My Mother’s Spear

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

The year is 160 CE, and the mighty Roman Empire seeks to control the lands of the Picts (what is now Scotland). A brave Pictish warrior woman and a rugged Sarmatian mounted archer woman find war, blood, love, and adventure at the Antonine Wall. My Mother's Spear is a queer coming of age story set at the height of the Roman conquest of the Atlantic Archipelago.

A Pictish warrior woman with a spear and shield faces off against a mounted, heavily armed, and armored Sarmatian woman with a bow.

 

 

My Mother’s Spear

 

By Ishtar W.

 

 

 

 

 

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Important Notes before reading!

Please leave a review, even a sentence, and let me know what you think! I value your feedback!

Also, check out the glossary at the end for extra information! (extensive citations are not included as this is fiction, but available upon request). Pleae let me know if you find any errors so I may correct them.

The story you are about to read has been painstakingly written for authenticity. The Iron Age was an often-violent place, and the Roman military was an especially notable example of often gratuitous malevolence.

 

Violence

Depictions of violence and darker themes are regrettably realistic for the period and needed to present the reader with an accurate view. If anything, such scenes may not be depicted as truly horrible as they likely would have been. In reality, for every person who escaped an awful fate, probably thousands did not. It can be a delicate balance between Roman rule's vile realities and the desire to spare the reader from some of the worst aspects of humanity. Sometimes, it is not easy to realize just how much progress we have made (and how far we have yet to go).

 

Nudity

The several instances of nudity may seem confusing to some in our modern world, but they were likely not out of place for the time. Nude combat was described by many first-hand accounts, such as Emperor Hadrian. In truth, we do not know if this occurred as even first-hand accounts from the time are fraught with exaggeration and commonly used to demonstrate Roman culture's supposed superiority. For example, many accounts depicted the Picts as living wholly naked lives, while we know this cannot be true given the climate. However, depictions of tattoos and nudity during combat are frequent enough and similar enough to related cultures that including them seemed reasonable.

 

Thus...

Warning, this story contains elements of sexuality, dark themes, and violence, but as valid elements of a story of first love and coming of age. They are not presented gratuitously nor flippantly. The reader should be aware of this.

 

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The year is 160 CE - It is the 23rd year of the reign of Imperator Caesar Divi Filii Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius. The mighty Roman Empire dominates much of the known world. From Western Europe to North Africa and all of the way to the Eastern Atlantic archipelago (also called Britain), Rome had extended her reach, conquering or allying with everyone she met. That was until Rome encountered the northern people of what would one day come to be called Scotland. Far from a single group, they were many different cultures and peoples. While some interacted positively and even joined with the Romans, a fair number fought for centuries to keep their lands and repel the southern invaders. While no single name fully describes these different groups of people, they are sometimes colloquially referred to as the Picts. Perhaps the Picts' most remarkable achievement was that they held onto their land against a vast and technologically superior empire.

 

Northwest of Velunia (Carriden) Fort, Eastern Edge of Antonine Wall, Atlantic Archipelago

9 PM, March 11, 160 CE

 

"Meala, keep your head down, girl!" whispered a gruff man named Ucer. The dark-haired man waved his hand back at the woman, hoping she would take the hint and keep her head down. The moon was full that night, but it rose only barely over the treeline to the East. Sei'ln Meala (pronounced she-lan me-lia), or "Meala" for short, ducked lower. However, she was already nearly crawling on the ground. The air was cold and damp, and she was glad she had worn woolen trousers under her knee-length woolen tunic. Both were a simple tabby weave woven by her mother that past winter. Her feet were kept dry by a pair of well-oiled leather shoes, though with how far they had walked over the past two days to reach the fort, she was pretty sure the shoes would need mending or replacement before long. Such was the problem with leather when it got wet.

Pausing for a moment, Meala took in the surreal scene around her. About 150 warriors stood ready to assault the Roman fort of Velunia at the Antonine Wall's eastern edge. To her left was the mouth of a great fjord, a waterway which expanded out into the mighty ocean. Her cousin Ucer and a dozen other men from his war band stood ready for battle on her right. Most wore similar clothing to her, though one man, Urth, had left his clothing beside a tree not far to the west. He stood entirely nude with an ax in one hand and a large oval wooden shield and the other. His body was painted with red and black paint while his face wore a smear of blue woad. Most impressive were his five magical tattoos depicting animals. When exposed as they were, the power of the god's might could find its way within him, filling him with strength and protecting him from harm. As she watched, the man breathed heavily, seemingly unaware of the cold.

Looking down, she wondered if one day she could be so bold as to perform a ritual of that audacity. Few were willing to endure the cold, and still fewer were brave enough. Moreover, women rarely performed the act as it was considered unacceptable for a woman to bare her body in such a way. However, stories spoke of several warrior queens backed by enough glory to ignore such rules. As far as Meala was concerned, this was a double standard. Luckily, women were allowed to fight, though usually, they were a bit older than she. In fact, Meala was not supposed to be here, but she had followed the region's warbands against her mother's and father's wishes. Luckily, no one had sought to drag her back to their village, mostly due to timing concerns.

"There! Titus Domitius, I bet. Dirty little pig," a man not far ahead called, pointing to a small caravan of a dozen mounted soldiers and a single unarmored man. Titus Domitius was an important man among the Romans, at least as far as her people knew. His death would send a message, acting as a deterrent to other wealthy noble Romans. The belief was that if enough of them could be killed, it would make few Romans willing to attempt to settle north of the wall. What good would there be in maintaining a robust military presence in hostile land one had no interest in entering? In truth, such raids were reasonably common. Whatever their loftily described motives might be, simple hatred of the Romans was the underlying pretext. Beside her, another man-made the sound of a pig as still others laughed. They were nervous, and humor helped that a bit, but only a little.

"All right, keep your heads down and keep your mouths shut until they see us. If he gets past the Wall, we don't have a chance," another man said. With that, the group began moving again, staying low to the ground and crossing the open field, hoping to arrive at the point where the road and the wall met at about the same time as the caravan. The open field was the most dangerous part as it had been cleared precisely to expose attackers before they could make it to the gates. The timing had been planned with great care to account for guard changing, a festival, and the will of the gods.

In one hand, Meala held her old wooden spear with its iron tip. She carried her father's old rickety shield and the other. Around her waist, a worn leather belt held a simple bronze dagger and a small bag, which she had used to carry a small amount of dried food. It wasn't much, but she didn't have much. If she survived the battle, her share of the spoils alone would be enough to have proper equipment made. Moreover, if she survived, she might be able to get her first magical tattoo. Her legs around the calves and her arms at the bicep were both marked with rich black tattooed rings, while her shoulders sported swirl tattoos she had gotten only that last warm season. Her right hand had a swirl tattoo that was rather painful to have made. Yet none of these were magical. Her thoughts were dashed as she heard a woman cry out ahead.

"Attack! Go! Go!" the woman up ahead screamed, ending in a trilling battle cry! All around, everyone began running as fast as they could. From the Fort, a horn could be heard blowing in a specific pattern. Up ahead, Meala saw the horses beginning to rush toward the gate. They had been spotted not long after entering the open area. Archers from her own group began firing arrows hoping to catch one of the horses or riders, as well as keep the Roman archers at bay. The small caravan raced nearly parallel to the wall with a much greater distance to travel than the raiders. They were both headed to precisely the same point. Almost stumbling, Meala raced as hard as she could, knowing that she would not likely be among those who killed the noble as there were so many in front of her, but hoping she could take the head of a Roman, at least. Just as it appeared that the noble and his guard would make it to the gate first, an arrow hit one of the horses, causing the creature to throw its rider and the horses behind it to rear up. The Noble turned screaming an order, but before he could react, an older man wearing nothing but an iron chain around his neck and holding an ax in each hand leaped through the air, burying both axes into the noble's chest, ripping him from the horse in one amazing leap.

"Observa ordines!" a Roman yelled as all around, Romans appeared at the wall and the Fort became a hornet‘s nest of activity. Many Romans rushed forward with their tower shields and weapons in hand from the opening in the wall. While some of them wore armor, many appeared to be wearing simple tunics, as though caught off guard. More rapidly than Meala had expected, they formed a defensive line two columns deep while their leaders screamed orders. Realizing that they were being swamped by a barbarian raiding force, the lead Roman cried an order aloud. Abruptly, half of the Romans hurled wooden spears with long, thin iron tips called pilum. The deadly spears easily pierced shields finding their way into the bodies of a dozen warriors. But this did little to quell the assault as her people were simply too worked up and focused on their prize. The loot carried by the noble lay strewn across the ground on the other side of the Romans, a small hoard of gold and silver.

Her people began slamming into the wall of shields trying to break through, but the Romans held fast. A Roman would fall every now and then, but their orderly tactics were proving sufficient to hold back a force five times their size. Meala watched as a young man before her tried to grab a shield with his hands, only to have his fingers sliced off by a sudden sword swipe. He rolled away screaming in agony like so many other wounded warriors. The Roman kept his entire body behind the giant red shield using it to launch sudden attacks. The sound of screaming and battle was deafening. Worse, arrows rained down from above. Meala’s heart pounded as warrior after warrior fell trying to break the cursed wall.

"Voca equitatum! Observa ordines!" a Roman with a large plume atop his helmet yelled as the bloodshed continued. It was taking the life of two or three warriors to kill even a single Roman. At that rate of exchange, they would be decimated in moments and destroyed shortly after. Next up, an older woman in front of her stepped forward, swinging her ax at a Roman shield with a scream. The Roman suddenly pivoted his tower shield up almost over his head catching her ax and deflecting it. At the same time, he stepped forward and stabbed her right in the chest with his short gladius sword, the blade held horizontal to ensure it passed right through the rib cage. He freed the blade with a quick yank and slammed his tower shield once more into the ground creating an impenetrable wall. The woman grasped the gaping hole in her chest and stumbled away... And then it was Meala's turn. This was the moment she had come for – a moment to prove herself. If she didn't become a warrior, she would be stuck as someone's wife. This was her chance to change her fate. Adrenaline danced through her veins as she held her spear and began to advance.

"I am Sei'ln Meala, daughter of Ail Braide!" she screamed as she rushed forward, approaching the wall of shields. At least her ancestors might hear her shout, though likely no one else would through the screams. There was a small opening between the two tower shields, through which she blindly stabbed her spear, hoping to score a hit. An arrow flew past her head so close it startled her. Suddenly, the shield to her right moved sideways, pinning her spear between it and the neighboring shield. From around the shield came the gladius. Meala twisted sideways just in time to avoid a blade to the gut, though the blade cut into her side. Ignoring the pain, she tugged her spear free. Beside her, a man brought his ax down hard on the shielded Roman before her. His ax crushed through the tower shield fracturing it down the middle. A moment later, several arrows peppered the man stopping his attacks and giving the Roman time to recover his stance. Up above, a dozen archers were providing support to the small wall of men below as they slowly retreated their wall to the gate.

As the arrow-perforated warrior staggered away to die, Meala dropped to the ground and stabbed her spear up and under the tower shield just as the Roman pitched his damaged shield up, expecting another hit. Her spear bit deep into the Roman's knee, causing the man to buckle and agony. Dropping his shield, he fell forward onto the ground, grabbing his ruined knee. This was her chance to kill a Roman as the man rolled in agony atop his shield right before her. Before she could do anything, a man beside her planted his spear deep into the Roman's chest and then flashed her a smile. Behind him, she caught sight of her cousin Ucer, who also gave her a smile and a nod. The small Roman reaction force was finally beginning to crumble beneath the onslaught, and it didn't appear that reinforcements would arrive in time. The cost had been great with at least thirty to fifty dead or wounded, but the gold was finally but a few Romans from their grasp and the noble had been killed as well.

Meala was trying to grab her spear when something changed. It wasn't any particular scream or distinct sound, more like the general pattern of sounds that changed to her far right, which had caught Meala's attention. Looking, a new wave of fear overtook her at what she saw. At least twenty or more cavalry were racing down the edge of a deep ditch which ran the wall's length, aside from the gateway. The problem was that these were not just Roman cavalry but the exotic and greatly feared Sarmatian cavalry. The Romans were known to bring soldiers from many parts of their supposedly vast empire. Meala had never seen any of them before. Still, she had heard tails of the mighty horseback archers, and the group coming her way fit the tales perfectly.

The cavalry wore pointed metal helmets, some solid and some made from leather wrapped around metal bands, with various feathers and decorations attached. Their bodies were cloaked in long cloth and leather jackets with what looked like trousers and boots. They were protected by scale mail armor made up of hundreds of little individual scales of metal, which glistened in the walls' firelight torches. Many carried swords and axes, but their most fearsome weapon was a small recurved bow. Though she had heard many stories of them as a child, seeing them in person was a much more terrifying experience. As she watched, the Sarmatian man fired four arrows and almost the amount of time it would have taken her to count from one to four, a frightening example of their prowess.

With her spear stuck in the knee of the dead Roman, Meala looked around at the bodies gathered by the shield wall and found a single bow and two arrows. The man who had once wielded them lay facedown and unmoving. Grabbing the bow and two arrows, she dashed away from the wall and nocking an arrow to meet the coming cavalry. It was simply shocking how many arrows the Sarmatians could fire in quick succession, one after the other with deadly accuracy. All around her, she saw her comrades dropping clutching mortal wounds as a flurry of arrows flew through the air. Some of her people rushed forward to meet the cavalry, but they weren't faring well. Beside her, she could see her cousin and many others turning to flee, realizing that the raid was turning. Even as they did, Roman reinforcements arrived at the entryway to the gate to reinforce the Wall. That was the moment that she should have run, the moment she would have had just enough time to get away before she was flanked to her right by the Sarmatians and penned against the wall to the left by Roman reinforcements. Failing to realize this, she drew her first arrow and took aim at the closest mounted Sarmatian. It could become quite difficult to realize how things had changed until it was too late in battle.

Meala loosed the arrow and watched as it flew through the air directly at her target. The arrow slammed into the shoulder of the Sarmatian but skipped off of the scaled armor. She had not drawn the bow to its full limit, simply not having the upper body strength to do so. Unfortunately, The result was that she had just made herself the target of one particular Sarmatian. She began fitting her last arrow as the cavalry advanced across the field, mopping up the rest of her people who had not fled and cutting off her retreat. Glancing up, her blood ran cold as Meala realized that she had waited too long. All around her, the cavalry was passing her as they ran down others. It had happened so fast that she had not realized, and now it was too late. There was no way to escape, and this is where she would die. At least when she stood before the gods and her ancestors, she would have something worthy to tell them. With adrenaline guiding her actions as much as panic, Meala began drawing the bow as she took aim at the approaching Sarmatian.

Before she could do anything, the Sarmatian whipped an arrow from her side quiver, took aim, and fired. It was so fast that Meala had not even finished drawing her bow yet. Oddly, she saw the arrow flying through the air almost surreally, but her brain could not respond fast enough. The arrow cut into her hip, twisting sideways as its tip dug deep into the flesh. At that moment, she loosed her second arrow, which flew through the air digging straight into the Sarmatian woman's armor. In shock, she stepped backward, dropping the bow and grasping her hip. It was that moment that the still charging cavalry woman passed, lifting her booted foot and kicking Meala square in the face. Everything exploded into stars and the world became a dizzy place. She stepped backward, but she hardly felt her feet making the motions. Suddenly, the world began to shift, and then she was on her back. Glancing at her side, she saw an arrow protruding from her hip as darkness came.

 

***

 

Cynna took aim and fired an arrow catching the wounded man in the neck. She had caught him with her lasso as he had tried to flee, then quickly tied the rope around her saddle horn and pulled her bow from its holder on the side of the horse. He was yet another of the strangely nude raiders. Most of them had the common sense to wear clothing in the cold, and a few of them had minor examples of armor. She just couldn't quite understand the fanatical naked ones. Whatever drove them, they seem to be significantly more dangerous than their more properly clothed friends. Luckily, she only saw about one of them in every 30 raiders. The Sarmatian warrior slid her bow into its holder on the side of her quiver and glanced down to see how bad the damage was. A single arrow with an iron tip had bit deep into one of her iron scales and sunk over an inch into her chest just below her right breast. She broke the length of the arrow off with a small scream, leaving the head in place. It had penetrated her hemp fiber kaftan long shirt and into her flesh. Still, the arrowhead would keep the wound from bleeding badly until she could return to the fort where she could properly tend to it.

While there had been many brave fighters that night on both sides, she still had not expected to face down a painted woman wearing the ragged woolen clothing of a peasant and wielding a bow she obviously had little skill using. Sure, the Barbari, as the Romans called them, often had women among their ranks, but most had better gear and a few more years on them. Moreover, this particular painted woman had stood her ground and bravely fired even when it was obvious she wasn't going to make it. Whether it was the woman's fierce green eyes or her bravery, Cynna couldn't say, but the woman kept coming to mind even as she felt the pain of the arrow's sting. She shook her head, trying to dismiss the image of the brave woman.

"Ohe Cynna!" she heard from behind. Without even a thought, the horse turned, feeling the slight movements of her legs. She had grown up in the vast Eurasian steppe, riding since she could stand. At this point, the horse was simply an extension of her body, as was the bow. Unfortunately, she recognized the face of Gaius Pedius, the optio, or second to the head centurion of the first cohort of the II Augusta legion. A rather tall and lanky fellow with a leering smile that always unnerved her. He approached, carrying a bloodsoaked gladius in one hand while wearing a simple tunic. The optio had obviously been off duty when the attack had begun. Frowning, she nodded her head to acknowledge that she had heard the man. He flashed her a smile and a wink, which made strange contrast with the macabre scene unfolding around her as Roman soldiers ran about slaughtering the wounded raiders who had failed to escape. Abruptly turning her horse, she headed slightly northeast wishing to get away from the screams.

It wouldn't be long until the townsfolk began stripping and looting the bodies, then dragging away their corpses and clearing the field. But luckily, that was not work for the valuable cavalry woman. She had only just arrived at the wall a few months earlier. Still, it had already become apparent that her cavalry were considered too crucial for menial tasks, just like other specialized soldiers, called immunes by the Romans. She would need to go get cleaned and have a drink before bed. Sadly, she had run out of hemp buds as she could really use the calming smoke after such a battle. As she trotted forward, she noticed one of the bodies moving in the dim moonlight at the edge of the battlefield. Pulling free her ax, she approached the wounded Pict. This was the part she hated.

 

***

 

Meala awoke feeling cold and pain. Her head hurt, her side hurt, her hip hurt, and for that matter, nearly everywhere else too. It was too dark with the moon almost behind the trees to tell how badly she had been wounded, though she didn't feel immobile. As she looked up, she could see Romans running about, stabbing the wounded and dragging away others. She had heard of the various tortures Romans would inflict upon the wounded, and terror filled her. It was one thing to be killed, but quite a different thing to be wounded and left behind. Thoughts of the horrors of crucifixion overcame her, driving her body to move. Rolling over, she began to crawl on her hands and knees, keeping low to the ground as she attempted to escape the battlefield. The land before her was open, but the darkness was coming fast as the moon continued to plummet beneath the tree line. Aside from her clothing and food pouch, she hadn't any other possessions. Unfortunately, that meant that she could neither defend herself nor take her own life if she were caught. Forcing thoughts of what she had heard Romans did to their victims aside, she moved as quickly as she dared across the cold, damp ground. Her hip throbbed in pain, and she was sure it was bleeding, but that was secondary to getting away.

Behind her, she heard the sounds of a horse nearby and paused for a moment. She didn't dare look back, lest firelight reflect from her eyes, giving away her position. Her dark hair and the mud on her body and clothing were doing a good enough job of keeping her hidden so long as she stayed low, she hoped. As she crawled, she thought she heard the sounds of a horse once more, but this time much closer. Turning to her right, she heard nothing but the screams of the dying and the rejoicing sounds of the victorious Romans. Just as she began to turn to continue crawling, she heard a sound directly to her left. She rolled over onto her back and propped herself up on her elbows. Towering over her was a Sarmatian mounted archer, like a warrior from the tales her father told her as a child.

For a moment, she held her breath in terror, expecting either some sort of death or to be captured, yet oddly, the Sarmatian said nothing. Perhaps more unexpectedly, the Sarmatian appeared to be a woman. The mighty warrior woman had a pointed metal helmet made from strips of metal, out from which a long, black waist-length braid flowed. Beneath her scale mail, she wore a long hemp shirt, which ran to beneath her waist and a pair of woolen leggings below. Her feet were protected by rather elaborate leather boots. Together with her lightly tanned skin, several quivers, and her oddly small yet heavily curved bow, she had a somewhat otherworldly appearance. As Meala looked, she began to recognize the woman's face. To her shock, it looked like the same archer she had faced down during the battle. As she glanced down, she saw the broken end of an arrow protruding from the woman's scale mail. She had tried to kill this woman, and now she lay defenseless at her feet.

"I..." she began to say when she realized the futility of her words. Not only was it unlikely this woman understood her language, but it was also unlikely there was anything she could say to change what she expected would come next. She only wished she had a weapon so she could die on her feet. Suddenly, the archer spoke.

"Loquarisne Latine?" Her words were heavily accented and though entirely correct, but her meaning was clear. She had asked if Meala spoke the words of the Romans. Oddly, she noticed the woman's voice was beautiful with a deeper tone than hers. She pushed the odd thought aside and concentrated on the moment at hand. In fact, she knew the Roman language because of her mother, Ail, who had grown up behind the Wall. Having a common tongue was interesting, but she doubted words could be mightier than the sword.

"Yes..." She spoke weakly, unsure of what to say. Meala lay there awaiting her fate, yet oddly she couldn't help but notice how captivating the archer was. She suspected her mind must be trying to escape the moment because why else would somebody think about something so absolutely unrelated to whatever horrible fate was about to befall her?

 

***

 

As Cynna approached, the woman rolled over with a look of someone quite sure they were about to die. She squeezed her ax handle, preparing to strike when suddenly, the woman's emerald green eyes caught the tiniest bit of light from the all but faded moon. This was the woman who had stood her ground, the same one who had put an arrow in her chest. Cynna gazed down at the woman lying on the ground. She was at least three or four years younger and wearing ragged peasant clothing, likely the second or third recipient of hand-me-downs. Her loose hair was long and brown, though it was hard to see in the darkness. Her hip appeared bloody, she was covered in mud, and wholly unarmed. As pitiful as she now looked, the painted woman had stood her ground, likely expecting to die, and she had nearly killed Cynna. In fact, if the arrow had impacted no more than the width of the fingernail to the left, it would have likely penetrated her armor, and she would be the one lying on the ground. It wasn't just that she respected the woman's courage; there was more to it. There was something about the Pict's face she found pleasing, though this was hardly the place for such thoughts. Closing her eyes for a moment to banish the amores motes drifting through her mind, she returned her gaze to her would be captive.

"If I let you leave, will you swear to never return?" she asked, more out of curiosity than serious consideration. The painted woman glared back in defiance, her look far too pleasing for Cynna's liking.

"I will not swear. This is our land, and I will die to keep it ours," she spoke in defiance, though her hoarse throat distorted a few of the words. Cynna found the woman's bravery rather likable, if not inspiring. Among her own people, courage and honor were deeply respected in ways the Romans didn't seem to understand. Here she was with an ax in hand considering killing the Pict, yet the woman reminded her of her own people. They had been free once, but they had lost their fight with the Romans. With a sigh, Cynna made a decision. Technically, it was a decision that would get her in a lot of trouble if anyone found out. Luckily, it was too dark for anyone to see, she hoped.

"Go in peace, warrior," she spoke, turning and galloping away. Behind her, the wounded painted woman stared an absolute shock for a moment before staggering to her feet and fleeing toward the trees hoping no one saw. Cynna shook her head. She was far too young to be this jaded. She wasn't sure if it was compassion, her fear of what the Romans would do with a captive woman, or perhaps it was the woman's bravery that had inspired her actions or love at first sight... she shook the last thought away and breathed deeply.

"I just saved you from crucifixion, at the least," she whispered to herself. With that, she rode toward the gate to the fort for a rest and a good stiff drink.

 

***

 

Braide Homestead, 40 miles Northwest of Antonine Wall, Atlantic Archipelago

1 PM, August 19, 160 CE

 

The male sheep, called a ram, mounted the female sheep, called a ewe, and the action began. An act that might very well bring new life into the world was mostly ignored by the other sheep nearby. Meala sat beneath a tree, vaguely noticing the happenings of the midday entirely lost in thought. She was playing with a weed, twisting it into various shapes between her fingers as she continued the mind-numbing task of keeping the flock in order. She had been a shepherd when she was younger, and now her brothers and her sister typically took on the role, but today she wanted to think – to get away from everyone in her household and consider what to do. The ram finished and then walked triumphantly away while the ewe stood there seeming less than impressed. If things didn't improve, she could see herself in the same role as that ewe. If she could gain enough respect among her people, she might avoid being forced into marriage, but one didn't get respect herding sheep. Unfortunately, she was already several years past the age when young women and men joined. Each passing year her parents turned up the pressure, and if she waited too long, she might never find someone. Sadly, each man her mother tried to introduce her to had one major problem: they were a man.

"At least you don't have to choose," she complained to the uncaring sheep. Thoughts of the Sarmatian cavalry woman continued entering her mind. She had been majestic on her horse, almost as though the animal were an extension of her body. She had ridden without even holding the reins, somehow imparting her will upon the animal. They had shared a long and rather breathtaking stare at one another. For a brief moment, she had nearly forgotten that she lay upon the ground at the warrior's mercy. The actual Romans did not seem to have women who fought, being a force comprised of only men. In fact, as far as she knew, the Sarmatian woman was extremely rare among even her own group. Meala's own people knew the value of women, and many could be found among the warbands' ranks. Between thoughts of the Sarmatian woman's intense dark eyes and her delightful confidence and worries over what would happen if she didn't obtain enough notoriety to raise her status to where she might avoid a husband, Meala had a lot on her mind.

There was always the possibility of becoming extra skillful at some craft. Unfortunately, her mother was the weaver, and her younger sister had become quite good at carving leather, aided by her father's watchful eye. Everyone she knew that was her own age had already joined with a man and started a family. Her time was running out about as fast as her patients with shepherding. Reaching down and pulling her tunic collar open, she gazed upon the black tattoo which ran across her upper chest, just beneath her collarbone and stretching from side to side. It was a stylized bee made with black ink. Her name, Sei'ln Meala, quite literally meant "honey bee." Unfortunately, Meala The Honey Bee had been stung that night not only by a nasty iron arrow but also by love at first sight. It was the only explanation she had for why she couldn't get that woman out of her mind.

"More like the sting of a wasp," she mumbled angrily at the woman who wouldn't leave her thoughts. While her parents were hardly enthusiastic when she returned a cold bloody mess from the failed raid, she had at least earned the right to be tattooed. It was an ancient and sacred practice for those who completed a brave act or significant challange in life, such as birthing a child or surviving a battle. In fact, given how easily a woman could die giving birth, many considered birthing to be a form of battle. Beyond just a simple style element or a memory of what happened, this specific tattoo form had the special significance of being magical. A ritual was performed as the tattoo was made, resulting in additional protection for the wearer. As long as the tattoo was visible in the open, its powers could protect Meala. The bee was a bit lower than she liked, but it could be partly seen just below her collar. She had let go of the cloth and straightened her tunic when she noticed the flock moving slightly. Someone was approaching. One learned to see these things over the boring years.

"Dear, there several traders from Devana just up by the Stone. Maybe you should go have a look and see what they have to trade," Ail, her mother, said, walking down the path from the house with a basket in hand, obviously intent on picking something in the nearby wood. The "Stone" was a large carved stone near what passed as the most public location for all of the families in the region. As for trading, her mother's smile and knowing look told Meala precisely what her mother had meant by the term. If she didn't find some way to distinguish herself more significantly than just one tattoo... Her thoughts trailed off as she heard the ram making more noise. How could he be at it again, so soon, she wondered?

"I am not ready for that sort of trade," she said, twisting another weed around in her fingers. Ail paused to frown at her wayward daughter, a bit overdramatically. Oddly, it seemed like the sheep were watching the interaction, perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding.

"You are my eldest daughter. It's your responsibility to carry on our family name. You almost got yourself killed not that long ago, or have you already forgotten?" she said, scowling.

"My hip still hurts and has a scar," Meala retorted, patting her freshly healed hip. Her hip scar was finger-sized, and the scar where a Roman sword had cut into her side was half that size. In fact, she had been lucky enough that her father had speculated that the gods might have had a hand in her escape upon hearing her story. She had left out the part about the beautiful archer, unsure how to broach that topic. 'Mother, father... I was all but seduced by a warrior woman who tried to kill me.' It had seemed best to leave that part out.

"Plenty of women fight the Romans, so why do you have to be one of them?" Ail challenged.

"Why did you?" Meala asked, instantly noticing the change on her mother's face. Ail had been born behind the Wall in Roman-occupied land. At the age of 16, she had left and found her way north.

"And who says I did?" She asked, now frowning once more.

"You did the last time you were too drunk to stand," Meala replied, trying to hold back a smile. Her mother and father drank quite heavily on certain holidays. When they did, her mother's tongue was quite loose by the time her eyes became blurry from the drink. It seemed her memories were also a bit blurry. Her mother sighed, likely wishing nobody had remembered some of the things she said after a few cups of wine. Ail grabbed the side of her knee-length grey wool tunic and pulled it straight. Her daughter was far too good at remembering anything wrong she said and ignoring anything she was supposed to remember.

"Why? Because this isn't their land. Because they follow strange gods. Because some of the things I've seen them do," she spoke softly. If her wine-induced stories were correct, she had joined a local war band and had fought in two significant raids. She had seen her mother unclothed many times while she was changing, the whole family living in a small wooden house built on stilts over a small lake, called a crannog. The tattoos etched into her back were of the same magical nature as the bee tattoo Meala had received. Her mother had never spoken much about what had happened, other than that she had met Meala's father during those dangerous times.

"You have never seen a crucifixion?" Ail asked rhetorically.

"No," Meala replied, looking down.

"It can take days for you to die, nailed bare as you were born to cold wooden beams... The guards... they get tired after a time, and they do things to you—things to kill you faster. I've never heard such screaming," she said, her eyes to the ground and lost in some horrible memory she couldn't truly forget. Meala had heard the stories, but she had never heard her mother speak of such horrors like she just had. She had obviously seen the torture first hand, though Meala dared not ask more. After a moment, Ail looked up at the sky and whispered some sort of prayer before sighing.

"You aren't going to listen to anything I say, are you?" she asked, the basket hanging low in her hand.

"I don't want a husband," Meala said before she realized what she had just said. She had never spoken her feelings quite so straightforward. Ail turned her gaze upon Meala, looking tired.

"Then what do you want?" Ail asked. Oddly, she spoke to Meala for the first time more as an equal than as a mother. It wasn't so much her words as a slight change in her demeanor, but Meala noticed. Part of her felt emboldened at her mother seeming to respect her more like the adult she had become, yet part of her felt the loss as she was no longer just a child.

"I want our name to be spoken by many. I want to be Meala, daughter of Ail Braide, not just Meala. I want to wear an iron chain or a torc around my neck," she said, referring to the iron chains and torcs used as a status symbol among their people. Only those of the warrior caste wore them. While her parents owned land, they were technically landed peasants. Though they lived each day of their own will, there was a regional chief they owed some level of fealty to. If she could become a warrior through deed, then it wouldn't matter who her parents were in life. Her mother had not quite attained such a title, but it was something Meala hoped to do. For a long moment, her mother regarded her as though she saw something new that she had not seen before, perhaps something she had missed.

"How many men and women lie rotting in roman pits who died for such dreams?" Ail spat, her eyes tearing.

"How many die with a never-born in their womb?" Meala retorted, growing desperate.

"A child is your legacy, a future! She can grow to carry the family name!" Ail all but screamed, her basket falling to the ground. Meala stood, throwing her arms wide, her bee tattoo clearly visible as her collar drooped.

"And here I am... I am your legacy! Let me be who I am. Let me make that name," she replied, her voice dropping as her angry reply turned into a simple plea.

For a long moment, Ail stood merely looking at her daughter. It was as though she saw her for the first time, or perhaps it was the moment when she truly realized that Meala was not some young girl but a woman who had her own hopes and dreams. Meala's life was her own to live, even if that meant dying. That was part of life. It was time to let her choose. It was time to let go. With a long sigh, Ail came to a final decision.

"My old shield and spearhead are buried beneath the gnarled tree, just south of the Northshore path. Whatever you decide, you will always have my love, honey bee," Ail said, using her pet name for Meala. Meala approached her mother, unsure what to say as the sudden change had hit her like a bolt of lightening. She felt a lump in her throat after hearing her mother's words. Ail had seen within her daughter the same fire and passion she had felt when she had been only a year or two younger in age. She had realized the futility of trying to talk Meala out of what the girl, no, the woman, had decided. There was a time when every mother had to begin respecting that their child was no longer an adolescent. If Meala wished to prove herself as a warrior, it was her right to do so. As Meala embraced her mother and a hug, Ail held back her tears while smiling and admiration of the woman her daughter had become.

As the sun set low on the horizon, Meala found herself standing by the gnarled tree where she had played as a child, not knowing that part of her heritage was buried just beneath. There had been a rather pretty rock pushed into the ground. She had noticed it many times as a child, but she had never thought anything of it. She now realized that it served as a marker, an indicator of something buried. Her family-owned a single iron hoe, though the wooden handle wasn't in great shape and would need to be repaired or replaced before the next planting. Regardless, it was good enough to dig through the soil in front of the tree. Buried only a hands depth was what had probably been a leather sack containing an oval shield made from planks of wood connected by iron metal strips and an iron spearhead. They were hardly legendary weapons, but they were her mother's, and this realization made them shine to Meala like polished bronze.

The shield wood wasn't in perfect condition, but the leather had been oiled and had resisted a lot of the water, which would have otherwise destroyed it. Ail had also oiled the iron around the shield and the spearhead itself. There was a little rust, but most of the shield and the spearhead had survived intact. The shield appeared to have once been painted blue, probably woad, though most of that had faded. That was one of the many problems with woad, and perhaps one of the primary reasons it was rarely used as a paint. Meala spent the rest of the evening until darkness came with a flat rock scraping the spear tip until it was free from rust and displayed a reasonably good edge. As the sun set, she held the spear above her head, letting the light dance off of it's now clean, sharp edge. Returning the shield and spear tip to their hiding spot, Meala returned to her house to prepare.

The fire in the crannog home burned down as the night progressed. The crannog was roughly round in shape and made of many small flat sections of wall, with a pointed roof thatched. It sat upon many heavy wooden poles buried deep within the ground on the western edge of a deep lake to the North of the wall. Within the home, her entire extended family lived and worked. At the center was a hearth, while around the edges, platforms had been constructed on which people could sit or sleep. Meala lay on one such platform, still wearing her woolen tunic. The warm, humid air in the late summer was comfortable without a blanket. Her brothers and her sister slept around the crannog, as well as her paternal grandmother, her uncle, and her mother and father. It was a warm and cozy house, though it could become frustrating when someone started snoring.

Meala had spent many long days and sleepless nights considering when or even if she should return to the Wall. The Wall was a place of both danger and opportunity. The adjacent fort, one of many, likely held at least 400 deadly Roman soldiers with a few hundred peasants surrounding a treasure of opportunities to stand out. She had heard tales as a child of sacred Roman eagles, called Aquila, stollen in the Southeast lands. Surely, she could find something of importance to return with showing her bravery. It was a long shot, but at this point, she was unable to accept the idea that she would lie in some man's bed, and nearly any option seemed a better choice.

Besides, she was a member of the regional Wenech people, a tribe of warriors who lived right at the edge of Roman-occupied lands. Much like the Caledon to the North, her people lived mostly in small villages and farmsteads, creating small but distributed communities who owed fealty to a regional chief, as well as the high tribal chief of her people. Of course, most of her society were not warriors, being of a peasant farmer caste. While many peasant farmers fought in raids and battles, they were led by an actual warrior caste who were better trained, wealthier, and well equipped. Above these castes were the leaders and the priestess and priestesses. A successful quest might very well be enough to rise Meala to the next level – to become a true warrior. She had been raised as a child with stories of the glory of battle against both the southern invaders and other tribes of the region. Her childhood was steeped in tales of honor and bloodshed. Moreover, warfare was not purely the purvey of men. There were famous warrior women, chiefs of great tribes, and even spirit women of war, as well as her own mother.

Given her mother's words earlier that day and with locating her shield and spear, now seemed as good a time as any other. She had a new wool tunic and freshly stitched sandals, and her wounds had fully healed. In another moon, the air would be cold, making travel more of a problem. Moreover, the Moon was visible during the start of the evening, but several hours before midnight, the Moon descended below the horizon, extending her travel time in the early night and providing a dark period to approach the fort at night. With a sigh, she decided that tonight was the night. Now she just had to sneak out of the crannog with her gear without being seen.

A short time later, Meala stood at the small bridge's edge connecting the little house on stilts to the lakeshore. More like a small walkway or a pier, the tiny bridge was lifted at night to keep animals and anyone unfriendly away from the house. Lowering it was a loud affair complete with growning wood and the sounds of exertion. Not wishing to cause a stir, Meala wrapped her gear in her tunic and tossed it with a great heave the short distance to the shore, about 20 feet. She thanked the gods it was still summer as she quickly slipped into the cool water of the lake and swam the short distance to the shore. She would dry in a short time in the cool summer night's air as she began her trip southeast. Along the way, she would stop and fetch the reburied spear and shield.

As the morning Sun rose in the East, Meala strode down a seldom-used trade path headed toward the Wall. She had walked much of the night, and now she would walk a good portion of the day before stopping at a small gully at about the halfway point for a long sleep. She wore her new woad blue-dyed wool knee-length tunic held tightly to her waist with a leather belt. Without the belt, the tunic, made from two square panels of cloth, would be challenging to move in. Her feet were snug in leather sandals, while to her belt, she had affixed a bag of dried meat, a water bladder, a bag of paint, a knotted rope, and her trusty bronze dagger. Most importantly, she carried her mother's shield across her back and held the precious iron spearhead in her hand. Now, she just needed a suitable tree branch to make a handle.

 

***

 

"Hey there! I bet my bed is warmer than Dacia!" a legionary called out from a distance.

"Culum meum basia..." Cynna mumbled profanely under her breath. She frowned at the Roman soldiers' constant lewd comments as she strode from the fort toward a small pond just South. In fact, Dacians and Sarmatians were not the same, though her family had lived on the edge of Dacian lands. It was a beautiful place, though she was not sure she would ever return. As for the exotic northern lands, the countryside was beautiful, and the weather seemed to bother her less than the Romans. Unfortunately, each day was filled with leering soldiers and commentary she wished she didn't understand. She was the only female Sarmatian in her cavalry group. However, in the land where she came from, women warriors were much more common, perhaps one third. She had been relatively young and fleeing from a less than loving family when she had agreed to come to the other side of the Roman Empire to serve. Now she was beginning to regret it.

Cynna knelt beside the small pond and placed her armor on the ground beside her. She had to be careful how she cleaned herself in the open, as the men were already rowdy as it was. Using an old linen cloth dipped in water, she wiped beneath her shirt, which opened in the front. As she cleaned, another woman came to stand not far away with a basket full of clothes to wash. A bush partly blocked her view of the washing woman. The woman wore a dark brown wool blouse and a long wool skirt secured by a waist cord with the excess cloth rolled over the cord. Her feet were bare in the summer, a typical look for the locals. The woman flashed the archer a smile, and she knelt to begin her work. Cynna took a breath and stretched before returning to her own cleaning. She briefly considered how different her world was from the peasant woman, being a warrior.

Glancing down, her eye caught the glimmer of the polished bronze piece she had attached to her armor where the arrow six months before had nearly caused her end. It stood out from the rest of the iron scale mail, a reminder of the dangers of battle but also a reminder of the warrior woman. As she cleaned, thoughts of the painted woman returned. She had been brave, bordering on reckless. She had little skill with a bow, yet she had stood there willing to exchange arrows with a Sarmatian archer. Cynna smiled as she considered how reckless that was, but part of her also found it alluring. She hadn't gotten a good look at the woman in what little moonlight remained when she had found her after the battle, but she had seen her quite clearly in the bright light of the braziers and sconced torches at the gate. Even now, six months later, her wounds had healed, but the memory still remained. It was as though, for a moment, they had both forgotten the battle and saw only each other.

Her skin had been painted with black ash, probably to make seeing her people in the dark much more difficult. She had seen it all over the bodies the next day. It was how they had gotten so close to the wall. She had worn a badly frayed knee-length woolen tunic secured with a leather belt and a pair of woolen leggings. She wore leather shoes on her feet, and her hair had flown loose, almost to her waist. It was wavy, dark brown, and quite thick. Her eyes were deep, rich green like the color of the endless fields of the European steppe. She had a few markings either painted or tattooed on her arms, legs, and shoulders. Looking down at her own arms, she noted her own tattoos. Marking the body was seen as an important practice among her people as well as the local tribes.

How could she continue to see the young woman's face even now? How had she made such a mark in just their brief encounter? Sure, the woman had been rather pretty, but something about the way she had looked at Cynna as she had fired her bow had stirred her deeply. She had never considered taking a husband, nor had she ever really found men of much interest outside of friendly competition. It wasn't common, but some men and women were attracted to the same gender, all genders, or a mix of several. It wasn't much of an issue among her people, being notably natural among other creatures of the world. Oddly, she had not seen any indication that the Romans were okay with this practice. However, she had seen two legionaries behind a building in each other's arms, swearing their undying love. She suspected their society was the issue.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the nearby washing woman struggling. Glancing up from behind the bush, she found none other than optio Gaius Pedius struggling with her. Watching for a brief moment and unsure of what was going on, it became clear that the Roman optio's intentions were hardly friendly. The man ripped a wet cloth from the woman's hand and held her arm quite firmly. As Gaius sneered at the woman, Cynna could see the fear in her eyes. A legion optimally had ten cohorts of roughly 550 men, totaling 5500. Each cohort was led by a Centurian with an optio as his second. Moreover, this particular optio was second to the first centurion of the first cohort of the Legion. In effect, that made him one of the most important members of the Legion. The woman's face revealed that she fully understood the helpless situation she was now in. A five-minute walk from the Fort with no one nearby and nobody to help her against a man with significant power and influence. Cynna could feel her skin crawling.

This was the same man who had been leering and bothering her since she had first arrived. She had heard rumors that the optio was known to be rough with women, but she had always steered clear of him. Watching him attack the peasant made her blood run cold as she considered how many times he had nearly put himself in a position to try the same thing with her. Fear of the man's position and all she had learned since arrival told her that she should just turn and leave, but how could she allow something like this to happen? Gaius grabbed the woman's tunic before she could do anything and ripped it along the seams tearing it wide open. The cloth fell forward, and the woman screamed, realizing that there would be no escape. Cynna stood from behind the bush and stepped around to stand behind the optio. The woman looked pleadingly towards the archer the moment Cynna came into view. Gaius let go with one hand and stepped sideways, intent on seeing whomever it was the woman was looking to for help. As he turned, he came face-to-face with the Sarmatian archer.

"Well, if it isn't the barbarian woman. Maybe I don't want her... Maybe I want you," he said with a twisted smile. Cynna gazed back at the man, her eyes like fires. She had seen men like Gaius many times before, and her hate for them was significant.

"Maybe, you and I can enjoy this here fine day? Huh? Maybe, she can leave, and we..." he began to say when suddenly Cynna kicked with her foot as hard as she could, catching the man square between the legs. Gaius released the peasant grabbing his crotch and dropping to his knees in agony. The peasant woman grabbed ahold of her tunic, pulling it up for modesty. She grabbed her basket of clothing with the other hand and gave Cynna I nod of thanks before rushing back toward the small civilian dwellings built up around the fort. Cynna let the woman flee a reasonable distance as she calmed herself. Slicing his throat wasn't worth the repercussions, but perhaps a little cold water would help. She kicked out, catching the man in the chest and knocking him into the water with a splash. She would likely face some sort of disciplinary action for this, but it was worth it ten times over to put the man in his place.

"If I see you doing anything like that again, I'll geld you like a warhorse so you can keep your mind where it needs to be," she spat, not even considering that the man likely had no idea what she had just said. When emotions ran high, people often spoke in their native tongue. As she turned to leave, she heard splashes from behind. Spinning around, she had just enough time to duck as optio Gaius swung his large hastile staff, a mark of his station, barely missing her. How he had recovered so quickly, she could not say. The man stood before her, soaking wet and still looking a bit wounded from her kick. He swung the staff once more, catching the archer in her left shoulder. He had aimed for her head, but she had ducked before the slower moving staff could find its target. Looking almost shocked that the woman had shrugged aside his staff hit, the enraged optio dropped the staff and threw himself upon her, knocking the pair to the ground.

"You didn't catch me quite where you thought you did, you horse-loving whore. And now you will know your place in society and the legion and switch places with the woman you let getaway. Where's your horse and bow to make you strong? You Sarmatian scum are nothing without them," he taunted as he struggled to pin Cynna's arms to the ground.

"Remember my face because you'll see it again in the spring," he laughed as he tried to undress the Sarmatian while simultaneously pinning her to the ground. The Sarmatian, having grown up pulling the weight of a bow almost daily, Gaius found her significantly more difficult to hold down than the local women. He pressed both arms to the ground above her head and tried to pin them with one hand while he attempted to reach for her shirt. Almost immediately, she freed one of her hands, punching him square in the jaw. Realizing she was simply too strong for what he had planned, he let go of her hands and placed his around her neck, hoping to simply kill her. Though he wasn't thinking much beyond his rage at the moment, he suspected his position would protect him from any repercussions.

Without a moment's hesitation, Cynna wrapped her own hands around his neck and began squeezing as she flexed her neck muscles, trying to resist his crushing hands. This was not what the optio had expected, and he almost released, so unexpected was her action. Almost immediately, Cynna realized that her neck would be crushed in mere moments and that she could not kill him fast enough. Looking down at her were his vile, wild eyes filled with hate. She was starting to blackout from her blood flow being restricted. Releasing his neck, she placed both thumbs into his eyes and began pressing.

"Bitch... ahhh!" he began to scream as he let go of her neck and grasped her arms, but in she pressed. While Cynna had a tendency to chew her nails, her thumbnails were just long enough to push between the eyelids and into the soft, vulnerable eyes. Gaius screamed in horror, tearing her hands-free with the power of his adrenaline, and rolled away, holding his ruined eyes. Cynna reached down into her boot before he could recover and pulled a small knife she kept free of its sheath. She slammed the knife down right into the optio's neck and then rolled onto her back where she could breathe. Her neck hurt, and she had nearly blacked out, but the knife made sure there was no chance the man would recover.

"What is this? What have you done?" she heard a man scream and opened her eyes to find three Roman soldiers had just arrived at the pond. She tried to speak, but her throat still hurt from the man's iron grip, she didn't think anything was broken, but there would definitely be bruises. Looking over at Gaius's twitching body and hearing the strange gurgling sound from his throat, she suspected she got the better end of their interaction. Summoning but little spit she had, she spat upon the dying man. Her mother had told her when she was young that while many men were good, some like him simply did not need to exist.

"My horse and bow are not my strength... My courage is my strength..." she whispered breathlessly at the dying man with what little whisper she could choke up. A moment later, she looked up to find even more Roman soldiers gathered around her. Without the ability at present to explain the situation, she let them pick her up and carry her quite roughly back to the fort. She hoped she could explain herself as soon as her voice returned. The way her neck felt, she suspected her voice would return shortly, though she would probably be in pain for a week or more.

 

***

 

Meala sat in a tall tree not too far from the bank of the fjord, watching the events unfold. At first, she had seen the Roman attack a local woman, and she had seen another come to her aid. While she had initially been pleased that the Roman man had failed in his despicable conquest, it had only been a moment before she had realized that the woman who had come to the local's aid looked surprisingly like the archer woman from the battle. At first, she thought it was a mere coincidence. She had heard of female Sarmatian warriors before, though they were supposed to be quite rare. But after the men had dragged her off to the fort, one of them had lifted her armor to examine it. Even at a distance, the single bronze piece had caught her eye as the Sun gleamed off of it. While much of the battle had been a blur, she could still remember the warrior's face and the place where her arrow had struck the armor. Even now, she felt a strange longing deep within her chest and a strange tingly sensation down her spine.

The Wenech warrior adjusted her position in the tree. Her sandals hung from a nearby branch, and her tunic was a bit itchy in the hot sun, but it was an excellent place to hide until night. Rushing toward the wall by herself in the daytime was basically suicidal for her and a mild distraction for the guards. As she took a sip of water from her water bladder, she considered her strange feelings toward the woman. Her attraction to women was hardly something new, but why this one? She was pretty, but that was hardly what kept her attention. It was the woman's majesty, she decided. Something about the proud archer atop her powerful steed with her mighty curved bow and shiny armor simply dazzled Meala. She had been told many stories of mighty warriors returning from valiant battles to carry away their loving brides. Even as a child, she had wanted to be that loving bride, though her warrior would have been a woman. At the same time, she also had the urge to be a warrior and change the world with her own hand and her mother's spear.

When she had faced off against the archer in battle, perhaps it had been that sense of mutual respect that had been the spark that had lit the fire in her memories. The Sarmatian had tried to kill her and had focused upon her as her enemy. She supposed that it was strange to find respect for one's enemy, but feelings could be tricky things. And now, here she sat in a tree watching the first woman to truly captivate her senses being dragged away by her greatest enemy. The Sarmatian woman may have let her flee that night, but in truth, she had remained captive ever since. Putting away her water bladder, she gazed at the Fort. She hoped the men were helping the archer, though she feared something more sinister, given the way they had held her roughly.

Driving the image of the glorious warrior from her mind, Meala opened a small leather pouch full of ashes from the previous night's fire and began smearing them onto her skin. She wasn't going to cross Antonine's wall with probably 400 or more soldiers, even at night, with how pale her skin was. As she painted, she whispered a song that her mother had often sung to her as a child about a famous warrior woman who fought the three animal guardians of a famous magical weapon. She couldn't remember all of the words, but the tune kept her calm as she painted. Tonight, she would either prove herself and forge her own destiny or die trying. Either way, she wasn't going to become some man's wife.

 

***

 

"Gaius Pedius, Optio to the Primus Pilus, the head centurion of the first cohort of the mighty II Augusta legion. That is the man you murdered, you Dacian dog," Lucius Fabius Vibulanus spoke with disgust as he held Cynna by the jaw, staring into her face, his long yellow dyed woolen robes a stark contrast to the otherwise dull hallway of the fort. The Roman noble released the Sarmatian, holding his hand out for a local slave to pour clean water upon and wipe his hand with a cloth. He had only examined half of the bullion captured by the third cohort earlier that month when the interruption had come, with the rest of it sitting on his desk. Instead of inventorying it, he found himself being constantly bothered by what should have been trivial matters. Typically, the legate would have handled these matters, but he was away, leaving Lucius to keep order. Moreover, his wife, Vita, was bound to help herself to some of the bullion while he was distracted. It was enough to make a man scream. Now, he stood before some eastern woman who had just murdered one of the few soldiers he had in a position to help keep good order.

Far from a simple distraction, Lucius found these disciplinary actions tedious. He had a long-held distaste for non-Roman soldiers. However, he accepted their necessity if nothing more than barely tenable pragmatism. But a woman? The idea was repulsive, and here stood an example of why women had no place in the legion. Luckily, most of the more exotic auxillia had to sense to leave their women at home, where they belonged. Now, he was down an optio just when there had been several disciplinary issues of late. Moreover, more than a few involved the small number of foreign soldiers under his command. If that weren't enough, having a woman in the ranks was a significant liability, in his opinion. Even he had some level of disciplinary rules he must obey, but this barbarian woman wasn't a proper Roman under the eyes of the law. Making an example of her would remove the only female soldier under his command and remind those who were not citizens what their lack of discipline might lead to.

The woman stood before Lucius, held by four soldiers with her face down as he considered her fate. In fact, he had already decided upon initially hearing what had happened. Still, it served his purpose for the soldiers to see him appear to agonize over the decision. He needed to both be feared by them but also earn their respect that he was a thoughtful man who made decisions very carefully. Exchanging a glance with the Primus Pilus, Marcus "Pugius" Quirinalis, he stepped back theatrically, preparing to render his decision. In all honesty, the woman had probably defended herself against the lascivious optio. Lucius had never liked the man, and he was hardly upset at his demise. However, the lack of another leadership position was a problem. He had tried to convince Marcus to select someone else many times in the past, though unwilling to order such an act for the purpose of morale. Morale was what kept the military together and kept things well oiled. To lose the men's respect would mean his only grasp upon them was money and fear, a dangerous combination. With a sigh, he rendered his verdict.

"Have her crucified this very night," he said, flatly. Several of the men look shocked, not having expected such a verdict.

"But, should she not receive trial?" Marus asked, a bit out of place yet somewhat shocked by the sentence. He had expected she would be put to death, but he had not expected the most humiliating and painful method to be the mechanism.

"She's peregrina, at best, not a citizen," Lucius replied, matter of factly. Several of the men murmured an agreement, the none dared to speak up in the presence of such a powerful man whose name itself carried almost as much weight as his station.

"Until the Legate returns, I am master here. You shall perform this execution, summarily," he spoke, turning to leave the room. It was evening, and there was still a significant amount of paperwork, not to mention cataloging the remainder of the bullion he needed to attend before bed. Considering his need to sleep, he paused and looked back once more before leaving the room.

"Oh, one more thing. Make sure you gag her, so I don't have to hear the screaming all night," he said before turning in leaving.

Cynna stood with her hands tied behind her back and four soldiers holding her steady. She had listened to what the man had said, and she had understood. She had seen crucifixion before on her way to Britannia and after the raid six months ago. Even now, the thought of what she had seen filled her with horror. She wanted to scream, she wanted to beg for mercy, but she knew there was nothing she could do. She had left her home to get away from captivity and start a new life, but it seemed she had made the wrong choice. She only hoped death would not take long.

 

***

 

The Milky Way galaxy's stars erupted from the southwestern horizon, angling nearly straight up, though slightly tilted to the south. The stars themselves provided the only illumination in the grassy field as Meala slowly crept toward the fort. The air was warm and humid, causing the stars to twinkle as she approached the ditch just before the wall of Antonine. Across her back, her mother's old shield was held firm by a leather strap, while in her right hand, she carried her mother's spear. She had found a quality shaft along the way and simply whittled it with a knife. The night before, as she camped, she had heated the wood over her small fire to dry it and give it strength, as well as to darken it. She had attached her mother's iron spearhead to one end of the wooden pole. As she approached the fort, its weight in her hand gave her courage. She had been here once before, but last time had gone tragically wrong.

Guards and torches could be found at regular intervals along the wall. However, they seemed spaced widely enough that they might notice an immense assault, while an individual might have better luck slipping through the darker places. As she approached the wall, Meala walked more slowly and crouched lower to the ground. Passing through the ditch wasn't difficult, though the closer she got to the wall, the faster her heart pounded as she could almost feel an arrow piercing her at any instant in her mind. A moment later, she peered over the edge of the ditch, confirming that the point along the wall that she wished to pass was indeed empty of Romans. Perhaps one small warrior could sneak in where a giant force could not. Memories of the raider woman stabbed by the Romans during the battle kept coming to mind.

She pressed forward, approaching the wall made from stones with Earth in the middle and a wooden palisade at the top. She removed her sandals and fastened them to her belt, finding bare feet more adept at climbing. A short moment later, she was over the stone and crawling across the dirt to lean against the palisade. Taking a moment to catch her breath, she put her plan in motion. From her belt, she detached a rope she had tied a lasso to the top of and knotted at regular intervals all the way down. She pressed her ear against the cool wood and listened for the sounds of guards. This was the moment when she could still abort. If she turned and ran now, she could likely escape into the night. Meala pressed her hand against the honey bee tattoo and closed her eyes, saying a prayer to the gods for luck. I will not be some man's wife, she thought with conviction, and then she began her entry.

Hoping desperately that no one stood on the other side of the palisade, she threw the rope several times until it caught the top of one of the poles. Holding the rope and leaning back, she began to climb the wall. Being reasonably light, the wood only protested her climbing with a few creaks. Offhandedly, she wondered if a heavier warrior man would have had more trouble. With a few foot slippages, she made it to the top of the wooden poles. Unexpectedly to Meala, actually climbing over the palisade turned out to be the hardest part. Crossing over the top without becoming accidentally impaled was hardly a simple procedure. She could not imagine how a warrior would do this during a battle with arrows flying and men rushing along with spears and axes rather intent on preventing the complex and dangerous task.

A few terrifying moments later, she found herself on the other side of the wall, slowly moving toward the fort positioned a short distance behind the wall. Before her stood the ominous fort Velunia, a massive stone and wooden structure that a small village had grown around. It was mostly rectangular in shape, with one of its towering corners more substantial than the others. At the very top was a window where a flickering light could be seen. Meala had not known what to expect when she arrived, only that she had hoped to grab something of importance and then make her way out, a boon that would signify her accomplishment. While she was prepared for a fight, she was hoping to avoid one. Meala knew nothing of Roman forts, but if she were in charge, the highest tower with its inviting lights was where she would be, so that's where she would go.

 

***

 

"We had one of these things built for another guy just last month, but he got away. Lucky for you, that means we were ready to hoist you up tonight," said a Roman soldier with a chuckle as he dragged the sizeable wooden cross a few feet over in preparation for its latest victim.

"Your hat could impale someone," another Roman laughed as he inspected Cynna's large metallic and pointed helmet. He continued laughing as he carried the woman's gear tossing it aside where they could attach it later beneath her feet upon the cross. Cynna tried to cry out in anguish, but her voice was still hoarse, and her neck ached from the attack. She wanted to say something, even if it was to anger the men into just killing her outright. She had no wish to die, but few deaths were as horrible as the one a mildly bored looking Roman noble had sentenced her to almost casually. At least the bastard who started all of this was dead before her, though that did little to calm her.

The four soldiers lifted the woman freeing her hands and then dragging her, kicking and trying to scream to the wooden cross. It took one man on each leg, and one man on each arm as the Sarmatian struggled against the inevitable horror of what was to come. The men groaned as they held her down, annoyed that they would have to remain on guard with her at least until the morning. They were at least happy that she seemed to be unable to make a loud noise as the last thing they wanted to hear was screeching all night long. Yet her pained vocalizations were starting to wear on the men.

"No wonder Lucius wanted her mouth gagged," one man said with a laugh while an older man with a bald head and a tired look approached, dropping a leather bag to the ground, which made a strange metallic sound. He held a hammer in his other hand.

"Well, get her stripped and tie her arms and legs so I can nail them. Careful with her legs, she's build like a war horse," he said methodically as though asking someone to perform some simple, ordinary task, noting her powerfully built legs. Cynna fought desperately as the men worked to prepare her for crucifixion. Her clothing, armor, and even weapons were piled neatly beside a trough near where the men worked. Primus Pilus Marcus had wanted them put on display beneath her feet so that everyone who passed knew that this was not just some local woman or an unruly slave, but a full Sarmatian cavalry woman. The message was that anyone might find themselves in a painful situation if they didn't behave. The older man sighed as he reached into the bag, removing a few six-inch iron nails. Standard regulations would have seen her armor and weapons impounded immediately for security. Leaving gear near a prisoner was a risk in the event that they escaped. However, he suspected the head centurion had simply not believed it likely that a woman would break free from four men. To be fair, he shared the centurion's opinion. Regardless, once the nails entered her flesh, she would lose any ability to use her hands or feet, anyway. As he approached, the Sarmatian woman turned her head and caught sight of the nails. Her panic turned into absolute horror as the men laughed at what was to come. Despite her injured throat, she screamed one painful, horrible sound.

"Don't worry, you'll probably pass out after the first one. We'll wake you up when it's done, so you don't miss out on anything," the older man said as he knelt down, selecting the first nail to be placed directly through her wrist and into the wood.

 

***

 

Meala reached the edge of the fort pressing her body against the cool stone wall and issuing a sigh of relief. Her dark blue tunic and ash-covered body made her almost invisible in the dark of night unless someone came quite close. Luckily, while she could hear soldiers not that far away, none of them seem to be patrolling the outer edge of the fort. She knew that would not last forever, and there was only one way to reach the fire lit room above. It was about 40 feet from the ground, a precarious climb up a stone wall which only barely had notches, as Romans were reasonably good masons. There are many things that larger men could do that she would have trouble with, but being light and nimble were advantageous when it came to climbing. Moreover, her more slender fingers and toes could fit in the tiny crevices. However, she suffered a significant lack of upper body strength when it came to exploiting these advantages. Either way, she began to scale the stone building reasonably well.

"Tibi dixi de feminis localibus. Feminae barbarae te in somno interficient..." Meala heard a man speaking casually in Latin as she neared the top of the tower. He had said something about barbarian women and why they should be avoided. Looking down, Meala saw two guards pass underneath, casually chatting with one another, though neither looked up. Holding onto the stone was difficult in her current and precarious situation, but if she tried to move and slipped, they would likely hear her. On the side of the building, as high up as she was, Meala was a sitting duck for any spear or pilum, and worse, she was too high to get down quickly for an escape. Her fingers began to ache as she waited for the men to slowly make their way past. As soon as the men passed, she resumed her climb, finally finding a solid handhold on the edge of the windowsill. She knew she was high up, but she dare not look beneath her lest she panic and fall. That was something she had learned as a girl climbing trees. Life seemed to be filled with dangers and horrors from every direction. If you didn't learn to accept and put them out of your mind, you might find it hard to even crawl from bed each morning.

Peering through the open window, she found a reasonably large room with a bed, several wooden furniture pieces, and a desk. Sitting on the desk were many knickknacks and objects, some of them appearing to be gold. Unfortunately, standing in the middle of the room was a woman wearing a Roman noble's robes. Beside her stood what seemed to be a slave girl. The slave girl wore a simple linen tunic with a small wooden plaque hanging around her neck proclaiming her as property. The slave girl had the appearance of one of the people from the tribes to the south, pale skin, and honey blonde hair. In her hand, she held a fine bone comb. The noblewoman removed a large adornment from her hair, placing it on the bed, and turned for a moment, looking as though she were thinking of what to do next. The slave girl reached forward with the comb and attempted to begin combing the woman's hair. The noblewoman gasped as a hair was pulled, apparently causing her pain.

"Ouch! You stupid creature. Wait for my word before you start, and hold my hair tightly so the knots won't hurt. I'm starting to think Lucious had other motives for buying you as you have the skills of a goat. Though I suppose it's our own fault, expecting a barbarian to be more than the trained animals, you are. Either way, if you don't get your act together soon, you'll get another beating," she said, slapping the slave across the face and then turning to sit on a small stool beside the bed. Oddly, though the slave appeared less than pleased at having been slapped, her lack of real response implied that this wasn't the first time it had happened. She doubted all Romans were cruel, though it seemed as though they sent the cruelest ones to the Wall. Meala felt sorry for the girl. So many villages had been raided, and the Romans had taken so many of the people of her land and the lands to the south. This was yet another reason the Romans had to be driven from their lands.

Slowly, Meala slid her torso halfway through the window and then precariously brought her foot through, all while trying not to make any sound. Unfortunately, her plan went sour as her spear bumped against the edge of the window. The sound had been so slight, yet adrenaline flooded her body as she prepared for the worst. Behind her, she could hear the Roman woman mumbling to herself about something, seemingly not having noticed the armed intruder sliding into her window. Meala took a deep breath and finished her less than nimble entry. Much like the palisade, actually climbing over or into things was typically much more complicated than it initially looked. Her bare feet felt the rough wood of the floor as the sents of the room filled her nose. Her senses were alive, and they needed to stay that way if she wanted to remain alive.

Meala turned to hope that she could grab something of value without the people in the room hearing, but as she did so, she realized the slave girl was looking right at her. Her heart nearly stopped its beat as her eyes locked with the slave. Oddly enough, the girl, almost a young woman, continued to brush the noble's hair and had not signaled an alarm. The girl regarded the intruder curiously. Meala slowly held her hands up, trying her best to indicate to the slave that she had no intentions of harming her. She was painted with black ash and had a spear and shield tied to her back, which did little to back up the friendly claim her hands were making. Still, the slave girl continued to comb as the noble mumbled to herself about something which irritated her, unaware of the drama unfolding behind her.

To say the situation was precarious hardly did it justice, and the moment of truth was at hand. There was no time to flee if this went sour, and the girl was oddly still gazing at her curiously, if not almost hopefully. She closed her eyes for a moment choosing how to best explain herself silently. Meala pointed at the noblewoman whose back was to her, then used her finger to indicate the noble's throat being slit. This is when the slave girl would either keep her mouth shut or alert her mistress. Meala stood there silently, her gaze pleading as she waited for the girl's response. For a brief moment, a girl who had no power in life suddenly held the lives of two people entirely in her hands. Time passed painfully slowly as the girl combed and consider her fate. Just as Meala was considering trying to back out, the slave girl slowly nodded her head in what appeared to be agreement. Holding back a sigh of relief, Meala slid free her bronze knife and approached the noblewoman from behind, on the other side.

As Meala approached, she could smell the woman's perfume and hear her as she mumbled something to herself. She looked up at the slave girl, and the pair exchanged glances. She could see the slave was terrified, and so was she. Killing someone was much more difficult than she imagined, but she had done it, at least partially, during the battle. Unfortunately, her nerves were starting to fray as she kept readjusting the knife in her hand. This wasn't the same as killing a warrior who was also trying to return the favor. This was an unarmed woman who didn't even know what was about to happen. Realizing that the painted woman was almost as frightened as her and was starting to freeze up, the slave girl boldly reached forward, dropping the comb and wrapping her hand around the noble's mouth. The slave looked as though she were about to have a panic attack at her own actions. She pulled the noble's neck backward, making a frantic sound of panicked terror as she did. The noblewoman started screeching, but the sound was muffled as the slave girl fought to keep her hand in place. She looked up at the warrior at the same time fighting to restrain the older noble.

"Do it..." She whispered as loudly as she could with a heavy southern accent. Meala realized it was now or never and grabbed the noble's hair. Her body tried to freeze, but the slave girl's pleading look kept her going. She placed the bronze dagger against the woman's throat and dug in as deeply as she could. It took two slices until the blood shot across the room, spraying part of the wall in one massive jet before dropping into smaller, pulsing jets of blood. The crying slave girl and the terrified warrior woman held the noble as she spasmed until she stopped moving. Meala could not believe how much blood had covered the wall. She should have been ready for it as she had watched her father kill so many animals on their farm, but it was still quite a scene, a scene that she had made. She felt a little queasy, though helping her father butcher animals as a child made things a little easier. As she turned to see the slave girl, she realized she was hardly the most frightened of the pair.

"You must help me escape. They will kill me!" the slave girl begged, wiping back tears. Though she hadn't even considered how she would do it, Meala nodded that she would help. That the noblewoman had abused the girl enough for her to risk her own life in the act of murder was unsettling. The slave girl stepped forward and embraced Meala as she cried. Meala didn't know the identity of the woman she had just killed, but if the slave girl's reaction was anything to go off of, she was hardly a good person. For a short moment, they held each other, both entirely moved by what they had just done. After a short time, the slave girl let go of the intruder and stood back looking quite awkward.

"Well, let's grab what we can and leave," Meala said, not really sure what else to say in the awkward moment. The girl nodded her agreement, and they began searching. As quickly as they could, the pair rushed around the room, gathering what could be easily carried of value. Oddly enough, upon the table, a small wooden chest held dozens of gold pieces, jewelry, and other odds and ends. It seemed as though somebody had been separating it into piles and writing notes about it on paper. Meala had no idea what they said, she couldn't read, but she knew gold when she saw it. Gathering all of the gold and shoving it in the box, she ripped off a piece of the noble woman's skirt and pressed it into the box tightly so that it would stop the gold and coins from rattling when they sneaked out. Using her last piece of rope, she secured the box to her back over her shoulder. Every moment they stayed, their chance of capture rose. Meala was about to head to the window when her eyes caught sight of something fantastic.

Sitting on the table on the other side of the room was a beautiful gold torc, the kind one would find around the neck of a chief. The slave girl had already retreated to the window with a long piece of rope she had found someplace and was trying to figure out how to use it to get down. Ignoring this, Meala stepped forward and lifted the golden torc. Unlike a simple necklace, this thick torc had been meticulously forged to wear around the neck of a mighty warrior. More than even the gold, this was what she had come to find, a true symbol of power she could show to her people. This was the sort of boon which could elevate her to the warrior status and grant her enough say over her own destiny to avoid her common fate. This was a physical manifestation of her freedom. She placed the heavy torc around her neck, feeling its weight against her collar bone.

As she looked down, she could see the ends, called terminals, hanging just below her collarbone, with the edge of her magical bee tattoo just below, peeking out from beneath her tunic. The feeling of pride was intense, and she became lost in the moment when the sound of the slave girl calling brought her back. As she looked up from the torc, her eyes fell upon the blood-splattered wall, and a wave of nausea passed over her. She nearly vomited but held it back, looking away and breathing deeply.

Death was no stranger to her people. She had watched relatives die, mostly killed a Roman, and even slaughtered animals on the farm, but it was still a difficult sight to behold. Looking away, she caught sight of the slave girl waving her hands. The girl had tied the rope around the bed and prepared to throw it out of the window. Meala realized that she had become caught up in the moment and shook her head, banishing the potent thoughts dancing to her mind, as well as the last of the nausea. She would have plenty of time to think about them and reflect once she escaped and every moment that she stayed in the room increased her likelihood that she wouldn't. Double checking that the small wooden chest was securely hung over her back, she approached the rope to ensure it was in good order. The slave girl might not have been any kind of warrior, but she at least knew how to tie a knot. Tossing the rope out the window, Meala began to climb out.

Surprisingly, the slave girl climbed out even though she appeared terrified of the height. The girl had gone from almost apathetic to appearing on the verge of crying or breaking down since she had made a choice to help Meala. She supposed, grimly, that the girl's fate, if she were discovered beside the body of her mistress, would be significantly worse than a quick fall with a hard landing. After a few precarious moments, the pair were safely on the ground. Unfortunately, the rope would have to remain hanging from the window, meaning the next patrol to pass would likely notice it. This made a quick escape even more paramount.

"Shh. Keep as quiet as you can and smear this on your arms and legs," she said, handing the small leather pouch with wood ash to the slave girl. Her skin was slightly darker than Meala's, but a good layer of ash would make her much harder to see at night. After a short moment of quickly applying ash, the pair began heading in a more or less straight line toward the wall keeping as low as possible to the ground and moving slowly but steadily. Suddenly, Meala caught sight of a dozen guards interacting with one another on the edge of the wall. They appeared to be less organized and perhaps less experienced than the other guards. At the lead was a much older soldier barking orders at them. She wondered if, maybe, they were new recruits? Either way, their avenue of escape had just become cut off.

"Ad due... Exi. Movete!" the older man spoke, though she could barely hear him.

"We are not going that way. Let's sneak around the backside of the fort and try the other side. I saw fewer places to hide, but maybe it won't have as many guards," Meala said. The slave girl nodded but said nothing more. She wasn't sure if the girl simply wasn't talkative or too afraid to speak. Either way, this was hardly the time or the place for conversation. As the pair sneaked around the building, they found an open courtyard on the other side. The open courtyard was set between the large rectangular fort and the peasant town that had gathered around it, separated by a small stone wall. They would need to travel past the courtyard and right through a small group of dwellings to reach the other side of the fort. As it was, Meala was amazed they had not yet been spotted. There was a terrifyingly high risk of being seen. Still, when they got to the other side, they could probably make a run for the wall and hopefully slip over in the dark.

The fort was a tall and ominous symbol of Roman power to their right, with guards seen here and there. On their left were a dozen small houses and structures where local people, collaborators in her opinion, lived and worked with the Romans. Keeping low against the wall, they passed building after building without incident. Suddenly, they heard the strange and slightly hoarse screech of a woman coming from the courtyard. Meala and the slave paused for a moment looking at each other frightfully. Meala's first instinct was simple – it's not your concern. Unfortunately, curiosity and acting without fully thinking things through were somewhat hallmarks of the young woman's chaotic life.

Glancing back at the slave girl, she indicated that she was going to have a look. The slave girl's confused and suddenly anxious face revealed her displeasure at her rescuer's curiosity, but she was hardly in a place to do anything about it. She would need to get quite far of Roman-occupied land before she would be safe, and the strangely painted brunette who now sported a warrior's golden torc seem to be her only chance. Ignoring her frightened companion, she placed one foot on a stone protruding from the low wall and lifted herself enough to see what was happening in the courtyard.

The sight which befell her was unlike anything she had expected, though she wasn't really sure of what she had expected. There was a wooden cross, like the kind Romans were said to use for execution. Partially strapped to it with ropes was a woman. It looked as though three Roman soldiers were trying to pin her down while a fourth held what looked like nails and a hammer. Oddly enough, it seemed that the woman had gotten one hand free and had wrapped it around the neck of one of the men attempting to strangle him in a headlock. Another man punched the woman several times in the head until she let the man free. She spat blood in their faces, and they dove on top of her trying to restrain her once more. Strangely, the woman's chest had a recently healed and a rather deep looking wound just below her right breast, as well as several other scars. As Meala watched, she realized that the woman was none other than the archer. Her heart sank as she remembered what she had seen by the pond. The archer had saved a local woman and killed a rather nasty Roman. She had seen the men take the archer away, but she had not realized that this was what was to become of her.

Crucifixion wasn't just a death sentence; it was one of the most excruciating and long-lasting death sentences meant to humiliate the victim in every way and cause horrendous pain and suffering. It was one of the many practices which instilled the most fear in her people, something the Romans were known to do to discourage raids. In fact, it was one of the very things she had worried might happen to her the day that she had been wounded in battle. What if a Roman had found her? Instead, this very woman had chosen to spare her such a fate. As she watched, she realized that whatever struggles the woman was putting up were almost at an end. There were four men, and they were moments from nailing her wrists to the wood. Not only had this woman spared her life when she had no reason to do so, but she had haunted her memories and even her dreams ever since. How could she let the Sarmatian archer die in such a horrifying way... in such a disgraceful manner? It burned at her very core and filled her with rage. She felt the weight of the torc around her collarbone, and she knew what needed to be done.

"Here, you can put this on, and no one will recognize you," Meala said as she began unlacing her belt and then removing her tunic. She had seen enough, and there was only one thing she could do now. The slave girl stared in shock, though she had been taken from a village just north of Hadrian's Wall and knew enough of the culture to realize what Meala was planning. She had seen men do it before, but never a woman.

"You can't fight four of them... I can't wait for you!" the slave girl whispered, fear in her voice. The woman who had rescued her was now about to go get herself killed and leave her on her own. Panic filled the girl, and her tears returned once more. Ignoring this, Meala handed her the woad dyed tunic and the small chest full of gold.

"I would ask you to stay, but if you become frightened or if I die, flee and take the gold with you. This is something I must do and the only way I'm going to put my mind at rest," Meala said, her own voice trembling.

The slave girl took the tunic absolutely shocked but began to slide it over her very conspicuous linen slave tunic. Her wooden name tag had already been forgotten in a ditch not too far from where they had first set foot on the ground. It was true that with the gold, the tunic, and keeping her head down, she had a reasonable chance of making it south and perhaps finding a boat that might take her North across the water, bypassing the walls. Since childhood, she had been a slave, and the northern warrior had been the first person to truly show her kindness. She wanted nothing more than to flee the danger, but if she left before at least giving the warrior a chance, she would regret it. Wiping back tears, she decided to stay at least to see if the painted woman could win. It seemed impossible, but only an hour before, she was being slapped by her wretched domina, and now she was standing on the precipice of freedom.

Meala stood wearing her braies, a woolen cloth wrapped around and between her legs serving as underwear of a sort and her sandals. Her magical bee tattoo was open to the night air and for all gods, spirits, and ancestors to see. Typically, a few men wearing magical tattoos would strip in such a manner as a matter of honor and as proof of their bravery. It wasn't that a woman could not do it; it just wasn't very common for a variety of reasons Meala wasn't interested and considering at the moment. She held her mother's shield in her left hand and her mother's spear in her right hand. She stuffed her bronze dagger into its sheath and into her undergarment as she prepared for battle. She had painted much of her upper body with ash in case her tunic had torn or while she was running to prevent any of her otherwise pale skin from showing. The exception was the area with the tattoo, which had been kept mostly clean. A tattoo that was covered would not have the magical protection of an uncovered tattoo.

The last thing she did was remove a small leather-wrapped ball of woad pigment from her pouch and smear some on her hands and across her chest and face. Even mixed with oil, woad wouldn't last but a day before coming off, but it was an essential element for the ritualistic act she was about to perform. The fear was almost crippling as she stood ready to fight, but her mother had not raised her to be a coward. Moreover, the man with the nails and hammer had just pressed his knee against the woman's hand and was preparing to drive the nail deep within. Meala glanced once more at the slave girl and gave her a forced smile. She hoped the slave would not just leave, taking the gold with her, unless she fell. If that happened, she hoped it was quick. The worst possible fate would be to be captured.

 

***

 

"She squeezes pretty hard for a woman," a Roman man with a scar beneath his eye laughed as he rubbed his throat. He had tried to hold the woman down, but she had gotten her arm around his neck only moments before. His two friends laughed as they held the overly strong woman down while the carpenter prepared to nail her once and for all. Once the nails were driven between the bones just beneath the wrists, the woman's hands would become reasonably inoperable, and she would finally stop fighting. Cynna breathed hard as tears rushed from her eyes, and terror flowed through her. She had fought the men with everything she had, but she knew there was nothing she could do. She grunted as the baldheaded man's knee pressed her left arm against the wood and the point of the nail pushed against her wrist. From her tear-blurred eyes, she could see his hand lifting the hammer, and she mumbled a prayer to her deities that she might withstand the pain and not cry out. She didn't deserve the punishment she had been given. But she was a Sarmatian woman, and she would do everything in her power to rob the Romans of any satisfaction.

Just as the hammer was about to fall, it paused. A strange wood against metal clanging sound began, a peculiar segway to what she had expected to be pain. All around, the Roman men appeared somewhat startled as well. Cynna turned her head blinking her tears away, yet the sight which befell her was so unexpected that she wondered if it was some sort of delusion for a brief moment. A woman with long brown hair wearing a heavy golden torc around her neck, a symbol of the northern people, which meant great strength and prowess, stood not far from the men holding a shield and spear. Her body was tattooed, painted, and otherwise dusted heavily with ash. Though she wore sandals and a cloth around her waist, she was otherwise bare, like a proper barbarian. Almost immediately, Cynna recognized the woman. She had seen her once before, lying on the ground clutching a wound Cynna had given her. This was the woman who had been occupying her thoughts for six months, the warrior who had nearly taken her life. And now she stood there facing down four well-trained Roman soldiers without even the sense to wear armor.

Cynna blinked her eyes several times and shook her head, sure that she must be delirious or delusional. Had the nails been driven already, and the pain forced her into delusion? She decided that if it was a delusion, it was better than a real crucifixion, and if it was real, she had to do everything she could to get free while the men were distracted. She reached with her hand for the nail which had fallen as the man with the hammer had stood, but she couldn't quite reach it. She began bending her legs, twisting against the ropes to free them. Years of holding her legs tightly against a horse had given her strong leg muscles, and she used them now to her advantage as she attempted to twist her feet free. Unfortunately, her hands were heavily bound to the wood, and she wasn't sure how she might free them.

 

***

 

Meala slammed her spear against her shield over and over, capturing the attention of the men. It would have been better to have stabbed one of them before the others realized, but the man with the hammer had been about to nail the first nail when she had gotten there, and there had not been time to capitalize on surprise.

"Picta puella..." one man breathed.

"Possumus pro te unam facere," (we can make one for you) another man sneered, nodding at the cross on the ground. Meala snarled in response, but as the four Roman men stood pulling their short swords free, Meala began to feel small by comparison. It wasn't just that each Roman man was a foot taller and 30-40% more mass; it was that they looked seasoned and tough. In truth, they were frightening, but so was she. Rushing forward, she jumped into the air, stabbing her spear down in a move the first Roman had obviously not expected. He slashed wildly with his sword, but it bounced harmlessly off of her shield, not having been made for slashing. The spear struck the man in his neck muscle, and he stumbled backward, holding the superficial yet likely painful wound.

Behind her, another man raced forward, thrusting his sword as hard as he could with his gladius's blade horizontal, the proper manner to puncture her organs through her ribs. Meala pulled her shield against her side and rotated, causing the blade to skip harmlessly off the shield as she wasn't sure she could have stopped the blade directly. As the man stepped forward, he tripped on one of the crucifixion ropes stumbling to the ground. Behind her, she could hear the man she had stabbed in the shoulder coming. Not having time to use her spear on the man on the ground, Meala swung the spear backward at the man who was charging and slammed her shield as hard as she could into the neck of the man who had just fallen to the ground. She didn't have the upper body strength to capitalize on the shield strike, but the impact upon the man's neck was significant, causing him to curl into the fetal position grasping his neck in pain. The spear missed the man coming up behind her, but it caused him to jump back just in time to allow her to finish using her shield on the man on the ground.

Meala stepped back, slamming her spear pole against the shield and smiling in a crazed manic sort of way, hoping the absolute terror flowing through her body wasn't visible on her face. There was one Roman man on the ground, not dead but obviously in grievous pain, but there were still three more. So far, she had been exceptionally lucky. The other two had taken a moment to grab their shields and now joined the fray. The men began circling her with their swords out. Oddly, not a single one of them had sounded the alarm. The commotion caused by the many problems the men had faced restraining the Sarmatian woman meant that some level of sound would simply be ignored by those around, but a Roman soldier screaming for help would be her immediate downfall. She wondered why they had not called for help, but she had a horrible suspicion it was because they didn't think they needed it. Their smiles spoke of men who wanted the glory of the fight for themselves and were sure they would get it.

 

***

 

Cynna bent her right leg backward, nearly contorting it all of the way to her bound hand. She was flexible for sure, but there were already several tendons she was pretty sure were going to hurt tomorrow if she lived. She had managed to get one of the nails lying on the ground between her toes, and she was trying her best to bend her foot to her hand, but the human body could only bend but so much. She had to scrape the top of her foot quite painfully as she forced her leg down and under to get it all the way back to her hand. Even now, she still couldn't believe that she had made it as far as she had. Suddenly, the tip of her finger felt the edge of the nail, and she grasped it, releasing her foot. Her back, neck, and legs ached from the contortion, but she now had a sharp piece of metal in her hand.

Ignoring the pain, she took the edge of the nail and began grinding it into the rope. As she did, she watched as the valiant painted woman lunged with her spear several more times at the now laughing Romans. They were taunting her, she could see. They probably hoped to tire her out and kill her or do the same to her that they were trying to do to Cynna. As she looked up, she saw the woman's face. The woman's blue-painted face bore a wolfish grin to frighten her enemies, but her eyes held the look of fear. She was outnumbered and outmatched, and yet she stood there with her spear unwilling to back down. It was that same look that had captivated the Sarmatian so many months before. It was that look that she couldn't get out of her mind.

Sticking the nail in between the plyed rope strands, she began twisting the nail until one of the plys broke. She twisted a little more, digging and grinding at it with the nail until suddenly her hand was free. Quickly, she began working on freeing her other arm, which was much easier with a free hand. At that moment, the bald-headed man looked down and realized Cynna had become free. Stabbing his sword into the ground, he reached down to grab her arm, hoping to pin it so that he could either drive a fresh nail or perhaps retie it. He turned his head, noticing the movement, but unfortunately for him, he was far too late. The hammer slammed into the side of his head, cracking his skull right beside his left eye. He fell to the ground holding his head, making a gurgling sound as veins burst open and his brain began to swell. Cynna dropped the hammer she had just used and rolled painfully off the cross, grabbing ahold of the man's discarded sword.

She began to stand, though she almost stumbled several times due to the pain from injuries she had experienced being strapped to the wood. As she did so, the painted woman took note. The ash painted warrior lifted her shield and spear into the air and began shaking them around in some strange display that gave the men pause. It also kept their attention as the still achy and slow-moving Sarmatian came up behind the first man. She could tell the Romans had about run out of patience. As far as they knew, one of their group was lying injured on the ground, and try as they might, none of them had been able to score a hit against the nimble Pict. What they didn't know was that another of their group was dying on the ground behind them, and the sacrificial woman had risen.

Cynna grabbed the closest man by the neck and stabbed the gladius straight into his back so close to his spine that the weapon became stuck. Cynna began to twist and tug at the sword to free it. The man-made a strange gasping sound and then cried out in pain as the moving weapon caused untold damage to his organs and his spine. His voice was high enough in pitch that she wondered if anyone hearing him might think it was the woman perhaps being nailed, who everyone by now in the fort would have expected to hear screaming. The man dropped to his knees, his lower body ceasing to function correctly. Cynna kicked him forward with her foot just as the other man turned to see what it befell his friend. At that moment, the painted woman launched her spear right into the chest of the turning man. He wheeled around in horror, grabbing the spear, though it hadn't gone deep enough to kill him, having likely been lodged into his ribs. Cynna tried to grab the gladius the speared man had just dropped, but she stumbled and fell over quite dizzy from what had transpired.

"Curse it," she murmured in pain.

 

***

 

Meala watched the Sarmatian woman drop to her knees and then sink to the ground. It didn't appear that she had been harmed, so perhaps she had been overcome by shock or fatigue. Either way, she would have to worry about that later. With her spear currently stuck in a man, she grabbed the bronze knife from her undergarment and stepped forward to swipe it at the wounded man. He instinctually threw his hand out, catching the blade which went right threw his hand. Meala ripped the dagger free, feeling the urge to vomit, but holding it back. She stabbed again, this time catching the man just beneath the collarbone. She twisted the blade ripping it free with a strange sound. Nausea came over her once more, and this time she vomited upon the man. For a brief moment, both of them paused at the oddity of what had just happened, but then the man ripped the spear free, his right side almost immobilized from the pain the dagger had caused. Meala spit the rest of the ick from her mouth and tore the spear free from the wounded man's hand. She plunged it into his chest again, this time scoring a direct cut into his heart. The Roman slowly sank to the ground and then was no more.

Meala dropped to her knees, feeling the urge to wretch once more, but nothing came out as she dry heaved. Her vision was darkened, and she felt strange tingly sensations all over her body. She had heard warriors speak of how this could happen in one's first battle, but this wasn't technically her first battle. Either way, she couldn't believe they had survived. Suddenly, she felt a hand gently touch her shoulder. For a moment, she startled, but when she looked up, it was the hand of the slave girl. In her other hand, she held a small clay jar, which likely contained wine. For a moment, Meala was almost panicked, looking frantically in each direction, but her foes lay dead or badly wounded all around.

"I stayed... Drink this," she said, handing the container to Meala. Meala still felt like she might vomit, but she took the clay container and put it to her lips, tasting the rich, almost painfully tart taste of low-quality wine. The men had obviously brought the jar expecting to spend the night guarding the crucified woman, and it took the edge off of the moment. As she sat there breathing hard and taking another sip, the slave girl rushed around looking for anything else of value. Meala turned and watched as the slave girl pulled the coin pouch from one of the Roman men and then tied it on a string around her neck, stuffing it in her tunic. She didn't care if the girl kept the money as she probably needed it, but she decided to pretend that she hadn't seen it. She took another swig, swished it for a moment, and spit it out. It was time to meet the Sarmatian and settle her debt.

 

***

 

Cynna realized that she was lying on her back, though she swore that she had fallen facedown. As she opened her eyes, she realized that someone was standing over her looking down. Her vision was blurry, but as it focused, she began to realize just who it was. The painted warrior woman whose life she had spared now stood over her holding a worn shield in one hand and a spear and the other. The woman was covered in ash and dirt with blood on her hands and splattered here and there across her body. She was beautiful and impressive to behold, even as dirty as she was. But most of all, Cynna was in awe at how brave she had been. True, Cynna had helped, but the woman had attacked four well-trained Roman soldiers with a simple shield and spear. Even she wouldn't have tried that without her horse and bow.

She supposed the woman had come back to kill her, perhaps some sort of warrior code. She knew the people of the North had a particular obsession with honor and bravery. She might be able to lift herself to fight in a short time once she got her head to stop spinning, but for the moment, she was helpless. In truth, she would rather be stabbed through the heart by the beautiful and brave painted woman than nailed to a cross to serve as the perverse ornament for an empire she could no longer serve. At least it would be quick and a lot less painful. Moreover, her death would at least mean something to the warrior woman, which was more than the mere evening of humor it provided the Romans.

"Perge... saltem non es Romana..." (Go ahead... at least you are not Roman) she spoke in Latin, remembering that the woman could speak the language of the bastard empire. She spread her arms and puffed out her chest, waiting for the spear. The Romans with their cross or a woman's hand, she would not die in a cowardly manner. The painted woman placed the spear against her chest. She stared for a moment before smiling, though only partially as she seemed to be rather shocked by the events that had happened. She moved the spear away from Cynna's chest and dropped her shield, offering her now freehand.

"You spared my life, and now I have saved yours. That makes us even," she said with a heavy accent. For a moment, Cynna stared, unsure of what to say. The painted woman frowned.

"We don't have long, and we need to get out of here, so you might want to sit up." Cynna took her offered hand and slowly brought her aching body up to a sitting position. A much younger woman, perhaps still a girl, wearing a blue-dyed tunic approached carrying what looked like her armor and Cynna's equipment from behind the painted warrior. The younger woman deposited the garments and gear beside her and then stepped back, assuming the pose of a servant or a slave.

"She helped me, and I promised I would rescue her too," the painted woman said, noting the look of confusion on the Sarmatian's face at the presence of the girl.

"Sei'ln Meala, daughter of Ail Braide, but most people call me Meala," the painted warrior said, poking her finger at herself and forcing a smile, though only barely.

"My name is Cynna of Dacia," Cynna spoke, though her throat was hoarse, and she seemed slightly pained as she spoke. Meala could see bruise marks around her neck and cringed at the thought of how they had gotten there. Meala wanted nothing more than to look at the beautiful archer but now was not the time. No one spoke again for a short time as Cynna and Meala put their gear back on. There was a sense of urgency given their precarious location within the fort proper. All it would take would be for one patrol passing, and they would be done for. Even hiding behind a box or lying flat on the ground would not be enough, as the Romans would likely expect either to see the crucified Sarmatian or people working towards that end.

Cynna finished tying her long shirt tight with a leather cord and then began wiggling into her scale mail. Beside her, Meala knelt, having retied her sandals. Her eyes suddenly noticed the spot in the armor where a cheap bronze piece had been tied to replace an iron scale that had been destroyed when an arrow had pierced it. It had come from her bow. It wasn't until that very moment that Meala realized just how close the arrow had come to passing between two scales at their weakest point. In truth, had her fingers twitched even slightly to the left as she had let the bowstring roll free, the woman kneeling before her wiggling into the heavy armor would have died that day. Just then, the armor slid over the Sarmatian's head, and the woman looked up. Her eyes were dark brown, and her long black hair was much thicker than Meala's. As she stared, she could not help but notice how captivating the Sarmatian was up close. Her eyes began to wander down the woman's armor and then back up her arms noting the intricate details of her finely woven kaftan shirt and beautiful striped leggings. Before the woman had reclothed, she had even caught sight of beautiful flower and vine tattoos covering her upper body. However, it had been too dark to see them in detail.

She had formed crushes on people before, like Ana of Aelsegh, a woman only perhaps a year older who lived several farms to the West, as well as a much older Caledon woman who had seen many battles with the Romans. She had been majestic, with every visible part of her body tattooed with magical symbols and scars here and there telling her brave story. Around her neck, she had worn a heavy golden torc of the finest quality from the South. Meala's own golden torc would nearly command the same respect, especially given how it was obtained. Oddly, her new torc reminded her very much of the one the Caledon woman had worn, looking almost exactly the same. The elated feeling she felt when looking at the beautiful Sarmatian warrior felt much more vital, perhaps more essential, than any childish fancy from before.

As her eyes lifted, she suddenly realized the Sarmatian was looking at her as well. At first, her mouth opened as she was about to say something, to explain herself. But then she realized, Cynna was looking at her the same way. Instead of blinking or looking away, Meala gazed back with as much courage as she dared. Endorphins flowed through her bloodstream as her skin blushed, but she continued to face the archer just as she had in battle. Why did this feel somehow almost more daring? Her breathing seemed a little harder, and she forgot about the aches and pains in her body. It was as though the world had stopped for a moment to stretch.

After a long pause, the truth of their mutual interest became an unspoken acknowledgment. Slowly, Cynna began to lean forward until her lips were but an inch from Meala's. Cynna had hardly recovered from what it happened. Her hands still trembled from the events but gazing into the beautiful emerald eyes of the painted warrior filled her with calm, a respite from what had been hours of terror. She supposed that she might not have been able to transition so quickly if she had not experienced battle several times before. She could feel the warm, moist air from the painted warrior's lips as her hand slowly extended, still trembling. When her fingers touched the warmth of Meala's arm, she found that her hand finally became still. Never had she wanted to embrace somebody more than this strange, brave, and beautiful warrior. They had faced each other in battle and saved each other's lives. Now, their lips were so close that she could feel the heat.

"A patrol!" the slave girl whispered as loud as she could, breaking the mood as fast as if cold water had been poured upon them. Shaking her head, Meala glanced up at the girl, almost confused for a moment as though she had forgotten what was going on. As her eyes sank, she saw the bodies of the Romans, and her memory of what had just happened was like an existential arrow to the chest. Nearly falling backward, Meala stood grabbing her spear and shield but hoping they could escape before anyone noticed. As the Sarmatian stood on shaky legs and turned to leave, the slave girl pointed toward the fort's entryway at a flickering light reflecting off the side of the building. It was growing in intensity with every moment.

Meala checked the slave girl and found that she was still carrying the little box of loot. When she turned back, she noticed the Sarmatian had disappeared. Looking in every direction, she began to panic as the patrol approached. The bodies of the Romans were everywhere, and there was simply no way to hide. Even if they had sneaked away, the patrol would be alerting the fort within moments. They could make a run for the wall, but she knew it was unlikely they could make it before a horn blew, and Meala doubted she could fight a patrol by herself or even with the Sarmatian.

"Where did Cynna go?" She quickly asked the slave girl, whose name she still didn't know. Using her shield hand, she pushed the girl behind her, preparing to meet the Romans head on. The brief sip of romance she had felt had been soured by the sudden renewal of danger. In truth, the threat had never really left, but she had at least ignored it for a brief moment.

"Over there," the girl said, pointing to her left into a darkened area with a wooden overhang blocking enough torchlight that Meala couldn't see anything when she glanced in the direction, at least at first. As she looked, she swore she saw movement and heard a sound, like a horse. Before she could discern what was happening, she heard the sound of the Romans.

"Ohe, tu! Picta femina! Siste et hastam demitte!" one of them screamed as the two Roman legionaries rushed forward, both pulling their short swords free. Meala stood before them, boldly slapping her mother's spear against her mother's shield, indicating that she had no intention of backing down. Unlike the crucifixion party, one of the soldiers had the unfortunate good sense to call out an alarm. At the same time, the other advanced to destroy the painted Northerner. As he stepped forward, Meala lunged with her spear. Unfortunately, the soldier had been expecting this and promptly swiveled his large tower shield into place, using its momentum to deflect the spear while he slashed at her neck with the sword. Luck was on Meala's side as the slashing blade hit her heavy torc leaving a nick in the gold and causing quite a pain, but harmlessly reflecting. The sword was typically used for impaling. She had been lucky that the man had not used it for that purpose as her midsection was utterly exposed.

Stepping backward, she faced off against the heavily armored and well-trained Romans. To her side, the other Roman approached with his sword and shield in the same stance. It was frightening how well-trained and regimental Romans could be when they were not caught off guard. With two approaching her from each side, she knew she was done for, but she wouldn't go out without a fight. Looking back at the terrified slave girl, she screamed a final order.

"Run! Take the box and go! I'll hold them here!" Surprisingly, the slave girl shook her head no. It wasn't so much that she bravely wished to make some final stand, but more that she had no idea what else to do. She doubted she could run far enough and fast enough. Worse, now that Meala had taken back her blue tunic, she was again left wearing the garment of a slave girl. She knew if she were caught, a fate as bad as crucifixion might very well be hers, and she was too frightened to take her own life. From her perspective, death by the soldiers' hands seemed like the only real option. Meala turned her attention back to the soldiers slamming her shield and spear one more time and smiling at them, as though she welcomed the fight, even though deep down, she was absolutely terrified.

The soldier lunged forward, moving his shield to the side to strike with his sword. Meala had seen this many terrible times during her first battle, and this time she was ready. He had to lift his large tower shield for a brief moment to move it, and that was the moment to take advantage of its weight. Instead of attacking with her spear or even trying to back away, she kicked her foot forward, catching the bottom of the shield, which pivoted right into the man's greaves, which protected his shins. The man almost laughed as he paused for a moment, realizing that the woman's attempt to force his shield into his shins had failed.

A moment later, his sword lunged forward for the kill. Meala slammed her hands atop his now angled shield, using her downward force to push herself away from his blade while at the same time forcing his shield into his sandaled feet with all of her weight. His triumphant grin abruptly contorted into a look of pain. Skipping back as nimbly as she could, Meala took the brief opportunity to slam her shield into the man's shield, causing him a moment of confusion. With his injured feet and her shield knocking him slightly off-center, an opening appeared through which she thrust her mother's spear. The weapon bit deep into the man's right shoulder, causing his sword arm to spasm. He dropped the weapon and stepped backward, pulling the shield before himself in some well-rehearsed pose of protection. Suddenly, the man to Meala's left came forward swinging his sword.

Meala barely dodged the weapon as she stepped backward and tripped, falling onto her butt. Beside her, the slave girl screamed as the Roman lifted his sword for the final thrust. Suddenly, with a whispy sound, an arrow seemed to all but appear in the man's neck. He dropped his sword and his shield and begin grasping at the arrow while his blood sprayed into the warm summer air. Turning a glance, Meala heard the sound of a horse approaching. Exiting from the darkened area where the slave had seen the Sarmatian go, Cynna burst forth riding a beautiful yet powerful warhorse. The mounted warrior stuck her strong bow into a special leather sheath that held it during battle, quickly grabbing the pre-tied lasso from the side of the horse in a nearly effortless act of dexterity Meala could only watch in awe.

Finally returned to her element, the Sarmatian rode straight at them, tossing the lasso into the air and quickly bringing it into a spin. The soldier she had shot in the neck had already fallen as his lifeblood painted the ground. At the same time, the other man reached for his sword, perhaps having returned enough strength to his hand to try and hold it once more. Before he could do anything, the lasso flew, catching him around the neck. Cynna wrapped the rope around a saddle horn in one smooth motion. She trilled a war cry as the lasso pulled taut, snapping the man's neck with a disturbing sound like a branch breaking from a tree. She held her body to the horse using the shear force of her powerful legs leaving her hands free for combat. A moment later, the horse came to stand before the painted warrior, and once more, the Sarmatian looked down at Meala, but this time, she was smiling.

"She's a strong horse, and she came when I called. The Romans obviously didn't even remove her saddle or tie her down well... fools. Now get on, they are coming," Cynna spoke in not the best Latin. A few precarious moments later, the Sarmatian held onto the slave girl while the slave girl held onto Meala, who held the reigns, as the trio turned to face the wall. Over her back, Cynna had placed Meala's shield for protection. Neither the slave girl nor Meala understood why the Sarmatian had chosen this particular configuration, as she was obviously the most skilled on a horse, yet now wasn't the time to debate riding tactics.

Luckily, the horse was strong, and both Meala and the slave girl were light, as three riders on a horse was hardly safe for most horses. Up ahead, there was a large earthen wall clad in stone with a significant ditch on the other side, and the only way through it would be straight through the gate. Not only would there be plenty of archers atop the gate, but the chances of the gates being open in the early night were slim at best. Regardless, it was the only way left.

 

***

 

"A little girl with a doll could break their line." Valerius Pontius leaned against the stone of the Velunia gate's entryway, watching his group of tirones (trainees) practicing their shield and defensive tactics at the gate. The raid that spring had yet again demonstrated how important it was that the men guarding the gate were ready to form a strong shield wall if suddenly rushed at an untimely moment. Sadly, the fresh local men were still having trouble learning how to properly work together. Nighttime had been the best time for training, as there were fewer higher-ranking individuals, such as centurions, who might find the personal need to come to add their opinions to the training. As it was, he already had to deal with the jeers from the four regular archers atop the gate. Luckily, he had heard of the crucifixion and planned to march his tirones passed when they were done practicing. Such a grizzly and vivid image might help burn the training deeper into their minds.

"They will be mixed with regulars over the next few weeks, so maybe not so bad, right?" asked an archer standing beside him absentmindedly working on a loose fletching on one of his arrows with a string. Valerius shrugged more board at this point than angry.

"The weakest link breaks the chain," he retorted with a chuckle. Suddenly, the sound of a warning horn, maybe a cornum or something local, rang through the night like thunder in the distance. Looking out across the open field, he saw nothing but the still of the night. Behind him, the sound rang again, begging for attention.

"It's coming from the fort!" the archer beside him spoke as each of them turned in the direction they had not expected their enemy to come from. For a moment, they could see nothing but the fort and a few torches moving about. There was the sound of men screaming and then the sound of a horse approaching. Beside him, the archers grabbed arrows preparing to face whatever unknown threat approached. Valerius yelled down for the tirones to form a line in the opposite direction as the horn blew once more. There was no time to close the gate, though there was a chance that his small trainee force might have paid attention. Suddenly, an arrow came launching from the darkness catching an archer in the face. The man grabbed the arrow, stumbling backward while screeching. Out of the dark, a horse galloped with at least two people on its back, though there might have been three. Valerius couldn't see as he ducked, an arrow flying right past his head so close that the fletching brushed his cheek.

"Vos servate! Gladios destringite!" he screamed, even as he scrambled to climb back up to a standing pose. When he did, a second archer fell shrieking as an arrow protruded from his collarbone just above his armor. Whoever was on that horse was quite a deadly shot, and fast, too! As the horse approached the gate, he was shocked to see what looked like a painted northern woman at the reins, a Sarmatian archer woman in the back with her bow drawn, and what looked like a young slave girl in between holding on for dear life. The Sarmatian held herself tightly to the horse with the sheer force of her legs as they flew past the entryway, her bow moving as it tracked an archer for a kill shot as though they were standing still. She loosed her arrow and then drew another in nearly the blink of an eye.

"YAAAAAAAA!" the painted Wenech woman screamed, the slave girl screeched, and the Sarmatian trilled her war cry as they charged the trainee soldiers. Valerius groaned, and bile built-up in his throat upon watching the young troops dive out of the way. One of them thrust his spear, to his credit, but the poorly aimed weapon glanced off the Sarmatian's scale armor. As they passed, the archer fired three more arrows in rapid succession, backward. The arrows missed their targets, but they suppressed his own archers long enough for her to escape their range. Valerius turned his gaze to his remaining archer and shook his head.

"Lucious was a fool to order her death. We need more of them... and I need a drink."

 

***

 

As the night rolled along, the trio followed the fjord and then the bank of a small river, eventually heading west. Meala, the best at walking, strode beside the horse most of the way as three riders on the same horse, even with two being light, was hardly advisable over long distances. The night had nearly approached its midpoint when they found a small gully protected on three sides by almost 20 feet of abruptly rising land, enough to make a semi-sheltered place for the night. They needed sleep, but they also needed to avoid anyone who might follow. The area was at the southern edge of the territory of Wenech, and there were enough small farming communities scattered throughout the region that hunting down an individual group among all of the other tracks would prove quite time-consuming. Human activity tended to obscure other human activity, or so they hoped. Regardless, they were too tired to keep going, and the horse needed time to eat, water, and rest.

Just beyond the gully, there was a small hill that hid a pond on the other side. Cynna took the horse, depositing her on the other side of the small hill where she might drink fresh water and eat as much grass as she wished. They would need the horse fresh tomorrow if they were to head north. In truth, Cynna had little else she could do aside from heading north and starting a new life among the strange painted people. She couldn't return to the legion, nor would she be safe if she headed south. The North was a peculiar and barbarous land, but it was also the painted warrior's home. With a sigh, she deposited her bow and the saddle on the ground behind a bush where she figured nobody would notice, then made her way back to the small camp.

"I have enough dried meat for each of us tonight, but that's all the food I brought with me," Meala said, handing each person a piece of dried meat. Her water skin would suffice for the night, but she would have to fill it several times the next day if three people were sharing it. With a horse, she could make it back to her family's crannog by the evening of the next day, even if they slept in a little late. The Sarmatian certainly looked like she could use it. Nestled against the very back of the steep gully, the trio lay on the ground with their backs to the dirt sides and nibbling on the meat with a small fire adding ambiance and a little warmth. It was summer, but it never really got that warm in the Northern lands.

"Una..." the slave girl abruptly spoke between bites. Her sudden speech almost startled Meala. The girl had barely said anything since she had helped Meala slay her mistress. She almost looked shy as the two warrior women settled their gaze upon her. She was several years younger and much smaller than both of them. In truth, both powerful women intimidated the girl, though she was thankful for their help.

"It's my name. Neither of you has asked, so I thought I should say," she spoke cautiously. For a moment, they stared at one another. Then suddenly, Cynna burst into laughter, followed by Meala, and then Una a moment later. The intense laughter was not really called for at the moment, but they needed an emotional release, and the awkward girl had popped the cork on their moods.

"Well, Una, mighty slayer of Romans, where will you go from here?" Meala asked, noting the girl seemed to be growing quite red in the face, even in the dim light of the fire. Beside her, the fire crackled and popped, warming the small gully.

"I really don't know. The village I came from no longer exists, and my family..." She let the final sentence trail off, quickly stuffing food into her mouth and obviously not wanting to think too much about what she had almost mentioned. Una was just another casualty of the Roman invasion. However, the local people were murderous enough to themselves even without the mighty empire. In truth, the Romans were not so much worse as they were more organized and methodical. Meala looked down for a moment and then suddenly lifted her head with a smile as an idea came to mind.

"There's more than enough room at my family house. If you can work, I'm sure you could live with us." Una looked up with a strange mix of fear and hope before sighing with what sounded like relief. Without another word, she simply nodded her approval. Meala shuddered to think what had caused the girl to be so shy, though she was pretty sure she knew. For a time, they were silent with only the sound from the fire and the chewing of dried meat.

As they ate, Meala considered what she knew about the exotic Archer. In reality, while she felt a deep attraction for the woman, she knew very little about her personality. Her mother had tried so many times to pair her with local men she knew nothing of, other than vague references she had heard of them growing up. Her mother had explained that love could be a complicated journey, but it could also be a sudden and unexpected find. Life was short, and it was essential to make the best you could with what time you had before that time ran out. Still, she wished she knew more about Cynna. When she had rescued her, she had seen beautiful and intricate tattoos covering her upper body, but she had been so focused on not dying at the time that she had not gotten a good look at them. Cynna's darker skin and the thinner tattoo lines hadn't helped, either. In fact, she still didn't even know what the woman's name meant.

"Honeybee," Meala abruptly said, causing the other two to pause their eating in confusion.

"Your name?" Una said, speaking a close dialect of her language. Meala smiled and elaborated.

"My name means Honeybee in my language." It wasn't much for conversation, but she hoped that the Sarmatian woman might add a little information about herself. Cynna put down her meat and licked her fingers before speaking. The salt was good, and she didn't want to miss a single piece.

"Is that why you have a tattoo on your chest that looks like a bee?" Cynna asked, wishing she could be a little more elaborate in her wording yet somewhat restrained by their mutual need to use Latin as an intermediary language. It was a cruel irony that they were forced to speak in the tongue of their shared enemy, but Cynna hoped to rectify that in time. She already knew Latin, a little Greek, and her own language, so adding a fourth language seemed possible.

"Oh, no. I got that from…" Meala Began to say, but her voice trailed off. She had gotten that tattoo fighting with the Romans and nearly killing Cynna. Her cousin Ucer had backed up her claims of bravery, one of the reasons she had been awarded the tattoo in the first place. To say the least, it was a bit awkward as she had seen the scar on Cynna's chest, which had earned her the tattoo on her own chest.

"I got it for a brave deed," she quickly said, not wishing to elaborate. Changing the subject, she decided to ask a broader question, as well as to involve Una. She didn't want the girl to feel left out, though her main interest was the Archer.

"What do your names mean?" Cynna thought for a moment and then began to speak, but she was cut off as Una spoke first.

"Una was my mother's sister's name. She died when my mother was young, and she gave me the name in her memory. If I ever have a child, they will have either my mother or father's name. It is a long tradition we use to honor those we have lost," she said, suddenly looking mournful. Far from an exuberant conversation, the mood had darkened slightly. Meala felt terrible for the girl, but she hoped her parents would honor her offer to let the girl live with them. It was the least they could do, and perhaps it would result in a more positive future for the girl. Cynna had been about to explain what her name meant, but she decided to finish her meat and lie down for sleep. They were tired, and there was plenty of time for conversation tomorrow.

 

***

 

Lucius Fabius Vibulanus stood before the destroyed remnants of his bed-chamber, calming his mind. He had entered only a short time before to find his wife, the most unfortunately named Vita, lying on the floor with her neck slit. Her lifeblood had been sprayed across the wall like unholy graffiti. The entire room had been looted and ransacked. The gold and loot he had been indexing from the prior month had been taken, as had a few expensive possessions, including the golden torc from a fallen Caledon warrior maiden. If that wasn't enough, the Sarmatian woman had escaped. If the reports he had heard were accurate, she had been aided by a local woman, probably from northwest of the wall. Add to that a half-dozen dead soldiers, and his night had taken a rather dark turn.

All around were broken chairs, smashed pottery, and his desk had been cracked. In fact, the majority of damage to the room had been the result of his own rage. His marriage to Vita had been more of the convenience than any act of love, though he still missed her on some level. She had been important to him, at least as a semi-trusted confidante. True love was one of the few privileges of the Plebs. For those of the Patrician class, marriage was often a tool for some end, be it power or profit. Beyond the violation of his family, his rage was fueled by the knowledge that someone had been able to harm him in so many ways, in such a short time, and then escape. It would not stand.

"Fetch the 'Dog' and four of your best men," he spoke in a low, soft tone, which sent chills through everyone present. Behind him, the primus pilus Marcus Quirinalis dared to ask a question. The nervous Centurion wished the actual legatus was not a full Fort away to the West.

"My lord, should we not use the Sarmatian cavalry?" he dared ask. Lucius responded in a slow, measured tone, never turning to look the man in the face. Something about his demeanor was more terrifying than if he had reacted in rage. In his current capacity, he was ipso facto governor of at least the small area, and his word was law. The laws and doctrine which provided him some restraint were tenuous at best, this far from the actual senate.

"You would send Sarmatians to hunt one of their own?" The Centurion stepped backward almost involuntarily before answering a bit embarrassed, not to mention worried.

"No... No, my Lord, that would be a foolish thing to do." The Centurion and his nervous guards left the room immediately heading to find their best tracker, a wild man from the South known as Cu, which meant dog. Together with four of the finest soldiers from the first cohort, they would ride out that very night searching for the Sarmatian and whoever helped her. As they left, Lucious squeezed his hand upon the door frame. When they returned with these women, the punishments would be so severe that the Gods themselves would look away.

 

***

 

The fire burned low as the night passed its midpoint. Meala lay on her side, facing the dirt wall with her back to the other two. She knew that she needed to sleep as it had been a long day. Her body was tired from exertion, and yet she couldn't keep her mind off of the beautiful Sarmatian who now slept merely an arm's length behind her. Una had chosen to sleep at the very back of the gully, perhaps the absolute most secure location and a short distance from the warriors. She couldn't blame the girl a she was the most vulnerable of the three.

As she lay, she thought about the past events replaying them over and over in her mind. It was hard to get a few of the worst images out of her mind's eye, particularly the grotesque ones. She had heard from the other warriors that they would fade some in time, but it was one of the wounds to one's spirit that could take a long time, if ever, to heal. Deep down, she felt a longing to abandon the terrors of her own mind and curl up next to the Sarmatian. They had shared a look that had almost gone further, not that long before. It didn't mean that Cynna was of the same persuasion as she, as a person could become lost in the moment, mostly when emotions ran high. It was possible, and simply rolling over would be the simplest way to find out. But that became its own problem. There was the risk of the crushing defeat of rejection. If she didn't approach Cynna, she would never know either way. At first, this seemed like a logical reason not to do anything. The more she thought of it, the more she realized that the only path to victory was to fight. Death was always a possibility in battle, and how was this any different, at least metaphorically?

As she lay, she fought back some of the more sinister images and replace them with the beautiful archer. In her mind, she placed her hand upon the archer, and the thought filled her with warmth. After a moment, the real night breeze blew across her skin, reminding her that she was simply daydreaming or perhaps dozing off. Meala grabbed the dirt with her hand and squeezed, angry that she could face down a Roman fort, but she couldn't bring herself to simply roll over and speak with the Sarmatian. As she fumed, her eye caught the reflection of the waning firelight dancing off the iron of her mother's spear. She stared at the sharp iron point for a moment, remembering how she had pulled it from the dirt and made a handle for it from a strong piece of wood as she walked to the fort. She remembered standing before the shield wall earlier that spring and facing down the Sarmatian archer as she charged. If she left things unspoken, not only would she never know, but she would always regret it. With a deep breath, she rolled over, thinking of what to say and how to awaken the archer, when she came face-to-face with Cynna.

The Sarmatian had already rolled over and had been staring longingly at the Wenech warrior. In fact, Meala had rolled over so quickly that it had caught the archer entirely off guard. Her face revealed both her surprise and embarrassment at being caught staring. For a few moments, Cynna gazed into the painted woman's eyes, looking as though she were trying to find the words to explain why she was staring. Meala felt her heart racing, but if she could hold her mother's spear and face the Roman army, she could handle her first love. Before the Sarmatian could speak, Meala brought her face forward until her lips gently pressed against Cynna's. She was gentle at first, looking for any apprehension, any reason to withdraw, but none came. Moreover, Cynna pressed into her lips and slowly brought her arm around Meala's shoulder, drawing her in closer.

Meala had never kissed anyone on the mouth, and the feeling of the woman's warm, velvety soft lips was almost shocking. She had expected to enjoy kissing, but she had not realized that she would feel it throughout her entire body. It tingled down her fingers, ran down her spine, and danced down her legs. It was a sudden jolt of arousal, a vital feeling like somebody had lit a torch within her. As their lips gently parted, Meala gazed into Cynna's soft, dark brown eyes, wanting to know if this would be more than a kiss. Cynna replied by drawing the woman back. This time, as their lips pressed, Cynna's tongue flicked across the painted woman's upper lip, causing Meala to involuntarily gasp. How could anything be so magical? Her mother and father lay with each other quite regularly, an activity one couldn't hide in the wide-open Crannog, though there were no social mores against doing so.

Gently rolling the Sarmatian onto her back, Meala sat up and began untying the cord which held Cynna's beautiful embroidered hemp fiber kaftan long shirt closed. As she removed the cord, she glanced up to see the smiling archer. Staring into the woman's beautiful dark eyes, she slowly opened the almost knee-length shirt. She then gazed upon the woman's light brown skin. Her body was finely toned with visibly powerful muscles gained from a life of firing a powerful bow and holding her body to her horse as she rode. Meala almost gasped at the muscle definition she could see, though the dim light made this tricky. Her own arms were strong, but nothing like Cynna.

Her chest bore a complex series of tattoos covering most of it, though, in the darkness, Meala could barely make out what they were. Perhaps flowers? She had seen the tattoos when she had rescued Cynna earlier but had barely noticed at the time. In the low firelight, she softly traced her finger from Cynna's cheek down her neck and across her collarbone. Her finger slowly drifted across Cynna's chest until it came to a stop just below her right breast. There, a wound had healed, though it was still rather large. As Meala's finger delicately touched the wound, she felt a lump in her throat. She had caused the wound in an effort to kill the very woman she now softly held in romance. She had pointed the bow even as she had looked the archer in the eyes. A single tear fell, landing upon the Sarmatian's chest, and then a second.

Maybe it was a release of emotion from such an intense day, but Meala was having trouble holding back tears. Cynna flexed her strong abdominal muscles without a word as she lifted herself into a sitting position, wrapping her arms tightly around the suddenly unsure Meala. She placed her mouth against the tearful painted warrior's and began to kiss once more. Meala abruptly broke into tears, and she cried in the older woman's arms, locked deep within a kiss. It wasn't just the wound but the sheer enormity of everything that had happened. Her emotions spilled like the blood of battle as they kissed and held each other tightly. Cynna understood this as she held the painted woman close, feeling the woman's warmth and strength. It was as soft as a gentle wind and more calming than Meala expected when Cynna spoke.

"There are other ways to let go of the pain," she whispered. As she did so, she slowly untied the leather belt which held Meala's blue-dyed woolen tunic. She pulled the tunic up over Meala's head with a few simple movements depositing it upon the ground beside them. A moment later, they were wrapped in each other's arms as Meala's tears quickly turned into passionate kissing. After a short time, Cynna and Meala began untying strings that bound the Sarmatian's finely woven wool leggings to a belt she wore beneath her shirt, just above the linen cloth wrapping she wore as an undergarment. The beautiful striped leggings slid from the archer, and her linen undergarment followed.

A moment later, both women were bathed in nothing but fading firelight. Cynna could now fully see the tattoos which covered Meala's body as the Wenech woman faced the fire. While hers were very detailed and difficult to make out against her darker skin with so little light and her back to the fire, the painted woman's skin was pale, and her markings were thick, making them stand out. She had black stripes around her calves and her upper arms, forming a series of black bands. Her right hand revealed a beautiful swirl pattern, also black and likely a tattoo. Her shoulders had been tattooed with black swirls, and her face was smeared with black paint across her eyes in a single streak of blue woad from the top of her forehead to the bottom of her chin. Her chest had been smeared with woad as well, though the blue pigment was peeling and would soon be gone, one of the reasons it was only occasionally used on the body. However, it made a beautiful dye and had been used for the woman's blue tunic. Her body was covered in black ash paint and various streaks and designs, though most had simply smeared throughout the night. Perhaps the most impressive mark was a large black bee tattooed just above her breasts, complimented by a heavy golden torc around her neck, the mark of a true warrior from the north.

Lying back upon the ground, Cynna breathed deeply as she lay wholly bare before the beautifully painted warrior. Above her, she watched as the enthralled Wenech woman straddled her waist and examined her softly with her long, thin fingers. She closed her eyes as she felt the weight of the painted woman upon her. She inhaled sharply as their soft bodies became one. Neither had ever known the touch of another in this way, but they were pretty sure they could figure it out.

 

***

 

When she awoke, Cynna felt her muscles aching not only from what she had endured at the hands of the Romans but from other exertions. Meala continued to sleep, drooling slightly on the archer's arm as she lay beside Cynna, holding tightly. The painted woman was beautiful, if not a bit adorable, the way she held tightly to the archer's body, even in sleep. There was an oddly comforting aspect to being held all night, not to mention the warmth. Most strangely, she had not been flooded with nightmares the way she had expected. Typically, she would have placed hemp buds by the fire and breathed in their smoke to calm herself, but she had none, only Meala's warmth. It had been enough to soothe her, it seemed. Behind them both, Una slept peacefully using Meala's blue tunic as a blanket. Cynna smiled, happy the girl had been freed and might even find peace.

She removed the painted woman's hand from her chest and pushed her tattooed leg to the side with a stretch. Some people might not like being so tightly held, but Cynna didn't mind. In truth, she had long desired to be held and had no one who would do so. Sure, she could have asked some of the men to lie with her, but there was likely no way that would happen without ending in a way that she would not desire. Standing, she applied the cloth wrap around her waist and put her shirt on loosely for the purpose of modesty. However, there was probably no one around to worry about. Grabbing her iron war ax and armor in one hand, she took her clothes in the other and stepped out of the small gully toward the pond over top of the hill. She would need to wash, and the cool morning breeze felt lovely as it entered her open shirt and blew across her legs. There were many good and bad things about this land, but one she enjoyed was the wind.

Her horse Bade, well-trained as she was, had remained more or less by the pond and was currently munching on grass. She walked over to the beautiful creature and gently stroked her well-brushed back. A horse was a valuable commodity, not only where she came from, but even here. Bade had traveled all the way from Southeastern Dacia with her. She and Bade had become almost as one when riding, a feat that took a lot of skill from the rider and a significant amount of training for the horse. Behind a large bush near the pond, her saddle and the rest of her gear lay out of sight. She kept them by the horse as a matter of habit, though she had brought her ax and armor to the gully. It wouldn't do to be caught unarmed, though a bow could not be left strung all night and was hardly the proper weapon if someone had attacked in the small gully. Pushing weapons from her mind, she breathed in the lovely, cool morning air.

 

***

 

Cu and his men approached the edge of a small river called the Ites, which fed into the fjord. His ancestors had been known as the Iceni, a powerful tribe that had long troubled the Romans. How ironic that he now found himself in the presence of four Roman cavalrymen. At least they were hunters, soldiers with specialized training in hunting food. If he recalled, they had some special title like immune or something like that. They were freed from the burden of regular work, unlike most soldiers, and a bit more agreeable, in his opinion. Cu was more or less a private contractor, the sort of man the Legion would call when they needed someone tracked down, such as a deserter or a thief. He adjusted his wool tunic, keeping it from bunching up under his leather armor. The Romans accompanying him wore iron banded armor, but Cu was a fan of the lighter and more flexible leather. He wasn't likely to find himself at the frontline of a battle, but he was likely to find himself brawling on the ground with a thief armed only with a knife. In that case, leather would work fine as he would be more flexible than if he wore metal.

This assignment had seemed rather odd to him, not only with how urgently the request, more like a demand, had arrived but also with the significant payment attached. He had been somewhat annoyed at the late hour of his enlistment for this rush assignment, as he had been occupied with a local woman at a place of leisure just outside of the fort proper at the time. But the heavy coin purse and the promise of so much more from the high and mighty ass Lucious himself had hurried him from the local's arms and into the saddle. Now, he found himself on horseback attempting to find three women, two of whom were warriors, and some missing gold. In the back of his mind, he considered the possibility that perhaps some of the gold might not be able to be retrieved, having found a more dubious outcome hiding in his saddle pouch. He chuckled at the thought.

"The tracks lead down into that gully," one of his Roman compatriots spoke, kneeling on the ground beside his horse. Hiding the tracks of a horse wasn't the most straightforward activity. One could generally track a horse's movement by finding tracks and taking a good guess of which direction the person was going. People had a tendency to move from one visually significant location to another. Like any other animal, humans were subject to many bad behaviors, which made it easy to track and capture them. With luck, he would have these three women in a few hours, and then he could return to finish what he had left at the place of leisure, his coin purse much heavier than before.

"All right, the three of you go around the far side, and we will go around the near. When we get close, dismount and approach slowly. We don't need our horses giving our presence away. Also, make sure you take all of their weapons, too." he spoke with a heavy accent as he pointed at the various men, telling them what he wanted them to do. One of the men seemed confused by his last statement.

"Why do we want their trash barbarian weapons?" he asked, drawing a frown from Cu, a local whose own people used the same "trash barbarian weapons." With a sigh, he replied a bit curtly.

"Because Lucius lost his wife, Vita, by one of their hands. He might want to kill them with the same weapon. I know I would," Cu explained, suspecting the man's lack of understanding was some sort of cultural difference. Among his people, weapons held power and were not a thing to be left behind.

"Three women... It's a long ride back to the fort. Who knows what might..." one of the Roman soldiers began to joke when Cu cut the man off midsentence.

"One of them is a Sarmatian archer. The other is a Wenech tribal warrior. Between the two, they killed nearly a dozen soldiers and the wife of Lucius Vibulanus before they got away. The Sarmatian woman murdered the first cohort's prime optio just the day before. The Primus Pilus himself said they were to be returned unharmed. My guess is that Lucius wishes to do the harming. If you fail at having your way with them, they will likely cut your manly parts off and keep them as trophies. If you succeed, then you will have to explain to Lucius why you brought them back, not quite so unharmed. Whatever it is he wants to do to them, I suspect it would be best for you to let him do it." One of the most aggravating things about Romans was they simply didn't understand how deadly a warrior woman could be. As far as he could tell, the women from their own lands must be absolutely meek as Roman men seemed to regard women almost like children. The women from his land were a different story entirely. Even now, he could remember the legend of Boudicca, a tale told to him by his father as a child.

 

***

 

Cynna finished attaching her leggings and boots. She picked up her leather belt and began fastening her long shirt feeling much better after a good scrubbing at the pond. Her clothes would need to be cleaned, but she could handle that later whenever she got to where she was going. It had only been one night together, but she wondered if perhaps she might find a place with Meala when they returned. The woman had a small fortune of gold, enough to live quite comfortably for the rest of her life, and more so. There was always the possibility that a relationship would not spring from one night of passion, but that was always a risk. Just like any other battle, you fought, hoping for the best but understanding that nothing was guaranteed. It was the risk warriors took. Still, the way Meala had looked at her had reminded her of... Her thoughts were broken by what sounded like a scream. Pausing, she listened once more, used to how the wind blowing across the steppe of Dacia played tricks with the mind.

"Ahhhh!" She heard it again, this time much louder. It sounded like the higher pitch shriek of the slave girl, and it sounded terrible. Grabbing her ax, she rushed forward, dropping low to the ground to peer over the small hill which shielded the pond from view. In the lands where she had grown up, she learned much about hunting prey in an open area where it was easy to be seen and quite hard to hide. As she looked, her blood ran cold. There were five horsemen, four of them Roman. It looked like the leader was a local man with red hair and a face covered in tattoos. Her first instinct was to rush forward and engage the men with her ax, but she knew that would just get her killed. If she failed to save them, they would be dragged back to the fort and probably crucified, not to mention whatever else the Romans decided to do to them before they made it back. Terror and panic filled her, burning away her earlier stillness.

With a deep breath banishing her anxiety as best she could, she crawled back down the slight hill and rushed toward her horse to prepare her. If she was to save them, it was going to be on her horse. That was the only place where she truly had an advantage over them. She quickly saddled Bade glumly, noting that she only had two arrows remaining in her quiver. She had emptied the first quiver approaching the gate and the second quiver leaving it. One of the arrows was laced with snake venom, denoted by black paint, forming the shape of repeating diamond patterns down part of the shaft. The horned viper bearing that same pattern had given up its venom almost a year ago, just as she had left Dacia. She had no idea how effective it would still be, though the arrow itself might simply do the job.

Stringing her bow, a tear ran down her cheek as fear and panic danced through her body. Cynna worked hard to get her horse ready while trying to keep her mind calm. She needed her wits about her if she was going to fight five men on horseback. In truth, it was likely that she wasn't going to make it. Still, she decided that she would either save the painted warrior and the slave or die trying. Her ancestors were looking down at her, and there was no way she was going to embarrass herself. If she survived, perhaps she would have a future with Meala. If she died, she could at least stand before the spirits of her people and give an account of her final actions without shame.

 

***

 

"She bit me!" one of the Roman men said, punching the back of Meala's head in anger. Cu turned to see one of the legionaries he had brought, grasping a neat set of bite marks, several of them bloody, on his left arm. The man held the northern woman in front of him on the horse to keep her from fleeing. He suspected the Roman had reached forward to entertain himself. Unfortunately, he had found that the women of the isle were hardly the sort to let that stand. Even with her hands tied before her, she had fought back with fervor. Cu had to admit that he felt a little pride at the local woman biting the Roman. She looked like her tribe was either Caledon or Wenech, given her tattoos and paint. They had found her unclothed and asleep, and before she had put her tunic on, he had caught sight of a black bee tattoo which gave her away is likely one of these tribes.

"I told you not to touch them. If you keep trying, she'll likely bite one of your fingers off. You know they say those of the far northern tribes fancy the flesh of a Roman," Cu said with a chuckle. Two of the Romans laughed, while the one holding his freshly bit arm simply scowled. If the painted woman understood what they spoke in Latin, she made no indication of it. As for the young slave girl, she had initially cried, and now she simply hung her head in reservation. He suspected both women knew what was in store, probably a very public torture and execution. It was something vile the Romans seemed to enjoy, but Cu would likely avoid. He might be a rotten bastard of a man, but even he had limits. His thoughts were interrupted as he heard the distinctive sound of an arrow slamming into flesh, followed by the gurgle of blood mixed with air trying to move in and out of punctured flesh.

As he turned, he noticed the Roman to the rear was slumped over his horse, gasping for air and pawing at an arrow stuck deep within his neck. Looking back, the source of the arrow was standing on a rise at a nearly 200-foot distance. The archer had fired quite a long way, yet she had still hit a moving target in his neck, one of the few vulnerable places on the man's body. Moreover, they had not hit the horse, which would have been a much easier target and would have effectively stopped the man. Wearing scale mail and a pointed helmet, her long black hair blowing loosen the wind, this was none other than the missing Sarmatian woman. At least her ability to use her bow made sense. Her people were among the best archers in the Empire, especially when it came to firing while mounted. Unfortunately for her, he could clearly see one empty quiver and a second with what looked like a single arrow.

"You, stay behind and guard the box and the women. You two, with me," Cu said, removing the box from his saddle and handing it to the man with the bite mark.

"You want us to charge a Sarmatian archer woman?" One of the Romans asked incredulously. They had all seen the results of the woman's handiwork at the gate on the way out. Ambushing them while they slept was one thing but fighting the woman in full combat regalia with her bow was quite another task. As the men looked, the woman held her bow out, pointing at them as though calling them out. Cu had never thought that he would find a woman intimidating. Yet, he also had never thought he would encounter a Sarmatian mounted archer. Deep down, he wondered if maybe the iron armor would have been more useful.

"I only see one arrow, and then she has just a regular weapon like the rest of us most likely. I thought your people were conquerors. Are you frightened of a single woman?" Cu teased, suspecting they would make short work of the archer. Sure, she could kill one of them quickly when she could fire from a sitting position against an unsuspecting foe. It was a fantastic shot, but he doubted she could do similar with only one arrow and three men screaming as they charged. When they came into hand-to-hand combat, Romans weren't actually that bad. His only real concern was what to tell Lucius when he returned with her head. If they were lucky, she might merely be wounded, and he could drag her back alive. Either way, this is why they paid him well.

Throwing the rope bound to the slave girl into the hands of the man holding the Wenech woman and roughly handing her to the same man, the other two pulled out their swords and made ready to charge. Now is when shields and spears would have been useful, but they had not left the Fort with the intent to fight a battle. Their horses rushed forward with a final cry of action, forming an echelon, with one roman in front, followed by Cu, and the final roman in the back.

 

***

 

Meala sat on the horse with the Roman's heavy arm tightly around her waist. The son of the dog had tried exploring with his hands several times, but the bite had at least put an end to it for a short time. Just as she worried he was going to try again, Cynna had arrived. Even now, as she looked back, the archer was a sight to behold. She stood on top of the small hill with the Sun just to her left, forming almost a silhouette. It was breathtaking to see, like a scene from one of her daydreams as a child. The other girls had made up stories of a brave warrior, perhaps the chief's son, coming to save them. She even remembered one girl who would pretend to rescue various men from monsters. When she was young, she had hoped a warrior girl would save her. Her childish fantasies had never been quite this terrifying.

As she watched, the Romans began racing towards Cynna. The Roman holding her was watching the advance and not watching her. Part of her wanted to stare, but what if something happened to Cynna? If it did, she didn't want to see. Moreover, if she couldn't get free, she might not be able to help the Sarmatian if she needed it. Her feet had been tied together underneath the horse, making any attempt to leap from the animal a likely very painful experience. Luckily, a sharp iron piece on the clasp underneath the saddle had bumped against her leg when she had first mounted the horse. She had quickly begun rubbing it against the thin cord connecting her legs as the horse moved so that her motion might go unnoticed. Now, with the man distracted by the sound of Romans racing toward her lover, she pulled as hard as she could, scraping what was left of the court against metal, hoping to free her feet.

 

 ***

 

With a subtle movement of her body, Cynna told Bade to charge forward. The horse responded, needing no other direction as she operated as an extension of Cynna's body. She pulled free the poisoned arrow and aimed it at the local man with red hair and tattoos. It was her one and only shot as she charged the three oncoming men. When she fired the arrow, it flew true but seemed to skip off of the man's leather armor, slicing in deeply enough to draw blood but otherwise spinning off into the grass. Cursing under her breath and with only moments until they arrived, she swung her bow into its side quiver and then suddenly slipped over the side of the horse hanging on to one side. The two men passing on her left suddenly had no target other than the horse itself, and the abrupt and dexterous move caused their attacks to stifle.

As she ducked, the man on the right swung his sword, but Cynna bent her head forward, catching the blade against her helmet and deflecting it away. The gladius was a good sword, but it wasn't good at slashing blows against a curved metal helmet at an angle. As she ducked forward, hanging precariously off the side of her horse, holding on to the saddle with her left hand and her left foot barely holding onto the back of the horse, she reached out and grabbed a handful of arrows right out of the quiver of the man slashing at her with his sword. She passed and quickly swung herself back onto the saddle properly. In her hand, she held at least a dozen arrows with bronze tips. They were hardly the quality of her own arrows, but now was not the time to complain about the quality.

"Thanks for the arrows, you motherless pigs," she screamed, followed by a high-pitched war cry as she raced away from the men. Now that she was partly reloaded, she was finally ready to show what a mounted archer could do.

 

***

 

"Someone put an arrow in her!" Cu screamed as they turned their horses and began pursuing. He simply couldn't believe what he had seen. The woman had ducked all of their attacks and even stolen the arrows right out of a man's quiver while passing at high-speed and hanging from one side of the saddle. No wonder the Legate kept a group of these archers. But now her back was to them, and they could fire upon her without her firing back. Her armor was high-quality, and they were shooting from a distance, but eventually, one of them would hit her. The one arrow she had already fired as they had charged had sliced into his armor and into his flesh. Still, it had also turned sideways, losing too much of its energy in the leather. He knew he had a nasty flesh wound, but it was probably not enough to require much more than a few weeks to heal. Oddly, there was a strange tingly sensation where the arrow had hit.

Only one of his men had a strung bow, and luckily that was not the man the arrows had been taken from. They raced forward as fast as they could, trying to catch her before she could get too far away. Her horse was fast, but it had already run the entire night and probably had not had enough time to fully rest. Conversely, his horses had taken a much more leisurely pace from the Fort to the gully and were much fresher. At about 100 feet, she would enter their range of engagement, which would be the end of it. His smile began to grow as the woman came closer until she abruptly turned in her saddle and began firing backward.

"By the bloody moon…" he began to say when suddenly an arrow flew past, nearly hitting him. As they rode, the air coming at them meant that the Roman arrows could not fly as far forward as hers could fly backward. This meant that she could hold them within her engagement range for quite a long time. Worse, she was a much better archer who could, apparently, fire backward. Almost immediately, one of his men caught an arrow just above the collar bone. The man dropped his bow and fell backward with the strangest look of shock on his face. Cu and the other Roman began to zigzag as more arrows rained down upon them. As he did this, he almost dropped the reigns feeling slightly dizzy. He suspected that he hadn't had enough water, or maybe it was just the blasted back-and-forth motion as he ducked yet another arrow.

 

***

 

Meala's feet came free suddenly, and the movement caused her to lurch to the side. The Roman man tightened his grip, obviously not realizing the significance of the sudden motion. He had just watched his men chase the Sarmatian woman past, heading in the direction of the Fort. Moreover, he had already watched one of his men fall from his horse as the woman somehow fired as well backward as she did forward, a feat of dexterity that none of his men could achieve. With her hands still firmly bound, Meala could only think of one way to fix the situation. It wasn't going to be pleasant, but there was no way she would let Cynna down - not after she had finally met a woman who felt the way she did and looked at her the way, Cynna did.

Abruptly, the man's hand loosened around her waist and began moving up her stomach. How a man could be interested in touching a woman at a time like this, she couldn't possibly imagine. Yet, his hand continued its climb north just as the Romans seem to do in general. This time, she decided to use the lascivious Roman and let his hand moved freely. She had a plan, and ironically, the man had just made it much easier. As his hand fixated where she suspected it would stay for a while, she slowly shook her head while pretending to cry. She needed him to feel that she was broken, that she had finally given up. She wanted him to think she was suddenly a bit more submissive than before. After a moment, she slowly began to turn, holding her bound hands above her head so she could rotate to face him, at least mostly.

"Please… mercy…" She spoke in broken Latin, not wanting the man to realize that she could fully speak the language. She closed her eyes and held her head down as she pretended to beg. She hoped he would think that she was begging for freedom or anything that might cause him to momentarily drop his guard and loosen his grip. He opened his mouth to speak relaxing his otherwise iron grip on her waist, which was the exact moment she had been waiting for. Meala dropped her hands, bringing the bound wrists behind the man's head. Just as his hand let go, she thrust her head into his, head butting him hard enough to break his nose. The next moment, she launched her upper body backward, pulling her completely off of the horse and tearing the man from the animal as her bound wrists pulled him by the neck. The two fell onto the ground in a sudden and rather jarring thud. The man's heavier armor caused him significantly more of a jolt when he hit. Almost immediately, Meala pulled her hands free and rotated one of her feet around, kicking out and catching the man right in the face.

"Roman pig…" She spat, standing and rushing to the other side of the horse, hoping she could find something to free her hands before the man got up. Strapped to the side of the horse was her shield and spear, as well as a Roman dagger and an unstrung bow with a quiver full of arrows. Using the sharp edge of the spear, she rubbed the cord as fast as she could, working it free. Beside her, young Una began to panic as she watched the Roman recovering. The man's face was bloody, and his nose was now crocked, but he was otherwise unharmed. Ignoring this, Meala raced to free her arms. Each stroke brought the cord closer to breaking. Suddenly, she heard a loud sound and the Roman collapsed onto the ground just beside her. Right then, the cord snapped. Grabbing the shield and spear, she leaped back to find that Una had hurled herself into the man's legs knocking him to the ground.

With her mother's spear and shield in hand, the painted warrior stepped away from the horse, wanting to draw the man away from the bound girl. Una had bought Meala the time she had needed to free her hands at significant risk to herself, as Una was still bound and could hardly defend herself either way. The Roman stood with blood dripping down his face holding his sword in one hand and wiping blood away with the other. To say that he was menacing and angry was an understatement, but he wasn't the only one. Meala slapped her mother's spear against the shield's metallic edge, making a loud clang, and smiled at the man, hiding the real fear she felt.

"I will send you to meet your ancestors, you son of a goat," she spoke in Latin.

 

***

 

Though she had many arrows, she couldn't bring herself to fire at the horses, something her people frowned heavily upon. Her people considered horses sacred, and she had even drank fermented mares milk as a child. Even so, both of the Romans had been killed or wounded, but the infernal redhead rode with his head down, close to the horse. Unfortunately, she was out of arrows again, and this time she would have to face him in hand-to-hand combat. She slowed her horse, slapping her bow into its holder, and began racing back toward the man. From her side, she drew her ax. It had a long wooden handle with a small but heavy and wickedly pointed head. As she did, the man brought himself to full height, no longer needing to duck, and held his sword out. Unlike the Romans, his sword was a little longer and a little heavier. She could tell that he was an expert rider, maybe a match for her. Worse, his tattoos spoke of a warrior who had seen many battles. Unfortunately, she had no shield, but she had an idea, though she figured her arm was going to hurt. It was risky and would harm them both, but she was lighter and knew how to fall from a horse.

As Cynna raced forward, she held her ax up, giving every indication that she was preparing to use it, even going so far as to adjust her grip as though she saw some sort of weak spot to hit. As she raced towards the redhead, her blood pumped, and adrenaline flowed. Not only would this be dangerous for her, but for Bade, too. At the last moment, she nudged the horse's neck a particular way with her left hand. On cue, the horse obeyed its training and dropped its head forward. At that moment, the redhead swung his sword, likely hoping to decapitate the woman. Much to his surprise, she let go of her ax and bent completely backward, lying flat in the saddle as the blade flew over the horse's head and right across her body, barely an inch above her armor. Cynna ignored this as she threw her left hand out and caught the man's reins.

Cu was shocked as his sword caught nothing but air. Before he could react, the warrior woman's left hand caught tight on his reins. His horse's head suddenly jerked sideways, rather violently. The animal roughly ambled forward, only barely preventing itself from falling, but the act caused the man to fly from the horse, landing face down upon the ground and then rolling several times before coming to a stop. He lay there for a moment seeing strange patterns in his eyes until the air returned to his lungs. The jolt had been so intense that when he looked up at his horse, who was coming to a stop a short distance away, he almost expected to see the woman's hand torn off and still attached to the reins. Oddly, the dizziness from falling persisted. In fact, he was starting to feel quite strange all over. Perhaps the oddest sensation was the sweat that seemed to be drenching his body, and it wasn't even that hot out.

Cynna opened her eyes and let out a strange gasping moan. She held the reigns long enough to pull the horse's head aside, but not long enough to tear her arm off, a delicately timed and dangerous move. Her left arm felt like it had almost dislocated, but she could still use it, though the pain was pretty bad. If she lived, she figured it might take several weeks for the pain to entirely leave, but the tendons would heal. As she slowly stood, she saw the redhead doing the same. He still had his sword and a small shield, but he wasn't in good shape. She had hoped the fall might break his neck or harm him more, but it seemed her luck had not held.

Stepping a few feet back, she picked up her ax off the ground and flexed her arms, making sure she was ready for the fight to come. When the man approached, she noticed that he looked rather ill. At first, she attributed it to the rather violent method she had used to dismount him, but somehow, it didn't seem to add up. In the back of her mind, she remembered having seen someone when she was much younger who looked similar. That time, the person had been bitten by a snake. Her eyes caught sight of the wound where the arrow had hit, and she could see a little of his blood. That was when she realized the arrow had at least nicked him. For a moment, her hopes stirred.

"Well, it looks like it was still good after a year," she whispered to herself.

 

***

 

With a grunt, Meala staggered back, feeling a dull, numb pain in her left hand. The gladius had struck her shield with enough force to hurt her hand by merely blocking the blow. She had wanted to leap forward with her spear as she had seen men do before when training, but the man's force of impact had center reeling. He was rather large, covered in blood from his face, and wearing rugged iron banded Roman armor. She stepped forward once more and attempted to strike with her spear, but the man stepped sideways, causing the point to reflect off of his armor. At the same time, he swung his gladius overhead, causing her to throw her shield up in a desperate attempt to stop him. Unfortunately, the blade hit the wood, breaking two planks from its side and causing the shield to come apart in her hand. Meala lept to the side and scurried a few feet beyond his striking distance as she shook her now quite numb left hand.

"You got lucky when you got free, but you should have run. Cu said that the women from the north were deadly. It's looking to me like you're still just a simple woman with a toy spear," he said with a laugh. Meala snarled at the man, angered both by his words and the annoying problem she was facing with her tunic flapping loosely, making movement difficult. This is why a belt was tied around the tunic to hold a tightly against the body. Unfortunately, the Romans had left all of the rest of her clothing at the gully, even her shoes. It was like wearing a giant blanket. Worse, the imposing Roman was so strong that she could not advance upon him without his devastatingly strong attacks driving her back.

"I'm going to watch when they nail you to the wood. I'm going to be there smiling. Both you and the girl," he said with a smile. Meala's spirit burned with a flame. This man wasn't just a creep; he was a disgusting monster. The problem was, life wasn't fair, and a disgusting monster could win. What she needed was a distraction, a way to get around his savagely powerful attacks. While he was strong in body, he had already shown her that he wasn't so strong in mind. Suddenly, an idea came to mind. Meala rushed for the man darting left and right, and once more, he deflected her attack, swinging his blade so strong and fast that she heard it as it swished past her hair missing by not even a hand's width. She had been drawing the man away from Una, but now she was luring him back. Her idea was risky and relied upon her acting ability, but war wasn't just weapons and fighting; it was also about deception.

The man approached again, getting quite close to his horse and Una. The younger woman cowered behind the animal, having no real martial skill and hoping the painted warrior would save her but fearing she would not. For Una, failure was simply not an option. If Meala died, the only question left would be which of several tremendously painful and horrifying fates would befall her? Meala recognized the girl's problem and knew she could use it to her advantage. When the time came, Una's fear would be overcome by the simple fact that her only possibility of survival was action. She had seen the girl act this way before, and she hoped Una would once more. Meala adjusted her expression to look as though she were desperate, which was frighteningly less of an act than she was comfortable with. She wanted the man to feel that she was tiring and reaching her limit. In truth, it was somewhat true, but she had a little more in her. She rushed forward with one more attack, ducking away at the last moment as the man preemptively swung his sword with such strength that she either had to avoid him or accept death in exchange for the possibility of a strike.

"You have nowhere else to go, woman. Drop your weapon, and I promise to be gentle," the man said in a teasing tone. Meala found it challenging to keep her expression one of fear and resignment when her actual emotions were somewhere between fear and supreme fury. She was now on the other side of the man, with Una behind him. It was time. She stopped and stabbed her spear straight into the ground. The man paused for a moment holding his sword almost as though he expected her to capitulate. Meala reached down and tugged her tunic off in one motion. Both Una and the man looked on, confused. All three knew that the painted Northerners sometimes fought nude in battle. Still, it was almost exclusively the men and typically only a few of the most fanatical. "Enough!" She spoke in Latin. Meala grabbed her spear and did her best to keep the embarrassed look off of her face. If she was to win, she would need to convince the man that she had finally reached her limit. She held the spear up in the air and began to speak, slapping her hand against her chest several times, which hurt more than she let on while speaking in her native language, not Latin. Una was from south of the Wall, but Meala suspected she would understand, mostly. Her hope was that the man would think she was proclaiming some sort of ritualistic statement before some crazed final attack. Unfortunately, if he understood her words, it would be her final attack.

"Una, I am speaking so that he thinks that I am about to challenge him to a final attack. When I come forward, throw something at him to distract him, or I will die. We will only have one chance," she spoke, inflecting her voice so that it sounded more like a ritual challenge, at least to the ear of someone who had no idea what the words meant. Realizing that she might actually die, she decided to add one more line. It was already going to be hard enough explaining this to the ancestors if she died, as it was, so she might as well at least make it proper.

"I am Sei'ln Meala, daughter of Ail Braide!" she screamed. Slapping her chest one final time, the way she saw several of the men do before the battle that spring, she held her mother's spear with both hands and approached the man, her nerves a wreck and fear seeming to replace her blood as she stepped toward the giant armored Roman.

"Wait…" Una breathed as she realized there was nothing around her that she could throw. Looking up, terror rushed through her as she realized Meala was approaching the man far too fast for her to be ready. She had been captured precisely because she was small and timid. Others of her village, men and women, young and old, had grabbed weapons and fought against the Romans, though they had died fighting. She had been frightened and had cowered, which was one reason she had been spared. To say that bravery wasn't really her strong suit was an understatement. As she watched the painted warrior approaching the man, she realized that her fear of what would happen if Meala lost was far greater than her fear of what would happen if she tried. Una was so terrified that tunnel vision began to form, but the girl stumbled forward, heading straight towards the man. There was nothing she could throw to distract him, and Meala had not had time to come up with a better strategy. She had knocked him down once before, and she aimed to do so once more.

"You are already stripped for me? Such a friendly barbarian," the man teased in his cruel way as he approached the painted woman. He had never seen a woman of the North perform this act. The local women were a significantly modest group, at least by Roman standards. Regardless, whatever ritualistic and meaningful expression of her culture this was, for him, it was merely a momentary amusement. Suddenly, a pain raged through his ankle tearing his attention from the oncoming woman. As he looked down, he saw the slave girl latched onto his ankle with her teeth, biting in. He screamed, kicking his legs free of the girl yet feeling that she had bitten him pretty deeply. The girl rolled away, having spent her only attack on a useless bite that would heal in a few days. He grimaced but considered that his bite wound would last longer than she would likely live once Lucius… And that's when he remembered the painted woman in front of him.

Meala lunged forward, ducking as she stabbed her spear into the man's exposed knee with all of her might, ignoring his heavy armor. The man's sword swung over her head in a blind attempt to hit her. She had expected him to try the moment he heard her advancing. The blade caught the upper part of her spear, slicing clean through the handle. Unfortunately for the Roman, the force of the impact violently tore the spear tip from his knee, along with part of his kneecap, which saved Meala the effort and caused untold damage to the joint. In a scream of profound agony, the Roman collapsed onto his side. Meala lifted the now much smaller spear and stepped around the man looking for an opportunity.

"Ahhh! You bitch! My knee!" He screamed and slashed several times with the sword while holding his ruined knee with the other hand. Meala agilely avoided the sword as she stepped in and stabbed the man in his trapezius muscle, which connected his shoulder to his neck. A moment later, she stabbed him in his thigh and then in his other leg. One bee sting after another until the man finally dropped his sword. One sting after another found its way past his armor as the man screamed and clawed at the air, but eventually, the man stopped fighting. In one final act of anger, Meala pressed the spear deep into the man's throat, no longer finding resistance as he had already died. With a deep breath, she looked up with a big smile at the frightened but relieved Una. The smile itself was forced as Meala was so full of adrenaline that she could nearly retch, yet again.

"Thank you, Una. You have saved my life twice, and that alone should be enough if anybody questions your right to live among my family. That is if we make it out of this and you still want to." The girl stared back, nodding her head slowly, but looking a bit pale. Una was no warrior and never would be. People came in all shapes and sizes, and some were willing to fight while others were not. There was nothing wrong with that, as all kinds of people were needed to make a society. Meala stepped forward grabbing her tunic and putting it on. She ripped a leather cord from the Roman and tied it around her waist as a belt, finally free from the excess cloth, which made the movement so troublesome without a belt. Oddly enough, she was starting to get a feel for why some of the most brazen men chose that form of expression, though she hoped never to do it again.

"Well, your leader did tell you what would happen if you touched one of us…" She said, then spit on the Roman. As she looked up, Meala noticed a horse-mounted figure standing once more on the rise. She stood there in shock… Could it be…

 

***

 

Cynna grabbed her stomach feeling intense pain where the sword had impacted her armor. Realizing that she didn't have time to escape his swing, she had stepped into it, causing the entire blade to hit her stomach rather than a small portion, which might have concentrated more energy in one small place and penetrated. While her superior iron scale mail reflected the blade, her stomach had absorbed the physical blow. She had strong abdominal muscles, and she had tensed them, but she could tell there would be bruising. So far, she had failed to hit the man even once, and he had already hit her armor three times. While tearing him from the horse had injured him slightly, it seemed that her poison arrow from earlier had taken a far greater toll. Instead of following up with a second strike and killing her, the man stumbled backward, looking weaker by the moment.

"I don't know what magic you have cast upon me, witch, but as soon as I take your life, I suspect it will end," he said, looking rather glum. A moment later, he paused vomiting upon the ground. Cynna took that moment to catch her breath, already rather tired from the exertion and realizing that she likely wouldn't get a strike on her opponent. These men were not like the guards who tried to crucify her or the men who folded at the gate. The men who had been sent to capture her had been relatively elite, and this man was their leader. While she was trained with an ax, he seemed reasonably good at avoiding it. The man was also pretty good with a shield, poisoned or not, and he had made fair use of it swinging the shield to catch her ax, driving it aside.

She stood there watching the man recover and realizing that while he was poisoned, it simply might not be enough, especially given the age of the poisoned arrow. Her mother had taught her never to leave an arrow too long before washing it and reapplying the venom. She had never told Cynna how long the venom might last, but she had implied that one applied it not that many days before it would be needed. As the man slammed his sword and shield together, indicating that he was still in the fight, Cynna considered her last drastic action. She could still remember what the Romans had said about her armor only the night before as they had mocked her. 'Your hat could impale someone…' Ironically, an idea came to mind at that very moment-based in part on that dead man's words.

"Come at me, you Sarmatian witch," Cu screamed, obviously convinced that the exotic woman from the far southeast had put some kind of curse upon him. In a way, she realized that he was kind of right. Though her magic had been more of a practical nature than mystical. She lifted her ax and began to advance with a sigh, ready to use her one and only good idea. Under her breath, she whispered ironic thanks to the Roman who had given her the idea. Reaching under her kaftan shirt, she felt for the knots securing her leggings in place. With a few quick tugs, she untied both. One of the strings from each legging fell free while the other, the strings that went under the waist cord, held tight, keeping the leggings up, though only barely. With that, she prepared to sprint as fast as she could toward the man. This was as last-ditch as an effort could get as she began to feel dizzy. She had not slept much since this whole nightmare had begun, and it was taking its toll.

"May the seven divines give you my thanks for a good idea before they roast your soul in the fires of oblivion…" With that, Cynna raced forward, holding her ax low as she concentrated on the man's head. He had been good at anticipating her movements and quickly realized that she intended to swing overhand, her low ax stance being a feint. As she came into striking distance, he threw his shield up to catch her weapon while he stepped forward to catch her in the gut with his sword. But what she actually did was so unexpected even she could barely believe she did it. Racing at full speed, she simply let go of her ax, causing the man to over-commit the shield so much that he couldn't do anything as she dropped to her knees.

Cynna's knees hit the ground, and her leggings immediately came free from the belt. Her legs slid across the ground as the leggings came free, helping her slide forward rather than catch upon the ground. She ducked her head, and as she slid under the overcommitted man, she flexed her powerful legs and abdominal muscles, driving her pointy metallic helmet under the man's tunic and up between his legs. The man began thrashing, but she thrust her head as high as she could, nearly lifting the man from the ground as he fought to free himself. The strange pairing lasted only for a few moments before the man fell to the side, rolling on the ground grasping his ruined crotch. Cynna drop to her hands, breathing hard for a moment until she caught her breath. Slowly she stood, reaching down, grabbing each of her leggings to reattach them to the belt.

The garments were now quite dirty and would require careful cleaning, but they were otherwise unharmed. Just as a warrior used their armor to protect themselves, they could also use it as a weapon. Picking up her ax, the Sarmatian slowly approached the wounded man. His pain seemed so intense that he didn't even look up as she towered over him. Some might take a moment to monologue or gloat over the fallen enemy. People who wasted such time sometimes got stabbed by a crafty enemy. With one mighty swing, she brought the sharp ax down upon the man's head driving it straight into the side of the skull and ending his suffering. Placing her boot on his head, she slowly twisted the weapon free with a disgusting wet sound.

She called for Bade with a whistle and then quickly checked the man for anything of value while she waited for the horse to arrive. Before she left, she approached the man's horse and snatched his remaining arrows. If the man they had left behind to guard Meala was still there, she would pepper him with arrows from a distance and turn him into a human porcupine. Her last act was to quickly remove the saddle and bit from the Roman horse, letting the animal run free. If she survived, she might return for the horse. Horses were considered a precious resource among her people, which one never left behind without at least freeing. With a nudge from her knees, she rode off toward the painted warrior hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

 

***

 

Meala stood gazing at the mounted Sarmatian warrior woman upon her horse high upon the opposite rise staring down at her. The woman looked as though she had seen a fair bit of combat, but she otherwise seemed okay. Perched atop her horse with her bow and quiver at the side, her armor catching the midday sun and her striped leggings adding a dash of color, Cynna was a sight to behold. Meala rushed forward, heading toward the woman as fast as she could. Her bare feet crunched across the grass as she raced the short distance, becoming more excited by the moment as she saw a smile emerge on the archer's face. This told her all was well, though she couldn't believe that it could be.

"Cynna! You drove them off?" Meala asked as she came to stand beside the horse, beaming a smile at the woman. The archer gazed down from atop her majestic horse and spoke with a strange finality.

"I drove them to the underworld." Meala gently bit her lip as she heard the confidence in Cynna's voice. This was the sort of warrior she had dreamed about as a child but never dared to hope could exist. A warrior maiden who could fight by her side, be her friend and share her bed. For a moment, Cynna sat there as though contemplating something she wasn't sure how to say. Meala waited patiently, curious what the woman might say. They were both tired, covered in blood and dirt, and mildly wounded. After a moment, Cynna nudged the horse with her knees causing it to turn so that her right side would face Meala. Her left arm was still injured and could not support her next action. She glanced down upon the painted warrior seeing the charming certainty and bravery in her eyes. There was nothing more attractive to Cynna than mutual respect, though Meala's lovely green eyes were a close second.

"I, Cynna of Dacia, daughter of Syon, offer my hand to you as a wife," the Sarmatian said boldly. Meala's hands fell to her side in shock. Behind them, Una held onto the horse, watching the glorious moment in awe.

"All that I own and all that I am is yours if you accept," she continued, speaking ritual words likely passed down by her people. While she spoke with great confidence, a bead of sweat dripped down her head from beneath her bloody helmet. For a long moment, Meala stood utterly still, hearing only the wind as it played across the grass. As a child, she had long dreamed of a dashing hero either rescuing her or perhaps the other way around. Her dreams had dared to explore the idea that this dashing hero might be a woman from her tribe or another. She had once even imagined a Roman woman being rescued by her. Still, she had never expected a Sarmatian archer from so far away. Moreover, she had never expected that they would save each other. In the end, they didn't know each other very well, but was this not true love? What kind of fool she would be to turn down what was obviously a gift from the gods. As she looked into Cynna's dark brown eyes, the flutter in her chest was all the answer she needed.

"I, Sei'ln Meala of the tribe of Wenech, daughter of Ail Braide, accept," Meala replied, using the same wording Cynna had used. It wasn't the way of her people, but that hardly mattered to her. The ritual of marriage was meant to make one's mother happy, and they could handle that later. Its other use was to please the gods, but the improbability of their meeting and success told Meala that the gods already smiled upon their union. In truth, she was doubtful anyone would believe the tale.

"All that I own, what little that is, is yours," she spoke in finality.

"Then it is done... we are one," Cynna spoke, lowering her right hand for Meala. Before a tear could even streak down Meala's face, she grabbed ahold of the archer's outstretched arm and leaped up. Together, they pulled and hoisted Meala onto the back of the horse, just behind Cynna. The Wenech woman wrapped her arms around the archer's armor and held her firmly as the horse slowly walked down the rise toward Una and the roman's horse. Meala held the archer tightly, swallowing the lump in her throat as the emotion-filled her. At that moment, she realized that Sarmatian and archer were no longer proper descriptions for the woman and her arms. She was holding her wife. A wave of ecstasy danced down her spine to every part of her body.

"Mother and father are going to have... Questions," she whispered, as Cynna chuckled.

"I'll just take care of everything here," Una said with a sigh as she watched the warrior women, whose love was forged in battle and whose union was struck while still covered in the blood of their enemies. Una was hardly a warrior, but she had grown up her first few free years in such a warrior society. The scene before her was not entirely the way she would have envisioned it, but it was undoubtedly romantic from her point of view. Offhandedly, she imagined a Caledon man arriving to scoop her up and carry her away from the Romans. That's not what had happened, but she couldn't help but daydream, especially after seeing such a romantic interaction.

 

***

 

Ail scraped the goat hide stretched between two wooden poles as the morning sun rose over the lake. She paused, placing her hand upon her back and bending to stretch the pain from her muscles. Not far behind, her youngest son sat on the edge of the crannog house carefully wrapping sinew around an arrow shaft, finishing his 10th arrow of the morning. His feet dangled, kicking back and forth playfully as he worked. A short distance away, the sound of her husband Ealin's ax could be heard in the forest as he worked to fell yet another tree in preparation for the winter to come. The family worked when it was warm to make sure they were warm when it was cold. Her older son lay inside the home complaining of a headache. However, he had worked at an almost feverish pace over the last few days repairing the fence in the Western field. Ail suspected he simply wanted a day off but was too proud to admit it. It was well-deserved in her opinion, and she wished he had simply asked. Her younger daughter Cunin was likely also in the home, spinning wool for winter weaving. Then there was Meala...

"Now I understand," she whispered, remembering how she had initially fought with her husband when she was younger. He had wanted her to remain home and raise a family, but she had wanted to leave on a raid against the Wall. She had a particular hatred for the Wall. It had been the place where her mother had died in the most horrifying of ways and where she had spent the first part of her life. Ealin was a good man and had treated her properly as the warrior she was, even though she had long put down her spear. She knew he would have stood back and let her leave, but the fear in his eyes had held her back. The fear she felt right now, the worry for her eldest daughter, that was what he had feared for her. In fact, that raid had been a complete failure, and likely, she would have been just another skeleton in a pile. It had felt like the wrong choice at the time, but as she thought of her children, she realized that she had been right to give up her spear.

Unfortunately, Meala had that same warrior streak within her. She had wept the entire morning after finding the empty hole at the base of the tree where her shield and spear had been buried. Her emotions had been fear, anger, but also a sense of pride in her daughter. In truth, she had all but told the young woman that she could leave if she wanted to, though Ail had hoped she would not. Her husband had made the same request of Ail, but her daughter had come to a completely different choice. Now all that was left was to wait. The worst part of all was not knowing. What if she simply never returned? Could she be dead or perhaps a Roman slave? Ail wiped her eyes and returned to scraping, though probably a little too hard. It was the burden of lovers left behind. On the breeze, she swore her nose caught the musky scent of horses.

"Mother! Father! A strange warrior and horses have come!" screamed her niece Tai as she raced from the southern field with a basket in hand, nearly tripping over her sandals. A visitor was one thing, but "warrior" likely meant someone dressed for battle and unrecognized. All around, people rushed to grab what they could and head for the crannog. The small house built on stilts was just far enough out that when the bridge connecting it to the land was separated, it would be troublesome to access. Sure, you could swim to it in the summer, but few Romans were willing to take their armor off and try, and those who did would find a spear in their face. The only real danger was that someone might fire burning arrows into it. Luckily, it was easy enough to get water, but hopefully, that wouldn't happen. Ail grabbed her scraper and rushed toward the home.

A few moments later, she stood at the edge of the wooden bridge connecting the land and the crannog, waiting for each family member to make it back. In her hand, she held an old bronze ax that had been passed down for generations in her family. Someone had taken it out to chop some wood, the better quality iron ax being currently in her husband's hand. Even then, she watched him burst from the forest, calling out to her.

"What is it? Is it Romans? The Glen?" He rushed past the garden as fast as he could to join his wife. As soon as everyone was accounted for, they would lift the small segment of the bridge and join the family on the other side. Ail shrugged. Tai had spat out her description of the intruder before rushing into the house moments before. The girl said she had seen an armored warrior approaching from the South with several horses and maybe another mounted person. Her description of the armor as shiny fish scales didn't really match anyone Ail knew, aside from perhaps some of the exotic cavalry she had heard of at the Fort. If it was the Romans, it could mean some final northern invasion. But her niece only mentioned seeing one and maybe a second, as well as several horses. Perhaps the intruder was a scout or some sort of outrider? Either way, her sorrow and fear over the fate of her daughter had grown massively in the last few moments, but now it was competing with the fear of what was to come and the safety of the rest of her family.

"Mother! Father!" The sound from the treeline rang like a clarion call across the land, grasping her emotions like the force of an arrow to her chest. It couldn't be… But she would recognize that voice anywhere. It was the sound of one of her children, the sound of her honeybee. Just then, a horse stepped over the hilltop to the South, and a mounted and strangely armored woman with a pointy metal helmet came into view. Behind her, she could see Meala waving her arms with an excited, happy expression. Beside them, five more horses slowly followed. On one of the other horses, a young woman or perhaps an older girl rode. Ail dropped the ax to the ground. She meant to rush forward to see her daughter, but instead, she dropped to her knees, holding her chest as a wave of relief swept over her with such intensity that it took the wind right from her lungs. Her husband breathed a heavy sigh of relief, several tears forming in his eyes.

"Our daughter has returned, but what is the rest of this?" He asked, more rhetorically than anything else. A moment later, Ail and Ealin stood looking up at a mighty Sarmatian archer woman covered in armor fresh with the stains of dirt and Roman blood. Meala leaped from the horse and came to hug her mother as tightly as she could before releasing her and standing back so that they might see one another. Meala wore her beautiful blue woolen tunic, though it was now rather stained with Roman blood. She was barefoot, her possessions mostly lost. They hadn't taken the time to return the gully, wanting to get as far from the Romans as possible. Strikingly, around her neck, she wore a heavy golden torc of the kind a chief or a mighty warrior might wear. Upon seeing it, both of her parents stared in awe.

"We traveled to Fort Velunia. I took the life of a noble Roman woman, and I took this torc from inside the Fort. We fought many Romans, and we defeated them all," she said, with a victorious smile. Among her people, such bravery and success were the stuff of legend. The captured Roman horses, the golden torc, and the mighty Sarmatian woman standing beside her were plenty to back up her claims. Moreover, the horses' saddlebags had been packed with every possession they could loot from the Romans before leaving as quickly as they could. The horses and the gear alone would have provided the family with a higher class of living for a generation, but the gold and silver within the box might very well be enough to found their own tribe.

"Who are these women who ride with you? "Ealin asked, still trying to take all of this in. In the back of his mind, he couldn't help but almost see Ail in his daughter's eyes as she stood there covered in dried blood, the paint of battle, and beaming a glorious smile of triumph. It was why he had married Ail, why he had been so impressed with her when they had first met. Even then, he wished he had not asked her to stay behind. And though he had been worried sick when his daughter had left, he had realized that letting her go with the only way he could truly respect the woman she had become. After all, he would have done the same for his sons. Now she stood before him wearing the torc of a chieftain, Roman blood still staining her spear tip. His respect for her at that moment was far beyond his ability to express it.

"She is Cynna, warrior of Dacia and now my wife," Meala said, causing her father to nearly choke.

"You... wife?" Both Ealin and Ail spoke at the same time.

They spoke in their native tongue, but Cynna recognized the sound of her name and the place she was from. She nodded to both of Meala's parents, though it would be sometime before she learned to speak to them properly. She wondered if they might mistake her as a Dacian rather than a Sarmatian from Dacia. However, it was probably a pointless distinction to people so far from her lands. She smiled, considering the shocked looks on their faces.

"You are married? "Ail asked incredulously a second time.

"To a woman? "Ealin added. Homosexuality wasn't a significant issue among their people, but it wasn't widespread and rarely resulted in a marriage. Ealin sadly considered the second fact might have more to do with social conventions discouraging it than a lack of willing participants.

"It's a long story, and I want to explain it to everyone tonight. Also, mother, this is Una. She was captured as a child by the Romans just South of the Wall, and she has nowhere to go. She saved my life, and I offered her a place to live with us. I'm sorry I didn't ask you first. I spoke from the heart before I thought with my head," Meala said, slightly shy. Now that she was no longer swinging a sword or standing triumphantly before her fallen enemies, she had more time to realize that it wasn't actually her place to grant somebody the right to live with her as the farm belonged to her parents. As the eldest child, specifically the eldest woman who would have the right of inheritance, it wasn't quite as awkward as if one of her cousins or younger brothers had made such a statement. Yet she stood there apprehensively waiting to see what they would say.

"The house is only half occupied as it is, and we could use another pair of hands if those hands are willing to work,"Ail said, exchanging a glance with her husband, who nodded. Una only now spoke, having spent several years among the Romans and learning how to otherwise remain out of the way and unnoticed. Their language was a little different from hers, perhaps a dialect, but she could readily understand them if she took a moment to consider their words. She replied slowly, making sure to keep her speech simple enough for them to understand.

"I swear to work hard if you have me," she spoke sheepishly. She was relieved as Ealin beamed a smile back at her.

"Welcome to our family Una. We shall adopt you as our daughter if you will have it," he spoke, also somewhat caught up in the moment. The girl nodded her ascent and stepped down from the horse to lead the animals to the home where they might be secured. Meala would have to work on convincing Una not to be such a servant as she was no longer a slave. That would take some time, but she suspected Una would come around. With that, the family headed into the crannog where their story could be told to the entire family.

 

***

 

The following night, Meala and Cynna rode out over the lake in a small wooden dugout boat the family used. There were several small islands in one reasonable sized one in the lake, to the east by Northeast of the family crannog. It was a bit of a job rowing that far, but the pair finally set foot upon the pebbly ground, pulling the little boat ashore. The air smelled fresh with the scent of water which came from the lake. All around, small fires could be seen in the distance from the various homesteads around the lake. The late summer air was warm, though the temperature was already dropping for the night. Within a few weeks, it would no longer be comfortable without a longer tunic or leggings.

They had spent the first day recovering and recounting their tale and introducing Cynna and Una to the family. Unexpectedly, Meala's parents had embraced the Sarmatian and had accepted their union. Meala suspected returning with gold, and the well-earned torc of a warrior might have had something to do with it. That and the fact that her mother and father seemed a little intimidated by the mighty Sarmatian. Though she hoped their decision had also been based upon true acceptance and love. Either way, her mother had demanded at least a simple ritual in the ways of the Gods the next day. In truth, Ail had initially asked for a massive celebration, which would have taken many days to prepare for and involved dozens of people from the homesteads all around. Meala had worked hard to compromise with her mother over the wedding. In the end, they had a simple, traditional joining only a few hours before.

As was tradition, the newly wedded pair would leave the family and find a place of solitude where they might consummate their marriage. There were many traditions involving a child born from such a pairing and other such religious and fertility-related aspects. Of course, those were hardly the consideration in their case. Either way, this was their moment, and she planned to enjoy every bit of it. Meala considered this as she placed several dried logs they had brought with them on the ground and quickly brought them to light with embers from a small clay dish with smoldering peat. And within a short time, a fire rose from the wood, illuminating the area. It was time to stand before her Sarmatian warrior as a proper wife. Her stomach fluttered as adrenaline danced through her body.

Meala turned and caught sight of Cynna standing before her in the firelight. The woman had sat on the edge of the boat until the fire had started, simply watching Meala work. Cynna was now clean, and her hair washed. Her long thick black hair flowed loose in the traditional style of marriage. She wore a light gray woolen tunic, ankle-length. Around her neck, a gold torc from the box captured from the Romans signified her position as a warrior. While not quite as large as Meala's torc, it had a beautiful spiral pattern, making it look exotic, much like the woman who now wore it. The hardest part had been figuring out which of her siblings had taken it to wear when they had first opened the box and begun to examine the gold. Meala had placed it around Cynna's neck only hours before as a wedding gift.

Meala herself wore a light green dyed woolen tunic, knee-length, as well as her golden torc. Upon her head, she wore a wreath of thistle flowers and a streak of woad paint down the center of her face. There would be more tattoos given to both women in recognition of their battle and victory, but they would just have each other for right now. That was plenty enough for Meala. Both women stood barefoot in the traditional way as a married couple. Meala smiled, almost buzzing and visibly excited and not very good at hiding her emotion. The much more seasoned Cynna stood almost valiantly before her with a sly smile and way too much confidence for Meala to hold herself back any longer.

She stepped forward, gently placing her arms upon Cynna's shoulders. With a smile of consent from Cynna, she gently slipped the Sarmatian's tunic from her shoulders and stifled a gasp as the pretty garment spilled onto the ground. Cynna stood before her completely bare, still gazing into Meala's eyes, and somehow even more impressive than she was before. Meala had seen some of the tattoos the night they had lain together, but it had been too dark to see them in good detail. She had also seen them when she had rescued her from the cross. Still, she had been far too terrified at that moment to truly take in the majesty of the woman's decoration. In the dancing firelight, her beautiful light brown skin finally revealed the complexity of her Sarmatian tattoos, a rich tradition dating back to before even the mighty Scythians of old. Cynna had beautiful flowers and vines from her waist up to her shoulders, which became two large flowers across her chest placed perfectly to match her body's shape. The ink had been black, which had been challenging to see with the woman's darker skin at night, but it was clearly visible by the firelight.

"I see the honeybee finds the flowers to her liking?" Cynna said, noting the younger woman's eyes as they drifted across the tattoos, lingering on the beautiful and intricate flowers. Meala looked up, moving her mouth for a moment without speaking before she did, though not having quite the words to describe the beauty she had just seen. It was like the most lovely sunset or perhaps a flower with droplets of dew.

"Your tattoos are so beautiful, like morning flowers covered in dew," Meala whispered. Cynna stepped forward, placing her hands upon her bride's shoulders, and helped Meala lift the tunic over her head, discarding it upon the ground. Cynna gazed upon the painted warrior, now also clean and bare but for her golden torc and flower crown. Meala bore swirly tattooed lines around her shoulders, tattooed lines around her arms, a swirl upon her right forehand, bands tattooed just above her ankles, and of course the magical black shape of a honeybee across her chest. Around her neck, the heavy golden torc hung, a physical manifestation of her achievement. The woman had a few scars, one that Cynna had given her. Cynna flinched slightly, but as she looked up, she saw only love.

"My flowers are not covered in dew… They're covered in nectar," Cynna said, stepping forward and embracing the painted warrior in a passionate kiss. Behind them, the Milky Way rose from the South, towering above them like a sea of lights or perhaps a million ancestors and gods watching their beautiful union. Wobbling several times, the pair sink to their knees and embraced one another, feeling the warmth of their bodies pressing tightly in the cool air. It was a feeling neither woman had experienced before they had met, and it was a feeling they didn't want to let go of. Meala sank onto her back beside the fire, feeling the heat of the flames dancing off of her skin. Above her, the lightly brown-skinned woman stretched her arms high. As the firelight danced off of the golden torque around the archers' neck, Meala was stunned at just how beautiful a woman could look. What was more beautiful than how she looked was how she made Meala feel. To truly respect her, to see her as a warrior, as an equal, filled Meala was such love and admiration.

Meala reached up to the stretching woman and began tracing the tattooed vines with her fingers. She wasn't sure where things would go from here and what life with Cynna would be like, but at least she had found a partner, a friend, and a lover who would stand back to back with her and face whatever came. Her fingers continued following the vines as the Sarmatian sighed in shared elation. This was a woman she could grow old with, a woman she could trust. Her fingers finally found the two beautiful flowers at the end of the vines, and the honeybee began to trace each petal with her fingers. All along the petals, goosebumps formed as Cynna's skin reacted to the delicate touch. She held her arms out wide, feeling the cool northern air passing over her naked body as her honeybee circled her flowers.

"Iris…" Cynna spoke between sharp inhales. Meala paused for a moment, unsure of what the woman had meant. Cynna gently touched Meala's hands, indicating that she should not stop, but continued with her explanation.

"It is a purple flower from where I come… It is what my name means," she spoke, finally answering a question between heavy breaths Meala had asked her the night before. As Meala's fingers found the center of the pedals, the honeybee smiled at the flower. If ever there had been a doubt of the gods' intents, their names' symbolism was the final sign which sealed the truth of their destiny. And with that, the flower gasped loudly as the honeybee found the nectar.

 

 

Glossary

 

Crannog – A wooden home built upon stilts over the water. Crannogs were roughly cylindrical-shaped structures with conical roofs built upon a platform suspended over the water on stilted wooden piles. During their five millennia of use in the Atlantic Archipelago, countless variations in size and construction resulted from a wide variety of conditions, building materials, and needs. A typical crannog structure might be made from wood, while the inner walls could be made from wood, sticks, brush, mud, clay, and other local resources. Roofs were typically thatched.

 

Crucifixion – A form of capital punishment and public humiliation used by many cultures, including the Romans. It was considered by many, even some prominent Romans, such as Cicero, to be too inhumane to use. However, it was considered a supreme form of capital punishment for criminals and enemies of the state and a form of discouragement for others who witnessed the act. The primary reasons this was used in the story were twofold: Firstly, other forms of punishment were very quick to exact and would not provide time for a rescue, such as immolation or beating. Moreover, crucifixion would have likely been used to set an example, a vital element of Lucious's motivation in the story.

 

Nude Combat – While the vast majority of warriors very likely fought clothed, there are several references to the people of the Atlantic Archipelago fighting naked. Many of these accounts should be taken within the context of exaggeration and their use as a device of comparison to the supposedly greater cultures of their respective members. However, these depictions were documented with such regularity that they may refer to one or more real examples and practices. Most accounts refer to the Picts being wholly nude and entirely covered with tattoos of animals, though, given the climate, this is likely wildly exaggerated. It should be noted that nudity at the period would have likely been much less of a social issue than now.

 

Picts – The various iron age cultures of the northern Atlantic Archipelago, approximately the land now known as Scotland, have historically been referred to as the "Picts." However, this term is not academically meaningful. These cultures shared many similarities, including their use of the Celtic-language-family. Like the rest of the pre-medieval Atlantic Archipelago, people were broken into tribes, such as the Caledonians or the Venicones (Wenech is a possible ancient variation of this tribal name).

 

Sarmatians – An Iranian-language-speaking group of Iron Age peoples related to the earlier western Scythian cultures and spanning over 700 years from the 5th century BCE to the 4th century CE. Sarmatians were acclaimed for their riding and archery skills, which many Sarmatians learned from a young age living on the European steppe.

 

Torcs & Chains – The use of heavy metal jewelry around the neck as a signifier of station, wealth, and bravery has been documented at length among Iron Age northern Europeans. Countless examples have been recovered. The torc, a C-shaped metal object, often made from silver, gold, or iron, surrounded the neck leaving an opening, usually in the front, to allow it to be worn. The ends of torcs, called terminals, were often much larger and ornamental than the torcs themselves.

 

Women Warriors – While heavily neglected in even modern scholarly circles, much evidence for warrior women exists worldwide. From the Scythians of antiquity to the Dahomey Amazons of the 17th century until the start of the 20th century, regular military forces containing or even wholly made up of women have been documented. Adrienne Mayor discusses in her 2014 book, The Amazons – Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, pages 81-82, that in 2004, previously unearthed skeletal remains of what appear to be Sarmatian warrior women buried near the Roman fort of Brocavum, circa. 200-300CE provided the first significant evidence for Sarmatian warrior women at the walls. While this is still a debated find, it bears striking similarities to well-documented examples of Sarmatian warrior women from their native lands.

 

Woad – A yellow flowering plant native to Europe that can be cultivated and processed into a rich, blue dye. The plant is harvested, ground, and (traditionally) mixed with urine (ammonia) to produce the desired blue color. Woad produces a rich dye but is a poor paint, both easily flaking and potentially causing skin irritation. Contrary to popular depiction, woad was not likely used for tattoos as the coloring does not retain well. The tattoos tend to scar due to the plant's caustic nature. If blue paint was worn, it was likely only for short periods.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Budin, S. L. and Turfa, J. M. (2016). Women in Antiquity: Real Women across the Ancient World (Rewriting Antiquity) 1st Edition

 

Cicero, M. T. (c. 50 BCE) Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo (English). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=PerseusLatinTexts&getid=1&query=Cic.%20Rab.%20Perd.%2019

 

Gardiner, S. R. (1892). A Student's History of England.

 

Gleba, M. and Mannering, U. (2019). Textile and Textile Production in Europe from Prehistory to AD 400

 

Mayor, A. (2016). The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World

 

Murphy, E. M. (2003). Iron Age Archaeology and Trauma from Aymyrlyg, South Siberia.

 

Nelson, S. M. and Rosen-Ayalon, M. (2001). In Pursuit of Gender: Worldwide Archaeological Approaches

 

Wagner, P. (2002). Pictish Warrior AD 297-841

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

 

Thank you to Evan Schultheis for your assistance with clothing and equipment accuracy!

The lovely illustration was commissioned for this story in the style of ancient Greek black-figure pottery and illustrated by the talented Brittiany (Twitter @artistfuly).


Submitted: February 05, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Ishtar. All rights reserved.

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