The rising sun, sullen and gray, cast eerie shadows across the Azkhantian badlands. To the north, jagged hills slashed through the haze. An old woman sat on a solitary crag of black granite, gazing down at the valley where the Geloni Imperials had set up their encampment. She wore a cloak of black wool over her tight-fitting jacket and horseman's trousers, so that from a distance, she seemed to be part of the rock itself. Her skin was creased and her almond-shaped eyes faded from looking at the sun. Across her lap lay a short, curved bow, the wood worn into a soft gloss.
She remembered sitting like this with her mother, many years ago, learning to shoot an arrow straight up in the air and catch it in her bare hands as it came down. She remembered teaching her own daughters to do the same. It was not a test of courage, but an act of surrender, of perfect balance and stillness.
At moments, the old woman imagined she caught the noises of the soldiers below. She had heard them in her dreams for so many nights now -- the strangely accented speech, the shouted commands, the clanging of bronze swords and buckles. And the smells -- the fetor of unwashed men's bodies crowded together, of leather harness and boiled wheat-meal.
She ran her fingertips over the bow, stroking it like an old friend. It resonated to her touch, as if eager for her to use it again. Beside the bow rested her arrow-case. The leather sides were flat, as if empty. It was not empty. She drew out a single arrow, an arrow without a flaw, straight and smooth, each vane of its feathering perfect.
She had carried it since the day her youngest daughter had gone to war.
Outside the circle of Azkhantian tents, watchfires of dried camel dung hissed and flickered. The wind, laden with the smells of horse dung, wild herbs, and charred camel meat, burned cold. A dog barked at a passing shadow. Hardy, roach-maned ponies stamped their feet along the tether lines and nickered, as if scenting what lay ahead.
Earlier that day, bonfires of precious ironwood had been lighted, a young camel sacrificed and its entrails examined by the enaree, who pronounced the omens auspicious. Then the animal was roasted whole in a pit dug in the earth and everyone who was to ride against the Geloni invaders ate the meat to share in the good fortune. The strong young men and women drank k'th, fermented camel's milk, and danced to the music of drums and reed pipes.
Aimellina Daughter of Oomara Daughter of Shannivar stood on the side and watched, her hands curled into fists. The rhythm of the drums pounded through her body like a fever. Her right breast, bound tightly across her chest to keep it from her bowstring, throbbed. Shadows cast by the dancers flickered across her face. Dancers leaped and spun in front of her, their ebony braids flying. They were her friends, her age mates, even the bully she had challenged so many years ago. Now they were all to ride to glory.
All except her.
"The enaree made a prophecy the night you were born," Aimellina's mother, Oomara, had said when she forbade her to ride with the others. "The midwives had feared we both might die because a star fell from the sky. The enaree said you would live, but die young and far from your own tent."
Aimellina went to find the enaree in his tent. She brought a length of fine camel-wool cloth of her own weaving in token of her respect for his powers. Her heart beat unaccountably fast as she waited for his permission to enter.
Ruddy light filled the tent. A brazier of beautifully wrought bronze held a bed of glowing coals upon which cones of sandalwood incense smoldered. Carpets woven in dark, intricate designs symbolizing the Tree-of-Life covered the floor.
"I knew that some day you would come to me, Aimellina Daughter of Oomara Daughter of Shannivar." The enaree gestured her to sit. "You are grown into a fine strong archer, just as I foresaw."
"Ar-Dethien-Gelon marches on Azkhantia with his army and my mother has forbidden me to ride in our defense!" Aimellina burst out. "All because she fears your prophecy."
"And you fear that your friends will get all the glory while you sit at home milking your camels and making curd-cheese, with no chance to kill a man and earn a husband."
Aimellina flushed. "I care nothing for a husband!"
"Then why have you come to me? Not to invite me to dance?" The enaree cackled, his voice as hoarse as the cawing of a carrion crow.
Aimellina's shoulders tensed, but she kept her hands open on her lap. "Surely in all your knowledge, with all your powers, you can give me something that will set my mother's heart to ease."
For a long moment, the enaree sat silent. The orange light shadowed every seam and line of the old man's face, turning his eyes into those of a strange animal, one of demonic aspect. Aimellina tried to imagine what he was thinking, whether he saw how much Oomara loved her, whether he cared, what secret purpose her own life or death might serve. Finally he said, "And that is all you wish? Your mother's blessing, not the protection of your own life?"
Aimellina's heart shivered. Then, like all brash young things, she shook it off with a proud toss of her head. "I want to ride, to fight, to serve my people. To win glory. The rest is in the hand of the gods."
Later that night, Aimellina came to her mother's tent. The bonfires had died down. Only a few of the young warriors still danced. The rest had gone off to sleep away the k'th and dream of battles to come.
Oomara noted how her daughter held her head, the lightness of her step and the laughter just below the surface of her voice. She'd heard it before, when the girl had made up her mind to take on the tribal bully, even if he was half again as big as she. Or when her father, Oomara's third husband, told her that if she could ride the big dun gelding, she could have it.
"I have come once more to ask your blessing," Aimellina said. "You need have no fear, for the enaree has given me a charm that will guard my life through any peril." She held out an arrow, perfect in balance and the smoothness of its shaft.
Oomara picked it up in both hands and tried its strength. To her surprise, the shaft did not bend in her grasp.
"It cannot be broken or burnt," Aimellina said. "It must take a life to -- to end mine. So you must keep it for me, for as long as it is safe in your care, so am I. The enaree has sworn it so."
"Why would the enaree do this for you? What price did you pay?"
Aimellina laughed. "For love of you and pity of me, I suppose. Or perhaps he fears what will become of him if the Geloni triumph. They are not overly fond of his sort, or so it is said."
Oomara closed her eyes, but she could not shut out the vision of her daughter's face, so filled with the brassy certainty of youth. She had no choice but to give her consent now. If she refused, the enaree would hear and take it as a personal insult.
Yet Oomara mistrusted the enaree, for she knew his ways were devious and his motives were his own. His loyalty was to his hidden gods and the welfare of the entire tribe, not one headstrong woman archer.
She remembered the last part of his prophecy, the part she had never breathed aloud, that Aimellina would die at the hands of one who loved her.
The Azkhantian clans sent their families and camel herds north, to the summer pastures. Hares, wild boar, and swift-footed gazelle roamed freely over the empty plains. Cloud leopards, emboldened at the retreat of the tribes, came down from the high reaches to hunt. Black-winged hawks soared overhead to dive upon the unwary. The land was broad and wide under the endless sky.
Aimellina rode out with the Azkhantian host, mounted on the same dun pony she had won from her father. She wore a pointed felt cap and jacket of camel-wool, stitched with the stylized lioness of her family totem. The Azkhantian riders sang as they rode, and Aimellina's voice rose higher and wilder than the rest.
They rested their ponies on a ridge overlooking the flat river valley. Aimellina, near the front, rocked forward on her saddle pad and shaded her eyes with one hand. In the distance, the Geloni army inched forward, barely moving except for the clouds of dust thrown up at its passage.
"By all the gods of fire and thunder," one of the men beside her murmured, "there must be thousands of them."
"Five thousands at least," someone else said.
"Aiee! They are locusts, filling the land beyond counting."
Aimellina's heart leapt like a startled gazelle in her chest. The Azkhantian defenders numbered no more than two thousands. Then she calmed, remembering her life was safe in her mother's strong hands.
She tossed her head, sending her braids swirling. "What have we to fear from locusts? Ten or ten thousands or a hundred thousands? We are the fire in the sky, the hawk which hunts where it wills!" She raised her bow and the dun pony pranced underneath her. "Who rides with me to glory?"
The men beside her lifted their bows and shouted. The one who had likened the Geloni host to locusts hesitated for a moment, then joined them.
They waited all day and then the next as the Geloni Imperials crept closer and closer. Aimellina wanted to charge them, but Itheryas Warleader, son of the Azkhantian chief, held the young hotheads back.
"There will be glory enough in its own time. If we cannot be a raging lion, we will be a dancing wolf."
For days, Aimellina thought she would go mad with waiting. She went to camp and offered herself to Itheryas as a scout. By night, she took her dun pony and rode for the Geloni encampment.
She got closer than she expected before she spotted their sentries. She slipped from her mount and hushed it with a hand over its nose. The Geloni had no horses, only supply carts pulled by onagers. The camp looked well-ordered, with latrine pits dug well away from the living areas. The smell of boiled grain arose from the cookfires. She studied the sentries, their weapons and armor, overlapping plates of metal on leather. As silently as she came, she slipped away.
Itheryas called his swiftest riders, Aimellina among them. "Before we fight the Geloni invaders, we must know their strengths. You will lead a troop to just beyond the reach of a long arrow's shot of the foremost. Go no closer. As soon as they answer, head east as fast as your ponies can run."
"We are not to stay and battle them?" Aimellina protested. She had not yet killed anything more fearsome than a brace of plains-hares.
"There will be glory enough to go around," he repeated. "For now, let us see how easily we can outrun them."
Aimellina led her troop as the warleader commanded. The Geloni Imperials lunged after them, spears and shields upraised. They shouted slogans she could not understand. But laden with armor as they were, their first burst of speed quickly faded. The Azkhantians paused just beyond the reach of the Geloni arrows. Their ponies jigged and pranced with excitement, their necks arched. Again the Geloni charged and again the plains riders retreated.
"Stand and fight! Cowards!" shouted the Geloni.
Aimellina laughed as she rode away. She presented herself to the warleader with shining eyes and glowing cheeks.
"Pah! They are nothing to fear! They are slow and stupid!"
Itheryas, sitting on his chair of stretched camel-hide, stroked the coils of his beard. "Yet even a slow and stupid beast can turn deadly if it gets you within its claws. We must not underestimate the power of this one. Let us lead him ever onward, farther and farther from his own land. Let us see if the Geloni can eat grass and conjure water from the stones."
That night, the Azkhantians danced and mocked the stupid, cowardly Geloni. K'th flowed freely. Aimellina danced as wildly as any man, and that night she lay with Itheryas Warleader in his tent.
Far in the northern hills, along with the families and camel herds, Oomara awoke with a start. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart pounded, and there was a sweet melting ache in her loins. She had not taken joy in a man's arms since her last husband died of a poisoned wound while hunting wild boar. Yet this was no memory of a tender lover which had come to her in the night. This was something more, tainted with magic . . .
Moving by touch in the velvet darkness of her tent, she found her arrow-case and drew out a single, perfect shaft. The wood, once polished so smooth, was damp, as if with sweat.
Further and further, Itheryas led the Geloni army, always taunting them, always beyond their reach. The Geloni charges grew shorter, as they learned they could not catch the swift plains riders. One day, Aimellina's scouting party saw that the Geloni had split their forces into three parts. One continued on its present course, thrusting deep into abandoned Azkhantian territory. The others went north and south, one toward the fever-ridden swamplands of the south, the other toward where the Azkhantians had sent their herds and families.
Itheryas called his captains to discuss strategy. Although he had granted Aimellina no special favors since they had become lovers, he listened to her now, stroking his beard thoughtfully, as she urged that a small party -- no more than three hands of riders -- remain behind as a ruse to hold the main body of Geloni, while the rest raced north. At a fraction of their full strength, the northern Geloni contingent alone could not overpower the Azkhantian host.
The young men and women cheered Aimellina's proposal, hoping they would be chosen to stay behind, a few against so many. Itheryas gave Aimellina the command. That night, he kissed her as tenderly as a daughter and sent her to her own tent alone.
The old woman shifted on her position on the chunk of black rock. Below her, smoke curled skyward from the cooking fires of the encampment. The sun was slowly burning off the morning's haze, and the outlines of the hills grew sharper. Morning's chill hung about her still, clinging to her like a familiar garment. Under her fingertips, the arrow felt warm. It quivered under her touch.
The Geloni Imperials made camp by the Doharra Springs in the shape of a huge circle. They stayed there for many days. Aimellina rode closer and closer, jeering at them, calling them cowards, shooting arrows into the sky and then catching them with her bare hands. She lead her troop on a hare-hunt just beyond arrow range to show how little regard she gave the Geloni. Nothing would budge the Imperials.
Then, the next morning, they were gone, fled in the darkness. The dust of their retreat could be seen in the far distance. Nothing remained of the encampment except latrine furrows and discarded packs. In places, the wiry plains-grass had been torn and beaten. Much of the campsite looked as if an army of moles had been at work, throwing up burrows and heaps of loose soil, only to have them smoothed over by the passage of men's feet. Dust swirls arose like ghosts from the dry dirt.
Aimellina and her riders sat on the little rise beyond the campsite and cheered. "Come on!" she cried, slinging her bow across her back. "Let's see what gifts they've left for us!"
She urged the dun gelding down toward the trampled earth. The pony bucked, fighting her. She dug her heels into its sides and forced it onward. Giving her ululating battle cry, she galloped toward the stretch of smoothed, bare earth. Her riders pounded close behind her, headed for the abandoned cart which was piled high with baggage.
Without warning, Aimellina's pony plunged to the ground. She looked down as the earth gave way beneath it. A ditch gaped beneath her. Instinct sent her scrambling off the pony's back just before it crashed down upon the spearpoints braced in the ditch.
Aimellina's boots slipped on the shield which had covered the ditch, masked by a thin layer of dirt. The pony shrieked as it landed full force on the spears. Blood spurted from its neck and sides. It thrashed wildly. One hoof caught Aimellina on the side of the head. Her vision whirled and her stomach lurched. Pain lanced through her skull.
Around her, she heard more ponies neighing, someone screaming, then the guttural battle chant of the Geloni.
Aimellina clawed at the edge of the ditch. The dirt crumbled in her hand. Her feet tore and slipped on the slope. Then, as if some invisible hand caught her, sustained her, the earth grew steady beneath her toes. She scrambled up.
The next instant, she'd drawn her knife from its sheath on her thigh. A Geloni soldier lunged at her with a heavy bronze sword. Under his helmet, with its feathered crest, his shaven face was flushed and grim.
Aimellina twisted, parrying the Geloni's thrust as best she could. Her knees felt slippery; her heart pounded.
All around her, the earth boiled over with Geloni in full battle armor. A hundred spearpoints clashed in the sun. As she turned to face her attacker, she caught a glimpse of one of her riders -- only one -- an instant before he was buried under a dozen Imperials.
More Geloni -- five or six -- formed a circle around her. In one hand, each held a sword, angled so she could not pass their reach. Each protected his own body with a shield. She tried lunging this way and then that, but could not reach them.
"Cowards!" She sliced through the air with her long knife. "Are you afraid to fight one woman?"
The first Geloni -- at least, she thought it was he, the way her vision blurred now and her ears sang high and sweet -- straightened his shoulders.
"Never!" Aimellina cried. "Come at me, one to one, and I will spit your eyeballs on my blade and eat your liver raw!"
"Surrender or death," rumbled the Imperial.
"Death, then! Death for both of us!" Her knife extended to its fullest range, Aimellina hurled herself at him.
Something thudded against the side of her head and everything went black.
In her tent in the northern hills, Oomara woke screaming. Pain, endless pain . . . Her chest and belly were a mass of oozing burns, her left nipple torn out by pincers, her joints twisted until the bones splintered. A hundred moments of searing agony, a hundred moments of looming blackness from which something always held her back . . .
And still she did not die.
And always came the questions, thundered at her in a voice she could barely understand.
Where is the Azkhantian host? Where have they gone? North or south? Where? Where?
Oomara pulled off her loose robe of camel-wool, clawed at the soft shift beneath it. She lifted her arms, surprised at the easy motion of her shoulders. Trembling fingers smoothed over her unbroken skin, traced the outlines of her unscarred left breast.
She lit a lamp of camel-tallow and dressed, shivering in the cold. Her arrow-case lay as always beside her sleeping pillow. She reached inside. Her stomach curled as her fingers closed around the single, perfect shaft. As before, it was wet. She held it up to the light.
Droplets of blood oozed silently from the wooden shaft.
She took only a single mount, a tough old mare like herself, a bag of grain and dried mutton, her bow and arrow-case. As she left, the enaree watched from the edge of the camp. She wondered what curse might come if she strangled him with her bare hands. But something in the lonely figure, the way he hobbled from his tent, caught at her heart. It was said the enarees saw many things, and for this they paid a terrible price. The enaree's death would not buy back Aimellina's, or change what Oomara must do.
The Geloni would not know which way they had gone, not yet. Aimellina had bought them that much time. The Azkhantian force would arrive that day or the next and move them all further into the northern badlands, where any pursuit could be countered by ambush.
The arrow drew her south, as unerring as a lodestone. The mare trotted on, untiring. Hours melted into days of gray sky, gray dust, gray fear in her heart.
Day by day, the arrow wept blood.
Night by night, she awoke screaming.
Where have they gone? North or south? Say the word and we will end your pain.
By death, she knew they meant. But she could not die.
A woman sat on a crag of black rock, looking down on the broad flatness where the Geloni had set up their encampment. The sun was well up now. The night, with its tortured sleep, was over.
Another day. Another day of pain.
She drew out a single arrow, an arrow without flaw, straight and smooth, each vane of its feathering perfect. Like a lover, her bow welcomed her touch, the wood worn silken by years of use.
Her left breast ached, as if filled with milk. She remembered the tug of a petal-soft mouth, the sweet moments of guiding the pony for her daughter's first ride. The hot fierce pride as she watched Aimellina's dancing swordplay, the way she sat her big dun pony, the eagle steadiness of her gaze, the sureness of her aim.
Oomara stood and searched for a place to stand among the crannies and loose rock chips. Her feet came to rest, well apart, balanced, as if this place in the rock had always been waiting for her.
She looked into the sky. The blue was so clear, it hurt her eyes. She imagined a hawk flying free, just beyond the limit of her aging eyes.
She strung the bow and notched the arrow to the bowstring. Slowly, she drew the bow. She felt its power matched by the strength in her arms. A great stillness came over her. The haze overhead parted. The wind hushed.
She looked unblinking at the sun and aimed. Loosed, the arrow shot free. The bow quivered in her hands. She soared with the arrow, straight to the heart of the sun's brilliance. The earth fell away below her, the tiny figure of a black-cloaked woman on a rock as craggy and weather-seamed as she.
Slower and slower she rose, until at last she curved back toward the earth. Each instant, she gathered strength and sureness.
The returning arrow fell so straight, it was a mere dot against the bright splendor of the sky. She did not need to see it. She felt it singing in her blood, in her bones, in the pit of her belly, the center of joy.
Air whistled by as the green and golden plains rushed to meet her. Then, at the last moment, she opened her arms, as if to welcome a lost child, and arched her chest to embrace the falling arrow.
Silver pain shocked through her. She gasped and fell to her knees. Her body tumbled down the slope like a broken doll. She landed in a heap on a clump of jagged rocks. Below, in the Geloni encampment, another body shuddered, another mouth curved in a smile of relief, another chest grew suddenly still. Her vision blurred and her eyes stung with unexpected tears. She had been prepared for the pain, for the fading of the day, but not for the sense of inexpressible tenderness which swept all through her, carrying her to the last.
© 1996 Deborah Wheeler