For a moment, the woman standing in the center of the room seemed not to hear. Then, slowly, she turned, hands fumbling at a buckle for the armor she wore.
"What is it?"
"My Queen, you have a visitor."
The woman scowled. "Do I look like I have time for a visitor? Whoever it is, get rid of them."
"Yes, my Queen. I will tell Her Majesty you are not accepting visitors today."
The woman in the center of the room froze. "Her...?"
"Her Majesty, my Queen. Rest assured, I will show proper respect when I tell her you are unable to see her at this time."
"Do that," the woman growled, "and I will have you dragged through the city by your heels. Escort her to me now."
"Yes, my Queen." Looking puzzled, the servant left the room, returning moments later with the guest in tow.
"Greetings, Your Majesty."
"Good," the armored woman said with a smile, "now that's over. Think you can help me with this damn buckle?"
Returning the smile, her guest stepped toward her, brushing her hands away and fastening the offending buckle with a practiced twist of her fingers. "You really should get that replaced, Your Majesty."
The armored woman frowned. "Enough titles," she said sternly. "It's good to see you, Kira."
Kira nodded slowly. "As you wish," she said, "though I have never addressed you as anything other than Your Majesty, or my Queen."
The other woman returned the nod. "But," she replied, "that was when you were an officer in my service. Now you are a queen in your own right, which means you may call me Lykopis."
Kira smiled. "Lykopis it is, then. And you really should get that buckle replaced."
Lykopis grinned. "Thing hasn't worked right since it deflected that sword blade during the fight for Myonaris. But enough of that. How are you, my friend? And how is your mate?"
Kira grinned. "My husband," she replied, placing deliberate emphasis on the second word, "is fine, as am I."
"And what brings you to see me now, in the middle of a war?"
"The war brings me," Kira replied. "I am here to inform you that my husband even now marshalls his forces to march to your aid. He does this in recognition of our treaty of peace and assistance." Her grin returned. "And in recognition of the fact that I would never forgive him if he didn't."
Lykopis frowned. "There was a time," she said, "when even the suggestion that we needed the help of men would be grounds for banishment. Times, however, have changed. My forces are outnumbered, and we have already been pushed back from the border. Our enemy has captured several outlying towns."
"Your enemy." Kira nodded slowly. "Lkauglin of Gruidor. Darin, my husband, has had dealings with this one before. I believe there are scores to settle there."
"When," Lykopis asked, "can we expect assistance from the forces of Eshoania?"
"Darin's forces," Kira replied, "are only beginning to gather. It will be several days before the army is ready to march, several more before they cross the border. Altogether, I would estimate at least two weeks before they reach the fighting. The cavalry will come ahead, but even they will need a week."
"A lot of lives can be lost in a week," Lykopis said slowly. "And a lot of land."
"True," Kira agreed, "but there is another element that you can count on much sooner than that." She grinned. "Me."
Lykopis stared. "My friend," she said, "you have always been brave, but even you cannot hope to slow this enemy by yourself."
"I won't have to. I brought a newly formed unit of our army with me. Fortunately, they were on training maneuvers when we received word, which means they were ready to move out at once." She smiled. "I think you'll like them. The unit was formed as a gift to me by my husband. We call them the She Wolves."
Without looking up, Kira gestured toward the map spread across the table. "Your troops have made it out of the central pass, and they're starting to reform. According to our scouts, Lkauglin's main force has yet to enter."
Lykopis nodded. "He has to take the pass," she observed. "It would take him several days to march around."
"My She Wolves are positioned at the narrowed part of the pass," Kira said, "with a strong force of your infantry. Their orders are to hold as long as they can, then fall back as slowly as possible, to give the rest of your forces time to regroup. And Darin should be here by morning with the Eshoanian cavalry."
"I've ordered everything concentrated on the pass," Lykopis said. "It's the only way a large force can get past that ridge. Oh, there's a couple hunting trails, but only a small force could get through there, nothing we can't handle."
A sound made the two turn, only to see armed men burst into the tent. Cursing, they tried to draw weapons, but the men were on them too quickly. Fists lashed out, and both women dropped to the ground, stunned.
"Very good," an officer observed. "Now, let's get them out of here before they recover enough to call for help."
"What's going on?"
The woman at the map barely glanced up. "We've had an incident," she said.
"Incident?" Darin glanced at the officers crowding the tent. "From the looks on your faces, you've had a disaster. Now tell me what happened."
The woman looked up at this. "I serve Queen Lykopis," she said, her voice cold. "I do not answer to any man."
"Fine. And what were her orders concerning me?"
The woman frowned. "You were to be given joint command on your arrival," she said slowly.
Darin smiled. "Which means you do answer to me, by your queen's orders." He looked more closely at the woman. "Aren't you the one who arrested my wife? Cathyia, isn't it?"
Cathyia nodded. "I am. But, as you know, I only did so because I was following orders. I have long been proud to call Lakira my friend."
Darin returned the nod. "Apology accepted," he said. "Now, what's got all of you so troubled?"
Cathyia glanced away. "Late yesterday afternoon," she replied, "a small enemy force infiltrated this camp using one of the old hunters' trails over the ridge. Somehow, they managed to overpower the guards outside this tent, after which they abducted those within."
"Meaning Queen Lykopis and my wife." Silently, Cathyia nodded. "And your plans to rescue them?"
"We have none. We believe an attempt to use the same trails to locate and free the prisoners would be unsuccessful. Having used them himself, Lkauglin will no doubt have the other end of the trail heavily guarded, making it impossible for a suitably small force to slip through. If the prisoners are still alive, our only chance to free them is to force the pass."
"Agreed," Darin said, looking at the map. "My cavalry stands ready to assist, and my foot soldiers will be here by end of day tomorrow." Seeing the looks of surprise caused by this last, he smiled. "These are Eshoanian infantry, ladies," he said. "There isn't an army in the world that can cover ground like they can. Now, where are my wife's Wolves?"
Cathyia pointed. "They hold the pass, along with a large infantry force."
"And their condition?"
"Your wife," came the reply, "arrived with slightly over one hundred warriors. Of these, perhaps sixty remain able to fight, although all of them has received at least minor wounds." She shook her head. "They have refused relief, and their defense has more the aspect of attack. They have to be exhausted by now, but they refuse to stop fighting."
"They know what's at stake. Ok, let's decide what we're going to do once my infantry arrives. And I'd like to get a message to the Wolves."
"I had thought to bag a queen, but I hardly expected to wind up with two of them."
Lkauglin gazed thoughtfully at the two women who stood before him, their hands bound behind them with rough rope. The women glared back, seemingly unfazed by their nakedness.
"You," he said, glancing at Lykopis, "I expected. But you," his eyes turned to Kira, "are a most pleasant surprise indeed. How is it that the famous Queen Kira stands at the side of the very Amazon who cast her out?"
"The fact that I stand here is enough," Kira replied, her voice cold. "It should also be enough to make you see the mistake you have made. Her forces will stop at nothing to see her free. And as for me..."
"As for you," Lkauglin broke in, "the good King Darin will no doubt add his strength to the attempt, once he learns of your capture." He shrugged. "No matter. I have prepared too well for this war, and not even the armies of Eshoania can save the Amazons from defeat. As for the two of you, you will make fine bargaining chips. And afterwards..." Lkauglin grinned, then gestured to the women's guards. "Take them," he commanded. "Put them someplace safe, and make sure they have no way to escape. But be careful how you touch them. They're mine now, and nobody will enjoy them before I do."
Darin glanced up from the map. "Stop saluting, Mina," he said softly. "And sit down. You look exhausted. How fare the Wolves?"
"They fight," was the reply, "and they will continue to fight until Her Majesty is free."
Darin shook his head. "Tomorrow morning," he said, "the Wolves will retreat."
Mina's eyes widened. "Your Majesty," she protested, "we cannot."
"You can," Darin told her, "and you will. Our infantry has begun arriving. By dark, they'll all be in position." He nodded toward the map. "My spearmen now block the end of the pass, with Amazon support on both flanks. Remember that move we practiced last month?"
Mina's mouth curled into a smile that held nothing of humor. "The She Wolves," she said, her voice cold, "would never accept retreat. But a trap..."
Turning her head, Lykopis glared over her shoulder. "Are you serious? Last time we tried, I got a splinter in my ass."
"Well, keep your ass out of the way this time."
The two women sat back to back in the center of a small room. Between them, a slender pole stretched from floor to ceiling. Lykopis' arms had been drawn back and bound, the connecting rope passing across Kira's stomach. Her legs stretched out in front of her, bound at knee and ankle. Kira, wearing identical bonds, bent her knees until her feet rested flat on the floor. With a soft sigh, Lykopis did the same.
Moving together, the two women pressed their feet against the floor. Muscles quivering, they slowly pushed themselves up, shuffling and bouncing to bring their feet closer to the pole, until, finally, they stood.
"It worked," Lykopis sighed with relief. "Now what?"
"This." Kira pulled forward, and then suddenly lunged backwards with all her strength. With a loud crack, the slender pole between them snapped, sending the two women crashing to the floor, the impact stunning both.
"Lykopis," Kira finally said, feeling the other woman moving feebly beneath her, "are you alright?"
"You," came the dazed sounding reply, "need to lose weight. Get off of me. And why didn't you tell me what you were going to do?"
"Didn't want to get your hopes up," Kira replied as the two women squirmed their way to a seated position. "Now that's over, the rest should be less painful. Brace yourself so I don't shove you."
Once again, Kira set her feet and pushed upwards. This time, Lykopis remained seated. Slowly, Kira worked the rope connecting her wrists up the other woman's body until her wrists cleared Lykopis' head.
"There," she said, dropping behind Lykopis once more, "that didn't hurt a bit, did it?"
"Other than almost ripping my nose off? Not at all."
"Well, your nose is a little big." Grinning, Kira fumbled behind her, fingers picking at the other woman's wrists. Moments later, the ropes fell away. Sighing with relief, Lykopis rubbed her wrists, then twisted around and began working on Kira's bonds Once Kira's hands were free, the two women began working on freeing their legs.
"I'm surprised there's been no response," Lykopis remarked, hands busy with the rope binding her knees. "We made a lot of noise there, between the pole breaking and you trying to crush me."
Kira rose to her feet. "The guards probably have orders to stay away," she observed wryly. "Wouldn't want them tempted to sample Lkauglin's prizes, would we?" Moving toward the door with a piece of the shattered pole in her hand, she added, "Still, someone will be along eventually to check on us, or to bring food. When that happens, they'll see the busted pole. With any luck, they won't call for help to investigate, and that will be our chance."
Nodding, Lykopis joined her, the two women pressing themselves to the wall on either side of the door. After a wait that seemed endless, they heard muffled cursing, followed by the sound of a key in the door's lock. As a guard rushed in, Kira lashed out with the pole, catching him in the head and driving him to the floor.
"Thanks for the help," she said, kneeling and beginning to search the guard.
"I didn't know the door swung in," Lykopis replied, pushing the door away from where it had pinned her to the wall. "And besides, I still have that splinter in my ass, so I'm not as fast as I could be."
Kira shook her head. "Stop being a man, would you?" Rising, she held out a dagger. "No sword, I'm afraid, so this will have to do." Smiling, she held up her other hand to display a ring of keys. "And this will get us the rest of the way out."
Silently, the two women left the room and began moving down the hallway beyond. At the next door, Kira tried various keys on the ring until the lock clicked open. Inside, they found one of Lykopis' officers seated on the floor, her uniform tattered.
"On your feet, warrior," Lykopis commanded. "It's time to get ourselves out of here."
"I," the woman responded without looking up, "do not deserve freedom."
Lykopis frowned. "That," she said sternly, "is not your decision to make. Now get up."
The woman shook her head. "I allowed myself to be taken alive," she said softly. "I am disgraced."
"So did I," Lykopis pointed out. "Am I also disgraced?"
"You are queen," the other woman responded. "You are above such things."
"Nobody," Lykopis replied softly, "is above such things." Reaching down, she drew the other woman to her feet. "Fate, or maybe the Goddess herself, brought you here for a reason. Who is to say that it was not to aid me, so that we both may regain our honor?"
Silently, the woman stared at Lykopis, a light beginning to show in her eyes. "Who, indeed? What is your command, my Queen?"
Kira dropped to the ground, Lykopis beside her. Behind them lay seven officers freed from their cells. Thanks to the chance discovery of the guards' armory, all were armed, and all carried as many extra blades as they could.
Ahead, barely visible through the night, lay a palisade. Within, according to the freed officers, they would find captured Amazons, along with a handful of Kira's Eshoanians.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Lykopis nodded. "I may be a Queen," she replied softly, "but I am still an Amazon. Let's go."
Silently, the two women made their way toward the palisade, leaving the others behind. Reaching the wall, they split up, moving in opposite directions as they circled toward the gate. Once there, they crouched in the shadows.
"I got two guards," Lykopis said, her breathing a bit ragged.
"Three." Now dressed in a stolen uniform, Kira pushed a bundle of cloth toward the other woman. "If your officers were right, that should be all of them." Slowly, she rose to her feet, listening for an outcry that never came. "Get dressed," she said, "while I see about getting this gate open."
Inside, they found nearly sixty prisoners. Silently, they rejoined the officers, who distributed the extra weapons they carried, arming slightly less than half. Another quick visit to the armory saw each woman carrying at least a dagger. Armed, the group moved silently into the night.
"Now what?" Surrounded by the others, one of the officers looked at Lykopis. "We are free, we are armed, but we have already been beaten once. And an entire army stands between us and our people."
"We could," another officer suggested, "make our way to the path down the ridge, rejoin our forces."
"Or," Kira replied, "we could attack." Seeing eyes widen all around her, she smiled. "By now," she went on, "my husband's forces will have arrived. Our combined strength will be enough to focus Lkauglin's attention on the pass. He'll have his full strength pushing forward, but he won't be there. Lkauglin is not the kind to lead from the front. He will be in the rear, surrounded by guards."
"Attack," one of the officers said slowly. "Sixty women, many armed only with daggers, to attack a unit of fully armed, probably armored royal guards."
Lykopis shook her head. "Not women," she replied, "Amazons. And," she added, nodding toward Kira, "some very unhappy Wolves. I like it. If nothing else, a strike at their king may throw the troops into confusion. Let's go. We only have until sunrise to figure out where Lkauglin is."
"The fighting has begun," Cathyia reported as she entered the tent. "Our forward elements have begun to fall back."
"Excellent." Smiling, Darin slid his sword into its sheath. "Shall we join the action?"
Together, the two left the tent, moving quickly toward the end of the pass. "I do not like this concept of retreat," Cathyia remarked. "It is not the Amazon way."
"Maybe it should be," Darin replied. "Besides, I think you'll like the way this retreat ends."
Arriving at the rear of the massed spearemen, Darin peered toward the pass. "Can they see us yet?"
"They came into view moments ago, Your Majesty."
Darin nodded. "First flag," he ordered. With a glance toward Cathyia, he explained, "First flag is a warning. It tells the troops ahead to be ready to move when they see the second flag." After a moment, he nodded again. "Do it."
As the second flag waved, the forces within the pass suddenly surged forward, the force of their attack staggering the enemy's front ranks. Then, just as suddenly, the mixed force turned and ran. After a second of hesitation, the enemy troops gave chase.
"I just hope they bought enough time," Cathyia said.
"We shall see," was the reply.
Running at full speed, the exhausted Amazons and Eshoanians neared the massed formation blocking the pass. At the last second, the spearmen opened ranks, forming lanes down which the running women passed. Behind them, the ranks closed, shields overlapping, spears dropping to form a bristling wall of steel in the pursuers' path. Pushed from behind, unable to stop their headlong plunge, the front ranks of the enemy crashed against this wall of spears, only to fall back, bloodied.
"Troops, advance! Archers, loose!"
Setting their feet, the massed spearmen began pushing their way into the pass. Behind them, archers lofted their volleys over their heads, dropping a steady, punishing rain of shafts onto the reeling enemy from above. Stunned, their formations lost in the pursuit, the soldiers of Gruidor began to fall back.
"Not a retreat," Cathyia said, awed. "A trap. You drew them right onto your spears."
Darin nodded. "Now," he said, "we make sure they don't have time to reform."
Slowly, the massed formation pushed to, then beyond, the narrowest part of the pass. As the pass widened, Amazon forces moved up on the spearmen's flanks, widening the front and continuing the push. Slowly, desperately, the enemy began to rally, their defense stiffening.
"Damn," Darin growled, watching from his position just behind the ranks of spearmen. "I was hoping we'd make it to the end of the pass before they recovered. Now it gets bloody."
Cathyia stared at a pass now carpeted with bodies. "Bloody?"
"Bloodier," Darin replied. "Now that the first push is over, we'll have to... wait. What's that?"
Stunned, the two watched as the enemy's rear ranks began to fall away. One after another, rows of soldiers lowered their weapons, heads turning to stare behind them.
"Kira," Darin said softly, "what have you done this time?"
Through the sounds of fighting, they began to hear shouted commands. Slowly, the fighting ground to a halt as enemy soldiers began to throw down their weapons in surrender.
"Whatever it was," Darin added, "it worked."
Within moments, it was over, the enemy falling back until the pass was clear. At Darin's command, the combined army moved forward, spilling out of the pass and staring at the mass of disarmed soldiers filling the flat ground beyond. Then, as they watched, the mass of troops divided, falling back on either side as a small group moved through them.
"It is. Make way!" As the troops ahead parted ranks, Darin moved forward, followed by Cathyia and the officers of both armies. Halting before the approaching group, he shook his head.
"Well met, Your Majesty," he said, bowing, "but aren't you on the wrong side of the line?"
Still wearing her stolen uniform, Lykopis laughed. "Yes," she replied, "I suppose I am. But just look at what I found." Stepping back, she gestured toward a small group of enemy officers. In their midst stood Lkauglin. "We managed to surprise his guards while everyone was paying attention to you."
"Thank you for the distraction," Kira added, stepping forward and wrapping Darin in a brief, tight hug.
Darin glanced at the ragged uniforms of the women guarding the prisoners. "And where did you find them?"
"Prisoners," one of the Amazon officers said darkly. "Cowards who allowed themselves to be taken alive."
"These women," Lykopis declared, glaring, "these warriors, just won this war for us. How much longer would the fighting have gone on had they not had the courage to act? How many more of our own would we have lost? I consider each and every one of them a hero, and I expect you to show them the respect they deserve. Do I make myself clear?"
Stunned, the officer dropped her eyes. "Yes, Your Majesty, you do."
"Hero," Darin whispered to Kira. "Isn't that a male term?"
"Oh, hush," she replied, grinning.
"I want a detachment of guards assembled immediately," Lykopis ordered, then turned to the women behind her. "Once they arrive, warriors, turn the prisoners over to them, and then have your injuries tended to". Turning back, she approached Darin.
"With him in our hands," she said, nodding toward Lkauglin, "we should have no trouble negotiating terms. We will, of course, demand that all enemy forces leave our borders, and reperations will also be required. That, however, is for the diplomats to sort out. As for us, I think it's time we went home".
"And," she added as they turned back toward the pass, "does anyone have a pair of tweezers?"
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