Knowledge is mastery.
—Sayings of Kjus
Hundreds of feet below her, the night fires spread like constellations. Street lamps gave shape to roads. Torches revealed angled temples, domes of courthouses and the elliptical walls of amphitheaters. Mirroring the cityscape, the velvet sky welcomed her with its familiarity, made her dream of nights sleeping on rooftops. But if not for the moon painting her green with its glow, she doubted she would see the rope running down the slope to her waist. It was a perfect night for a crime against god.
All was silent but for the hush of distant waves. An icy wind came before it, like lightning before thunder, and she clutched her jade cloak more tightly to keep from shuddering. She had never seen the Sea and even now her mind reeled at the possibility of so much water. Was it as she had heard, like a thousand-thousand lakes reaching the horizon? It was unimaginable.
What am I doing here?
It was a question she kept asking herself, even though she knew the answer to it. Other thieves might rob from the market district, but Thelana was not other thieves. She knew the fruit vendor’s newborn daughter by name. She knew the carpet weaver’s son was gathering coin for his wedding feast. The merchants’ coffers were little heavier than hers and they were not without hungry mouths. In her eyes, Hedonia’s villains were the tax collectors, robbing the crop of the peoples’ labor to maintain the temple. But taking even a mite from the priesthood was a thing unheard of; and as for stealing from the idol itself, that was lunacy if not suicide. The city god, however, was not hers to fear. If she were to steal from him his pearl eyes, how could it matter, as Sargonus was a blind god, never seeing the suffering of the downtrodden in the alleyways?
Perhaps it wasn’t so much the treasure, but the climb that seduced her, with its pinnacle high as a mountaintop and its slick incline. How often had she taken up unreasonable challenges, finding herself sitting in places her siblings considered beyond reach? How often had she underestimated the strength of a branch only to be punished with a broken arm and no dinner? Was she, as Baba was so fond of espousing, as stubborn as an aurochs? I can climb that, she heard herself saying, under the shadow of that beautiful bough in her memory, to goading brothers who never seemed to care one whit whether she plummeted to a broken neck. I can climb anything.
Where others had slid—rather than fallen—to their deaths, or been shot down at the onset, she had succeeded, scaling the pyramid under the cover of night with only a knotted rope and her bare feet. Now, threatening more readily than the known was the unknown, what only the most exalted of the priesthood ever laid eyes upon: the defenses of the temple’s inner sanctum. Surely, there would be guards, unless the priesthood never conceived of such sacrilege, which, from what she understood of Hedonians, was not impossible. No danger could dissuade her, however, for survival against impossible odds proved a better bet than a certainty of shame and impoverishment.
She reached between her slender shoulders, feeling the smooth treasure that once belonged to Kin Sonomila, the great monarch inventor. The gold in her hands glittered in the dim city lights and with the click of a jade tipped button, its two halves split apart, revealing a system of tightly wound spools and pulleys. Like a bat unfolding its wings, her sword spread into a bow.
Digging her toes between the stones, chipping at surfaces untouched for millennia, she drew herself over the lip and into shadow. There she would bide her time until both eclipses were past, until sun and moon wheeled behind the turquoise giant turning the world black. Drawing into a bundle of jade, she fended off the cold sea air, and picked at the string of her bow like a lutenist as her mind meandered paths of days long gone.
“Thelana, are you listening?”
The little girl turned, her chestnut braid swaying, the wooden bow slack against her thighs. “I am trying,” she said to the Nibian woman, “but I’m just no good!”
In the distance, Thelana could feel the man’s eyes riding the curves of her backside. Why does he look at me so? Is there something wrong with me?
“Let her be, Aola. She’s just a little scamp.” His tone was made more degrading by the chewing noises escaping his mouth.
Since their arrival, Brutus treated her like a creature from under a rock, like the mites and earthworms caged at her bedside. But the captain fast became her friend. Often Thelana would catch herself marveling at the woman’s beauty, at the complexity of her tight fitting leathers and silver ringlets, at the silkiness of the blood-red cape that fell from shoulder to boot. Against Baba’s will, the young Ilmarin asked the strangers’ many questions, about the tools they brought, about the sword and bow. She even managed to learn, with a speed that astonished family and foreigner alike, the Krat language. “Retrieve your arrows, Thelana, and let’s give it another shot.”
Thelana searched among the reeds, mumbling curses to the gods that there should be so many weeds resembling arrow shafts growing about her home. Something red caught her eye then, like the tail of a finch, and she pinched it up and went in search of others. The victim of her aim was a green pomegranate fit snugly and innocently within the folds of an olive tree, but only three arrows jutted from its gnarled bark. Even after ten shots, she’d failed miserably to split the fruit.
“No, Thelana,” she heard Aola say. “Other side, arrow should be on the inside, single feather out.”
“Looks like you have a lot of work ahead of you, Captain, if you she can’t tell her right from her left!” He laughed, forgot to chew, and coughed up a sliver of apple.
Thelana tried to concentrate, to quiet her mind, but Brutus’ banter was incessant.
“Pay him no heed,” said Aola, “he’s an ass.”
Thelana nodded. OK. With eyes clamped tight, she watched events unfold as she wished: the string snapping with a faint buzz, the bronze point speed away, the fruit bursting into a juicy mist.
“Don’t look so nervous,” her teacher added. “Be loose. Steady your breathing. Just remember: draw to your cheek, elbow up, release quickly.”
“What about wind and distance?” Brutus remarked.
Aola waved him off. “Doesn’t matter at three paces. Now shut up.”
Steady your breathing. Air funneled through her lips, swirled in a fire under her bosom, escaped back into the world.
Adjust for wind. She became acutely aware of it, of the bowing reeds, of every hair along her body leaning eastward. She fitted the arrow along the bow, notched the tail into the string, lifted and pulled.
“Not with your thumb!” Aola corrected. “Three fingers, Thelana.”
Her elbow bent to its extremity, already sore from a day’s mending, and she held it and held it, the bow pregnant with arrow.
“No, don’t hesitate,” said Aola. “Quick release!”
But it was too late. Thelana’s arms drifted from her face, the string became too tight to keep steady, and the arrow—distanced from the bow—flipped over and around, almost through her foot into a tangle of weeds. Laughter erupted from Brutus mouth, crushing her, adding weight to her disappointment.
“Did you see that? The girl couldn’t hit a treer if it was dead!”
“Be easy with her,” the Captain urged, “it’s my composite longbow, after all. The pull must be half her weight . . .”
Spittle was hanging from Brutus’ lips, his engorged cheeks flushing the color of his apple as he continued to laugh and choke. “What a scamp . . . when the drought hits this land, she’ll be lucky to become a whore.”
“Silence your tongue!” Aola barked. “Or I’ll silence it for you!”
“You’re wasting your time, Captain,” he went on. “Just look at her! She’s barely human. At least my mother had the good sense not to let her daughters go prancing like whores before all that’s holy. She’d have a stiff board for their bottoms, my mother would.”
“We’re not in Kratos, Brutus,” she said, “this is their land, and so long as we are their guests, we will respect their customs, however strange they may seem to you.”
“Really?” he said, crunching into his apple, “and I thought we were hiding in the wilderness, laying low and regrouping. I didn’t know we’d come upon so great a nation!”
“We’ve lost many good men,” she said, her hard beauty framed by her golden curls, “but I am still in command here, Brutus, and so long as that is, you will refrain from your glib little comments.”
“Point taken,” he said, “just don’t expect her to be replacing any of my brothers, or being any use to us, unless you plan on using her for bait.”
“If the drought comes, and the Great Moon does cover this place, they’ll need hunting skills to survive, and what better tool can we give them than the bow? At least this one is willing to learn.”
Thelana was not listening to any of it. The arrow plopped from her bow another three times and she was becoming heartbroken. I don’t want to be Ilmarin anymore. I don’t want to be a whore; I want to be a warrior; then they’d see; then they wouldn’t make jokes.
When every arrow found purchase among the reeds, not a one making its home within the olive tree, the pomegranate began to blur in Thelana’s sight, and her cheeks became warm and damp. “I can’t do it!” she cried, tossing the bow aside. “Brutus is right. I’m nothing but a whore, a little naked whore.”
The Krat woman bent down, her knee plate crunching the foliage beneath them, and with a mailed finger brushed away the tears. “Thelana, you don’t even know what those words mean.”
“Yes I do,” she said. “That I’m different, me and my family, that we’re not like you.”
Captain Aola connected the freckles of the youth’s sun baked cheeks, combed chestnut strands from eyes made more dazzling emeralds by their wetness. “Words don’t mean anything unless they mean something to you. Being different doesn’t make you any less of a person.”
“Then why can’t I do what you can?”
“Thelana,” she answered, as tenderly as any mother, “You may not fully grasp this now, but I am going to tell you a secret which I’ve learned only after many years of failure. People will mock, because they fear their own inability, that you might someday become better than they. No one is born to greatness, Thelana, it comes from your will to succeed, your ability to ignore the jeers and wade through rivers of disappointment. It comes from the courage to be lonesome in the steadfast belief in your own ability. Do you understand, Thelana?”
The little girl nodded. “I think so.”
“Good,” she said, handing the bow back to her. “Now try again.”
The arrow erupted, arching over the tips of the reeds, traveling beyond time and space, coming down in the darkness across the ages. The hoplite gasped, drawing his hand—slick with blood—from his throat. His torch clacked against the parapet. Red smeared the temple wall as he reached to steady himself, failing, slumping into a heap beside the fallen flame which flickered in his eyes.
Go back to Ages of Aenya: Chapter 3