For the next hour, Menalippe sat by Penthesilea’s bedside. The prone warrior slept deeply, no doubt due to something Ephiny had given her. But the healer assured her that Pen could awaken at any time, and she wanted to be there when she did. With every passing moment, Menalippe knew she was missing more and more of the horseback event of the Games. She tried not to think about it. She had already made her decision. If she could talk some sense into her stubborn friend, it might save her a limb.
It seemed like an eternity passed, but Penthesilea stirred. As she was waking up, Menalippe moved from her chair onto the side of the cot her friend occupied. She had a feeling she knew what was coming.
Pen was woozy, trying to shake off the haze she was under. “Mena... why am I…” Her brows shot up in realization, and she started to sit up suddenly. Menalippe had an arm on Pen’s torso in an instant, keeping the warrior from leaping to her feet.
“Pen, your foot is very bad,” Menalippe said quietly. “Have you seen a wound lanced before? Because that’s what they had to do to you.” She grimaced in sympathy. “And it is no doubt the source of the considerable pain you’re going to start feeling.”
Penthesilea pushed against her, but the hard muscles of her torso were uncharacteristically weak. She struggled. “Let me up Mena! You swore you wouldn’t keep me from competing!”
“I swore to help you, yes,” the brunette conceded. “But this has morphed into something different, Pen. I thought before you might be able to compete and heal at the same time. I cannot let you continue now that I know how much is at stake!”
Penthesilea finally gave up and lay back down on the bed. “Do you really think my limb is a high enough stake? You know what Athena told me. There are no stakes higher than the health of our whole nation!”
Menalippe chose her words carefully. She knew this was her best chance of changing the warrior’s mind. If she couldn’t, she would forever feel responsible for whatever happened to Pen.
“I did heed the words that Athena spoke to you. But I am questioning your interpretation. You told me that Athena said these are the last Games you will ever compete in. Well, Pen, what if you are making that cautionary statement into a prophecy! There are plenty of reasons you might not compete again that don’t require you to destroy your own body now.”
Penthesilea looked sullen, unconvinced. Menalippe pressed further.
“What if you are making this self-fulfilling? My friend, a very good reason not to compete in the future is if you’ve lost your foot. Can you stomach that possibility? What would you do with your life? We both know you are one of the strongest warriors our nation has. Would you give that up for the rest of your life? We take care of our Amazon sisters. And you will always have a place here. But I don’t think permanent mess duty is how you want to live your life.
The blonde woman appeared to consider her friend’s words seriously. Menalippe waited, hoping for a positive response. The infirmary was quiet, most of the attendees either at the Games or an early lunch. Menalippe was grateful for the privacy.
“I don’t want to be anything other than a warrior,” Penthesilea said quietly. She looked more sad, more vulnerable than Mena had ever seen her before. “But what you are saying…it sounds like blasphemy. A rejection of our goddess herself!”
The words hurt, but Menalippe worked hard not to show it. She had considered this herself. What if she was the one misinterpreting Athena’s words? But she had a hunch.
“Hippolyta.” Menalippe spoke softly. She raised her gaze to meet Penthesilea’s. “You know Hippolyta better than most. And so you know that when she speaks, when she give advice or asks a question, she has some ulterior meaning.” Pen nodded in acknowledgment. “I swear, you can’t take anything she says, other than a direct command, at face value,” she replied.
Menalippe nodded emphatically. “Exactly! And who has trained Hippolyta? Influenced her style of leadership? The goddess herself. Athena may just be testing you, Pen! And perhaps the way to earn her favor is not to do what comes naturally to you- to fight. Maybe you need to react in a way that shows you can learn something new, grow as a person.”
Pen looked tired, but her eyes were alight. “Gods…” she murmured. “Mena, I think you may be a genius! Her words, I took them to mean one thing, but…”
“What exactly did she say?” Menalippe asked.
“She said, ‘You must be close to Hippolyta, to protect her. It is essential that our strongest be at her disposal.” Penthesilea almost looked sheepish.
“So if I understand correctly,” Menalippe said, hope flaring inside her, “she said nothing about being a member of the Queen’s guard!”
Penthesilea smiled broadly, the first time she had done so in days. “I just heard it that way!” She started to sit up again, this time in excitement. She abandoned the effort partway, slumping back.
“Ye gods! I feel weak as a kitten! All this for a foot…” Penthesilea sighed. “I suppose there are many ways I can help to protect our queen. That wording doesn’t even mean the threat will be a physical attack!”
“That’s how I see it too,” Menalippe said. She took Penthesilea’s hand. “My friend, you are a fearsome warrior. But you are not only that, and Hippolyta knows it. Rest and heal! Fight another day.”
Penthesilea squeezed their grasp affectionately. “Mena, I don’t know how to thank you. I have always counted you a close friend, but this week, you’ve proven yourself to be loyal in ways I can’t believe myself. Gods…” She grimaced. “I have held you back so much. I don’t know how I can cope with that…”
“Stop it!” Menalippe cried. “No guilt is allowed here. I make decisions for myself. Besides…” She winked at the prone warrior. “I and everyone else will be glad they don’t have to compete against you in the sword!”
Both women laughed. And Menalippe felt as though a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized how much Pen’s plight had been weighing on her own mind.
Pen paused. “Mena…if you are here…did you already compete in the horseback competition?”
Mena wrinkled her nose. “I…I am not. There were more important things to attend to.”
Penthesilea paled. “Healer!” she called. A young woman appeared from the adjoining tent, a bowl of some kind of poultice in her hands.
“Penthesilea, are you well…”
Pen cut her off. “Is the riding competition still going? What time is it?”
The young Amazon reacted as so many did when confronted with a forceful Penthesilea. She reacted to the tone in her voice immediately.
“It is just about a candlemark after midday, guardsman,” she replied. “It may still be finishing up. I haven’t seen too many go by toward the mess hall…”
Menalippe got to her feet instinctively. She had assumed it was far later in the day. She must have been distracted by her thoughts.
“Mena, go!” Penthesilea said. “I swear to you on my love for Philippus that I will stay in this bed!”
Menalippe gave her friend a brisk salute, nodded at the young healer and dashed outside. She took a moment to take stock of her surroundings. Traffic was indeed lighter than she would expect for this time of day. Perhaps she could still make it!
As she started her jog towards the stables, she caught side of a rider coming out of the woods that led up to the east wall. Sentator Timandra had replaced her usual white tunic- a symbol of her office- with a guardsman’s leathers and spear. Menalippe cut towards her.
“Senator!” she called.
Timandra slowed her mount to a slow walk. “Well met, Menalippe,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t expect to see anyone back in town yet. I thought the Games would still be going on.”
“I believe they are,” Menalippe replied hastily. “Senator, I apologize for being rude, but are you returning from watch by chance?”
Timandra nodded. “Yes, I just turned over the watch to Andrea. I try to volunteer during the Games since I know so many want to compete…”
Menalippe cut her off. “May I please return your horse to the stables?”
The Senator looked surprised, and a bit offended, at Menalippe’s tone. “Well, yes…” she began.
“Perfect,” Menalippe cried. She walked up to the roan mare Timandra was riding and reached for the reins. The Senator dismounted. Menalippe leaped up into the saddle and gave the verbal signal to canter. Even the horse seemed surprised by this turn of events, but she was well-trained. It took her only a few moments to react, increasing her speed. Menalippe rode as fast as she could safely. She’d have to apologize to Timandra later.
Amazon and horse moved fluidly together, dodging foot traffic and low-hanging foliage. Menalippe spared a brief moment to marvel at her luck. Was Timandra’s appearance some sign from the goddess? But the riding was tricky, and she pulled her mind back into focus.
Menalippe was dismayed to see some Amazons heading away from the arena. Was she too late? She urged her mount on regardless.
As she arrived at the stables, Menalippe’s stomach sank. A crowd was headed toward the village center, a sure sign the event had concluded. She dodged a few pedestrians and rode straight toward the competitors’ entrance.
Menalippe glanced around as she rode through. The stands were emptying. The dais that held the queen was vacant. But there, over to her right, she spotted Anala making notes on a scroll. She rode up quickly, her horse sending gravel spraying as she stopped abruptly. Menalippe leapt off the horse.
“Anala!” she called. “Am I…is it too late?”
Never one to rush, Anala finished her note. She raised one eyebrow at Menalippe. “The event is over, dear. I’m just tallying the scores now so the winner can be announced at the feast.”
Menalippe was crestfallen. She felt as though she shrunk several inches in that one moment. Why had she dared to hope at all?
“Menalippe! I am surprised to see you.” The resonant voice belonged to Hippolyta.
Both Menalippe and Anala snapped to attention as the queen approached, astride her horse.
“Why did you not compete today?” Hippolyta’s tone was sharp. Menalippe wasn’t quite sure if she was angry or just used to communicating in that way.
“Ephiny sent for me this morning, my queen. She needed my help with Penthesilea.”
“And are you a new apprentice in the healer’s tent?” The queen stayed atop her horse, looking down at the pair appraisingly.
“No, my queen. It was…she… Penthesilea is strong-willed.” Menalippe couldn’t find a way to summarize things better.
Hippolyta gave a bark of laughter. “That she is!” She seemed to understand the situation. “So you were taken away before you could compete?”
“Well, then, we cannot deny even a single Amazon her chance. What good fortune that I decided to stay and take a ride of my own, or things would be different. But you may ride the course.”
Anala spoke up. “But my queen! The results have already been tallied! I was planning to head into town and announce Egeria’s victory.”
Hippolyta could have disapproved of the judge’s tone. But instead she nodded, her brow furrowing in thought. She paused a few moments. Menalippe forced herself to breathe evenly.
“Well, what of this,” Hippolyta mused. “Menalippe, would you ride for overall points alone, separate from today’s individual event?”
“Yes, my queen,” Menalippe answered. It was a generous offer.
“And Anala, does that suit you also? Egeria most certainly deserves the prize on the day.”
Anala looked a bit like she wanted to protest, but few would defy Hippolyta. “Yes, your highness,” she finally answered.
“Well, then, Anala and I will be your judges,” Hippolyta pronounced. “You may take the course.”
Menalippe raced back to the mount she had ridden there. The roan looked a bit tired, but she had not run the course earlier that day. She was fresher than Mena could have hoped for.
The Amazon steered her mount to the starting line. She looked to Anala for a signal. The judge held a large hourglass. She nodded at Menalippe to signal that she was ready.
Athena grant me speed, Menalippe thought. And then the drum to signal the start was hit.
Menalippe urged her mount forward, putting all that she had into moving with the horse, anticipating her movements. They cleared the first set of jumps well. Then came an area to weave through. The roan was tall, and she seemed loathe to sprint after every turn. Menalippe spared a brief moment to regret that she wasn’t on her chosen steed. But then she remembered her luck. However this ended was better than she could have dreamed!
The rest of the course flew by, Menalippe acting on instinct, meshing well with the horse. Still, she knew she could do better. As they passed the finish, Menalippe patted the horse’s neck affectionately. She told the roan what a sweet girl she was, and how well she had done. She tried to push down her own disappointment.
Menalippe was eager to get her score, but she would not neglect the horse’s care. She let it walk for several minutes, cooling down. By the time she circled back to the start, both Hippolyta and Anala were gone. Menalippe shrugged and dismounted. She walked the roan back to the stables. A hand approached her, offering to take the horse. Menalippe declined.
“This horse is my lucky charm today,” she explained. She removed the saddle and bridle with experienced hands. “Time to give you a good rubdown, my friend!”
Menalippe took her time, the adrenaline in her own system fading. She could barely believe how full the day seemed, and it was only a bit more than halfway over. She resolved to pay a visit to the shrine of the goddess before the bonfire that evening.