis unexpectedly gave her two handfuls of the sweet gems.
They had been trundling through the woods for several hours when Terreis began to think that maybe setting out on the road so soon hadn't been the wisest move on her part. She felt dizzy and nauseous, and her hands and feet were starting to tingle. "Let's rest for a moment. I'm a little tired," Ephiny said.
"Ephiny never gets tired," Terreis thought to herself. But her friend was very observant, and she was thankful for the subterfuge.
Terreis sat heavily on a fallen log, and leaned back on a nearby tree. Her face was ghostly pale, and she was beginning to feel a little chilled. Ephiny didn't like the looks of her friend. They might have to make a camp here. "I'm going to see if there's some water nearby," Ephiny said before disappearing deeper into the woods.
Terreis just sat where she was and rested. She ate some of the fatty and sugary travel food she had with her for emergencies. It was going to be a long day, and she needed all of the energy she could muster.
Ephiny found a clear stream not more than three or four hundred paces from where she'd left Terreis. She put down her staff and knelt down to fill her water bag, and then she froze. At the water's edge were fresh hoof prints. Immediately her sword was out in one hand, her staff was in her other, and her eyes were searching. Whoever was here was being stealthy, and that meant they were a threat. Carefully and quietly, she followed the signs of disturbance away from the stream. The undergrowth made tracking difficult, but Ephiny was better than most. Sometimes a gift can be a curse, and so it was when Ephiny cleared a thicket, and found herself not ten paces away from Khores: a strapping Centaur in his prime with his bow drawn and an arrow aimed straight at Ephiny's heart.
Ephiny froze. She quickly evaluated her situation, and easily concluded that it was bad. Very bad. There was really no option other than to go for the trees. She took a quick step toward the Centaur and issued a war cry to startle the man-beast before turning quickly to her right.
Terreis heard the cry. Ephiny was in battle. Training and instinct wiped all fatigue from her body. She freed her sword and raced in the direction of Ephiny's call.
Two steps was all Ephiny managed before she stopped when an arrow planted itself deeply into the tree Ephiny had planned to scale. With as much courage as she could muster she sheathed her sword, turned, and faced the Centaur who already had another arrow set to fly. The shaft buzzed the air as it darted from the bow and struck its target -- a lock of Ephiny's hair, which was now pinned to the tree. Ephiny taunted, "Not much of a shot, coming from a centaur. You should have killed me when you had the chance."
In a flash, four hooves moved the archer to within arm's reach of Ephiny. As she swung her staff in defense, she was felled by a mighty blow from the heavy right arm of Khores. Ephiny fell unconscious to the floor of the woods, missing her senses and the one lock of hair still stuck to the tree.
Khores leaned down to see what damage had been done to the woman. Except for a tickle of blood dripping from her now cut lip, and a few drops spilling from her nose, she appeared to be in decent enough shape.
A faint rustling broke Khores' concern as in one movement he turned and nocked a new arrow onto his bow. Once again, the hunting point of his projectile was trained at the heart of a sword-wielding Amazon. "Move away from her," Terreis spat.
"If I wanted her dead, she'd be dead," Khores replied. "She surprised me. If you'll let me go in peace, I will do so as well." With that, he relaxed his draw on the bow and lowered it.
Terreis was confused. She didn't know a lot about the Centaurs, but their reputation said that they were savage beasts. Even the truce they shared in their new home was borne more out of necessity of the Centaurs to be strong on another front than it was a gesture of magnanimity. "You don't talk like any Centaur I know."
"Do you know many?"
Terreis responded only with stoic silence. One of the first adages taught to Amazon children was, "Never reveal to your enemies what you don't want them to know."
"My name is Khores. Please, lower your sword. I'm not threat to you."
"Move away from her, first."
With a look of slight embarrassment over his thoughtlessness, Khores quickly moved away from Ephiny, allowing Terreis to get to her side. Terreis quickly examined her, and saw that she'd only been knocked out. Terreis sheathed her sword, but kept film grip on her staff if the need arose. "My name is Terreis."
"Terreis. What are Amazons doing so far from home?"
Terreis paused for a moment to decide if she should take a chance and tell him. He might have information that they needed. It wasn't something Ephiny would approve of, but then again sometimes Ephiny's methods weren't as diplomatic as they could be. "We're looking for a thief. He stole something from our village weeks ago, and we've been tracking him."
"Without a great deal of success, apparently, " Khores replied under Terreis' glower. "I take it that this thing that was stolen was valuable?"
"Let's say that we'd like it returned."
"Do you know who the thief is?"
"We know he's a man. And he has large feet."
"Ahh. I do believe that you are looking for Klepteisos."
"Be wary of him, little one. He's a son of Hermes, the trickster. It is a long tale, and I'm not gifted in the arts of the bard. Suffice it to say that he lost favor with Artemis long ago, and she has sought every opportunity to make his life miserable. In return, he has sworn vengeance on the goddess, and tries to hurt all who worship her by taking items that are valuable or sacred."
"You seem to know a lot about him. Do you know where he is?"
"No, I don't. I've lived in this woods alone for many years. I know every bush, every tree, every blade of grass by heart. So, I do know that he does not hide here. But, I will help you find him."
"What will it cost us? Centaurs aren't exactly known for their generosity."
Ephiny stirred a little. The effect of the Centaur's blow was wearing off.
"Consider this a fair exchange. This aching wound of Hermes' passion have been a nuisance to the Centaurs as well. We respect the skills of the hunter goddess, and have on occasion born the brunt of this thief's revenge. So, I will get word to you if I should learn where he is. If you find out where he hides, I ask the same in return."
"And how will we get these messages to each other?"
"Simply return to these woods. I will find you."
"How can I trust you to keep your word?"
"You don't know a lot about Centaurs, do you? We may be a fearsome race, but we are also an honorable one. I swear on all that I hold dear, my family and friends and weapons, that I will be true to what we've discussed."
The Centaur extended his hand. As Terreis took it in cooperation she said, "I give you my word that if we learn of this thief's whereabouts, you will either learn of it from us, or learn of his demise by our hands."
With that, Khores made a quick turn and galloped into the thickest part of the woods, disappearing to eye and ear in only moments.
Ephiny finally woke and reached for her sword. "Where are you?"
"He's gone. Are you ok?"
Ephiny stood up quickly with an air of frustration. "I was so stupid. I should have gone up in the trees the instant I knew something was wrong."
"Then he'd have shot you because he couldn't punch you. You'd be dead."
"That might be better than being humiliated. Next time I see that damn Centaur, I'll skin him."
Terreis smiled. "I'm glad you're feeling ok. Let's get our gear and keep on moving."
Terreis started walking back to where she had been resting. Now that Terreis had her back to her, Ephiny took the opportunity to let her guard down a little and acknowledge not only her residual fear, but also the pain her face was in. That one punch hurt more than any blow she had received from an Amazon's staff. She had new respect for the strength of Centaurs -- which would be useful next time they fought. She would not be surprised again.

It seemed that the Gods were against Melosa.
Rhokin, the Centaur they had helped, was even more injured than previously thought. His right hind leg had a clean fracture, and it had to be immobilized for two weeks before it was strong enough to even attempt walking. During that time, he mostly kept to himself -- doing little more than eating a banquet of food every day.
Melosa tried talking to the beast on several occasions, and was greeted by an obvious irritation. While Melosa knew that the Centaurs and the Amazons distrusted one another, she was unprepared for the misogynist attitude of his species. Apparently Centaurs felt that females were of little use other than for breeding, and then only if they bore sons -- for male-children would be breeding Centaurs while female-children would be killed because their sterility made them useless. It was little talked about, and unknown to Melosa, but the Centaurs were the kings of the female slave trade. All of the best prizes found their way past Centaur buyers.
The day Rhokin's splints were removed, the nightmare began. Cassara had entered the Centaur's stall with two young Amazon novitiates. She removed the splints that had been supporting the leg, and tested its stability. The novices watched at a distance away from Cassara, but within reach of the centaur. That was their fatal mistake. As Rhokin stood up, he grabbed each of the young women and quietly snapped their necks while also pinning Cassara hard against the wall of the stall. The man-beast apologized for the "stumble", and Cassara believed him to be sincere. When she moved away for a better look, she saw the bodies of her fallen helpers. Before she could issue a warning, Rhokin had her by the throat. He stripped Cassara and ravaged her here, where she had for two weeks tended him as a healer.
Once his tension had been relieved, Rhokin opted for escape. He knew it wouldn't be easy. It was still daylight, and he had to carry this Amazon with him. Her scent told him that she was prime for breeding, and he wouldn't miss out on the chance and prestige of having a Centaur son born of an Amazon. Besides, though he could stand, he couldn't walk without a great deal of pain shooting from his hindquarters all the way up his spine -- he might need her as a shield to compensate for his lack of mobility.
His assessment of the situation had been correct. Though the barn was close to the woods, and to the outskirts of the village, there were Amazons everywhere. He hadn't gotten ten steps from the building with his bruised and naked hostage before a warning cry echoed through the woods. He was soon surrounded by fifteen Amazons. The ten with staffs and choboes he didn't worry about. The three with swords and the two with drawn bows were a much bigger concern. Amazons might only be women, but steel was steel whoever wielded it.
Melosa strode to the scene and appropriated a bow and arrow from one of the Amazons, and aimed the fletched projectile at the Centaur. Rhokin countered by holding Cassara in front of him, applying great pressure to her neck -- even a sneeze would offer enough force to snap her neck. Melosa warned, "Rhokin, you have a choice. Either you can release her now and die quickly, or you will die the most painful and slow death we can devise."
"I don't think you understand. If you don't let me go, I'll kill her."
"No you won't," Melosa flatly replied. "Release her now."
Rhokin's reply was to slightly improve his grip. Cassara was able to gasp, "The life of this body is Amazon."
Melosa let fly her arrow, which plunged into the healer's heart. Cassara fell limp in Rhokin's grasp. As she lowered her bow, Melosa replied, "I have taken what was necessary for the glory of the Amazons."
Rhokin dropped the dead weight of the naked woman. His eyes were wide with surprise and fear. "You are all crazy."
"And you are defenseless," Melosa said before turning back to the village.
On that cue, the Amazons staged their first assault and almost effortlessly broke each of the Centaur's four legs. He fell to the ground in immense pain. The Amazons were true to Melosa's word. It took almost a day before Rhokin died, and never once was the grip of pain released from his body.
Melosa was relieved that she'd never sent word that this beast was in the company of the Amazons. He'd just be listed as a missing casualty of war, if his kind even cared about such things. She had hoped that one respectfully tended Centaur soldier would be the first step to a bridge of peace between the two camps of warriors. Now it was obvious that there could never be peace with as vile and dishonorable a race as these abominations.
Her thoughts turned to her sister. She and Ephiny had been gone for more weeks than necessary to catch even a skilled thief. Though she wanted to be optimistic, a small hole was opening in her heart mourning the loss of these two Amazons to the fearsome God of the underworld. The village couldn't sustain these kinds losses for long. It was ironic that being banished from the Amazon nation in the east hadn't destroyed them, but finding a home in the west might do the job Hippolyta's army had been unable to.

"Do you miss our old home?" Terreis asked Ephiny as they slogged across a small plain that was more mud than meadow.
"I miss my mother."
"She would have made a great queen."
Ephiny answered that with only silence.
"I only hope that if I become queen someday I'll be as good a leader."
"You will be," Ephiny deadpanned.
Terreis felt Ephiny's irritation with the subject, and so let it drop. As the rain began again, their footing became more treacherous. A distant roar started building. A flash flood was on its way, and both Amazons knew their danger. As quickly as they could, they tried to scramble across the remainder of the muddy plain to the tree-infested hills beyond.
They almost made it.
The flood waters that hit them weren't deep. Had the water been still it would have only reached to the Amazons' waists. It was the current and the water-soaked ground that made the situation dire. Ephiny plunged her fighting staff as deeply into the mud as she could. She held on to it while Terreis held on to her. They could possibly have waited out this initial rush of current and then swum to safety when the new river calmed slightly. They didn't get the chance. An uprooted stump crashed into Ephiny, forcing her to lose her grip, and sending her and Terreis downstream, bobbing in the muddy water like so much flotsam.
Their reluctant journey was halted by a thick finger of hilly ground jutting out from the woods. Ephiny had swallowed a large amount of water and was half drowned. If not for Terreis helping up to higher ground, she might not have made it. Safe, Ephiny lied on the ground coughing up the muddy water that congested her lungs and stomach.
Terreis didn't stay by her friend's side. Instead, she raced upstream to where she and Ephiny had been moments earlier. There, about twenty feet from shore, the eagle's head of Ephiny's staff poked up above the water; its angle pointing downstream indicated that the river could take it as a prize at any time. Wasting no time, Terreis ran further upstream before diving back into the driving current. As if guided by kind water nymphs, her course brought her directly to Ephiny's staff, which she retrieved from the mud without any effort. Had she delayed, this staff would certainly have been swallowed up by the flood. Terreis calmly rode the current to the wooded peninsula where Ephiny was only now starting to feel that everything was well again. Terreis put the staff next to Ephiny, "Here."
"My staff. I thought I'd lost this. Where did you find it?"
"I went back and got it."
"It was your mother's," Terreis replied, ending discussion of the matter. "I'll try to find some firewood and find a place to camp."
"That's not necessary. I'm--" Ephiny interrupted herself with a fit of bronchial coughing.
"--stopping for today," Terreis finished.
Although the sun had not yet reached its zenith, the two women were soon asleep next to a well banked fire. Even though they were in fighting shape, the stress of their journey's lack of progress was beginning to wear on them. As long as they were still able to walk, neither one of these warrior women would be able to admit to defeat. If they had to search for the rest of their lives, they would one day return with the sword of Hephaestus. Even to heroes such as these, fatigue can find purchase. The flood had only been the latest in a series of ordeals, and now, finally, their bodies commanded them to rest.
They woke to the glare of bright moonlight. "Selene is watching over us," Terreis commented.
"I can't believe that you would risk your life to get my staff."
"If things had been reversed, you'd have done the same for me. Besides, I loved your mother, too. I couldn't let her staff disappear without a fight."
"You know what I remember most about Arlora? The way she was an Amazon, and how she gave that gift to us. I still remember one of the first things she taught me. 'It's a man's world,' she said. 'Not because it ought to be, but because we let them have it.' I don't think she thought men were our enemies because of their sex like Hippolyta did."
"She didn't," Ephiny said. "You're a lot like her. You're going to be a good queen someday."
"Do you mind?"
"What do you mean?"
"That because Melosa got your mother's right of caste I'll probably get the honor that should have gone to you."
This was the one question that Ephiny never wanted to have to answer. "Forget about it."
"Please. I'd really like to know."
"Ok. I was jealous. I was angry. All of that. But this quest has taught me a few things. You ARE a lot like my mother, in many ways. We're young, Terreis. You've only just become an Amazon. Yet, I can see the leader you will become. I could be angry about losing my mother's right of caste, but what good would it do? You will be as great a queen as my mother would have been, and I will stand by your side forever."
"So you'll be there when I have to give my right of caste?" Terreis said jokingly.
But the quip had more truth in it than Ephiny wanted to admit to herself. That wound was still not completely healed. "So you won't have to. Can we go to sleep now?"
"Sure. Thanks, Ephiny."
Though they had slept all day, their bodies had become accustomed to sleeping when night fell. Without much effort, the two friends drifted back to the land of Morpheus.
Terreis woke as dawn was being hinted at on the horizon. A pale blue glow accented by the residual moonlight lit the woods enough to outline the trees. Ephiny was still sleeping, so the red-haired princess quietly slipped away to see if a stream she remembered, from when they passed this place weeks ago, still ran clear.
Khores was roaming through his territory when he spied a shape in the distance near the sweet spring. Even in the low light of the dawn he could tell that this was the Amazon he'd promised information to many weeks ago. He didn't see her belligerent friend, but he was certain that she must be nearby. He couldn't risk shouting to the flame-tressed Amazon for risk of inviting an attack from her ally.
Terreis didn't hear Khores' approach as he cantered towards her. She did hear the bolt streaking past her head. She quickly turned and saw a Centaur over a hundred paces away twisting from the impact of an arrow. As she turned to see the source, Ephiny raced past her, straight to the Centaur who, though injured, dashed agilely into the woods. "Ephiny!" Terreis shouted, but to no effect.
Terreis wasn't sure what to do. If the Centaur was Khores, she needed to find out if he knew where the thief was. Ephiny's lust for revenge could ruin everything.
Ephiny found that the Centaur was easy to track. Even in the subdued light the trail of blood was easy for experienced eyes to follow. She thought he'd head to the river to hide his trail, but instead it looked like he was running to the highlands -- which was exactly what Khores wanted her to think.
The Centaur of the woods paid a high price for this deception. Had he hidden and rested, he likely would have recovered from the arrow which had lodged in his chest. But the exertion combined with his deliberately enhancing the flow of blood to leave an obvious trail for Ephiny sealed his fate. But he'd given his word, and now he'd honor it.
Terreis wasn't very surprised when the blood-streaked Centaur emerged from the woods. "You're friend's quite the hunter," Khores wheezed -- his punctured lung adding to his discomfort.
"You're hurt."
"Too late to worry about that now. Before your friend tracks me back here, I have news."
"About the thief?"
"He lives in a lower cave in the mountains some three days walk from here. He was there at recently as four days ago. I've written it down."
Khores handed her a tiny scroll. "Now, little Amazon," he said, "I've fulfilled my end of our bargain. You do the same. I expect to see that thief in Hades before the week is over."
"I swear, the day we find him is the day he dies."
With no goodbyes, Khores turned and disappeared once again into the woods, to die in his own way.
Terreis didn't know the Centaur well, but she knew that she would miss him. While she didn't blame Ephiny for launching the fatal shot, she was sorry that she had. Khores was an honorable sort, perhaps someone she could have called friend. "What's wrong?" Ephiny asked, surprising Terreis.
"Nothing. I, uh--"
"I followed that Centaur back to here. Did you see him?"
"I found this note. It says that there's a thief named Klepteisos over there in those mountains. I think we should set out right away."
"Just as soon as I finish off that Centaur."
"The Centaur isn't our mission, Ephiny. The sword is. Besides, you've done far worse to him than he did to you."
Ephiny thought about it for a moment. "You're right. Let's get the rest of our things."
Once convinced, Ephiny had a tendency to be single- minded. Now was no exception. With Ephiny pushing the pace, that three-day journey to the mountains took only two. Terreis had some trouble keeping up at times, but the thought that their long quest might soon be over fueled her resolve to not slow her companion down. Their journey to the valley of the Darnedes passed without incident. Following the descriptions mentioned in the map, the pair carefully and quietly worked their way toward the cave of Klepteisos. They laid prone at an outcropping of rocks overlooking the mouth of a pass that carved its way deep into the mountains. At this entrance stood four rather large and unhygienic guards. "What do you think?" Terreis whispered.
"The guards are little obvious, don't you think?"
"I don't understand."
"They aren't really guards. They are an alarm system. No warrior, or skilled thief for that matter, would have much problem taking care of them. But in the time it took, the real thief could make his escape."
"I see."
"Where does your note say this cave is?"
Terreis brought out the note and read it in the dusky twilight of early evening. She looked up and scanned the area past the guards carefully. "Over there, where that pointed shadow is."
"I see it. It probably has more than one exit."
Terreis looked quizzically at Ephiny, who continued, "It's the first cave -- way too obvious, and the first place anyone would look."
Ephiny quietly started backing down from the outcropping. "Where are you going?" Terreis asked.
"It's too late to do anything tonight," Ephiny whispered. "We need to make camp and plan our attack."
In reply, Terreis also started backing down off of the rocks.
As usual, the night had been uneventful for the guards. They amused themselves by playing "Stones", a contest to see who could toss a stone closest to a sword stuck in the ground. They played this game every night since nothing ever happened. They were understandably surprised when, after they'd retrieved the stones, they couldn't find their sword. Not being terribly bright, they didn't call out an alarm as they were supposed to. Instead, they investigated. "Looking for this?" Ephiny asked as she leaped out of the shadows screaming the Amazon war cry, using the guard's own sword against them.
With the war cry as a cue, Terreis, sword drawn, entered the mysterious cave she had spotted when they had arrived. Once inside, Terreis was stunned. Though the Apollo's chariot hadn't yet begun its daily course through the sky, the inside of the cave was brightly lit from an unknown light. The bright ambient glow was even and didn't flicker. In face, there wasn't a flame of any kind that she could see. Hidden from her eyes was treasure stolen from the Gods. Treasure that when massed emitted its own celestial glow.
From behind a column, emerged a grotesque figure. Though his body held the form of a man, his skin was not like any man's. It stood twice as tall as Terreis. Like a snake, it was covered with shiny scales. Its head was as a boar's, but missing eyes. Instead, attached to the head in place of horns were serpents, whose eyes alone guided the monstrosity. "Looking for this, little girl?" mocked the beast as he held up the sword made by the blacksmith God.
"You must be Klepteisos."
"And you must be leaving. But, if you'd rather die, feel free to stay."
"I'll be leaving with that sword. Return it, and you'll have no trouble from me."
Klepteisos roared with laughter. "I don't think you understand. I don't care," and to punctuate the point, the vulgar animal passed water without so much as a change in his position.
Terreis was stunned by the act of this beast. But her shock was nothing compared to the disarming nausea that overcome her upon her first whiff of the odious effluent pooling in front of the noxious thief.
The son of Hermes knew the power of his tactics and sprang into action. With two quick strides he was within arm's length of Terreis, and swung down with the Amazon sword. Terreis hastily deflected the blow, and backed away trying to improve her position. But even with the rush of excitement the attack fostered, she was still reeling at the growing stench in the cave. She would have likened it to the grave odor of death, but death didn't smell that foul. The scaled monster pressed his advantage and was guiding Terreis into an inescapable corner. Terreis knew what he was doing, but was unable to prevent it. Every effort to escape her deteriorating position resulted in her gaining a new gash to an arm, or a leg. She'd already accumulated six of them, and wasn't eager to gain another.
A low and painful roar emanated from the boar's head as he turned and swung the sword at an unseen opponent. The thief had just gained an unexpected souvenir, the sword of one of his guards was deeply lodged in his side. He stumbled back to an open spot before removing the irritation. While he did so, Terreis was joined by an energized Ephiny. Ephiny's battle-lust quelled slightly upon seeing the blood still streaming from Terreis' wounds. "You just had to start without me," Ephiny quipped.
"I didn't want you do have all the fun. Get him. I'll be fine."
Ephiny didn't need much encouragement. Like a bolt of lightning, she charged the boar-headed fiend. Klepteisos was ready for her, and easily deflected her attack. They faced-off against each other. "Is that the best you can do? An attack from behind?" Klepteisos taunted.
"You haven't seen my best," Ephiny retorted.
"Well, come on. Excite me."
Ephiny wielded her sword with more skill and finesse than she'd ever shown in practice. She moved in on the scaly giant and tried to carve a mark of her own into Klepteisos' skin. Despite her greater skill and experience, she did no better than Terreis. A mighty swing made Ephiny jump backward to avoid a mortal wound. She didn't escape that attempt on her life unscathed. Blood slowly flowed out from a fresh cut across her chest that extended from armpit to armpit. In a patronizing tone, Klepteisos continued his taunting, "Oh, did I hurt you? Are you going to cry?"
"Ha! This? It won't even leave a scar. So, are you going to fight, or are you going to talk me to death?"
"Oh, you'll die all right," the thief said as he charged Ephiny.
The Amazon deflected the attack as well as she could, but her foe was too big and too strong. He threw her back against a wall, knocking the wind, and the fight out of her. "How ironic," Klepteisos said as he walked to Ephiny, "that this sword will be your death."
With a laugh, he raised the sword and began its murderous swing downward. But it had moved no more than an inch when it suddenly stopped. Unseen to Ephiny or Terreis, but clearly visible to an immortal such as Klepteisos, was the hunter goddess, Artemis. She had stayed Klepteisos' hand. "Stay out of this!" the boar-headed monster spat at the Amazon protector.
Ephiny was confused by these strange events, but not enough to not take advantage of them. She made a dash to escape and managed to cut a gash into the distracted thief's arm while doing so. Harming the beast might not have been the best of choices, for he immediately renewed his attack on the fleece-maned warrior. This was indeed a fatal mistake.
While Ephiny once again deflected a heavy blow from her opponent, Terreis leaped from a stack of chests and swung her sword down on the boar's head, severing from it the two serpents that supplied the beast with sight.
Klepteisos roared in pain, sadness, and anger. These Amazons had caused him a grievous injury from which he might never recover. They had stolen his eyes. He wildly swung his sword around hoping to serendipitously kill one of the young women. All he succeeded in doing was opening himself up to further successful attacks. Terreis and Ephiny each struck blows that would have killed a mortal beast. Indeed, they would have killed this wounded ogre if they had the right weapon -- the sword that Klepteisos was still wielding.
It was Terreis who, with a lucky blow to the foul one's wrist, finally succeeded in relieving the thief of his prize. She immediately sent it to her friend who, with great satisfaction, plunged it deeply into the scale-covered chest of the criminal. The Olympian blade severed Klepteisos' heart, and did what no mortal blade could have - - it also severed Klepteisos' place in the world of the living. He fell with a heaviness that buoyed the fatigued spirits of his vanquishers.
"Let's get out of here before I die myself for that horrible stench," Ephiny said.
"What about all of these other things he's stolen?"
"I don't want to risk that immortal filth waking up again. Do you?"
"You're right. Let's go. We got what we came for," Terreis said, and followed her partner out of the cave and back on the trail to their home.
The journey back was longer than they first thought it would be. Their search for the sword sent them in many directions; little did they realize that they were being taken almost a hundred and fifty leagues from where they started. Walking and jogging back during all of the daylight hours, they covered ground quickly, but it still took them nearly a week to once again enter familiar surroundings. From a high hill, they could see the outlines of their village in the distance. Despite the falling night, they decided to risk going through some of the Centaur hunting grounds. They were too close to stop, though their bodies had been begging for rest most of the day.
Warning drums alerted all of the Amazons of the approach of their missing pair. It had been over two months since they had left, and the entire village gathered to see if they were successful. A bonfire was lit to herald their return.
Ephiny and Terreis strode into camp, but stopped just inside the cleared perimeter. Terreis spoke clearly and loudly, "Amazons, Terreis and Ephiny have returned," and then she and Terreis, each with a hand on its hilt, raised the sword overhead.
A great cheer erupted from the throng of warriors. Tonight they would celebrate not only the return of their comrades, but also their gift from the gods.
Ephiny loosed her hold on the sword, following Terreis as she walked through the joyous throng to Queen Melosa. They were both exhausted. When they reached Melosa, they looked as if they'd each collapse, but this quest had tempered them -- though they might not last through the celebration, they wouldn't succumb to something as trivial as fatigue.
"Queen Melosa, here is the sword you sent us to retrieve," was all Terreis could think of to say; it had been a long day.
Melosa received the sword with great relief. Though she wouldn't show it, she couldn't have been more proud of her sister. In spite of her having only recently been counted as an Amazon, Terreis' eyes and her fresh scars spoke to her being an inexperienced Amazon no longer. Ephiny, as well, bore freshly healed wounds on her body. Had the Amazon Queen thought the quest to be as fraught with danger as it apparently was, she wouldn't have sent out Amazons this young. That they survived the ordeal spoke much about both of these women.
"Thank you. I'll see to it that it is returned to its proper place," Melosa said. "I can't wait to hear about how you found it. After you've had a chance to rest, perhaps you can tell the tale to the whole camp."
"Of course," Terreis and Ephiny replied in unison.
To the camp, Melosa spoke up, "These are true Amazons. Risking their lives for their sisters, and protecting one another against all dangers. Praise to Artemis for giving them, and us, the skills and hearts to be Amazons!"
The drumming and chanting of a great celebration started. The camp wouldn't sleep this night, nor probably the next day. As Melosa left Terreis and Ephiny to put the sword back in its storage area, Eponin came up and took her place. "I set up a couple of chairs for you over there. You two don't look like you're up for dancing around the fire just yet," she said.
"Thanks," Terreis said.
They followed Eponin over to a couple of chairs near one of the huts. The spent pair sat down to enjoy the celebration. When Melosa returned moments later, she found both of her Amazons leaning shoulder-to-shoulder against each other, sound asleep.

Once again I send thanks to the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the nine sisters who inspire all that flows of the arts from we mere mortals, for allowing me to tell this tale.


* It's hard to reach for a star and still keep your shirt tucked in. *

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