Half a moon later.
Each step a struggle, Penthesilea fought against the grim wind.
The biting cold pierced the thick cloak, tightened her inside. It took iron hold of her mind, shutting out any other thoughts. Her entire body felt frozen stiff, her muscles barely movable. How anyone could survive in that frost, let alone live there was beyond her. Eyes filled with tears from the wind, she desperately wished to feel her face again and not only so as a dead attachment that shielded her from the hostile environment. What would she give for a fire, for a bit of warmth to breach the icy shell around her skin. For pleasant company.
The further she had advanced westward, the unfriendlier the weather had become. From day to day, the surroundings had turned more haunting and colorless as if to scare unwanted travelers off. The path led through through woods and alongside the foot of tall, waste mountains. She hadn’t felt it – not that much – while Amadahy had still been with her, but now that the creator had cut her own path and there was no one any more to keep her distracted, the changes of landscape and climate were overwhelming.
Shivering, she thought back to the day of her rash leave. Charon, the groom-to-be of Alexander’s niece, had succeeded to pick the lock sooner than expected. Phyllis had dashed out of the basement room and clung to her skirt in tears and inconsolable.
And yet an oppressive feeling had beset her having seen with her very own eyes that young Charon was able to open a door created not to be opened in such a short time.
While she would be far away for many days and nights.
Well, he had received a generous reward. Even though he had vehemently denied at first, convinced otherwise only by the cajoling talk of his betrothed and Alexander.
Another gust tore her out of the refuge she had found in her memory, exposing her to the aggressive weather she found herself in. The warrior she had met in the morning had assured repeatedly the next village was only a day’s journey away if she followed the path. She really hoped so.
In the meantime, most people she encountered eyeballed her curiously for the strange behavior. Clearly, men ruled over this area and running across a woman who traveled alone was a rarity that caused quite a sensation.
Not exactly conducive for her aim. Many whom she asked for a red-haired man and the direction he had headed were careful to answer and an increasing number of them didn’t understand in the first place, speaking a throaty, harsh tongue that just failed to appear friendly to her in any case.
And more and more red-haired men, women and children walked among the residents, making it hard to specify what man exactly she meant.
She sighed, relieved that she would soon be in the company of people again. People who wouldn’t understand her but at least they would be loud and lively and put some life back into her, too. The only thing she could hope for was that her less eye-catching clothing worked, that they wouldn’t pay her too much attention.
Serkon had willingly given her the clothes and as much as she felt out of place in her wide, concealing disguise, it drew far less gazes than her own clothing would probably have done. Sometimes she still spotted women dressed like the Dekanos or Arythions so she could mingle with them. But never had she discovered another Amazon and thus left her long dagger hidden beneath the cloak.
When she had left the chamber in the Dekanos palace, at first Serkon’s amazed gaze had wandered over her unfamiliar appearance in a way that had made his wife bristle with jealousy. Then, he’d burst out in a resounding laugh. That she had kept the changed exterior had only been an act of defiance – otherwise she would have turned on the heels and ordered the slave women to return her own clothes.
However, she was grateful for the disguise now.
But all the new experiences drained her of any strength. Why would Haimon seek this clammy solitude voluntarily? Why did he lock a little girl up without any food for that?
At least she wouldn’t have to burden herself with escorting him back. The very moment Amadahy and she had left, Zeuxippe had sought her out.
“I have good news,” she had declared showing off a wide smile, “Hekuba is expecting. She just found out.”
There it was. An unmistakable sign from the goddess, sealing the fugitive slave’s fate. Now that Zeuxippe’s warrior was with child, the one last duty that had kept death away from him was removed.
However, Amadahy had been doubtful.
“Let the goddess decide, Penthesilea,” she had tried to talk into her. “This is not a decision you or Zeuxippe must take into your own hands but that you must put into the more knowledgeable ones of a priestess.”
Still, the daughter of Thestia didn’t know why the creator would insist so keenly. After all, the goddess had decided already, had she not? In the end, she had dismissed her companion’s concerns politely but determinedly and Amadahy hadn’t tried to bring them up again ever since.
She had meant well, and as Penthesilea passed the village gate she wished they wouldn’t have had to part so soon. Maybe they could have become friends under different circumstances, with more time. But who could choose what the Goddess imposed onto them?
The gate was closed behind her for the night to ensure the townspeoples’ safety. Disoriented, she let her gaze travel.
The usual, in the meantime a bit more familiar long-roofed huts made of wood and stone bordered the road. Animals settled for the night within narrow enclosures while the last people were on their way home to spend the evening with their families, seeking closeness around a crackling fire.
How much she missed her daughters and Io. But maybe even more important in that moment was to warm her frozen bones up again and fill her rebelling stomach. Unconsciously, her hand wandered toward the pouch of leather beneath her cloak. Her provisions had come to an end the other evening, she would have to broach the gold that was supposed to be a reserve.
Spotting what seemed like a tavern, she sighed. This undertaking had already devoured more goods than she had thought.
As she entered, warmth tingled on her skin immediately, showing once more how numb her limbs really were.
It was a jolly circle inside. Men of relative wealth and higher standing sat around tables with those of their own kind, enjoying their meals in silence while from the other side, bellowing sounded through the door onto the empty place before it.
Humid air, pregnant with sweat and the sweetish, barmy smell of alcohol in male breaths streamed into the arrival’s lungs. Despite the strange mixture, Penthesilea felt her stomach growl.
As soon as she had taken place, a middle-aged woman steered toward her, thumped a bowl spattered by the greasy remains of a flavorsome stew at the table right under her nose and addressed her at the same time.
Confused, the queen looked up.
“My apologies, but I do not understand.”
“Oh. Yeah, well, m’lady, why didn’ ye tell me earlier? Ye wanna somethin’ between yer teeth?”
Dumbfounded, Penthesilea stared at the light-skinned, resolute person who didn’t exactly meet the ideal of a docile, gracious wife. Where was her husband?
“Yes, something to eat would be marvelous. And if maybe you could provide some information? Please.”
“Sure, ye ask right away an’ tell me if ye wan’ soup or bread an’ cheese.” Penthesilea’s gaze returned to the dry bowl in front of her. The ‘soup’ didn’t look the least appealing, but with all the fat it should be worth its price and would keep her warm for the night and in the cold outside when she would leave again in the morning.
“Soup. And did a stranger with red hair and blue eyes stop over here?” Half had she already expected the uncomprehending look everyone gave her at that question.
“Dunno, m’lady, there are many of those. But I don’ talk about guests anyway.”
Sighing, the queen gave in in spooning her soup with ingredients as unrecognizable as the size of the grease film floating on it. Meanwhile, she examined the other guests carefully from the edge of her eyes.
The blonde who really appeared to be alone suggested by the polite superiority of her behavior incessantly scampered around between the tables, asked for wishes and laughed carelessly at the occasional jokes and ribaldries thrown at her.
A highly stressed couple tried to feed their little daughter while their son kept running away and hovering about a group of rough men who trifled with a heavily made-up girl.
One of them had pulled her onto his lap under the thunderous applause of his mates. He – and the others, too – touched her in very unbecoming ways while she uninhibitedly stroked his beard.
Another one jumped up, thrusting his fist into the air above him. His shout was received with approving cries and everyone assembled, leaving their in large part already eaten meals behind with no hesitation.
Couples found themselves all on their own – the parents of the little family, the groper and his girl.
In unison, the onlookers started to sing and suddenly, motion entered the ones in the middle.
In deep awe, the queen watched huge and small feet hit the ground simultaneously, bouncing at the bottom in resounding thuds.
Men and maidens twisted their legs and untangled them again in swift turns, jumps, by switching places, forming rows and pairs in quick succession.
Skirts flew, girls whirled around to the wild, ever-changing chant of the bystanders.
The speed grew bolder and bolder the louder shouts and cheers reached the dancers’ ears. Encouraged them to set an even faster rhythm in which the bystanders joined with avid clapping.
One man standing aside, his arm slung around a friend’s neck, now roared an apparently popular song over the heads of his heated countrymen. Others chanted along with it in a gruesome, half-drunken choir. The more clear-headed ones didn’t have more to spare for them than good-natured laughter and enthusiasm for the zealous hops and twists.
And in all that frenzy, among the dancers, Haimon didn’t move the least less skilled or cumbersome than the others, always leading a woman with one hand or facing one even as they had reached a breathtaking pace.
Where had he come from, and when? How did he master those complicated steps when Penthesilea had never seen him dancing or anything alike?
Where had he got the unfamiliar clothes from?
And who was the woman who had appeared from nowhere with him?
The way their glances entwined when they met during the dance… They knew each other.
How shamelessly close he came to her every once in a while.
How shamelessly close he came to every woman over there.
Nobody cared. Nobody cared about the exposed legs, the bare skin and swaying hips of some of the dancers. Caught in the ecstasy of the rhythm, they even applauded the sickening performance.
Penthesilea snorted in disgust to ease the angered trembling of her hands. What a low demeanor. Not so much surprising for the Western people, but the master slave and lover of an Amazon queen should do better.
The fast movements. The many people, the noise and lewd conduct eventually went to Penthesilea’s head. Half dazed, she waved for the innkeeper who had held off as the only one, her face a much satisfied grimace.
“How much do I owe you for the meal and a room for tonight?”
“A room? An own one?,” the other woman flashed back in her nauseating, plodding accent while the Amazon had to concentrate to understand her beside all the jollity. “M’lady don’ wanna sleep together with all those ruffians?”
“Of course an own one.” The indication alone that a queen would do as much as consider sharing a room with another person – let alone any of those men! – was an insult already. But just like her countrymen, this woman was ignorant beyond all measure. And there was no way to risk for her true identity to be revealed before time and give Haimon the chance to flee again.
This time, it was her who had the edge over him.
“Good, very good.” Rubbing her palms, the blonde gave an immoderately high sum. Penthesilea paid in advance and without negotiating which would in the worst case draw attention from the revelers.
Revealing an only partially preserved set of teeth in a grin of satisfied greed, her host took her earnings.
“I am worn out by the journey. See to that no one will disturb me- Please.”
“Of course, of course, m’lady. All will be to yer likin’,” was the last the fair-haired woman assured willingly before the daughter of Thestia set off, toward a sufferably clean room and a sleepness night.
Surrounded by the other leaders, two bodyguards in his back, Alexander of Arythion rose to receive the foreign ruler.
“In the name of the all-knowing Sea God, be welcome at my table today.”
“Thank you, great King, for honoring me with your invitation.” A short bow of the head, to meet the protocol.
Her sweet words were dismissed with a generous wave, yet didn’t fail their purpose. The young man’s face lit up evidently.
“Why certainly. It is a rare occasion that a queen is led here by a merciful god. Or goddess- Hopefully you will entertain and enlighten us with news on the life and kingdoms from afar without letting us beg too much.”
“I will gladly do my best to contribute to your amusement.”
Alexander pointed to his right. “My dear friend and trusted counselor, Boras of Borathion, son of Pyrrhos, and his son, Herchion. Zeuxippe, daughter of Rheia and leader of Arythion’s mercenaries.”
Disapproval entered the Amazon queen’s face but seemed to escape Alexander.
“And Serkon, king of Dekanos whom you already know.”
He turned, then continued to introduce his liegemen and relatives. “My brother-in-law, Alexandros, high priest of the Sea God and father of my beautiful nieces Cheira, Selena and Phiona.”
“The ruler of Chonar, Deipyros and prince Advik, married to his older daughter and thus successor to the throne. And at last, Hepatos of Vauros.”
“Now enjoy yourself, creator. Let the festivities begin!” Alexander waved for the nearest slave, demanding a glass and wine while the kings sought their usual, preferred company. A few steered toward the Amazons.
As the oldest, Boras came to pay his respects before the others. Since his friend Evandros’ death, he had aged rapidly and the almost 70 suns of his life became clearly visible for the very first time, crooking his back and robbing him of his former strength.
“High respect to you and your queen, creator, that a foreign warrior may attend the feast a man caters without bad blood between them.”
A huge breakout from her earlier reserve, Amadahy flashed back at him full of humor. “My goddess, Nanina, chooses our allies and friends wisely. Who am I to question her wish, my lord?”
Boras’ spoke on while he subtly leaned onto his son. The boy’s worried eyes traveled upward to search his fathers’ but the latter kept them fixated on the two women in front of him.
“Keep your wits, creator. They are the only way to face the challenges of this world without giving them too much power.”
“Such a wise man’s advise will be greatly honored. Penthesilea has told me only good things of you, my lord.” A soft tone laid in her voice as she spoke to the old man.
“Yes,” the Borathion agreed with a gentle gaze toward the daughter of Thestia, “she is indeed special.” Then, he turned toward the foreign warrior again. “May Thalessos of the Sea and Bright Mitera bless all of your ways, creator, and maintain peace between our people.”
“As far as that lies in my doing and Nanina allows it, peace will indeed rule between us,” queen Hawika’s champion promised.
“You are always invited to my compound and fireplace although I am sure that Penthesilea does her best to fulfill your every wish.”
Hit at a tender spot, the other Amazon flinched. After all, Zeuxippe’s remark was true – their tribes were incomparable in both size and wealth.
However, Amadahy answered her determinedly. “Thank you very much for your kind offer, my lady, but I am very comfortable with her company and my current accommodations.”
“Oh, I just thought… Queen Hawika must live in a more… impressive place, does she not?”
“She does indeed, her palace is unrivaled by any other tribe of Amazons.”
Breathing in sharply, Zeuxippe shifted her weight. “Well, that is… comprehensible. I thought as much.”
Awhile, an awkward silence laid over the small group that was only interrupted by a resounding laugh. Curiously, Amadahy’s head turned into the respective direction.
“Alexandros. The priest,” Serkon explained who stepped up while Zeuxippe had left, sensing that she wasn't welcome. “None of his three daughters have the same mother and yet Alexander esteems him. Having a chosen of the Sea God in the family secures Arythion’s power while he is still young.” After a short break, he chuckled. “By all gods, certainly there are some more children of his, spending their lives in secret! It is a miracle that he does not have a dozen of them!”
Beside him, Lyta crossed her arms. “It’s a miracle, too that you don’t have a dozen of them with this concubine of yours. What does your wife think about her?”
A deep line appeared above his nose. “Someone should teach you to recognize when it is not appropriate to raise your voice.”
“Because you aren't comfortable with what I say?,” Lyta challenged him. Penthesilea sensed one of the rare but all the more fierce arguments between Serkon and his daughter arising. No matter how many liberties he granted her, offenses against his pride and honor wouldn't be tolerated in any case.
Before the upcoming dispute could even begin, the heavy gate swung up. A small figure stood below it, one hand slung around a slave’s shoulders.
While the others were still frozen in surprise, a broad-shouldered man detached from the group of rulers and rushed toward the arrival. The woman reached out for him.
“Advik.” The word resembled a sigh of relief.
“Step back,” the prince barked at the slave. Effortlessly, he wrapped Io’s arm around his own shoulder and carried her toward a chair where he put her down carefully.
When Penthesilea reached her, the paleness of her provider’s face and her exhaustion frightened her. Had she come all the way from the compound on her own while the birth was imminent? That was irresponsible, and she of all should know that.
“My lady, I- I have news, but only for you.”
A nervous look around her confirmed what Penthesilea knew anyway – almost all of the present ones belonged to royalty, many of them were part of the Council. If Io’s news were as bad as they sounded in advance, she would have to inform them anyway.
“It’s alright, Io,” she tried to reassure the unusual messenger. It didn’t matter what the other leaders would think. In the moment, the only one who mattered was her friend. So she knelt down beside her and took her hand, squeezing it slightly.
“Tell me now, they can hear.”
“A- Alright.” At the encouraging pressure, Io took the heart she required to make her report.
“Phyllis and Protego are locked in the basement room and I can’t find the keys. When I laid down I put them beside me, but they aren’t there any more.”
Relief washed through Penthesilea, and Lyta behind her relaxed significantly as well. “Don’t worry, we can deal with that. We will find the keys and free Phyllis. It’s easier with more people who have more liberty of action, you will see.”
Amadahy stepped up closer. “I do not mind helping.”
“Thank you.” Penthesilea gave her a grateful smile but was interrupted by a voice high from desperation.
“You- you don’t understand,” Io shouted, “the keys aren’t there any more. Haimon isn’t there any more!”
“No!” That was everything Penthesilea could utter after the first shock had left. Everyone in the hall had fallen silent, some from sympathy or anger, others only because they didn’t dare to raise their voice into the embarrassed silence.
Disregarding Io’s pleading huge eyes, she took the small woman’s arms and shook her in incredulity.
“How can he? I gave you order to lock him up when either Lyta nor I are at home, how can he escape from the basement?”
Tears welled up in Io’s eyes as her teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. “I- I’m sorry, I pitied him so much, he sees the light so rarely and- and he has never tried to leave before and- I didn’t think he’d ever-” A deep sob interrupted the quick flow of her words.
“It’s enough.” Alexander put a hand on her arm and forcefully pulled her away from the crying woman. “Let her rest for a while. Meanwhile, we will debate on further steps.”
Penthesilea took a long breath. “You’re right.” She begged Io for apology with a short look. “But we won’t debate. This concerns only my tribe, and my slave. I will go after him and retrieve him so his duties toward Zeuxippe can be fulfilled. And then he will be executed as planned. No slave will have his way against my will.”
“I’ll go with you!,” Lyta declared.
“No. You will stay here and look after Io and your sister.” She threw a glance at her provider whom Advik held in a protective embrace while she wet his chest. “They need a calm hand now to look after them.”
“If you need help or advice, Serkon will be at your disposal.” The addressed one nodded briefly.
“Whoever harms one of my sisters harms all of us.” Zeuxippe approached her fellow queen. “Let me accompany you, for the sake of our friendship and because he is still indebted to me.”
“Thank you, my friend. But as much as I appreciate your offer, at least one of us should stay and see that our interests are not disregarded while we are away.”
“Rheia can lead my tribe for a few days just as well as Hippolyta.”
“Please, do me this favor. I must do this alone.”
A weary sigh, then Zeuxippe gave in. “Alright. Go with the Goddess, then.”
“Please excuse that I interrupt your moment, Penthesilea, but should you not ponder on how to get your other daughter out of that cell first?”
“That...” Amazed, she stared at Serkon. To be honest, the more embarrassing part of the revelation had almost pushed Phyllis’ predicament aside. Helplessly, she turned to Boras and Alexander.
“Is there any smith in your tribes who could re-make a key for the lock?”
“That would last too long,” Serkon pointed out. “You should look more thoroughly first. Io can’t move properly, surely there are some places that are yet untouched.”
“Dad, the key isn’t on the compound any more! Searching won’t help!”
“Watch your language, young lady!,” Serkon shot back. Everyone’s nerves were on the edge.
“Silence!,” Alexander commanded.
“Only those with a reasonable suggestion are allowed to speak. Calmly.” His dark eyes sparkled with fury.
After a few moments, a black-haired, tall youth approached the king of Arythion.
“Uncle,” she addressed him respectfully. “Maybe Charon can open the door. He has freed himself from the storage room when Mestykles locked him up in there.”
The girl had wakened Alexander’s interest. “A brilliant idea, Cheira. Where is your betrothed?”
Quietly, the group divided and gave way for another youth who had just left the cusp from childhood. That very moment, he was pale from the attention that was entirely drawn onto him as he stepped forward to face the High King.
“Charon. Do you think that you are able to open the door of Penthesilea’s cell without the key?”
Nervous glances flew over the tribal leaders, a short peek at the queen before he opened his mouth and spoke with a breaking voice that matched his scrawny figure all too well.
“I… I don’t know, my lord?”
The girl touched his arm, begged him. “Please, Charon. Please. A little girl is down there and she’s terribly afraid of the dark and loneliness. Please, help her.”
He gave her a doubtful look. “Uh… I could try, at least?”
“Thank you!” Both Cheira and Alexander beamed at him with pride and relief and the girl even flung her arms around his neck.
“Now, let us try that for now.” With a wink, Alexander dismissed his guests.
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with him seeing our home while Hippolyta, Phyllis and Io will be alone,” Penthesilea whispered to Serkon as they left the hall. But when the king had commanded, who could object?
I'm sorry to announce that the next chapters will probably take longer in the making. A lot of building is required, a lot of pose searching and making. And uni enters the critical phase at that so there's less time left for writing. Hope to see/read you soon, though! Stay well!
I refuse to name the creators of that terrible amount of poses! Maybe I'll make up for that later, but for now I refuse!