A small body of Scythians rode fast toward a jutting outcrop of rock through the deepening gloom of sunset. Dense pine forest clung sullenly to rocky slopes, intensifying the shadows. A carpet of pine needles softened the sound of passage. The men, dressed in felt and leather tunics, jackets and leggings, sat astride wiry horses, thick felt blankets flapping against the horses' legs. Breath plumes of both men and mounts gusted whitely in the frosty air, ice coating beards and moustaches and flecking muzzles. They approached an outcrop and paused, pulling their mounts into a tight milling knot, searching the ground around them for the presence of others. The tallest of the men dismounted, slapping his arms and legs against the cold.
"Where in the Mother's name are they?" he growled.
A small man jumped down beside him, bowing obsequiously. "He will be here, my lord. He assured me..."
"Yes, yes, Scolices, I am sure he will be." The man scowled at the darkening sky and the clouds scudding overhead then turned his gaze to the surrounding rock. He pointed. "Make a fire, over there by the rocks." He watched as Scolices scurried off, calling to another rider to help him find firewood and pinecones. Turning to the remaining men, now dismounted, the tall man beckoned one over. "Thoas, set a guard...a good one. I have no wish to be surprised."
"Yes, my lord Areipithes," Thoas replied.
"Two back down the trail, pairs off to each side and get someone on top of that rock." He pointed at the jutting outcrop of weathered sandstone. He stared at the man who stood waiting expectantly. "Now, Thoas, before we are discovered and have no need of guards," he added softly.
Thoas flushed and turned away, snapping his fingers at the men and shouting out orders.
Areipithes turned away with a sigh and trudged toward the beginning flickers of flame in the lea of the outcrop. He found a dry spot among the wind-strewn leaves and sat with his back to the rock, waiting, listening to the night sounds and the murmur of men and horses. He accepted a horn of wine from Scolices without comment, dismissing the man with an impatient gesture.
The fire burned down to flickering embers and a faint glow on the eastern horizon told of incipient moonrise. A shouted challenge and cries brought them all to their feet, weapons drawn. Riders emerged from the dark forest, pushing two men in front of them. Areipithes' men drew bows and readied arrows, covering the strangers.
A horseman detached from the group and rode to the fire. He stared down at the tall, burly figure of Areipithes for a few moments then grunted and slid off his horse. "If these guards are the best you have, you'll not keep your kingdom long."
Areipithes sheathed his sword and grinned. "May the dust demons take you, Parates; it has been too long." He waved a hand at his men. "Put your weapons up."
"Parates?" mused the man; "It is many years since I went by that name."
Areipithes raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what do men call you now?"
The man shrugged. "I change my name as often as I need. In my line of work a fast horse and a new identity are my only friends." He grimaced and glanced around. "You can call me Scorpion for now."
Areipithes snorted. "Always fond of the dramatic weren't you my friend? Come to the fire. Warm yourself." He moved to one side and gestured.
Scorpion signaled to his men before nodding and moving to the fire. He spread his cloak over a large flat rock and sat down then accepted a horn of wine and sipped, eyes on the Scythian king.
Areipithes drank, staring at his erstwhile friend. The man who called himself Scorpion was tall and thin, his skin darker than the average Scythian horseman, tanned by nature as well as sun and weather. His clothing was rich, expensive-looking, despite the stains of travel, with the look of the southern lands of Persia rather than the cold northern steppes. Scorpion's eyes were a lustrous green, hooded, beneath dense black hair. His face was carefully neutral in appearance, giving nothing away as he waited for the other man to speak.
"You called me king," said Areipithes quietly. "News travels fast it seems."
Scorpion nodded. "Rumours fly faster than the North wind. They say you murdered your father and sister and have set yourself up as king of the Massegetae, doing away with the council of elders."
Areipithes glared at the man. "What else do they say?"
Scorpion shrugged. "That you rule with an iron fist and accept no advice." He drained his wine and expectantly held the horn out.
At a signal from the king, Scolices scurried forward with a wineskin and refilled the drinking horns before moving back out of earshot.
"Not what I would expect from a king's table," grinned Scorpion, "but passable on a cold night."
"Continue," growled Areipithes.
"Parricide is judged to be god-cursed, as is desecration of the Mother Goddess." Scorpion smiled wryly then leaned forward. "My friend, you walk a dangerous path. Already men say you rule without the consent of the gods and killing you would be a just action."
Areipithes snorted. "No man will challenge me for the leadership. They are cattle and will do my bidding." He thought a moment and inclined his head. "Unwillingly maybe, but follow me they will. I care not if men hate me as long as they obey me."
"Still, killing your father so openly was not prudent. Could you not have been more subtle?"
"He was a fool and a traitor," snarled Areipithes, "Besotted with that Greek, turning over his power to the enemy. I did what any true Scythian would do."
Scorpion raised an eyebrow but sat silently.
"The Greek was a spy from the south. He wormed his way into my father's heart and was plotting to take over the tribe--no doubt to hand it over to Alexander. He seduced my half-sister Tomyra, the priestess of the Goddess." Areipithes flung his horn to the ground, the wine splashing his leggings. "The penalty for that is death, for both man and priestess." He ground his teeth. "I care not for the bitch-slut but she could have brought the wrath of the Goddess upon us all. I was justified."
"If you say so, my friend," said Scorpion softly. He paused. "Will you take a piece of advice from me, if not from your elders?"
Areipithes picked up his drinking horn and brushed the dirt and pine needles from it. He signaled to the waiting Scolices to refill the horn. "Go on then," he growled.
"Show your actions to be just. Produce evidence that your father Spargises was planning to betray the tribe to the Greeks." Scorpion shrugged. "If you do not have the evidence, manufacture it. The same goes for your sister Tomyra. Show everyone she dishonoured the Mother Goddess. Discredit your father, your sister and the Greek with evidence, not rantings."
Areipithes took a deep breath then exhaled noisily. "May the demons take them all. Why should I care what men think as long as they are all dead?"
"Because if you don't show yourself as a leader by right--not just by force--you will forever be defending yourself from plots and assassination attempts."
Areipithes scowled. "I will think on it."
"Are they in fact dead? I know your father is, but your sister and the Greek?"
"My sister..." Areipithes spat into the fire. "...is dead by now. Dimurthes took her with him. The fool desired her but will kill her when he sates his lust." He rose and paced. "I have no word of the Greek."
Scorpion leaned back against a boulder and watched the king stalking back and forth. "Nikometros, son of Leonnatos, cavalry captain of the Great King Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, now known throughout your lands as Nikomayros, Lion of Scythia," Scorpion murmured. "He was alive three days ago."
Areipithes spun on his heel and stared at Scorpion. "Alive? Where? How do you know?"
Scorpion smiled. "You ask me how I know? Little goes on in the borders without coming to my attention."
"Where is he?"
"Out of your reach. He rode west and north into the territory of the Serratae." Scorpion cocked his head to one side. "From what you say, I would guess he follows Dimurthes and your sister." He grinned. "Interesting. He's prepared to risk his life for her."
Areipithes sat down and kept silent, thinking. Scorpion called Scolices over to refill his drinking horn then waited patiently for Areipithes' decision, sipping on the sour wine.
"I have thought on this matter already, in the hope that he lived still. He seeks Tomyra. He may find her," mused Areipithes in a soft voice. "He may even rescue her. He is resourceful and brave; even I will admit that. But what will he do then?"
Scorpion remained silent, knowing the question needed no answer.
"He won't return. His followers are scattered and will soon be dead. If I were he, I would return to my own people." Areipithes nodded. "Yes, he'll go south, to the army of the Great King."
"And if your sister is dead? Won't he seek revenge on you?"
Areipithes grinned savagely. "I hope so. If he returns I'll take delight in sending his ghost onward, after great pain and suffering." His grin faded. "If he goes south I won't have my revenge." He looked up, meeting Scorpion's gaze. "Then you will kill him for me."
"Why else did I summon you? For the pleasure of your company?"
Scorpion's face went blank. "I did not realise I had been summoned," he said coldly. He rose quickly, unfolding with a reptilian grace. "I came for a friendship we once had. If that is past then I will depart."
Areipithes cursed. "You always were a short-tempered bastard. Sit down...please." He waited until Scorpion sat down then leaned over toward the other man. "A king can have no close friends. He can trust no one. You are the closest I have to a friend for I saved your life many years ago and there is a bond between us."
Scorpion sighed. "You remind me again of my debt. Is this your concept of friendship?"
Areipithes shrugged. "Nevertheless, the debt is there and I claim it."
"Tell me how I must repay you then."
"Kill the Greek for me if he should travel south into Persia."
Scorpion sat silent, staring at the fire. At length he stirred and put down the drinking horn he clutched. "If I do this, the debt is repaid?"
"Yes. Kill the Greek Nikomayros and my whore-sister Tomyra if she still lives. Then the debt is repaid."
Scorpion rose to his feet and stretched. He walked slowly round the fire toward the horses where his men waited.
"Well?" called Areipithes. "Will you do this for me?"
Scorpion turned and looked back at the Scythian king. He nodded. "Yes, but here our friendship, such as it is, ends. Do not look for me in your lands again." He strode to his horse and leapt onto its back. He kicked the horse into motion and, his men on his heels, disappeared into the blackness of the mountain forest.
A solitary sparrow hawk hung effortlessly in the chill winter's wind, scanning the broken ground far beneath. Although early in the season, food was already scarce. Bodies of soldiers moved through the countryside, pillaging villages, burning or harvesting crops, slaughtering cattle and goats. For a time, their activity made hunting good. Small birds and rodents fled the disturbances and were easily killed by predators following in the wake of armed men. Lately, as winter set in, prey was harder to find. Larger raptors and the ever-present vultures found plenty of carrion in the aftermath of war but the smaller birds of prey hungered.
A gust caught the hawk and spilled air through its slotted wings, forcing the bird to fight to maintain its position. It hesitated then slipped into a long shallow dive to the west, crossing a line of low hills, away from the dense pine forests. The land grew barer beneath it, the vegetation sparser. A movement far below caught its yellow eyes and it watched for a few moments, searching. Then minute changes in its wings and tail feathers guided it into a slow descent toward the north, following the column of men on horses far below.
The column moved slowly but steadily along a vaguely delineated game trail in single file. Thirty horses made up the column, though leather and wicker panniers and bundles burdened a third of them. Twenty riders were mounted on lean horses that showed signs of heavy use in the recent past. Each of the riders was tightly muffled against the chill northerly wind that lifted dead leaves and rattled the branches of the scrubby willows on the barren hillside. Dank air smelled of snow coming; the leaden sky felt oppressive. Leather tunics and leggings creaked as the horses picked their way slowly over rocky ground, moving up and across the hillside. The riders were, with one exception, bearded and moustached, the only skin exposed to the wind was the weathered area around their deep-set brown eyes. Woollen cloaks with hoods swathed them, falling in loose folds across the rumps of their horses, flapping desultorily with the felt blankets draped over the horses' backs. Feet covered in leather boots hung low beside the small wiry horses or were tucked into leather straps girdling the bellies of their mounts. Swords and double-curved bows with bundles of arrows protruded from among leather and cloth sacks in front of and behind each rider.
Boredom was the predominant expression on the faces of the men. Days of traveling in familiar territory without the stimulus of an enemy or the immediate prospect of homecoming blunted their senses and perceptions. The steady movement of the horses and the monotonous view of the horse and rider in front through hours of travel produced a lassitude that even the biting air failed to dispel.
The man at the head of the column was tall and thin, even with the bundling effect of his voluminous cloak. His angular features gave him a predatory look and dark hair hung greasily over his shoulders, strands blowing across his face in the icy wind gusts. The hood of his cloak was turned down, allowing him a greater field of view at the cost of warmth. He was more alert than the men who followed him, his eyes roving forward along the trail and to each side. Every now and then he turned, swiveling his whole body to stare at the woman on the horse immediately behind him. When he did so, his face became contorted with emotion and his limbs took on a trembling rigidity that spoke of suppressed passion.
The woman slumped listlessly on the back of her mare, a fine roan animal that stood out from the lean, rangy horses of her companions. She shivered within her cloak, a green woollen one smeared with mud and torn in places. She pulled it closer about her, grateful for the heavy quality of its fabric. Beneath it, she wore only a lightweight shift of coarse linen and felt riding boots. Feeling hostile eyes upon her, she raised her head, meeting the glare of the man in front. With an effort, she held her bruised and bloodied face still, masking the fear and loathing boiling up inside her. She stared back until the man dropped his eyes and turned away. The young woman stared at the back of the man's head for a few moments before turning away and gazing listlessly at the monotonous vistas of stony hillside dotted with clumps of birch and alder, now nearly leafless.
Two women on horseback watched the column of men from a dense thicket of birch trees further up the slope of the hill. The taller of the two peered fiercely out from beneath dark locks of hair that fell in waves about her pale face. Clad in thick leather tunics, jackets and leggings with felted undergarments, the women looked indistinguishable from male Scythian warriors, save for their hairless faces. Any hints as to their gender lay hidden beneath voluminous clothing.
The taller woman turned to her companion with a savage grin. "Soon, Domra. They grow careless."
The other woman shivered, despite her thick leggings and cloak. She nervously fingered a small double-curved bow, checking every few moments that the quiver of arrows, slung about her slender waist, was still in place. "We are greatly outnumbered, Bithyia. It may be better to wait. Who knows what the Goddess will send?"
Bithyia raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Will you wait until those wolves tire of our lady and do away with her? You can see she is ill-used." The woman scowled, her hand gripping the hilt of the short sword in her belt. "We must take some action. If nothing else it will lift her spirits to know she is not forsaken. Besides," she added with a grin, "we can shorten the odds somewhat."
The horses stamped their feet and blew out great gusts of air, nickering softly to each other. Their breath wisped like smoke in the cold. Bithyia thought back over the last few days--how she had gathered a handful of warriors about her and tracked the beasts that held her mistress, the beloved priestess of the Mother Goddess.
Soon, if the gods are with us, we will free her.
Domra stared out over the barren hillside toward the slowly moving column. "What would you have us do?"
Bithyia grinned again, her eyes icy. "They think themselves safe in their own lands. See how their line is drawn out, and their lack of scouts? We shall take a straggler or two come nightfall, quietly, without alarming the rest. With good fortune we may learn something of their plans before we kill them."
"If we are caught, we are dead."
"All men... and women, die. Better our deaths now than to live on knowing we failed our lady. Remember we are 'Owls', Domra. We are the chosen warrior women of the Goddess, sworn to defend her priestess."
Domra shook her head, shivering again. "I would die for my lady, Bithyia, you know that. But I am no warrior. I am only a maidservant and untrained with weapons."
Bithyia glared at Domra for a moment then softened her fierce expression. "You came, Domra, because your love for our lady was greater than your love of safety. You will do your duty, I know. Now come, let us rejoin the others."
The riders pulled their horses' heads around and walked them slowly through the birch grove until they were out of any possible sight of the column of Scythian men. They kicked their mounts into a reluctant trot, back down the hillside toward six other women huddled in the lea of a rocky outcrop.
The horses disturbed a lark that burst upward in panic, meeting death in the rushing talons of the patient sparrow hawk. The tiny raptor crouched over the cooling body of the lark for several minutes, its fierce yellow eyes blazing defiance in the direction of the disappearing horses. When silence reigned once more on the frozen hillside, the hawk bent its head and started to feed, tearing into the breast of its prey. The first snowflakes fell.