Chosen of Artemis
Queen Orianna of the Telequire Amazons wasn’t always a Queen. Her journey to the Monarch’s mask was one of hardship, pain, and sacrifice. Her path began as a little girl when she had just two priorities, her goddess and her sister. Ori made a pledge to one to always protect the other. Love never figured into the plan, never fit into her life. Until suddenly one day it did.
Part One: The Initiate
A PARTY OF twelve scouts rode into the small village of Agapi, skirting the flames of engulfed houses, wary of the smoke that filled the air. The terrified bleating of goats filed the air, competing with the crackling of fire and the sound of horses. Despite having walls made from wood and mud bricks, the homes burned surprisingly well and filled the fading night with glowing beacons of death and heartbreak. A child wailed from somewhere inside one of the dwellings and the woman leading the group of riders held up a hand, bringing the entire party to a stop.
“They are getting away! Why are we stopping, Combe?”
The scout leader held her hand out flat and gestured with a downward push to indicate quiet. She listened intently and when she heard another wail she spun her horse in the direction of the cries. “Come on!”
When the correct dwelling was identified Combe didn’t even wait for the horse to stop before she leaped from the saddle pad, leaving the leather reins hanging. Despite the heat and danger from the nearby fire, the horse was well-trained and didn’t move. The first thing Combe noticed was the body of a man on the ground outside the house. Nothing more than a farmer, his torso showed clear evidence of a grisly death by those they pursued.
Their scouting party had been sent by Queen Lydella to capture or kill the group of epidroméfs that attacked their sister village a seven-day prior. They rode hard after the raiders but the terrain was slow-going and they only managed to cover the distance of one stage a day. The scout troop lost them for more than a day when the attackers hid their trail by riding downstream in the Venetikos River. Now, more than fifty dolichos away from Telequire, or two solid days of hard travel, and the scout troop had lost the brigands yet again despite breaking camp early and riding by the light of the moon. So it was understandable that the rest of the women were questioning the fact that their scout leader would suddenly stop, rather than continue after the men as their mission dictated.
Combe turned back to the confused women before heading inside. “Wait for me.”
Despite their misgivings, a chorus of “Yes, scout leader” followed her inside. Combe didn’t hear anything beyond the doorway over the roar of the fires outside. The cries inside the house cut off with the sound of wood scraping upon wood and Combe cursed herself for her own tender heart. She knew that any delay in the village meant they may never catch up with the men who attacked Konitsa. The bandits left six dead and made off with nearly a quarter of the earnings from the Preveza trade caravan. Queen Lydella had been livid and more brutal than normal upon hearing the news. She ordered Combe’s troop to go after the men, demanding they be brought back to Telequire for punishment. Though the Queen said she’d settle for their heads if that were the only way. Luckily Combe’s bond mate, Sikara, was on a different scout rotation that moon and able to stay home with their daughter of eight sun-cycles. They weren’t always so fortuitous.
Most of the simple home was dark on the inside, save for what was illuminated by a small beam of moonlight. The wood shutters had been closed for the night when the raiders attacked, but one was open and hanging from leather hinges. There was a table with a few wood stools, and a hearth that had burned down long before. The body of a woman with a bloody chest wound lay on a wool stuffed bed off to one side of the hearth, and one of the brigands was slumped at her feet with a dagger protruding from his back between the third and fourth ribs. Nothing there could have produced the wailing she heard.
Combe’s gaze moved around the room and stopped again at the body of another brigand. He lay within a beam of light coming through the open door, cast by the sinking full moon. She rolled him over distastefully with her boot and wrinkled her nose as his guts spilled out onto the floor. A sound, so faint she barely heard it, came from the large covered basket. Even in the dim light she could see one side of it was splattered in blood, with little hand prints obscenely highlighted by the moonlight.
The clues weren’t hard to unravel. “I won’t hurt you, I’m here to help.” She waited and the lid moved ever so slightly, then stopped. “Please, I know you must be frightened but, by Artemis, I promise that I’ll keep you safe. The men are all dead or gone.”
"Artemis” Whispered from inside the basket and Combe waited.
The lid rose slowly until the angle of it caused it to slide backwards onto the floor. Pale blonde hair, unusual for the region, rose from the depths as a girl no older than Combe’s own daughter, Shana, came into view. Another younger girl stood up with her. “Gone?” Blood was smeared across one of the elder girl’s cheek but what caught Combe’s attention was the carved bone pendant hanging around her neck. It was the symbol of Artemis, Combe’s very own Goddess.
Combe stepped forward slowly until she could crouch down in front of the basket. “Yes, gone. But I’m afraid you are the only ones left here. Would you like to come home with me?”
The toddler stared wide-eyed at what could only be her sister, while the older girl glanced around the room. Her lip quivered as she saw the body of her mother on the bed. Then she looked down to where the toddler clung to her dress.
Haunted green eyes met those of the Telequire scout leader and Combe worried for the girl. The messy death in front of the basket had clearly been the child’s work. She tried to get through again. “What is your name, paidí?”
“M—my name is Orianna, but my mama calls me Ori. This is Risiki.” Suddenly her free hand came up out of the basket clutching a bloody blade, one that looked similar to the weapon protruding from the brigand’s back. “I don’t want this.” Orianna held out the knife, sticky with drying blood. Combe dutifully took it from her and moved it to the floor behind her feet, out of sight. The words were said so plainly that Combe feared for the girl’s mental state.
“Are you hurt, Orianna? Are either of you hurt?”
Ori shook her head. “I protected us.” She paused and her eyes grew liquid as she looked at the body of her mother once again. “I protected us but I couldn’t save our mama.” She whispered, “I couldn’t save her.” A yell from outside caused the girl to jump and clutch her young sister.
“Scout leader, the fire is spreading. We must go!”
“Wh—who is that?”
Combe soothed with her voice. “Those are women in my scout troop. We are Amazons from the Telequire village.”
“Amazons? Like the ones protected by my Goddess, Artemis?”
The scout leader smiled. “Yes, she is our Goddess as well. Do you want to come home with me, Orianna?”
The girl seemed to think about the request before looking down at her sister. “I still need to protect her.”
“I can protect her if you like—.”
Orianna’s cry startled the small girl in her grasp and little Risiki began to whimper. “No! I need to protect her. I promised our Goddess that I would always protect her if she let us live.”
Combe sighed. The child was far too young for such pledges, and at the same time, much too old. “What if we protect her together? Would that be okay?”
Orianna gave her a small smile and lifted the toddler up so the Amazon could grab her. Surprised, Combe rushed to grasp Risiki and pull her into her arms while Ori climbed out of the basket. “Deh, but you’re a strong one for someone so small, Ori.”
Orianna gazed back at her and Combe would never forget the look in the child’s bright green eyes. “I have to be. Can we go now?”
Combe held out a hand, belatedly realizing it was sticky with blood from the knife. Orianna didn’t flinch or shy away, she merely grasped it like the lifeline that it was.
As soon as Combe came out from the house with two small children the rest of the troop despaired that they wouldn’t be continuing on with their mission. They worried at the Queen’s notorious anger until Combe reassured them. “It is under my orders that we will turn back and I will take full responsibility with the Queen. I too would love to bring the epidroméfs to justice but we cannot knowingly let two children of Artemis die while on a quest for vengeance.”
A voice spoke up from the group of still mounted scouts. “Child of Artemis in this village? How do you know?”
Combe gestured to Orianna’s neck, where the symbol of the Goddess stood out against the girl’s pale skin. “She stood in a pool of moonlight wearing this pendant having survived the destruction of the rest of her village. How can she be anything less than Artemis’ chosen?”
Her scout second, Rhea, voiced the concerns of all. “I agree on that point, scout leader, but you know how the queen is. We will all be punished for failure.”
Combe ran a hand through her auburn curls, conscious of her two feathers. She glanced around the group. “I have a compromise then. You all continue with your mission under the leadership of Rhea, and I will return to Telequire with the children.”
Phoebe was nearest and shook her head. “It is dangerous and will take you more than a seven-day to make that trek with only one horse between the three of you.”
“Do one of you want to volunteer to come with me?”
Eleven women remained silent for a few breaths, then one voice called out. It was a woman named Zeva. She was youthful at only twenty summers but she knew her way around a bow and was the second best tracker in their group. She had been fairly upbeat on their mission, despite the serious nature of it. Mostly due to the fact that she was newly returned from her allotted break after bonding with her childhood love, Theodosia. “I’ll come with you, Scout Leader.”
“Zeva, no! You’ll be whipped.”
Zeva jerked her head toward her friend and fellow scout. “They are just children! I can no more turn my back on them than I could on Artemis herself. I can only wish that when Theo and I have our own children someday, they would not be forgotten if something were to happen to us.” She gave one last glance at the two little girls and sighed. “I’m going back with Combe and that’s final.”
Decision made, the other ten scouts quickly galloped in pursuit of the brigands while Combe and Zeva sorted out their trip back to the village. They decided that since Zeva was the larger of the two women, she should take the toddler with her, while Orianna would ride double with the scout leader. Ori immediately balked at being separated from her sister. She changed her mind when Combe pointed out that they would be safer and could ride faster if the two girls split up.
Ori tilted her head slightly with serious thought before giving the two Amazons a careful nod. “Risiki needs to rest soon and we both need food. So it would be good if we can get back to your village as fast as possible.” She looked back at her sister then something shifted in her eyes and before either woman could stop her, she bolted back into the house. It hadn’t caught fire yet but it was near enough to be concerning.
Ori returned before Combe could think to go after her. She carried a bundle in her arms and walked straight over to Risiki, who stood with her first two fingers in her mouth. The two adults watched as Ori carefully draped the blanket around Risiki’s shoulders and then put a small doll into the toddler’s hands. When she noticed the two Amazons staring at her, Orianna’s response was matter of fact. “She gets cold and that’s her favorite doll.”
Combe cursed herself internally for not thinking of the children’s needs beyond getting them out of the house where their mother died. “What about you? Do you have anything you’d like to bring?”
“It’s too late.”
Combe and Zeva spun around to look at the house whose reed covered roof burned where the fire had spread from the house next door. “Skata!”
“Combe!” Zeva looked over at her scout leader then motioned her head toward the two children.
Ori looked from one woman to the other. “It’s okay, my papa said that word and he didn’t get in trouble for it.” She paused then looked up at Combe. “I’m tired. Will it take long to get to your home?”
Combe rubbed her temple at the situation that had gone a little out of her control. “I’m sorry little one, but it will take a handful of days to get back to our village.” She looked over at Zeva. “Let’s mount up and get some distance away from here before making camp and letting the little ones rest for a bit.”
“Sounds good, Scout Leader.”
Zeva mounted first and Combe handed the bundled Risiki up so she could be situated in front of the scout on the saddle pad. After that she bundled Ori into her own cloak then settled the girl on her own horse and mounted behind her. She gave the child’s shoulder a quick squeeze to get her attention. When Orianna turned back Combe smiled. “If you get sleepy just lean against me and shut your eyes. I won’t let you fall.”
Ori coughed in the growing smoke. “Do you promise?”
Conscious of the fading night and the growing smoke around them, Combe nodded. “I swear by stag and bear and to the Goddess Artemis herself, you will not fall from this horse while I’m here.”
It was a small exhausted voice that answered. “Okay.”
In that moment Combe knew two things for certain. The first was that after looking into those lost green eyes, she would protect the girls with her life if she had to. And the second was that Orianna would have a long way to go before she healed from the night’s tragedy. And given the unfortunate circumstances of the girls’ introduction into the tribe, Combe knew they wouldn’t have it easy with their Queen. Lydella was infamous for holding a grudge.
Ori had never ridden a horse in her life. The closest she’d come was when her papa sat her on one of their goats for a bit of fun. And it was fun until she lost her grip and fell off. It was a long way off the ground on a horse, even with understanding the Amazon wouldn’t let her fall. Truth be told, Orianna didn’t know why she even trusted the woman other than the fact that Combe also wore the symbol of their Goddess around her neck. Without her mama and papa, Ori knew it was up to her to protect Risiki and she couldn’t do it by herself. That was why she decided to go with the nice woman.
The horror of the night hadn’t really set in yet for the girl. Exhaustion clung to her like the cloak Combe had wrapped around her shoulders. But rather than succumb to it, Ori stubbornly gripped the horse’s mane and cast frequent glances toward the other rider. She watched in silence as her sister slept away the terror. But Ori’s too intelligent mind wouldn’t let her sleep as she kept seeing her mama fighting with the raider. Orianna thought they’d be safe when her mama’s knife sank into the man’s back and he collapsed onto the bed. But rather than get up and help the girls, her mama whispered for Ori to take their other knife and hide with Risiki in the big basket.
That was where they were when the second raider came. She could hear the man searching their home as he came closer and closer. Her papa always said that raiders all wanted the same thing, valuables. Knowing he’d find them eventually, Ori stayed ready. And when the man opened the basket, he was surprised by Ori’s wickedly sharp knife straight across his gut. The blood coated the knife and her little fist, as well as the man’s own hands as he tried to hold himself together. She watched him sink to the floor, first onto his knees then onto his chest as he slumped forward in front of their basket. Without another sound, she pulled the lid back on the basket and waited for the men to leave.
She knew tears were useless, her papa always said so. Instead she crafted plea after plea to Artemis. Oriana pledge to protect her sister for the rest of their lives if the Goddess would only let them live through the night. Her prayers were answered when the Amazons came. But Ori knew that any dreams she once had while lying by the stream were as dead as her parents. Risiki was all that mattered. She whispered to herself as they rode along, too quiet for Combe to hear. They were words her mama used to say every solstice and equinox while papa was out tending to the goats. “Silvered moon, mighty huntress of the dark, hear me Artemis.” Shortly after, she dozed off still clutching the horse’s mane.