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W Wo or rl ld ds s WINTER 2009
Joel Jenkins and Martin Edward Stephenson Nick Andreychuk Jack Mackenzie Lee Beavington E. P. Berglund David A. Hardy G. W. Thomas C. J. Burch Interview: Interview: JOSHUA JOSHUA REYNOLDS REYNOLDS Feature Feature Story: Story: THE THE TOMB TOMB OF OF THE THE AMAZON AMAZON QUEEN QUEEN by Michael by Michael Ehart Ehart
The following pages represent a brief preview of Dark Worlds issue #3.
Dark Worlds DARK WORLDS
Cover artwork by Aaron Sidall (www.aaronsidall.com) NOVELETTES
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN..................Michael Ehart 2 A sorceress and her daughter on the run team up with the deadly Sisterhood of the Spear to find a forgotten treasure.
IMMORTALS OF THE CANNIBAL COAST................................... ..............................Joel Jenkins and Martin Edward Stephenson 88 Terajel must save herself and her band of pirates from unearthly peri! SHORT STORIES
ROADBLOCK..........................................................Jack MacKenzie 32 Running a roadblock on a disused spaceway didn’t seem serious to Eddie Pennington and his partner, but a deadly killing machine has other ideas!
THE STORMING OF BIG SPREE...........................David A. Hardy 44 Getting his man is not a problem for Mountie Thomas Gatewood, but keeping the man’s death a secret is more of a problem!
BAYOU MIRAGE .......................................................E. P. Berglund 52 Does the spirit of a woman haunt the Bayou or protect it?
LAOCOON ..................................................................G. W. Thomas 65 Brett Hope follows a trail of death that leads to an unexpected evil.
LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE ..................................Nick Andreychuk 76 A corpse, a diner and a sleeping dog are ingredients for a mystery.
COMMUNICATIONS DELAY.................................Lee Beavington 82 An astronaut must communicate with Earth about a mysterious object.
Articles Review: BURY ME DEEP..................................................................112 INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA REYNOLDS.....................................114 THE DARK WORLDS CLUB ...........................................................117 DARK WORLDS issued occasionally by the Dark Worlds Club, British Columbia, Canada. Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved by the Editors and Author/Artist Partners. All copyright remains with the authors and artists. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. No submissions will be accepted without invitation of the Dark Worlds Club. Letters of Comment can be sent to email@example.com. Each story in this anthology is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents in this anthology are either the product of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real people (living or dead) places, business establishments, locales, and/or events is entirely coincidental.
G. W. Thomas & M. D. Jackson, Editors
NLY NINE Temple soldiers ha d em er ge d fr om th e desert, and Ninshi had cut the throat of one three nights before. There were two on guard tonight, nervous and alert. Miri waited until they were both facing out from the camp, away from each other. Her first arrow caught the nearest in the throat, and he dropped soundlessly. Her second shot was less certain. The moon was largely hiding her face, and the over-large fire in the center of the camp had flickered down to embers. She decided on the center of his back,
and had another arrow in flight almost before the first struck him squarely between the shoulders. The second arrow struck less than three fingers' width from the first, and the soldier fell forward with no more than a grunt. Miri watched as the small form of her mother flitted from shadow to shadow, into the camp, bending over each cloak-wrapped figure for a moment, then silently moving on to the next. Miri lost sight of her for a few heartbeats, then was startled enough to jump a little when Ninshi 2
Illustrations by M. D. Jackson
An ancient warrior and her daughter on the run join with a fierce sisterhood to find a fabled treasure
THE TOMB OF THE
Amazon Queen reappeared a few paces away. "Did you kill them all?" whispered Miri. Ninshi shook her head. "I left one. We will speak with him in the morning." She led the way out of the wadi where the soldiers had sheltered from the night wind to the far side of a hillock a few hundred paces away. Their horses were tethered to the lone tree there. Both mares stirred and twitched at the smell of blood on Ninshi's knife, still carried uncovered at her side. Ninshi bent, plucked a handful of the saw grass that grew in small clumps at the base of the tree, and wiped her knife with it. The bronze of the blade flashed dimly in the pale moonlight. They made a cold camp. Ninshi slept little anyway, and so kept watch. The long centuries of her murderous
life filled her dreams with too many ghos ts. Miri was only four teen summers, and had far less of her adopted mother's acquaintance with violent death. She propped herself against the bole of the tree, and though she tried, sleep eluded her as well. At first it was the trembling which followed every fight that kept her awake, and then it was a reflection on the men they had killed. They were soldiers sent by the Priestesses of the Temple of Ishtar to kill them or worse, she knew that much. But it surprised her that in spite of the fact that they had been running from and fighting these soldiers and others for some time, she knew very little about them. She knew the weaknesses of their armor, and the quality of their equipment and training. But she knew nothing of the men themselves. The sky lightened, and Ninshi 3
stirred from where she had sat still for the last few hours. She reached into the pack against which she had leaned, and produced two small pieces of dried meat and a citron. She divided the fruit with the same knife she had cut throats with the night before, and handed a portion to Miri. They ate in silence, fed a little grain to the horses, and broke camp. They led the horses over the rocky hillock, and across an open space. Miri tied the horses to a small bush at the mouth of the wadi. The course of the vanished stream that had formed it was clear here, with its rocky bottom striated in recurved lines of ancient waves. They walked to the edge of the camp, where the lone living man stood, bare handed and with his head uncovered. "Wh y hav e you spa red me, Mistress of Death?" The man's voice was tight, and high-pitched. He spoke the Akkadian dialect of Nineveh, with its distinctive dropped word endings. He was clearly trembling, and his face was pale white against the black of his beard and his tousled hair. "I have questions," Ninshi said after a few moments. The man gulped, and nodded. "Come then, and we shall sit among the dead." They walked into the camp. The figures of the dead men, rolled in their cloaks seemed peaceful. The only evidence of violence was the dried pools of blood around the head of each. Even those had mostly sunk into the thirsty dust here at the bottom of the wadi. The fire at the center of the camp was dead. The soldiers had fared very poorly in the desert, and their camp
was little more than a fire and a sleeping circle. Just a few weeks ago they had been a hundred strong or more , wit h cam els, hors es an d elephants. Less than two hands-full had emerged from the desert, with little more than their arms. Two large rocks had been rolled to the edge of the now-dead fire, and Ninshi and the soldier each sat. Miri stood alert at her mother's shoulder. "Tell me why you pursue us," asked Ninshi. The soldier's eye widened further. "You do not know? The priestess cannot let the Temple be burned, even by someoneâ€Ś" he trailed off , frightened and uncertain of what words might awaken the monster in front of him. "â€Śsomeone like me?" Ninshi rasped. "You have no idea of what I am. The priestesses no doubt raised you on dark tales of The Betrayer. Kept you awake nights, starting at every night sound? Gave a name to your fears." The soldier nodded. Ninshi leaned forward. Her heavy, greased braid slid over her shoulder and hung between them as punctuation. "What I am is worse than you could ever imagine. I need your fear. I need you to return to your Temple and tell them that any who pursue me will die. And thenâ€Ś" She looked around at the silent figures around them, figures that had once been men. Using gestures and very few words, she instructed the shaken soldier to assist her and Miri as they stripped the dead of their clothing and weapons. They laid them out naked, side by side in a line. Miri gestured to the soldier, and
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN led him up and around the bank of the wadi, and motioned him to hide himself and watch. Miri crouched beside him. Below, Ninshi stood silently at the end of the line of corpses, her scarred face blank. Judging that they were a safe distance away, Miri brought her fingers to her mouth and whistled softly. She tapped her forefinger on the man's forehead. "You will be silent now, and not run. No matter what you see, you must not be seen or heard. When the beast feeds she sees nothing else, and cannot defend us." The soldier gulped, but said nothing. "On your life and mine. Not a sound." Miri settled a little lower, and waited. For what seemed a long while nothing happened. In the wadi below, Ninshi stood staring at a broken tooth talisman at the end of a strap hung around her neck. The wind blew lightly through the wadi, stirring up small twists of dust and pushing a few brown fronds from a dying palm past the edge of the camp. Somewhere, a sunbird faintly cried, and behind them the rising daylight warmed their backs. The soldier stirred beside her, and Miri turned to repeat her warning, but her whisper died in her throat. There was a sound like the rushing of a great river, and at that same moment she was blinded by pain. It felt as if her eyes and ears were pierced by great needles. For a moment she knew nothing but her agony, and then as quickly as it came it was gone, leaving a foul weakness of limb in its place. She had seen the Manthycore feed before, and had no desire to see it
again. Beautiful and terrifying, he stood man-high at his bull's shoulder. His lion-shaped head towered above Nishi's small rigid form. The early morning light glistened gold off of his enormous wings. The Great Beast rumbled some inquiry at Ninshi, and she answered in the same harsh tongue. Seeming satisfied, the monster turned and began his ghastly feast, beginning at the end of the line farthest from Ninshi. Beside her, Miri heard the soldier whimper and choke. She grasped his arm, pinching down hard, and with her other hand turned his stricken face to hers. His eyes were wild, and his mouth agape in horror. She shook her head fiercely. "What is your name?" she whispered into his ear, with breath only. He shook his head, uncomprehending. She pinched down harder and asked again, "What is your name?" He sobbed back a whispery gasp, and nodded his head. "Dant." "Watch, Dant," she whispered. "Watch it all, but make no noise, or I'll kill you myself." She emphasized her words with the point of her knife against his side. She felt fierce, and faintly ridiculous. Dant was twice her size and likely twice her age as well. He turned his head and shuddering, kept his face toward what was happening below. Miri could not tell if his eyes were open or even if they were that he was watching, but she could tell he was terrified, which was what Ninshi wanted, after all. After a terrible, long while, the Beast finished and was gone. Ninshi was still standing in the center of the
camp when they got there. Of the line of bodies there remained no trace. "Take food, and whatever you need there." Ninshi gestured toward the pile of clothes and weapons. "Go quickly, and tell your mistresses what you have seen here. Tell them that Nin-Sinuss, Lady of the Song, Servant of the Manthycore has no desire to continue killing the servants of the Temple of Ishtar, but has no fear of it, either. And if they continue sending companies of men after me, I will burn every Temple of Ishtar from Great Ur to Carcamesh." Miri glanced across at her mother, but her face betrayed nothing other than ferocity. Miri was certain that her mother could do nearly anything she set to do, but even for her this seemed a little more than was believable. A glance at the face of Dant, though, showed he had no doubt that Ninshi was serious. "Go then," she commanded. Dant scrambled to stuff a pack with food and a few small items, and then, not looking back, started walking toward the mouth of the wadi, and the long road back to Nineveh. "How did you become a soldier of the Temple?" The words were out of Miri's mouth before she thought about speaking. Dant stopped, and without turning said, "I was an orphan. I could do nothing else." After a few moments, his shoulders dropped, and he walked out of sight. Miri turned to find her mother staring at her strangely. Miri held her palms open, and shook her head. "I don't know. I just wondered." For a moment they looked at each other in silence. A series of
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN expressions crossed Ninshi's face, each faint enough that no one but Miri would have known that her visage was anything but blank. Finally Ninshi nodded. "Your burdens are yours, I think. But the more you know of a man, the more there is to remember and regret once you have killed him." THE wind dropped to nothing. Ninshi tucked one leg between the other and the blanket, and rose up on the back of her horse to look around. They were on the long sloping plain that ran down from the Zagros Mountain foothills to Eshnunna, and the slight elevation this gave her was enough to see for two days' travel ahead. She shook her head, and settled back astride her horse. "Shamal," she said. "We must find shelter, with water if we can." Miri felt her eyes widen. Twice in the six years before they had passed through the Shamal, the fierce desert sandstorms that raced up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the sea, but this time they were in the open, at least two days travel from the nearest village. "How much time?" asked Miri. "A quarter day, no more." "This should at least make us ha rd er to fi nd ," offe re d Mi ri , hopefully. Miri did not know if Ninshi actually believed they were still being followed, but the long centuries had made her mother cautious. "There was a caravansary, once," Nishi said. "Off the road now, but not far. Perhaps it is still there. We will go this way. Even if it is no longer there, there will perhaps be ruins, and if we are very lucky, a well." Ni ns hi 's es ti ma te ha d be en
generous. They were barely a few hundred steps when the wind began to rise, and the first hints of dust and faint clouds of powder-fine sand began to wisp across their path. In a very few breaths they were forced to cover their faces. This was the false storm, just a hint of the true Shamal to come, but the horses would not walk into the dust-laden wind, and so they dismounted and led them, clucking and murmuring in their twitching ears to calm them. They were almost through the small collection of buildings before they saw them. Nins hi shou ted something, but her words were swept away by the now howling wind. She motioned to a low building to the right, and they led the balking, panicky horses through the gateway to the door. It was broken, and aslant, the aged wood grey in the uncertain light. Ninshi pushed it open with her shoulder, and led her horse inside. Miri followed. It was dark inside, but imm edi ate ly qui ete r. The roo m smelled of goats. As Miri's eyes adjusted she realized that the smell came from actual goats present, rather than previous. She shook the dust from the scarf she had wrapped around her face and peered about. In the center was a fireplace, unlit, with the small amount of light filtering down from the smoke hole above. The room looked to be the common area of th e ca ra va ns ar y. No t en ti re ly abandoned. A stringy toothless man stared at Ninshi from the corner where he sat, behind the dozen or so goats he had sheltered with. There was nothing much else in the room. The caravansary had been
abandoned long enough that little remained other than the uncertain roof and the mud brick walls. The doorway at the rear, which must have led to the rest of the building, was choked with rubbish, broken bricks and slivered beams. "Fire? Miri asked. Ninshi coughed and spat. "No. Smoke will make it worse. There was a well just inside the wall. Be careful, but be quick. Fill our water skins; we may be here for a few days. I'll tend to the horses." Outside the wind was noticeably stronger, and the howl had risen in pitch from a cry to a full voiced scream. By the time she had filled all four skins she could barely see the corner of the building, and the actual doorway was curtained by the dust that flew fiercely between. She slung the water skins over her shoulders, two on each side, and staggered toward where she knew the door must be, her steps unsteady as she was buffeted by the wind. She was almost to the door when a dark figure formed in front of her. She dropped the skins on her right, and pulled her knife, but the figure remained hunched and moved to the entrance of the caravansary hall. It was followed by five others. She slowly lowered the other two skins, and with her knife held at ready, crept to the door and followed them in. Ninshi stood at the center of the room, silhouetted against the faint light of the smoke hole. Six figures crowded the doorway side of the room. The one in the front reached up and pulled down a dusty hood, revealing dark hair bound up in an elaborate knot.
She held her hands empty and level. "Will the storm make of us allies, for this little time? My sisters and I seek shelter, as have you." Her voice was smooth and melodic. "There is room enough, I think," replied Ninshi. "And water in a well just outside." The tall woman nodded. "I shall send my youngest sister, then, to accompany the young warrior who followed us in. He will want to retrieve the skins he left outside." "She," snapped Miri, annoyed that her stealth had been wasted. "I am a she." The tal l wom an tur ned and nodded . "Why so you are. My apology." She motioned at the cloaked figure nearest the door, and Miri followed her out. Even in the few moments that she had been insid e, the wind had noticeably risen. It took a great deal of concentration just to stay upright, and the fine, powdery sand that blew off of the desert blinded her. With Miri's help, the girl was able to fill the six small water bags she carried, and together they stumbled back, on their way picking up the larger water bags that Miri had dropped. The door partially blocked out the howl of the wind as it shut behind them, but already the room was darker, and now quite crowded. Someone had found a lamp, but its small light was not nearly enough to illuminate the large room. The air was filled with fine dust, further obscuring vision. From her size, the sister who had gone for water with Miri was little more than her age, though size could be deceiving. Miri was not much older
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN than fourteen winters, and already was about the same size as her mother, who, if the caravan songs were correct had to be at least fifty times that age. Miri made her way through the gloom to the corner where her mother sat quietly, watching as the newcomers laid down bedding in a circle and made make-shift camp in the large room. She shifted the water bags to lean against the wall, and sat beside her. Ninshi took one of the bags, and carefully spilled a small amount of water onto her scarf. She motioned Miri to do the same with hers, and then showed her how to cover her mouth and nose with the damp cloth. It made breathing a little more bearable. At no time during this did Ninshi take her eyes from the women in the center of the room. There were six of them, but they only laid down five pallets. One of them crouched in the center, watching both the door and Ninshi watching her. Ninshi leaned into Miri and said something in her ear, but even inside the howl of the storm was too loud. Miri shook her head, and Ninshi tried again. "What do you see?" Miri looked hard and thought harder. She had anticipated the question. It was a game they often played, a deadly serious one, as Ninshi tried to impart to Miri a portion of the knowledge gained by a centuries-long, dangerous life. "They are setting up like soldiers." Ninshi shook her head, and pointed at her ear. Miri nodded, and tried again, louder. "They are setting up their camp like soldiers," she shouted over the howl of the wind. "Look, a circle
camp, all facing out from where the fire would be. They are all armed, with long knives, bows, some sort of spear, and little crescent shields. Women, but warriors. The leader seems to be wearing some sort of armor under her robes. Do you know who they are? Could they have been sent after us by the Priestesses of Ishtar?" Though unusual, Miri and Ninshi were not the only women who bore arms in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. There were cults whose priestesses practiced the art of war, and occasional body guards for those whose religions would not allow the creation or service of eu nu ch s bu t ne ed ed wi ve s or concubines guarded. There were even a few women, mostly former slaves, who had been trained to fight against ani mal s or eac h oth er for the amusement of their owners. Some cities trained their women as archers, to stand at the walls if the city were attacked. And, though rare, there were even a few women bandits. "Ishtar? No. From their speech, they are from the east. We shall see. Rest now. The storm will be long, and soon make speech impossible." The storm was long. Miri spent the next two days in a sort of stupor, periodically shaking out her clothes when the dust piled up, drifting in and out of an uncomfortable sleep. She was constantly thirsty, but knew enough to take only small sips of water, and make sure that the horses got the bulk of it. Even still, one of the horses died the second day. Its wheezing breath had gotten steadily louder, and then it simply stopped breathing, and fell straight down
where it stood hobbled. The other horse knew that something had happened, but Ninshi had blindfolded both horses when she had hobbled them, and the surviving horse was probably too weak at that point to do more than snort and roll her eyes under the strip of blanket Ninshi had tied over them. Miri was vaguely aware that the women in the center of the room were faring much the same. They would change guard periodically, with even the youngest and eldest taking turns. They kept their faces covered with elaborately embroidered cloths, dampened in the same fashion as Ninshi and Miri's plain scarves. One sister would constantly sharpen the head of her spear while on guard, the sound of the stone against the bronze lost in the roar of the storm. Another did some sort of needlework, with her knife on her lap as she worked, eyes constantly shifting in the gloom between Ninshi, the goatherd, the door and her work. The rest just grimly sat, waiting out the storm in stoic misery. The goatherd kept the lamp filled with oil. He was small, withered and quite old. He seemed uncertain what to be more frightened of; the grim band of well-armed sisters, the equally well armed mother and daughter in the corner, or the storm. He carefully made himself small, scrabbling sideways with an inoffensive gape on his toothless mouth when he got up to refill the lamp. His expression was most likely intended to display harmlessness, but instead conveyed something closer to idiocy. Miri's thought he looked like one of his goats, with the same
irregular coloration to his clothing and the same straggly beard. To Miri the storm seemed to last a lifetime. Not an ordinary mortal's lifetime, either, such as may be endured by a scrabble-land farmer or a bored mistress of some rich merchant, with the endless days of sameness stretching out into the vague and formless future. No, the storm seemed to last the long hopeless centuries of her adopted mother's lifetime, only devoid of the occasional splashes of vi ol en ce th at pu nc tu at ed he r existence. It seemed that long, but eventually the roar of the wind lessened, the air became slightly clearer, and by the morning of the third day actual light shone through the holes in the roof. They all began the weary task of cleaning the fine, clinging dust from themselves and their possessions. It had worked itself into every pack, no matter how tightly bound, and into the tightest crevices. Miri caught the eye of the sister who had gotten water with her, and the girl nodded, her eyes dark over the scarf across her face. They gathered the now-empty water skins. At the door they discovered that the dust had piled up to block the door, but together were able to shoulder it past the drift. Outside the light was blinding. Miri blinked and looked down. She was unable to see much but kept her companion's boot toes in sight. Her mother had taught her watch the edges of things, and she knew that any hostile move from this girl would mean shifting her feet. Slowly her eyes adjusted, and she was able to look up again. She raised her eyes, blinking
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN furiously, to see the girl doing the same, heavy dark lashes batting rapidly as she looked to see Miri's face clearly for the first time. In spite of her intentions, Miri st ar te d to gi gg le . Th er e wa s something completely ridiculous about the two of them cautiously regarding each other as they fanned the air with their eyelids. The girl started giggling too, seemingly struck by the same image. Soon they were lau ghi ng alo ud, the gir l's fac e covering puffi ng out with each choking laugh. They stumbled giddily to the well, and took turns scraping the debris and scum from the surface of the water as they filled the skins they carried. Full, Miri bent to pick hers up, but the girl shook her head, and grasped Miri's wrist with her hand. With the other she uncovered her face, and smiled with regular, white teeth. Her face was dark, far darker than Miri's sunburnt visage, but her skin was smooth, unmarked and soft looking. "Derinoe, I am called, a Sister of the Shield." She spoke the language of Khett, with an accent Miri had never heard before. "I am Miri, a traveler." Derinoe dropped Miri's arm, and they picked up the water skins and hauled them into the caravansary. Inside, someone had built a fire in the remains of a central fireplace. Ninshi finished shaking out her garments and took a grateful swallow of fresh water from the well. She spat, drank and coughed. "Much better," she said. Miri finished arranging the water skins while Ninshi moved over to where the goat herder sat, combing
sand from his beard with his fingers. She spoke to him in Khettish, and he nodded vigorously, and pointed to his mouth. He made a few blatting sounds, then he opened his mouth wide to reveal that as well as having no teeth, he had no tongue. Ninshi nodded, and with the use of signs soon was able to arrange the purchase of one of his goats. The old man immediately grasped her selection by one horn, and pulled its head to one side. With a quick, practiced motion, he cut the goat's throat, and in short order had it cleaned, skinned and skewered over the sister's fire. Derinoe and her sisters huddled in one corner, arguing quietly. They reached some consensus, and the eldest stood, and approached Ninshi, hand outstretched. As Derinoe had done, she removed her face covering, and smiled. "We have shared shelter, and will soon share meat. Let us share salt, as well, and call each other companion, at least as long as our paths run together." Over Ninshi's shoulder Miri could see that she was darkskinned, with dark hair and eyes. There were lines on her face, but she was not yet old, though a bright white streak ran though the lock of hair that escaped from her head cloth. Ninshi nodded. "I am sometimes called Ninshi, and this is my daughter, Miri. We travel to Eshnunna, at least." "As do we. I am named Antiope, Eldest. My sisters are Melanippe and Thermodosa of the Spear. Bremusa the silent stands there staring at the roasting goat, Molpadia is the tall one, and my sister and niece Derinoe is Youngest. Here then is a measure of salt."
DARK WORLDS Nishi took a pinch, and placed it on her tongue, as did Antiope. They clasped hands, and then sat discussing the road ahead. "My sister says you have a callused wrist, like someone who practices with a bow might." Miri turned to see the tall sister, Molpadia, eying her with measuring glance. "I have drawn a string," Miri admitted. "Good. Then perhaps after we have eaten you can demonstrate to us the use of such as this." She held out a small, recurved bow, similar is size and shape to those carried by the steppe men of the north. "Molpadia," Antiope said over her shoulder. "We are among friends, for now. Please do not bully the child into doing something she does not care to do." Miri flushed with anger, whether at the implied challenge or at being called a child she was unsure. "I will shoot," she snapped. Molpadia grinned and clapped her hands. "See sister? No bullying. Just a contest of skill with bow, is all. Let us see what she is made of." "Leave her alone, Molpa." Derinoe was at Miri's elbow. "Come, let us go to the well and see if we can get some of this dust from our clothes." Outside, Miri was calmer. Though there was still a light breeze, the clouds of dust no longer obscured the sun, and this little patch where the old caravansary stood was showed bits of green under a coating of dust. It must have been a restful and cool place, once, in the years before trade with the cities of the mountains had slowed. The storm had stripped the palms, of
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN course, but there were a few patches of low growing plants that had been sheltered by larger objects and so were spared. They sat by the well, and Derinoe undid her head scarf to reveal thick dark hair done in the same sort of elaborate knot that Miri had seen on her aunt the first night of the storm. The head scarf was plain and dark, but well woven and little stained. Miri undid her scarf and quietly tucked it behind her, suddenly embarrassed by its tattered appearance. Ninshi traveled hard and fast and there was seldom time or need for fine dress. Miri reached into the bag at her waist and produced her one vanity, a fine comb given to her by traders soon after she had started travelling with her mother. She shook her hair free, and started combing the dust out. Miri was used to Ninshi's near silence, so Derinoe's gossipy chatter was overwhelming at first. She was sixteen, two summers older than Miri. Her and her sisters were travelling to meet with another of her aunts, who awaited them in Eshnunna. They were from Harap, a city far to the east. They had come by ship to the Tigris where they had traveled upriver as far as Assur before the ship could go no further, having been battered by the steady harsh winds and barely surviving a spring typhoon. They sold it for a small fraction of its value and had traveled by riverboat to Nineveh, where they had expected to find her aunt. Instead, they found a city in turmoil, with visitors unwelcome and the Priestesses of Ishtar, who ran half the city, in near civil war. A handful of years before someone
had burned down the temple at the center of the city and murdered the High Priestess. She had never named a successor, so of course several factions had formed around the various contenders. Five years later, the temple remained only partially rebuilt, and the factions had come to nearly open conflict. Though her aunt had fled the chaos of the city, she had left messages for them, and tired of the monotony and potential for drowning of travel by boat, they had decided to travel overland to Eshnunna. They had hired a caravan master and half-dozen guards, but the caravan master had betrayed them, leading them far astray with the intention of murder and robbery. He had seriously misjudged the Sisters of the Shield. What the treacherous caravan master had intended as a midnight throat-cutting and extended rape had only succeeded in leaving him and his cohorts stretched dead in the desert camp. The would-be bandits had killed the Sisters' servants, but a lifetime of training had left them over classed by the Sisters. That same soldier's training had taught them how to travel light. They had abandoned the tents, set the camels free, and six days later marched in good order into Nuzi, and then from there to the north road to Eshnunna, where they had been caught in the storm with Miri, her mother, and the goatherd. Deri's chatter was broken by one of her sisters, who shouted out the door that there was roast goat to be eaten, if any was wanted. An hour later, with a full belly and a clean face, Miri was
nearly her normal self. Ninshi brought the surviving mare out and tied her to a broken rail near the well, where she found a little grass peeking from under a coating of dust. Miri moved the packs from the dead horse to the live one. With the horse loaded like this, neither of them could ride, but at least they wouldn't have to carry their gear. She was just cinching up the last bundle when she heard a step behind her. "Let's see about this mistress of the bow," Molpadia drawled. "I have set up a target on the tree there. Let us draw strings, you and I, and I shall see if I can come close to your mark." "I have made no such claim," Miri said quietly, but she pulled her bow from where it was tucked into the bundles. It was larger than the one carried by Molpadia, made of bone and wood in strips, strung with twisted boar's gut. She pulled her quiver from the same bundle, and Molpadia gasped. There was nothing unusual about the quiver itself, but the arrows were exquisite. The black fletching on each took a half-turn around the perfectly formed midnight-hued shaft. Miri pulled three from the quiver, and walked over to where Molpadia had drawn a line in the dirt. The darkpatinaed bronze arrowheads sparkled in the sunlight. Miri saw Ninshi standing next to Antiope, looking at her with no readable expression on her face. Miri knew this was foolish, that they always travell ed quietly. Doubly foolish that she had shown the arrows, but they were her prize, next to her comb. She had taken them from the bodies of some of the soldiers that the
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN Temple of Ishtar had sent to kill them after Ninshi had burned their temple. Not only were they valuable and distinctive, but it was stupid to use such arrows for shooting at a mark. Once broken, they were irreplaceable. She strode to the line, strung her bow, and stood for a moment, eying the mark. It was a scrap of red cloth stuck to a tree, fifty or so paces away. The distance wasn't bad, but the mark was very small. She made no show of testing the wind. She could feel it quite well against her cheek. Two of her arrows she thrust into the sand next to her foot. The third she knocked and slowly drew back her bow, held, and let fly. The arrow thwacked into the bole of the tree, knocking loose a shower of bark. It stood quivering, just under the mark. A puff of wind had pushed it to the side a little, or she would have hit it. As it was, the scrap of cloth settled back down, its end draping slightly over the shaft of the arrow. There was no sound from the women around her. She looked down, and slid back away from the line. Molpadia stepped up, and in one fluid and beautiful motion drew and let fly. Her arrow pinned the scrap of red cloth to the tree, less than a finger's width above Miri's. Miri shuffled back, her heart in her mouth. She could feel her face as it blazed with embarrassment. How could she beat that? She had practiced for so many years, ever since Ninshi had bought her from slavers as a child. She had a teacher who had hundreds of years of experience. And here she was, being humiliated by this arrogant woman. Miri, plucked an arrow from the
sand, and knocked it. This time she drew even slower, held the arrow drawn against her cheek until her arm started to tremble, and then let fly. The arrow thwacked into the bole of the tree, piercing the mark with not a hair's breadth between hers and Molpadia's arrow. Better, but still, Molpadia had hit it first. Once again Molpadia drew and shot with a dancer's fluid grace. No flicker of wind, this time, but her arrow struck just above. All four arrows stood within an area that could have been easily covered with Miri's palm. Miri moved slowly forward, her eyes on the impossible mark. She pulled the final arrow from the sand, but before she could draw her bow again she felt a hand upon her arm. She looked up into the face of Antiope. The Eldest had a half-smile on her face. "It is our custom, when two such as you meet, should there be a tie, that we not resolve it. The Sisterhood, and I think the world, is better served by having two who are master than one held greater and another lesser." Miri shook her head. "Are all contests left undecided, then?" "No child. Only when there are two who are far above all others, those who draw breath with the heroes of old. Molpadia is the greatest archer of our land, and she has not beaten you. For her, and for you, we will leave it there." Miri looked across the yard. Her mother leaned against the broken wall, saying nothing. She looked around to find all eyes upon her, including those of the toothless goatherd. It seemed that even the
goats were watching her, and she felt the heat rise in her face. She nodded, unable to speak. One by one, the sisters clasped her arm and spoke a phrase in their own liquid language. Deri hugged her as well as clasping her arm. Molpadia, who was not in any way friendly, was at least polite, and managed something like a smile, at least in form. In a short time they were on the road, Miri leading the mare. The Sisters walked ahead. The day was bright, though the sun still had a reddish cast to it. The storm had swept the packed earth of the road clear, and on the occasional rise the dark smudge of Eshnunna could be seen far away against the glitter of the ribbon of the Tigris River that lined the horizon. After a long while of walking in silence, Miri spoke. "At least none of the arrows broke." Ninshi shook her head. "No, none did. Though if there is anyone asking for us, there now is a good story to be told." Miri looked at her boots as she walked. "I am sorry." Ninshi clasped her shoulder. "Don't be, child. At least it is a story in which no one dies. There are few enough of those about me, for all the lifetimes of men I have walked the earth." FOR over a day Eshnunna was visible as a dark smudge against the ribbon of the Tigris River. As they drew closer, Miri saw that it was typical of the cities between the two rivers. Its walls were of brick, thicker and lower than the stone walls of some other places she had been. The reddish brick stood out against the green of the
fields and orchards around the city. The air was still, and lines of smoke stood up from individual fires to form a grey, hazy cloud above. Ninshi leaned over to whisper into Miri's ear. "I think we shall find lodging outside the city. There is a Temple of Ishtar here, and though it is a small one, there is no reason to doubt that they have resources enough to cause us great difficulty should they learn of our presence." The Sisters grew increasingly quiet and tense as they drew nearer the gates. Deri strode ahead to join them and it seemed to Miri that the others surrounded her, as if to protect her from some danger presented by the city. Outside the gates, amid the expected hovels, brothels, wine shops and mark et stal ls, ther e was a caravansary, low walled and built of the same reddish brick as the city walls. It seemed busy. There were the camels of at least two caravans loaded an d ro pe d to ge th er, re ad y fo r departure, and a number of donkeys, horses and ox carts in the courtyard. "Here we will leave you," Ninshi said. The Sisters turned back, and one by one offered a hand to Miri and Ninshi. Deri smiled, and leaned over to hug Miri. "We will see each other again, I think," she said. Miri smiled back, but couldn't speak. She watched them walk through the gate, and disappear into the street beyond, Deri at the center once again. As it turned out, most of the traffic was outbound, and so Ninshi was able to find room for them there, in a corner near the cistern that served the caravansary. Sometimes they paid more and slept inside, but the weather
THE TOMB OF THE AMAZON QUEEN was clear, and Ninshi did not want to draw any more attention than could be avoided. Miri stayed with the horse while Ninshi made her way to a wine shop she had spotted near the gate. She carried with her a ruby, one of the fabled Tears of Ishtar, one of seven shed by the goddess on her trip to the underworld. Kubileya, the tavern goddess, had set them to collecting them. In exchange, she promised to Ninshi the location of seven ancient herbs, which mixed together, might compel the beast she served, and free her from its bondage. Few had even heard of the shappatu, the fabled herbs given to Noach so he might command the beasts after the deluge, and those few who had knew little other than their ancient names. Ninshi had served the Great Beast for over forty lives of men, until she had forgotten even her own name. She was compelled by his sorcery, and her cooperation ensured by the Manthycore keeping as captive the love of her youth, unchanged and timeless. She served in bitter unwillingness, and despair, her only hope now that given by the Tavern Goddess, and the seven herbs which she might trade for the fabled rubies. Each ruby needed only to be dropped into a bowl of wine, in any wine shop or tavern. And just as the tavern Goddess hear anything spoken over bowl or cup, so could she speak to those who would hear. It wasn't even remarkable to watch, as there was nothing uncommon about a drinker muttering into his wine. They had found and delivered three rubies, now. This was the fourth. Miri sat with her back against
the mud brick of the caravansary wall. She liked to watch the merchants and guards as they prepared for their journeys. Ninshi often had them travel with caravans, especially when they needed to cross an area that was espec ially dange rous. Somet imes Miri overheard something useful. But this time her heart wasn't in it. She liked Deri. Her life had not let her make friends, and sometimes months passed without her seeing the same face two days in a row, except her mother's. She didn't mind, and in fact Ninshi's act of buying her from the slavers had been an answer to a fevered prayer. But it was a lonely life they led, something she had not really noticed until recently. After a time, Ninshi returned. Her scarred face was unreadable, but Miri could tell from the firmness of her stride that she was troubled about something. Ninshi crouched beside Miri, her gaze scanning the courtyard in front of her. Satisfied that none there meant them harm, or even saw them, she sighed, and settled lower against the wall. "We will wait, here, for a day or so." Miri nodded, not understanding. "Kubileya said that the Sisters will know of the location of the next ruby." Miri shook her head, astonished. "How is this true?" "It seems unlikely, I know, but sometimes those who seek the same objects will find themselves on the same road. It does seem as if there is some invisible hand at work here, but perhaps it is just coincidence. I don't like either possibility, but we will see. I think we will wait here. We will buy new horses, and prepare for a long
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