I reached out to touch the first-century Roman marble statue of the Wounded Amazon.
“If you please, ma’am, don’t touch the artwork,” a nearby guard said with a smile.
I grinned and nodded. I knew better but was drawn to the ancient figure, as I was to all things Amazonian.
I had tagged along with George for the opportunity to visit one of my favorite places in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Growing up in California had deprived me of regular visits.
George had been summoned by the Company to a meeting somewhere in Manhattan. It was all I knew and would ever know. I’d stopped asking for details. He’d disappear for a day or a week, once for two months, and return as if the lapsed time had been removed from the space-time continuum. It was the sole perturbation in our lives. He’d been my best friend, protector and lover for years. If he were a plumber or brain surgeon, we’d have married long ago.
“Afghanistan?” he said. “Jeez, Chloe, can’t you find a place in the States to search for old Roman bones?”
He was commenting on my statement minutes before that I planned to visit Afghanistan without first laying a foundation for the decision. It was token payback for what he did to me all the time.
“First, these bones have already been discovered. Second, I’m pretty sure they’re not Roman.”
“You know it’s not healthy in Afghanistan these days,” he said with a matter-of-fact tone. “I’ve been there. You don’t buy a tour from your local travel agent, stay in nice hotels and visit sites with a guy who’s memorized a script from the guidebook.”
“Dad said he could get me a temporary assignment at Shindand Air Base as a communications liaison for his committee.”
“Right,” he replied with a knowing grin. “I could have guessed.”
My father, a three-term senator from California, headed the Senate Intelligence Committee. My successful career as a photojournalist and an author of articles about ancient Greece was somewhat due to his influence. Despite my badgering, he was rigid in not sharing classified information, but sometimes greased the path toward people I wanted to meet or places I wanted to explore.
“I guess that if you have to go to Afghanistan, Shindand isn’t bad. The Taliban only attack once a month, not twice a day.”
“The museum will be closing in fifteen minutes,” an Alexa-like voice proclaimed over the well-mannered quiet.
“It’s research. I’m going to write a book about Amazons.” I watched from the corner of my eye for his reaction. That was something else I hadn’t told him. I’d thought about it for ages, but standing in front of the marvelous statue, I made the final decision. The trip to Afghanistan would hopefully inspire a theme for the book.
“So what’s the attraction of these particular bones?” he said as we headed toward the museum exit.
“The remains are three warriors tentatively dated to 300 B.C. Two were buried with their armor, shields and swords. The third had no armor, only a shield and arrowheads.”
“The third was a woman.”
“It suggests that she was also a warrior.”
“And you think an Amazon?”
“I thought Amazons were just movie fantasy.”
“The details are romanticized, of course, but there’s enough historical evidence to support a class of warrior women who lived in ancient Sarmatia, north of the Black Sea in today’s Ukraine.”
“That’s a thousand miles from Afghanistan.”
“You’re right. It’s one concern that needs explanation if I believe she’s a real Amazon.”
“You must have an initial theory that merits a journey into the world’s most popular war zone.”
“It’s at a time and place that matches the campaigns of Alexander the Great.”
“You believe Alexander was at war with Amazons? That’d make a cool movie.”
“Unlikely. An enemy wouldn’t have been given a warrior’s burial.”
“There’s a myth that an Amazon queen took several hundred followers to Alexander, hoping to breed with his men to create a better warrior.”
“That super-race idea didn’t pan out very well for the other guy who tried it eighty years ago.”
There was no more discussion about Amazons during dinner, and into the early evening. I sat on our hotel bed reading a book on Afghan customs. George sat beside me robotically flipping through the pages of a Soldier of Fortune magazine he’d picked up in the airport.
“I guess you’re determined to make this trip,” he said.
I put my book down and looked at him. “Yup.”
He had a huge grin on his face. “You’re gonna need a guide.”
“Someone better than the travel agent would provide?”
“I’m cheap, and my Dari is passable.”
“I love you,” I said, and hugged him hard.
“I bet you and I could start a super-race,” he whispered in my ear.
I hesitated to ask if that was a marriage proposal—I knew what was really on his mind.
Byre Jus, Sarmatia
I didn’t know why Queen Thalestris had summoned me to appear before the Council of Elders. It worried me as I searched my memory for some minor infraction of an unwritten rule. Our culture had only a handful of major rules, but we followed many others customarily. If one of those was broken, the Elders would make a special effort to embarrass and humble the offender. There was no argument—the Elders were always right. Nevertheless, the punishments were not severe. The most common was banishment into the wilderness for thirty days with only a knife. Indeed, many sisters enjoyed the escape from everyday training and labors.
One custom was that the Council of Elders always met outside, regardless of the weather, so that Nature would bear witness to their decisions. In this case, it was in a grove of elms on a sunny midsummer morning following a nighttime shower. The smell of dust settled by the rain was a favorite of mine. I stood before the five Elders sitting behind a solid stone table, each sipping blackberry wine from a chalice. My seven sisters stood beside me with solemn faces, prepared to offer support for whatever fateful card the Elders would deal me.
“Cloethis, we have a special mission for you,” Thalestris said.
A mission! My summons was not punishment, as I had feared. I relaxed amid the collective sighs from my sisters.
“I am honored, Mother.”
Eudora nudged me and whispered, “I knew it would be good news. You are Thalestris’ pet.”
“Your mission is critical to our future survival, Cloethis,” our queen began. “Word has come of a man called Alexander of Macedon who leads a powerful army in Thrace. His conquest of cities is thorough and brutal, destroying everything that opposes him with ease.”
“We fear no men,” I replied. “Why would this Alexander be an exception?”
“True,” the queen said, “but these men differ from our neighboring tribes of men who know of our prowess and have learned to fear us.”
Eudora spoke up, scorn on her face. “It matters not. All men die in the same manner—on their knees, bewildered by our arrow in their hearts or stunned as their life spills on the earth from the stroke of our axe.”
Mumblings of agreement and nodding heads supported Eudora’s boast.
“We must learn their intentions,” Queen Thalestris said.
“Men have only one intention,” a young sister replied. “To put us under their thumb and couple with us at their command and leisure.”
The queen grinned at the recitation of centuries-old teachings. Was it possible she did not agree? I could not believe that.
“I seem to recall the joy you displayed during the recent Spring Couplings,” the queen said to the girl, “and it appears the bulge in your belly reflects a measure of that joy.”
The girl hung her head, smiling perhaps at some memorable pleasure.
“Alexander’s men are Greeks,” the queen explained further, “descendants of the barbarians who ransacked and leveled Troy a thousand years ago.” She paused, waiting for recollection of their history lessons. “If you remember, a spy was sent to Troy during that time to learn if the Greeks had intentions beyond the conquest of Troy’s high walls. Indeed, Eudora, that spy was your namesake.”
“And a traitor,” Eudora retorted. “She stole her baby and deserted our homeland for the love of a Trojan man.”
“And do you also remember the name of her lover and the gift he left with us?”
Eudora sighed and nodded. “His name was Alexio.”
“Correct. And we still cherish his gift—the secret of making iron for our axes and arrow points.”
“I know, Mother, and I am grateful, but—”
“Is it not possible,” the queen interrupted, “that this new army of Greek warriors have
discovered other things that we should know of?”
“Yes,” Eudora agreed, her head down.
The queen stared at Eudora for a long moment before exchanging whispered words with the four other Elders. She returned her gaze to me.
“Cloethis, we all believe that Eudora should accompany you on your mission.”
“How was your meeting, George?” I asked the next night at dinner in the hotel dining room. I expected to get only an “okay,” if that.
“I made the mistake of saying where I was taking my vacation.”
I chuckled. “Gee, don’t all you guys lust to vacation in war zones?”
He glared back at me. “Not everyone has crazy girlfriends who don’t value their own life.”
I frowned. His comment seemed more serious than flip. “You having second thoughts?”
“Of course not.” He put his hand over mine and gave me that suggestive smile. “But I may have to leave you for a few hours in Afghanistan to run an errand for the boss.”
“Like what?” Stupid question.
“Nothing. It’s trivial.”
I rolled my eyes.
“The good news is,” he added, “our travel reservations are already taken care of courtesy of your friendly government.”
“For this ‘trivial’ piece of business that takes a few hours?” I replied, with finger quotes in the air.
“It’s a regular flight to the area.”
I wanted to say “bullshit,” but knew it was an unproductive comment.
After dinner we drifted into the hotel bar, sank into oxblood leather chairs near an unlit gas fireplace and ordered Irish coffees.
“Where are the bones?” George asked.
“Farah. Halfway between Herat and Kandahar.”
He rubbed his chin. “Never been there.”
“Google Maps says it’s sixty miles south of Shindand by camel—a hundred miles by car.” I wanted him to know I’d already done some homework.
“Hmmm.” He continued rubbing.
“It’s one of the twenty cities Alexander founded. Plutarch claimed he established seventy cities, but it’s believed to be exaggerated. Alexandria Prophthasia is the name he gave to today’s Farah. Much of the citadel he built there still remains.”
“Amazing,” he mumbled, seeming distracted. He looked at his watch and pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket. He tapped the screen, hesitated, added several more keystrokes and said, “Afghan desk.”
I sipped my drink and pictured the other end of the line from movies I’d seen—busy cubicles full of CIA analysts. Once before, I’d witnessed a similar conversation in the middle of the night.
“I’m good, Sarah, how about you?” he said.
He had been on a first-name basis the other time also.
“I guess it’s breakfast time in your part of the world.… I’m in Manhattan.… Yeah, but I negotiated some comp time.… Farah.” He chuckled, looking at me. “It’s a long story, but that’s why I’m calling. What’s the status there?… Airport?… Roads?… ANA?… Understand. I will.… Thanks, babe. Take care.”
He put the phone back and sighed.
Our eyes met.
“Well?” I said. “What did Sarah have to say?”
“She said the 7 a.m. temperature in Farah was ninety-four degrees.”
I gave him my best ‘don’t put me on’ sneer.
“The Taliban are pretty much a constant threat,” he continued. “This is their fighting season. Sometimes they go back in their holes during the winter, but they get stoked in the spring and summer.”
“The good news is there’s an Afghan National Army group there. They’re well trained and can usually keep the Taliban at bay. If necessary, U.S. air support is available from Shindand.”
My mouth opened. I didn’t know what to say. His unvarnished assessment was much harsher than I had anticipated.
He watched me for a moment. “You know,” he began. “There are fifty thousand people that call Farah home. They have families that go to work and children that go to school each day. They pray, watch TV, eat, drink, shit and fuck like most everyone else in the world.”
The cocktail waitress strolled up. “You good, here?”
“We’re fine,” George said.
He turned his attention to me. “You still want to go?”
I didn’t hesitate. “How do I dress for beautiful downtown Shindand and Farah?”
He nodded with a toothy grin. “Okay. First, forget the stiletto heels—they’re no good in sand. The most important item is a pair of good boots. Dress comfortably—cover up with light-colored loose clothes. If we need local garb to mingle with the citizens, Shindand will have something. Think triple-digit temperature, zero humidity and strong winds.”
I cringed. “Sorta like Death Valley?”
“Yup, and I’ll get you a vest and personal weapon before we leave.”
“Kevlar. Need to wear one and carry your weapon at all times. Standard operating procedure.”
“I apologize, George.”
“I hadn’t thought this trip out well. I’m sure it would have been a disaster from the start without your help.”
“Want to know how you can thank me?”
I didn’t have to ask.
“This is exciting, Cloethis,” Eudora said the next morning as we packed our kit. “Do you think we’ll get a chance to fight Greeks?”
“I don’t believe that is what Thalestris wants.” I had lain awake all night pondering our queen’s words. I suspected her interest in discovering new Greek weapons was valid, but was second to whether the Greeks had visions of conquest north of the Black Sea—our home. How could I gauge the intentions of a foreign army hundreds of leagues from Byre Jus? Did they even speak our tongue? The honor of being chosen for such an important mission had faded behind a veil of questions. Was I qualified for such a bold and critical task?
“Does she not want us to test their backbone and challenge their weapons?” Eudora asked.
“Of course, but she also has to know what’s in their minds about future plans. Will they come to Byre Jus?”
“That’s impossible. They always lie.”
“Not always, sister. There are times when their minds are disarmed. On those occasions, their mouths mumble secret inner thoughts.”
Eudora smirked as she ran a thumb across the honed edge of her double-bladed labrys, testing its sharpness. “I know of what you speak. In the lovemaking bed, our skills can turn them into babbling children begging for more of our treats.”
“True. Do they not offer gold to taste our sweets during the Spring Couplings?”
Eudora seemed to ponder my comment. “So you suggest we make love to the Greek army to discover their secrets?” She paused. “I would like that.”
“Not the whole army.”
“The handsome ones then?”
“Only the important ones—the leaders.”
“But they are always old and fat.”
“Which is why they are the most grateful.”
I watched the graceful arcs of her sharpening stone sweep across the labrys’ blades.
Eudora and I had been born of different mothers in the same season. When we later learned how we replenish our kind, we fantasized that we had a common father. It saddened us when we discovered that our mothers did not know their names.
As soon as we were old enough to walk, the Elders took us into the mountains to begin our training. For seven years, we learned the ways of horses and weapons and the fighting crafts needed to preserve our way of life. With Eudora and six more sisters, I survived the brutal training, freezing winters and blistering summers. Others succumbed from the hardships or disappeared. I loved all my sisters, but Eudora was special. She would die for me, as I would for her. I was thrilled and thankful for her company during the unknown journey ahead.
“It will be a great adventure,” I said. “We have never been so far from Byre Jus.”
“What do you know of the place called Thrace where Alexander campaigns?”
“I have heard it is a vast, flat land of sweet clover and knee-high grass as far as the eye can see.”
She put her arm around her horse’s neck and spoke softly into its ear. “Did you hear, my darling Yana? It is a place the gods made for you. You can dine on your favorite and run as fast and far as you desire.”
“Game is also said to be plentiful, so there is no reason to carry large supplies of food for us and the horses.”
“Do they have bears? I would love another skin.”
“Bring your truest-flying lances in case.”
“And if not a bear, then a Greek, yes?”
“I believe they are called Macedonians,” I said.
“They are not Greek?”
“The same, I think. It is confusing.”
“But they are men, not gods?”
“Indeed. Their blood is red.”
Eudora threw her labrys at a small sapling five paces away. One of its blades passed through the tree—the thickness of four fingers—and stopped when its handle could not follow. She yanked the axe free, and severed the tree at its base with a second swing.
“A good shaft for a Macedonian-killing axe,” she said with a broad smile, offering the sapling to eme.
“It would be wise,” I said, “to remember that there may be a thousand Macedonians.” I worried about Eudora’s lust for battle without thinking of the odds. “Our mission will fail if we die.”
She paused for a moment, perhaps to consider my counsel, and then asked, “How do we find this army of confusing names?”
“It will not be difficult. An army of its size cannot carry enough supplies to last long. They must live off the land and seize rations from local citizens who fear them. No wildlife or food will remain in their wake. Their horses and wagons will gouge a wide path in the earth that is easy to find and follow.”
The sky was clear later that night, the heavens packed with stars. It would not rain. Bats flew erratic paths across the full moon chasing insects. A leopard screeched in the distance. Eudora and I lay in each other’s arms as we had since children, both thinking of tomorrow.
“Will it be dangerous, Cloethis?”
“No, my love,” I answered without hesitation. I lied.
I shaded my eyes from the early-morning sun and stared at the Gulfstream 550 in the hangar.
“This is how you guys fly with my hard-earned taxes?”
“It’s a token perk for your defenders of truth, justice and the American way.”
“Well I suppose it’s worth the money to keep from standing in the security lines.” We collected our bags from the car—my big one and George’s two small ones—and walked toward the plane stairs. “Do you serve peanuts?”
“There’s peanut butter and more in the well-stocked kitchen. Hot meals are stocked, but most of the guys like to make their own sandwiches, so there’s plenty of makings. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Soda and beer?”
“Name your poison.”
“Have to bring your own.” He opened his smaller satchel to reveal a bottle of red. I pulled the bag open to see the label. “Crap! What are those?”
“Our sidearms. My M1911 and a Beretta P92 for you,” he said nonchalantly.
“You can carry them on the plane?”
“We’re all big boys.”
We stowed our bags in the back and took seats midway in the seven double rows. I settled into the luxurious beige leather seat and had begun scanning the electronics console when three more men climbed aboard. All carried duffels and black rifle cases. Cargo shorts and Hawaiian short-sleeved shirts seemed to be their uniform of the day. Each acknowledged George with a wave and smile. One pointed at me and gave a thumbs-up.
“Hey, George,” another said as they passed by to store their baggage. “Is it true you’re on vacation?”
“What can I say?” George replied. “I can’t sleep without sand in my bed.”
I chuckled and looked at George. “You didn’t shave this morning?”
“Gee. And I thought you never noticed me.”
I raised my eyebrows and cocked my head with my best ‘you gonna tell why?’ expression. He shrugged. I had an uneasy feeling that it wouldn’t be the last question to go unanswered in the coming weeks. The three other passengers efficiently converted their seats to beds—what seemed to be an everyday occurrence. With their small personal packs as pillows, they pulled ball caps over their faces and remained motionless.
“How can they sleep like that in the morning?”
“They’re adjusting. Afghanistan is eight hours ahead of us.”
“Are you going to adjust?”
“I’ll be fine.”
In the years George and I had lived and traveled together, I marveled at his constant alertness and apparent lack of needed sleep. If I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, trying my best not to wake him, his open eyes tracked me like a panther stalking prey.
George got up from his seat, said something apparently funny to one of the newcomers and went to the galley at the plane’s front. The pilot leaned out of the cockpit doorway, said something to George and then louder to the rest of us, “We’re good to go, guys.”
George closed and latched the plane’s door and returned to the galley. The twin Rolls-Royce engines came alive. Nice, I thought. No cautionary lectures or TV videos on how to use seatbelts, oxygen masks and seat cushions. I liked traveling with the “big boys.” George came back with a covered mug of coffee, bananas and sweet rolls. “We’ll stop at Ramstein to refuel, and have enough time to run over to a restaurant that prepares brats a Packer fan would die for. From there, it’s a straight shot to Kandahar except for a small swerve so we don’t fly over Iran.”
“And to Shindand?” I asked.
“A smaller plane.”
“Same thing. There’s an airport we can use if the Taliban are looking away. No Hertz, but we can get something to drive from the ANA. I’m assuming you don’t plan on hiking or using a camel to get to your gravesite.”
“I think a camel sounds like fun. Remember the time in Tunisia?”
“Yeah, my butt hurts just thinking of it.”
“And when it bit your hand?”
“She was jealous.”
“You didn’t know? I thought she was envious of your tight shorts and tank top.”
The luxury of the Gulfstream made the trip almost pleasant. George showed me a drawer of DVDs that previous passengers had left, and we giggled through the original M*A*S*H movie. I started a to-do list of items I wanted to accomplish at the Farah gravesite but couldn’t concentrate. Images of crazed Taliban warlords blazing away with their AK-47s caused me to question whether this trip was a wise decision.
I reset my watch to 9:03 p.m. local time when we stopped to refuel in Ramstein. When George told our three plane mates we were going to Weberstübchen for brats and beer, they invited themselves, claiming George was ill-prepared to protect me from the base’s sex-starved airmen. We laughed, crammed into a taxi, and got to the restaurant just before it closed.
“How long does the plane need to refuel?” I asked.
“Fifteen minutes longer than it takes us to finish dinner,” George said. He winked.
The food was everything he had promised. I relaxed. The good German beer and joking chumminess of the group overshadowed my earlier specters.
On the second half of the trip, I channel-hopped among the plane’s vast audio selections and dozed with the noise-canceling headphones. The plane’s descent into Kandahar woke me. I looked out the window at a bright new morning and an endless sea of brown. We taxied past rows of military transports, helicopters and fighters. A truck pulled a Reaper drone from a hangar onto the tarmac, red streamers fluttering in the wind behind a dozen Hellfire missiles.
“George Saint?” a kid in plain clothes with a red MAGA ball cap said as we walked down the plane’s stairs.
“Right,” George answered.
“I’m Kevin,” he said. “We’re over here, sir.” He motioned toward a small single-engine plane.
“That’s a Piper Cub,” I remarked.
“Cessna 182T, ma’am,” the kid said. “They stopped building Piper Cubs after the Second War.”
“But is it safe?”
“Yes ma’am. Perfectly, but the hillbilly armor might be a little uncomfortable.”
“It’s an inch-thick steel plate we sit on. The Ali Babas like to use us for target practice.”
I watched Eudora secure a bag of apples to our spare horse. In her pointed wool hat of green and yellow, leather leggings and loose long-sleeved shirt, she looked excited. There was eagerness in her manner, asking the horse if the load was excessive, encouraging it with the importance of our mission. While I brushed Zia, my four-year-old mare, I did the same.
“We are going on a grand journey, sweet one,” I said to her, rubbing her nose, peering into her hazel eyes. “We will experience strange and wondrous things, I am certain.” I felt her excitement.
“Your closest friend Yana will accompany us. The two of you will have vast pastures to romp and play together. It will be great fun.” She knew from my tone that something uncommon was in the making, but I didn’t want her to be fearful. When the time came, her warrior spirit would rise to the need. We would become as one, thinking and moving instinctively to counter each possible threat. Words and reins would be unnecessary.
The sun peeked over the eastern hills as I thought back to the time when Yana and Zia were born.
Like Eudora and I, they were born in the same year, just a week apart. We soothed and pampered their mothers for weeks before birth, and washed the new colts with care. Since then, we had lived together, training daily. Yana was a stallion. Eudora and I had wanted to mate them and add to our family, but the plan was now postponed until our mission was complete.
I checked my memory—extra arrow points, a sheep’s fleece for protection against the cold and an oiled leather tunic for shelter from the wet. Another oiled bag held salted sturgeon, dried bison and my favorite grouse stuffed with bread and thyme. Our axes and crescent-shaped shields remained on top of the pack for quick access, but my bow and quiver of arrows stayed at the ready, slung across my back.
The Elders and our sisters gathered to see us off.
“What kinds of men follow Alexander?” Eudora asked of the Elders.
“We know little of their behavior.” Queen Thalestris replied, glancing at the others. “Take note of their bearing. Learn of their integrity, their beliefs and the hateful words that spew from their mouths during hard drink. What do they think of women, their wives, daughters, and are they knowledgeable of our kind?” She hesitated, seeming to struggle for something else. “Measure them as you would an elixir for your daughter.”
Nodding heads approved her advice.
“What of Alexander, the man?” I asked.
“We know only of his exploits,” the queen said, “which spawned the mission you are undertaking. It is rumored he destroyed the city of Thebes in the south of Greece, killing and enslaving thirty thousand.”
I gasped. “He wages war against his own people?” Eudora met my eyes as we presumed the size of an army needed to inflict such a horrible deed on so many.
“It seems savage,” Thalestris answered, “but he commands a loyal following without incidents of rebellion. Nevertheless, we must judge all rumors by their authors.”
Our preparations were finished. We embraced our sisters, lingering to take in their scent. Each wished us good fortune and gifted a personal possession to remember them by—a favorite dried flower, a pair of earrings, an armband, a necklace of polished stones.
After we mounted, Thalestris approached me.
“It is best to follow the shore of the Euxine Sea. The reach is two, perhaps three hundred leagues, an easy moon’s journey over level land.” She pulled a small knife from under her chiton, leaned close and whispered, “Keep this in your boot as a reminder of your training. Use it only as a last resort.” Her eyes glistened with tears. She stepped back and said so everyone could hear, “Try to return before the heavy snows.”
We turned our horses and sauntered away, but stopped, turned and looked back at our family waiting patiently for us to disappear.
“Keep one eye open every moment,” Thalestris called out, “and beware of bandits.”
To be continued…..
Dick Yaeger is a retired physicist, former Marine, and student of history and the Classics, much of which percolates into his books and short stories. When not writing, he might be found rowing, playing bagpipes, or working a piece of art at his forge. Visit his author page at www.amazon.com/-/e/B00APR4NPQ