The body of warriors rode casually, relaxed, as they moved along the broad dirt roads of northern Persia, heading south and west into the late afternoon sun sinking in a cloudless sky. Lengthening shadows stretched out behind them, rippling on the clouds of acrid dust churned by their horses' hooves. As the road wound slowly down from the mountain fastnesses of the borderlands toward the central plains of Persia, the land slowly took on a richer, more verdant aspect. The loose scree slopes and stunted vegetation gave way to austere pasture dotted with clumps of willow, poplar and alder; fresh new leaves burgeoning on spreading branches.
From time to time, even in these desolate hinterlands, the group passed men on foot or in rough-hewn carts drawn by resigned oxen. Peasants for the most part, dressed in ragged clothes, they gazed with stony-faced indifference at the armed horsemen confronting them. Few merchants found worthwhile opportunities in the northern mountains; those that passed that way kept a carefully neutral expression as they nodded a greeting. Without exception, the people of those parts deferred to the riders, recognising the tacit authority of armed men, pulling to the side of the road to let them pass.
Curious eyes followed them as the riders moved down from the mountain passes of the north into the rich fertile plains. Two men in particular watched from a stand of poplar trees atop a low hill several hundred paces from the road.
The smaller of the two men, slight of build and with a narrow pinched face twisted by virulent emotion, shaded his eyes against the setting sun.
"That is the Greek. The one in front," he snarled.
The other man glanced across at the speaker. His deep-set brown eyes stared without expression for a moment before turning back to the road. "You have good eyes," he replied. "At this distance and against the sun, all I can see is a body of riders."
"I tell you it is he," repeated the thin man. "I would know that man if it were darkest night." The man's body shook with rage and his right hand clutched convulsively at the sword in his belt. "I will kill him now. I will avenge my lord Areipithes."
The other man raised an eyebrow. "Avenge?" he queried. "I thought you said it was the Massegetae noble Parasades, who killed Areipithes. Doesn't he even now rule as king over your tribe?"
The thin man swung round, his sallow face twisted with anger. "The Greek is responsible, you fool! I told you.." His eyes met the taller man's stare and he took a step back, his face paling at the murder in the other's eyes. "Your...your pardon, Scorpion," he stammered. "I meant no offence."
The man called Scorpion stared at the thin man a moment longer then turned his hooded eyes away from the smaller man. "You would do well to remember you are no longer in Scythia, Scolices. In these parts, my name carries more weight than the name of any Scythian king, alive or dead."
Scolices scanned the distant road and the figures of the riders silhouetted against the setting sun. He loosened the collar of his felt jacket, feeling sweat trickle down his back. "Is it always this hot?" he whined. He fanned his face against the warm breeze from the south.
Scorpion grunted. "You think this is hot? Wait until summer. You will long for the high cool plains of Scythia."
"What will you do?" asked Scolices. "About them, I mean," he added, gesturing toward the road. "You promised my lord Areipithes."
"I shall keep my word," Scorpion flatly replied. "Even though your lord is dead, I will keep my promise, made in the name of a friendship we once had."
"Good!" snarled Scolices. "His ghost will welcome their deaths."
Scorpion turned toward his companion again, his face expressionless. "Why such hatred? I can understand wanting a man's death, but not this consuming hatred. What has he done to earn this?"
"He is a barbarian Greek," spat Scolices. "He..."
"A Macedonian," interrupted the other man. "Nikometros, son of Leonnatos. An officer in Alexander's army and quite cultured, I hear. Hardly a barbarian."
Scolices shot the taller man a venomous look. "He seduced both our chief and the priestess Tomyra. He weakened our people..."
Scorpion smiled. "Your chief made this Nikometros a blood-brother quite freely. There was no coercion involved. As for the priestess, well yes, a seduction took place. By all accounts they are lovers."
"She was a virgin priestess of the Massegetae. To touch her is death. It is our law. She whored with the Greek and deserves death too."
"My spies tell me the Mother Goddess has not cast her off, despite her indiscretions," observed Scorpion. "Do you presume to tell the Goddess her business?"
"Of course not!" grunted Scolices. His hand flicked out, palm downward, in the sign of appeasement. "But sentence of death was pronounced on her and her barbarian lover."
"By a man now dead."
"He is still my king," said Scolices quietly. "I will follow his last command."
"The command of a man consumed by hate." Scorpion shook his head and turned back to scan the road sinking now into shadow as the sun dipped below the horizon. "I don't recommend hate as a way of life."
Scolices squinted into the growing darkness as the last of the riders vanished from view. "How will you do it?"
"Kill them, of course."
Scorpion laughed. "I shan't kill them." He held up a hand as Scolices swung toward him, anger again twisting his features. "I'll cause it to be done by others."
"Why?" snarled Scolices. "You have the men. You outnumber him five times over. Do it now that I may wash my hands in his blood."
"This is Persia," observed Scorpion. "A land of law, even under Macedonian rule. If I were to kill travellers upon the Royal Road I would find myself hunted down and exterminated. I have seen other...seekers of profit...destroyed by their greed and arrogance. Even my position as a prince of traders and supplier of the Macedonian army would not save me. I won't risk that."
"This Nikometros assumes he'll be able to pick up his life and his duties where he left them before he disappeared into the northern plains. Others, however, may suspect his motives and present purpose." Scorpion laughed again and strode over to his horse. He took the reins in his hand and swung the beast around before looking back at the smaller man. "A word or two in the proper ears and our purpose is accomplished."
Scorpion swung himself up onto the horse's back and guided it carefully down the slope through the evening shadows. With a muttered imprecation, Scolices hurried to his own mount and followed, leaving the warm wind from the south swaying the poplars.
The small villages along the Royal Road relied for their survival on a constant stream of travellers. Early spring brought merchants and farmers down from the snowy fastnesses of the mountains of northern Persia, carrying goods and produce to the markets in the south. Less often, bodies of armed men stayed at the villages, even in these troubled times. The wars of conquest, as Alexander crushed the Persian Empire, had largely passed by these northern lands. Macedonian officers, backed more by Alexander's reputation than force of arms, governed with a light hand for the most part, leaving local officials in place unless they proved untrustworthy.
The elder and headman of the village of Abyek, however, lived in almost constant fear. Smugglers and brigands infested the region and more than once Macedonian forces had investigated rumours that he, Algoas, knew more of such business than he admitted. When a party of armed men, led by a Macedonian officer, rode into Abyek on a cool spring afternoon, his first thought was flight. Hastily grabbing a small sack of gold, he hurried out the back door and into a rickety stable attached to the back of the house. With trembling hands he started to set the bridle on one of his mules.
A screech of anguish rattled the door of the stable. "Where are you going, husband? Will you leave me for the soldiers?"
Turning quickly, Algoas held up his hands. "Wife," he implored, "please be quiet. You will bring the soldiers down on us."
"You're leaving with all our gold. You'll leave me destitute. What will become of me?"
Algoas gave the thin-faced woman standing at the door a sour look. He forced a smile onto his worried face. "Molatta, my honey cake, I'm only taking our gold to a place of safety until the soldiers are gone. How can you think I would leave you?" He glanced beyond her to the shadows, glimpsing the rounded form of their young servant girl. A brief regret flitted across his face. "I'll be back in two or three days, as soon as the soldiers have left."
Molatta stamped her foot. "The soldiers aren't here for you, you fool," she snapped. "You're just using them as an excuse to rob me of my gold."
"Of course they're here for me, wife. Why else would soldiers... why do you say that?"
"Would soldiers on duty bring their women? You must think I'm a fool..."
"Women?" Algoas dropped the bridle and gripped his wife's arm. "What women?"
Molatta shrugged her bony shoulders and screwed up her face. "How should I know? One is richly dressed and she has a few others in attendance. A Macedonian officer leads them but the men are not Macedonians or locals."
"Where are they now?" asked Algoas.
"The officer and the lady went into the inn. His men remain outside."
Algoas sighed. He thrust the bag of gold into his wife's arms. "Put it back, my beloved. If they aren't looking for me then I must make sure they are well looked after." He pushed past Molatta into the house and hurried out the front door into the street.
Turning to his left he saw a number of townspeople milling around the entrance to the inn, gawking at the strangers. Shouldering his way through the crowd, Algoas bustled up to the door of the inn. A swarthy young man, sweating in layers of felt and leather, stopped him, barking unintelligibly in his face. Algoas grinned weakly and tried to push past.
The young man jabbered again then threw up his arms and turned in exasperation to a burly man behind him. "Speak to him, Timon. This fool does not seem to understand."
Timon nodded and stepped forward, blocking Algoas' way. "Easy, Tirses. Not everyone knows Scythian." He turned to the pale villager and switching to a mixture of Persian and Greek, addressed the man. "Who you?" He jabbed a finger at the man's chest.
Tirses chuckled. "Very subtle, Timon. Your command of the local language astounds me."
Timon glowered and flushed. "You could not do better," he rasped. "Who you?" he repeated, tapping the villager on the chest.
Algoas stepped back, flicking an alarmed look at the ring of strange faces. "I am Algoas," he stammered. "The elder of this village. I have come to welcome you to Abyek." He looked toward the inn door. "There is a lord and lady with you? I was told..." Algoas let his voice trail away.
Timon stared back at Algoas for a few moments through a great bush of eyebrow and beard. "Aye," he growled. Then, "Niko!" he shouted through the door, "Somebody to see you."
Metal gleamed in the doorway as a tall sun-bronzed man in cavalry armour emerged. He brushed back his long fair hair with one hand, his grey eyes appraising the scene in front of him. With a cool smile that came nowhere near his eyes, the man cocked his head at the villager standing with Timon and Tirses.
"I...I am Algoas, elder of Abyek. I welcome you, my lord...er..."
"Nikometros," said the tall man softly. "These are my men."
"Then you are indeed welcome, my lord Nikometros. Perhaps I can offer you such hospitality as our poor village can afford?" Algoas gestured toward the inn.
"It seems not," replied Nikometros. "All the rooms are full."
"Oh, I am sure that cannot be so," exclaimed Algoas. He bobbed his head and scurried into the darkness of the inn.
Timon raised an eyebrow at Nikometros then grinned as the sounds of a violent argument poured into the street. A few moments later, Algoas came out with a huge smile on his face.
"As I thought, my lord. A misunderstanding. Rooms will be made available to you at once. Perhaps while they are readied you will have some refreshment?"
Nikometros smiled. "Thank you. Perhaps some wine to wash the dust from our throats." He turned to the sweating Scythian. "Have the horses stabled then join us, Tirses." He looked back at the village elder and gestured. "Lead on, Algoas."
The interior of the inn was dim after the bright sunlit street. The air lay heavy and still, redolent with the odours of smoke and cooking. Several trestle tables sprawled in haphazard abandon through the room, each with a candle flickering and guttering, making its own small contribution to the soot-filled air. Stairs at the back of the room led up into darkness. Several men and two women stood in a huddle near the stairs arguing with a burly man who was ordering a string of servants. Bags were hastily thrown down and the burly man started ushering the group toward the door.
As the men passed Nikometros and Timon they flashed them a surly look, muttering imprecations. One of the women swore loudly and colourfully before being hurried out by her companions.
The burly man hurried over, nodded to Algoas and turned to Nikometros.
"My apologies, lord." He flashed a gap-toothed grin and bobbed his head deferentially. "A misunderstanding. Those misbegotten sons of whores..." he gestured toward the now-empty doorway, "...could not pay." He glanced toward Algoas and hurried onward. "Some wine, my lord? Not of the best, I'm afraid. It's been a bad year. Brigands are everywhere now that the Great King has fallen..." The inn-keeper's voice trailed off and he paled visibly in the darkness. "I...I'm sorry, my lord. I didn't mean..."
Nikometros nodded. "These are troubled times. The new Great King will restore order, I'm sure. Now, you spoke of wine?"
The innkeeper snapped his fingers and bellowed into the dim recesses of the inn. A young boy scampered out, bearing an earthenware jug and several wooden cups in a bag. He set the jug and cups on a table, his wide round eyes darting everywhere. The innkeeper cuffed the boy and sent him back to his work with a growl.
"If there's anything else, my lord, you have only to say. I'll see to your dinner." The innkeeper backed away.
Nikometros peered around the dim room. "Where are the ladies," he enquired, "and the old man?"
"They are upstairs, my lord, inspecting your rooms. They'll be ...ah, here they come, my lord." The innkeeper gestured toward the dark stairs then, grabbing Algoas by one arm, dragged him toward the kitchens.
Two figures appeared in the gloom, carrying guttering candles that accentuated the shadows rather than banishing them. A tall, dark-haired young woman in a flowing robe walked sedately toward Nikometros, threading her way through the tables. Behind her stalked a tall warrior in jacket and trousers, a sword belted at the waist and rich enamelled gold ornaments hanging around a slim neck. Only the lack of facial hair and the low swell of breasts betrayed the warrior's gender. An old, bent man, wisps of white hair clinging to an otherwise bald head tottered behind them. Thin arms crossed over his chest sheltered a black cat that inspected everyone in the room with yellow-eyed suspicion.
Nikometros grinned. "How are the rooms, Tomyra? To your satisfaction?"
The robed woman grimaced. "Dirty. And with holes in the walls." She set the candle down on the table and sank onto a stool. "However, I'm too tired to worry about it." She glanced up at the tall figure behind her and grinned. "Bithyia wants to force the inn-keeper to clean the rooms himself. At sword point if necessary."
Timon snorted with laughter then embraced the slim figure. "I'd wager good money he never had to deal with a Scythian warrior woman before." He kissed the tall woman before ushering her to the table. "Come, Bithyia. We have wine and the promise of a meal." He poured the thin wine into cups and passed them around.
Nikometros stepped around the women and guided the old man to a bench and passed him a cup of wine. The grey head shook his head and motioned the cup away. "Water," he muttered. "And some milk for Bubis."
"The water is not safe in the plains, Ket. It will give you the flux," replied Nikometros gently. "At least add some wine to it. Enough to take the ill from it." He scratched the black cat behind the ears and smiled as it butted his hand. "I'm certain we can find some milk for Bubis though."
Tirses arrived from stabling the horses and threw off his jacket with an oath. He slumped onto a bench and drained a cup of wine, spilling some of the thin red liquid onto his chest and shirt. He belched loudly and grinned.
"Apologies, my lady. But I really needed that." He refilled his cup and sipped. "The men are settled in the stables, my lord. Meat has been provided, and wine."
Nikometros nodded. "Good." He paused before carefully putting down his cup. "What is the mood of the men, Tirses?"
"Mood? What do you mean, my lord?"
"We've been traveling a month. A month away from their native Scythia. How are they holding up? Do they want to turn back?"
Tirses shrugged and glanced away. "One or two speak of their homes with longing."
"Malcontents!" growled Timon. "Do they imagine Parasades would leave them alive if they returned?"
"Such is the way of the world," muttered Ket.
"Yet they allowed Agarus to remain," pointed out Tomyra. "I really thought he was coming with us. But when he turned back at the last minute..."
Bithyia nodded. "Parasades will do anything to retain his mastery of our people. Those who followed the lord Nikom...Nikometros..." she stumbled over the pronunciation, "...would die as soon as they crossed the borders."
"They know this," Tirses quietly replied.
"Then why do they grumble?" barked Timon. "Give me their names. I'll teach them loyalty."
Nikometros gripped Timon's arm. "It doesn't matter who they are, Timon. Didn't you long for Macedon when we were captive?"
The meal arrived, ladled from the steaming kitchen cauldron into large earthenware bowls. A thick lamb stew, reeking with herbs and spices, set their mouths watering then rapidly satiated their hunger. Freshly baked bread, hot from the ovens, soaked up the juices of the meal. At last, they pushed their bowls back and stretched, watching Bubis delicately lick the last traces of gravy from the tabletop.
"Now that was a meal," grunted Timon.
"A bit too spiced for my taste," observed Bithyia, "But quite acceptable." She stifled a belch and took another sip of wine.
Tomyra yawned and pushed her bench back. "I think I'm ready for my bed. Will you join me, Niko?"
Nikometros smiled and rose. "Presently, Tomyra. I must talk to the men first. Timon, Tirses, will you join me?"
Bithyia watched her man leave the room with Nikometros and Tirses before turning to her priestess with a smile. "As soon as we reach the army I'm going to insist we're married."
Tomyra grinned. "Does he know what a firebrand he's getting?"
Bithyia curled her tongue and licked her upper lip. "Oh, he knows." Her eyes sparkled then flicked across at Tomyra. "And you, my lady? What of you and Niko?"
Tomyra's grin faltered. "I don't know."
Ket looked up sharply from where he sat, cradling Bubis in his lap. "You haven't told him yet, child?"
Bithyia shook her head. "My lady, you said you were going to days ago."
"It isn't easy to tell the man you love that you carry another man's child."
"Tell him," Ket gently admonished. "Tell him. He knows the circumstances; he'll understand."
"Of course he will," growled Bithyia. "Dimurthes forced you and he's now dead by his own hand. The Mother Goddess forbade you to rid yourself of it, so there must be a reason for you to carry it."
"Still, he's a man..."
Ket leaned forward and gently held Tomyra's wrist. His wise gaze searched her face. "How far gone are you, child. Three months?"
"Near enough, Ket."
"Then it will show soon. Do you mean to let him believe it is his own? Will you found your marriage on a deceit?"
"If you don't tell him, he'll never know it's not his," snapped Tomyra. "Niko is an innocent in some things."
Ket shook his head. "I won't tell him, child; that is for you to do. However, I've known him longer than you. He's no fool and he will find out."
"How can you say you've known Niko longer?" interjected Bithyia. "You were a slave of the Jartai when we found you. Niko and my lady were already close."
"Have you forgotten I was a priest at Siwah in Egypt, girl?" asked Ket. "I was there on that golden day when the pharaoh, Alexander, son of Ammon-Ra, came to the oracle. His half-brother Ptolemy was there, as was a certain youth in his entourage, scarcely more than a boy. Nikometros, illegitimate son of Ptolemy and nephew to Alexander." Ket lifted his cup and sipped his well-watered wine. "Oh yes, I have known Nikometros a long time."
Tomyra sat silent with her head bowed. For several minutes the only sounds in the room were the muted purring of Ket's cat, the clatter behind the kitchen screens and the ever-present drone of flies. At last, Tomyra raised her head and pushed back the black locks of hair falling over her eyes. She nodded.
"I'll tell him tonight."
"Would you like me there?" Bithyia nervously eyed her friend. "I can at least give you some moral support."
Tomyra opened her mouth to reply then shut it with a snap, whipping her head round as a volley of shouts and the clash of steel resounded from the street. She leapt to her feet and darted toward the door, Bithyia on her heels. Bursting into the street, the two women halted, staring in horror at the scene outside.
The narrow street overflowed with armed men. Greek soldiers in armour and clutching long spears stared belligerently over tall shields at Nikometros and Timon who crouched by a body lying in the dust. Behind them, Tirses and his men stood with drawn swords, uncertain as to their next action, waiting for a word of command.
The ranks of the soldiers parted and a tall man in full parade armour strode out to confront the two men crouching over the body of their fallen comrade. Scarlet plumes on his gleaming helmet bobbed as he advanced and the glint in his dark eyes matched that of the drawn sword. Fixing Nikometros with a steely glare, his voice rang out in the silence.
"Nikometros, son of Leonnatos. You are under arrest for treason."