Before we get started, a shoutout to Bugsie who has given me the patience for building the scenery of this chapter! She has listened to my rantings about placing trees for days. And stones... and trees... and flowers... and trees... And...
I think you got the idea of what was going on.
If not for the two people striding along on the earthy path before her, Penthesilea would have groaned with pain. Despite the day’s sunniness, black frost crept into her mind and kept occupying it mercilessly.
The fight not to be overborne by it was all the fiercer after a restless night. Only twice or thrice had she been startled into consciousness by obscure thoughts. Then, she had sat upright on the filthy blankets, waiting for the state of oppressive confusion to pass.
When finally the morning had begun to dawn over the curved roofs of wood and straw, Penthesilea had risen from the creaky bedstead, finally enabled to shut the combined pain of lack of sleep and the cold out of her head. Partially, at least.
After she had gagged on a bit of bread and cheese purchased from the innkeeper with turning stomach, she had hurried to leave the tavern and had kept an eye of its entrance from a hidden spot. Completely unlike him, Haimon had taken his time to appear. Standing around aimlessly, the queen had already felt the overly curious gazes of the villagers resting on her the more of them had moved a foot outside of their doors.
But when he had shown up, he hadn’t been alone.
The mysterious woman from the night before had been at his side and since then – since Penthesilea had followed them inconspicuously – she accompanied him.
Their pace was far too quick and the bounce in their steps too light. During the entire time they chatted lively, laughing together or fooling around.
How insolent!, Penthesilea thought banishing the clear birdsong coming from the surrounding trees from her mind. He barely met her and is already coquetting brazenly.
Admittedly, she was pretty and also a few suns younger than herself – but no raving beauty. Not even a hint exciting. Just a simple Western woman, her savage nature underlined by the shining white stripe in her face.
She matched that wild, rough land and people well.
However, Haimon didn’t.
And that very moment, he lifted her from the ground and swung her around in half a turn. Her giggle filled the air and echoed in Penthesilea’s ears.
Half laughing, half gasping for air she uttered some sentences in that incomprehensible, harsh tongue. It was so strange to listen to the same words come out of Haimon’s mouth, too.
As he set his escort back down onto the soil, she sneaked a peek over his shoulder – at their follower.
Penthesilea’s gut twisted. Trying to keep up a steady pace to stay unsuspicious, she watched the woman point into her direction.
Captured her with a gaze.
The Amazon dared a last look that went further than the two travelers – as her heart began to thump painfully.
In their front, not far away any more, a village had appeared between the trees.
She would have to act soon. Immediately, if they started running. She could impossibly justify her claim on him in front of so many people. They would rather chase her away than surrender someone who at least looked like one of their own.
The woman talked at him, words leaving her mouth like a waterfall. And finally, they managed to draw his attention to her again. Penthesilea breathed a sigh of relief, lowered her head and pulled her hood down to hide her face. As soon as they would turn away, she would start running. And pray that her head start would suffice to close in on them before they came close enough to the first people.
But they didn’t turn.
And they didn't run.
Instead, they stayed, standing in the middle of the path. Waiting for her.
Oh Goddess. You have revealed your will. Now, please, provide me with the chance to conduct it, illustrious one.
Indeed, the goddess seemed to take mercy on her daughter. At least her target and his companion didn’t try to flee while she approached.
With still a few steps of distance between them, the woman raised her voice. Blithesome and warm, belying her uncivilized appearance.
“Gun robh mhàthair leatsa, good lady. May the Great Mother be with you. What do ye seek in our tiny village? We rarely have guests.”
“You,” Haimon corrected with a lenient smile.
Sticky sweat detached itself from Penthesilea’s hairline, held back from blurring her sight only by the brow. Only a few more steps. A few moments of stringing them along until she would be within reach.
“Not what,” she responded threateningly and unfastened the cloak around her shoulders, “but whom.” Full of determination, her eyes met those of the man who had managed to keep hold of her desire for so many suns.
He was… thunderstruck. Stared at her, indecisive if he should believe the image that unfolded before his eyes.
“You?,” he blurted out. “Here? How did you… they hate Amazons here.”
His female escort’s look incredulously wandered back and forth between them. Seeking truth in the dismissive faces. In the chilling glare that was exchanged.
“Ama- Amazons? Is she… ye know her?”
Harshly, Penthesilea interrupted the confused question. “Who is this woman?”
“Attacking us here would be a great mistake,” Haimon stated defiantly instead of an answer. He tilted the head toward the first huts at the end of the way. “We’d get help in an instant.”
“Is that so?” With flashing eyes, the queen seized the haft of her dagger and brought it out, agonizingly slowly. The blade creaked against the short sheath. “Who is this woman? Next time, I will not bother to ask.”
“Ooooh.” He sucked in the air, arched a brow. “You’re jealous.”
“No.” Another step toward him let the woman with the painted face back off. “I am here to retrieve what is mine by right.”
“Then go,” the redhead hissed, “you won't find that here.”
“But I do see it right before me.” With deliberate steps, she began to circle them. A lioness measuring her prey.
“Please, good lady,” the brown-haired Westerner begged shyly, “I don’ know what quarrel ye have with him but he surely didn’t mean any harm.”
“My dear, I do not want to question how much you know about this man but he has committed a damnable crime. Murder.”
“Shit, no!,” Haimon shouted. “I didn’t kill anyone!”
“Impossible!” One hand covering her mouth in horror, the woman’s eyes widened. “He’d never do such a thing! Never!”
“That’s my people, nobody will buy those lies here.” In his voice, a certain satisfaction masked both anger and uncertainty.
That and the truth behind his words upset her all the more.
“I do not need their trust to get my will.”
Her dagger made the air fizz as it cut through it. Birds soared up and flapped away in a hurry, scared off by a sudden cry of fear that was soon swallowed by the close standing trees.
Haimon had managed to dodge her thrust and faced her with heaving chest, shielding the trembling and whimpering Westerner with his back. His angry stare prickled at the Amazon's skin.
“Gods, you’re insane! Put that dagger away!”
As an answer, she led another cut. At the last moment, he could avoid it but the Amazon hit his nose with a blow of her fist already. He gave a loud groan.
“There you see what that feels like.”
“Why are you defending an asshole who was the slave of your greatest enemy? For the Great Mother’s sake, he wanted to see your only tribe member dead!”
“She is not my enemy. But a slave would not understand,” Penthesilea asserted while the other woman shied away at her incessant pacing. The world had shrunk to herself, the forest in her immediate vicinity and the two people in front of her.
“I’ve never been your slave, Gods damn your Amazon ways!,” Haimon flashed back.
The daughter of Thestia jumped forward again. Worked round to find the safest approach toward the opponent.
“Run to the village! Get help!“ Crying, the slave’s new lover stumbled a few steps backward before she finally turned as she was told. Headed for the huts.
No. Not after she had come so far. Who knew what the villagers would do to her if they got her into their grasp?
So Penthesilea threw herself into the next attack with all strength available. In the end, she knew she could trust in her skills and the inferiority of her enemy.
Their bodies collided.
Haimon was sent to the ground. She herself fought hard to keep balance. No sooner had she succeeded than she flew forward again to press the dagger’s blade against the redhead’s throat.
The authority within the command achieved its aim. Some distance away, the Western woman stopped and turned around, tears filling the eyes. “If you dare to move even as much as a finger’s breadth, you will have to blame only yourself for his death.”
A touch of all the tenseness left her with the dangerous messenger being stopped.
“You won’t.” Despite of his firm conviction, Haimon laid still in her grip. “You won’t kill who saved your life and shared your bed. Who’d be next? Protego? Io? One of your dau-”
“Shut up!” Much to her surprise, her order was obeyed. Venturing closer eventually, the Westerner fell to her knees. Desperately, she wrought her hands. “Please! Please, let us go good lady. I’ll stay away from him if ye wish but please, don’ hurt him!”
Her voice was bright with fear. “‘Who begins the path of the sword will soon stand alone,’ the Great Mother says. Please, let us go and I’ll pray for you every day from now on. I swear,” she whispered.
“Shut up!,” Penthesilea repeated breathlessly, as if woken from a deep slumber. Suddenly the surroundings that had faded away earlier assailed her with an unknown fierceness.
For a while, entire mankind seemed to have gone silent.
The whole world was but silence.
Birdsong had ended long ago already. No breeze ever touched the ground of the forest. Not even the leaves floated over the dirty path.
Three pounding hearts were the only sign of life perceivable. Blood pulsed within the queen’s ears. At her chest, Haimon still laid motionlessly, breath shallow. And while his head was still pressed against her, the dagger hurt the vulnerable skin at his throat, drawing a trickle of blood.
It was so... familiar. His closeness and warmth. The light, surreal blue eyes seeking hers. Their straight look.
“What now?,” he asked a bit more throatily than usual. “Will you drag me back by the hair? Because voluntarily, I won’t come.”
This chapter has an extra screenshot in the gallery