I looked for bullet holes in the Cessna but noticed none. Maybe the Taliban were bad shots.
“Wanna drive, George?” Kevin said. His transition from “sir” to a first name was quick.
“Yeah. Thanks. Been a while. Should get used to it.”
That was an odd comment. It seemed to imply some future commitment. I wondered when he had last flown a toy airplane armored by hillbillies.
“I want to take a slight detour over Farah,” he added.
After Kevin stowed our luggage, I crawled into the seat behind him, fastened my seat harness and put on the headset.
George appeared to know what he was doing. We took off smoothly as Kevin radioed the ANA at Farah of our intended flyover. I pulled up my legs and held my arms close to my chest to make as small a target as possible behind the steel seat cushion.
The landscape unfolded slowly outside my window—jagged outcroppings of black rock in a sea of brown hues. I was reminded of the time I drove across central Nevada on Route 50, commonly referred to as the “loneliest road in America.” This, however, wasn’t just lonely; it seemed lifeless. Although I imagined the lack of vegetation and water was standard for the area, the absence of roads startled me.
“What do you do when you’re shot at, Kevin?” I said into my headset mic.
“Nothing,” he answered. “Usually we’re not aware that it happened. To date it’s only been small-arms fire. We can’t hear it, so it may be days before we notice a small hole or two.”
“Don’t worry,” George reassured me. “It’s rare.”
“A round did hit my seat once,” Kevin added with a chuckle. “I both heard and felt that one for sure.”
I squeezed my butt cheeks together at the thought.
George dropped altitude as we approached Farah. A single paved road and multiple worn paths and dirt roads became noticeable. Dozens of villages that had blended into the landscape took shape. I recalled from my research that the city of Farah had a population of fifty thousand, whereas the surrounding provincial area had four times that many.
“Shit,” George exclaimed.
The plane banked hard to the right, rolling onto its side. I grabbed the sides of the seat in front of me and looked straight down at the ground through my window. The wheel on that side didn’t look right.
“What—” I gasped.
“Starboard landing gear,” Kevin said pointing out his window with a tenor calm enough to be describing a scenic vista. George leveled the plane and began climbing. It occurred to me that my steel seat was little help if the plane was on its side. I looked at George for a reaction just as a part of the instrument panel exploded into pieces.
“George!” I said into the headset. “What’s happening?”
I could see he was talking, but I heard nothing. He took off his headset, turned toward me and motioned for me to do the same.
“Couple lucky shots,” he yelled over the engine noise. “Nothing serious. We’ll be okay.”
Since we were still flying, I made a wild guess at his definition of “serious.”
I relaxed a little.
Fifteen minutes later, our altitude began to decrease. George yelled, “Home,” and pointed out the front cockpit window. I leaned forward. An airport runway surrounded by a couple dozen buildings sat in a desolate expanse of brown dirt.
George and Kevin’s conversation was inaudible as we approached the runway at what seemed an awfully slow speed. I watched the broken wheel as we touched down. Oddly, it seemed suspended for moments before hitting the concrete with a shower of sparks. The plane skidded to the right and settled. Two trucks rolled to a stop outside. An airman jumped out and sprayed the smoking wheel with a fire extinguisher.
George turned to me with a smile. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said with a sheepish grin, “but I could use a restroom.”
A jeep pulled up as Kevin unloaded our baggage. “Colonel would like to talk with you,” the driver said.
A sergeant outside the colonel’s office gave George a thumbs-up and said, “Go on in. He’s expecting you, sir.”
“Who the hell do I send the bill to at CIA for repair of my Cessna?” Colonel Frederic Higgins said with a stern look as we entered his office. He stood from behind his desk and approached George, his hand out.
“I’ll put it on my 1164,” George replied with a straight face.
A smile swept over the colonel’s face as they shook hands. “Nice landing, George.”
“Kevin was a big help, Fred,” George said. “He deserves the credit. I was a little rusty.”
As George introduced me, I was reminded of how ubiquitous his friends and contacts were. Perhaps it was normal—I was in his world now and slow to comprehend.
“Do you meet all newcomers in person, Colonel?” I asked.
“I do, but especially those announced via fax from the Senate Intelligence Committee.” He held up a sheet of paper. “It’s unprecedented to have nonmilitary at Shindand.” His irritation was obvious as he hesitated for a moment, carefully planning his next comment. “You should know that I’m not in favor of this. If something happens to her, my next post will be at Thule, and I hate cold weather.”
“Rest assured,” George said, “that I’ll be with Chloe all the time.”
“Hmmm. CIA and photojournalist. Seems like a gritty combination.”
Whoa! That was a topic for conversation later. I folded my hands to hide a nonexistent engagement ring.
“Well, congratulations to you both.” He smiled. “At least I won’t have to arrange separate billets.”
The colonel looked at me. “The fax from your father said your assignment is as a communications liaison with his committee. What do you plan to liaise?”
Did he suspect I might be a spy? “There were no discussions, sir. Do you have a suggestion?”
“I suspect he’s looking for more than a review of our mess hall menu.”
I pursed my lips. “Well, I recently read a tiny back-page story about a hospital being built for the locals.”
An engaging smile washed across the colonel’s face. “Great idea. You know, that hospital will be the only professional healthcare in a hundred miles for 150,000 Afghans. And it will use—” He stopped. “Look, talk to this guy. He can fill you in on the details.” He wrote on a notepad, tore the sheet off and handed it to me.
He sighed and his smile vanished. “I’ve got another communiqué about your personal assignment, George. Will that be a distraction from protecting your bride-to-be?”
“We’ll talk about that later.”
“One last word and then you can get settled,” the colonel said. “In general, the Afghans think of the U.S. as an occupying enemy. They don’t like us, and the Taliban hate us. They’re everywhere, and they don’t wear name badges.”
For ten days, Eudora and I traveled at a steady leisurely pace, basking in the warmth and light breezes of midsummer. We had seen little evidence of habitation—scattered dwellings of stone and mud, but no livestock or people to ask directions of or to ask for knowledge of Alexander’s army. To our eyes, the land was bountiful and beautiful. Were there hidden dangers that kept people away?
We skirted the mountain foothills in Dacia to the west, left them behind and followed the contours of the Euxine Sea southward as Queen Thalestris had instructed. The sea’s black waters stretched forever, the opposite coast unseen from the highest peaks.
“A boat!” Eudora said as we road along the crown of a hill near the shore.
The boat’s single square sail, emblazoned with a picture of a strange bird, sagged from its thirst for wind. As we watched, the sail lowered and four pairs of oars spread like the wings of a bird about to take flight. Behind the peaked bow of a dragon, the oars began a rhythmic refrain that drifted to us across the calm water. The boat pulled away, leaving symmetrical swirls of white in its wake.
“Where do you think it is going?” Eudora asked. “Where is it from?”
“Likely to some faraway shore for lumber or slaves,” I answered. “Or maybe a cargo of red earth like we use for our axes and arrow points.”
Eudora cocked her head as the sound of throbbing oars faded. “When our mission is complete, we should visit the far shores of Euxine.” She paused. “What an adventure it would be to travel on such a boat as that.”
“And to see those who make it their home,” I added. “Do you think they are much different than us?”
Eudora didn’t respond.
We continued our pleasurable journey through a different sea of knee-high grass that covered the flat plane with every hue of brown. Small groves of trees appeared as islands in the earthly ocean that extended to the horizon. Our hearts were free as our minds absorbed each new wonder that nature offered.
A rustle and a trail of quivering grass revealed evidence of some small animal scurrying from our horse’s footsteps. The thought of roasted grouse or hare made my stomach growl.
“It is near time to make a camp for the night,” I said, feeling the cool of a long shadow from a single tall tree as we passed through it.
“Stop!” Eudora said. She knocked an arrow to her bow and pointed it in the direction of the tree.
I hadn’t seen it. A huge brown bear stood on its hind legs beside the tree, scrutinizing us.
“A new winter coat and more fresh meat than we can carry,” Eudora said with an excited tone of expectation.
I leaned forward, stroked Zia’s neck and whispered in her ear, “Remain calm, my lovely.”
Her head turned toward the bear. A shudder rippled across her flank.
I slid off her back, untied a lance from our packhorse and mounted again.
“It is large,” Eudora said. “We need a plan.”
The bear remained motionless, but grass moved around its feet. Two cubs joined their mother to stare at us.
I grinned. “Something smaller is perhaps better for dinner…something with long ears or feathers.”
She sighed and lowered her bow, a disappointed look on her face.
That night, we camped on a rocky beach of the Euxine and dined on dwindling supplies of dried sturgeon, our least favorite. I lay on my back beside a fire of dying embers, staring at the cloudless heavens. A distant male wolf howled at a crescent moon balanced precipitously on the glassy sea’s horizon. The sea would soon swallow the moon. Was the wolf gathering his pack for a hunt or calling to a mate? We had spent our lives learning the ways of nature, but many mysteries remained unanswered.
“If Alexander were with us now,” I said, “he would see no need for war.”
“Is it only men who lust for war?” Eudora said, as if talking to herself. “Is the same true for some women?”
“We train endlessly for war, so it must also be in our nature.”
“But for survival—to prevent war, not to begin one.”
“Are you not eager to test your battle skills against the Greeks?”
“But that is a contest. I have no desire to impose my will on others, as Alexander.”
Her answer was well-meaning and required thought. I didn’t reply until another cry from the same wolf broke the silence.
“Perhaps it is a learned thing. The wolf left alone in the wild will kill you, but a newborn can be taught to embrace you.”
There was no more discussion of unknown things that remained beyond our grasp. The wolf was quiet. He had found a mate.
As the sun began a new day, I opened one eye and peeked out from my fleece. Eudora was gone, but Yana remained. I stood and called out for her but heard no response, so began packing our kit. When I finished, she was still absent.
I used the opportunity to wash my clothes, laying them on a broad rock to dry in the rising sun. I bathed and washed the dust from my hair. As I floated in the clear, cold water, Eudora appeared at the top of the bank, smiling. She held up a hare and two grouse. We cleaned both. I threaded a piece of sinew through each of the hare’s hind feet and gave one to Eudora to wear around her neck to remind us of our good fortune. Tonight we would feast on a feathered one and smoke the furry one. It was a fine start to a new day of our pleasant trek.
Soon after we continued the day’s tranquil beginning, I detected three horseback riders traveling in our same direction, but off a distance to the right.
I pointed. “It seems this country does indeed have occupants.”
“We should ask if they have knowledge of Alexander,” Eudora said.
“Yes, but with care. They look not to be part of a caravan. I see no signs of family or baggage.”
The three vanished as I spoke, then reappeared a short time later in a depression as we crested a knoll.
They waited, pointing and whispering among themselves, until they were ten paces in front, blocking our intended path.
Queen Thalestris’ cautionary words about bandits echoed in my head.
“So…we’re engaged, huh?” I said, unpacking my luggage in Shindand’s austere guesthouse—standard double, one dresser and a closet-size bathroom with a toilet, sink and shower. The facilities must have come from an Airstream warehouse of obsolete plumbing.
George ignored my comment and pushed on a wall. “Thin. You’ll have to be quiet.”
I held up my ring finger to his back. “I seem to be missing something here.”
He continued his overzealous inspection of the plain battleship-gray wall.
“We’ll go shopping in Farah.”
“Fine,” I responded with my best provoked tone. “We can also shop for a bunk bed.” I paused and held back a smirk. “Or maybe a hammock for you.”
“If you’d prefer a bunk in one of the women’s tents, I’m certain it can be arranged. You might be surprised, however, how loud these lady warriors snore.”
Was he restraining a smile?
“And how do you know this, George?”
“Rumor. Just rumor.”
I stood silent, hands on my hips watching him, knowing that he was squirming for a smart-aleck excuse to justify his counterfeit engagement.
He turned with more of a puzzled look than I expected.
“That’s a good idea.”
“A hammock.” His puzzlement morphed to reflection. “How do you manage sex in a hammock?”
Decision time. Do I play along with his dumb diversion, or do I pursue the engagement elephant in our tiny room?
“We could experiment,” I answered.
He smiled big, nodding, then raised his eyebrows and cocked his head. I knew that expression above all others.
“Isn’t it time for lunch?” I said.
As we left our new humble abode, a corporal replaced a sign above a public bulletin board that said arming status red with one that said arming status amber.
I pointed. “What’s that mean, George?”
“You must keep a magazine in your personal weapon, the chamber empty and the safety on.”
“Is that good?”
“Yeah. Amber is better than red.”
“Is something worse than red?”
He didn’t answer.
“Is amber the best?”
“Green is best.”
“What do we do if it’s red?” I asked.
“Slide a round in the chamber, safety on,” he said as if reciting from a manual.
He stopped and looked me in the eye. “Chlo, these are rules to keep everyone on alert. Make sure they’re wide awake and eyes open for anything unusual.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “You shouldn’t worry. Surveillance around the base is excellent, and I’ll be with you every moment.”
“Understood.” I actually felt pretty safe, but wondered how that might change when I went into the field.
“Anyway, the warning to pay attention to will be a wail from the giant voice in the sky.” He pointed to a loudspeaker on a pole.
U.S. and ANA military of all ranks and civilian contractors bustled about the mess hall. A portfolio of food smells and a hum of conversation with occasional laughter encouraged me to relax. I’d never been in a military mess before, so my expectations from old movies were bleak—a single choice of creamed chipped beef on toast, aka “shit on a shingle,” with runny mashed potatoes and an apple. This cafeteria, however, would challenge any stateside restaurant. Multiple hot dishes, a make-it-yourself sandwich bar, a chilled salad bar and the one I went directly to—a taco bar.
I stuffed everything into a warm corn tortilla, filled a glass with pink lemonade and took a seat across from George.
“I’m impressed with the menu, George. Maybe I should write an article about it.”
“It’s pretty standard. Besides, you made a big hit with the colonel about the hospital—stick with that.”
“May I join you ?” Colonel Higgins said to me as I struggled to keep my overstuffed taco from coming apart.
“My pleasure, Colonel,” I answered, motioning to the chair across the table from me.
The colonel sat down with a chili dog and a glass of iced tea.
“Ma’am, I wanted to apologize if I was a tad unfriendly earlier,” he said.
“No problem. I can imagine the irritation I’d experience if a government official ordered me to babysit his daughter…and please call me Chloe.”
He nodded in agreement. “In truth, I’m interested in your project. There were few details in my orders.”
“I’m glad to share what you like.”
“I majored in history before joining the Air Force, so being deployed to Afghanistan seemed a rare opportunity at the time to immerse myself in the country’s rich cultural heritage.”
“So have you absorbed Afghanistan’s culture?”
“Yes, but not the one I studied at Purdue…and ‘swallowed’ is a lot closer than ‘absorbed.’”
For ten minutes, the colonel listened with a student’s ardor while I explained my hypothesis of a meeting between Alexander the Great and an Amazon from north of the Black Sea.
“It would be a shame,” I said, “if the site was destroyed before we had time to analyze it properly.” I envied the bowl of ice cream George was eating. “I’m fearful the site might be mischaracterized as religious, and suffer the same destruction as the Buddhas did in 2001 in the Bamiyan Valley.”
“I suspect the Taliban’s interest these days is more financial than religious,” the colonel said. “Historic artifacts are big business on the black market.”
“Until they’re proven historic,” George said, “aren’t they just another bag of worthless dirty bones?”
“True,” Colonel Higgins replied. “Thieves won’t get their true market value, but a good story linked to the artifact might negotiate you fifty bucks from an uninformed broker, and that’s not trivial for any Afghan.”
For another twenty minutes, we talked about how ISIS had destroyed or sold so many irreplaceable artifacts in Syria and Iran.
The colonel was called away by an aide, and I had a bowl of ice cream.
We had just stepped into the outdoor heat when I heard an explosion. A warbling siren filled the air, and a voice from the loudspeakers bleated, “Incoming. Incoming.”
“Swords are their only weapons,” I whispered to Eudora. She slid off Yana and stood beside our packhorse, one hand resting on her labrys. I drew an arrow from my back and rested it with the bow across my legs.
One of the three approached and stopped halfway. The other two drifted to either side of Eudora and me.
“Good morn to you,” I said.
“From a distance we did not recognize you as women,” the center one said.
“Perhaps the glare of the early sun hampered your view.”
“Perhaps,” he replied with a surly tone. “From where do you hail?”
“From Byre Jus, beyond the Euxine.”
“Ahhh…are you from the clan of women rumored to live there without the protection of men?”
“You have heard of us, then?”
“There is lore of a group called Amazons that we believe is fantasy. The stories describe skills only capable of men.”
“Do you wish to test the truth of those stories?” Eudora said.
I turned and glared at her.
“It will not be necessary if you give us your packhorse and its load.” He smirked from behind blackened teeth. “Then we will be on our way.”
“That is not possible,” I replied. “It is our livelihood.”
The two men at our sides drew swords from their sheaths. Eudora grasped her labrys.
“If you do not comply,” the bandit said, “it is possible you may be harmed.”
“But it is certain you will die,” Eudora replied.
The bandit sneered. He reached across his shoulder and drew his sword from its scabbard. The other men urged their horses cautiously toward us—it was a mistake to move so slowly.
Eudora threw her labrys at the spokesman. I nocked an arrow and loosed it toward the nearest outsider. Eudora’s axe missed its mark slightly, severing the man’s sword arm just below his shoulder. He watched his arm, still gripping the sword, fall in the dirt. My arrow was perfect, penetrating the man’s throat, emerging from its back, stopped by the fletching.
The third man hesitated as both Eudora and I aimed our next arrows at him. He relaxed his sword arm, and gawked at his leader toppled from his horse, groaning, blood gushing from the severed arm’s stump. He offered no help to his comrade whose life drained into the earth, leaving him mute and motionless within moments. We held our arrows on the third bandit, who studied us for a brief time, then turned and urged his mount away. He looked back once before disappearing over a nearby hill.
We stripped the two dead men of their clothing and only useful possessions—two rusty swords and a wooden shield. Both horses were thin with scars of abuse. With our care, they would fare better, but meanwhile they could relieve the burden of our packhorse. We covered their bodies with stones, believing Nature should not acquire a taste for human flesh.
In the days that followed, we encountered others less fearsome. Tight groups of proud nomads rode stalwart horses pulling carts loaded with the belongings of an extended family. Men and women dressed alike to facilitate their lives on horseback. We learned that they hunted the large, burly wisent that roamed the steppes. They dried its meat for winter and chewed the tough hide to soften it for shelter and warm clothing. The beast’s horns yielded tools, and its dried droppings kindled cooking fires in the treeless expanse.
Their life of freedom and self-determination was as it should be. Yet they were aloof, appearing from nowhere, riding a parallel course a hundred paces off our flank, and then disappearing as suddenly as they appeared.
“Why do they not like us?” Eudora asked.
I had no answer.
One family of three walked. They led an ox that pulled a wagon piled high with their possessions.
I called to them, a spear’s throw away. “We seek Alexander of Macedon. Do you know of him?”
They stopped and stared at us. The man’s right hand slid beneath his coat. The woman pushed a small child behind her skirts.
We approached cautiously. I smiled. “We mean you no harm.”
The child, a girl with curled black hair and round eyes the same color, peered from behind her mother, then suddenly darted toward us before her mother could restrain her. Unafraid, she looked up at me with quizzical sparkling eyes. “You are not bandits,” she said, as if a puzzle had been solved. “You are women.”
“We are warriors, not bandits.”
I dismounted and crouched in front of the girl.
“Are you looking for a war then?” She eyed the hare’s foot around my neck.
The girl’s mother rushed up and put hands on both her shoulders.
“Not a war but another warrior,” I said. “His name is Alexander.”
“We have heard of no such man,” the woman said, “but there are talks of a vast army at the place where Thrace and Anatolia nearly touch.”
“In that direction,” the man said, pointing southward. “It is called the Hellespont.”
I took the hare’s foot from around my neck and handed it to the girl. She stroked the furry foot and smiled at me with a radiance that warmed my entire being.
“It will bring you good fortune,” I said.
Her mother nodded to me, took the girl’s hand and walked away without further word.
How grand it would be to see such a child’s joy each day. I envied the parents. Mothers of Byre Jus surrendered their girls’ youth to the Elders for seven years of training. Could I do the same?
Small villages with houses of stone walls and thatched roofs of straw appeared as we continued south. The golden steppes gave way to forests and black earth. Sheep and cattle were plentiful. Citizens looked up from their gardens and cooking fires to scrutinize us as we trekked through their space, seeming more curious than fearful.
Then everything changed.
Within a few leagues, the trees vanished, leaving behind a cemetery of stumps and piles of dead foliage. Roads rutted by wagon wheels wandered southward. Smells of animal and human waste replaced woodland fragrances.
“The Hellespont,” I muttered to myself the next afternoon as we looked upon a cluttered beach occupied only by scattered bunches of men.
“This is not an army,” Eudora said. “Where is the formidable Alexander?”
“He must have passed across.” I indicated the distant shore beyond the body of water.
“How can we cross?”
I pointed. “There.”
We ambled toward three men standing alongside a wide, flat-bottomed boat on the shore, and dismounted. Two frowned; one grinned. They were broad-shouldered men with tangled beards and unwashed clothes, their boots caked with mud. I saw no weapons.
“Did Alexander of Macedon pass this way?” I asked the one who grinned.
They laughed as if my question amused them. “He and thirty thousand more,” he answered.
“How did they cross?”
“We boated them,” another guffawed.
“Surely not all.”
“Some boats came a moon ago to aid their crossing, but not enough. They built others—sturdy rafts that carried their wagons, chariots and horses.”
“Over a hundred in all, I imagine,” another said. “Took twenty-six days to—”
“Two hundred for sure,” the first interrupted.
I looked toward the opposite shore. “How far is it?”
“More than a league where we stand.”
“Will you take us?”
“Of course.” He smirked. “Ten copper, two silver or one gold.”
“We have no coin.”
“Then you must swim.”
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