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Live by the Sword

Chapter Text

Prelude

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.

Chapter Text

“Uuuuuuooofff!”

Menalippe heard more than felt all the air rushing out of her lungs. Flat on her back, she gasped, trying to recover. She barely had time to start pushing herself up before Philippus was on her again. Menalippe froze, her adversary’s forearm at her throat.

“Yield,” Philippus commanded. Her tone and steely gaze told Menalippe that another escape attempt would be unwise. Beaten, Menalippe let her head drop to the ground.

“I yield,” she answered, panting heavily.

Philippus sat back on her heels, her dark skin shining with sweat. She smiled and slapped Menalippe’s thigh playfully.

“So I take today’s match. That’s two days in a row, and I won’t let you forget it!”

Menalippe groaned. “You’re going to be insufferable on watch all day, aren’t you?”

Philippus reached down to grasp Menalippe’s hand and pulled her up as she stood.

“Just until this evening,” she joked. “Then, I fully expect you to best me at archery, and my humility will return.

Menalippe smiled. She glanced at the sun, just rising over the treetops to the south.

“Again?” she asked, taking a fighting stance.

Philippus shook her head. “Mena, what’s gotten into you lately? We’ve already worn ourselves out, and breakfast hasn’t even been served. And you want to go again?”

Menalippe lowered her guard, disappointed. She was pushing harder than ever before, but she didn’t expect her friends to catch on so quickly. She should have known better.

“The Games this year matter a lot to me,” she answered. “I just…I feel this is my time to really have a good showing, and I want to take advantage of it.” There were other reasons too, but she wasn’t about to give them away so easily. “You and I both know that of everything I can contribute, I’m best used as a warrior.”

Her companion gave a wry smile. “Gods know nobody profited during the month you had duty in the kitchens,” Philippus joked.

“Keep your insults in their quiver!” Menalippe protested. “I’d like to see what you’d do when all you have to work with is root vegetables!”

“Pen makes an excellent parsnip pie,” Philippus replied, chuckling.

Menalippe turned to gather her things, waving an arm in dismissal. “You’d say anything Penthesilea made was ambrosia. Don’t kid yourself.”

“There are a number of other things she does very well too,” Philippus said, a Cheshire-cat grin spreading across her face. She ducked to dodge the bracer Menalippe hurled in her direction, laughing.

“Please, spare me!” Menalippe cried out. “I swear I’m already ‘serenaded’ each night by the sounds of half a dozen amorous couples. I don’t need to hear it from my best friend, too.”

“Eh, when you feel that way about someone, I don’t think you’ll mind so much,” said Philippus. She used a cloth to wipe the sweat from her face and arms.

Menalippe sat down on the ground again, frustrated. Philippus was surprised. “Not coming to breakfast?” she asked.

Menalippe shook her head. “Not yet. My watch doesn’t start until mid-morning. I want to fit in some more strength training before then.”

Philippus sighed. “Mena, my dear, you used to spend every morning writing. I know you haven’t been lately, and that’s your choice. But it would be a sad thing to see you neglect it altogether.”

Menalippe didn’t respond, instead picking at a blade of grass next to her.

“Well, at least make sure you get to breakfast soon, though,” Philippus responded, shrugging. “You know how quickly all the eggs get eaten. And you’ll need it to build those big muscles you seem to want so badly.” She tapped her right fist over her heart, saluting her companion. “You did well today, Mena. Don’t let victory be the only thing you count as gain.” She turned and headed uphill, her legs eating up the distance with ease.

Menalippe saluted her back, absently. Her thoughts were already elsewhere. She looked down at her arms and legs. Pitiful for an Amazon, she thought. Her limbs were long and lithe, not heavily built like so many of the warriors’. She could see they had developed a taut, ropy quality over the past month, a testament to many hours of hard work. But Menalippe still found she struggled to keep up when grappling. Philippus was only a bit bigger than she was, so she could compete, but she had a long way to go if she hoped to challenge Artemis at the Games.

Menalippe went over the events in her head for the hundredth time. Archery. No problems there. She was one of the best in the nation, stationary or moving. Horseback riding. Again, Menalippe felt confident. The race around the village wall. Here, Menalippe knew she wasn’t the fastest, but she didn’t have to be. She just had to finish in the first or second group, and she would score enough points to remain high in the overall standings. Then, there was javelin, sword and unarmed. They were her weaknesses. She was least capable at hand-to-hand fighting, and despite her recent efforts, she didn’t feel like she was improving as Philippus had suggested.

It took an incredible warrior to earn the honor of protecting the Queen and the General. She knew that Amazon lived within her.

Menalippe stood, her resolve strengthened. She headed for the treeline, searching for a large maple that had branches perfect for arm exercises. Finding it, she stripped off her chest and back armor. She began to climb the tree, using her arms only, each branch its own separate challenge. She had yet to make it halfway to the top without her strength giving out.

Today was as hard as the last. She had a feeling sparring with Philippus would make this task even more insurmountable, but this was her training plan. Partway up, Menalippe felt her right arm start to tremble. Her throwing arm always weakened first, the other hardened from years of holding a bow steady. She considered pushing on, but the threat of injury was too high. She dropped to the ground, landing in a roll, and when she came up, she almost crashed directly into someone.

Menalippe pulled up just in time. “General!” she said in surprise. She saluted automatically.

General Antiope looked as though she’d just come out of the forest. She had mud splattered up her legs, and some on her face too. She wore only her leather under-armor and carried no weapon. A few strands of blonde hair had escaped her braid and stuck out wildly. Menalippe couldn’t recall ever seeing her without a sword at her side. Her eyes swept up Antiope’s body, trying very hard not to linger. The older woman was breathing heavily, a sheen of sweat coating her skin, and Menalippe felt her cheeks color.

“Good morning, Menalippe.” Antiope saluted back. “I see we’re of the same mind. When you’ve already challenged yourself before breakfast, you carry that gain into the rest of your day. Are you training for the Games?”

Menalippe was caught off guard. General Antiope had barely spoken more than a sentence to her before. She was always distant, cool and collected, like a living statue of granite. In her present state, though, the best warrior in the Amazon nation seemed almost vulnerable. For the first time, Menalippe realized she herself stood several inches taller.

“Yes, General. I’m taking Queen Hippolyta’s decree to heart. I know this will be the most difficult games yet, and I intend to enter the warrior's competition.” Menalippe was surprised to hear her own voice come out evenly, almost nonchalant.

“Good,” Antiope responded, nodding to herself. She paused for a moment, her eyes scanning Menalippe’s face. “Did you not participate in the poetry competition last year? Why the change?”

“I did,” Menalippe responded. “Though I felt the piece I wrote was…not quite right for the event.”

Antiope smiled wryly, nodding again. “People seldom want to hear a cautionary tale when they’re two tankards of ale deep at a festival. Still, I think you deserved to win. Your style is…different than anything I’ve heard before.”

Menalippe smiled, Antiope’s praise putting her more at ease. “ ‘My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the needs of an immediate public, but was done to last forever,’ ” she quoted.

Antiope’s eyebrows shot up, and she bared her teeth in a sudden grin. “You reference Thucydides at this early hour? An ambitious woman indeed.”

At that moment, a bell sounded from the heart of the village, muffled slightly by early morning mist. Both women glanced toward it. Menalippe shifted slightly from one foot to the other, trying to mask the noise as her stomach growled.

The General turned back to her, unaffected by the call to eat. “So why change to the warrior’s competition this year? I know you have more than your share of skill with the bow, so the ability is there. But I must admit I was looking forward to seeing what you’d written for the contest.”

Antiope stared at Menalippe, unblinking, genuine curiosity written on her face. Her blue eyes were alert and sharp.

“It would be the greatest honor of my life, to serve you and my Queen to the best of my ability,” Menalippe responded. In her own ears, the words sounded too formal. She shook her head and took a small step toward the General. More quietly, she said, “There is some satisfaction from writing, from choosing just the right word to say what I mean. From eliciting joy or sadness or fear in an audience. But I want something more than that. Exactly what, I can’t say, but it drives me to do this. To test myself with something new.”

Suddenly self-conscious of the intensity of her words, Menalippe looked away.

Antiope was silent for a moment, though she didn’t appear startled by the other woman’s tone.

“I can understand that,” Antiope responded. “I myself train for the race. One day, someone will best Aella, and I intend to do it.”

Stifling a laugh, Menalippe said, “You’d just as likely outrun the wind.” Aella had won the race five years in a row, each time by a greater margin than the last.

“Well, as you put it, this year I test myself with something new,” Antiope replied. She seemed to notice the tree they were under for the first time. “You were climbing it?” she asked.

“Yes, to build strength in my arms.” Menalippe felt the General’s gaze on her, appraising. She felt uncomfortable with the close scrutiny, but she didn’t move. This person, this Antiope, was different than the one she’d been speaking with moments before.

“It will do that,” Antiope said, “but you have to be careful not to lose flexibility in your back. It would interfere with your aim at archery.”

Menalippe suppressed a frown. She wasn’t about to tell Antiope this had become her morning ritual.

The General arched an eyebrow and nodded, seeming to understand. “Let me show you a stretch that will help alleviate that,” Antiope suggested. She circled around behind Menalippe and reached out for her. “Here,” she said, positioning the taller woman’s arms. “Hold this position for 30 seconds, then release, and then repeat. It will keep the muscles from shortening slightly over time.” Menalippe felt a shiver run up her back at Antiope’s breath on her neck.

Forcing herself to breathe evenly, Menalippe nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak at that moment.

The General came back around in front of her. “I’ll leave you to that, then,” Antiope said quietly, breaking the stillness of the moment. “Oh, and Menalippe, if you can find the time to participate in both competitions, I think you should. As I see you're a woman unafraid of an insurmountable challenge." The General left suddenly, giving Menalippe a brief salute, then heading back into the forest at a brisk jog.

“Wait until Philippus hears I’ve got to work on my poems on watch,” Menalippe said to herself. “She’ll never let me hear the end of it.”

Chapter Text

Inhale...exhale.

Inhale…exhale…release!

Menalippe felt a puff of air against her cheek as she let the arrow fly. Moments later, she heard the reassuring thunk that indicated she’d struck the target. She glanced over at Philippus with a grin.

“I have a feeling that one’s the best shot yet,” she taunted.

“And how can you tell?” Philippus scoffed. “You can’t even see the arrow!”

They were shooting at the most distant target, so far away that the lines between target zones were indistinguishable. On the battlefield, you wouldn’t be able to make out the facial features of the target, only a general idea of their size.

“All right, let’s see you top it then,” Menalippe challenged. The two Amazons had been shooting for almost an hour, the only ones practicing at the highest skill level. Fatigue was beginning to set in. “One more set, and then we’re done. You’ll have to turn in quite a showing to catch up on points, though.”

Philippus grumbled under her breath. “I told you this would happen!” she joked. “At least nobody important is here to watch me embarrass myself.”

“Don’t count on it,” Menalippe responded, inclining her head in the direction of the arms hut fifty yards away. Queen Hippolyta and General Antiope dismounted, heading towards a group of girls in their early teens.

Groaning, Philippus shook her head. “This is what I get for bragging all day. The gods are punishing me.” She pulled a trio of arrows from her quiver and jabbed them into the ground, points down. “Do you remember when they did that to us, Mena? Scared me so I could barely nock the arrow, let alone shoot well.”

Menalippe crossed her arms, a small smile on her face at the memory. On that day 15 years ago, the bow had permanently earned its place as her specialty. She couldn’t remember much about her first impression of Hippolyta and Antiope beyond the fact that they seemed very, very tall, surveying the group while mounted. The other girls in the class trembled under the added pressure, their arrows veering wildly off target, but she had remained focused. She shot best in her whole age group that day, earning a salute of approval from the Queen herself. It was the first time Menalippe truly felt like an Amazon, and she hadn’t looked back since.

The Queen only dropped in on training sessions on occasion, participating rarely. She was known to keep in shape though sparring with her personal guard, the best of all Amazon warriors. The infrequency of her visits heightened the effect of her presence. Amazons stood taller, spoke more politely, paid greater attention to their tasks when she was around. On the other hand, General Antiope was a common sight at any of the training grounds. Not that her appearance had any less effect that her sister’s.

Menalippe could tell the rest of the Amazons training had noticed the new arrivals, and the background chatter died down. Most women continued with their tasks, but they kept a watchful eye on their queen.

Hippolyta surveyed the training group from the side of the range, occasionally commenting as the young girls took turns shooting. Antiope was among them instead, correcting the width of one girl’s stance, the elbow height of another as she drew. Menalippe was struck by the subtle difference in how she treated each trainee. Some she gave only a word of encouragement to. Others, she focused on completely, not leaving their side until they corrected the issue she identified. As though she could sense someone’s eyes on her, Antiope glanced up. She caught Menalippe’s gaze for a moment.

Looking away quickly, Menalippe felt her cheeks flush. At the same moment, she realized how awkward it would appear if she pretended that she hadn’t been looking at all. She turned her attention back toward the practice group, trying to appear as though she hadn’t been interested in anything in particular. Antiope raised her arm in greeting, a brief wave, and then went back to speaking with the young Amazon at her side.

Philippus walked up and stood next to Menalippe, glancing from her friend toward the larger group, then back again. “Did General Antiope just wave at you?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

Menalippe tried to play it off. “Could have been anyone, I’m sure. Have you shot yet?”

Her friend glanced behind them at the empty hills pointedly. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “I have to admit I did, though for all you were paying attention, I could say I still need to go, and shoot better this time.”

Sauntering over to her line, Menalippe readied a group of arrows. She slowed her breathing again, tuning out the noise around her. One of her favorite things about archery was its apparent simplicity. But underneath, she knew there were a million factors affecting the flight of the arrow. Wind, certainly, but also less-obvious details like the humidity of the air and how it tightened or loosened the tension of her string. Or in this case, she thought ruefully, how her tired left arm struggled to hold the bow steady.

Menalippe took her 3 last shots quickly. She pretended that she’d missed her target and had a limited amount of time before they took cover. Almost in rhythm, her arrows hit the target, one - beat – two – beat - three. She felt the world rush back into focus, laughter from the group of trainees followed by soft, slow clapping from behind her.

Philippus looked both impressed and perturbed as she applauded the shots. “We don’t even need to measure today, Mena. I give you this one. Guess that puts us even on the day.”

“There’s always tomorrow, Phil,” said Menalippe with a smile. With a grunt of effort, she bent her bow and unstrung it. “Grappling in the morning again?”

“Not tomorrow,” her companion replied. “Pen has the night off, so I’m going to cook something special. And I don’t feel like having to wake before sunrise again…”

“Say no more!” Menalippe protested, laughing. “I’ll make due on my own. You go on and head for the showers. I’ll retrieve our arrows today.”

“I’m not going to turn that offer down! Don’t stay too late, Mena.”

“I won’t,” Menalippe promised. She turned and set out for the target at a slow lope, the muscles in her legs protesting every step.

Chapter Text

“Hrrrrr……rrrraaaHHH!”

The large rock Menalippe had just thrown splashed into the creek violently, sending a shower of droplets in every direction. A few hit her face, and Menalippe wiped it with the back of her hand. She wasn’t sure what was water and what was sweat. She glanced around. Nothing of a decent size remained. That meant she’d have to retrieve the rocks she’d already thrown and start over.

The Amazon trudged into the water, not worried that her sandals would get wet. This pair was already overdue for a trip to the cobbler. Menalippe began hauling large rocks from the stream, some of them more than two hands wide. She stacked them on a flat part of the bank and prepared for another set.

That morning, Menalippe had considered following her normal routine. But Philippus was…otherwise occupied. And when she passed the familiar maple tree, she heard Antiope’s words echoing in her head. Could her skill as an archer really be affected by something as simple as tree-climbing? She felt she’d be a fool not to heed the warning. Instead, Menalippe headed into the woods, searching for a new way to strengthen her arms for grappling. She’d passed this part of the creek before, but today she saw it with new eyes. The large stones that rested on one bank ranged from twenty to nearly seventy pounds. This new challenge laid out before her, Menalippe had stripped down to her leathers and got to work.

After three full rounds of throws, Menalippe’s arms began to give out, characteristically. She had to rely on her legs more and more for the power.

The sky had just started to glow orange to her east, so Menalippe took a short break. She took small sips from her water skin, forcing herself not to drain the whole thing. One more round, she thought, and she would have done enough work, at least for the morning. She went over to one of the largest of the rocks and squatted, wrapping both arms around it.

Before she could begin the lift, she heard a crashing noise from the brush. Startled, she pushed the stone to the side and whirled around.

Equally surprised, Antiope slid to a halt in the middle of the stream, her skid sending a curtain of water out in a wave. She was breathing even more heavily than the previous day. Menalippe shook her head to herself. It seemed unfair that the woman could be so damned attractive while sweaty and soaking wet.

“Trying to sneak up on me again, General.” As with the day before, Menalippe was surprised at how sure of herself she sounded.

Antiope panted, smiling. “Ah, but it is you who has placed herself across my running path. You cannot fault me, Menalippe.” She ran both hands over her face and pushed her hair back, wringing out some water in the process. “I didn’t expect to run into you until the foothills.”

“But you did expect to run into me?” Menalippe questioned, unable to contain her curiosity.

Antiope shrugged, approaching the bank of the creek. “Even the most dedicated Amazon warrior finds it a struggle to leave a warm bed in the morning. I assumed you must have a routine. I do.”

Nodding, Menalippe replied, “And I intend to for the next month. Afterwards, you won’t see me out and about any earlier than noon!” They both chuckled, recognizing how preposterous Menalippe’s statement was. Amazons were not known for laying around all morning. Unless they had a rare free day, they were likely to be scheduled for no less than two tasks in the morning alone. That month, Menalippe went from breakfast straight into a three-hour watch in the northern woods. It took half an hour’s hard march to get there and back, and then she had to return to assist the blacksmiths with wood for their forge.

“No grappling partner today,” Antiope said. She glanced at the ground, taking in the ordered setup of the rocks. “But still strength.” Neither was a question.

Menalippe chose not to question how the General knew her routine so well. “Not unless you’d like to play that part today.” Her gaze held a hint of a challenge.

The corner of Antiope’s mouth quirked up briefly. “I’ll barter with you,” she responded. “I’ll grapple with you for a round if you’ll tell me about a poem you’ve written, but not performed.”

“I don’t wish to interrupt your training…” Menalippe began.

“To be frank, it needed an interruption today,” Antiope responded. “Yesterday I felt like my feet flew across the ground. Today, more like I have some of your stones tied to them. Sometimes the body works with you. Others it resists.” She hesitated, a thoughtful look on her face. “It’s no help that I was up with Senator Timandra and Epione long past midnight,” she admitted. “Epione brought back the most interesting mead from Parnassus, and well, here we are.”

Antiope looked at Menalippe expectantly. The taller woman paused for a moment, suddenly shy about sharing something so personal. She realized the irony in her own thoughts. She would put her hands on the most powerful warrior in the Amazon nation, and roll around on the ground with her without a thought. But she was reticent to share the work of her mind. It felt vulnerable in a different way.

Pushing aside her trepidation, Menalippe approached Antiope, her arm extended. “I accept.”

The General clasped her forearm with her own and shook it, a feral grin on her face. “Into the creek, then.” Antiope splashed into the center of the stream, where the water came up just past her knees. She looked back at Menalippe, unmoving.

“Is this some kind of trick,” Menalippe joked. “Your sandals have special soles that grip the slime on the rocks, perhaps?”

“Nothing so complex,” Antiope responded. “I think it will help to negate your advantage in reach!”

Menalippe laughed, a short bark. “I doubt you need further advantage, General.” Despite fearing that she was about to get royally thrashed, Menalippe waded into the water.

“I’ll remind you later that this was your idea,” Antiope said.
With that, she saluted Menalippe and dropped into a fighting stance.

Hoping to take the older woman by surprise, Menalippe lunged forward, her fingers grasping for Antiope’s tunic. The blonde woman batted her hands away, almost seeming to slap the air, and Menalippe was forced to back up. She circled Antiope, searching for a gap in her guard but finding none.

Given the lack of traction, Menalippe decided to strike low next. She dropped suddenly, swinging one long leg around in an attempt to catch her adversary below the knees. It worked on Philippus half the times she tried, and the other half, well, it ended badly for her.

Antiope seemed to anticipate the move. She hopped slightly to the side and darted forward, faster than Menalippe could react. Still with most of her weight on one leg, the taller woman was unable to dodge. She braced for the impact, pulling her arms tight into her chest.

Antiope hit her harder than Menalippe thought possible. She had expected to lose her balance, but this was something else. She felt a boot push on her right calf, and her support leg slipped. Knowing she was about to go down, Menalippe let her guard down for a moment, tempting her opponent to lunge in. The General took the bait. While one moment she appeared to flail, out of control, the next she had enveloped Antiope in a bear hug, pulling both of them down toward the water.

Knowing the outcome depended on the next few seconds, Menalippe shifted her hips- hard. She rolled them both, aiming to land on top. They hit the surface of the water at the same time, their weight pulling them under. Menalippe scrabbled at Antiope’s leather tunic, but it was tight to the other woman’s body and offered no purchase. She situated her knees under her, intending to push to her feet, when she felt it.

Menalippe had been so intent on neutralizing the General’s torso and arms, she had neglected her legs. Antiope, still completely underwater, wrenched a leg up and around the pair, scissoring the taller woman’s right arm.

“Oh!” Menalippe tried to cry out, but the water muffled it. She knew what was coming.

Antiope locked in the armbar and tugged. Menalippe was only able to resist for a moment before the pain was too great. She wasn’t about to let her arm be pulled out of its socket. Frantically, she tapped Antiope’s arm, the universal signal for “I give up.” Her arm was released.

Sputtering, both women broke the surface of the water, chests heaving as they gasped for air. Antiope coughed a few times as she stood up. Her braid had come undone during the struggle, so she pushed her mess of blonde locks to the side. Looking down at Menalippe, she extended an arm.

Thoroughly soaked, her pride bruised, Menalippe tried to wipe the sour expression from her face and failed. But she took the offered hand and was hauled to her feet.

“This,” panted Antiope, “was your idea.” She was clearly exhausted, but there was an amused sparkle in her blue eyes. She threw an arm around Menalippe’s shoulders and led her toward a fallen tree near the edge of the creek.

Antiope sat down heavily, and Menalippe followed suit. The taller woman dropped her head in her hands, her body still recovering.

“I haven’t grappled with you before, so I may not be the best judge of your improvement,” Antiope said. “But it seems to me that you are well on your way to being a difficult opponent. You still have a tendency to be a bit aggressive, but there is strategy behind it now.”

Menalippe felt as though every muscle in her body was about to give out. She glanced over at Antiope, confused. “What do you mean, ‘still?’ How do you know how I used to fight?”

“I take my role as leader of all the Amazon warriors very seriously,” Antiope responded. “I know the skill level of every woman in this village. It’s why I’m at the training grounds so often. I observe even more than I instruct, lately.”

Antiope paused as though weighing something in her mind. “Can I give you some advice?” she asked.

Menalippe shrugged. “I’d be a fool not to listen to it, General.”

“Well, I can’t say I have all the answers in your case. But I sense that you’re taking the rough road toward your goal,” Antiope said. “What I saw at the archery range last night reinforced my suspicion. You have a once-in-a-lifetime skill with a bow. And yet here you are, tossing around rocks and pretending you’re having fun doing it.”

Menalippe let the words sink in. Her first instinct was to close up, to put on a good face in front of her leader. Whether it was her fatigue or the way that Antiope’s eyes lingered on hers, she didn’t know. But Menalippe decided to be frank.

“In years past, it hasn’t been enough,” she admitted. “I look at the Amazons who earn the right to fight at your side on the battle field. They outweigh and outmuscle me, every one. If they were an adversary, the second they got too close to me, I’d be finished. I have to correct that weakness.”

“And you judge me by my size too, then, do you?” Antiope challenged. She stood up, facing Menalippe, and held her arms out to the sides. “Do I look like a woman who can best Artemis on a good day? No. But I can. There is so much more to it.”

Given an invitation, Menalippe let her gaze roam over Antiope’s body. She took in the hard, well-muscled thighs, the way her leathers clung to her flat stomach. Looking up, she met the General’s eyes.

“No,” she said softly. “I do not judge you that way. But you must be blessed by Athena herself to do what you can.”

Antiope let her arms drop. “You do yourself a disservice by thinking that way. I am born of the same humanity as you. Never doubt the ability is inside you too. But it takes more than blind effort to unlock it.”

Menalippe looked away, pensive. Antiope went back to her spot on the log and sat down again.

“I believe you owe me a poem,” she said quietly, looking around at the woods. In the distance, the morning bell rang in the village.

“I do,” Menalippe replied. The air seemed thick between her and Antiope. She couldn’t look at the General, but she could practically feel the heat radiating off of her. The whole forest was becoming stuffy.

“This is something I started several months ago but never quite finished,” Menalippe said.

“She shines among women as
when the red-fingered moon
rises after sunset, erasing

stars around her, and pouring light equally
across the salt sea
and over densely flowered fields;

and lucent dew spreads on the earth to quicken
roses and fragile thyme
and the sweet-blooming honey-lotus.”

The words came out swiftly, and now that they were there, lingering in the air, Menalippe felt a sort of panic rising in her stomach. She stood suddenly.

“Good day, General. Thank you for the advice.” As quickly as Antiope had arrived, Menalippe left. Her feet danced over the forest floor, barely seeming to touch. Menalippe knew she ran on adrenaline alone, any true energy long since spent. She made it all the way to the path that led to the mess hall before her limbs gave out. She nearly collapsed, instead resting her hands on her knees.

“What happened to you?”

Menalippe looked up to see her friend Niobe approaching. The willowy woman wore a long green tunic, held back by an elaborate belt, a symbol of her elevated status within the blacksmith ranks.

Standing up, Menalippe shook her head in disbelief. “Early morning run-in with a cougar.”

Niobe looked surprised. “But I thought most of them kept to the thick woods on the western border.”

“So did I,” Menalippe responded, a dazed look on her face. “Ye gods, I need some breakfast.”

Chapter Text

Menalippe craned her neck to see around the Amazon in front of her. The mess hall was totally full, and she was late to breakfast for the second day in a row. She tightened her grip on the large wooden platter she held as a release for her anxiety. Yesterday, all she’d been able to scrounge up was a plateful of potatoes. She hoped for something more lasting this time.

Amazons of every age and profession milled about, many still eating, others taking the opportunity to catch up with friends. The large hall held nearly 100 round tables, the legs of each elaborately carved by a master craftswoman. Each month, the Amazons were assigned to a different dining group. Queen Hippolyta insisted that everyone in the village be familiar with each other. Meal arrangements were one of the most effective ways to do that.

That month, Menalippe only knew one of the women at her table well: Penthesilea. The others ranged in age from Leela, barely 14, to Davion, her hair almost completely gray. It was a friendly group, albeit a bit on the quiet side.
As she arrived near the front of the line, Menalippe scanned the food. She was delighted to see a large pile of eggs still waiting. She began to fill her plate with gusto.

“We missed you yesterday, Mena,” a voice called out from behind the serving table.
Menalippe glanced up, and in that moment, she almost regretted that she’d come to breakfast at all. “Good morning, Aella,” she forced out. She didn’t respond to the other woman’s comment.

Aella wore the apron that signaled she had kitchen duty that month. It was baggy on her slight frame, and Menalippe could tell she was wearing her trademark midriff-baring leathers underneath. Something at the back of her mind wanted to admire the runner’s physique, but she pushed that down. She’d seen it before, all of it, and there was no use dwelling on the past. Menalippe forced a polite smile onto her face and began to move down the table.

Aella followed. “Now that I think of it,” she continued, “we haven’t seen you on the weekly cliff runs lately either.”

“I’m…doing something different with my training,” Menalippe responded, stabbing a hunk of ham with a serving fork.

“Oh,” Aella replied, a frown crossing her face. “Well, maybe you can tell me about it after you’ve eaten?”

Menalippe managed not to groan out loud. “I’m not able to, Aella. I have watch starting in less than an hour. I’ll be headed straight there.”

“Brave of you to do it missing your armor,” Aella commented pointedly.

Menalippe’s stomach dropped. She glanced down at herself. “Hera’s tits,” she hissed. She’d left her breastplate, backplate and greaves in the forest. She couldn't believe she had forgotten something as familiar as her own skin. Distracted though she had been.

“Well, I hope you can still make it in time,” Aella said. Menalippe wasn’t sure if she was being teased or not. Scanning Aella’s face, she saw the other woman was just trying to be helpful.

“Thank you for noticing,” Menalippe replied. Aella looked like she was about to say something else, but Menalippe turned and headed toward her table, shaking her head at her own foolishness. If she could eat quickly enough, maybe, just maybe, she could make it to the woods and back in time. Skipping breakfast wasn’t an option. She’d have to run, not appealing based on how the day had been going so far.

Menalippe plunked her plate down, taking a seat next to Penthesilea. Given how much food was piled on her plate, Menalippe guessed the blonde woman had arrived late also.

Pen’s wavy locks were tied back with a leather cord, revealing heavily-muscled shoulders. She had finished sixth overall at the games last year, earning a place as one of Antiope’s elite guards. Thinking back to her conversation with the General that morning, Menalippe questioned how often she subconsciously compared herself to Pen. Was she using her as the model for what she herself had to be? Her friend was an incredible warrior, certainly someone with skills worth aspiring too. But was it wrong to aim for exactly the same thing rather than charting her own path?

“Was Aella talking to you?” Pen questioned between bites, her voice slightly hoarse.

Menalippe nodded. “It appears she suddenly wants to be friends again rather than ignoring me outright.”

“Some nerve,” her friend scoffed.

Sighing, Menalippe tackled her food. Only her close friends knew of the brief fling she’d shared with the running champion. And she intended to keep it that way. Glancing around, Menalippe saw that most of the rest of their table had finished and left. She spoke to Pen softly. “Don’t harbor hard feelings against her,” she said. “She never said it was going to be anything. I was the one that made that mental leap.”

“You’re being too kind,” Penthesilea corrected. “She led you on. I was there; I remember.”

“So do you lead on every Amazon you dance with?” Menalippe countered.

“In a way, yes!” her companion answered. “I can’t help it that my grace is alluring.”

Menalippe glanced up. She could see the glint of humor in Penthesilea’s eyes. She raised her hand slightly, palm facing out. “Let’s not speak of it any more, please,” she asked. “I’ve got enough to worry about today.”

As she said it, a young Amazon in the tunic of a courier approached their table. It was Rala, one of the girls Menalippe knew from writing workshops.

“Mena, there you are,” she said. “I was asked to bring these to you.” She held out Menalippe’s armor.

“My heroine!” Menalippe cried, raising her arms in mock celebration. “But how…” Menalippe noticed a scroll stuffed inside one of her greaves. “No matter,” she finished. “I owe you regardless.”

Rala shuffled her feet, suddenly shy. “You don’t need to do that, Menalippe. It was nothing.”

“Nonsense,” Menalippe responded. “I always repay my debts. Can you wait just a moment in case I have a reply?” The younger woman nodded.

Menalippe unrolled the scroll, taking care so that its contents were visible to her alone. The writing was in a hand she didn’t recognize.

“The Nation that makes a great distinction
between its scholars and its warriors
will have its thinking done by cowards
and its fighting done by fools.”

“What is it?” Penthesilea asked, using a spoon to gather the last of the food from her plate.

“Thucydides,” Menalippe responded, smiling slightly. “Do you have a quill?” she asked Rala. One was quickly produced.

Menalippe wrote toward the bottom of the same sheet of parchment.

I believe I’ve been taking the fool’s approach to being a warrior. It’s past time to give the scholar’s a try.

Rolling it up, Menalippe handed it back to Rala. “Return this to its sender, please.” She stood, swinging her breastplate over her shoulders. The comfortable weight settled, and she fastened the buckles with ease.

“I wonder, Mena, if I might call in that favor soon,” Rala said. “I need to turn in some verse to my instructor tomorrow, and it’s not very good. Could you take a look at it later?”

Menalippe hesitated. She had planned to spend the evening at the training grounds running through sword pattern drills. But if there was ever a time to alter her approach, this was it.

“Of course,” Menalippe responded. “Come by my tent about an hour after dinner.”

Rala nodded, beaming. “Thanks, Mena. I’ll return this now.” She gestured with the scroll and took off running.

Her armor secured, Menalippe picked up her plate.

“Hold it right there,” Penthesilea said. “Now who was that message from?”
Menalippe shrugged, feigning indifference. “Nobody.” She had little hope it would fool a close friend.

Pen furrowed her brow, then raised a finger as if in triumph. “I’ll bet Philippus knows. Wait until I tell her about this. Mysterious notes, indeed.”

“No, no, Pen,” Menalippe responded, laughing. “That’s how false rumors get started. You leave Phil out of this. If you don’t, I’ll tell her you’ve been flirting with the brewmaster again.”

Penthesilea’s mouth dropped open in outrage. “You. Would. Never!”

“You keep my secret, and I’ll keep yours.” Menalippe held out an arm.

Pen looked at it like it was a snake about to bite her. Finally, she clasped it firmly.

“Fine,” she grumbled, handing Menalippe her plate. “And hey, how did you know about the brewmaster?”

“I didn’t,” Menalippe said, a sly grin on her face. She winked at Pen and headed out of the hall.

Chapter Text

“What’s another word for supple?”

Menalippe nearly spit out her wine. She looked across her tent at the young woman. Rala had an expression of pure innocence on her face.

Trying not to appear flustered, Menalippe walked over, leaning over Rala to see what she had written. “Supple in…what context?” she asked.

“Like, with leather, how it can be so soft and yet so strong all at once,” the young woman replied.

“Oh,” Menalippe said, an amused expression on her face. “That kind of supple.”

“Is there another kind?”
Menalippe ignored the question. “What about ‘pliant?’ If you do that, you can slant rhyme with your previous line.”

Rala looked down at her parchment, ticking off syllables with her pen. “You’re right! You really are the best Amazon to ask for help.” She looked up at Menalippe with a wide grin.

“I’m happy to be of assistance, Rala, with whatever you need. I always had women willing to help me. I’m compelled to do the same.” She recognized a bit of hero worship in the younger woman’s gaze.

Hades teeth, she thought. That’s all I need now. A lovesick teenager fawning over me. She’d have to be careful there.

“Well, I think that’s about enough for tonight,” Menalippe said. She crossed the small room and sat down in a chair on the other side.

The Amazons had a wide variety of housing available to them. Some accrued status as quickly as they could, hoping to be granted one of the stone structures near the center of the town. Menalippe preferred a simple setup. Her tent was on the southwest outskirts of the village. It had a wooden foundation and floor, raised off the ground so nothing would get wet in bad weather. All four sides of the room were made of canvas, and each pane of the wall could be rolled up to allow air through. Of course, that also allowed wildlife in. More than once, Menalippe had awakened to see a wayward raccoon or possum sharing her space. In midsummer, it was worth that risk for the crosswind. This particular early fall day was unseasonably cool, so she had only the door flap pulled open.

Rala gathered up her pieces of parchment, many of which had been scattered across the floor. Menalippe could feel her wine taking effect, and she allowed herself a rare moment of relaxation.

There was a soft knock at the door, someone tapping their boot against the wooden board at the threshold. “Enter,” Menalippe called, standing. Philippus in particular had a habit of visiting late, always bringing along a bottle of something and convincing her friend to share it with her.

Instead, General Antiope stepped in the door. Menalippe felt a surge of excitement course through her body. Damned wine, she thought. She wished she had all her wits about her at that moment.

“General!” Rala squeaked. She tried to salute, but with her arms full of scrolls, all she managed was to drop several and crush one of her quills.

The corners of Antiope’s mouth curled up, and she gave a crisp salute back to the young woman. “Rala, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” She looked back and forth between Menalippe and the young woman. Neither spoke.

“Has a wood nymph stolen both your voices,” Antiope joked.

Rala recovered first. “Mena was helping me with some work for class.” She seemed to sense something from the way the two older women were looking at each other. “I was just going,” she finished.

Rala shoved her things into a satchel. “Thanks, Mena, I’ll let you know what Epione says about the assignment." She saluted the General again and left.

Antiope shook her head in amusement. “By the gods, were we all that young once?”

“Young and rambunctious,” Menalippe responded, grinning. “Though I dare say the latter is still in all of us, only hidden down deep.”

Antiope laughed, inclining her head in agreement.

“Would you like to sit down? I can’t say my quarters are suited to hosting someone of your stature, General, but I’ll do what I can.”

Antiope unhooked the scabbard at her waist, taking the offered chair. “Do you really think of me that way?” she asked. “As my title, rather than a person?”

“It’s hard not to when you appear thus,” Menalippe answered, gesturing at the General’s armor and helm. It was a stark contrast to her own simple green tunic and bare feet.

“I see your point,” Antiope replied. She removed her headpiece and set it on the floor. “To be honest, I’ve been wearing all of it so long, I don’t feel it at all any more. Hippolyta jokes that it’s grown into my flesh.”

Antiope glanced around the space, taking in the well-made but sparse furnishings. Her eyes lingered on Menalippe’s bookcase, the largest piece of furniture in the room except for the bed.

“Would you like some wine, General?” Antiope nodded, so her host poured a glass.

As Menalippe handed her the goblet, Antiope caught her wrist gently. “What would it take for you to call me by my name?” she asked softly.

Menalippe was transfixed by the intensity in Antiope’s eyes. She made no move to pull away, instead reveling in the myriad of sensations produced by the simple touch. The hair on the back of her arm stood up, and her pulse quickened.

“I think,” she answered slowly, “that you intimidate me, General.”

Antiope took the glass from Menalippe, releasing her arm.

“I can only blame myself for that,” Antiope said, taking a sip. “Ever since Athena charged Hippolyta and myself with protecting the nation, I’ve cultivated a certain…appearance. It usually holds me in good stead. Amazons obey me without question. And men, even those twice my size, they recognize me as a threat. But I hope you know I am no threat to you.”

Menalippe smirked. “I think that depends what kind of threat you mean.” She paused. “Why did you come here tonight?”

Antiope sat up. “I’d almost forgotten,” she admitted. “I was hoping to enlist your help. You already know I’ve been training for the race each morning. Well, I have many skills, but it turns out consistent pacesetting is not one of them.” She chuckled, staring into the bottom of her drink. “I stopped by the archives earlier today and looked up your finishing time from last year. I think I would improve more quickly with you pushing my pace.”

Menalippe was surprised to hear Antiope admit any weakness. “Of course,” she answered quickly. “It would be an honor to train with you.”

“It would probably disrupt your daily tree climb,” Antiope joked.

Menalippe smiled. “I think I’m going to alter my strategy.”

“Good,” Antiope replied, nodding. “I start about an hour before sunrise. Will you meet me tomorrow morning at the edge of the field where the race begins?”

“Count on it,” Menalippe answered.

Antiope drained her glass and stood. “I look forward to the challenge.” She smiled, a more open expression than Menalippe had seen before. It spread all the way across her face, deepening the wrinkles around her eyes.

The General retrieved her sword and helm. “What did Rala call you earlier? Mena?”

Menalippe nodded.

“And may I?” Antiope asked.

“Yes,” Menalippe replied with a light laugh.

“Good night, Mena.”

“Good night, General.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Menalippe awoke earlier than was her custom. She groaned inwardly, her soft pillow tempting her to doze off again. She could hear the patter of raindrops on the top of her tent. Training in this weather would be a hassle, she thought.

The Amazon suddenly remembered the reason for her early start, and she sat up quickly. She had no desire to be late to her first run with Antiope. Menalippe forced her feet over the side of her bed and stood up. She could cope if she got moving right away. She dressed automatically, the same motions she had made a thousand times before.

As she went to don her armor, Menalippe hesitated. She usually ran with the heavy metal pieces on. “An Amazon is always prepared for battle.” The words of instructors from her youth had left their mark. But would she not run faster in only her leathers?

Gods be damned, she thought, I’m worried about impressing her.

Menalippe sighed, exasperated with herself. She wouldn’t leave herself unprepared just for a minuscule uptick in pace. She strapped the pieces of armor into place, grabbed an apple from the table next to her and pushed open the tent flap.

The whole Amazon village was still shrouded in darkness. Here and there, a covered torch sputtered, stray drops of rain working to put the flames out. Nobody else stirred in this part of town. Menalippe decided to cut through the village center. In the middle of the day, it was a snarl of people, horses and wagons. But even the most industrious of farmers would not have arrived at the market yet, so Menalippe made good time.

When she passed outside the eastern wall, the landscape opened into a large field. This was the site of a host of events, from daily horseback maneuvers to the occasional festival. And once a year, a massive footrace opened the Amazon Games.

Menalippe saw nobody waiting, so she moved over to a nearby boulder. The wind was picking up, driving the light rain sideways, so the Amazon moved around to the far side. She bent over and pulled a small knife from her boot. Leaning against the rock, she began to cut off portions of the apple, working around parts that had gone bad.

A few minutes later, Menalippe heard someone approaching. She poked a head around one side of the boulder and recognized Antiope’s silhouette. Not wanting to startle the General, she stepped away from her cover.

Antiope wore her leathers and headpiece that morning, but no heavier armor. Her boots were hobnailed in anticipation of a muddy run. She looked otherwise unaffected by the conditions.

“Good morning,” Antiope called. “I admit I half expected to get a message saying you wouldn’t be joining me after all.”

Menalippe tossed the remains of her apple to the side, returning the knife to its sheath. “And why is that?” she inquired. “The idyllic weather we’re having?”

“That’s one of the reasons,” Antiope replied, holding eye contact with Menalippe. She didn’t explain further.

Menalippe chose not to question it. “How hard do we train today?” she asked instead.

“Well,” Antiope responded, “I haven’t been making much progress following my own plan, so I defer to you.”

“And how have you been approaching the task before?” Menalippe asked.

“By running as fast and as far as I can, more or less,” Antiope replied.

Menalippe could tell from the other’s serious expression that she was being truthful. “Every day?” she asked for clarification, trying to remove any judgment from her tone.

Antiope nodded.

“General, have you heard of the concept of rest?” Menalippe joked.

“Given what I’ve seen recently,” Antiope retorted, “I might ask you the same thing.”

Menalippe raised her arms in mock surrender. “I admit my previous efforts to prepare for the Games have not been reasonable.” She tilted her head to one side slightly, thinking. “Today, I propose we put in a base effort. We’ll run the whole ten miles at a good clip and see how long it takes. Then, on future days, we can adjust our speed as needed. There’s no need to go flat out from the start.”

Antiope nodded. “I’ll let you set the pace, then, and I’ll try to keep up.” She began to stretch her legs and arms in preparation.

Menalippe followed suit, watching the General out of the corner of her eye. She berated herself for being so easily distracted, but still, she didn’t look away.

“I have to tell you,” Antiope said. “This is the first time I plan to run the race in almost a decade. It’s not my strongest event.” She looked at Menalippe pointedly. “That’s why I need your assistance. I hope it won’t damage your opinion of me.” She phrased this almost as a question.

“I don’t see how it could, General.”

Antiope gave a short smile. “Ready?” she asked.

In lieu of a response, Menalippe broke into a jog. The shorter woman was quick to react, falling into place alongside her.

Menalippe’s long legs covered the ground at a lope. Antiope’s gait was quicker, her movements more functional than graceful.

That first morning, Antiope developed a cramp in their seventh mile. Her face was a mask of concentration as she ran. Menalippe offered to cut their path short, knowing how much pain the General was suffering through. Antiope refused.

The second morning went more smoothly. Instead of running the full distance, they took the cliff path. It wound uphill along the shore of a nearby lake. While the distance was shorter, the path was steep. Partway up, Menalippe noticed Antiope lagging behind. She could tell the General was already in the red, but she had too much pride to admit it.

“Let’s switch for the next mile,” Menalippe called, pulling off to the side. Antiope grunted in assent as she passed her, seeming to understand. It was an age-old tactic to keep a line from stringing out: put your slowest at the front.

As they climbed, Menalippe couldn’t help but admire Antiope’s resilience. She knew the General attended and participated in training sessions for much of her day. And she ran every morning in addition to that. Her body never had a chance to recuperate.

This cliff run was one of Menalippe’s favorites. The view looking out over the water was breathtaking. She caught herself watching as Antiope’s powerful thighs powered up the incline ahead of her. Not a bad view on the path, either, she thought with a smirk.

By the fourth morning of training together, the pair had developed a rhythm. Menalippe would choose the route and set the pace. Antiope would match it as long as she could, and when she began to lose ground, she would take the lead. Every time the General moved past her, Menalippe could sense her frustration.

Five days from their first run together, the temperature in the region took another uncharacteristic dip. When she woke that morning, Menalippe felt the crispness in the air. It was perfect weather for a hard run.

When Menalippe arrived, Antiope was already leaning against the rock that had become their usual meeting place. She handed the taller woman a small, warm roll, stuffed with raisins and cinnamon.

“How did you get these so early?!” Menalippe asked, trying not to stuff the whole thing in her mouth at once.

“I have my ways,” Antiope responded, winking at her.

Menalippe froze mid-bite as her stomach did several backflips. Antiope had turned her attention back to her own breakfast, and Menalippe half-wondered if she had imagined the gesture.

“Are you ready for a tough session today, General?” she asked.

“Always,” Antiope answered with a grin.

Menalippe responded with one of her own. “We’ll do three miles today,” she said, “and we’re going to really push our limits."

Antiope gritted her jaw, a move Menalippe had come to recognize. It signaled a shift in the General, that her focus on the task at hand was absolute. It was an affectation, she realized. A deliberate attempt to appear hard, to emphasize her strength. Menalippe had always found herself drawn to this version of Antiope, as much out of curiosity as anything else. But she far preferred the amiable woman she had learned lived behind that fierce expression.

The first mile was difficult, but bearable. By the end of the second, though, both women were struggling.

Menalippe knew she was pushing the boundaries of her own ability. She felt as though she had to constantly force herself to keep up their speed. Her legs wanted to slow into a more comfortable rhythm, and she wouldn’t let them. She bared her teeth into a snarl, attacking the part of her that wanted to relent as she would an enemy on the battlefield.

Antiope’s legs were starting to give out. When it came to clearing fallen logs and other obstacles, they had no spring. Menalippe could hear her desperate, ragged breathing.

The General signaled to Menalippe that she was stopping. Concerned, she also came to a halt.

Antiope gave Menalippe an embarrassed look and dashed behind a nearby tree trunk. Moments later, she could hear the sounds of the General losing her breakfast violently. Menalippe winced. Her own stomach was far from settled, but it was bearable. She had been in the same position as Antiope before and felt for her. After a few moments of silence, Menalippe circled around the tree.

Antiope was in a wide, low squat, resting most of her weight on the balls of her feet. Her hands were folded, her head hanging low. Menalippe approached and dropped down to the same level.

“I can continue,” Antiope croaked. She looked up at Menalippe, trying to gain her composure. The taller Amazon could see where tears had been moments before. Now, the General was trying to slide her battle mask back into place.

“No,” Menalippe replied. “We’re finished for today. We’ve done more than enough.”

“I will not hold you back, Menalippe.” Antiope’s voice was low and harsh. “I can finish. I will finish.”

Menalippe nearly staggered back at the wild look in the General’s eyes. There was something irrational going on behind them, something she didn't quite understand.

On an impulse, Menalippe reached out, resting her hand against the older woman’s cheek, hot, and wet with sweat.

Antiope,” she said forcefully. “You do not need to posture in front of me.”

Menalippe let her hand linger a moment, watching as Antiope’s gaze softened. “My good opinion of you is already established,” she said, trying to lighten the mood. She let her hand drop, standing up.

“Now, let’s see if we can track down more of those sweet rolls you found. If you think your stomach is up to it.”

Antiope rose slowly, looking at Menalippe with a quizzical expression on her face. She nodded.

“I find myself inexplicably hungry,” Antiope murmured.

Menalippe heard the double meaning in Antiope’s words, and her eyes widened. Suddenly shy, she turned, took a few steps toward the village, then glanced back.

“I…” Menalippe faltered. She took a moment to gather herself. “I think there’s a shortcut to the mess hall this way.”

The tall brunette moved out, keenly conscious of Antiope’s eyes scorching across her back the whole way there.

Chapter Text

As they had on previous days, Menalippe and Antiope entered the dining hall one after the other. Usually, they gave each other a knowing nod, saying nothing before going their separate ways. This day felt different.

“I see my sister has not yet arrived,” Antiope said, looking toward a large table on a dais at the end of the hall. The Queen and her retinue ate separately, the only group not to change occupants each month. Antiope always sat to the right of Hippolyta, a symbol of her status.

“May I join you this morning?” Antiope asked the question lightly.

Menalippe knew how that would appear to the rest of the Amazons present. Allegations of favoritism- and rumors of worse- would be spread around the whole village within the hour. Her heart sunk.

“Any table would be honored to have you join them, General,” Menalippe answered carefully.

Antiope contained her reaction well, but Menalippe could see the words stung her. The blue eyes that met hers a moment later were guarded. “We meet again tomorrow morning, then?” Antiope asked.

“Of course,” Menalippe replied. And every day after that, I hope.

Antiope nodded. As she walked away, Menalippe had the urge to call after her. To tell her that, yes, she could eat with them, and anything else she wanted. But she remained silent instead.

After giving the General some space, Menalippe got in line, taking a platter from the waiting pile. She filled it with food mechanically, her mind elsewhere.

The early crowd was at her table for breakfast, a particularly reserved group. That suited Menalippe just fine, and she ate her meal mostly in silence.

Menalippe looked toward the dais, where Hippolyta and several of her personal guard had joined Antiope. They chattered away jovially, and Menalippe felt a surge of longing within her. In past months, she desired the camaraderie, the respect the group commanded from the rest of the nation. Now, she had to admit to herself that she desired something else entirely.

After she had finished eating, Menalippe headed toward the north side of the village. She and Philippus often met near the tannery to travel to watch together. As happened so often, her friend was there first.

“Good morning,” Menalippe called. “Did you have an eventful evening yesterday?”

Philippus responded with a snort. “If you can call scouring the rust off of twelve sets of armor eventful.”
“A punishment for you?!” Menalippe’s tone was mocking. Her friend had a habit of pushing boundaries just a bit too far. “What was it this time?”

Philippus rolled here eyes. “I told Senator Timandra that her strategy for appeasing the Thessalonians was shortsighted and cowardly…”

“As you have done before…” Menalippe interjected.

“…out of turn in front of the whole council.” Philippus finished.

“Ah, I see,” Menalippe said, giving her friend a sympathetic look. “Well, run for Senator yourself next time, and then they will have to hear your opinion.”

“I couldn’t stand being cooped up with those bureaucrats,” Philippus cried. “But I see your point. Artemis is going to win the open election this season, anyway.”

“So plan for the next one,” Menalippe encouraged. “Your opinions, while occasionally a bit…controversial, are well thought out. You would be a welcome addition.”

“Maybe I will,” Philippus sighed to herself.

The pair strode into the forest, following a narrow path that was more a game trail than anything else. The north watch tower was the farthest from the heart of the village, but the most important strategically. Natural features aided the defense of the other three sides, but this area looked out over a wide plain, dense foliage in the distance. The Amazon nation knew in the forested terrain, they had an edge, but they lost this advantage on the open ground.

After a few minutes, Philippus broke the comfortable silence.

“So,” she began, “what’s going on between you and General Antiope?”

Menalippe forced her voice to remain casual. “What do you mean?”

Philippus gave her friend a look that said, fine, we’ll play it your way. “Well,” she replied, “Rala was very excited to tell anyone that would listen about how she spoke to General Antiope not once, but twice the other day. And the General spoke to her in return.”

Menalippe swallowed, hard. “And did Rala….happen to mention where those conversations took place?”

“She did indeed,” Philippus responded, a wide grin on her face.

Menalippe groaned. “How many people have heard about this?”

“Heard that General Antiope was paying you a visit in the middle of the night? About half the village, Mena.”

“It was not the middle of the night!” Menalippe protested.

“You’re not helping your cause,” Philippus joked. “But truly, Mena, I am your best friend. Will you not tell me? From my perspective, something in you has changed for the better. I have to say, I don’t miss you waking me at the crack of dawn for some new form of physical torture each day.”

“I…I’m not entirely sure what’s going on,” Menalippe admitted.

Philippus gave her friend a knowing look. “The word around the village is that Antiope is training you for the games.”

“She’s not training me,” Menalippe clarified. “We’re training together.”

“Ah, yes, I see the difference,” Philippus said sarcastically. She wasn’t done teasing her friend. “And really, Mena, I didn’t know you fancied older women so much. She's what, fifteen years your elder?”

"Fourteen," Menalippe glared at her.

"An important distinction," her companion responded with a straight face.

Seeing that Philippus was only playing with her, Menalippe relaxed slightly. “I don’t know what to tell you, Phil. One week ago, General Antiope was just that. The only thing she had said to me at length was how to hold a spear properly when I was sixteen. And then a week ago, just like that, she’s something else. She is kind, and funny, and so intelligent. I swear, I would be interested comparing the pros and cons of something so drab as boot shining with her.”

Philippus looked at Menalippe seriously for the first time in their conversation. “Mena, much as I wish to see you happy, you know you cannot act on that,” she said.

“My mind knows, yes,” Menalippe said, exasperated. “But everything else in me takes over whenever I’m in her presence.” A sad expression came over her face. “I know nothing can happen if I really wish to achieve my goal. How would it look, if I do what I am capable of? If I earn a spot defending our nation at the highest level? But if I am close with Antiope, people will say I cheated. Or at least, that I had some kind of unfair advantage. Can I stake my own reputation in such a way?”

Philippus shook her head. “I do not envy your position, my friend. All I will say is this: Penthesilea is the greatest joy of my life. She is more than the feeling of a punch that connects precisely, the pleasure from a ride on a perfect spring day. She does not require me to be any more or any less than I truly am. I can be my whole self with her. Can you imagine that with Antiope, that it could be the same?”

Philippus looked embarrassed at the force of her words. “I’ll give you this,” she joked. “You set your sights high, Mena. Nothing less than the greatest warrior the Amazon nation has ever seen!”

“She’s so much more than that, even,” Menalippe said quietly.

Philippus stopped in her tracks. She reached out and grabbed Menalippe’s shoulder, shaking it slightly. “And so, my friend, are you. Never forget it. But what you need to decide is not who you are, but who you truly wish to be. The way I see it, you cannot have both.”

The two women passed the rest of their journey to the watchtower in silence.

_____________________________
Hours later, Menalippe felt wholly drained. It had taken all of her effort to focus on her duty as a guard. Staring out at nothing had left lodes of space for her mind to wander, and it kept ending up in the same place.

As she traipsed up the path to her tent, Menalippe was perturbed that she had not been able to make a decision. Should she continue to train with Antiope, knowing it was likely to create problems? It seemed preposterous to instead return to training alone. For what gain?

When she entered her tent, Menalippe nearly stepped on a scroll that had been left just inside the flap. It was secured with the wax seal than she knew belonged to the General. It seemed almost odd in this context, delivered to her home rather than in the command tent of a battlefield. Menalippe was tired and sweaty, wanting nothing more than a bath and a nap. But she opened the message first, and her plans changed abruptly.

“Mena,

The Parnassian delegation has arrived a day earlier than expected. They bring with them a bard renowned as the best storyteller in the region. I am told he recites poetry as well. I would value your expert analysis of his talents. Hippolyta is hosting the Parnassian ambassador and a few close friends this evening. The atmosphere will be casual. I would be delighted if you would join us.

-A”

Menalippe held the message delicately, as though it would alter itself if she clutched too hard. She almost laughed out loud, the decision was so simple. Had she really thought she would do anything else?

Menalippe left the scroll on her nightstand and strode toward the chest that held her garments. Now, how much weaponry was appropriate for a poetry reading dinner fete?

Chapter Text

As Menalippe approached Hippolyta’s residence, she felt a tremor of anxiety bubble up within her.  She had never been invited to the Queen’s home before, and on top of that, she was nervous to interact with Antiope in this new setting.  She knew the General claimed the invitation was because she was a writer, but Menalippe suspected it might be something else.  Regardless, she feared being out of her depth with the rest of the evening’s conversation.  She was no diplomat.
 
The Queen lived near the main gathering hall that served as the site for most community events.  Hers was one of the older stone houses, built hundreds of years before Athena gave the village to her Amazons as their permanent home.  
 
Despite Hippolyta’s status, the building wasn’t significantly larger than any other around it.  She had clearly made a decision not to overemphasize her position.  Menalippe considered it further proof that the Amazon queen was a good leader, placing herself alongside her sisters rather than ahead of or above them.  Menalippe wondered if the Parnassian delegation would see it the same way.  No doubt, they were used to palaces and grandiose displays of wealth.
 
Menalippe passed under the entrance archway and into the home’s great room, softly lit by several candelabras.  From the top of a short staircase, she was relieved to see that Antiope’s description of the event as “a few close friends” was accurate.  There were maybe fifteen people in the room, spread out in smaller groups, glasses of wine in hand.  The five Parnassian men stuck out, in part due to their height, but almost more so because of their lavish attire.  One looked like he was wearing a full cape of mink.  A wasteful and ostentatious choice if there ever was one, Menalippe thought.  She herself had chosen a slate gray tunic woven of a particularly soft and warm material.  It left her arms free, draping over her torso and ending a few inches above the knee.  She wore an embossed leather belt around her waist, and from it hung a dagger in a simple scabbard.  To an outsider’s eye, the weapon would not impress.  But any Amazon would immediately recognize the hallmarks of Solari’s work.  The armsmistress seldom made weapons for private ownership.  Instead, she applied her considerable talents towards stocking the communal armory with the best blades she could produce.  Menalippe had built goodwill with Solari for years as a teenager before being able to request a piece of her own.  The blade was a prized possession.
 
As Menalippe descended the stairs, Antiope excused herself from her conversation with Hippolyta and came over.  She gave the taller woman a rare full smile.
 
The General wore the headpiece that announced her station, but she had foregone other body armor for the evening.  Her red tunic was trimmed with gold thread in a pattern that mimicked her breastplate, and she wore full boots with greaves.  With her sword at her waist, there could be no question which individual present commanded the Amazon armies.  
 
Menalippe was momentarily awestruck.  The feeling reminded her of her first impression of the General, so many years before.  At that time, the neighboring town of Volos had called for the Amazons’ aid to defend against a hostile force.  Fifty women rode out at sunset, planning to travel through the night to take the invaders by surprise.  In the angled evening light, their breastplates flashed and flickered like flames.  Menalippe remembered General Antiope on that day, an imposing figure at the head of the column, a bright red plume sprouting from the top of her helmet.  
 
“I’m so pleased you decided to come,” Antiope said.  “Here, let me get you something to drink.”
 
Menalippe snapped back to the present.  She followed the other woman toward a table at the side of the room that held a variety of glass decanters.
 
“Thank you for this unique opportunity,” Menalippe said.  “I’ve read plenty of works from bards and poets in the surrounding regions.  But it is a very different thing to see the stories performed live.”  She took the glass of wine offered to her.  “Perhaps I can learn something,” she finished, taking a sip.
 
“More likely they could learn something from you,” Antiope answered, her voice lowered so their conversation was relatively private.  She noticed a look of alarm pass over Menalippe’s face.  “Don’t worry!  I have no intention of requesting an impromptu performance from you.”
 
Antiope chuckled, and Menalippe found it infectious.  The General seemed more at ease than Menalippe had seen before.
 
“And what of you, General?” Menalippe asked.  “Do you not write yourself?”
“Gods, no,” Antiope laughed.  “Everything I put to parchment is utilitarian and completely lacking in imagination.  No, though I’ll gladly serve as a devotee of the art.”
 
The largest man from the Parnassian delegation approached the two women, refilling his glass at the table beside them.  His fitted tunic was studded with medals and embroidery.
 
“Ah, Antiope,” he began, bursting into the conversation.  “I had hoped to solicit your opinion on a matter of strategy.  You see, my generals…”
 
Antiope cut him off.  “I’m sorry, Redus.  That topic will have to wait.  We were just discussing poetry.” Redus frowned slightly, but Antiope continued.  “This is Menalippe of the Amazon nation, one of our most talented warriors, and a gifted writer too.  Menalippe, I present Marshall Redus of the Parnassian army.  He commands their mounted forces.”
 
Menalippe could tell the gentleman was uninterested in the conversation, but she followed Antiope’s lead.  “A pleasure to meet you, Redus.  Now, who is your favorite of Hesiod’s students?  I myself maintain that Archilochus’ handling of dactylic hexameter surpassed his master’s.”
 
Antiope’s eyes held a slight sparkle of humor.  “Yes,” she commented, “though Stesichorus was far more lyrical.  What do you think, Marshall?”
 
Redus looked momentarily flummoxed.  “Certainly, neither could compare to Hesiod himself, though,” he replied.  Menalippe noted the thinly-veiled look of triumph on his face and gave it even odds that he had any clue what he was talking about at all.
 
Before either woman could respond, conversation around the room died down.  Hippolyta had taken the space toward the fireplace, her arms raised to silence the room.
 
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming this evening,” she said, her voice measured and authoritative.  “Especially our friends from Parnassus.  We hope your stay with us will be comfortable and uneventful.  If everyone will take their seats, the performance will begin.”
 
One side of the great room had been arranged into a makeshift stage, a number of tables arrayed in a U shape in front of it.  Hippolyta took the centermost seat, the Parnassian ambassador to her left.
 
Redus excused himself and went to sit with the rest of his delegation.  Menalippe took a step toward the farthest table, but Antiope caught her arm lightly.  “And how am I supposed to hear your opinion if you’re all the way over there?” she asked, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.  Antiope left her hand where it was, hooked behind Menalippe’s elbow.  The taller woman shook her head in amusement and let herself be led toward the center seats.  The General’s guiding touch was light but firm, and Menalippe found herself leaning into it slightly.  Her bare shoulder brushed against Antiope’s tunic, the fleeting sensation sending a shiver down her spine.
 
The General took her usual place at her sister’s right hand, and she gestured for Menalippe to take the next seat down.  As she sat, Menalippe squared her shoulders, trying to appear more comfortable with the place of honor than she was.
 
Antiope leaned over, speaking quietly into her ear.  “Since when was Archilochus a student of Hesiod?”  She arched an eyebrow in good humor.
 
Menalippe gave a soft laugh, as much from the tickle of the General’s voice as her words.  “I suppose there’s a chance he read some of Hesiod’s work at some point, later in life, but I doubt they ever met.  Archilochus would have been, what, four years old when Hesiod passed on?”Antiope laughed loudly, a single guffaw that earned her a sideways glace of disapproval from her older sister.  Her shoulders shook slightly as she reigned herself in.
 
The bard from Parnassus stepped to the fore.  His attire was simpler than that of his countrymen.  He had short, golden hair that curled slightly, and he carried a lute.
 
“I, Etylus, sing the song of Achilles,” he began.  Playing a chord on his lute, the bard launched into his story, his voice speaking in rhythm:
 
“Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts…”
 
Menalippe groaned inwardly.  She knew many bards favored such epic stories of war, but she didn’t think the topic suited the event.  Who wished to hear of death and gore during a lighthearted gathering?  Still, she had to admit Etylus was doing well with the material.  He was an animated storyteller, miming some of the actions as he spoke about them.  He also subtly altered his voice to designate the different characters, and effect that was easy to get wrong.
 
A quarter of an hour later, the bard finished his chosen section of the Iliad with a flourish.  Menalippe joined the rest of the group in polite applause. 
 
“They always choose the tale of violence and drama,” Antiope murmured, “forgetting that most in a room like this have had more than their share of it in reality.”

Hippolyta told the group that they would take a brief break to refresh their drinks, and then Etylus would perform again. She had barely finished saying this when Redus nearly leapt to his feet, heading straight for Antiope.

“I’ll give him credit for persistence,” Menalippe joked.

Antiope gave her a dismayed look, but she rose to greet the Marshall. “I’ll be back shortly,” she whispered to her companion, “and I’ll get both of us more wine so this is bearable.”
 
As Antiope stepped away, Menalippe was unnerved to find she had been left alone with Queen Hippolyta. Most of the other guests were milling about the room, stretching their legs.

The Amazon queen gave Menalippe an appraising look. After a few moments of silence, during which Menalippe considered and discarded a dozen conversation starters, Hippolyta spoke.

“Tell me about yourself, Menalippe,” she said. “I admit that while I know every Amazon in our nation by name, recalling the details of everyone’s lives can be a challenge.” Hippolyta gave her a slight smile, taking a sip from her goblet.

Menalippe saw the similarity between Hippolyta and her sister in their eyes. The deep blue somehow managed to reveal more than the rest of the face entirely, and from that, Menalippe recognized the test before her.

“I believe my life to be fairly typical, my Queen. I follow the schedule assigned to me and train when I can. Lately there has been more of that than usual. I plan to participate in the warrior’s challenge in the Games.”

Hippolyta nodded in approval. “Something I believe each Amazon should do at least once. Come to think of it, it’s long past time since I reminded the nation that their queen is more than just a figurehead. Do you think I should enter this year?” Again, that flash of mischief in the Queen’s expression.

“I favor a conservative strategy,” Menalippe answered. “And I prefer to be exceedingly prepared when faced with such a challenge. As I do not know your current level of skill and fitness, I cannot make a recommendation. However, I myself would not undertake something like the Games with only two weeks of preparation.” Menalippe couldn’t tell if her answer satisfied the Queen or not. Hippolyta was an expert at concealing her reaction, the mark of a skilled diplomat.

“Do you truly think of yourself as typical, Menalippe?” This time, the challenge was nearer to the surface. “That just any Amazon could earn the interest of my sister so easily? Come now, tell the truth.” Hippolyta’s comment was clearly a command, though she didn’t raise her voice even a little bit. Anyone overlooking the conversation could just as easily think they chatted about the quality of the food.

“No,” Menalippe answered more honestly this time. “I think I can be the best warrior in the nation, save Antiope herself. I have not reached that level yet, but I know the ability is within me. I am not just average.”

“And is that it?” Hippolyta said the words lightly, though Menalippe knew them to be deadly serious. “You spend time with my sister to prey upon her goodwill, to gain an edge? How many tricks has she shared so far?”

“That is not why I train with Antiope.” Menalippe kept her voice down, though not without effort. The words came out in a hiss. “We help each other.”

“You imply that my sister, a woman who could swing a sword before she could walk, is learning from you,” Hippolyta scoffed.

“We are all of us learning constantly. The day I stop growing is the day I die,” Menalippe answered. “You must know Antiope well enough to see that she would not assume herself incapable of growth. She is not prideful in that way.”

“I do know my sister,” Hippolyta answered. “Her weakness for a lithe figure and a pretty face in particular. Do you?” The Queen’s gaze bore into Menalippe. She held the eye contact for a moment, then had to look away.

“I do not know her that well yet, no,” Menalippe admitted. “And that is not what our relationship is like.”

Hippolyta’s eyebrows raised in surprise, and she laughed. “Is that what you think?”

Menalippe had to admit to herself that, while nothing physical had happened between her and Antiope, her feelings were certainly more than just platonic.

Hippolyta studied the other woman’s face, then sat back in satisfaction. “That’s what I thought.”

“My queen,” Menalippe said, feeling defeated. “I can assure you I have no ill intentions towards Antiope…”

“They never do,” Hippolyta said sharply, cutting her off. “Right now, what I need is for my sister to be focused. We approach the most challenging time in Amazon history, and I cannot have her with her head off in the clouds.” She looked at Menalippe pointedly. “Or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Menalippe flushed.

Hippolyta set down her glass emphatically, signaling to one of the Amazons nearby that she desired more. “Can I count on you to fade into the background,” Hippolyta asked.

A great battle took place in Menalippe’s mind. Years of training had instilled absolute obedience into her. She nearly said, “yes, my queen,” out of habit. Instead, she shook her head slightly.

“I cannot make that promise,” Menalippe said, “in part, because it is not my choice alone. I do not know what Antiope’s opinion is. And honesty is a core tenet of what it means to be an Amazon. So I cannot lie to you knowing my heart rebels inside of me.”

Hippolyta sat back in her chair, viewing Menalippe with new eyes. “My sister did say you were a poet,” she mused.

Antiope returned to her seat in that moment, placing a glass of wine in front of Menalippe. “Ye gods,” she huffed. “That was exhausting. Redus always finds a way to turn the conversation into some form of ‘my army is bigger than your army.’ He’s impossible to keep on topic.” She looked between the two women, neither of whom had said anything. “I hope you were able to find some common ground to discuss,” she said warily.

“We were,” said Hippolyta.

Menalippe almost believed the smile on the Queen’s face to be genuine.

Etylus returned to his central position and struck another chord on the lute.

“Muses of Helicon, let us begin our song with them,
who hold the great and holy mountain of Helicon,
and around its violet-like spring and altar of exceedingly
strong Kronios, dance on dainty feet…”

Menalippe found herself struggling to pay attention.  The wine and warm room conspired against her.  She considered her conversation with Hippolyta, only drawn back into the story on occasion.
 
Some time into the next performance, Menalippe felt Antiope shift next to her.  A moment later, the General placed her hand on Menalippe’s thigh under the table.  Her heart launched into double time, and she hoped her reaction wasn’t visible. 

Antiope’s hand was unmoving, and Menalippe could tell she had not rested its full weight on her. The General was unsure, she realized with a start. Something about that fact, the idea that the woman who commanded a thousand Amazons was nervous, emboldened Menalippe. Slowly, casually, she lifted her arm and set her hand on top of Antiope’s, lining up her fingers in the gaps between the other woman’s. She gave a reassuring squeeze and sat back, letting her shoulder brush against Antiope’s. Hippolyta be damned. This was bliss.

A warm feeling spread outward from her center so strongly she thought she must be glowing. Menalippe’s nostrils flared involuntarily, and she focused on breathing regularly, the way she did on the archery range.

Menalippe barely noticed when Etylus finished his story with a flourish. She was completely and pleasantly distracted by this innocent touch. When the crowd began to clap their appreciation, Menalippe let go of Antiope’s hand reluctantly.

Hippolyta thanked the Parnassian guests again and told the group they could linger if they wished to.

Antiope turned to Menalippe when her sister had finished speaking. “I almost forgot,” Antiope said, “I have something I want to show you.” She guided Menalippe out of the great room much as she had led her to her seat earlier. The taller woman was loathe to break the contact.

They arrived at an ornately carved wooden door toward the back of the house, the din from the party muffled. Antiope searched in a bag at her waist until she found a key. She turned it in the lock with the expertise of someone who had done so a thousand times before.

Menalippe wasn’t sure what to expect, as though she cared. She felt as though she would follow Antiope off a cliff if the other woman said it was a good idea.

The room was dark except for an oil lamp on a large desk. Antiope went over to it and turned the fuel higher. It lit up the room, revealing walls of shelves on all four sides. They were filled with scrolls of all sizes, and even some bound tomes. Menalippe gasped.

“What is this?” she asked in wonder.

“Hippolyta and I share space for our personal collections,” Antiope answered. “It’s one of the few physical items I indulge in owning. I keep mine here since my own home is not suited to extended reading.” Antiope spent her nights in the barracks. Hers was a private bunk with a larger bed than most warriors had, but the space had room for little else.

“I was thinking about you the other day,” Antiope said, “and past poetry competitions at the games. Do you know the name Rhea?”

Menalippe nodded. “Yes, the Amazon poet? I know she won the competition for a decade straight before one of her own pupils took the title from her. And that she considered that a more satisfying victory than one of her own.” She laughed in understanding. “But none of her works are preserved. She never wrote them down, instead committing them to memory alone,” she finished.

“Not quite,” Antiope responded, a grin spreading across her face. She opened the top drawer of the desk and pulled out a thick roll of scrolls, held together by a purple cord. Antiope untied it and unrolled the parchment, turning it to face Menalippe.

The taller Amazon leaned over, her eyes scanning the words eagerly.

“Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet…” she read aloud, in a rush.

Menalippe looked up at Antiope in amazement. “Where did you find these?”

The General shrugged, as though trying to downplay it. “I learned that Rhea’s grandson lives among the Parnassians. I was able to get a message to him, and one of the delegation brought these to me in reply. I myself haven’t had the time to peruse them. I want you to first.”

Menalippe looked up from the scrolls. She couldn’t find the words to express what she felt, and the alternative seemed so simple.

Menalippe rounded the side of the desk swiftly, almost catching Antiope by surprise. She paused for just a moment, then leaned down, brushing her lips against Antiope’s. The first touch was tentative, but Antiope responded, leaning into the taller woman, wrapping her arms around her waist.

Antiope returned the kiss firmly, and Menalippe felt a bolt of arousal course through her. Almost of their own accord, her arms lifted, and she went to bury them in Antiope’s hair. Instead, they first ran into the General’s headpiece. Antiope pulled away, laughing. “Of all the things…” she started to say, but the words died on her lips. Menalippe slid her fingers under the edges of the metal and gently lifted it off Antiope’s head. “Unless you think you need your armor around me, General,” she murmured, a teasing smile on her face.

In lieu of a response, Antiope closed the distance between them, pressing the whole length of her body against Menalippe’s and capturing her lips again. The feeling was exquisite, almost as though sparks of pleasure went off wherever they touched.

Menalippe slipped a hand around to the nape of Antiope’s neck, entwining her fingers in the soft golden hair. Antiope nipped her bottom lip, and Menalippe tugged slightly, a reflexive motion. The noise Antiope made in response threatened to break through the last shreds of control Menalippe possessed.

Instead, she pulled back slightly, freeing her lips. She placed a tender kiss on Antiope’s forehead.

“I want more of you,” Menalippe said, her voice husky. “But not just today. And so, I think I should go while I still have an ounce of willpower left in my body.”

Antiope laughed lightly, giving the other woman an affectionate squeeze. She nodded.

Menalippe drew back, letting a hand brush against Antiope’s cheek. She picked up the scrolls with the other. “In case I can’t sleep,” she joked. “Good night, Antiope.”

“Good night, Mena,” Antiope replied, slightly out of breath, her eyes devouring the other woman as she left the room.

Chapter Text

The following morning, Menalippe arrived at the field at the usual time. She had left her tent early, making a quick stop by the training grounds on the way. The Amazon carried two sizeable weights, made of thick leather and filled with sand. Each weighed around twenty-five pounds. Menalippe let them drop to the ground next to the boulder, trying to ignore the burning muscles in her arms. There was plenty of time for that later, she thought ruefully.

Menalippe had floated home the night before on a high, but in the early morning darkness, she felt nervous. What would Antiope be like? Menalippe didn’t think she could bear it if the General acted as though nothing had happened. Or was that what she wanted, for things to seem relatively normal?

As Antiope approached, an excitement that was becoming familiar built up inside Menalippe, only this time more so than before. In that moment, she could not seem to think of anything other than what Antiope’s lips felt like on hers. The irrational part of her brain suggested she had better kiss her again, and right away, if only to prove to herself the night before hadn’t been a dream.

Antiope had a small smile on her face, one that appeared almost shy. “Good morning, Mena. I hope you didn’t stay up all night reading.”

“Much as I wanted to, I’m no fool,” Menalippe replied. “I shudder to think what this morning would feel like if I had done so! Thank you again for the scrolls. I’m hoping to dive into them over lunch.”

“You have already given me plenty of thanks,” Antiope said, a twinkle in her eye.

Menalippe thought back to the previous evening. “It was…revealing to speak to Hippolyta in such an informal setting,” she said. “I thought I knew what kind of person she is. Now I think I only know what kind of leader she is.”

“Hippolyta told me she had a good conversation with you,” said Antiope. “Though as is her way, she wouldn’t tell me what it was about. She said she likes you.”

Menalippe raised her eyebrows in surprise. “She did?”

“I believe her words were, ‘That Amazon has spirit.’ Which I could have told her.” Antiope shrugged. “But Hippolyta likes to learn things for herself.” She gestured at the weights on the ground.

“So, what new form of physical torture do you have planned for us?” Her blue eyes were bright and eager.

“Torture is a fair description for what I have planned,” Menalippe admitted. “Though I suppose it helps that it’s good for us?”

Antiope laughed. “I never regret the training we do afterwards. It’s during that I question my sanity. What is the task today?”

Menalippe turned, her back to Antiope, and gestured at the edge of the forest fifty yards away. “That is our finish line,” she said. “We pick up the weights and sprint for the edge of the trees. When we get there, we drop them and head back, pushing ourselves to set a higher pace when not carrying them. Then, we do the same thing in reverse.”

While Menalippe said this, Antiope came up alongside her, facing the same direction. She rested her shoulder against the taller woman’s, a comfortable gesture. Menalippe lost her train of thought at the light contact, and she pivoted slightly to face the older woman.

“You do want to train this morning, don’t you, General?” There was a hint of suggestiveness in Menalippe’s tone.

Antiope met her eyes. “Unfortunately, I cannot afford to take a break so close to the games. But nonetheless, before we’re both covered in sweat…” Her words trailed off. Antiope grasped the front of Menalippe’s tunic, pulling her down with a gentle tug. She brushed her lips lightly against the taller woman’s, a teasing motion. Menalippe, frustrated by the lack of contact, leaned in and deepened the kiss. She placed her hands on Antiope’s arms, guiding her back until the General’s body was pressed between her and the boulder.

Their hips close together, Menalippe could almost forget completely where she was, who she was, everything except who she was with. Antiope’s kisses sent fire coursing through her body, and she found her hands wandering of their own accord.

Suddenly, Antiope caught her wrist, a firm rather than playful touch. She pulled away from the kiss and arched an eyebrow. Menalippe was momentarily confused until she saw her own hands about to slip under the General’s tunic. She felt heat rise to her face, but she looked at Antiope boldly.

“My apologies, General,” Menalippe said, her voice thick with desire.

Antiope grinned. “Don’t apologize, Mena.” She placed a quick kiss on the taller woman’s cheek. “Just not here and now!”

Menalippe laughed. She released her grip on Antiope and reluctantly turned towards the weights. She picked one up and handed it to her companion. When she had lined up next to the General, she crouched slightly, the stance of a runner waiting for the starting gun. “Ready?”
Antiope nodded, her eyes hard and focused.

“Go!” Menalippe cried, and the pair sprinted forward.

___________________________________________________________

 

Menalippe stood next to Philippus on watch that afternoon. She allowed herself to daydream a bit, but never enough that she was not paying attention to her duty. That morning, she had been surprised but pleased to find Antiope as affectionate toward her as the night before, when she’d had a belly full of wine. She tried to recall if she had ever noticed someone with the General before, but she didn’t think so. The Queen’s words certainly suggested it, though.

Hippolyta was known to take a lover on occasion, but her role in the nation was so important, any affair was short-lived and secret. There were rumors, of course, but it was understood that any Amazon who had enjoyed such an interaction with their Queen would not speak about it.

Philippus occasionally speculated that Penthesilea had been one such person in years past, but even to her partner, Pen would not discuss the topic. As one of the Antiope's personal guards, allowed in the queen's inner circle, she surely knew more than most. Menalippe respected Pen’s loyalty and silence.

Menalippe shifted the spear she carried from one arm to the other. She considered if Antiope’s interest in her would need to be secret too. She hoped not.

“Less than two weeks until the games, now,” Philippus mused. “Do you feel you’re on track to reach your goal?”

Which one? Menalippe thought to herself. Aloud, she answered, “I do. Training with Antiope, I’ve been forced to push myself in different ways than I would alone.”

“I am glad to hear it,” her friend said. “Perhaps we are overdue for a sparring match? I admit, though I complained about the early start to the day, I’ve never trained more productively than I have recently with you.”

Menalippe nodded her head in recognition of the compliment. She knew it was high praise coming from Philippus.

The day was heating up, the full afternoon sun beating down on the Amazons guarding the wall. Though the air was still crisp, it was impossible to stay cool in full leathers and armor. Each Amazon learned to bear the discomfort from an early age.

Menalippe glanced over her shoulder at one of the young trainees. Freya, about fourteen years old, was drawing pictures in the dirt with her boot. Amazons expected girls to participate in some of the same duties as their older sisters.

Menalippe gestured with her head, alerting Philippus to the young girl’s activities. The other woman rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so harsh, Mena. You know how hard it is to focus on the watch at that age. Gods, I can barely do it now.”

“Freya!” a loud voice barked from farther down the line.

“She’s in trouble, now,” Menalippe whispered.

Artemis captained the watch that day, and she had noticed the young woman was distracted from her post. The strong, imposing woman advanced upon Freya.

“You would sacrifice the safety of your sisters for this?” she challenged. Freya quailed under her harsh gaze. She said nothing, and Menalippe didn’t blame her. Artemis could intimidate even the most hardened warrior.

“Which way do we face?” Artemis demanded. Freya pointed across the wall, toward the trees in the distance.

“Yes.” Artemis replied. “Every moment. We Amazons will always be a tempting target for foolish men. We must be on our guard every moment.”

Most of the line had kept their eyes forward, hearing rather than watching the scene. But the ten or so Amazons within earshot sympathized with the young girl. Most had received the same reprimand years before.

Because they were minding their duty, several noticed right away when a woman burst from the trees across the field. It was Velasca, tasked with keeping the outermost watch. She approached the wall at full speed.

Artemis noticed the group’s attention shift. “Can anyone see if she is signaling?!”

Philippus, the tallest of the group, pulled herself higher onto the ramparts. “Enemies approaching. Armed, on foot.” Her eyes widened in horror. “Fifty to seventy-five!”

Artemis did not hesitate. She turned to Freya. “Go, and pass on the message to the village. Hurry! We need reinforcements immediately.” The young girl took off at a dead sprint.

“Euboea, sound the general alarm.” Artemis looked rattled, but she was a capable leader and remained calm. “Amazons, retrieve bows and space out along the wall every twenty feet. Eyes sharp!”

Euboea raised a ram’s horn to her lips and blew a long, loud tone. It echoed throughout the woods. A few moments later, the call was answered by the next watchtower a quarter mile away. As both horns sounded, they were joined by more and more. Menalippe knew in the village, the sound was chilling. It always had the intended effect. Amazons leapt into action.

Velasca was finally within a hundred yards of the gate. There was no sign of anyone else emerging from the woods.

“Open the gate,” Artemis commanded. Two Amazons assigned to that part of the wall did so, just wide enough that the sentry could slip through. As soon as she had, they shut and barred the gate, bracing it with an additional beam.

Velasca rested her hands on her knees, gasping for breath. Menalippe knew her to be a capable runner, so her exhaustion was telling.

“No flags,” she gasped out. “But they’re armed to the teeth.”

“Did they see you?” Artemis asked, her eyes flitting back and forth, forming a plan.

“I don’t think so,” Velasca replied.

Artemis nodded. She glanced at the Amazons on either side of her. “Where are my best archers?” Menalippe raised her hand, along with several other women.

“Take plenty of ammunition with you and space yourselves out in this section. Everyone, weapons down. I want you to hide beneath the edge of the ramparts save for Euboea. When they are within 400 yards, She will signal us.” Artemis clutched the sword at her side, a reflexive gesture. “We’ll show those bastards what a sneak attack looks like.”

Artemis stalked toward the watchtower.

Menalippe retrieved her bow and several quivers of arrows. She passed Philippus on her way to her station. “We just have to hold out until the main force arrives,” she said, as much to reassure herself as anything else.

Philippus nodded curtly. Her face was set into a mask of intensity, so fierce Menalippe herself shook her head in wonder. Who would be so foolish as to attack them on home soil?

Menalippe dropped out of sight behind the wall and closed her eyes. Her pulse pounded, a wave of adrenaline since the moment of Velasca’s appearance. She took several deep breaths, trying to bring her body back under control. She would need a steady hand for the battle to come.

Chapter Text

Menalippe counted her arrows for the fifth time, then glanced down the line at the Amazon nearest to her. Clio and most of the others carried a spear, the blade at the end wickedly sharp. The weapon was perfect for defending the wall, able to sweep attackers away with its extended reach. And if that failed, the hefty shaft could double as a cudgel.

Returning her attention to the watchtower, Menalippe continued to concentrate on steady breathing. When presented with stress, the body’s natural reaction was to increase the heart and breath rate. But that caused a warrior to be jumpy and fatigued before the battle had even started. Menalippe suspected the rest of the Amazons recalled their training and were using the same technique. This watch group was particularly battle-tested.

Menalippe could just about see Euboea, standing tall and proud at the center of the watchtower, spear at the ready. She knew the Amazon had spotted their attackers from her stance, and she waited diligently for the signal to be given.

Menalippe began to recognize the sounds of a large group of armed men approaching in the distance. She did not hear the telltale clinking noise that would indicate the enemy was wearing plate armor, nor the jingle of mail. It seemed likely the attackers wore leather alone, and that thought produced a feral grin. Her arrows could punch through light armor with ease.

Euboea turned toward Artemis, crouched several yards to her right, and gave a sharp nod. The larger woman rose, drawing her sword. “Archers!” she cried, gesturing forward with the blade. “Fire at will!”

Menalippe responded instantly, nocking an arrow and drawing it in the same fluid motion. She stood and turned, rising above the edge of the wall. Her brain registered the large number of men approaching, some beginning to run. She coolly selected a target, one of several who had outpaced the rest of the attacking line.

Inhale…exhale…RELEASE!

The arrow zipped away, the bowstring thrumming next to Menalippe’s ear. Moments later, the arrow struck, hitting the target where arm and torso joined. The man fell to the ground. Several others up and down the line had been hit too, a testament to the aim of the other Amazons in action.

Menalippe released a second and then a third arrow in quick succession, each time scoring hits to the chest. The men were bunched close together, ensuring her shots would strike even if she missed the target she was aiming for.

The attacking group spread out slightly under the barrage, and some of the men produced wooden shields that they positioned in front of their bodies. Others pulled out bows and began to return fire. Most of their arrows fell short, striking the wall below.

As she saw a round coming towards her, Menalippe ducked behind the thick wood. She retrieved a handful of arrows, then popped up again. This time, she targeted the opposing archers, hanging back a bit behind the main line so they could pause to shoot. She winged one, enough to take him out of the battle. And on the next shot, Menalippe missed. She hissed in dissatisfaction. The following arrow found its target.

Despite their numbers being reduced by the deadly accuracy of the Amazon archers, the men continued their charge. They were well drilled, then, Menalippe mused. So many men, when they saw their comrades falling all around them, would instead have turned to run.

Menalippe crouched slightly, scanning the line ahead for their leader. And there he was, toward the center and back, shouting commands. He wore shiny plate armor and a helmet with a tall plume. Menalippe shook her head. He was easy to spot, but she did not have the right type of arrow head to pierce the metal.

The Amazon stood for another volley of shots. Methodically, she took out three more attackers. As she loosed her third arrow, a sharp, hot pain flashed across Menalippe’s forehead. She cursed under her breath, dropping under cover. She reached up and touched her head. Her hand came away bloody.

Menalippe took several moments to take stock of the severity. She was bleeding, but not so heavily that it was dripping down her face. It seemed like an arrow had just grazed her. She reached for more ammunition, satisfied that she could continue.

“Lances, swords and shields!” Artemis barked. The first of the men were arriving at the wall.

Menalippe heard something hit the wall nearby with a hollow thunk, followed by several more. “Ladder!” a woman yelled to Menalippe’s left. Amazons scrambled towards the danger points, pushing the ladders away when they could, and stabbing with ferocity at any man who dared try to climb them.

Menalippe set down her bow and retrieved a spear of her own. As she stood, she took stock of the battlefield. The Amazons had reduced the number of their attackers by half, but they were still outnumbered five to one. Toward the watchtower, a few men had successfully scaled the wall and were locked in battle with the Amazon defenders.

In the forest behind the wall, a horn called, followed by the deep bass of a drum, counting the time. Reinforcements were close, but not there yet.

Menalippe saw another man reach the top by the watchtower, and she broke into a sprint in that direction. Artemis and Euboea held off the attackers admirably, but they needed help.

One of the men saw Menalippe’s approach and turned toward her. He raised a short sword, a determined grimace across his face. Menalippe did not slow down until the last moment. She planted the hilt of the spear on the ground and used it to vault herself forward, one leg swinging out ahead. She caught the man by surprise, her kick knocking his sword arm to the side. Menalippe followed that by landing on both feet and sweeping the base of the spear upward. It caught the man in the gut, and he doubled over. Menalippe closed the distance between them and hiked her armored knee up sharply. It connected solidly with the man’s chin, his helmet doing no good. He crumpled to the ground.

Menalippe raced over to the ladder, leading with her spear, and stabbed a climber before he could plant his feet on the wall. She seized the legs of the ladder and pushed hard. Grunting, she managed to lift it a foot from the side of the wall, but she couldn’t quite get it to tip over.

Suddenly, Philippus came up behind her, adding her strength to the push. The two Amazons toppled the ladder, several men falling off in the process.

Artemis dispatched the rest of the attackers in their portion of the wall.

“You two,” she gestured at Menalippe and Philippus. “The cavalry will be here any moment. I need to open the gate to release them, but I cannot risk it unless we clear some space in front of it first. Get down there and push them back!”

Menalippe knew their task to be challenging, almost suicidal. But she saw the need as Artemis had. If the Amazon cavalry arrived with the gate still closed, they would only back up into the area behind it, cut off from the fight.

Each woman secured a shield to their back. Philippus handed her friend a rope. Her mouth was set in a hard line. She gave Menalippe a hard salute, then attached the end of her line to a cleat on the inside of the wall. Menalippe followed suit, and the two women swung themselves out over the edge.

They dropped the thirty feet to the ground quickly, catching the men at the base of the wall by surprise. Several were in the process of raising the ladder again, so their hands were occupied. Menalippe pushed off the wall so she swung out in an arc. She planted both booted feet squarely on a man’s chest and kicked, sending him into the man behind him.

Menalippe dropped the rope, drawing her sword and shield. A fierce battle cry ripped from her throat, and she charged toward the nearest cluster of men. Philippus joined her, and the pair fought in a circle, each covering the other’s back. They cleared the area immediately in front of the gate, defending from attackers on all sides.

Menalippe cut and thrust with her short sword, aiming to incapacitate rather than to kill. She didn’t have time to deliver the final blow, the men coming at them wave after wave. When several charged her at once, she let the tip of her blade drop and instead bashed them with the shield.

Behind, the horn blew again, this time from much closer. Menalippe heard the creak that signaled the gate was being opened.

“Philippus!” she cried out, turning toward the warrior, “gate!” The taller woman sidestepped an attacker and pushed off toward the side, leaving space for what she knew was coming.

Moments later, a noise like thunder approached, and the ground shook slightly. The Amazon cavalry burst out from the gate, General Antiope at the head of the column. They smashed into the attackers’ line, the men on foot falling right and left to the power and swiftness of the counterattack.

Menalippe covered the flank of the column as they arrived, thirty Amazons atop warhorses, dressed in full battle armor. The remaining men didn’t stand a chance.

When the last of the riders had emerged, Menalippe circled back towards the gate, intent on returning to cover. Philippus was still locked in battle with one of the attackers. Menalippe sprinted in her direction. The man was clearly an expert swordsman, parrying each of the Amazon’s thrusts and putting her under considerable difficulty in return.

Before Menalippe could provide assistance, one of the man’s attacks got through. Philippus misread his movement, so she was off balance when he lunged forward. She twisted her torso, trying to avoid the blow, but his sword cut into the side of the tall Amazon’s abdomen. She yelled in pain and fell over.

“NO!” screamed Menalippe, arriving in time to parry the next attack with her own sword. She whirled around, using the shield as a weapon, catching him across the shoulder of his sword arm. The impact from her motion deadened the nerves of his arm, and he dropped his weapon. Not hesitating, Menalippe brought her sword around in an arc, a powerful swing designed to cleave him in two. The blow struck, and the man fell to the ground, clutching at his now-useless arm.

The Amazon cavalry charge had decimated the attackers. Those that remained fled towards the treeline, where horses would have a hard time pursuing at speed.
Menalippe ran over to where Philippus had fallen, dropping her sword and shield on the ground.

“Phil, Phil,” Menalippe said shakily. Philippus was conscious, but her skin had taken on an unhealthy gray cast, and her eyes seemed to stare out into nothing. Menalippe could tell from the amount of blood on the ground that her friend was in serious danger.

Several Amazon riders approached from the direction of the forest, returning to guard the gate. Antiope was among them, conversing furiously with a lieutenant at her side, still intent on overseeing the battle.

Menalippe called out to them. “Wounded! She needs a healer, now!”

As one of the riders approached, Menalippe pressed her hands over Philippus’s wound, trying to stem the flow of blood.

An older woman named Tyria dismounted and took stock of Philippus. Her eyes widened in alarm. “Permission to return the wounded to the village, General?”

Antiope glanced over, almost absently. She took in the scene in an instant. “Granted,” she said curtly. Tyria and Menalippe lifted Philippus onto the back of the horse.

“I will go with her, “ Menalippe said, trying to push down the nausea and panic she felt for her friend.

“You will remain for the battle,” Antiope countered. Menalippe knew the words were an order, and that complete obedience was required. “Is that clear, soldier?”

Menalippe glared up into Antiope’s face. She knew what she had to do, but her heart wanted nothing more than to watch over her friend. “Yes, General,” she croaked, hot tears coming to her eyes.

Antiope nodded. “Nila, you and Menalippe should search the wounded attackers. Make sure they are disarmed.” The command delivered, the General turned her warhorse and rode toward another part of the battlefield.

Menalippe watched as the horse carrying her friend disappeared beyond the gate. She gritted her teeth and focused on her duty. But a cauldron of fear and desperation roiled within her.

Chapter Text

Menalippe leaned on her spear, using it more to hold up her weight than she cared to admit. She stood guard in front of a pile of weapons, all confiscated from the dead and wounded on the battlefield. She and Nila had piled them behind the wall, so Menalippe could no longer see the field. Farther back, just before the edge of the woods, several Amazons watched over five men that had been captured. They were bound and gagged, but nonetheless, every woman there had her blade leveled at them, a threat they did not bother to hide.

In her mind, Menalippe kept seeing Philippus fall, over and over again. She was supposed to cover her friend’s back. How could she have let this happen? No matter which way she replayed it, she could not see a way she could have defended her in time. Not without having her bow and arrows, which would have been superfluous to the close-range attack they'd been asked to perform.

Artemis stalked back and forth on the wall above her, still at her command post. She tried to hide a limp as she moved, but Menalippe could see a gash just above where the armor from her greaves ended. Few had escaped the attack unscathed.

The gate opened more widely, and some of the mounted Amazons began to return to the safety offered by the wall. They and their horses panted for breath, sweat dripping off of them. Most were spattered in blood, though few women appeared to be injured themselves.

General Antiope was the last to return. She passed through the gate atop her horse, head held high. Dismounting just inside, she tied her mare’s reins to a post.

“Close and bar the gate,” the General ordered. “Refresh the watch. I want any Amazon carrying an injury to return to the village for treatment. Make sure you send someone back this way to cover your place.”

Artemis shook hands with Senator Timandra, who was taking over her role as captain of the watch. The big woman descended the steps from the top of the wall slowly, as though she had been able to pretend she was fine while on duty, but she lacked the strength to do so any more. She saw Menalippe off to the side and approached her.

Artemis extended an arm, and Menalippe mirrored her. Artemis grasped her forearm firmly and shook it, hard, short pumps. “You fought well today, Menalippe. I will make sure the tale of your bravery does not go unsung.”

“Thank you, Captain.” She found she did not have the will to say more. It felt hollow, to receive the praise she felt her friend deserved as much as she.

“Make sure you are relieved soon, soldier,” Artemis finished. She saluted and began the long walk back toward the village.

Menalippe returned the gesture, her arms heavy as lead from fatigue.

General Antiope walked among the Amazons who recovered from the fight, saying a few words here and there, clapping others on the shoulder. She spotted Menalippe and headed her way.

“Mena!” Antiope said, alarm in her voice. “Why do you remain on guard if you are hurt?”

Menalippe frowned, confused. “I do not believe I am, General.”

Antiope stood before her, concern etched across her features. She reached out with both hands and gently took Menalippe’s head in her hands. Eyes appraising, she slowly turned the taller woman’s face back and forth.

“You look like someone dumped a bucket of blood on your head,” Antiope said softly. “I believe the gash is hidden by your hairline. You’ve lost quite a bit of blood. You should visit the healers.”

A flash of anger pulsed through Menalippe. She knew she should not say anything, but between her pain, exhaustion and fear, the words came out. “So now I may go, when it is someone you care about. But not when it is my best friend.” She gritted her teeth, as though physically holding back the rest of what she was about to say.

Antiope’s brow twitched briefly, then her face went stony. Menalippe had spoken loud enough for others to hear, and several glanced their way.

“You know I could not send away one of my strongest fighters in the heat of such a battle. I do not like making such decisions, Mena, but it is my duty to protect all Amazons, not to acquiesce to the whim of any one.”

Menalippe held back tears, her frustration starting to boil over.

“You are relieved of duty, soldier.” Antiope’s eyes softened. On an impulse, she stepped forward, closing the distance between the two women, and slipped both arms around Menalippe’s waist. She hugged her briefly, resting her forehead against Menalippe’s shoulder for an instant. The taller woman was stunned by this sudden display of vulnerability. She felt her residual anger melting away.

“Go find Penthesilea and let her know about Philippus. You may take my horse.” Antiope reached out and took the spear from Menalippe. She grasped her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I’m sure she will be fine.”

Given permission to go, Menalippe saluted, then headed toward the gate as fast as her tired legs could carry her. It felt odd, for a moment, to walk up to the horse of the General and treat it as her own. It was well known that Antiope was particular about her horse’s care. She let few other than the expert trainers at the stables ride her. But this would be far and away the fastest way to return to the village. And appearances be damned: all Menalippe wanted in that moment was to see her friend. She pulled herself up onto the horse, the action that was normally so easy made challenging by fatigue. Spying Penthesilea with a group of mounted riders by the trees, she urged the mare into motion.

Penthesilea saw the alarmed expression on Menalippe’s face. She cocked her head to the side, a question in the gesture.

“It’s Philippus,” Menalippe said, her voice thick and hoarse. “The General has given permission for you and me to go.”

Penthesilea blanched. She turned her horse toward the path and sent it into a trot, Menalippe riding on her heels.

The trip through the forest felt like it took an hour, though in reality they arrived at the healers huts only minutes later. The buildings were bustling. It looked like every apprentice regardless of skill level had been summoned.

Penthesilea nearly leaped off her horse while it was still moving. She headed for the main hut, the purpose in her stride sending others scattering out of her way. Menalippe followed.

The inside of the main healers hut was well lit so the healers could see. Menalippe glanced around and was relieved to see few beds were filled, and indication that the nation had suffered a limited number of serious injuries. A woman with dark skin filled one of the cots at the back, and Penthesilea made a beeline towards it. She took Philippus’s hand, and the injured woman lifted her head slightly, forcing a smile.

Menalippe nearly collapsed, so strong was the feeling of relief that flooded through her. She turned toward Ephiny, one of the master healers. “How bad was it?” she asked softly.

Some of Ephiny’s blonde curls had escaped the leather cord than bound them. She shook her head. “It is still bad,” she responded. “But I think she will recover. I am worried about tonight. She lost a lot of blood.”

Menalippe nodded. She would give the woman a few minutes alone. Glancing around, she noticed Freya sitting in a chair nearby, a look of pain on the young woman’s face.

Menalippe went over to her. “What happened, young one?” she asked.

“Broken ankle,” Freya grumbed. “I was trying so hard to return to the village quickly, I forgot to look at where I was going.”

The taller Amazon clapped her on the shoulder. “Perhaps work on your story a bit,” she joked. “I think perhaps one of the attackers made it past the wall, and you broke your ankle in pursuit of him.” Freya smiled. “And I tackled him, me! A girl of so few summers took down a full grown man.”

“That’s the idea,” Menalippe replied. She turned to head towards the back of the tent.

Philippus tried to smile again when she saw Menalippe there. “Did you defeat him?” she asked, her voice weak.

Menalippe nodded, pulling a sword from the scabbard at her waist. “His sword is yours, my friend.”

“But it is you that struck the blow…” Penthesilea began.

Menalippe shot her a look to silence her. “But Philippus tired him out so that he made a mistake,” she said. “I dedicate the victory to you. Now you must recover, Phil, so you can carry that conquered swordsman’s blade proudly.”

Philippus grinned slightly, dropping her head back onto the pillow. Ephiny noticed and came over. “I think that’s enough for now,” Ephiny said quietly. “Let her rest.”

Penthesilea clutched Philippus’s hand reflexively. Menalippe pulled over a vacant chair and sat down. Both women made it clear from their expressions that they were going nowhere.

Ephiny shook her head, but relented. “By the gods, it is a wonder we Amazons continue to exist, stubborn as we are. Fine, you may stay, but keep out of the way.” She turned her attention to Menalippe. “And since you are here, I will clean that wound.” She returned moments later with a bowl of warm water and some ointment. Carefully, she sponged the blood off Menalippe’s face. When the cloth brushed the cut, Menalippe winced involuntarily. Ephiny made a clicking noise with her teeth. “This will require stiches. Do you wish for salve to dull the pain?”

Menalippe knew the painkilling balm was terribly expensive to make. She shook her head in the negative.

“You get no medals for suffering,” Ephiny cautioned.

“I am prepared,” the warrior responded.

Ephiny shrugged and retrieved the supplies she needed. She handed Menalippe a length of leather cord, which the taller woman placed between her teeth. She barely made a sound while the healer went to work, but sweat began to drip down her face from the effort of dealing with the pain.

Penthesilea glanced over. “Make sure it will leave a good scar,” she said. “Ladies love a rogue.”

Menalippe snorted, the best reaction she could manage.

When Ephiny finished, she sat back. “Was this a blow to the head or just a blade?”

“Arrow,” Menalippe grunted.

The healer nodded. “Then your head will be fine. But get some rest. These fine slices always take longer to heal than we want them to.” She stood and went to check on a different Amazon.

Moments later, Rala burst into the tent. Seeing Penthesilea at the back, she ran over.

“Walk in my infirmary!” Ephiny called.

“Sorry!” Rala said, skidding to a halt. “Penthesilea, the queen has summoned you. She convenes the Senators and the high guard for counsel.”

Penthesilea looked over at her partner. Philippus was fast asleep. “I answer the call,” she said quietly. She leaned over and kissed Philippus on the forehead.

“Mena, will you watch over her?”

Menalippe nodded. “With my life,” she responded. Pen grasped her shoulder in thanks and followed Rala out of the tent.

The room became quiet soon after she left. Those with light injuries returned to their homes, and the rest slept. The light of day dimmed outside.

Menalippe sat in a chair next to Philippus’s cot. Though she fought hard to stay awake, the effort of the day caught up to her. She felt her mind drifting, her head resting on the back of the chair, and the Amazon fell asleep.

 

Menalippe awoke with a start, the feeling of soft lips pressed against her temple. There was barely any light in the room , and she automatically raised her arms in a defensive gesture. She recognized the low chuckle coming from the darkness.

“There are no enemies here, Mena. Unless you still count me as one after what I did earlier.”

As her eyes adjusted to the light, Menalippe could see the outline of Antiope sitting in a chair next to her. She shook her head, as much to scatter the cobwebs from her brain as anything else.

“I do not fault you, General. I reacted emotionally,” Menalippe replied.

“Really? I fault myself,” Antiope replied, her tone wry. “Every time I do something like that, I question whether or not my nation needs a taskmaster, or something else.”

“We all of us have our own role to play,” Menalippe said sleepily.

“Mena, I think perhaps I should not have acted that way with you, as though you were a common soldier…”

“But I am,” Menalippe hissed. “I am to General Antiope, and I must be. You know what it would look like if you had acted otherwise. And I will accept nothing less from myself than to be everything I can for my nation. I, and the others, we need someone like you to drive us there.”

Antiope took several shallow breaths. She was clearly affected by Menalippe’s words, but she seemed unsure how to react.

“Let’s move you into a bed,” Antiope said, finally.

“Oh, so that’s where things stand?” Menalippe wasn’t sure where she found the energy to joke.

Antiope rolled her eyes, grasping Menalippe by the upper arm and lifting. “I would not take advantage of an incapacitated woman in that way,” she said, her tone light with humor.

Menalippe resisted slightly, shaking her head as though remembering something.

“Penthesilea is on her way over, I promise,” Antiope said. She paused a moment, weighing her words carefully. “The council has decided we go to war…in a way.”

Menalippe froze. “What?! Who was responsible for the attack, then?”

“We do not know,” Antiope replied. “The prisoners have refused to speak, and there is nothing to identify them otherwise. So we will pursue them, and learn that way who our adversary is.”

Antiope guided Menalippe out of the healers tent. It was the middle of the night, completely dark but for torchlight. She lead the taller woman, swaying slightly from exhaustion.

When they arrived at Menalippe’s tent, it was clear the Amazon was barely able to stand any more. Antiope supported her weight, nearly dragging her the last few feet to her bed. She unbuckled Menalippe’s armor with practiced fingers, setting the metal pieces off to the side.

Menalippe struggled to stay awake. Antiope’s hands on her were almost distracting enough to do so, but she felt her mind drifting again. She realized something with a start.

“Antiope!” she said, sitting up suddenly. “Do you lead the forces in pursuit?”

“As is my duty,” Antiope answered gravely.

“And am I joining you?” Menalippe asked, though she felt she already knew the answer.

Antiope shook her head sadly. “Your injury is too much to allow it when we have so many Amazons available who were not involved in today’s skirmish.”

Menalippe frowned. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped short. Everything about to come out of her seemed too sentimental, too childish to say to the striking woman before her. She set her jaw. “Fight well, Antiope.”

The older woman leaned in, taking Menalippe’s lips in a fierce kiss. She reached around her back with one arm and pulled her close. Menalippe rested her hands on Antiope’s cheeks and, on a whim, pushed her tongue forward, an exploratory maneuver. The General opened her mouth, deepening the kiss, her tongue responding to the other’s playful exploration.

After a moment, Antiope pulled back. She looked almost in pain.

“Goodbye, Mena. Heal stronger, better than before.” The General stood, then left the tent.

Menalippe collapsed onto her back, her brain a maelstrom of emotions. Her exhaustion took over, and the Amazon fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

When Menalippe awoke, she could tell it was much later than usual. She sat up quickly, a bolt of fear coursing through her. Had Philippus survived the night? She got up and dressed quickly.

Pushing the steady throb of pain from her head wound aside, Menalippe started toward the center of town. There, on the highest flagpole, was something new, something she had not seen for years. The pale blue pennant that flew in times of peace had been replaced with one in deep red. It meant several things. First, all standard schedules and duties were canceled. Amazons would have to go to the meeting hall to receive adjusted plans. Second, the process for the council to deliberate and decide on any topic was abbreviated, the power to break any stalemate granted to Queen Hippolyta.

It was clear that nearly a third of the adults in the village were gone. Those who remained were, in most cases, too young, too old or too injured to fight. It gave the village a quiet, somber tone.

Menalippe stepped inside the infirmary. She immediately looked toward the back corner and was relieved to see Philippus there, sitting up as she tried to drink some broth. Menalippe went over, taking the bowl from her friend’s shaking hands.

“Let me help,” Menalippe said, a warm smile of relief crossing her face.

Philippus wrinkled her nose in response. “I do not need someone to treat me as a child,” she retorted, more strength in her voice than the previous night.

“Yes, you do,” Menalippe joked. “Though I am certain, not for long. It is good to see you well, friend.” She raised the bowl to Philippus’s lips, holding it there as she drank.

Philippus sat back, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Pen says it was a near thing at one point yesterday,” she said, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I am glad not to have left you both. I do not feel I have done enough on this earth to travel to the Amazon Land of the Dead. I certainly haven’t kissed Pen even half as much as I wish to before I go.”

Menalippe laughed. “It will take more than one man and a sword to do it, I’m sure.” She paused for a moment. “I am sorry, Phil. Sorry that I was not able to defend you as I should have…”

Philippus cut her off. “Mena! You are the noblest woman I know, but ye gods, at times your pride is tiring. From what I hear, you singlehandedly fended off half of the attackers. Give yourself credit where it is due. You are no more responsible for this than I am for that.” She gestured at the line of sutures on Menalippe’s head. “Indeed, I owe you my life. You know how I hate to owe you anything.”

Menalippe shook her head in amusement. “I will lord it over you daily, of course.”

Philippus huffed. “Now, go away. Five minutes of conversation, and I’m weak as a newborn hare.”

Leaning over, Menalippe grasped her friend’s shoulder gently, giving it a squeeze. “Send a message when they release you to your home.”

Menalippe left the tent in better spirits. While war was nothing to be casual about, she was confident in the Amazon forces. Especially with Antiope at the tip of the attacking spear. Her only concern was injuries. Every so often, their adversaries got lucky and wounded an Amazon. The village had not mourned a death since Alessa expired of old age the year before, and Menalippe hoped that would remain the case.

As she entered the main meeting hall, Menalippe detected a feeling of urgency that was missing on the village streets. Every Amazon with a duty to perform was present. Some ate at their usual tables, now half-full, wolfing down breakfast at speed. Others waited to receive the scroll that detailed their wartime assignments.

Menalippe saw Euboea behind a pile of missives on a table, distributing them as quickly as she could. Before Menalippe could take her place at the back of the line, the other Amazon spotted her.

“Menalippe!” she called. “Come to the front.”

As she passed her sisters in line, Menalippe waved an apology. It felt odd not to wait her turn.

“Orders from the queen herself,” Euboea explained.

Menalippe tried to contain her surprise. Before she could ask for clarification, she noticed the other woman was also injured. Distributing the scrolls was difficult for her, one arm bound up in a sling. “What happened to you?” Menalippe asked.

“Gods-be-damned attacker knocked me off the wall. My shoulder popped out of the socket,” Euboea replied. “He won’t be doing that to anyone else. Artemis took care of him. I wish I was out there with the others, paying them back myself.”

Menalippe nodded in agreement. She took the offered scroll and stepped to the side to read it.

“Report to the main councilors chamber at Noon,” it said, “to receive special orders.”

“Really?” Menalippe said out loud, almost to herself.

“It’s true.” A voice called over to her: Ephiny’s. “I was there when the queen said so. I had just delivered the casualty report.”

Menalippe went over to the blonde woman, just receiving her own message. “And what was the casualty report?” she asked.

Ephiny responded absently, scanning the scroll in front of her. “Better than could be hoped for,” she responded. “Freya and Philippus were the worst. Most everyone else who participated has just cuts and bruises, like you.”

Menalippe was relieved. “Are your orders as expected?” she asked the healer.

Ephiny nodded. “Clean everything twice, and make bandages for days on end. Not the most exciting, but I do what I must.” She saluted Menalippe and left the tent in a hurry.

As Menalippe puzzled over her orders, she felt a presence next to her.

“What is your task, Mena?” Aella looked about twice as curious as Menalippe wanted her to be. She had a sizeable bandage across her midsection, causing her to hunch slightly as she moved. Menalippe assumed she was one of the mounted group that had been first to answer the general alarm.

“Very cryptic,” Menalippe answered.

“Mine also,” Aella responded. “I’ve been asked to see the queen.” She looked altogether more excited at the prospect than Menalippe felt. Perhaps the runner had never conversed with Hippolyta in an informal setting as she had. If so, she would be more wary.

“I too will meet with her,” Menalippe admitted. “Though I would prefer to be headed into battle with the rest of them.” She tried not to think of Antiope, covered in sweat and astride her horse, the muscles in her shoulders flexing as she rode. She failed.

“Is something wrong?” Aella asked, responding to the strange expression on the other woman’s face.

“I think something is right,” Menalippe said quietly, a mysterious smile on her face.

Aella’s brows came together briefly. “Shall we travel over together?”

Menalippe snagged an apple from one of the tables nearby. She nodded, following Aella out of the hall.

___________________________

 

Menalippe half expected that she and Aella would be joined by other Amazons, summoned with the same vague message they had received. None arrived.

The shorter woman tucked strands of her red hair behind her ears, something Menalippe recognized as a nervous habit. She used to find it endearing, she realized.

“I’ve heard some fantastic tales of your role in the battle, Mena,” Aella said, trying to fill the silence. “Are they true?”

Menalippe shrugged. “As I have been asleep most of the time since, I am unsure what others have said. I fought. We all survived.”

Aella shook her head in amazement. “Humility always was attractive on you Mena, while it makes the rest of us look weak. Quite a skill to possess.”

The taller woman shifted back and forth, uncomfortable with the comments. She said nothing.

“I heard,” Aella continued, “that you had a quiver of only ten arrows but somehow managed to hit three times as many. And that you held the space in front of the gate as though you were ten Amazons.”

“Philippus deserves the lion’s share of the credit for defending the gate,” Menalippe responded. “Though the part about the archery is…almost true,” she joked.

The door to the councilors chamber opened, and several of Hippolyta’s personal guard exited at pace. Another peeked her head around the door. “You two may come in,” she said.

Queen Hippolyta leaned on a large table that had been set up in the center of the room. A map of the region was spread out, and she studied it closely. She glanced up and, seeing who entered, motioned the pair over.

“Menalippe, Aella, good day. I am glad that neither of you was grievously injured in yesterday’s attack. I hear you both acquitted yourselves as an Amazon should.” The Queen gave an approving nod, and Menalippe realized it was close to the highest praise their leader could bestow.

“We do not have time to waste if we hope to remain unscathed,” Hippolyta continued. “The attackers came through the forest here.” She pointed at the map. “And the first reports from General Antiope are that they have vanished. No tracks at all remain in the woods, not even in the area we know they attacked from. It is….unnerving.”

The queen stood up straight. “We are vulnerable with so many of our best fighters away,” she said. “I am unsure where they will strike next, if they do. Should we recall our forces?”

Menalippe almost laughed aloud as she recognized the tone in Hippolyta’s voice. Another test, then.

Aella seemed to perceive the question as rhetorical.

“Even if their movements are hidden from us, they would be unwise to strike again with such a sizeable force in pursuit,” Menalippe said. “If they expose themselves in attack, retribution would be swift. If I were the opposing commander, I would hide, lick my wounds and attack another day.”

Hippolyta considered Menalippe’s words. “For better or worse, men so often do not make the logical choice. You are correct, I think, that we will have a reprieve. But we will be on our guard in any case.”

The queen picked up a mug, and the corner of the map it had been holding down curled in on itself. Hippolyta took a swig of its contents. “Defense is exactly why I asked you both here. Our archers dominated the battle yesterday, making it so that our enemies were at a fraction of full strength by the time they reached the wall.”

Hippolyta set the mug back down, coming around to the other side of the table. Her cape swayed gently behind her. “I had a survey of the entire nation performed last night, and we require a greater number of skilled archers. That is your assigned duty.”

The queen reached into her cloak and drew out a scroll. “This is the list of Amazons aged 16 to 20 that have the basic skills needed to become capable archers. And they very well might, in their own time, but circumstances dictate that I require more from them now.”

Menalippe unrolled the parchment, scanning the names. She recognized many of them but knew few well.

“How long will it take you to have them ready to defend our walls?” Hippolyta looked at Menalippe, her eyes piercing.

Menalippe took a deep breath. “A month, to be prepared to my satisfaction, my queen. But I suspect we have less time than that?”

Hippolyta nodded slowly, her mouth set in a thin line. “Their schedule is wholly given over to training with you. I want them at least somewhat capable in a week.”

“My queen, I am unsure how well I am suited to this role…” Aella let her words trail off, wilting under Hippolyta’s sharp stare.

“Is it your injury?” the queen asked. “It seems to me you can still judge form and give suggestions for improvement despite that.”

“Yes, my queen.” Wisely, Aella did not protest more.

“They gather to begin work after lunch,” Hippolyta said. “My Amazons, with so many in the field, we require everyone else to work beyond themselves. All of my main trainers are gone, and at the worst time.” She turned back to the map. “I expect daily reports.”

Both women recognized the tone of dismissal. They saluted, then left the room.

Chapter Text

“Lower your bow. Rala, don’t-!” Menalippe shook her head in exasperation as the young Amazon’s shot went wild, barely striking the edge of the target downrange.

“What did I say about fatigue?” Menalippe stepped up next to her pupil.

Rala slouched to the side, disappointment evident on her features. “You said if I’m not going to release the arrow in the first few moments after I aim, not to at all.”

The taller Amazon nodded. “A shot when your bow arm is trembling will always go astray. If your target moved, or took cover, you would lower your bow and regroup, correct?” Rala sighed. “Do not be afraid to do so when it is your body throwing off the shot, not theirs. Now, try again, and be confident in your aim.” Menalippe stepped behind her, checking Rala’s stance and arm position.

The younger woman took several deep breaths, then raised the bow again. This time, she released her arrow more quickly, striking the target in the second ring from the center.

“Better,” Menalippe said, and moved down the line to the next Amazon.

Menalippe glanced up at the sun, just beginning to set behind the trees surrounding the range. The group had been working almost nonstop since lunchtime, and she could tell most of the archers were at their limits. They were shooting at mid-range targets, far enough away that weaker women in the group would have difficulty drawing their bows far enough to generate the needed force. It was a challenge for all of the trainees.

Menalippe considered the training plan she had drawn up. Was this too much? Her intent was to expose the younger women to the feeling of exhaustion that crept in after a full day of battle. Hippolyta would not accept archers that could shoot straight only as the battle was getting started.

“Mena!” Aella called her name from the far side of the line. “Can you come take a look at this?”

“Keep shooting,” Menalippe instructed the others, and she approached her fellow trainer. She and Aella had divided the group in two, taking extra time to gain a detailed understanding of the attributes and weaknesses of each. From what she had seen, they had a lot of work to do.

“Iphito has a tendency to pull her shots wide right. And I can’t figure out what she’s doing to cause it. Will you take a look?” Aella spoke evenly, but Menalippe detected the irritation behind the words.

“All right, let’s see,” Menalippe stood next to Aella, crossing her arms, brow furrowed in concentration.

Iphito glanced back at the pair of instructors, her nervousness apparent.

“The enemy is that way, Iph!” Aella corrected.

The younger Amazon nodded and rushed to retrieve an arrow. Thankfully, she slowed down before her shot.

Menalippe’s mind raced, taking in a thousand details at once. The stance was fine. Posture: accurate. Iphito was strong and did not struggle to hold the bow in place once drawn.

The arrow zipped away towards the target, striking it with a thunk. Wide right.

Menalippe stepped around to the trainee’s side. “Once more,” she directed.

Iphito repeated the process, glancing over at Menalippe a few times before her focus rested on the target. She released the arrow, and the taller woman saw it. She glanced downfield to confirm her suspicion. Off to the side, again.

The young Amazon let out a yowl of frustration. “I even aimed off to the left a bit this time!” she cried.

Menalippe stepped over and picked up an arrow. She handed it to the younger woman, a small smile on her face. “Iph, what color are the feathers on this arrow?”

Iphito looked at Menalippe as though the latter was trying to trick her. “Red,” she answered.

“And what color will the feathers be when they strike the target,” Menalippe replied.

“Is this a joke?” Iphito asked, glancing at Aella. The runner shrugged. “Red,” she said finally.

“So you don’t need to check the color of the feathers again just before you release your shot, do you?” Menalippe said, amusement in her tone.

“Look,” she said, her expression becoming more serious. “Draw the arrow, and hold that position.” Iphito did as she was told. “Your anchor point is here,” Menalippe said, tapping the right side of the younger woman’s cheek, low down by her chin. “You do not need to re-check its position before every shot. Is a consistent anchor point something you’ve worked on before?”

Iphito frowned. “The first half of the year. Elyra called it my ‘wandering anchor.’ I thought I had that corrected!”

“I think you’re relying too much on your sight to ensure you’ve placed the arrow correctly. Try to focus your eyes on the target, and use the feel of the string on your cheek to tell you it’s in the right place,” Menalippe replied.

Iphito nodded, taking several short breaths as though to bolster her courage. She drew the arrow again, Menalippe’s watchful eyes on her face.

Fffffttttt……..whump. This time, the arrow struck the center circle of the target, a hand’s width away from the bullseye.

Iphito smiled in delight. Menalippe crossed her arms, a look of satisfaction on her face.

Menalippe looked over at her fellow instructor. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the expression on Aella’s face. Was it…respect? She wasn’t sure what that looked like on the lithe runner. And there was a tinge of something else that made Menalippe’s face heat up.

“Last pair of shots,” Menalippe called out. The trainees took them quickly, the end of their day bringing new life to their limbs. Most had shot well all day, but not exceptionally. That would have to change. “All right, bows away. Go retrieve your arrows, and then you’re free to go to dinner. Last one back is running with Aella tomorrow.” The young Amazons scattered, hustling for the targets as fast as their legs could carry them.

“Do you think any of them could keep up?” Aella asked.

“Not a chance,” Menalippe replied. “But they don’t know that I was kidding!”

She watched for a few moments as the trainees jostled for position around the targets. Some grabbed only their own arrows and sprinted back. Others were helping their slower sisters, retrieving more arrows than they needed to. She made note of who fell into which group.

“Thanks, Mena, good night!” Iphito called over to her with a wave as she was leaving. Menalippe returned the gesture, an amused expression on her face.

“Be careful,” Aella joked. “Or you’ll have half the class in love with you within a day.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time an Amazon fell for her instructor!” Menalippe smiled widely. “Remember what it’s like to be that age, your hormones running rampant?”

Aella arched an eyebrow. “Frankly, I don’t know that mine have faded much since then.”

That explains a lot, Menalippe thought to herself. “Let’s put the extra targets away,” she suggested. “No point in leaving a mess for the next group.”

The two Amazons hauled back several targets, each stuffed with hay, weighted down so the impact of an arrow would not knock them over. They placed the last in a shed off to the side of the range, and Menalippe sighed. She was more tired than she had realized, still recovering from the battle the day before. She wiped the sweat from her forehead, wincing as some stung her cut.

Suddenly, Aella was much, much closer than she needed to be. Menalippe almost jumped back in surprise. She looked down to see the redhead extending a clean cloth towards her.

“Thank you,” Menalippe said, using it to dry her face and neck.

Aella gave her that strange look again, this time laced with more desire than she had revealed in front of the teenagers. Menalippe felt her body respond, and she cursed inwardly. The woman had some kind of magnetism. And though her mind was well aware of the danger she posed, in that moment, her body wanted something else.

“You’re different than I remember, Mena,” Aella said, her voice dropped low.

Menalippe rolled her eyes slightly. “I am the same Amazon I have always been. It is no fault of mine that you chose not to see it.”

“All right,” Aella conceded. “I deserve that. You’re right: I didn’t get to know you well enough…before. And I regret that.” She took a small step toward the taller woman.

Menalippe’s eyes narrowed. She warred within herself. Part of her wanted to tell the other woman off. Gods be damned, Aella had hurt her. And she’d let it happen. But she couldn’t make a dramatic scene now, with another week of instructing together ahead. And Menalippe had to admit, there was a small part of her, completely idiotic and irrational, that said, “take her, now!”

The tall Amazon took a deep, steadying breath. “Thank you for this,” she said, holding up the cloth. “I’ll wash it and return it.”

Menalippe stepped away, brushing past Aella, trying not to think about the waft of lavender coming from the runner’s soft hair.

________________________________________

The next morning, Menalippe leaned against the boulder in the open field at the usual time. Though she knew nobody was en route to join her, some part of her wanted to wait, just to be sure. Mist hung over the landscape, an overcast and wet day ahead. Menalippe felt she could almost make out her missing companion in the murk, sauntering toward her, that cryptic, mischievous grin on her face. But Antiope did not appear.

Menalippe held her head in her hands. Antiope had been gone just one day, and already everything that had happened between them felt like a dream. As though her heart, in its loneliness, had fabricated the whole thing. After all, she was nobody. An Amazon warrior like any other. With grander aspirations, yes. But every hour that passed, it felt less and less likely that General Antiope herself would be interested in her. Half the Amazons in the village lusted after the leader.

Menalippe shook her head. She tried to push the thoughts away and focus on training, hers and the archery group's later that day. Perhaps if she worked even harder than before, she wouldn’t have the energy or time for self doubt. Menalippe pushed off the rock and loped into the woods.

________________________________________

That afternoon, the training group shot at the most distant targets. These were so hard to hit, most of the arrows missed altogether. It was tiring, grueling work, especially with a light drizzle coming down on them. Menalippe read the mood of the women and sensed their mounting frustration.

Aella, too, was less patient with the trainees than she should have been. Her hair, wet and stringy, hung in her face. Menalippe had hers pulled back in a braid, and the precipitation was little bother to her. Her focus was completely on the task at hand.

“We need to do more strength exercises for their backs,” she muttered to Aella. “Half the group can barely keep the bow drawn back far enough to aim.”

To her surprise, Rala was shooting best of everyone that day. The young woman had learned her lesson from the day before. She drew the arrow back, aimed and released in a continuous motion, minimizing the drain on her muscles. Aella noticed, too.

“Circle around,” the redhead called. “And watch what Rala is doing.”

The young Amazon looked around in surprise. She seemed to wilt slightly under the added scrutiny. Menalippe saw her reaction and walked over. She pretended to check the string on Rala’s bow. Under her breath, she said, “Deep, even breaths, and the anxiety will fall away. You will succeed. You already have for the last hour.” She handed the bow back to the trainee with an encouraging nod. Rala smiled weakly.

As Rala drew the bow back, Menalippe’s heart jumped with excitement. The young woman’s form looked perfect. The arrow flew away, the bowstring humming with its release. The wait for impact seemed eternal, but finally, the group heard a distant thud that indicated she had struck the target. Menalippe wiped the lens of her spyglass on her tunic to remove the drops of rain, lifting it to her eye.

“About a foot left of center,” she announced with a smile. “An excellent shot at this distance. Rala, will you explain to the others what you did?”

Though she looked nervous, the young Amazon opened her mouth to speak. Before she could get a word out, a courier rode up at speed. She was young, too young to be training in combat seriously. But even the least experienced Amazons could ride a horse.

“A message for you, Menalippe, from the General,” she said breathlessly.

Menalippe’s heart leapt into her throat. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the attention of the group had been drawn. “As you were,” she ordered.

Taking the scroll from the rider, Menalippe confirmed it was indeed Antiope’s seal. She tried to calm her trembling fingers as she unrolled it, fearing the worst.

Menalippe,

I cannot tell you where I am or how fares the chase. Needless to say, your sister Amazons comport themselves nobly. I have yet to hear a single complaint, though I know conditions on the road to be less than ideal.

I can tell you that I encountered a trader yesterday who shared with me a book of poetry unlike any I had seen before. Its brevity appeals to me, and I find myself strangely inspired as of late.

It harrows my heart/
A wind on des’late mountains/
Uprooting the oaks

Please, treat my first attempts kindly, and send notes.

Antiope

Menalippe was short of breath. All the emotions she had been ignoring that day flooded back. She felt as though she could nearly burn the clouds away, so bright was her mood.

“Is everything all right?” Aella and several of the archery students looked at Menalippe in alarm. The tall Amazon realized she was beaming, and she struggled to return her expression to neutral.

“Did the General say this was urgent?” Menalippe asked the courier.

“Well, no, miss. The message was just that it was for you. I assumed it was a matter to be attended to immediately.”

“A wise strategy,” Menalippe replied, almost laughing. “I have no response just yet. You are dismissed.”

The courier saluted, the motion still somewhat awkward on her, and rode off.

Aella looked at her fellow instructor warily. “General Antiope sent you a message, but it is not urgent…what is it, then?”

Menalippe did not feel like explaining the contents of the message to so many in a public place. But neither would she lie about it. “She asked for notes on something she is writing.” The Amazon thought she had almost pulled off a straight face with that statement. She kept the best part to herself. She is writing for me.

Chapter Text

Aella shook her head. “Let’s break for lunch, Mena. We’re getting nowhere with this drill, and I can practically hear their stomachs growling from here.” She looked pointedly at Menalippe. “And yours too,” she joked.

Menalippe laughed, inclining her head in agreement. “You’re right. If we continue, they will only get more frustrated.”

The group had been working on moving shots for the past hour. They started simply walking side to side, the bow relatively level. But as they increased their pace to a run, the shots went wild. “How will we move on to horseback if they cannot master this?” she asked, only loud enough for Aella to hear.

“Bows down,” Menalippe called. “Retrieve your arrows, and then you may get food.” The trainees did as they were told.

“I’ll go report to Hippolyta,” Menalippe said. “If I have not returned in time, let’s get them set up for more distance shooting. A change of pace from the current drill.” Aella nodded.

As Menalippe trudged away from the training grounds, she reflected on their progress. They had been working during almost every waking moment for three days. While some of the trainees had risen to the challenge, others were beginning to crack under the pressure, their focus faltering.

Menalippe was proud of the work she had done, though she had to admit her mind would occasionally wander. She thought of the letter she had received from Antiope for probably the fifth time that day. Though she had responded to the General right away, there had been no additional communication from Antiope. The Amazon pushed down her disappointment. She knew the General had far more important things on her mind. And the fact that any message had been sent at all buoyed her spirits. She had something tangible, evidence of Antiope’s feelings towards her. It was both nervewracking and exhilarating.

Menalippe sidestepped a pile of horse manure, skirting around the edges of the market. It was much less crowded than on a usual day but still teeming with life. She waved at Euboea, carrying a basket of apples with her healthy arm.

Hippolyta continued to direct the Amazons from the councilors chambers. Couriers came and went almost constantly, like bees buzzing around a hive. Menalippe arrived almost the same moment the doors to the chambers opened. Mnemosyne, the older Amazon in charge of coordinating the games each year, nodded to her in recognition and hurried out, some urgent task occupying her attention.

Menalippe stuck her head in the doorway. Hippolyta was alone. She sat at a desk off to the side of the room, poring over scrolls covered in numbers.

“My queen, I bring the latest report,” Menalippe said. “If you have a moment.”

The queen set down the parchment in her hand with a sigh. “Yes, please. Bring me information more interesting than this. By the gods, I never had much of an appetite for economics.” She motioned for Menalippe to take the chair across from her.

“How many will be ready by the end of the week?” Hippolyta asked, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin on her hands.

Menalippe had felt confident in her report on the way there, but now that she had to give it, she was unsure she was doing the right thing.

“My queen...it is too soon to say with certainty…” Menalippe began.

“How. Many.” Hippolyta’s eyes narrowed.

“Five,” Menalippe answered. “Five at best. The rest need more time to reach the level of skill you require. They would end up more of a distraction on the battlefield than an asset.”

“Five is not enough to protect our walls,” the queen mused, “but it is five more than we had several days ago. And Aella, has she been helpful?”

Menalippe was half tempted to say no. But it wasn’t Hippolyta’s fault that she found the runner attractive, and therefore something of a challenge to work with. That was something she herself had to bear.

“Aella is not the strongest archer,” Menalippe admitted, “but she is helpful at managing the group, yes. And she has a keen memory, able to keep track of each individual’s progress.”

Hippolyta sat back in her chair and looked out the window to her side. It was a crisp, sunny day. The queen did not respond right away, though Menalippe knew she had been heard.

“I’d like for you to speak to Mnemosyne,” Hippolyta finally said. “She coordinates scheduling while Penthesilea is away. Have her add those five to the rotation at the end of the week. We plan to go ahead with the Games, so we will need extra sentries on watch while the events take place.”

Menalippe was surprised. “My queen, will the Games be held with so many Amazons away?”

Hippolyta smiled slightly. “I have reason to believe they will all be back in time,” she said.

Before Menalippe could ask what the queen meant, one of the Amazons on cooking duty entered the room with a full tray. Menalippe stood to leave.

“Please, won’t you stay for lunch?” Hippolyta asked.

“Of course,” Menalippe replied. Who would say no to their queen? She helped transfer several dishes onto the desk, including fresh bread and smoked fish. It was likely the same food being served at the mess hall, Menalippe realized. Somehow she had expected something more fancy. But no, the Amazon queen ate like all the rest of her warriors.

As Hippolyta filled a plate, Menalippe stole a glance across the table. She could see the similarities between the queen and her younger sister. They had the same blue eyes and high, striking cheekbones. Hippolyta usually wore her honey-blonde hair down, cascading over her shoulders. It complemented her petite features, even now, with a crumb of bread stuck to the corner of her mouth. Hippolyta’s bearing was always regal, as though she had been born a queen rather than granted the title by election.

Menalippe recalled past conversations, usually over a pint, where she and her Amazon friends had debated who was more attractive: their queen or their general. It was common knowledge that Hippolyta was a rare beauty. And in the past, Menalippe might have agreed that the queen was more desirable. Now, though, knowing their general as she did, Menalippe thought there was no comparison. She could see Antiope’s firm jaw in her mind, the set of her expressive mouth when she was thinking, or fighting, or laughing…

“Come back to earth, Menalippe,” Hippolyta joked with a small chuckle.

Menalippe jumped slightly, trying to hide the motion by shoveling some mashed tubers into her mouth.

“I believe you’re doing good work with those archers,” Hippolyta commented lightly. “As someone must have done with you, once. How old were you when you came to us? Older than most, as I recall.”

Menalippe nodded, swallowing. “I was twelve years of age, my queen.” She paused, thoughtful. “Sometimes I am envious of those who have been part of the nation since an early age. I have some memories that…at times I wish I did not.”

Hippolyta considered this. “Do you remember your birth family?”

Menalippe nodded. “Both parents and a younger sister. I was in the forest gathering berries, and when I returned to my village, the whole thing was burning.” She shuddered at the memory. “A group of bandits- slavers, really- had swept through. They picked me up, along with any other girl around my age, and hauled us away.”

Hippolyta set down her spoon, looking at Menalippe intently.

“Some miles down the road, a group of Amazons attacked. They killed every slaver, to a man, and rescued all of us. They were led by Orpheia, if you remember her. She just passed away this past year.”

The queen nodded. “She always preferred to be out on the road. As though the village was choking her. A fierce fighter, to the end.”

“She brought most of the girls back to their families,” Menalippe continued. “But when she went looking for mine, she learned they had been caught in the fire.” The Amazon choked out the last few words. She felt the old, raw emotions bubbling up again. She reached for her mug and took a sip of water. “Orpheia offered me the chance to join her party and return to the Amazon nation. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew then was that I wanted to learn how to fight, to ensure nobody could do to me what they did to my village.” Menalippe smiled weakly. “And then I joined a new family, with 500 mothers and sisters.”

“In some ways, I envy that you had a hand in the decision,” Hippolyta said. “Antiope and I were so young, I barely remember when we came here. This is the only family I have ever had.” She met Menalippe’s eyes. “Do you ever regret the choice you made? Do you wish for a different life?”

Menalippe shook her head. “Never.”

Hippolyta smiled, her gaze unfocused, off in the distance. “In another version of my own life, I would still have to be queen, or I’d cause no small amount of trouble for whoever was!”

Menalippe laughed, trying to imagine Hippolyta as a farmer or a milkmaid.

“And Antiope! Can you picture my sister any way other than she is?”

“Certainly not,” Menalippe replied, a smirk on her lips.

“At times, people forget that I am the elder sister,” Hippolyta said. “Though granted, only by a year. I think it’s because of Antiope’s personality. She has always been the kind of person who would protect another at any cost.”

The queen cut into an apple with the knife from her belt. “Once, when we were young, a group of us were playing with a small leather ball. You know, the kind you use to improve coordination. And one of the older girls thought she was being funny, and she threw it at me from just a few feet away, hard! Out of nowhere, there was Antiope, throwing herself in the way. She took the hit to the middle of her chest. It left a mark that lasted weeks!” Hippolyta gave a light, musical laugh. “I told her that I was ready for it! I had my defenses up, and I could have caught the ball myself. She said to me, ‘Hippolyta, I know. But if there is even a chance you could be hurt, I must step in.’ It’s no wonder that the Amazons have consistently elected her to lead the army.”

Menalippe was entranced by the queen’s story. It seemed like everything she learned about Antiope conspired to make her affection grow even more. She felt nervous, all her emotions bubbling so close to the surface in the presence of the queen.

Menalippe looked outside, guessing the time of day by the light from the sun. She needed to return to training. Standing, she stacked the dishes the food had come in. “I’ll return these to the kitchen on my way,” she said.

“Thank you,” Hippolyta replied. “I suppose you are correct. It’s time to get back to work.” She picked up the scroll she had been reviewing before and wrinkled her nose. She glanced up as the other Amazon began to leave.

“Oh, Menalippe. I’ll come by the training ground for a demonstration tomorrow morning. I expect the whole group to put on a good showing, but those five in particular.”

“Yes, my queen.” Menalippe’s arm twitched, trying to salute out of habit, but she could not for all the dishes in her arms. She inclined her head instead. Hippolyta’s attention was already on another matter.

Chapter Text

Inhale…exhale…RELEASE!

Menalippe was mentally urging on the trainees as they shot for their queen. She and Aella stood off to the side, the runner leaning on a fencepost, her stance nonchalant. Menalippe found she wasn’t able to appear so relaxed. She tried not to pace back and forth as each young woman took their turn shooting at mid-distance, moving targets, followed by the critically-important long shots.

Hippolyta had dismounted her horse, a large white gelding, and stood at his side. She gave the appearance that she had been going for a ride and just happened to come across the training group. Menalippe had told Aella that the queen would be in attendance, but she kept this from the trainees. No use in making them nervous ahead of time.

A couple of sixteen-year-olds took their turns. While they shot well for their age, Menalippe knew they were not ready to be put in a high-pressure combat situation.

Next up was Rala. Menalippe had been surprised and impressed with the young woman’s progress. She knew her mainly as a budding writer, one with a particularly descriptive prose. The discovery that she was a capable archer had been welcome. Menalippe was reminded a bit of herself, years before.

Rala hit each and every one of the moving targets, the first to do so. Menalippe suppressed a smile. She knew the real challenge was the distance shots.

The young Amazon stepped up to the shooting line. Menalippe could see her take several deep breaths. Rala nocked her first arrow and drew it, aiming downfield. Menalippe cursed inwardly as the arrow zipped away. Rala had held her aim a fraction too long, and while the shot struck the target, it was low. She rolled her shoulders slightly, drawing her second of three arrows. This time, she remembered her training and aimed only for a few moments. The shot struck just to the right of center, as close to a bullseye as anyone other than Menalippe had managed on the farthest target.

Something about that near-success emboldened the young Amazon, and Menalippe noticed a shift in Rala as she selected her last arrow. She moved with confidence, as though she already knew where the next shot would go. She repeated the motion, and Menalippe leaned forward in excitement as the arrow was let fly. It hit the target with a mighty thunk, burying itself halfway to the feathers, one inch to the right of absolute center. Several of the other trainees gasped aloud at the excellent shot.

Menalippe raised her spyglass and peered through it, though she already knew the outcome. “A bullseye,” she said with a smile.

Hippolyta inclined her head at the young woman, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. Rala beamed at the praise, nearly prancing back to her place among the other trainees.

Several other young women performed admirably, though none as well as Rala. Iphito managed two good shots on the distant target, but her third missed it entirely. When everyone had taken their turn, Hippolyta approached the group.

The queen looked upon the young Amazons with something like amusement. Each of them, to a woman, stood stiffly at attention, desperate to impress their leader.

“Well, a fine young group of archers,” Hippolyta said, her voice rich and resonant. Menalippe was beginning to recognize it as her “queen voice,” pitched specifically to be heard and appear imposing in the process.

“Your instructors have been keeping me apprised of your progress,” the queen continued. “Some of you have earned the honor to take your place in the ranks of Amazon warriors. If we extend the offer to you, consider it carefully before you respond. Sentry duty is not always safe, as your instructors can tell you.”

Hippolyta saluted the group, the trainees nearly falling over each other to respond. At this, Aella laughed, a low chuckle.

The queen approached the two instructors, her horse following several paces behind of his own accord.

“Keep working with them up until the Games,” Hippolyta said, her voice so quiet the younger women were unlikely to hear. “But you may take the remainder of the day to rest.”

Hippolyta addressed Menalippe directly. “Yesterday, you told me five. I count four that I would feel comfortable including at this moment. Though perhaps by the end of the week, that number could increase.”

“I’ll see that it does, my queen,” Menalippe replied, her voice even, though Hippolyta’s criticism chafed her.

Hippolyta mounted her horse and rode away, her cape fluttering in the wind.

Aella addressed the group of trainees. “Good work today, Amazons. Your queen has seen fit to grant you the rest of the day as leisure time. Now go, before Menalippe and I change our minds and put you to work!”

The group scattered. Aella returned to Menalippe’s side, an eyebrow raised. “Quite the taskmaster, our queen,” she commented. “I myself might have counted ten girls ready enough. But I see I should leave that judgment to you.”

Menalippe was thoughtful. Suddenly, she was unsure who the queen was really testing, the trainees, or she and Aella.

“I’m off to lunch,” Aella called. “Will you join me?”

“Not today,” Menalippe replied. She had much to consider. And more than anything else, she felt overdue for a good soaking.

____________________________________________________________

 

Menalippe sank into the heated pool up to her chin, reveling in the sensation. She couldn’t remember the last time she had come to the baths with the intent of staying for a while. Usually, she unceremoniously doused herself in clean, cold water and left as quickly as she could.

Not today, though. Today she would indulge herself, taking a few minutes to reflect on the hard work she had done. The water gurgled pleasantly as it spilled into the pool. Or, Menalippe thought, her mind at ease, perhaps she would simply doze.

Menalippe heard footsteps on the rocks surrounding the pool. While few Amazons bathed midday, it wasn’t unheard of.

“Well, I don’t usually see you here, Mena.”

The voice was Aella’s, and Menalippe cursed inwardly. She kept her eyes shut, their lids heavy. “It’s rare that I have a free afternoon,” Menalippe replied lazily.

“I’m usually here every day,” Aella continued. “But Ephiny told me not to until my stomach healed more. She just told me I’m cleared to go in the pools, so here I am.”

Without thinking, Menalippe opened her eyes. She froze, unsure if it was the best or worst idea she’d ever had.

Aella stood at the edge of the pool, totally naked, the lines of the muscles in her abdomen criss-crossed by an angry red wound. Menalippe took in the whole of her at a glance and tried to control her pulse, now racing. She nearly thanked every god she knew when Aella slid into the pool, concealing most of her body.

“We make quite the team, Mena,” Aella said. “I think Hippolyta was more than pleased with the work we did.”

Menalippe leaped to join the conversation, a safe alternative to the places her mind was headed. “I still ask myself if we could have done better with a few of the trainees. Though I don’t think simply working harder would have accomplished that. We already pushed the limits of what we could do, given how much time we had. We came near to a mutiny a few times, as it was!”

Aella shook her head, a small grin on her face. “Don’t you ever switch off any more, Mena?”

Menalippe shrugged. “Perhaps when I’m writing, depending on the subject. It can produce a wonderful, freeing feeling.”

“I seem to recall a few other things that produced that feeling,” Aella said, her suggestive tone only thinly veiled. Menalippe felt uncomfortably warm, whether from the hot water or something else, she could not say.

Aella stretched out, propping one leg on the side of the pool. Menalippe felt a moment of relief, thinking the other Amazon would relent and leave her in peace. She was wrong.

Aella’s arm swirled through the water lazily, and she let the back of her head sink down. Menalippe tried to force her eyes away, but she felt drawn to the other woman, her good sense barely putting up a fight. Aella shifted slightly, letting one arm rest in front of her breasts. She looked over at Menalippe with a look of undisguised lust.

“Mena, let that mind of yours be still, and come help me relax.” Aella punctuated this comment by gently tugging on her own nipple. Menalippe’s mouth dropped open involuntarily, a pang of lust gripping her. It had been many months since she had been with Aella, but her body had no trouble remembering how to react to the lithe Amazon’s advances.

Aella’s hand continued its path downward, partially obscured by the ripples on the surface of the pool. Menalippe tried to haul her brain back under control, to keep it from wondering where that hand was going. She could feel herself teetering on a precipice, as though some weight was pulling her forward. Aella locked eyes with Menalippe and let out a low, languid moan.

The noise moved through Menalippe’s body like a lightning bolt, and she was shocked to find her head clearing rather than the other way around. She pursed her lips and stood up, rivulets of water dripping down her taut muscles. She shook her head at Aella and stepped out of the pool. As Menalippe headed around the corner, she could hear Aella’s low, soft laughter. She went to another section of the baths.

The cold pool was empty, luckily, and Menalippe threw herself into it. The icy water shocked her senses, dousing the last embers of lust burning within her. She got out quickly, snagging a blanket from the stack in the corner. She began to dry off in brusque, businesslike movements, eager to get as many walls between her and further temptation as possible.

Menalippe donned her tunic and headed out into to early afternoon sunshine. She took a deep breath and let out a long sigh of relief. Months before, she would have given in to Aella without a thought. Now, though, things were different. She was her own person, a confident, capable warrior. And somehow, that version of herself had the grit to stand up for her own emotions, to make a smarter choice.

The tall Amazon set off for her tent, relishing the thought of an afternoon free to pore over the scrolls of writing Antiope had shared with her. Menalippe smiled to herself. Somehow, she didn’t think a discussion of Rhea’s writing was the first thing she would want to do when Antiope returned.

Chapter Text

“Aphrodite set oblivion in your heart. So I lament you, yet neglect your obsequies — my feet are not so profane as to leave the house, my eyes may not behold a body dead,”

Menalippe read aloud to Philippus in the home she shared with Penthesilea. The wounded Amazon was still confined to her bed, and she had nearly begged her friend to come distract her.

Philippus’s hut was located about halfway between Menalippe’s tent and the village center. It was a single room, curved on every side. While the roof was thatched, the cedar boards that made up the walls were permanent, perfuming the air with their clean scent. Menalippe knew that her friends were rarely in their home except at night, so the sparse quarters suited them. Now, though, Menalippe could tell Philippus felt as though the walls were closing in on her. She fidgeted, pushing a blanket off her torso, then pulling it back moments later when a draft passed through the room.

“…nor may I moan with hair unbound, yet a blush of shame distracts me . . .” Menalippe continued.

Philippus groaned. “Mena, by the gods, I asked you to entertain me, not put me to sleep!”

Menalippe looked up from the scroll in her hands and arched an eyebrow at her friend. “Are you saying you don’t find Rhea’s work compelling? I thought you more cultured than that, Phil.”

Philippus rolled her eyes. “Well, I like what you write, Mena. It’s more dynamic. This…this is just stuffy and sentimental.”

“Some people like that,” Menalippe joked. “Come, now,” she said, her eyes scanning the lines in front of her. “Can’t you feel the poet’s struggle? She laments that she has lost her friend to womanhood, while she herself is still trapped in an earlier age-“

Philippus held up a hand. “I promise you, Menalippe of the Amazon nation, that I will cover a week’s worth of latrine duty for you if you occupy me with something else at this moment.”

Menalippe laughed, rolling up the parchment and stowing it away. “I’m not even going to haggle with you, so generous is that offer,” she said. “What do you want to hear about?”

“Eh, something dramatic, please,” Philippus responded. “The whole town is boring the Tartarus out of me with so many women our age away. Pen usually brings me the latest gossip, and I have no other source with her gone.”

Menalippe shook her head, amused. “And we wonder why rumors carry themselves so swiftly around the village. You enable it!”

“And what if I do,” Philippus sniffed. “There’s plenty of privacy around if people want it. It behooves me to share events that take place in a public forum.”

The seated Amazon pursed her lips, unsure if she should tell even a close friend what had taken place in the baths earlier that afternoon.

“I swear you to secrecy on this next topic,” Menalippe said gravely.

Philippus tried to sit up in anticipation, but the muscles she had planned to use surrounded her wound, and she winced instead, laying back.

“You have my word,” Philippus said through gritted teeth. “I will tell no one other than Penthesilea when she returns.”

“Do you report everything to her?” Menalippe asked in chagrin.

“It’s part of the oath you swear at a joining ceremony, Mena. I must.” Philippus had a twinkle of mischief in her eye.

“I’m glad to see you’re taking that promise so seriously,” Menalippe responded drily. “Well, you know that Hippolyta tasked both Aella and me with the archery training group. It has been…something of a challenge to work so closely with her…”

“Ares balls, not again, Mena!” Philippus interjected.

“Let me finish!” Menalippe replied. “Aella has made it clear she would be interested in, say, picking up where we left off. I, as you know, am no fool…”

“Yes, but you’re a gorgeous Amazon in the prime of her life,” Philippus said wryly. “You are only human. And, well, it’s already all over the village that you two have been spending a lot of time together.”

Menalippe threw her arms in the air in exasperation. “Queen Hippolyta asked us to lead training together. I must spend a lot of time with her.”

“I only repeat what I hear to warn you, Mena,” Philippus said.

“It turns out your fears are somewhat founded,” Menalippe replied. “She cornered me in the public baths earlier, doing her best ‘come hither.’”

Philippus’s eyes widened. “Few women could say no to that,” she acknowledged. “Well, I could. I like a bit more meat on the bones, if you know what I mean.” She winked at her friend.

“Well, I did say no,” Menalippe continued. “Granted, I didn’t say it per se, but at least I left.”

“Don’t count your bullseyes before the arrows are fired,” Philippus cautioned. “That woman is relentless.”

Before Menalippe could respond, the pair heard a commotion outside the hut. Menalippe recognized the sound of several horses coming to a halt, their tack jingling.

“I’ll see what that’s about,” Menalippe said to her friend. She pushed open the wooden door and stepped out into the late afternoon sun. A wide grin crossed her face.

“You’re going to be very happy when I tell you who has arrived,” Menalippe called over her shoulder.

Penthesilea led a small group of Amazons who lived in that part of the village. All had been part of the forces that left to track the attackers days before. Hippolyta had been right, Menalippe mused. Their field army had returned.

Pen dismounted her dapple gray mare and waved at Menalippe. She looked weary, but the grin on her face told her friend everything she needed to know about the mission’s success. There could not have been many casualties, or Pen would be in a whole different mood.

“Keeping my invalid company, I take it?” Penthesilea asked, throwing an arm around Menalippe’s shoulders.

“Come in here and say that to my face!” Philippus’s voice was muffled by the half-open door. Penthesilea led the pair inside her home.

Menalippe was torn. She wanted to give her friends their privacy, but she was dying to know what had happened on the road. Her curiosity got the better of her, and she lingered as Penthesilea approached her bedridden partner. She leaned over and gave Philippus a tender kiss. She pulled away and sat in the chair Menalippe had left.

“Bring another seat over,” Penthesilea said to Menalippe, laughing. “I know why you’re still here.” Menalippe did so, pushing aside a pang of jealousy as she noticed her friends holding hands.

“Don’t keep us in suspense, Pen!” exclaimed Philippus. “I know you’re dramatic, but you have only a few minutes before the painkillers I’m taking force me into a lengthy nap.”

“One I will join you for,” Penthesilea replied. “I can never quite get used to sleeping in the saddle as some do, so unfortunately, rest was in short supply.” She glanced at the other Amazons, eagerly waiting for her to begin.

“We destroyed the enemy’s forces,” Penthesilea said, coming to the point right away. “As far as we can tell, they were led by a warlord named Karpos. He’s been marauding far north of here, so it’s a surprise to see that he made it all the way to our territory without being noticed.”

Menalippe frowned at this news.

“That was my reaction, too,” said Penthesilea. “Believe me, Queen Hippolyta will be investigating the status of our defense treaties with our northern neighbors. It seems preposterous to think that a force so large could have passed through their lands undetected.” She gave Philippus’s hand an affectionate squeeze. “They were disciplined, I’ll give them that. But from what we saw when we took their camp, they must have outrun their supply lines weeks ago. Survival rations aren’t enough to fight on.”

“How were you able to track them?” Menalippe asked. “Hippolyta said their movements left no trace on the ground, which I’ve never heard of before.”

“Well, you may not believe it,” Penthesilea answered, “but Antiope said we received the assistance of Athena herself.”

“Are you sure she was not downplaying her own skills in an attempt at humility?” Philippus asked.

Penthesilea shook her head. “I’ve served with the General for several years now, and my impression is that she was telling the truth.”

The three women paused for a moment, each considering what it meant that the goddess had become involved. Menalippe couldn’t recall it ever happening before.

“We attacked their camp at dawn yesterday,” Penthesilea said. “And they were not prepared. All the Amazons present fought admirably, and we were lucky to escape with few injuries. The warlord and his troops were not so fortunate.”

Penthesilea glanced at Menalippe, a look of trepidation on her features. “Antiope was exceptional,” she said. “It was…almost frightening. I have seen the General in the heat of battle before, but this seemed something different. She was like a stone warrior brought to life. It was as though she felt no fatigue, no pain…I swear she cut through fifty men in the first several minutes of the attack.” The warrior laughed lightly, recalling a memory. “Some of the younger warriors, those who haven’t seen Antiope unleashed before, they’re spreading a story that she was possessed by Athena.”

“No major injuries, you said?” Philippus asked.

Penthesilea winced. “Leda, I fear, may lose a leg. The warlord’s camp was surrounded by a few traps, one of which had falling logs. A felled tree trunk landed on her.”

The group of Amazons was silent. Each considered herself a warrior, knowing such an injury was always possible. They knew in theory they were expected to put their bodies on the line. But it was still horrifying when it happened.

Menalippe broke the silence. “Do you know where the General is?”

Philippus caught on to her meaning. “I’m sure Mena has several things to…discuss with our commander.” She waggled her eyebrows, and Menalippe shot her a look of disapproval.

Penthesilea hesitated. “Mena, it’s not my place to tell you not to seek out General Antiope, but…have you been around her before, after a battle?” Menalippe shook her head in the negative. “She takes some time to come down from it,” Penthesilea said. “Be prepared that she may not be herself at first.”

Menalippe stood. “I just need to see for myself that she is well, Pen. Surely you understand.”

Penthesilea looked at Philippus with a smile. “I do.” She turned back to her friend. “I think I saw her leaving the councilors’ chambers, so she has likely already finished reporting to the queen.”

Nodding, Menalippe turned to go. “It is good to have you back,” she said on her way out. “Philippus was driving me crazy!”

_______________________________________________________

Menalippe checked the mess hall first. She saw many of the returned warriors there, but Antiope was not among them. Menalippe waved to Niobe, just sitting down to a very large meal, and left the hall. She would catch up with her other friends later.

The path to the barracks near the training grounds was empty, most warriors choosing to return to their comfortable residences in the main part of town. Menalippe considered Penthesilea’s words. If Antiope did need time and space to recuperate after the battle, this is where she would be.

Menalippe entered one end of the main barracks, mostly quiet. She saw a lamp had been lit in Antiope’s room at the end of the long hall. Realizing the General was indeed there, Menalippe became nervous, her bravado from earlier that day lost.

Menalippe stepped partway into the doorway to Antiope’s quarters, giving the door a light knock.

“Enter,” came the General’s response.

Menalippe went into the room. Antiope was sitting on the edge of her bed, a thick breastplate in her lap. She was using a cloth to work a paste with some grit into the metal. She wore only a light cotton shift, the base layer many warriors put under their heavy armor. Her limbs exposed, Menalippe could see a myriad of cuts and bruises all over them. On any other person, the wounds would be painful and distracting. Antiope acted as though she had none at all.

The tall Amazon was unsure what to say. “Hello, Antiope,” she said, finally.

“Hello, Menalippe.” The General responded, but she did not look up from her work.

“Are you well?” Menalippe asked, concerned.

Antiope shrugged one shoulder. “It’s nothing.” She set the armor down with a sigh, looking up at Menalippe for the first time. The taller woman thought her eyes were haunted, they were so dark and hollow. “I think it’s best if you leave,” Antiope said brusquely.

Though she wanted to protest, Menalippe recalled Penthesilea’s warning. “As you wish,” she said quietly. “Will I see you for training in the morning?”

Antiope looked uncomfortable with the question. “No, you won’t,” she said. “And not any day after that, either.”

“Well, certainly not once the Games begin,” Menalippe said lightly, trying to ignore the unpleasant roiling in her stomach.

“No, Mena.” Antiope’s voice was sad, and she did not look the other Amazon in the eye. “I mean that…we cannot spend any more time together.”

A chill swept through Menalippe’s body, and the muscles in her jaw clenched. “I do not understand why,” she said, a challenge in her voice.

Antiope stood abruptly, turning away from the other woman, running her fingers through her hair. “Of course you do not understand,” the General said bitterly.

Menalippe was annoyed by the other’s tone. “Well then, enlighten me, General,” she said tartly.

Antiope looked back at her, almost in shock. Her breathing was erratic. At first, Menalippe was afraid the other would not respond at all. Finally, Antiope spoke. Her voice was hard, little emotion passing across her face. “I cannot spend any more time with you, Menalippe, because I cannot be the Amazon I must be if I do.”

“You act as though I harm you in some way,” Menalippe scoffed. “And do not pretend as though this was my idea alone!”

“I know it was not,” Antiope replied, the pain creeping back into her voice. “Mena, I…On the battlefield yesterday, I was not myself. I did not act as I should have.” The General sat down again, her head in her hands. She looked up at Menalippe, pain etched across her features.

“We took the enemy by surprise,” Antiope said. “And we had the better of the battle from the beginning. But at one point, the ruffians tried to rally. They sent a dozen of their strongest fighters, armored in plate, directly at our left flank. The Amazons fighting on that side were some of our least-experienced. And in that moment, when I should have thrown myself to their aid without a thought, I hesitated. I hesitated because of you, Menalippe. Never before have I cared one bit for my own safety. My duty is to command and to fight to the best of my ability, and if that means sacrificing myself to save even one Amazon sister, I must do it.”

Menalippe was mesmerized by Antiope’s words. She could not recall ever hearing her say so much at once.

Antiope continued. “But now that you are in my life, I find I am unwilling to risk myself so easily. Suddenly, I fear death, but not for the reasons so many others do. I fear it because if I die, I will never again see your face break into a laugh. I will never again feel the touch of your lips against mine.” The General crossed the short distance between them, taking both of Menalippe’s hands in hers, an iron grip. She held them against her chest.

“Menalippe, I am sorry. But I cannot be concerned with that. I am not my own woman. As elected General, all I am is a tool for my nation, and I will not shirk my duty for something personal.” She let the other woman’s hands drop, and she trudged back to her bed.

Menalippe fought competing emotions of despair and anger. The latter won out. “Do you think I do not know who you are?” she spat. “I know your role, and your abilities. I refuse to believe that you are incapable of fulfilling your duty, simply because you care for another!”

“It’s not even as simple as that,” Antiope retorted. “I realized that part of me was glad you were too injured to join the war party. What if you had been on that battlefield also? I would have been too worried about protecting you to go where I was needed.”

“Protecting me?!” Now Menalippe was nothing but mad. “You speak as though I’m some young, innocent girl, likely to fall prey to the simplest of tricks. I am a warrior too, Antiope. I protect myself.”

“Not as well as I could,” Antiope said coldly. “Do you mean to suggest you think you are more capable than I am?” She stood, raising her arms in front of her. “Come, Menalippe. Fight me now if you think you are so good that you can best me.”

Menalippe flared her nostrils, blowing air out of them in exasperation. “I know that I cannot,” she said quietly.

“Then you see why I would not be comfortable without one eye on you the whole time. Gods, Hippolyta was right. It is too much to take on.” Antiope said the last almost to herself.

“Hippolyta?” Menalippe felt as though she couldn’t take much more of this conversation. Her heart threatened to break, and she needed to be alone when it did. “So your sister controls your thoughts, actions, and your heart too, is that it?”

“No.” Antiope’s tone was chill. “But my queen does.”

Menalippe shook her head in amazement. This was not the reunion she had expected. She felt her emotions break free inside of her. The General looked utterly miserable, but she had little sympathy for her. “So you will be heartless instead?” Menalippe challenged. “That is a lonely path to walk, Antiope.” She turned and stalked out of the General’s room.

Menalippe’s mind assaulted her with memories and emotions, so many of them painful. She just barely held back tears until she arrived back at her tent, little memory of how she had gotten there. In private, she let the feelings pour out, sobbing into a pillow until she could reign herself in.

The Amazon sat up in her bed and took a sip from her water skin. She would consider what to do next after a nap. One thing she knew, though. She would prove to General Antiope that protection was not something she needed.

Chapter Text

As the sun started to creep over the trees in the distance, Menalippe stood still, leaning against the usual rock in the field outside of town. The area was in the process of being transformed for the start of the Games the following day. Poles had been placed around the perimeter, colorful flags strung between them. Towards the village entrance, a stage was being erected. It was half-finished, a pile of cut lumber resting beside it, no craftswoman working on it this early in the morning.

Menalippe knew she should have started her run already. But part of her held out hope that Antiope would change her mind and join her. With every passing moment, she knew more and more that the General, she of the iron strength and will, would not.

The Amazon pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stave off the headache that threatened to grow. She had slept poorly, waking up a few times throughout the night with a general sense of unease. In her drowsy haze, each time it took a few moments to recall why she felt like such rubbish. And she had to experience the heartache all over again when she remembered why.

Finally, at the last possible moment she could begin her run and not be late to archery, Menalippe pushed off from the rock. She loped into the forest, her long legs covering the ground at pace. The Amazon tested her speed for a few moments, finding that her legs responded eagerly. Her muscles bunched and flexed, power pulsing through them. Menalippe grinned, a private moment of triumph. She was indeed ready for the race.

Menalippe slowed to a halt near a lagoon several hundred yards into the forested area off the southwest wall. She wanted to conserve the rest of her energy from that moment on.

It was a calm morning, and the surface of the water was like glass. The Amazon approached it, stopping at the water’s edge. She stared at her reflection. The woman who stared back was only slightly different in appearance from the Menalippe of several months ago. Some muscles were harder than before, though they had not acquired the bulk many of the warriors carried with ease. The greatest change Menalippe could see was in her face. It had sharpened, the first lines of age starting to show themselves. And she felt something intangible, that her bearing overall was more self-assured.

Yet, how was this Amazon not enough? Menalippe cursed her lingering self doubt. She knew she was prepared for the Games, knew she was ready to have the best showing of her life to date. But she could not shake the feeling that something was amiss. That goal that had driven her for so long seemed hollow now. Would it be satisfying, if she earned the right to join the elite guards? What if she was assigned to Antiope? Menalippe had no illusions that such a professional relationship would be easy.

Menalippe heard a rustle of motion from the brush about ten yards to the right. A woman appeared, radiant in a royal blue tunic. She was tall with dark hair, braided at her temples and left hanging loose behind her. The Amazon was startled, but her instincts told her this was no foe.

“It has been some time since I have felt such a war inside someone,” the woman said, her voice low and resonant.

Menalippe gritted her teeth, unnerved by the woman’s words. “Who are you?” she challenged. She knew every Amazon in the village by sight, and this was not one of them.

“I am Athena,” the woman replied.

Menalippe knew the truth of the words in her bones. She wondered if she should feel nervous, or try to say something to impress the goddess. Instead, she just felt tired.

Athena approached her, a gliding motion that reminded Menalippe of the slink of a jungle cat hunting its prey.

“Menalippe,” the goddess said. “Tell me what it is that you want.” Athena sat down on the moist earth at the water’s edge, lowering her feet into the lagoon.

The Amazon was taken by surprise. She was unsure what she had expected a goddess to be like, but this was not it. Menalippe hesitated, momentarily nervous about how to react. After a moment, she followed suit. Her sandals were already dirty anyway.

“I…I do not know how to answer your question,” Menalippe admitted. “I think I may have been able to before. But not any more.” She thought of the Games, and Antiope. Both desires seemed incredibly important to her, but would be trivial to a goddess.

Athena shook her head, not unkindly. She turned her torso slightly toward Menalippe, a small smile on her face.

“You only think you do not know what you want. But you do. And what’s more important is this. You already have the ability to get it,” the goddess said.

Menalippe was confused. “So will I perform as I wish to at the Games?”

“If that is what you think you want,” Athena answered, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “Menalippe, what is it that prevented you from joining the elite guard in past years?”

Menalippe’s brow furrowed. “Well, to begin with, I did not train enough for the race. And then, in the spear competition…”

Athena cut her off. “None of those things, nor any other you were about to mention, is the reason. More than anything, it is that you did not know yourself. I believe you do now. Take advantage of that.”

Menalippe blinked, and she was suddenly alone at the lagoon. She scrambled to her feet, alarmed. There was no sign of Athena.

The Amazon shook her head as though to clear a haze from it. She already almost felt as though her encounter with the goddess was unreal. Who would believe it? The divines never paid visits to mere mortals.

Menalippe heard the morning bell chime in the distance, and she headed for the village. She had one more day with the young archers before the normal tasks of the village were suspended and the Games began.

_______________________________________________

 

“By the gods, it is always a sight.” Philippus sat in a wicker chair at the edge of the field, Menalippe standing at her side. She had insisted on attending the opening ceremony and race, though Ephiny had advised against it. Menalippe thought her friend deserved to see the spectacle. After all, she had sacrificed her dignity by allowing two others to bear her there since she still could not walk herself.

Every Amazon in the village was in attendance, save a minimal number needed to guard the walls. Those who were not participating in the Games were dressed for a party, wearing more colorful and varied tunics than Menalippe could conceive of.

The mass of women was boisterous and chatty. Menalippe noticed several groups seemed to have gotten into the mead already, despite the fact that the opening lunch feast had yet to be served.

A hush came over the crowd as the gate leading from the center of town opened. Egeria, the woman who had finished first at the Games the previous year, appeared, carrying the Amazon banner above her proudly. The host of spectators let out a mighty cheer. As the warrior advanced, the drums began. From the back of the stage, a dozen Amazons took up the rhythm, following the bass tone being set by Artemis.

The sound filled Menalippe with excitement. As the drumbeats shifted and intensified, Egeria began to march forward. Close behind, Queen Hippolyta followed. She wore a cape in a deep purple, a subtle shimmer in the fabric. Her personal guard followed her, dressed in full battle attire. Their plate armor shone in the sun. As they passed through the gate, they mimicked the drummers, taking up the beat by saluting, the sound of their metal gauntlets striking their chests in time.

The horns came next, from all around them. Amazons onstage and in the crowd took up the call, adding their voices in a familiar melody.

Antiope followed her sister’s guard, her fighters arrayed behind her in a pattern that still appeared threatening despite the festive atmosphere. Menalippe felt her heart skip a beat, and she cursed the part of her that had given in to that weakness.

The procession of warriors arrived at the stage, and Hippolyta took her seat on the throne. Egeria placed the banner behind her queen, then retrieved a bow and arrow from an Amazon nearby. The end of it trailed long ribbons in red, green and blue. She took her place at the front of the stage.

The drumbeats reached a crescendo, and every Amazon present gave a mighty battle cry. At the height of the sound, Hippolyta signaled to Egeria, and the Amazon let her arrow fly, aimed to arc high overhead. As it reached the apex of its flight, the arrow burst into flame. The crowd cheered as it burnt up, nothing left to reach the ground. The gods had blessed the Games.

The opening ceremony over, the crowd began to shift. Some women left for other duties or simply to continue the celebration elsewhere. But most stayed, knowing the first event of the warrior’s challenge would begin shortly.

Menalippe turned to Philippus and grasped her shoulder. “Wish me luck, friend,” she said with a smile.

“Psssshh,” Philippus replied, waving her hand in the air. “You do not need it, Mena. I believe in you.”

Menalippe smiled at her friend warmly, then headed towards the gathering group of runners.

Most of the women had left their armor behind, choosing to carry only what they needed for the grueling test. Menalippe wore a tunic in sage green, loose and short around her legs to allow full range of motion. She wore solid boots, springy enough to run in but with hardened plates sewn into the lining.

A pair of Amazons who were coordinating the event unfurled a long ribbon along the ground to act as the starting line. The waiting women gathered behind it. Menalippe saw Penthesilea between several others and waved at her friend. The blonde inclined her head in recognition, then returned her attention to the task at hand. She stared at the forest as though it was going to attack her.

Menalippe walked along the line, intent on taking a place near the center. She saw Aella chatting with several friends, appearing unaffected by the mounting tension in the air. Menalippe huffed to herself. She supposed of everyone, the runner had reason to feel relaxed. She was aiming for her sixth victory in a row.

The tall Amazon was only briefly surprised to see Antiope when she reached the center of the line. The General stared at the forest much as Penthesilea had been, but with trepidation she likely didn’t realize was evident on her face.

The weeks of training with Antiope forced their way to the front of Menalippe’s mind. She knew the smaller woman’s abilities inside and out, and it hurt to see the General unsure of herself.

Her good sense thrust aside, Menalippe approached the General. “I always envisioned running this together,” she said softly, barely loud enough for anyone else to hear.

Antiope looked at her in surprise. She started to say something, then stopped. After a moment, she replied, “So did I.”

“Let me pace you,” Menalippe said, locking eyes with the other woman.

The moment seemed to last a lifetime, the taller Amazon nearly holding her breath. Finally, Antiope nodded.

Menalippe surveyed the field around her. As she expected, a group of Amazons had jostled to the front. Though it carried no official prize, there was a year’s worth of bragging rights for the first Amazon to reach the treeline. The sprinters were keyed up and ready.

“Don’t get caught up in it,” Menalippe cautioned. Antiope frowned at her. “I see it in your eyes!” the younger woman continued. “You want to join the sprint, but resist that desire. You’ll need that energy later on. Stick with me.”

“I trust you, Mena,” Antiope said. The tone in her voice was so tender, Menalippe’s mouth dropped open in surprise. She didn’t have time to say more, as a drumbeat signaled the end of the lineup.

Hippolyta entered the field, striding off to the right. She stepped up onto a small raised platform that allowed the line of about fifty runners to see her clearly.

The queen drew and raised her sword. Get ready.

She swung the blade down in a vicious arc. GO!

The Amazons took off all at once, the crowd cheering them on.

As Menalippe had expected, the sprinters got out ahead of the pack almost immediately. She was surprised to see Penthesilea among them. She must have gotten caught up in the energy of the moment.

Menalippe lagged back a bit, letting whole groups of Amazons pass her by. She searched within herself for that familiar rhythm and tied her jog to it. She glanced to her right and saw Antiope was with her, just off her shoulder.

Menalippe could not see which Amazon had the honor of winning the sprint, but she was unconcerned. Her whole focus now was on her body, and that of the woman next to her. She read the indicators of Antiope’s fatigue expertly. The General seemed comfortable, no unexpected pain or difficulty as they began the run. Menalippe knew that would not remain true. They hit the treeline, passing into the shade.

The race around the village was ten miles, most of it through heavy forest. The paths the Amazons normally used to traverse the wooded area were of no use, heading in different directions. To compete in the race, they had to forge their way through the brush, finding game trails and easier passage when they could.

Within half a mile of the start of the race, Menalippe and Antiope had caught and passed the sprinters, many huffing and puffing to a degree that made Menalippe wonder if they could finish at all.

Several miles later, the pair had developed an ambitious pace. Menalippe felt herself pushing at the edge of her limits, and she kept going. The General kept up. They instinctively held branches out of the way for each other, vocalizing about obstacles in a shorthand they had developed weeks before: “Rock!” “Water!” “Uneven!”

They splashed through several small creeks and vaulted fallen logs, each a fleeting shadow of the other.

The forest was so dense, it was hard to tell where the other competitors were. But every so often, Menalippe caught a glimpse of them. She noticed even some of the seasoned runners had begun to fade as she and Antiope passed them by.

When Menalippe estimated they only had about two miles remaining, she looked over at Antiope, addressing her directly for the first time. Her limbs were heavy, the struggle to keep them moving becoming harder by the second.

“Now,” Menalippe said, gasping out the words. “You must do the rest on your own.” She knew she did not have the endurance to maintain their pace. She would have to slow down or collapse in the forest.

Antiope saluted her companion sharply, and as Menalippe let up in speed, she instead increased hers. She disappeared into the brush ahead. Menalippe was able to follow the trail she left, but she could no longer see the General.

Menalippe took stock of her body, aching and burning all over. She was no longer sweating, she realized with a start. A dangerous indicator. She let up on her pace even more. If she could maintain that, she thought, she would still finish in a top group and earn valuable points.

Suddenly, from the forest to her left, Menalippe heard a woman cry out. She did not hesitate even for a moment, instead steering in that direction. She came upon a small clearing that looked like there had been a blaze. Probably someone had disposed of their cookfire incorrectly, and it had spread. Near the center of the clearing, Penthesilea was down on the ground. She clutched at her foot, her face a mask of pain.

Menalippe would not have thought it possible, but she broke into a sprint. Coming to her friend’s side, she immediately surveyed the damage.

Penthesilea had chosen to wear light boots of a soft, supple leather, a popular choice for most runners. But they were not enough to protect her. A burnt stick, its end sharpened almost to a point like an arrow, was embedded in the sole of the warrior’s foot. She moaned slightly, gritting her teeth. She reached for the source of the pain, and Menalippe stayed her hand.

“No, Pen, you have to leave it in! It may be stemming the flow of blood.” Menalippe’s hands were shaking as she probed the area gently, trying to determine if anything else had been cut.

“Mena, go!” Penthesilea croaked. “Or you won’t finish in time!”

The thought had crossed Menalippe’s mind, but she discarded it quickly. “I will not leave a friend behind while there is breath in my body,” she said. “Besides, this race matters to you too, Pen. If you hope to retain your position on the guard, you have to finish! Can you stand on the other leg?”

Menalippe helped her friend to a seated position, and she grasped her arm. “Put all your weight on the other foot,” she ordered. Penthesilea did so, and Menalippe hauled her to her feet. She threw an arm under the other’s shoulders, supporting some of Pen’s weight.

“Now, let’s move,” Menalippe said. She and Pen hobbled off, alternating steps so the other wouldn’t have to put weight on her foot.

Menalippe was in torment on the inside. She could not bring herself to do anything other than assist an injured friend. But she feared that this delay meant her dream of joining the elite guard was ended on the very first event of the Games. She pushed on, trying not to despair.

Chapter Text

Menalippe’s lungs had already been burning, and the addition of Penthesilea’s weight made it worse. Running before, she had been surefooted in the forest. Now, Menalippe felt as though her feet lost purchase every other step. She never fell, though, keeping a supporting arm locked tightly around Penthesilea.

“Less than a mile to go,” Menalippe said, mustering up an encouraging tone she did not feel.

Penthesilea’s face was pale, her jaw locked tight in a mask of pain. She gritted her teeth, stifling a moan each time her injured leg bumped the ground. But she pushed along, putting as little weight on Menalippe as she could manage.

The pair heard brush crashing off to their left, and Menalippe called out, “Help! Injury!”

A few moments later, Velasca burst out from behind a thick shrubbery. She slowed her stride but did not stop, surveying the situation at a glance.

“Send back help,” Menalippe cried.

Velasca nodded, and she resumed her pace, out of sight within moments.

Menalippe felt as though the forest would never end. Without both arms to protect herself, branches tore at her, leaving small cuts and bruises. Finally, when Menalippe had just started to consider giving up, the trees thinned. They had finally made the complete circuit, arriving back at the field.

The last several hundred yards of the race was across open ground. Before the pair could get there, Menalippe saw several Amazons approaching them at a dead sprint. Velasca must have finished and sent them to her aid. They reached for Penthesilea, placing strong arms beneath her, lifting the injured woman as if she sat in a chair.

“Menalippe, go!” Penthesilea croaked.

The tall Amazon took off as fast she could. Though she was beyond any fatigue she had ever felt before, the relief from Penthesilea’s extra weight buoyed her. She broke out of the trees and scanned the area around her. She had come out slightly farther from the wall than she would have liked. Menalippe corrected her course, aiming for the bright banners that marked the finish line.

As she approached it, Menalippe caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Niobe must have exited the trees moments after her, and she was closing fast. Menalippe reached deep down within herself and willed her limbs to move faster. It was almost as though she couldn’t feel them at all, they were so weary. But her legs responded with a speed she did not think she possessed. Breathing at a manic pace, arms pumping, Menalippe entered the finish line chute several paces in front of her friend. She sprinted through the ribbon that marked the end and nearly collapsed.

Menalippe took several steps to the side, and she rested her hands on her knees. The Amazon gasped for breath, her head dizzy. She tried to steady herself, but her legs began to give out. Her vision blurred.

A pair of strong hands seized her forearms, pulling them up.

“Hold them over your head,” a woman's voice commanded, “and take deep breaths.”

Menalippe complied, trying to focus on the air moving in and out of her lungs. She closed her eyes to force down nausea. “That’s it. Breathe,” the voice said.

After a few minutes, Menalippe felt her pulse going down, and some clarity returned to her head. She opened her eyes.

Aella stood before her, concern etched on her features. She wore a large golden medal around her neck. Seeing that Menalippe was coming around, Aella stepped toward her, throwing her arms around the other woman’s shoulders in a hug. Menalippe stiffened at the contact, her brain kicking into action as her muscles recovered.

“I won again, Mena!” Aella said, pulling away and smiling. “Six in a row. One more year, and I’ll tie the all-time record!"

Over the runner’s shoulder, Menalippe could see a tent that held supplies, and possibly the healer too. She started to head towards it.

Aella grasped hold of one of Menalippe’s hands, steadying her steps. The taller Amazon hesitated, frowning. “Don’t…” she began. At that moment, the crowd parted, and Antiope appeared.

The General had a cloth around her shoulders that she had clearly used to wipe sweat from her brow. Her skin was still flushed pink from the effort of the race. A halo of stray hairs ringed her head, and she had the look of a cornered animal, wary and dangerous at the same time.

Menalippe was suddenly, almost painfully aroused, every instinct in her body telling her to throw herself at Antiope. But just barely in time, she remembered their conversation from several days before. She could not go to the other woman. That was not their relationship any more.

Antiope blinked, looking suddenly as though someone had struck her. Menalippe followed the other woman’s gaze and realized with a start that she was the cause of it, her hand still captured by Aella’s. She pulled it away, but it was too late. Antiope met her eyes, her mouth dropped open in shock. The General shook her head, almost to herself, and melted back into the throng of Amazons.

Menalippe started to go after her, but her left calf seized into a cramp. The Amazon dropped to the ground. She had felt this coming on during the run.

Aella noticed the problem and made a move to help. Menalippe raised her hand. “Just….leave it…” she gritted out. She tried to breathe through it. Her mind kept replaying Antiope’s face, over and over, and she wasn’t sure what hurt more.

When the cramp finally passed, Menalippe steeled herself. She wobbled to her feet, again rejecting the runner’s help.

“Aella,” she said, her words sharp but quiet. “There is nothing between us any more. There will not be anything between us in the future. Just air.”

The runner stepped back in surprise. “But Mena, I thought we…”

“No,” Menalippe cut her off. “I know what you’re going to say. That we had a connection. That we had good times. That we work well together. And all of those things are true. But Aella, my heart is not my own to give away right now.” She paused, standing up straighter. “And even if it was, you might not be deserving of it.”

Aella’s nostrils flared. Menalippe braced herself for the redhead to lash out. She certainly had in the past. Instead, the runner turned and walked away, heading for the village.

Menalippe felt relief wash over her. She hadn’t wanted to cause a scene. But she knew she had to take the opportunity to set things straight, despite the less-than-ideal location.

The Amazon trudged toward the supply tent. She accepted a skin of water from a woman she passed and guzzled the liquid greedily, some of it splashing out in her haste. She saw several healers, but Penthesilea was not there.

Ephiny tended to a young Amazon, barely 18, who had gashed open her knee, probably on a rock.

Menalippe waited while the healer finished her line of sutures. “You’ll have a good scar from that one,” she quipped. The young woman attempted a smile, failing as the pain from the healer’s work caught her again.

When the other was free, Menalippe pulled Ephiny aside. “Penthesilea?” she asked.

“Her foot will be fine,” Ephiny responded. Menalippe let out a sigh of relief.

“She insists she will continue to compete on it,” Ephiny continued. “Though I told her that would be extremely foolish. I don’t know how she thinks she will move without being able to put all her weight on it.

The healer gave Menalippe a closer look. “You need more water,” she stated. “And food. I order you to the dining hall for a feast.” Ephiny said the last with a smile, joking.

Menalippe ran her hands over her face and sighed. “I believe you are correct,” she said. She started to leave, and then turned back, remembering something. “Eph, how did the race finish?”

Ephiny washed her hands in a basin- brusque, businesslike motions. She grabbed a stiff boar’s bristle comb and used it to scrub under her nails.

“Aella took it by about two hundred yards,” Ephiny replied. “Her smallest margin of victory yet. Antiope, of all people, was the first on her heels. Gods, I didn’t know she had it in her.”

I did, thought Menalippe. She thanked her friend and left the tent.

The crowd was dissipating, many leaving for the luncheon feast rather than waiting for the stragglers from the race to finish.

Menalippe felt hollow. The reality of the day's events was sinking in, and she was at her wits end. She had finished the race, though not in a position that would set her up for a good run at the warrior’s challenge. And she could not speak to Antiope. She felt sure the General would be upset about not finishing first, and she wanted to be there for her.

What would another version of that day have looked like? She would have greeted the woman who had stolen her heart with a kiss, surely sweaty, even if every Amazon in the kingdom was watching.

Menalippe knew what she wanted. But was it right to continue to pursue the other woman when Antiope had been so explicit about her desires? The Amazon placed one foot after the other, so tired, these thoughts were blissfully driven from her mind.

Chapter Text

As she approached the dining hall, Menalippe took in the scene. Bright banners decorated every building in the village. She could hear flute music wafting through the air. Menalippe smiled. It was always her favorite time of year. So many Amazons spent their normal days with a serious concentration. The Games gave all of them a chance to let loose, to celebrate their beautiful culture. The tall Amazon saw young girls who would normally have been training, instead playing a game with a hoop and a stick. A couple held hands as they walked toward the dining hall. Not for the first time, Menalippe’s heart swelled. She loved her people and her home.

When she got closer, Menalippe stopped. She noticed Aella standing near the hall’s entrance. She was chatting with several of Antiope’s personal guard, laughing boisterously. Menalippe pursed her lips. Aella had certainly dealt with that rejection well, she thought.

The Amazon’s stomach churned unpleasantly. Suddenly, Menalippe was unsure she wanted to get lunch at the feast after all. And certainly people would want to know what had happened to her. News spread through the village like wildfire even in normal circumstances, let alone news about an event most of the village had attended. Instead of heading inside, Menalippe continued on towards the healer’s tent.

As she approached, Menalippe heard loud voices coming from within. She couldn’t make out any of the words until she stepped within the tent’s front flap.

“No, it is not going to be all right!” the voice belonged to Epione, the master healer. She stood blocking the doorway several feet in front of Menalippe. On the other side was Penthesilea, standing. Philippus sat in a chair to the side, looking very much like she would prefer to be in the thick of things.

“It is my choice,” Penthesilea replied, and she took a step forward. Somehow, incredibly, she was able to support her weight on the injured foot, albeit with a limp.

Epione threw her hands in the air. “Goddess above, why do you curse me with such stupidity!” She did not direct this comment at anyone in particular, but rather towards the ceiling.

“Is there something wrong,” Menalippe thought her voice sounded more gravelly than usual, but aside from fatigue, she felt fine.
Epione whirled around. “Yes, there is, Menalippe. Would you talk some sense into your friend? She’s convinced she can compete the rest of the Games. I keep telling her, if her foot becomes infected, she will lose it altogether!”

Menalippe winced at the words. She looked over at her friend. The muscular Amazon had her arms crossed in front of her, stance defiant. “Give us a moment,” she said, patting the healer on the shoulder. Epione nodded, walking towards the back of the tent, muttering under her breath.

The two Amazons stared at each other for a moment. Somehow the race felt so long ago. Menalippe’s limbs were heavy.

“Are you possessed?!” Menalippe finally said, her soft tone a contrast to the harsh words. “You must not continue if the wound is that bad.”

“I tried to tell her that,” Philippus interjected. The tall woman sat back in her chair, a resigned look on her face. “But you know how Pen gets sometimes…”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Penthesilea burst out.

“I will as long as your sense has deserted you, woman!” her partner shot back.

Penthesilea turned back to Menalippe, pleading. “Mena, you have to help me. You know how much the Games mean this year. They do to you too. Surely you understand!”

Menalippe did. She thought to herself that she might feel exactly the same, were she in Pen’s position.

“I will compete regardless,” Penthesilea said haughtily. “And I will earn my place at the Queen’s side. And then both of you will be ashamed that you ever doubted me.”
“I never doubt your spirit, my friend,” Menalippe said. “But we are all slaves to our own bodies. You have experienced injuries before. You know it is not worth the risk!”

“Yes it is!” Penthesilea cried out. There were tears in her eyes. “You don’t understand.” She lowered her voice, collecting herself. Menalippe noticed that she leaned against a table next to her, taking weight off the injured foot.

After a moment, the blonde Amazon spoke again, her voice more under control. “I had a dream the other day,” she said. “Athena came to me as I slept.” Penthesilea glanced back and forth between her companions, as though waiting for them to mock her. “She told me this is the last Games I will ever compete in.” The warrior’s eyes dropped to the ground, staring off into space. “She also said that I must earn a spot on the Queen’s guard. Or the Amazon nation will fall.” She looked back up at the pair. “Do you think I’m crazy?”

Philippus looked upset, but she said nothing.

“No,” Menalippe replied softly. “I have met the goddess myself.” Penthesilea blinked in surprise. “I do not doubt that she appeared to you, too. But I must caution you. It is difficult to decipher the meaning of her words.”

“That sounded pretty straightforward to me,” Philippus muttered under her breath.

Menalippe shot her a look, pursing her lips. She turned back to the other Amazon. “If you feel the goddess has challenged you to compete, then I will help you to prepare,” she said.

Penthesilea slowly and carefully advanced toward Menalippe. She held out her arm, and the two women clasped forearms.
A wave of exhaustion passed through Menalippe. “I need to return to my tent,” she said wearily. “I will meet up with both of you later.”

“Please do,” Philippus said. “I need to live my bonfire dance night vicariously through you!”

Menalippe rolled her shoulders, feeling the tight muscles there. “I don’t know how much dancing I’ll be doing,” she admitted. She saluted the other women lightly and turned to leave. She had to stop suddenly to avoid running into another Amazon coming up the stairs.

“Oh!” Menalippe said in surprise. It was Antiope, carrying a large bowl with a cotton cloth over the top.

“Mena,” the General said breathily. “I was just coming to look for you.”

Menalippe had about a million questions in response to that. But her fatigued brain could not formulate even one in that moment.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have to head back to my tent,” Menalippe said, her head threatening to spin.

“I’ll walk with you,” Antiope replied. It was not a request.

“Suit yourself,” Menalippe said, and she started off. She was surprised at her own reaction. Just an hour before, her heart had been about to break for Antiope. But in this moment, she didn’t have the energy to restrain her feelings. Her anger at the General for distancing herself days before was still fresh.

“I was sorry to hear you did not win the race,” Menalippe said finally.

Antiope inclined her head to acknowledge the comment. “My showing was better than even I expected, to be honest.” She looked over, meeting Menalippe’s eyes. “I would not have come close without you. Thank you.”

The taller woman shrugged. “It was your skill and fitness, not mine. I could not have kept up.”

“Few can with Aella,” Antiope replied. “I hear she does not even train for the race. It is just her gift from the gods.”

Menalippe laughed lightly. “She trains,” she replied. “She just pretends that she doesn’t do it often so her accomplishments look more impressive.”

“You… you know her methods well, then?” Menalippe could hear in Antiope’s voice that this was more than a simple question.

“Not in the way you are suggesting,” Menalippe responded, her temper flaring.

Antiope looked surprised. “Well, I thought that you two…”

“Brilliant,” Menalippe replied, her tone mocking. “Well you are wrong. And you should have just asked me instead of assuming.”

Antiope was silent for a moment. “I see that.”
The pair arrived outside Menalippe’s tent. The taller woman began to head up the few short stairs, and in her fatigue, the toe of a boot caught on the edge of one. She fell, catching her knee on the wooden edge.

Antiope was next to her in an instant. Menalippe pushed the General’s hand away. Instead, she turned around and sat on the top step, heavily. Exhaustion and heartbreak boiled over, and tears oozed from her eyes.

The General sat down next to her. She pulled the cloth off the top of her bowl to reveal that it was full of rolls and fruit. She pulled a raisin bun from the group and handed it to Menalippe.

“Eat,” Antiope said. “You’ll feel better afterwards. Would I be correct to guess that you skipped lunch?”

Menalippe nodded. She took a bite of the bun and was suddenly struck by just how hungry she was. She devoured it in seconds. The General placed a bunch of grapes in her hand next, ready the moment the bun was gone.

“Thank you,” Menalippe mumbled between bites. “I did not know this is what I needed.”

“We all of us need some help, now and then,” Antiope replied. Her eyes lingered on Menalippe, as though making a decision.

“That’s why I was looking for you today,” Antiope said. “I realized, after the race, that the place I finished was completely due to your guidance. You have so many skills, Mena, and when we last spoke, I did not give you credit for them.”

“No, you did not,” Menalippe said bitterly.

“It is not an easy thing for me to say," Antiope replied. “But I was wrong. Wrong about what I said the other day. You can take care of yourself just fine. And you put your sisters before yourself.”

Antiope ran her hands over her face, pushing stray hairs out of the way. “I thought back to the battle last week. So often, I feel that I must do everything myself. If I could, I would take on any attacking force alone, and expect myself to be victorious. But really, I know what makes us strong as a whole nation, and what makes a good fighter, is our collective power."

“Menalippe, I need you. Not to coach me to race, though you did that so well. I need you to remind me that I am human like anyone else. That I must experience the fear and joy that this life brings, or I am nothing, and I cannot serve my nation to the best of my ability if I am not whole. I am so sorry. I wish I had not pushed you away before.”

“Are…” Menalippe’s heart raced. “Are you saying you will not keep yourself from seeing me now?"

“I am,” Antiope replied, the corner of her mouth easing into a smile.

Menalippe was shocked, almost unable to process the other’s words. Luckily, she didn’t have to.

Antiope leaned in, catching Menalippe’s mouth with hers. The kiss was tender and slow, though not hesitant. The taller Amazon was shocked for a moment, but she returned the affection with fervor. Antiope pulled away, trailing a line of kisses across the other woman’s cheek and down her jaw. She lingered at Menalippe’s pulse point, sending the other’s heart racing.

Menalippe pressed her body against Antiope’s, curling her arms around her shoulders.

“General, this is unexpected,” Menalippe managed to say.

Antiope laughed. “I always hope to bring you happy surprises, Mena.”

Feeling herself drifting, the kisses on her neck a pleasant distraction, Menalippe let her head drop forward.

“Let’s get you into bed for a bit,” Antiope said. She helped the other woman into the tent as she had several weeks before. But this time, she closed the tent flap behind her and stayed.

Antiope guided Menalippe to her bed, and when the taller woman reached up for her, Antiope laid down, pressing her body against the other woman’s. She placed a soft kiss on Menalippe’s temple.

“Rest,” she said quietly. “I’m not going anywhere this time.”

Chapter Text

Menalippe drifted back into consciousness slowly. She felt warm, and comfortable, and her body was loathe to move from her soft bed. Memories from the day filtered in with the late afternoon sunshine.

Shifting slightly, the Amazon realized she was not alone. Her conversation with Antiope- and their kiss- came back in a rush. She felt a strong hand on her waist, resting in the hollow of her hip. Menalippe was facing away from her, but she knew Antiope’s head was on the pillow behind her. Slowly, in order not to wake her companion, Menalippe rolled over to look at her.

At the motion, Antiope started, sitting up suddenly. She glanced around the room quickly, surveying it. Menalippe laughed lightly at the motion.

“There are no enemies here, General.” She watched as Antiope recognized her surroundings and woke up fully.

The General shook her head to herself. She looked at Menalippe with a wry grin. “It’s just habit,” she said softly. Antiope leaned over, brushing her lips lightly against Menalippe’s.

As the kiss deepened, Menalippe slipped her arms around Antiope’s waist. She pulled the slight woman down on top of her. The weight was pleasant, and Menalippe felt her arousal building despite the exhaustion that remained. She could never remember kisses feeling like this before. It was like a craving that got worse with each bite rather than being sated.

Antiope pulled back suddenly. She was breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed. She smiled, reaching down to cup Menalippe’s cheek with her hand.

“Mena, I am sorry. I cannot…right now,” Antiope said.

Menalippe pushed down her disappointment and instead reveled in their closeness.

“I have to go prepare for tonight’s bonfire,” Antiope continued. “Will you come?”

Menalippe hesitated. Her body still felt incredibly fatigued. And the archery contest was the next day. She needed to be rested for that. She wanted desperately to see what would develop with Antiope. But not at the expense of her best event. She needed a good showing to have a prayer of coming back in the competition.

“I think it’s best if I rest,” Menalippe said sadly.

Antiope nodded in understanding. She kissed Menalippe on the cheek, letting the touch linger, and then stood up. “I will see you tomorrow, then,” Antiope said. “Though I have to confess, I believe I will think of nothing else all night.”

Menalippe’s heart swelled at the words. She reached out and took Antiope’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “If I am very lucky, perhaps I will dream of you,” she responded.

Antiope looked almost as if she was going to cry. Instead, she placed another peck on Menalippe’s waiting mouth.

Menalippe let herself fall to her back after Antiope had gone out of sight. Focus, she thought. She had to focus. She began to go over visualization exercises in her head, letting them lull her back to sleep.

__________________________________________________

Zzzzzzziiiipppp! Zzzzzzz…Zzzzzzz…ZZZZZZZzzzzzz…

The arrows left Menalippe’s bow in quick succession, sharp, tonal noises accompanying each one. Targets popped up all around her at random, and she spun in a circle, aiming and releasing in the same motion.

Menalippe stood in the center of the main arena. It had been converted entirely for the competition. To the side, a green space housed targets of all shapes and sizes, spaced out into the distance. This section, though. This current test was more practical. Amazons hidden behind thick bales of hay would present targets at random. Menalippe had a half turn of the hourglass to strike as many targets as she could while on the move.

The warrior launched herself over a stone barrier, set up to simulate a fallen column. Four targets presented themselves at once. And…yes! Two were just close enough together. Menalippe swiftly pulled two arrows from her quiver. She nocked them both at the same time and swept the bow in an arc as she fired, scattering the shots. She struck both. The crowd cheered in the background, but Menalippe was too focused to hear them.

This was the last round of the competition. She had passed the first three with little trouble. The third, shots of extreme distance, had been a challenge. But her recent work with the youngsters had helped Menalippe. She remembered her technique.

Only the top 10% of Amazons advanced through each round, so the field had shrunk to about ten women. Among them were Penthesilea and, a surprise for one so young, Rala.

Finally, her time was close to done. Menalippe scanned the fake building facades around her, desperately seeking a hidden target that would inflate her score. She saw none nearby. The archer spun. There! In the second story window of the farthest facade. A tiny target remained, the only one. Menalippe exhaled, releasing her arrow moments before the horn blew to signal the end of her time. The warrior sighed, knowing she had done well.

Menalippe did not watch the competitors that preceded her, instead preferring to sit still and focus. But she decided to remain to size up those taking their turns after her. She walked toward the competitors seating, an area cordoned off in the arena for those still in the running. She encountered a sea of shocked faces. Rala was beaming.

“Mena!” she cried. “You…that was incredible!”

“Thank you,” Menalippe replied, somewhat confused by the outburst. “Why is everyone staring at me?”

Rala shook her head, laughing. “A perfect score, Mena. No Amazon has ever done it before at this stage in the competition.”
Menalippe felt a jolt of surprise and excitement run through her.

“How can that be?” she challenged. “I’m certain I missed some in the middle section…”

The event judge, a stocky woman named Anala, approached her. She was ticking something off on a scroll in front of her.

“100 points,” she announced to the group. Her businesslike demeanor slipped for a moment. “Best I’ve ever seen,” she said quietly. “Next up: Rala!”

“Oh boy,” the young woman said. “Why do I have to follow you?”

Menalippe took a seat with the group to watch Rala compete, but she was having a hard time paying attention. A perfect score meant her chances of climbing the ranks were high. Her Games were back on track.

The archer looked around the arena at the audience for the first time, scanning faces in the crowd. Hippolyta, up on the main dais, gave Menalippe an almost-imperceptible nod. And there, at the queen’s side, sat Antiope, beaming.

_______________________________________________________

The winner’s medal around Menalippe’s neck was oddly heavy and light at the same time. She felt as though she had no cares in the world. And yet, the pressure of the competition as a whole remained. She could not afford to lose focus now.
It was dark, hours after the competition had ended for the day. As that day’s champion, she had been obliged to attend a feast at Hippolyta’s table. To her dismay, Antiope had not been there. Now, she moved away from the party that capped the day. Many Amazon sisters had begged her to stay later, but Menalippe did not feel like letting lose in that way. She could not get the General off her mind. She wanted to talk to her, to hear about what her day had been like, to get her perspective on the competition.

Menalippe had hoped to see Antiope at the party. But instead, it seemed every Amazon other than Antiope was finding her. Acquaintances from the market offered their congratulations. Something like every youngster from her recent training group had offered to bring her a flagon of ale. And several women, some of whom Menalippe barely knew, had made thinly veiled offers that the champion need not sleep alone that night.

The archer had left in something like frustration. She was done fending off good-intentioned but drunk women.

As she rounded a patch of bushes near the center of town, Menalippe saw a familiar silhouette. Antiope spoke to an Amazon in full armor, probably the captain of the next watch. The captain saluted and walked away, and Menalippe approached Antiope eagerly.

Something came over her in that moment. She was riding high, mostly on her victory, and also some ale. And she had waited long enough. She walked up to Antiope and stood close.

“Antiope, I…” the words seemed to fail Menalippe. “I need you. Right now.”

She pulled the General to the side and caught her in a passionate kiss. Menalippe just barely remembered how public their location was. She recovered, grabbing Antiope by the leathers and directing them into the shadows of the mess hall.

Menalippe pushed the shorter woman against the side of the building, taking her lips roughly. She took Antiope’s hands and raised them above her head, holding her in place.

Antiope responded right away. Her lips moved against Menalippe’s, her teeth catching and tugging on the other woman’s bottom lip. Her hips shifted slightly, and she positioned a thigh between the taller woman’s legs.

Menalippe felt her knees go weak at the sensation. She sank down a bit, almost unable to support herself, but her legs held. Lower down now, she took the opportunity to kiss Antiope’s neck. The General leaned her head back, eyes dropping closed from the sheer pleasure of the feeling. She arched her body to increase the contact between their hips and grind against the warrior.

Menalippe could no longer hold up Antiope’s arms. She felt uncharacteristically weak, her breathing coming faster now. She reached a hand around the small of Antiope’s back to pull her closer, pulling aside the leather shoulder strap of the General’s tunic with the other. She planted searing kisses along Antiope’s collarbone.

Antiope moaned, reaching one hand up, burying her fingers in the hair at the nape of Menalippe’s neck. Her right hand dropped, teasing the bottom of the taller woman’s tunic before slipping just inside, playing with the fabric high on her thigh. She tugged on it a little, teasing sensitive places.

Menalippe felt as though the General was burning up. Her skin seemed impossibly hot against her lips. She gasped as she buried her forehead into Antiope’s neck and began to slowly, methodically work on the laces holding her lover’s tunic in place. As the panel on the side of Antiope’s leathers loosened, Menalippe could see her pale skin peeking through. She could tell the General wore nothing underneath.

Antiope pulled on Menalippe’s hair gently, trying to catch her breath in vain. She gave the other woman a searing look that seemed to threaten to melt all her clothes off. She leaned in to plant kisses against whatever part of Menalippe’s face she could reach.

The archer turned her face up, and as their lips met again, she was overwhelmed by the desire to be closer to Antiope. She needed to feel her, all of her. She sneaked a thumb inside the widening gap at the side of the General’s leathers, resting it ever so lightly against the skin just inside her hip bone. She traced her hand higher along Antiope’s side, grazing her palm gently against her rib cage.

Menalippe could feel the speed of Antiope’s breath as it picked up, her hand brushing against her stomach. She had long since lost the last of her ability to hold back. Antiope pressed into the kiss, gently pushing her tongue forward. She grasped the hand teasing her side and pushed it up, farther inside her leathers than it had explored before.

Menalippe’s hands wandered, dancing lightly over Antiope’s stomach, her breast. She could feel her wiry partner inhale sharply as a wave of pleasure washed over her, electrifying her skin. Goosebumps radiated across Antiope’s body.

This was all just too much. Those leathers had to go. Menalippe tugged desperately at the rest of the laces on the side of the tunic, whipping them aside carelessly. She placed both hands on Antiope’s hips and pulled her in close.

Antiope’s chest was heaving. She put her arms around the other’s neck as she was pulled in, pressing the entire length of their bodies together. Antiope’s breasts brushed against Menalippe’s, and she could feel the spark from the contact even with two frustrating layers of clothes between them. The General pulled back, nostrils slightly flared. She yanked at Menalippe’s soft tunic, pulling it off. Her mouth dropped open at the sight of her love wearing only her breeches, the slight light of the moon reflecting off her shoulders, the tops of her breasts. Antiope was flooded with a wave of desire, drawn in by the curves and shadows cast over Menalippe’s muscular arms.

Menalippe felt a chill as her body was exposed, but the moment was fleeting. She closed the short distance, and within moments, she felt as though their bodies were melting, fusing together. They were kissing so passionately, she almost forgot to breathe.

The voices of several Amazons on the main path carried over to the pair. Menalippe pressed her body against Antiope’s, moving them both into the shadows. Once she was sure the group had passed, she stepped back, though it pained her, only long enough to squat down slightly. Keeping one arm around Antiope to support her lower back, she slipped the other arm under her bum and lifted the General up, her trained muscles handling the slight woman with ease.

“Where to, General?” There was a joke in Menalippe’s use of the formal title at that moment. She bit her lip slightly, enticing.

This gesture completely overwhelmed Antiope’s defenses. She was shocked by the warrior’s forwardness, and she found it incredibly sexy.

“Here. Now. I need you.” Antiope’s voice was husky. She punctuated her comment by leaning over and nipping Menalippe’s earlobe.

Menalippe shivered, the sound of the Antiope’s voice, low and rough in her ear, traveling down her spine. By the gods, Antiope wanted her. And she knew she needed the same. She steadied her grip. It would be a tragic thing, to lose control and drop the woman she cared for so much at that moment. Antiope wrapped her legs around Menalippe’s hips.

The taller woman spotted the entrance to the kitchens several paces to her right. She took deliberate, slow steps, kicking open the door with her foot. The kitchens were totally deserted at this hour. Menalippe turned to the side, where several empty flour sacks had been cast aside onto the smooth stone floor. She slowly dropped to her knees, then leaned forward to lay Antiope down on the hard ground.

Chapter Text

Antiope pulled Menalippe down on top of her, encouraging the archer to rest her weight. As she moved toward her, Antiope leaned up, catching one of Menalippe’s nipples in her mouth. She rested a hand on Menalippe’s lower back as she sucked, hard, burying a hum-moan into her body.

Menalippe threw her head back, the noise radiating through her body. Antiope’s tongue was so soft and wet. She placed a hand behind the A tangle of blonde waves to hold her there a moment before letting her head drop back down. She gasped when Antiope’s lips released her, the absence of her mouth on her nipple was torturous.

“Oh, gods,” Menalippe growled. She leaned over to kiss Antiope fiercely, moving from her mouth to her ear, along her jaw, down the side of her neck and to her chest. Antiope’s back arched at the sudden change of pace, her body shuddering.

Menalippe slipped an arm beneath Antiope’s back to steady her. She slide her hand along the General’s side where there was a gap in the tunic. She tugged the last laces free. “Hades teeth!” Menalippe cried out, her fingers stymied by a hidden buckle. “The Amazon that invented this should be cursed to the depths of Tartarus!” The words came out through gritted teeth. She didn’t have the patience for further obstacles!

Antiope’s fingers closed over Menalippe’s, trembling. “Oh, curse it…” Menalippe said, an exasperated smile crossing her face. Antiope moved the other’s hand away and set to work on the buckle herself. Finally, it was undone, and the side of Antiope’s tunic fell open. She looked up at Menalippe, and the intensity of the archer’s gaze stopped her short. She met her eyes.

“Take me, Mena. Hard.”

Menalippe wasted no time responding. Her fingers tore at Antiope’s tunic, pulling it off her shoulders and down past her waist. The wiry woman shifted slightly to help her partner, pulling her legs out of the clothing.

Tossing the tunic to the side, Menalippe knelt in front of Antiope. She felt almost desperate for more but somehow managed restraint. She shot a predatory look at the General, taking in the muscles in her flat stomach, the definition in her shoulders. She slid her hands up Antiope’s thighs, coaxing them apart. She leaned her body down between the limbs, holding Antiope’s gaze as her breasts pressed down onto that beautiful body.

“Oh, gods, yes,” Antiope whispered. The sensation was intoxicating. She slid one hand down her own body, catching Menalippe’s nipple where it rested against her stomach and giving it a playful squeeze.

Menalippe licked, kissed and sucked at Antiope’s skin. She let herself roam from the other’s sternum to the hollow at the center of her ribs, then to her navel. As she kept going, her lips brushed against lace at the edges of the General’s undergarments. Something about that whimsical detail made her smile. Antiope turned bright red, misinterpreting the look for criticism. Menalippe hastened to correct her, sliding her fingers inside the edge of the garment, teasing. Antiope’s stomach pulsed for an instant from the slight tickle.

The taller woman began to pull Antiope’s undergarments down, kissing the depressions on the inside of her hips. She leaned back to pull them all the way off. The blonde woman gave Menalippe a lazy grin, her eyes fluttering shut at the pleasure of it.

Menalippe tossed the garment to the floor beside them, and the General's legs parted. Mena scooted in and caught one of Antiope's legs over her shoulder. Menalippe shifted so that one knee was draped, and a calf rested on her back. She began dotting soft, wet kisses along the inside of her lover’s thigh. “Oh!” Antiope’s exclamation of surprise morphed into a moan. “Gods, Mena,” she gasped. She let a hand rest on the back of Menalippe’s head, not pressing down, playing with her dark hair. Antiope shifted her hips to open her legs wider, pulling Menalippe’s lithe body toward her.

Menalippe’s mind was addled by the myriad of incredible sensations. Her keen hearing picked up an increase in Antiope’s breathing, and it made her own heart beat faster. She redoubled her efforts, kissing down that firm thigh closer, closer, closer, until the teasing game she was trying to play backfired on her. She could not control herself anymore. When Menalippe ran out of thigh, she wasted no time plunging her tongue into Antiope’s center. Her partner was already soaking wet. She hooked a hand underneath a firm thigh at the base of Antiope’s hip and pulled her closer, tongue exploring her opening.

“Mena, please.” The words, and the motion of Antiope’s hips, spoke of something building inside her.

Menalippe could not have stopped herself if she’d tried, but why on earth would she dream of doing that? Without hesitation, she maneuvered her free hand up towards her mouth, letting her fingertips graze Antiope’s wetness. She locked eyes with the General and slowly, seductively, placed her fingers in her mouth. Antiope’s mouth dropped open in surprise, and she let out a groan. The archer moved those same fingers down and slid them effortlessly inside her lover. Antiope pressed herself down onto Mena’s hand.

Kissing, licking, Menalippe moved her mouth against her lover eagerly. She pulled back for an instant. “Gods, Antiope, you taste so good!” she murmured. Menalippe could feel muscles tense around her fingers. She pressed them in again, then again, deeper, as Antiope’s hips began to rock against her.

“Oh, gods, Mena, yesssss.” The words hissed out of Antiope’s mouth, each thrust drawing a moan from her lips. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Amazon on top of her, the well-defined muscles in Mena’s shoulders bunching with each movement. Antiope reached forward and cupped Menalippe’s cheek, brushing a stray dark hair out of the way.

At Antiope’s words, Menalippe gasped. She briefly turned her head to kiss Antiope’s palm, rough and scarred. “How did I get this lucky?” she asked quietly. She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, craving another taste, she took a languid lick, at the same time pressing another finger into Antiope. Mena’s tongue slid down, and her lips wrapped around her center. This time she sucked, gently at first, but with more and more power with every moan that escaped the General’s mouth. She wanted Antiope to let loose, to come for her, so badly. Her lover was so warm, so wet.

With one hand inside Antiope, Mena pressed down with the other where it rested at the top of a firm thigh. She dug her fingertips into the skin there, a deep urge compelling her to pull Antiope closer to her, though that seemed barely possible.

The skin on the General’s face and chest was flushed. She rocked against Mena’s face in time, practically moaning more than not. “Gods, yes, that’s so gooooood….” As she said it, Antiope’s body tensed. The muscles in her stomach flexed, and her legs tightened around Mena to keep her in place. “Gods, Mena…” The muscles inside Antiope contracted around Menalippe’s fingers. Her hands, buried in that dark hair, tugged. Antiope let out a long, low moan as she came, still moving against her partner.

Menalippe felt almost as though that flood of ecstasy had passed into her, so intense was her own reaction. She held Antiope close as she writhed. Moments later, the General’s fingers were the first to relax, and she lessened her grip on Mena’s hair.

Turning, Menalippe laid her head on Antiope’s thigh. She lowered it to the ground and off her back. As she pulled her fingers out of her, the General let out one final shudder. Both women panted, a puddle on the floor, in complete bliss.

Antiope reached to pull Menalippe toward her. The archer’s heart was still pounding out of her chest. As she crawled across Antiope’s taut, sweating body, she took the opportunity to cup both incredible breasts in her hands, pinching the nipples, a lazy grin on her face.

“Come here, you,” Antiope commanded. This, however, was as far from the tone she used on the battlefield as possible. Menalippe complied nonetheless. The General captured her lips with an intensity she didn’t realize she had left in her. Menalippe showered her lover’s cheek with little pecks.

Menalippe rested her head against Antiope’s shoulder. She was nearly overcome with emotion. Part of her could not believe this moment was true, though a living, breathing, sweaty Antiope proved it to her.

Slowly, pieces of the rest of the world filtered back into the pair’s consciousness. Antiope was first aware of the fact that these flour sacks, though they had seemed clouds moments before, were in fact a rough and itchy material. The drums from the dance were still in full swing in the distance.

Menalippe glanced around them, laughing. “What a place to have chosen!”

The General laughed, giving her lover an affectionate squeeze. “True. Most eating takes place out there.” She tried to keep a straight face and failed, caught up in Menalippe’s laugh as the joke hit her.

Menalippe sat up, shifting her weight onto her heels. “Antiope, I cannot tell you how much I want to take you back to my tent and do that all over again. But...given the hour...and the javelin competition is tomorrow…” She felt foolish making excuses, and a little afraid that Antiope would be upset.

Instead, the General smiled at her, sitting up also. She began to collect her clothes.

“I understand, Mena. And I want nothing more than for you to have a restful night of sleep before the next stage in the contest. You’re doing very, very well, even despite the race.”

Menalippe’s heart swelled with pride, and something else too. “Thank you for understanding.” She stood up and extended a hand towards the smaller woman. Antiope took it, and Menalippe tugged her to her feet. She pulled slightly harder than she normally would on purpose, catching Antiope in her arms. The General laughed, a lighter, freer sounds than Menalippe could ever remember hearing before. They kissed, slowly at first, and then Menalippe could feel her body reacting strongly all over again. She pulled away reluctantly.

“Go get some rest,” Antiope said, kissing Mena on the cheek. “I’ll...straighten things in here.” Menalippe stole one more kiss, then reluctantly pulled away.

“See you tomorrow, Antiope.” She turned and went out into the night, the air chill against her skin. She hoped she wouldn’t run into any of her Amazon sisters on the way back to her tent. They were certain to notice that she was beaming, and she wasn’t sure what she would say!

Chapter Text

The next morning, Menalippe approached the dining hall with a spring in her step. She could tell there was a wide grin on her face, and she didn’t particularly care who saw it. Moments from the night before kept replaying in her mind. It was incredibly pleasant, albeit distracting. She’d have to force that down before the day’s competition began.

Menalippe scanned the hall as she entered. It was still on the early side, so most of the Amazons that had lost themselves dancing were still in bed. She looked for other participants in the warriors’ competition and was not surprised to see most there. They knew better than to overindulge in mead just two nights in.

Menalippe went through the food line mechanically, selecting her usual breakfast instead of the decadent treats that had been prepared for the special occasion. That was another thing that could sink a warrior fast: a bloated stomach.

The archer politely fielded congratulations from several other women there, some of whom she barely knew. It seemed the news of her success had spread to even those who had not attended the Games the day before.

This was the only time of year the village practiced open seating of sorts. Hippolyta recognized some women might not be comfortable sharing a meal with women they had to compete against directly later. So Menalippe headed toward Niobe and Penthesilea, seated on the side of the room nearest the Queen’s dais.

“Good morning,” Pen called. She was in a cheerful mood. While it had pained her and hampered her mobility, she had managed a decent score at archery the day before. She considered it proof that her desire to continue with the Games was blessed by the divines. Menalippe was still less sure. Every task from this point on would only prove more and more difficult for someone with an injured foot, save horseback. And her strong companion could not expect to make the top group on those skills alone.

“Well met!” Menalippe could hear the enthusiasm in her own voice. Her friends gave her puzzled looks. “I’m…” the brunette tried to recover. “I suppose I am still riding a high from yesterday.” She shrugged.

“Certainly ride that as far as you can.”Menalippe could barely contain her reaction to that familiar voice. Antiope. She was sure her whole face would be crimson.

The General arrived at the table. “May I join you?”

“Of course,” Menalippe responded, trying to contain herself. She still ended up beaming.

Antiope sat down and set to work on a bowl of porridge. Menalippe realized she was staring and, with a start, returned to her own food. Penthesilea shot her friend a knowing glance and smirked.

“I didn’t see you later on at the dance last night, Mena,” Pen teased. “What did you get up to?”

The mock innocence and wicked smile on Penthesilea’s face revealed her line of thought. Menalippe pursed her lips. She was in paradise, yes, but had no intention of it being aired until she wanted it to.

“Well, you know how it is, Pen. Sometimes you just have to hit the sack.”

Antiope coughed into her juice, stifling a laugh.

Niobe seemed to finally realize something was going on. She rolled her eyes. “Whatever joke you two have going, keep it to yourselves. Some of us would like some peace and quiet.”

Menalippe and Penthesilea looked at each other, their eyes twinkling with mirth.

At that moment, Menalippe felt something against her right calf. She glanced over at Antiope involuntarily. The General seemed wholly engrossed in her meal. But yes, Menalippe was certain Antiope had pressed a leg against her. She felt its warmth radiating through her whole body.

Antiope looked up and met her lover’s eyes. She gave a small, warm grin. They finished breakfast in silence, reveling in the closeness.

Penthesilea was the one who finally broke the quiet. “All right, Mena, I’m going to need your help. Phil is seeing the healers for a follow-up, and I can’t get to the next event by myself.”

Antiope raised her eyebrows in surprise. “You continue to compete, Penthesilea? I thought certainly yesterday would be your last…” Her words trailed off as she saw the look of determination in the warrior’s face. “Ah.” Antiope finished. “I see your mind is made up. Well, have caution. We need you in top shape for the long haul.”

Menalippe stood and collected Penthesilea’s dishes as well as her own. Once she had dropped them off with kitchen staff, she returned to the table. Pen had gotten to her feet, all her weight on one side. Menalippe went around to the other, slipping an arm under her friend’s shoulders.

“We shall see both of you later,” Menalippe said. “Athena be with you.” She inclined her head in lieu of a salute, both hands occupied.

The pair moved towards the training grounds at a steady, slow pace. Penthesilea was clearly in pain but doing a good job of hiding it. Someone who knew her less well might not notice at all. But Menalippe knew.

The warrior hummed to herself, certainly some form of self-distraction. Finally, she asked the question Menalippe knew was coming. “So, how was it? I want all the details!” Penthesilea was about ten times more enthusiastic than Mena wanted her to be. She wanted to share with her friends, certainly. But giving intimate details like Pen was asking for felt wrong. That was private.

“That woman is incredible,” Menalippe said breathlessly. “Unlike anyone I’ve been with before. I swear to you, she smiles, and I melt.”

“Gods, not those kinds of details! The steamy kind!” Penthesilea retorted.

“I’m afraid that must remain in your imagination,” Mena replied with a smirk.

Pen gave a snort of exasperation. “Fine, then.” She was silent only for a few moments. “I don’t know if I can do it today, Mena,” she admitted. “The injured foot is my thrust foot for javelin. There is no way I will be able to push off with even a fraction of my usual power.”

Menalippe considered the problem. It seemed an insurmountable challenge whatever way she looked at it. “Could you try throwing with the other arm?” she asked finally.

The banners surrounding the training ground fields appeared as the pair crested a hill. Already, eager Amazons were claiming the best seats for the coming competition.

“Not all of us train both sides as faithfully as you do, Mena,” Penthesilea replied morosely. “But I see no other choice. Maybe I can take an abbreviated approach, too.”

“Is your foot wrapped?” Menalippe inquired.

“Yes, but not tightly,” Pen replied. “It aggravates the wound to have something too tight on it.”

“Let me wrap it just before you go,” Menalippe suggested. “It will inhibit your range of motion, but we want that for a brief time. You’ll just have to deal with the pain.”

Penthesilea looked as though she might refuse. Finally, she nodded. “I must. Thank you, Mena. Oh!” She stopped moving, tugging on Menalippe’s arm. “I almost forgot to tell you! I asked Egeria to watch your form at practice a couple weeks ago. She said something I meant to pass along but only just remembered. You’re releasing your throws a hair too soon. So they have more of an arc than you need. Hold on for a fraction longer to get a flatter trajectory. I think the recent strength you’ve added can support it.”

“And did Egeria realize she was passing advice to a competitor?” Menalippe asked, an amused grin on her face.

“Not a chance,” Pen responded, smiling. “I was subtle about it. ‘Oh, Egeria, looks like we’ll have no competition from that one. Her throw! Terrible!’ Like that.”
“You sneak!” Menalippe cried. The pair returned to walking. “Thank you,” she said. “I would be foolish not to take the advice, intended or not, from such a strong warrior. We shall see if it pays off.”

__________________________________________

Several hours later, the training grounds were completely packed. The warriors’ competition was tighter than usual, and there were several new faces to add intrigue, Menalippe’s being one of them. It seemed half the village was backing her due to her self-sacrifice during the race.

Menalippe watched as Amazon after Amazon took their allotted three throws. Each was an excellent physical specimen in their own right. This task took more than brute strength, though. It required a timing and finesse that some women struggled with.

They went in random order, Hippolyta and the rest of the Senators unwilling to give away the exact standings. They trusted their Amazons to compete fairly but still wanted to remove the motivation for sabotage.

“Menalippe!” The attendant called out to indicate that it was Menalippe’s turn.

Today, the archer would have to apply her skills elsewhere.

Menalippe approached the barrels that held the throwing spears. She selected one quickly, trusting in the armsmistress’s work. She debated how much to incorporate what Penthesilea had told her. Was it really wise to alter her technique at the last moment? She decided to take her first throw as she had been practicing.

As Menalippe took the starting line, the crowd fell silent. She took several deep, even breaths, fixing her eyes on the flags that marked the release point. Several Amazons before her had thrown very well. Today was quite the challenge.

The Amazon visualized her throw one last time. Then, she tensed each muscle in her body and launched herself forward into a sprint, javelin in hand. She wound up, feeling the pole brush against her cheek at the right height as she pulled it back. Menalippe contracted her core suddenly, transferring as much of her forward momentum as possible up into her limbs. She released the projectile with a cry.

Several moments later, she heard the thud that indicated the javelin had landed. An Amazon approached with a measuring cord. About 60 meters. She would have to do better.

Menalippe returned to the barrel and chose another javelin. Time to see if what Egeria said was true. She repeated the process, calming herself, then sprinting forward with all her might. She held on to her two-pound missile a moment longer than she thought she should. The release felt odd, and for all the world, Menalippe thought she might have just embarrassed herself.

The thunk of the javelin downfield was followed by cheers from the crowd. 70 meters! An incredible improvement. Menalippe’s mouth dropped open in surprise. Well, then. Time to trust in that odd feeling.

For her third throw, Menalippe concentrated on making that “too late” feeling go away. She knew she would throw best if her body was somewhat relaxed, able to act like a cord to transfer the power.

Moments after starting the sprint for her third throw, Menalippe could feel the fatigue in her thighs. She put every ounce of energy possible into the throw, grunting as she let the spear fly.

The crowd cheered again, but with less enthusiasm this time. Mena cursed. She had been too stiff. 67 meters. Still, an improvement over her first throw. And good enough to be in the top group with less than a third of the competitors remaining.

Menalippe accepted a towel from a young Amazon courier and wiped her face. She took a seat next to Penthesilea. “Good work,” her friend said tersely. Mena nodded in response, still wishing she had done better.

“Let me wrap your foot.” Menalippe wrapped Pen’s wound as best she could, giving it extra cushion around the puncture.

Menalippe could tell from the paleness of her friend's face that Pen would not be able to last much longer. Luckily, her friend was called for her turn just several minutes later.

Mena clasped her hands in front of her, wringing them together in tension. How did Penthesilea plan to make her approach?

The muscular Amazon also selected her weapon quickly. She took several steps toward the release point from the starting line, shortening her runup. No other competitor had done so, but Mena understood why.

Pen started forward with a yell, breaking into a full run, somehow. Menalippe was stunned to see how quickly her friend moved. Her mental strength was truly impressive. Pen let out another cry when she released the projectile, this time as much from pain as anything else.

52 meters. Well below what Menalippe knew her friend could achieve, but a passable number. Pen stayed at the release point, staring downfield in anger. She had shifted all her weight back to one leg. Moments passed, and the warrior did not move. It was becoming awkward, people whispering to each other.

Suddenly, Menalippe understood her friend’s body language. That was it. The only throw she could muster. But her pride would not let her give up.

Menalippe stood and approached the Games monitor. She whispered into her ear, gesturing at Penthesilea. After a few moments, the monitor nodded to her.

Menalippe walked across the field to where Pen stood, feeling the eyes of hundreds on her. Penthesilea lifted her head as she heard someone approach, her brow furrowing when she saw her friend. There were unshed tears of pain and frustration in her eyes.

Standing in front of her, Menalippe spoke softly. “You have done an admirable job, warrior. And now you may rest.” She expected Pen to argue.

Instead, the muscular woman let her head drop, nodding. Menalippe stepped forward and slipped an arm under her shoulders. They walked off the field.

“Head up, warrior,” Menalippe hissed under her breath.

Penthesilea reacted instantly to the commanding tone, lifting her chin. She nearly managed an expression of defiance. The pair continued on out of the grounds, heading back toward the village. Menalippe was unwilling to leave her friend even to see where she herself had placed.

Chapter Text

Later that evening, Menalippe sat in the tent that Penthesilea and Philippus shared. The mood was somber. They all knew that Pen’s performance that day, despite the integrity she had shown, would not be enough to keep her in the top group. Athena’s words hung heavily over the muscular warrior.

Menalippe sipped on a mug of cider, nursing the beverage. Philippus had produced the bottle as a surprise, so she didn’t want to be rude. But Mena didn’t feel much like drinking that night. After returning Penthesilea to her home, Menalippe had searched for someone who attended the javelin event. She had not placed in the top five, but she was not too far behind. A decent score. But she was not in the position she wanted to be, despite her best efforts.

“So, Mena,” Philippus said, her rich voice filling the room. “Where do you estimate you stand?”

There was no list posted in the village, no running score for the Amazons to use to track positions in the competition. They went into each new event seemingly blind. But over the years, the women had become skilled at guessing the scores that had been given out. An Amazon who attended every event, and there were many, could usually pick out the top ten competitors.

Menalippe was unsure how her finish in the race had been scored. She knew archery had gone her way. A small smile crossed her face at the memory. And javelin was passable. She could, if she was very lucky, be in the top group, but there was no way to be sure.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Antiope certainly knew the details of the standings.

Menalippe was seized by the desire to ask the General for the information. But she could not, would not, take advantage of their relationship in that way.

The archer shrugged, taking a sip of her cider. “I do not think I am high enough in the rankings to be comfortable,” she said.

“And I am certainly even lower than that,” Pethesilea said bitterly.

The warrior’s foot was elevated on the table in front of her. Menalippe could see the flesh around the wound was angry and red. Penthesilea insisted it was fine. The healers had not given her a clean bill of health, though. Menalippe worried an infection would take root.

Philippus noticed the glum expressions on her companions’ faces. As was so often the case, she knew just what to say to make them feel better.

“Gods! You will not believe what I hear about the dance last night.” Philippus glanced over at her partner conspiratorially. Penthesilea did not react with her usual enthusiasm.

Menalippe realized what her friend was doing and decided to play along. “Oh, do tell us the latest gossip,” she said, forcing a smile.

“This is not even gossip,” Philippus said, barking a short laugh. “This is proven. Mnemosyne told me she saw it with her own eyes, and that Amazon is not one to exaggerate."

Despite her despair, Penthesilea had sat forward in her chair, clearly interested. Menalippe smiled to herself. Her friend never could resist a bit of chatter.

“Well,” Philippus continued, “It seems our friend Luyu fancies herself quite the dancer these days! The drum circle last night got rather…enthusiastic. Mnemo said there were thirty women at least dancing in a chain around the drummers, taking turns jumping in to let loose a bit…”

Amazon drum circles were legendary for their energy. Menalippe felt she could nearly experience the feeling they produced from memory alone. It was a heady mix of euphoria and confidence. When fueled by some ale, well, things could get a bit chaotic.

Philippus continued her story. “So Luyu jumped in, taking control of the circle as if it was hers. She whirled, jumped, kicked her legs in the air! Mnemo says it was a sight to behold. She even leapt over the drummers! Well, we know Luyu. She has a jump on her to take her to the top of a tree. But coordination is not her strong suit.”

Penthesilea chuckled. “Indeed not. Though I would eat the steamed rolls she makes for every meal if I could.”

“As you may have guessed, she took it a bit far!” Philippus said. “She tried to do a back bend and kick over, some kind of finale to her own performance I suppose. But she’d had so much ale, she couldn’t keep her balance once her head was upside down! She fell right on it, Mnemosyne said. She’s fine, but gods, she gave them a scare!”

Menalippe smiled, shaking her head in affection and mirth.

“She was insistent that she could remain at the party!” Philippus finished. “Until Carmi grabbed her bodily and took her to the healers’ tent! Oh, to see it! To see Luyu try that…”

“Has she ever done it successfully?” Penthesilea asked.

“Pfffftt. Not that I’ve seen. But who knows. Maybe there was a special Amazon in the crowd she was trying to impress.” Menalippe smiled and gulped down the rest of her cider. She felt much better.

“All right, friends. I’m headed to bed,” Menalippe said. She gave each of her friends a hug, her spirit lighter than it had been all day.

When she arrived at her tent, Menalippe found a small note had been set on her nightstand.

Sleep easy tonight. You are doing well.
-A

The smile on the Amazon’s face widened. The reassurance was just what she needed.

Chapter Text

Menalippe sat on the edge of her bed, pulling her riding boots on, one after the other. They were broken in well, but still snug, clinging to her calves. She grounded her feet on the wood floor of her tent, focusing for a few moments on the solidness below her. She took several deep, steadying breaths, and visualized the day ahead of her.

In just a few hours, she would be flying along on the back of her favorite horse. Menalippe looked forward to the riding, though she didn’t relish the added pressure the Games would bring. She visualized the course she would have to ride, picturing herself performing each precise maneuver. When she felt confident and prepared, Menalippe stood.

The Amazon swung past the back of the mess hall, planning to grab a bite and head directly to the stables. She slipped in the back entrance, smiling to herself at the erotic memories that crossed her mind. The women on mess duty that month were bustling around. Menalippe caught her friend Uma’s eye. The jovial woman approached her.

“Mena, what can I do for you?” Uma had an easy smile. And unlike many of the women who drew mess duty, she liked it.

“Do you have any of those tuber biscuits you make,” Mena asked, raising her voice slightly over the din. “I don’t want something heavy today.”

Uma nodded her head, grinning widely. “I’ve got just the thing for you today. I have to take care of our future champion, eh?” She slipped past a woman carrying a large tray of smoked meats and stuck her hand into a covered basket.

Menalippe shrank back against the doorframe, trying to stay out of the way. She had mixed feelings about Uma’s compliment. It felt empowering to have the support of her friends. But she wasn’t sure their faith would be rewarded. Menalippe frowned slightly, hoping nobody she knew had wagered on her.

Uma came over and handed Menalippe a cloth, wrapped around several warm items. “Keep ya light as a feather, dear,” Uma called over her shoulder. “Go get ‘em!” Before Menalippe could thank her, Uma was already half in an oven, poking at whatever delicacy baked within.

Menalippe reemerged into the morning sun. The recent cold snap had finally passed, and it promised to be a beautiful day. The Amazon headed toward the stables, unwrapping the cloth to find several biscuits and a fruit tart, all still warm from the oven. She gobbled them down, trying not to go so quickly that she would give herself a stomachache.

The stables were busier than usual, but Menalippe was confident she had arrived before most of the other competitors. Each Amazon was allowed to choose her horse for the competition. Only the highest-ranked warriors had their own steeds, and all others chose from the communal pool. As a result, there was a fierce competition the day of the horseback event long before the first start flag was waved. The early Amazon got the horse.

Menalippe had one in mind: Bella, a brown mare, shorter and stockier than most of the other options. She knew Bella had the stamina to be surefooted on the obstacles at the end of the course, as much as the early ones. Other horses were faster, but Menalippe wanted a reliable choice.

The smell of hay and manure mixed, wafting out of the open stable doors. Menalippe scanned the line of stalls. A few had lengths of leather cord tied around the top slat of the stall door; those steeds were already claimed. The Amazons who would ride them in the competition groomed them and inspected tack.

Before she could spot Bella, Menalippe heard a familiar voice behind her. She turned, a smile on her face.

Antiope was chatting with the Master of Horses, Yvonne. “I want any horses still showing ill effects from the recent campaign to be set off limits…” She stopped short upon seeing Menalippe in her path.

“Come and find me if you aren’t sure,” the General finished. Yvonne saluted and approached several stable hands.

Menalippe leaned against a stall, trying to appear casual as Antiope approached. She peeked out of the corner of her eye at the horse stabled there. Not a biter. Good. That was the last thing she needed: to look foolish. She wasn’t sure what was worse: a ridiculous scene in front of her lover, or in front of her General.

“I suppose I should have expected to see you here early,” Antiope said. Her tone was warm. This was the woman Menalippe knew, then. Not the military leader who could seem so distant at times.

“What horse are you planning to select?” Antiope asked. She leaned back against the same stall as Menalippe, their shoulders just barely touching. The gesture was sweet.

Menalippe found herself feeling a bit playful. “Well, I have my preference,” she replied. “But who would you choose? Other than Artur, of course.” Antiope’s close relationship with her own horse was well-known. The gelding followed her around like a puppy when he wasn’t tied off.

Antiope considered the question seriously. “In truth, Mena, I believe you can’t really go wrong. With a few exceptions. Most of the horses have been so well-trained, there is little advantage to one over the other. Obviously, it depends on the situation…”
Menalippe stifled a laugh, placing her arm on Antiope’s forearm. The blonde paused mid-sentence.

“My dear, you really don’t ever take a break, do you?” Menalippe teased.

Antiope grinned. “I do indeed, when the time is right.” She deliberately let her eyes run the length of Menalippe’s body. “For instance, after the bonfire tonight. Perhaps then, there will be an opportunity.”

Menalippe took a deep breath, trying to calm the pounding in her heart at Antiope’s words. “I think you may be right, General. I have a feeling I may need your… assistance with something.”

“Far be it from me to deny a fellow Amazon in need…” Antiope joked. She met Menalippe’s eyes. The longing there was powerful.

Menalippe felt that she was about to throw herself at her lover regardless of the public place. But she didn’t have the chance to make a decision.

A courier burst into the stables at a run. “Menalippe,” the young woman called, her voice frantic. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Ephiny sent for you. It’s urgent!” She saluted the General absently, turning back to hear the archer’s response.

In an instant, Menalippe’s relaxed stance was gone. “Did she say what it was about?”

The courier, Hana, looked almost in pain as she replied. “Penthesilea,” she croaked. “She was carried into the healer’s tent just an hour ago.”

Menalippe felt her stomach drop. She turned to Antiope, her eyes wild. “I…the competition…”

“I’ll speak to the organizers and see if your name can be called late in the group,” Antiope said, her mouth set in a worried line. “But I cannot postpone them forever. Hurry back, warrior.” She gave Menalippe’s arm an affectionate squeeze.

The tall Amazon nodded at the General in acknowledgment. “Don’t bother following,” she said to Hana. Menalippe walked out of the stables as quickly as she could, breaking into a run as soon as there was space.

Menalippe could feel the fatigue from the race days before in her legs. They were stiff, with little spring in them. But she pushed herself to go as fast as she could.

It was disheartening, passing other competitors heading the other way. Despite Antiope’s confidence in all the horses, she couldn’t help but feel that she was giving the other women an advantage by giving up her early choice. But fear for Penthesilea far outweighed those feelings.

Though the stables were active early in the day, most of the town was just stirring. A few women gave Menalippe quizzical looks as she flew past them.

Menalippe wasn’t sure what to expect when she arrived at the healer’s tent. She tried to slow down before entering, but her entrance still attracted attention.

Several aides gave Menalippe annoyed glances, but none reprimanded her. She paid them little attention, seeking out the familiar sight of Ephiny’s curls.

“Hera’s tits, we’ll have to lance it…”

There was commotion from a small side chamber, and Menalippe froze at what she saw beyond the doorway.

Penthesilea was being held down by several strong Amazons. She moaned, her words incoherent. Ephiny had a sharp blade in her hand. She held Penthesilea’s foot with the other arm. Realizing what was about to happen, Menalippe glanced away. She could handle the sight of a battle wound, though they made her somewhat queasy. She didn’t think she could handle what amounted to minor surgery.

“That’s it, Pen, almost done,” Ephiny’s words were meant to be a comfort. But the strong warrior seemed not to hear them.

“More gauze.” The healer had her curls tied back with a cloth as she worked, her movements sure. Menalippe was relieved to find her covering the wound when she glanced over again.

Ephiny seemed to relax a few moments later. “Keep her under the blankets, even if she tries to throw them off. And more willowbark tea.” The assistants moved quickly to carry out her orders.

As some of them stepped away from their charge, Menalippe could see Philippus at her partner’s side. She held Pen’s hand, looking more worried than Menalippe could ever remember seeing her before.

Menalippe tried not to step in too soon, but she had to know what was going on.

“Eph!” She approached the healer as she was scrubbing her hands clean. “Gods, what happened? She was fine when I saw her last night!”

Ephiny pursed her lips, shaking her head. “Epione told her. We told her, Mena! We said it was dangerous to keep walking on that foot, and what happens? Now it’s infected!” She dried her hands on a clean towel. “When I sent for you Mena, her whole body was seizing up. Her temperature was so high that we dipped her in an ice bath to prevent brain damage. How can I work when even my own Amazons fight against me??”

Menalippe realized that Ephiny was overworked and exhausted. Her eyes looked hollow, with heavy bags under them.

“Sit down, my friend,” Menalippe ordered. She guided Ephiny to a chair and pulled over a folding stool for herself. “What can I do to help?”

Ephiny took a deep breath. “I need you to talk to her, when she comes around. If she tries to get up and walk on that injury again, the infection won’t go away. The wound will fill with fluid and pus again. Mena, tell her whatever you need to. If we can’t get through that stubborn skull of hers, she’ll lose the foot. Or worse.”

Menalippe nodded. She leaned forward, resting her head in her hands.

The Amazon stood and approached her friend’s bedside. Penthesilea was asleep, fitful twitches interrupting the stillness of her face. Menalippe went around the cot and knelt next to Philippus. She took her friend’s free hand.

“Sounds like we had a scare, there,” Menalippe said softly. Philippus looked like she was just barely containing her emotions. She nodded once in affirmation.

“Mena, when I woke up, she was burning up. I can’t believe I didn’t notice, but the medicine I take before bed dulls my pain and also helps me sleep. If only I had been strong enough to skip it! Maybe I would have caught the fever sooner.”

Menalippe squeezed Philippus’s hand. “Do not blame yourself. You were right there for her when she needed you to be. And you did the right thing, having her brought here.”

Philippus snorted. “We’ll see how she feels about that. She was still a bit conscious when I had Marla and Ines carry her down her. She was cursing all of us with such fury… Well, if any of those gods listen to her, I’m a goner.”

“She’ll thank you for it later, I’m sure,” said Menalippe. She glanced around the tent.

“Melis!” Menalippe called. One of the novice healers approached. “Can you have a message sent to General Antiope?”

“Yes, Menalippe. I can deliver it myself. I’m sure she’s up at the arena…wait! Why aren’t you there? The young Amazon looked shocked. “You should be ready to saddle up by now!”

Menalippe let her head hang. She stared at the floor a few moments, her emotions warring within.

“I know I should be there,” Menalippe said, her voice quivering. “But I cannot. If I go, and Pen wakes up, and gets up to stand on that foot… I have to convince her to listen to you healers. Phil has already tried and failed.”

“Many times,” Philippus grumbled. “Half the time this damned wonderful woman does things just to spite me.”

“So, being here is more important.” Menalippe said this almost to herself.

“What message shall I deliver to the General, then?” asked a disappointed Melis.

“Tell her….tell her not to hold a spot for me. That I am forced to withdraw, and Penthesilea too.”

Melis saluted. “As you wish, Mena, only I’m sorry. You were great fun to watch.” The young Amazon left the tent.

“Phil, am I being a fool?” Menalippe asked quietly.

There was silence for a few moments.

“I cannot say so,” Philippus responded. “I truly believe you may be the only one to get through to Pen. You may be saving the Amazon nation a warrior today, Mena, if you can exercise your words as well as you have been your body.”

Menalippe closed her eyes, trying not to let the tears there fall. This moment felt too much like and end to her dream.

Chapter Text

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?”

Menalippe nodded.

“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.