Chapter 8
Queen of the Jungle

Near Hippolyta River, Arma

"I have always tried to treat the sexes equally, but I know that I am a rarity. The way men and women can disdain each other, it is nothing short of a miracle that humanity has managed to propagate all these millennia. They say opposites attract... Do the differences that push us apart also bring us together?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark was not particularly eager to venture into the chilly North, so he did not mind the moderate pace they were keeping. As they walked, Felix lectured them on countless ancient battles in far-flung places they had never heard of. The old knight discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each side, the genius that brought victory as well as the blunders that brought ruin. Of the Crusader's pupils, Giles was the only one with extensive military experience. Compared to his nineteen years of service, Edward was a distant second with a mere eleven months as a recruit in the Royal Gladian Army. Still, they all benefited from Felix's lessons, even though some members of the group questioned the relevance of those lessons. If nothing else, his talking helped the time pass.
It was not long before they reached the Hippolyta River. The only way across was a few simple and uncomfortably narrow rope bridges. Mark thought it was odd that a broader, sturdier bridge was never built to accommodate the traffic to the north.
The rope bridge they approached looked treacherous on its own, but the surging waters of the river made it appear absolutely perilous. Mark took a breath and set aside his misgivings. The bridges had to be used by the herders up north bringing the fruits of their labor to Porto Sul. Since the bridges held such economical necessity, they would have to be kept in good order. He repeated that rationale several times over in his mind to assure himself.
"Do you honestly expect us to cross this rickety excuse for a bridge?" Edward asked critically.
"It does look rather dangerous," Teresa added.
Mark was comforted to hear others voicing the same concerns. He was sure they all had some doubts, but Felix seemed to be the exception.
"The bridges are quite safe, I assure you," he said. "The ropes and the beams are both thick and strong. They withstand weather and burden quite well. However, for safety's sake, do not stand too closely together while we cross." When his words did not seem to have much effect, he took a different tack. "Come now, are you going to be cowed by a mere rope bridge?"
The challenge to their courage could not go unmet. Those among them who were warriors filed onto the bridge with the others slowly following behind, keeping enough distance disperse their combined weight over the span of the bridge. When they were all moving forward, Mark saw two figures rush to the end of the bridge. He turned around and saw two more at the other end. They were probably brigands who would demand a toll for passage. Mark gripped the hilt of his sword. They would have strong discouragement waiting for them.
"Do you see the people on both ends of the bridge?" Mark asked in a low voice. After they all murmured in agreement, he continued, "Stay on your guard. I say we keep moving forward."
"I'm with you," Sonia said.
The fencer nodded to Jill, who promptly notched an arrow in her bow. The group continued their slow pace, preparing for an inevitable fight. Giles, who was in the rear of the formation, started walking backwards to keep his eyes on the ones at the other end. The figures crouched down and started to flap their arms. The others were too preoccupied looking ahead to see what they were doing, but it did not take long for Giles to realize what they were actually doing. They were not simply flapping their arms. They were chopping, cutting the ropes that tethered the bridge to the ground.
"Get down!" the pikeman shouted as he flopped on his belly. "Grab onto something now!"
Everyone immediately obeyed. They were all grasping the ropes when the end behind them was cut free. The bridge plunged into the water, thrashing wildly in the rapids.
"Climb to the other end!" Felix yelled.
Using the bridge like a horizontal ladder, they made their way to the other end. Mark was only a few fathoms away when he saw the two figures hacking away at that end as well. Once the other end was free, they would be at the river's mercy.
Acting quickly, Jill snaked her leg around a suspension rope to free her hands. With an arrow already notched, she picked a target and pulled back the bowstring. A sudden jolt threw off her aim and the arrow hit the left figure in the shoulder. The attack seemed to make their cutting all the more furious. Before Jill could notch another arrow, the other end broke free.
The group was swept away by the swift currents, crashing against rocks that jutted out of the water. Some of them tried to grab onto the rocks, but they were too slick to grasp. They continued to be tossed around in the river until they could no longer see when they were going. It meant only one thing: a waterfall. Hopes of the fall being only a fathom or so were cruelly thwarted. As they were pushed over the edge, they saw the bottom, which seemed to be hundreds of feet below. Their screams filled the air in a drop that felt like an eternity. Those screams were cut off when they landed in the water below. Everything went black.

* * *

When Mark's eyes opened, the blackness did not go away. He was immediately gripped with panic. Was he dead? Had he gone blind? It took him a few moments to adjust, but he soon realized that he was alive and his sight remained. He was in a dark place, with only the faintest hint of light.
The air was hot and humid and smelled foul. The swordsman was lying in ankle-deep mud. It then became clear that his weapons and armor had been taken from him. He reached in his boot to discover the Dagger or Eolande had been taken as well. After touching his neck for the familiar chains, he realized his cross, pendant and signet were missing, too.
Though his body ached quite a lot, he started to move around. He could not see well, so he proceeded very slowly, cautiously feeling his way around. When he found a wall, he began to follow it. He soon was able to make out a human figure leaning against the wall. He was not certain, but it looked like Edward.
"Edward?" he asked softly.
He could see the figure's head turn lazily.
"Ah, so you've woken up..." the Prince said.
"Where are the others?"
Giles' voice whispered nearby. "So far it's just the three of us. I don't know how many of us are down here."
An unfamiliar voice hissed in Bannish, "Don't talk. You'll get us in trouble."
"Who are you?" Mark asked, keeping his voice low.
"You must be new," the voice said. "You're now a slave of the Amazons."
Mark did not like the sound of that, but his first concern was for the others. He asked the voice, "Where are the rest of my companions?"
"I don't know," the voice replied. "Wait here and I'll see what I can find."
While they were waiting, Mark surveyed his surroundings. His eyes were adjusting better to the darkness and he gathered that they were in a pit about three fathoms deep. The walls were steep and slick. Scaling them would be nearly impossible.
While Mark was feeling around for something to grab onto, he asked Edward and Giles, "Do either of you know what happened to us?"
"Last thing I remember is falling off that cliff," Edward mumbled.
Giles concurred, "Same here."
Mark frowned. Who were the Amazons? Had all of them been enslaved? Did anyone perish from the fall? Too many questions were sprouting in his head, but no answers were forthcoming. Before any more questions could take root, the unfamiliar voice returned.
"I've found two other new people," it said. "Are they friends of yours?"
The gaunt figure of Ignatiy came into view. Behind him was Jasper, looking particularly discontented.
"They took the Master's gift," Ignatiy whined. "I'm in the dark again... No flame here... Dark, dark, dark..."
While Ignatiy was rambling, Jasper growled, "Thay fink thay kin teyk moi loo' wifou' askin' fuhs'! Oi'll shew'm a fin' er too!"
"Do you know what happened?" Mark asked.
The thief thumped his chest fiercely. "Cowrse Oi do! Bunch o' wemmin pinch'd ouah stuff soon as wi wosh'd dounstrem! Thay sah Oi woz aweyk, sew thay clowbbah'd meh guhd!" In rare anger, he punched his open palm. "Oi'll gi' 'em ye', jes' ye weyt an' seh!"
Trying to calm Jasper's temper by distracting him, Mark asked, "Where are the women?"
The voice interposed. "They are being judged by the Queen, no doubt. They will be her warriors if they are strong... or her servants if they are weak... or if they anger her, they will die."
Considering the natures of their female companions, the voice's words did not bode well for them. But before Mark could worry too much about their plight, he needed to account for everyone.
"There is one more," Mark said. "He is an older man."
"Is his hair the color of the moon?"
Realizing the voice was talking about the color grey, Mark replied, "It is."
"He is one of the Aged then," the voice said. "Even men among the Aged are revered by the Amazons. But not many of us live that long..."

* * *

Upon regaining consciousness, the first thing Felix noticed was the stifling air. His eyes opened to see a ceiling made of thatched leaves. His sword and armor had been removed and a young woman was curled up beside him, sleeping soundly. He saw more women in the room busily polishing his gear. Woken by his stirring, the woman at his side opened her eyes.
"Revered One," she said, speaking flawless Imperial in a low, deferential voice, "please bear us no ill will. Our hunting party did not notice that one of the Aged was in the group."
Felix sat upright and moved away from her. He was still struggling to regain his bearings.
"Where am I? What are you talking about?"
The woman also sat up. She moved closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder. She softly caressed his chest.
"Revered One, you are among the Amazons now. Our hunters seek new blood from the outsiders. We would never have attacked one of the Aged intentionally. Please forgive our misdeed against you."
Felix tried to move away again. Realizing his discomfort, the woman folded her hands in her lap and sat still.
Now that he could finally have a normal conversation, the old knight asked, "Where are the people I was traveling with?"
Afraid of stirring his wrath, the woman bowed her head. "Revered One, the men are in the slave pit and the women are being judged by our Queen."
"What will happen to them?"
"The men will be breeders, laborers or personal attendants depending on the Queen's disposition. The women will be hunters, servants like me, or dead."
"Dead?"
The woman looked up at him and answered plainly, "Women who refuse to respect our ways and abide by the laws of the tribe cannot be allowed to live, Revered One."

* * *

Sonia did not appreciate being on her knees before the wicker throne of the Amazon Queen. Jill, Teresa and Adrienne were with her, but they had all been stripped of their armaments. A few jabs from the spear-toting guards had been enough to keep them quiet, but it put the fencer in a powerfully bad temper.
When the Queen approached the throne, Sonia was quite surprised at what she saw. Clad the same tattered skins that all the other hunters wore, the Queen wore no ornament to identify her rank save a bracer on each wrist as opposed to the one worn by all the others. She had a knife strapped to her thigh and carried a double-pointed javelin in her hand. Once she sat down, the Queen sank one of the tips of her javelin into the soft dirt and rested her hand on the arm of the throne. Her feral brown eyes quickly scanned the new captives.
"I am Nicoma, Queen of Amazons," she said in terse, accented Bannish. "Your fate is in my hands."
"Where are the others?" Sonia demanded.
Her interruption earned her a crack across the back of the head with the butt of a spear.
"Rudeness is punished," Nicoma replied. "Men are in slave pit. Aged One is being cared for. You being judged."
"Release us!" Sonia shouted, rising up defiantly.
One guard struck her knee to bring her back to the ground and another delivered a second punitive blow to the head. Gritting her teeth through the pain, the fencer glared at her attackers.
"Hit me again and I'll impale you on that thing!"
Nicoma stern expression turned into a grin. "Threats are useless. My hunters know no fear."
That being said, Sonia's resilience seemed to have an effect on Nicoma. The Queen's savage grin broadened as she reclined in her throne.
"All are warriors, I see. How about wager? We have duel. If you win, all are free. If not, all die."
Now the situation was turning in the fencer's favor, or so she thought. "I won't lose," Sonia replied confidently.
Nicoma made a hand gesture, apparently one of negation. "Not you." She pointed at Teresa. "You."
"M-me?" Teresa stuttered.
Nicoma rose and pointed to the exit. "To arena!"
The Amazon Queen picked up her javelin and walked out of the throne room. Guards circled around the four companions, a ring of spearheads fixed at their necks. With resistance looking thoroughly fruitless at this point, they rose and followed Nicoma out.
The arena was a ring in the heart of the village about five fathoms in diameter. Around it was a crude fence little less than nine feet high with countless sharpened sticks jutting towards the inside. Nicoma was already waiting in the center.
The guards separated Teresa from the others in spite of her protests. After pushing her through the gate, they tossed her a javelin like Nicoma's. Teresa stood petrified. The sweat that was soaking her had nothing to do with the heat.
Dozens of Amazons had flocked to the arena, all cheering wildly for their Queen. Taking in all the details of the situation, Jill's eyes darted about anxiously.
"What are we going to do?" she whispered to Sonia. "She doesn't stand a chance."
Sonia could only glare at the Amazon Queen. "There's nothing we can do," she said through gritted teeth. "These Amazons will tear us to shreds if we try anything."
"Have a little faith," Adrienne replied calmly as she rested her hand on the fence. "Maybe her god has a trick or two up his sleeve."
Sonia did not have the leisure to ponder Adrienne's esoteric words, for the match had already begun. Nicoma started by throwing her javelin. Teresa barely broke out of her paralysis in enough time to dodge the incoming missile, the javelin landing only inches from the hem of her habit. Nicoma drew her knife with such haste that it snapped the strip of leather binding it to her leg. Bending low like a cat about to pounce, she charged headlong at Teresa with an ear-piercing warcry. Overwhelmed by panic, Teresa dropped to her knees and curled up like a pillbug. It was the last thing Nicoma expected in the middle of a death match and the Amazon Queen tripped over the frightened novice.
Nicoma lay sprawled out on the ground only briefly. She sprang to her feet and renewed her charge. The novice was also back on her feet, and she held up her javelin in a feeble defense as Nicoma slashed at her. To Teresa's horror, the shaft split in two. Not knowing what else to do, she tossed the pieces at Nicoma, who simply batted them aside.
Seeing an opportunity, the Amazon Queen snatched up one of the pieces and threw it. It caught the sleeve of Teresa's habit and pulled her to the ground. The other piece landed between her legs and the Queen's knife pinned down her other sleeve. As the novice was struggling to get up, Nicoma retrieved the javelin that had missed Teresa earlier. Steadying her aim, the Amazon Queen's eyes lit up as she prepared to deliver the deathblow. The cheering Amazons fell silent for the coup de grâce.
"You lose," the Queen said coolly.
Any chance to boast over her fallen opponent was cut short by a loud crack. The sound spread through the whole perimeter as the fence collapsed, trapping Nicoma underneath a tangle of wood. Lying just outside the edge of the fallen fence, Teresa was left unscathed. Forgetting about the Amazons all around them, Sonia and Jill scrambled over to the novice and helped her up.
It did not take long for things to sink in. By the time Teresa was on her feet again, the crowd of Amazons was turning fierce, howling and brandishing their weapons. The archers drew back their bowstrings, covering those armed with javelins and spears as they moved in for the kill. With Nicoma's dagger and the broken pieces of a javelin as their only weapons, Sonia and Jill stood between Teresa and the Amazons on both sides, ready to take at least a few down with them. But before any arrows were loosed or javelins thrown, a voice rang out above the din.
"Stop!"
The voice came from Nicoma, emerging from the wreck alive but bleeding from several wounds. Surprisingly, a grin was on her face.
"Very clever hunter," she said approvingly. "Using self as bait for trap."
Nicoma untied the bracer from her right wrist. Moving past Sonia, she took Teresa's hand and bound the bracer to the novice's forearm.
"You now one of us," the Amazon Queen declared. "Forever our bond-sister. Stay with us here or leave with men?"
"I will go with my friends," Teresa replied in a shaky voice.
Not one to go back on her word, Nicoma barked orders at her people and they dispersed throughout the village. Before long, all their missing gear was returned to them. Felix was brought from the hut where the Aged were kept and the other men were pulled out of the slave pit. After washing off the stench of the slave pit in a nearby creek, the men donned their gear and reunited with the others.
Even though Teresa had won their freedom, the Amazons regarded the group with considerable hostility. Apparently associating with men was nearly as grave a sin in their eyes as being one. Nicoma simply ignored everyone else, speaking only to Teresa.
"You have fresh provisions, bond-sister, and my hunters will lead the way out." The Amazon Queen looked at the fresh bandages binding her wounds. "Will you not stay with us? We could use your skills."
"Thank you," Teresa said, bowing to the Queen, "but my place is with these people."
"So be it," Nicoma said. "It is our loss." She gripped the novice's hand. "May your hunt be blessed."
Without another word, Nicoma turned and walked away. The Amazons assigned to be their guides silently stepped forward and made their way out of the village. The group was obliged to keep up, for the Amazons seemed to have no intention of waiting for them.
The thick jungle was difficult to navigate, but their guides were adept at moving through it. Jill was quick to adapt and made a point to stay within sight of her companions while following the less accommodating Amazons. After a couple hours, they reached a stairwell carved out of the living rock that led out of the basin. Their guides disappeared, never having said a word the whole time. Once the group made the long climb to the top, Felix turned to look down on the basin and reflect on all that had happened.
"I had heard rumors about the so-called 'Amazon Basin,'" the old knight said, "but I never believed them to be true." He turned to face the party. "I hope you enjoyed the warmth, for we will find none in the North."
The reminder of what way laying in wait for them was not particularly comforting, but they had no choice but to go forward. Turning his thoughts to other things, Mark looked at the unlikely hero of the day. He had heard what had happened, but something in the back of his mind told him that fence did not collapse by accident. He then remembered Adrienne's comment when he was told about the duel.
"Miracles happen sometimes," she had said. "And sometimes they're made."
The swordsman looked at Adrienne, walking as if an invisible wall shut out the rest of the world. What secrets lay behind that wall? Would the power behind those secrets always be on their side?