It was hard to make out definite shapes in the forest. Clouds obscured the face of the moon, and the full midsummer canopy kept this, the densest part of the woods, in almost complete darkness.
Not that it mattered to Hippolyta. Her feet followed the same path they had a hundred times. She absently noted which trees had grown in the past month, which were listing to the side instead, destined to make way for new life. She moved so quietly, she approached and nearly touched a stag before it bolted. It created a thunderstorm of noise crashing through the brush, breaking the stillness.
After an hour, Hippolyta arrived at the clearing. She walked into it without hesitation, and upon reaching the center, drew her sword. She plunged the tip of it into the soft ground. She removed her helm- part practical, part declaration of her status as queen- and laid it on a bed of moss. Kneeling, she placed her right hand on the hilt of the sword and gazed at the sky.
“Athena, o wisest of the gods. I, your humble servant Hippolyta, call to you for counsel. Hear my plea and walk with me.”
The words were rote. Hippolyta remembered the last time she was here, Athena had taken issue with them. “I may be the wisest of the gods,” she had said, “but no prayer is needed to call me, sister.”
The goddess of war might not stand on ceremony, but Hippolyta did. She would treat the goddess with the same respect she demanded from her Amazons.
After a few moments, the air at the edge of the clearing rippled. A tall woman, dressed in full armor, appeared out of the mist and approached her.
Hippolyta’s pulse quickened. The goddess of war always had this effect on her. She loved her, and served her gladly, but there was always an undercurrent of fear. Who could be relaxed in the presence of such power? Hippolyta had witnessed hardened Amazon warriors who, upon seeing the goddess for the first time, turned and ran without a thought. The sword at her hip always seemed an instant from being drawn. Hippolyta knew the goddess was slow to anger, but her presence still seemed a veiled threat. Perhaps that was how all the gods appeared to mortals.
Athena's helmet covered her whole head, leaving only the lower part of her face exposed. A long, dark braid snaked out from under it, draped over one shoulder. The helm’s nosepiece was a beak, and it spread upward into feathered steel. With her bright, sharp eyes staring out from the head of an owl, Athena gave the appearance of something alien despite her human form.
Athena approached Hippolyta, and when she got close enough, she reached out and placed her hand next to the Amazon’s, grasping the sword.
Hippolyta frowned slightly as the goddess pulled the hilt from her grip.
“My dearest queen, are you wearing a sword from a new blacksmith?” Athena spoke as a friend, with no pretense or grandeur in her voice.
Athena pulled off her helmet, smiled warmly at Hippolyta, and returned to her inspection. She seemed to change, the regal goddess receding and making way for something that seemed infinitely more approachable.
“Whoever it is, she’s doing impressive work. The temper in this blade is perfect. A journeywoman?” She gestured for Hippolyta to stand.
The Amazon queen rose and shook her head. “Not anymore. Niobe just passed her trials and has earned the rank of Master. I carry her work this month as a sign of respect.”
“Excellent! It’s always exciting to add to the armsmistress’s ranks. And I fear their services will be needed more than usual in the coming months.”
“That’s why I came to you for counsel” said Hippolyta. “Most of the Amazons haven’t noticed yet, but there has been an uptick in skirmishes at the edges of our territory. The men in the neighboring city-states seem to have forgotten that our nation is a very thorny rose.”
Athena returned the sword to the queen, who slid it into her scabbard. “They do tend to have short memories when it comes to conflict,” she replied, her mouth easing into an amused smile. “But the usual lot aren’t going to be the greatest of your worries. It’s Ares. Again. But this time I fear his insistence on greater power won’t be placated by another plot of land, another group of sycophants. His bloodlust has grown, and Zeus is struggling to contain it.”
Athena said this almost nonchalantly, but Hippolyta knew the warning was deadly serious. Men were always a threat. But men with the backing of the god of war? That could destroy everything she’d worked so hard to build.
“What would you have us do?” Hippolyta asked. She knew the goddess never came to her without a plan.
“Next month, when you have the Games, it will be very important.” Athena stooped to retrieve her helm, a particularly human action. Hippolyta knew she could simply have it appear on her head, but she chose to downplay her abilities when she was among them. That desire to forge a connection was never lost on the Amazon queen.
Athena continued. “The women you choose for your guard, and Antiope’s, they must be the best they have ever been. They’ll be needed by your side when you ride into battle. It will take everything the nation can produce to be victorious.”
Hippolyta nodded. “It will be done. Thank you goddess. Your words of warning will be heeded.”
Athena reached out and gave Hippolyta’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. “Keep my girls safe,” she implored. “And remind them that they and their sisters can produce the greatest strength if they lean on each other.”
The goddess turned and disappeared into the brush, the branches parting as if to make way for her.
Hippolyta replaced her helm, her mouth set in a hard line. She pushed down the tremor of fear that threatened to bubble up from the pit of her stomach. She would rise to this challenge. All her Amazons would.
The queen headed back into the forest and disappeared into the night.