In The Shadow of an Eagle’s Wing
by Jamie Boughen
Rell carefully dusted the lens she held in one hand, sighing with the sheer pointlessness of trying to keep her cameras clean in an country more laden with floating grit than any she had ever seen. But she had to admit, she had known from the beginning that Saudi Arabia would be like that. Staring out of the shattered window of her hotel room for a moment, she was just grateful she could finally put the last of her equipment away and move on to the next assignment. That’s it, she silently promised herself. I don’t care how much money Sal waves in my face, I want a decent gig for a change. I’m sick of war, famines, riots and big, fat, hairy secrets. I want something peaceful. Lucrative, but peaceful. Slipping the telephoto lens into its cushioned slot, she flipped the lid over her gear, locking the heavy metal case tightly. Grinning mirthlessly, she figured it would probably keep them clean for all of five minutes once she was on the move again.
Pushing herself up onto tired feet, she grabbed the bottle of scotch she had left beside the bed. Foregoing the use of a glass, she tilted the bottle to her mouth, letting the raw alcohol taste slam against the back of her throat before she swallowed. Wiping her lips with her hand, she grimaced as the liquid hit the pit of her stomach.
“Really gotta see about getting me some of the good stuff the next time I have to do one of these jobs,” she muttered. Rell didn’t see herself as a heavy drinker…well, not compared to many she knew, but sometimes, at the end of a long, harrowing day, it was the only thing that could wipe the images of death and destruction from her mind, allowing her to sleep. Although the Arab religious leaders had done everything in their power to separate the Westerners from their drinking habits, including threats of public whippings and beheadings, alcohol in its many forms could be purchased if you had the right contacts (even in this so called dry country). After a decade as a photojournalist, not only did Rell have all the contacts under the sun, she also didn’t care anymore if she was caught.
Staring out of the broken window of her cheap hotel room, the tough little woman wondered when she had stopped caring.
“Had to be Bosnia,” she mumbled to herself, raising the bottle to her lips again, watching the level drop another inch or so before lowering it. The sheer volume of inhumanity had shocked her to start with, but after months of seeing one too many mass graves and taking pictures of far too many scenes of out-right genocide, she had become completely desensitized to the whole thing. She had simply stopped caring anymore.
She had to admit, though, her time in that war-ravaged country had let her takes some photos people were going to remember forever. Especially the flowerpot one. She had seen the shot the instant her eye fell on it. A gaily painted flowerpot full of gorgeous red geraniums, surrounded by shattered masonry and several dead bodies. A minuscule flash of beauty in all that carnage. It was a photojournalist’s dream picture and she had snapped it off just as the UN escort was trying to hurry everyone back to the armored vehicles. Rell had known at the time it was a good photo, she just never expected it to become quite the statement it did. Even now, years after the Bosnian war had mostly ended, she still saw the photo popping up on posters here and there, as people the world over protested the massive waste of precious government dollars in the search for even bigger, and more deadly weapons.
Letting the last two fingers of scotch gurgle down the neck of the bottle, Rell decided that Saudi wasn’t all that bad in the end. As a base to reach half a dozen other nearby countries, it was okay; you just had to overlook the small problems of getting simple things, like a decent scotch.
“Sal, you owe me big time for this one,” she said quietly, stashing the empty bottle at the bottom of the wastebasket in her dingy room. “And I just can’t wait to collect.”
Stretching out on her bed, she mumbled through the pleasant alcoholic buzz, “By this time tomorrow, I’ll be outta here and ain’t Sal gonna love me then.” She dozed off into a fitful slumber, already spending the money she knew she had earned from her stay in Saudi.
Three days later, washed and dressed in the first clean clothes she’d worn in weeks, Rell sauntered into the fat little man’s office. Tossing her folder of photos onto his cluttered desk, she said, “Get me a good price for these, Sal. I damned near lost my head taking them.” Showing a distinct lack of grace, she flopped into the only comfortable chair in the room.
“Problems?” he asked, flicking through the pictures, dollar signs already lighting up his eyes when he saw what she had photographed.
“Seems the Saudi police don’t take too kindly to a woman in jeans, especially when she is wandering about the only known harem left in the world,” Rell replied lightly, not caring to go into the details of the long lecture she had been given. Being a woman was probably the only thing that had saved her from an unpleasant stay at the government’s pleasure. That, and the few crocodile tears she’d shed. She had only been one closed door away from escape too, but that was just how things went sometimes. Next time she would simply find a less greedy guard.
“Shit,” he exclaimed. “How’d you get the film out then?”
“Don’t ask,” she chuckled back at him. “Let’s just say it was one uncomfortable plane trip out of the country.”
“Oh,” the little man spluttered as his imagination caught up with him.
“So, what’s newsworthy at the moment?” Rell asked casually. “Somewhere warm, a little walking in the forest perhaps. Some place there isn’t any damned sand. I’ve been a little out of contact for the past couple of months,” she said, laughingly bringing to mind what passed for television news in Saudi Arabia.
Shuffling through the seemingly disorganized clutter of papers on his desk, Sal brought several sheets to the top.
“Well, Israel is always good for something. Hear the peace negotiations haven’t been going so well,” he said, looking up at the strawberry blonde woman slouching in the chair. “There are bound to be more riots on the West Bank and Gaza Strip with all those Jewish settlers building. It’s got the Palestinians way hot under the collar.”
Shaking her head, Rell replied tiredly, “Nope. No more Middle East. Not near or far. I want something a little more peaceful…something that isn’t a desert either.”
Sal shuffled through several other piles on the desk, occasionally picking up an assignment sheet before shaking his head and then putting it back again.
Rell was starting to think there wasn’t a single decent assignment on his whole desk when he finally pulled a much tattered piece of paper from the bottom of a tottering heap.
“This might interest you, Rell,” he said, a little too off-handedly. “Look, I know you have been on the road for the past eight months…”
“Ten,” she corrected him, then nodded for him to continue.
“Okay, ten months. I can’t think of the last time you went home, or even took a vacation.”
“Had one only three months back,” Rell cut in.
“I don’t call two weeks, stretched on your stomach in a Egyptian hospital with a bullet in your back, a real vacation,” Sal stated a little archly. The woman across from him had no idea how much he had worried about her, but there was little he could do. She would never have thanked him for his trouble, probably seeing it as Sal trying to control her life, so he kept his nose out of it. “Anyway, this one’s warm and there is so much forest you’ll never walk through it all.”
Rell knew Sal was just trying to tempt her, dangling the bait under her nose. Okay, she thought, I’ll bite.
“Where, and doing what?” she asked, appearing unconcerned. In a way, she was. Money had stopped being a problem years ago. Going freelance meant her expenses were high but her profit margin was higher still, even with Sal’s cut. At least she didn’t have to hustle to sell her own photos anymore. That was why she had hired Sal, even haggling his commission down from forty percent of her gross to just shy of fifteen. With what she earned each year, fifteen percent was still a lot of money, but she made sure the little man worked for every cent of it. Part of his job included keeping track of who was offering assignment contracts, hence all the piles of paper on the desk. She wasn’t the only one who used his sometimes dubious services.
“And it had better not be another one of those photograph-the-politician’s-kids-on-holiday deals either. You know what I think of those after the last one,” she grumbled.
Sal shook his head at her. He remembered that job with a lot more chagrin than she did. How was he to know the kids were loving their daddy in quite an unusual way? Rell had gotten the pictures to prove it too.
“No, no. No kids this time. It’s a full grown woman,” Sal said.
Great, hairy, horny toads, she’s probably sixty and wears sensible shoes, she thought wickedly to herself, keeping the slightly interested expression on her face for Sal’s benefit.
“Go on,” she coaxed, letting the overweight little man think she was being charmed by his tactics.
“She’s looking for someone to document a trip she is doing, take pictures of artifacts, stuff like that,” Sal continued. “Says on the sheet she is headed into the Amazon rainforest over in South America. Guyana Highlands to be exact.”
“An archaeologist?? You know I don’t do any academic work. I’m a freaking reporter, not some museum flunky. Doesn’t she have some undergrad she can abuse?” Rell said, a little too loudly.
“According to this, she isn’t an archaeologist. So that blows your undergrad right out of the water,” Sal explained, after running his eye down the sheet.
“Then who is she?” Rell asked, her curiosity engaged now.
“Doesn’t say here but there is no doctor before her name, and no letters after. My guess is she is just your average Jane. Must be loaded though, considering what she is offering on this contract,” Sal said, reading the section that stated the fees, the most important part of the sheet.
“And just what is she offering? Even you have to admit, it is a bit unusual for some off-the-street type to want a photojournalist following her around for a few weeks. After all, we don’t come cheap.”
Sal’s eyes were lighting up again with an all too familiar gleam as he read the fee arrangements off the paper.
“She’ll pay all reasonable expenses from here to LA, where you’ll meet her. If she finds you acceptable, and you take the job, all costs to South America will be covered; the usual deal there: meals, hotels, flights, etc. Twenty-five thousand is the fee she is offering with…wow! An extra ten big ones as a bonus if she finds the artifacts she is looking for,” the man said incredulously.
Rell could already hear Sal tallying up his share in his head.
“So, she wants to go on a treasure hunt? Is that it?” she asked, suspiciously. “Why not just contract someone there? It’d be a hell of a lot cheaper.”
“Seems she’s picky. This assignment has been through three other agents before I got it, and no one has been able to fill it yet. It’s even been underlined here,” he explained, showing Rell the relevant section. “She wants a woman who can look after herself, whatever that means.”
“Oh god,” she muttered. “A treasure hunt with some wealthy old fusspot. Probably read some book about the Amazon jungle and wants to go see it for herself. The translation on that should be someone who can pull her butt out of trouble, especially when she can’t find a power point for her hairdryer,” she quipped nastily.
“There’s forest, Rell. Lots and lots of forest,” Sal taunted her in a singsong voice, waving the sheet under her nose. “We both know you can’t resist a trip to a forest, and this is even better. It’s rainforest. Not much of that left anymore, and you will be getting paid to go. What more could a reporter ask for in a working holiday?”
“Awwww, shit. I know I’m going to regret this. Okay, I’m in. When do I leave?” Rell asked, exasperated. Sal just knew her weakness for trees and greenery, and sometimes exploited it without mercy, especially with such a fat fee attached to the assignment. Got her every time.
Rell sat on the balcony of the restaurant, gently swirling the last of her drink in a glass. The idea of being inside with all that arctic air-conditioning had simply not appealed to her, especially after months in the hot Saudi desert. Seeing it was a nice day outside, by LA standards anyway, she decided to enjoy the slightly smoggy view and some genuine polluted air. Reaching into the pocket of her jacket, she pulled out the grimy piece of paper with the woman’s name on it.
“Diana Aliakmon,” she muttered, trying to set the name into her memory, before shoving the paper back into her pocket again. For some reason, she had no trouble remembering the thousand and one details to do with her job, but names seemed to bring her unstuck occasionally. Particularly long, foreign ones. Sal had handed the woman’s name over, along with the assignment sheet, shortly before Rell had left his London office the week before.
It would have been an easy matter to get on the first flight to the US, but Rell had wanted to rest a little before taking off again. She’d also wanted to take some time finding out anything and everything she could about this mysterious, obviously well heeled woman who was offering so much money for a photographer. Considering three previous agents hadn’t been able to fill the contract, that made her all the more curious. Sometimes, Rell thought her biggest failing was her fascination with meeting new people and telling their stories with her pictures. It made for great photos, but it got her into trouble now and then too.
Being a reporter, she knew how to dig, but there hadn’t been a great deal to find out. That Diana was loaded, Sal’s very appreciative word, just didn’t cover the half of it. Hanging all through Ms. Aliakmon’s family tree were bags of very, very old money, and it wasn’t quite clear how some of it had gotten there. As for the woman herself, she seemed to have gone to some lengths to keep her name out of most of the public records, including the usual sorts of society pages. But that was pretty much how the truly wealthy tended to be.
Born in Athinai, Greece, Diana was just into her thirties, unmarried, with no kids…unusual for someone born in that part of the world. Her mother and older brother were still living in Greece running a highly profitable chain of tourist hotels and cafes. Rell had found the death notice for Diana’s younger brother, and assumed her father was either dead or had left the family to their own devices long before. Though she had done some very deep digging into the woman’s background and past, the tenacious reporter had found no reference to any career or pastime. Probably spends her entire life fund raising for some charity, Rell thought to herself. I’m willing to bet anything she does wear sensible shoes too.
Checking her digital watch, Rell realized her future employer was now running late…not by much, but enough to be annoying.
She snorted quietly. “Least she could do is turn up on time,” she mumbled, catching the waiter’s eye and indicating she wanted another drink. The drink and Diana Aliakmon arrived at the table almost at the same moment.
As the waiter stepped out of the way, an impeccably tailored white jacket and pants suit stepped into view. Sliding up slowly, Rell’s eyes finally reached the woman’s face. Oh wow, she thought. Now there is one beautiful woman. Broad, muscular shoulders and the strong swell of breasts filled out the jacket in the most pleasant of ways. Jet black hair, running part way down her back, framed high cheek bones and the most amazing set of ice blue eyes Rell had ever seen. The woman was tall, with strong shapely hands, and she was certainly not wearing sensible shoes on the ends of those impossibly long legs. Down girl, Rell chastised herself when she felt a deep tightening in her groin.
“Danielle Connor, I presume,” a low, faintly accented voice asked coolly. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic is terrible in this part of town,” the woman continued, as Rell stood to shake her hand.
“Um, yes. It’s okay, you’re not really late. I was kinda early,” the reporter replied, letting the sound of Diana’s voice rumble through her. “Most people call me Rell, though,” she continued.
“Rell? That’s an unusual name,” Diana said, sliding into the chair opposite and flicking her fingers at the drinks waiter, who hurried in their direction.
Blushing a little, Rell explained, “Comes from when I first started as a journalist, right out of high school. I was nicknamed the Red-Head From Hell. Got shortened down over the years.”
“And why the nickname then,” the tall woman asked, genuinely curious.
“I’d dyed my hair a really flaming red because I thought it would make me stand out in some media crush. Being short sometimes can be a real disadvantage in situations like that.”
Looking over at the waiter, Diana ordered a Glenfiddich on the rocks before turning back to the reporter. “Did it work?” she asked.
“Not really. I found being tenacious worked better after that. People said that once I was on a story, you had to go to hell to get rid of me. They were wrong, of course. I’d even go to hell, if it meant a good story. So, I became the Red-Head From Hell,” Rell replied, smiling a little self-consciously.
“Hmmm, Rell. I like it. And I much prefer the strawberry blonde look you wear now. Suits those blue-green eyes of yours,” Diana said, dropping her own eyes to the menu. She chose to ignore the fresh flush of red creeping up the other woman’s face at her compliment.
Giving the woman time to get herself back under control again allowed Diana to quietly assess the blonde, which had been the hidden aim of her comment. Appearing more interested in the menu, she carefully looked the other woman over. She had noticed the shoulder length hair from across the room as she entered the restaurant. Hair so fine it had reminded her of some of the best silk she had seen in China. The second thing she had seen were bright, clear eyes which didn’t seem to miss much, and smallish hands, one of them protectively touching the camera on the table beside her. The reporter had been right about being short. Diana doubted the other woman would reach her chin, and that was if she removed her low heeled shoes first. Thinking about that, she surreptitiously kicked them off under the table. Might as well be comfortable, she thought.
Once the other woman began to fidget with her camera case, Diana thought it might be a good idea to put her out of her misery.
“I assume your agent has given you the pertinent details of my trip?” she asked, casually.
“Sal’s not my agent. He just…” the reporter began, cutting herself off in mid-sentence. “Anyway, that’s a long story. But yes, I have been told the gist of it. Amazon rainforest. Guyana Highlands. A treasure hunt,” she said, unable to keep the slightly sarcastic tone out of her voice.
“It’s not so much of a treasure hunt, Ms Connor,” Diana replied very coolly, her blue eyes freezing over.
Oops, goofed there, Rell thought. Better mend some fences.
“Sorry about that, Diana,” she smiled, letting it light her eyes a little. “Just a term we use. You’re not an archaeologist but you’re looking for something. We tend to call that a treasure hunt in the trade,” she lied.
The other woman was no idiot, spotting the lie immediately; she was pleased to see the reporter was capable of thinking on her feet, though.
“No offence taken,” the tall woman said calmly, deciding to let the untruth pass. “Actually this is something of a private quest for me. Tell me, Rell, have you ever heard of the Xena Scrolls?” she asked.
Trying to remember if she had, Rell’s brow furrowed for a moment. “Can’t say that I have, come to think of it,” she finally admitted.
Warming to her subject, Diana explained, “Back in the early forties, just before the war ended, two women, Doctor Janice Covington and Doctor Mel Pappas, found what they believed to be the Xena Scrolls. A collection of tales, written by a female storyteller in ancient Greece, about a warrior woman named, Xena. From the little I have been able to find out about this woman, she was quite a formidable warrior. Came close to conquering half of Greece at one stage. But something happened and she became a champion of the people instead. The reason for that has probably been written into those stories. Somehow though, the scrolls were lost again before they could be translated, and to my knowledge the pair spent the rest of their lives trying to relocate them.”
“Harder to find than the car keys, eh?” Rell joked.
Ignoring the interruption, the taller woman continued. “At the time they found the scrolls, it was also said they found Xena’s weapon. A chakram,” she said.
“Excuse me? Sounds like someone clearing her throat,” the reporter commented. “What on earth is a chak-ram?” Rell asked.
“To use an image you might be familiar with, think of a metal frisbee with a razor sharp edge. It is thrown in much the same manner. It was considered deadly, and from the little I have been able to find, Xena was said to be lethally accurate with it. Never missed, in other words.”
“And that’s what you’re looking for, this chakram?” Rell queried, pronouncing the word correctly this time.
“No. Actually, I am looking for her other weapon. The Sword of Xena. Hopefully, when I find it, I will also find The Staff of Gabrielle,” Diana answered.
“Now you’ve got me. What is The Staff of Gabrielle?”
“Gabrielle was the writer of the Xena Scrolls. It was her preferred weapon, or so it is said. I hope by finding their weapons, I might find the answer to my own question as well.”
“And what question is that?” Rell asked curiously. Almost against her will, she found she was getting more and more interested in this strange tale Diana was telling, and in the woman herself.
“Am I related to Xena,” the taller woman stated simply.
“That’s one hell of a question,” Rell said, trying to imagine the well-dressed, flawlessly-mannered woman fitted out as some ancient warrior princess.
“It should be one hell of an answer,” the other woman replied lightly.
Rell sat cross-legged in the middle of her hotel bed reading over the paperwork Diana had given her. It had taken less than an hour, and a couple more scotches, before the tall woman with the ice blue eyes had decided the blonde would be suitable. It had taken far less time for Rell to decide she wanted in on this one, regardless of the fact it was not really something considered newsworthy. The idea of it being a working holiday was sounding better and better to the stubborn little reporter.
Diana had questioned her closely on some of her past experiences but seemed to know a great deal more about the photojournalist than she really should have. Rell had pinned her down on this, and the other woman had laughingly admitted to checking her out before arriving at the restaurant. The blonde chose to keep any information she had found out about Diana behind tightly closed lips, although she figured Diana would know she had also been checked out. The dark-haired woman didn’t strike her as stupid in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rell was still having trouble believing just how much personal information Diana had managed to subtly wheedle out of her.
“Gotta learn that technique,” she had muttered to herself as she left the restaurant. “Could come in damned handy someday.”
Turning over another page in the folder, Rell glanced over the map and itinerary for the trip. First, they would fly to Bogota via San Jose in Costa Rica. Then, they would take a four-wheel-drive trip over the Orinoco River to the western side of the Guyana Highlands. From there they were on foot until they reached the top of Paraque Cerro. After that…well, it depended on what they found. Diana had already told her she had scheduled two or three months for this trip, but that timetable was extremely flexible. If they needed another month or two, Rell would be adequately compensated for her time.
The money didn’t really matter anymore, though. Well, it did, but Rell’s curiosity was being tormented, and now she was more interested in solving the mystery of a woman who might be related to some long dead warrior woman…one who might not have even existed in the first place. Rell strained her memory back to her long ago history classes in high school, but couldn’t bring up any references to a warrior named Xena. Thinking about it, the majority of what she could remember covered male figures. The only mention of any women at all had been in one slim volume on the Amazons. At the time, she thought the notion a little romantic; a race of female warriors. It was romantic…until Rell found out they cut off one breast.
The next couple of pages in the folder covered what little was actually known about The Sword of Xena and The Staff of Gabrielle. Written by the two archaeologists, Mel Pappas and Janice Covington, a few years before their deaths, there was not a great deal understood about either weapon. Xena had been said to carry the sword with her at all times, strapped across her back in some kind of a sheath, and Gabrielle acquired the staff at some point in their journeys together. Whether she used the staff as a fighting tool was yet to be decided, as the woman was supposed to be a storyteller. The bards of the time were usually not known for their combat abilities, but more for the way they could spin a tale. What the weapons looked like and how they were used could only be theorized from records taken from fighting styles of that time period. The archaeologists put forward the theory that the weapons may still exist, buried in some gravesite or stored in some ancient cache. Without the Xena scrolls to confirm their theory, however, it would probably remain unproven.
Rell gathered all the paperwork into one more or less neat pile before stowing it away with the rest of her gear. Yawning tiredly and still feeling a touch of jet lag – a seemingly permanent condition for her – Rell climbed between the sheets of her hotel bed. She didn’t know what the next few weeks were going to bring, but she did know dawn always seemed to come far too early.
“CAREFUL!” Rell shouted at the dark-haired woman swinging the steering wheel wildly. “Are you determined to hit every damned monster pothole on this godforsaken stretch of road?” she asked, only slightly more calmly, once the immediate danger of toppling from the track had passed.
“Sorry about that,” Diana replied, not sounding the least bit apologetic. Her eyes never left the road ahead and the broad, almost feral grin on her face was unnerving the usually levelheaded reporter. Actually, Diana enjoyed unsettling the other woman entirely too much, and thought she really should bring herself back into line again. Once we’re over the next hill, she silently promised herself, ignoring the fact she had made exactly the same pledge on the last five hills, and was yet to keep that promise.
“Get out that map again, will you, Rell. I just want to check we’re still on the right road,” she said.
Rell breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Checking the map generally meant a short stop and a chance to stretch their legs. It also meant a few moments where the reporter’s heart wasn’t leaping into her throat every other minute. Just where on earth did she get her driver’s license? she wondered for probably the hundredth time that day. The bobsled course on some mountain?
Rell had noticed the gradual change in Diana’s attitude as they traveled further from civilization. Back in LA, she was the well-mannered and completely urban individual. She seemed to know all the best places to eat and how to get the very best service. Once they had left the US however, the tall woman’s demeanor had slowly changed until she came across as a slightly rougher cut diamond than the person Rell had originally met. The reporter had to admit that some of her own less-than-perfect manners had roughened as well. Must be all this jungle influencing me, she thought. It was not like either woman had become native, but all the accepted lady-like behaviors had gradually worn away as they became self-reliant.
When they had arrived at Bogota, Rell had been a little taken aback by the sheer size of the four-wheel-drive Land Rover that was waiting for them. After a day with Diana behind the wheel, the blonde was sure the other woman had deliberately ordered the monstrosity just so she could be the only one to drive it. The reporter had spent several minutes reasoning with Diana over who would do most of the driving. Rell thought she should, seeing she had quite a bit of experience with off-road vehicles. Diana had given in entirely too easily, her arguments seeming half-hearted at best. It took a bare second for Rell to find out why too. Sitting in the driver’s seat, her feet just barely reached the pedals and she could only see through the windscreen by straining her neck upwards. She felt like a child again, pretending to drive her daddy’s car. At least the other woman had had the decency not to look too smug as Rell climbed down from the cabin. She would be able to drive the vehicle if push came to shove, but it was not an experience Rell was looking forward to.
Rell was still trying to pull the much crumpled map from the glove compartment as Diana slowed the car, finally halting on the side of the road. Stepping from the vehicle, she leaned casually against the over-sized bull bars, waiting for the other woman to win her battle with the chart. Breathing in the cooling air, a sign they had almost reached the highlands, it dawned on her that this trip was far more agreeable than any other she had been on lately. When Diana wasn’t terrifying the life out of Rell with her driving, the reporter seemed to have an endless stream of scandalous or outright funny stories to share. At first, she had found the other woman’s almost constant need to chatter about something a little irritating, but now she honestly enjoyed listening. It certainly helped pass the long hours of travel. In the process, she learned a great deal more about the little reporter without having to answer too many questions about herself.
“Shit,” Rell swore as she stomped around to the front of the car. “We can put a man on the freaking moon but we still can’t make a damned roadmap you can refold once you’ve opened it.” Spreading the offending sheet of paper over the bonnet of the Land Rover and smoothing the creases, she traced her finger over the road they had been travelling. Diana leaned over her shoulder, watching as the other woman carefully checked the map against the few landmarks she could see through the covering trees. Having the tall woman so close, the intoxicating combination of perfume and sweat left Rell’s head spinning.
Trying to get herself back under control, she focused on her surroundings. “I think we’re almost there,” she said, a grateful tone coloring her voice. Moving her finger slightly, she pointed to a spot on the map. “Is that the place we’re supposed to leave the car and start up the mountain?”
The taller woman leaned closer, apparently unaware of the effect she was having on Rell. “Looks like it. Only a few more miles and we should be there,” she answered, after measuring the marks on the map against the surrounding countryside. “You ready to do a little foot slogging? The jungle there is pretty thick from what I was told back in that last village.”
“Happy to,” the reporter replied. “Give us a break from the car.” And your maniacal driving, she silently added. Rell figured anything had to be better than staring death in the face a dozen times an hour. Visions of that bobsled crossed her mind again.
Diana patted Rell’s shoulder, not noticing the delicious shiver it sent through the little reporter’s body. “Come on then. The sooner we get moving again, the sooner you’re safe from my homicidal driving techniques,” she said, one corner of her mouth twitching with a barely suppressed smile. Leaving the other woman standing there for several long moments with a stunned expression on her face, Diana climbed behind the steering wheel once more. She really did have to stop enjoying the other woman’s uneasiness quite so much, but she truly doubted she could control her impish sense of humor for long. Well, she’s survived this long, Diana decided, I don’t think her heart is going to give out now. Turning the key in the ignition, she waited for the reporter to settle herself. Rell made a bit of a show of clipping her seat belt securely before nodding that she was ready to get going.
Several miles down the road Diana slowed the Land Rover, turning the vehicle into what appeared to be a solid wall of green hanging vines and flowering plants. Rell was quite surprised when they parted in front of the car’s nudging bull bar, allowing the vehicle through. Spinning in her seat to look behind them, she saw the foliage had been encouraged to grow in just that fashion by several lines of ropes strung across the trees on either side of the track.
“Sneaky,” she said, with some admiration. “You’ve been here before?” It was part question, and part statement.
“Might say that,” Diana answered, checking for any sign of people intruding on what she saw as her own private section of jungle. “Actually, I’ve been here several times. The local banditos can be a bit of a problem every once in a while. Pays to take precautions,” she offered, once she was satisfied no one had entered the little area since her last visit. “Unless you know exactly where the turn off is, the only way to find this place is to quite literally fall out of the trees into it. Not many folk around here are willing to take to the trees anymore. I’ve seen to that,” she said, an evil glint in her eyes.
“If you’ve been here before, why all the nonsense with stopping to read the map on the way here?” Rell asked suspiciously.
“Had to give your blood pressure a chance to settle down again. Can’t have you dying on me up here, now can I? If it is costing so much to have you here alive, imagine what it would cost if I managed to get you killed,” Diana said, a false note of brightness echoing in Rell’s sharp ears. In that tone there was a suggestion somebody had died…a person the other woman clearly felt close to.
Rell thought about that for a moment, suddenly realizing she really didn’t know all that much about the other woman. They had been on the road together for a few weeks now, and Diana had offered surprisingly little information about herself or her background. Probably because I have been the one babbling on like there is no tomorrow, she thought guiltily. But it has been such a relief to be able to talk to someone and not have to ask any questions. She smiled to herself for a moment. Maybe I should just hand in my press card and become a damned writer.
Glancing over at the other woman expertly steering the Land Rover along the badly broken up track, Rell thought about what she did know about her mysterious travelling companion. It was obvious to the reporter, Diana was intelligent, supremely capable, and altogether too secretive. Hmmm, might start asking a few questions again. I think that being on a working holiday has made me a little too damned soft, she decided. Been doing a bit too much vacationing and not enough working.
“Who was the guy you were speaking to back in that last village?” she asked, figuring it was a safe question to begin with.
“Him?” the other woman replied. “That was Hunk.”
“He calls himself Hunk?” Rell couldn’t help giggling. “I think he should have been renamed Slab, as in one huge slab of mankind.” The reporter had noticed the way the man had towered over Diana’s not inconsiderable height, and the way his unbelievably broad back was sweating in the tropical sun. She’d even thought he might be mildly handsome, until he had turned around. The sight of his massive gut hanging over the thick belt around his pants was more than enough to send a shudder through her own slight frame.
“He’s a good friend, Rell. Saved my life a while ago. Just because he’s let himself go, doesn’t change the fact Hunk is one of the most honorable men you’ll ever meet,” Diana replied dangerously.
Oops, Rell thought. Looks like that is one touchy area not to go near again.
“Sorry, Diana. Didn’t mean to sound insulting,” Rell apologized honestly. Settling back into an uncomfortable silence, she watched the trees slowly passing the car as the other woman eye’s stayed glued to the path.
As though popping out of a humid, leafy tunnel, the vehicle arrived in a small hand-cut clearing, about a mile from the curtain of greenery hiding its entrance. Diana had said it was simply a rough camp, but to Rell’s travel-worn eyes, it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. Not bothering to keep the look of appreciation off her face, she turned to the woman beside her.
“If this is your idea of rough, I’d hate to think what fancy looks like,” she said. She must have struck the right note with Diana because the other woman’s lips twitched briefly before spreading into a pleased grin.
“Cut most of it myself,” she said. “Needed a place to store my equipment, instead of carrying it in and out all the time. The local version of a witch doctor keeps an eye on everything for me when I’m not here. Stocks it up when he knows I’m coming in for another go at Paraque Cerro.” She pulled the Land Rover under the cover of an open lean-to.
“What? You haven’t been to the top of that mountain yet?” Rell asked, surprised. “It’s only two thousand feet to the summit. What keeps stopping you?”
“Prophecy,” she stated flatly, opening the door and swinging her legs over the car’s sill.
Both of Rell’s eyebrows shot up her forehead at Diana’s answer. The unexpected reply had caught her completely flatfooted, a most unusual occurrence, and it took her a moment to force her brain back into the right gear. “Hang on! Wadda ya mean, prophecy?” the reporter spluttered.
The tall woman didn’t answer, already out of the car and heading towards the split-timbered shack on the side of the small clearing.
Rell muttered to herself as she fiddled the tiny pair of tweezers inside one of her cameras, trying to reattach a minute spring, which had shaken loose in the journey to the clearing.
“Bloody woman’s driving. Busts up my gear and then won’t tell me her almighty great secret.” She had spent a frustrating hour and a half after their arrival at the clearing trying to get Diana to explain her ‘prophecy’ comment, to no avail. Taking several different approaches to the question, including losing her temper, had gotten her nowhere. The other woman had simply decided not to discuss it further.
Sitting back, camera forgotten for the moment, Rell knew she wasn’t as angry as she was acting, but she didn’t want Diana thinking she could get away with this continued secrecy for much longer. Her little charade really wasn’t doing any good because the other woman had left the clearing shortly after dinner. Slinging a rifle over her broad shoulder, Diana had said she was going to make sure the local banditos were not going to suddenly appear out of the night to cause trouble. Rell’s tired thoughts wandered, turning the events of the afternoon over in her mind again, trying to make sense of what had happened, and of her own reactions.
She had eventually given up trying to get the tall woman to answer her questions, deciding to work off her frustrated mood by exploring the general area – a sensible precaution after so many years in hostile war zones, or in the depths of the unknown Amazon jungle. It was always nice to know where your escape routes were if you suddenly needed one. In the process of having a look around she’d nearly been frightened to death by something other than Diana’s driving.
Deciding to earn a little of that twenty-five thousand she was going to be paid, she thought she might take a few pictures of the surrounding forest. Rell had started to climb one of the many trees edging the clearing and stumbled across the reason the superstitious locals stayed well away from the campsite. As she placed a hand on one branch to pull herself a bit higher, a loud, violently colored, buzzing object suddenly flew at her face, startling her into missing her grip. Bouncing off the branch below, Rell squeezed her eyes shut, fully expecting to find out just how hard the ground was. Instead, two surprisingly strong arms caught her, and she heard a happy “gotcha”.
Opening her eyes again, she was surprised to realize that Diana had somehow managed to get from the Land Rover where she was unpacking some of the gear, to the base of the tree in time to snatch Rell’s falling body out of the air.
Wriggling a little in the woman’s grasp, she said, “Thanks for the catch but you can put me down now.”
Bouncing Rell easily in her arms, a wicked smile crossed the other woman’s face. “What’ll ya pay me?” she said, a trifle more than half seriously. “After all, I just saved you from a nasty fall. Coulda broken something.”
The wriggling reporter’s jaw dropped at Diana’s question. “You’re not serious, are you?” she asked, suddenly concerned she was about to lose her fee for this trip – not that it mattered all that much to her anymore, but there was the principle to uphold.
“I might be,” Diana answered, jiggling the shorter woman again.
“Oh, come on, Diana. Put me down this instant,” Rell requested, a little heatedly. The solid feel of the other woman’s arms about her body was having a definite effect and she wasn’t sure she wanted to follow that kind of impulse.
“Tsk, tsk. That makes it three times you’ve lost your temper today. Guess I am just going to have to cool you down. Can’t have an angry reporter wandering about – never know what kind of trouble she might get into.” Diana watched the other woman’s increasingly astonished expression. Tightening her grip, the tall woman walked them down to the little unnamed tributary near the camp, stopped briefly to allow the reporter to drop her camera on the riverbank, and stepped into the cooling water with Rell still held securely in her arms.
Once both women were neck-deep in the tributary’s cool flow, Rell’s bad mood had evaporated, right along with the sweaty overheating of her body. She had given in completely and the two women played for an hour in the water. Diana amazed the little reporter with how long she could hold her breath; it gave the dark-haired woman quite an advantage in the impromptu water fight Rell started, and soon lost.
Rell floated in the water for some time afterwards, drifting downstream a little. Unbeknown to her, Diana stripped off her clothing before trying her luck fishing barehanded a few hundred yards upstream from the place they had been swimming. The reporter suddenly decided to remove her own soaked clothing to wash the smell and travel stains from them while she had the chance.
Splashing her way over to the bank, Rell tugged the wet cloth from her body as she moved, leaving on just her underthings. She squatted by the side of the river and began vigorously bashing her shirt against a convenient rock. It was a technique she had picked up in Asia that she’d found reasonably effective on all but the most delicate of fabrics. Singing away lustily, she luxuriated in the cooler air by the side of river. Stopping to scrub at the sweat stains around the collar, she assumed the differences in humidity between the jungle and the desert probably partially accounted for her shrewish temper.
“Just not used to it,” the reporter cum scrubwoman mumbled. Engrossed in her cleaning chore and the general beauty of her surroundings, Rell never heard the sound of bare feet padding up behind her; she nearly jumped into the river with fright when an unexpected finger brushed lightly over the bullet scar on her back.
“What the fucking hell?” Rell spluttered, as she spun in place. The sight of Diana, completely naked and utterly unselfconscious, sent another shot of adrenaline through her system, but for an entirely different reason. Quashing her responses to such an obviously lovely sight, Rell glared at the other woman. She then noticed the fish hanging off Diana’s fingers by their gills.
“That scar looks pretty recent,” Diana stated.
“Ummm, yea. Got it in Egypt nearly four months back. Wasn’t serious though,” the little reporter lied easily.
Gently gripping one shoulder, the taller woman turned Rell around to have another look. “One more inch and it would have been your spine,” she commented, letting the shorter woman face her again. “How’d you get it?”
“It’s no big deal,” Rell said, thinking she might be able to evade the question altogether, but the look in Diana’s eye had her reluctantly telling the truth. “I got caught in the middle of some riot. Don’t know quite what happened. I just know it felt like someone had king-hit me from behind…well, until the pain kicked in. Then I knew I’d been shot. One of the local police got me to a hospital where they patched me up. Signed myself out after a couple of weeks. Had too much work to do to be lying around some hospital bed.” She watched the complex array of emotions cross the other woman’s face.
“Wish I’d been there to help,” Diana offered gently, before a cooler expression closed down the sight of whatever deeper emotions she was feeling. They were still there, simply hidden behind the woman’s more usual public mask.
Rell didn’t know quite what to think. She had felt herself reacting to the gentle caring in the other woman’s eyes, and was disappointed when that subtle affection faded behind a wall she couldn’t reach through just yet. Clamping down strongly on her own emotions again, she lay a gentle hand on the other woman’s wrist before pointing to the fish on Diana’s fingers.
“Dinner I suppose?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yep. Hope you can cook because I sure can’t. Well, not well enough to make it worth eating to anyone else but me,” she said, glad the other woman had given them a distraction.
Rell laughed brightly. “I can cook. Would have starved to death otherwise. How do you like them?”
That had lead to a safe discussion about cooking, and ways to prepare fish and game over an open campfire.
After dinner, Rell pulled her equipment case from the back of the Land Rover, to check over her cameras and lens. While doing the check, she found the slipped spring. Sitting forward again, tilting the camera closer to the firelight, she tried to get that much-cursed spring back in place. Though her hands were busy with her equipment, her mind kept going over the afternoon, hugging those warm feelings to her. It had been a long time since she had allowed someone to be anything more than a distant friend, and she wasn’t entirely certain if Diana wanted to get any closer either. All she knew, was things had somehow changed between them, and she wasn’t sure how it had happened. Eventually giving up on the camera in exasperated defeat, she tucked herself into her sleeping bag and tried to get some rest.
Safely hidden from sight in one of the trees near the campsite, Diana watched as Rell checked her cameras, and then fought to fix some problem she had found with one of them. She hadn’t really gone into the surrounding jungle to search for possible assailants in the night; there were more than enough booby-traps spread around the area to alert her if someone tried to break into the clearing. Diana had simply needed some space to herself.
She hadn’t meant for Rell to be startled by her little surprises to keep the local inhabitants away from her clearing, but then again she hadn’t quite expected the thwarted reporter to start climbing trees either. Diana couldn’t stop the tightening of her stomach as she remembered what had happened. She had been simply unpacking some of the things they were going to need for the next day when she heard one of her traps go off. Swinging her head towards the sound, she caught the flash of Rell’s body as she bounced off a branch, headed for a very hard landing on the earth below. Somehow, she had managed to get across the clearing in three long bounds, catching the other woman before she hit the ground. Trying to cover her relief, she had started joking around with the woman, only to see Rell lose her temper yet again.
“Quite the little spitfire. Maybe some of that red hair dye soaked into her brain,” Diana mumbled quietly. She knew she was part of the problem by not answering the reporter’s nearly endless stream of questions. Replying, in any way, to the prophecy query would have opened an entire can of worms the tall woman would much rather leave closed for as long as possible. Though, in a way, she had also enjoyed dodging the tenacious questioning as well. It had been quite a while since she had verbally jousted with anyone so well matched with her. She was pretty sure the other reason for Rell’s temper was the humid, sticky heat, which the little woman was not used to after adapting to the drier conditions of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Diana had deliberately taken a meandering course to the clearing once they left Bogota, trying to give the other woman as much time as possible to adjust to the different type of heat.
Diana had done her homework on the other woman long before they had actually met in the restaurant back in LA. Meeting with the journalist had merely been a formality, at least in her own mind. The taller woman had made her decision about Rell long before the reporter had even arrived in England. Hmmm, must remember to send that agent, Sal, a nice note for steering Rell in my direction – not that I didn’t pay him enough for the favor. Settling a little more comfortably on her branch, the dark-haired woman shifted the rifle from across her knees to rest against the wide trunk of the tree next to her.
Diana had followed Rell’s career for some time, occasionally purchasing copies of some of her more stunning photos. Female photojournalists were rare and the thought of one, and a very good one at that, had intrigued her. There was just something about the way the reporter managed to say so much with just one picture that appealed to some quiet part of Diana’s spirit. After her last unsuccessful trip to the mountain, she had done some searching to find just the right person to bring back with her. It had seemed fortuitous that it happened to be Rell who suited her needs.
What Diana hadn’t expected was the sudden awakening of her emotions. True friends were rare in her life, Hunk being one of the very few. She was polite enough to the people she came across in her travels but made little effort to truly befriend anyone. It just wasn’t safe for people to get too close to her. Sitting in the tree watching as Rell stared sightlessly into the leaping flames of the campfire, Diana wondered why she had felt so comfortable around the other woman right from the beginning. She’d spent years watching the feisty journalist’s career develop and then blossom, but that didn’t mean she knew anything about the woman herself. That Diana felt safe enough around Rell to let her sense of humor show should have set off the alarm bells immediately. It hadn’t, and she now wondered if she was in too deep.
The sight of that fresh, purpled scar on Rell’s back had almost shattered the sense of cool distance she was trying to maintain with the other woman. Diana hadn’t known about that at all. Oh, she knew Rell had spent some time in an Egyptian hospital but, at the time, had put it down to catching a dose of some traveler’s tummy bug – not an unusual occurrence for someone who trotted about the world for a living. Diana had caught one or two herself over the years and was well aware of how debilitating they could be. Rell’s off-handed comments about the wound could not hide the true seriousness of the injury, which could easily have taken her life if she had not received such quick treatment.
She continued watching and thinking, as Rell wrestled with her camera for a few more minutes before putting it back in its case, obviously annoyed with herself for being unable to fix the problem. Diana picked up her rifle again, swinging it over her back before climbing down the tree. She figured that by the time she had completed one slow circuit around the campsite, Rell would have dozed off for the night, regardless of the sticky heat and unfamiliar surroundings.
Rell’s eyes slowly opened and she became aware of two things drifting into her reawakened consciousness at the same time. The first was the squelchy sensation of drowning in her own sweat, and the other was the smell of frying bacon. Sniffing the humid air again, Rell noticed that the bacon seemed closer to burning rather than frying. She popped her head out of her sleeping bag, grateful for the rush of slightly cooler air over her face. Glancing over to the fire, she spotted Diana carelessly turning the strips of meat in a pan with the point of her knife, while holding a tin cup full of coffee with the other hand. The tall woman’s eye was focused of some far off point in the jungle and she wore a preoccupied expression on her tanned face.
“Hey,” she said quietly to get the other woman’s attention. “Burnt bacon isn’t my idea of a great start to the day.”
Looking down at the pan, Diana smiled self-consciously before moving it off the heat. “Sorry. Guess I was a million miles away.”
Rell wanted to ask what Diana had been thinking about, but chose to remain silent instead. Not that I would have gotten an answer if I did ask, she thought a little glumly, as she all but peeled her sleeping bag from her sweating skin. Wearing just her bra and underwear, Rell stretched out her body, hoping to pull some of the kinks from her spine. Definitely not used to sleeping on the ground, she thought. Too many years in those nice, soft hotel beds. Looking at her feet, she noticed some folded clothing piled on top of a pair of very heavy, calf high boots.
“For me?” she asked, picking up the surprisingly thick and closely woven shirt.
“Yep. The jungle from this point on is pretty rugged…far too many ways of stripping the skin off your bones. I picked those up for you in Bogota. Thought you might appreciate something that will keep as much of you in one piece as possible,” Diana explained, sliding several pieces of obviously blackened bacon onto a plate where two runny eggs already resided.
“I did bring my own gear. This isn’t my first trip into a jungle, you know,” Rell said, a little archly. She wondered if she should be insulted, but in a way it was nice to know the other woman cared about how Rell would deal with all the nasties in the jungle. The rush of blood sucking insects the night before had nearly driven Rell to distraction, even after she had rolled her shirtsleeves down and buttoned the cuffs. The material of the shirt she now held in her hand felt thick enough to keep a vampire bat away from her tender skin, not to mention the other biters, suckers and stingers one tended to stumble across in this part of the world.
“Thailand? Vietnam? New Guinea?” the other woman queried, as she sat back to eat her own breakfast.
“Well, yea,” the reporter replied, still holding the shirt in one hand.
“English cottage garden compared to what’s up there,” Diana replied, using her knife to point to the mountain they could just make out in the far distance. “Word of advice?”
“Like I could stop you,” Rell muttered almost silently, as she started to pull the shirt up her arm. “Yea, sure. You seem to know the area. Might as well take advantage of local knowledge,” she said aloud.
“Leave the underwear here,” the tall woman said, leaning forward to pour more coffee into her tin cup. “Having your bra straps rubbing under your pack all day is just going to cause blisters, and in this heat, they’ll infect in no time.”
“Oh,” Rell mouthed. “You mean these too?” she asked touching the elastic of her panties.
“Yep. Those too, unless you have something two sizes larger,” the tall woman replied, noticing just how skintight Rell’s underwear was. “You’re going to really sweat once we get moving, and in this humidity…well, fungus just loves hot, damp places. I can tell you now, a fungus infection on your butt is not something you want to write home to mother about.”
“I see what you mean,” Rell replied, blushing a little. “I’ll just go and get changed then.” Picking up the clothing and the boots, she modestly retired to the other side of the Land Rover. She wasn’t quite awake enough to realize that Diana had a perfect view of her breasts through the windows of the vehicle. Diana also managed to catch a tantalizing flash of Rell’s behind when the woman bent to pull up the heavy trousers.
Oh, no you don’t, Diana thought as her mind started to fill with images of what the rest of the stocky woman might look like. You know she hasn’t taken a lover since her marriage broke up, and there is no way to know if she is even interested in women. Behave, Diana told herself sternly. When Rell came back to the fire, her blushes seemed under control again.
“So, where’re we headed today?” Rell asked reaching for the fruit Diana had laid out beside the plate of over-cooked bacon and under-done eggs.
Pulling a plastic-coated map from the top pocket of her shirt, the tall woman started pointing out their route to the foothills of Paraque Cerro. They were a good twenty-five miles past the eastern side of the Orinoco River, having crossed the Venezuelan border a few miles later; it was still another seventy-five miles to the top of the mountain. The little clearing was the closest point they could reach by road. The rest of the journey had to be made on foot, and most of that was going to be uphill through some pretty severe countryside.
“I figure, if we can travel five, maybe seven miles a day we should be doing all right,” Diana said, as she tucked the map back into her pocket, carefully buttoning the flap. Not that she really needed the map to get through the jungle. Having done this trip several times already, she knew the paths and trails like the back of her hand…well, most of the way to the top anyway.
“Doesn’t seem like a lot of distance when I think about it,” Rell replied, sucking fruit juice from her fingers. She was more used to the desert country where the distance between places was measured in hundreds, if not thousands of miles.
“Trust me. It’s gonna feel like a few hundred miles by the end of the day,” Diana said, gathering up her plate and cup. “I was here only six months back and did cut a small track through some of the really rough stuff, but the jungle grows back so quickly that we’ll probably be hacking our way through it most of the time.”
“Oh,” the other woman mumbled around a mouthful of fruit. Swallowing, she joked, “Looks like my holiday just turned back into work again.”
Diana grinned down at her for a moment. “Gotta let you earn that fat fee I’m paying, don’t I?”
Rell grunted back at her, eyeing the cooked portion of her breakfast, and wondering if the other woman would be totally insulted if she passed it up.
“Better eat it,” the tall woman said as she moved towards the vehicle. “From here on out, we’re eating trail rations and dehydrated food. Nourishing but not real high on the taste factor.”
“Damn!” the reporter muttered, dubiously taking a bite of the runny egg. “I do wish she would stop reading my bloody mind.”
“I think I’ve got everything,” Rell muttered, looking over her pack and the small side bag on the ground. Sitting beside them with its lid open, was her camera equipment case. Pulling out two of the smaller cameras along with lens for each, she tucked them inside the plastic bag she had slotted into the space left at the top of her backpack. There was space because the other woman had insisted on loading Rell’s sleeping bag into her own pack. Rell put her hand on the other, slightly larger camera she had wanted to take with her, but suddenly remembered she couldn’t get the spring back into place the night before.
“Shit,” she muttered to herself. “Looks like I have to take Herman.”
“Herman?” Diana asked, dusting off her hands after making sure the fire was out. Although this was the jungle, it would still burn if an unattended fire got away.
Holding up the offending camera, which weighed at least five pounds, Rell explained, “Yea. Nicknamed this one Herman Monster because it was so big. People used to think I had it just so I could hide behind it.”
“Why not use that smaller one?” the other woman asked, pointing to the camera Rell had passed over.
“Broken shutter spring. Couldn’t get it fixed last night, so looks like I have to carry this one all the way there and back,” she said, not relishing the idea of all that weight hanging around her neck.
Leaning over, Diana picked up the smaller camera and gave the winding lever a quick flick with her thumb. When she pressed the shutter release button, the shutter clicked audibly. “Seems fine to me,” she said, handing it to Rell before turning back to the Land Rover.
Rell stood with her mouth ajar. “Well, I’ll be. And she never said a thing about fixing my camera either.”
Happily putting the heavy camera back into its own cushioned slot in the case, she grabbed a couple of different lens to add to the one already on the small camera. By the time Rell had stowed all her equipment and made sure she’d packed every spare roll of film, Diana was doing one last check of the campsite. Rell glanced at the sky trying to estimate the time, her digital watch having long given up the ghost with all the humidity and the amount of sweat that seemed to be forever rolling down her arms and body. Maybe an hour after sunrise, she thought, and it already feels like a Turkish sauna around here. What’s it going to be like once we’re away from the river?
Diana came towards Rell, her pack slung effortlessly over one shoulder. It had to be a full third larger than the reporter’s. Rell, having done an experimental hoist, knew that her own pack was going to feel like an elephant on her back by the end of the day.
Just where did she get to be so strong, Rell wondered, watching the woman moving gracefully.
“If you’ve got anything else you want me to carry, I think there’s a bit of room left in my pack,” she said.
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” Rell asked. Seeing the expression on the other woman’s face, she answered her own question. “No, you’re not joking. I’m fine, I think. I keep telling myself I should be grateful we’re not having to carry all the food for this little jaunt into the jungle. Still doesn’t make what we are having to carry weigh any less though.” Rell paused for a moment, thoughtful. “Just how are we getting away with carrying so little food, anyway?”
“Aside from gathering eatables along the way, you mean?” Diana replied. The reporter nodded. “There’s a food cache about halfway along. Paid one of the local suppliers to cart it in on some of those llamas we’ve been seeing along the way. After all, we don’t call them South American camels for nothing.”
“Are you sure they did it. I know how corrupt the system can be in this part of the world. They could have taken your money and then shorted you,” Rell said, a little concerned. Although she’d been in tight situations before, the idea of starving to death in the middle of the jungle was not appealing to the shorter woman. Rell was one of those ‘I have to eat regular’ types. A rumbling stomach always put her in a bad mood.
“Would you short me?” Diana asked, flashing the same evil glint in her eye that Rell had seen before. It sent a shiver up her spine, suddenly convincing her this was not a woman to trifle with, no matter what.
“Umm, come to think of it, no,” Rell finally replied.
If someone was looking at me like that there is no way I would turn against her, she thought. Guess I value my life too much.
“Come on then,” Diana said, a friendly smile on her face again. “We’ve got five miles to cover by nightfall and this is the easy part of the trip.”
Rell groaned her own pack into place, slipping the side bag over one shoulder. Spotting the path they were taking, she started moving off after the long-legged woman.
Diana’s ears pricked up, hearing the sound of the other woman cursing savagely behind her. Turning around she saw Rell had gotten herself tangled in one of the many varieties of prickly plants growing in the jungle. Slipping her long panga knife into the sheath she had strapped along her back under her pack, she walked back to the swearing woman.
“It’s called a Wait-A-Minute plant around here,” she said casually. “Here, let me help. It’s faster if two do this.”
Lightly gripping the tip of the growing fronds, she gently pulled them towards her.
“Back up, Rell, slowly,” she said. The thousands of minute thorns slipped easily away from the closely-woven material on the reporter’s shirt. The woman stood a couple of steps back from Diana, managing to look both thankful and pitiful at the same time.
“Must have been the fourth time this afternoon one of them has jumped out to grab me. The other times weren’t so bad…got out of them myself. Seems I just about fell headlong into that one. That’s what I get for being too busy peering through my viewfinder to pay attention to what is happening right at my damned feet. How come you never get caught in those things,” she said a little angrily, totally exasperated with herself, and the entire jungle around her.
“I do get caught occasionally. You just haven’t seen it happen yet,” Diana laughed.
Looking carefully at Rell, Diana decided she had better keep a closer eye on the reporter. She was pushing herself a little too hard to keep up with Diana’s longer legged pace. Rell’s face seemed to have taken on a permanent shade of red, but she didn’t appear to be sweating quite as much as she should…a sign she was starting to seriously overheat. Time to stop soon, she thought. It was not yet the five miles she had hoped to cover, but it was clear that the fast pace and the humidity were taking quite a toll on the other woman. If she didn’t call a stop for the night within the next hour or so, Rell would keel over with heat exhaustion.
“Another half hour, Rell. There’s a little clearing up ahead with a great soak. We can camp there for the night,” she said, seeing the grateful look on the other woman’s face, a look that quickly turned stubborn again.
“I’m fine, Diana. You said five miles by nightfall, so five miles it is,” the reporter said gamely, settling her heavier-by-the-minute pack a bit more comfortably on her shoulders.
“No rush. We have all the time in the world to get there,” Diana replied, expecting that would be the end of the matter.
“But…” Rell started to say.
“No buts. I know what I am doing,” Diana snapped back.
Shaking her head at the surprised expression on the other woman’s face, she stopped herself from saying anything more for a moment.
In a gentler tone, she finally spoke again. “I’m sorry, Rell. Didn’t mean to snap like that. Guess the heat is getting to me, too. Look, there’s no harm in taking it a bit easier these first few days. Neither of us is really used to the humidity. You’re not long out of the desert and I’ve been sitting about in air-conditioning for months.” Diana was lying about the air-conditioning part, but Rell coming straight from the desert was at least true.
“I guess you’re right,” the other woman offered. Seeing the raised eyebrow on Diana’s face, she added, “Okay, another half-hour and then we both stop for the night. It won’t do us any good if we kill ourselves the first day out.”
Turning away, the tall woman started back up the track, making a special point of hacking any thorny plants well back from the path. Anything to make things a little easier on the tough reporter following determinedly in her wake.
“Oh god,” Rell groaned in sheer self-indulgence. “I feel almost guilty enjoying this while you were setting up camp, Diana.” Floating in the small pool of water in the rocks, Rell had soon cooled down and was starting to feel a lot more human. The last half hour on the track had been the toughest she had ever endured. Everything around her had grown increasingly blurrier until she was forced to focus her mind on the broad back moving ahead of her, concentrating on following it no matter where it led. She briefly remembered stumbling towards the pool and dropping her backpack to the ground. Diana had been trying to say something to her but it was all a vague, fuzzy haze now.
There had been a brief moment of embarrassment when she realized she would have to take off her clothes in front of the other woman, but the water was too tempting for the overheated reporter. She had modestly turned her back as she removed her trousers, more aware than before that she was wearing no underwear. But Diana had made no comment at all, just pointed Rell towards the water. Diana waited until Rell was lying down in it, then went back to the tiny clearing to set up camp. Having completed her camp chores, Diana had gratefully stripped her own sweaty clothing and joined the reporter in the soak.
“Heat exhaustion can be a tricky thing sometimes,” the other woman commented from her own position lying in the water. “Person just gets to a point of not making sense and tries to push on regardless. I had to get you cooled off before you would start to listen to me again.”
“Sorry if I was any trouble,” Rell offered.
“No trouble. It can happen to anyone. Besides, you weren’t all that far gone. You were able to undress yourself and get into the water. Another hour and it would have been heat stroke. That coulda killed you.”
Rell colored at the thought of having to be undressed by anyone. Though, a part of her wondered what it would be like to have this obviously capable, amazingly beautiful woman gently remove her clothing. Just the sight of Diana lounging naked in the water beside her was causing an all too familiar ache in the lower parts of her body. Rell forced her thoughts away from the sensual images starting to develop in her mind.
“Hard to imagine you falling prey to this heat,” Rell commented, trying to focus on anything other than the sight of Diana’s breasts bobbing delicately every time she moved in the cool water.
“Like I said, it can happen to anyone, even me,” the other woman smiled. She could feel the way Rell was waiting, hoping for an explanation, and decided to satisfy a little of the reporter’s rampant curiosity. “Happened a few years back. I was in the jungle near Ilha de Maraca,” she started.
“Where’s that?” the shorter woman asked, splashing a little water over her face.
“Just off the Brazilian coastline about two hundred miles south of the French Guyanan border. When I was there, I ran out of supplies and water. The heat got to me, and before I knew it, I was a lot further gone than you were. Somehow, I stumbled onto Hunk and a couple of his friends as they were travelling from one place to another. He used to do that. Travel, I mean. Anyway, he gave my life back to me and has been a good friend ever since.”
Diana waited for the questions to come and was pleasantly surprised when there were none. She didn’t want to explain that she was actually in the region to train a group of mercenaries, or that they had tossed her out of the camp without any means of surviving. Apparently, they had not approved of her training methods. They had been even less impressed with her insistence that they not raze everything to the ground during a raid on some village. Diana couldn’t see the sense in destroying an entire village when all they needed were a few supplies. It simply alienated the locals, making her job all the harder. Hunk had done more than simply save her life when she had collapsed with heat stroke. The gentle bear of a man had also touched her heart for the first time in many years, and for that he would always hold a special place in her life.
Rell sat in thoughtful silence for several moments. It was the first time the other woman had opened up about her past at all, and the reporter was touched at the small show of trust. Her sharp ears had also picked up on the slightly odd wording of the tall woman’s last statement.
I’m not going to ask her any questions about it, she thought. If she wants to tell me more she will, but only if I don’t push her.
“Must have been pretty awful there for awhile,” Rell finally said.
“No walk in the park, but I survived,” Diana replied quietly. She decided to leave out any mention of the brutal beating her men had given her before marching her out into the jungle and leaving her to die.
Feeling a little less self-conscious about her nakedness than before, Rell resigned herself to leaving the cool temptation of the water and getting on with a few of her own camp chores.
Standing, she said, “Well, guess I had better see what I can do with dehydrated food and jungle produce. If you’re gonna set up camp every night, the least I can do is cook.”
Diana waggled her eyebrows briefly at the woman standing over her. “Why do you think I did it,” she said, only half joking, before ducking under the shallow water to wash her hair.
“Sneak,” the reporter muttered as she stepped from the pool and picked up her clothing. “I knew there was a reason she made the offer.” Wandering back to their little overnight campsite, she tried to figure out what one could possibly do with those packets of dehydrated food to give them any flavor at all.
Rell looked dismally at the broken blisters spread across her hands and fingers. “Is it me, or is the jungle getting thicker?” she asked. “I can’t see how you’ve managed to keep up this pace for the past ten days without dropping dead, Diana. Just the couple of hours I did this afternoon were enough to almost kill me, not to mention what they’ve done to my hands.” Tipping her aching palms towards to the tiny fire, she tried to convince herself they were not as bad as they looked.
“Should have stopped when they started to sting,” Diana said, settling down next to the other woman. Crushing several large leaves she had collected into a small ball, she popped them into her mouth and began to chew vigorously, ignoring the slightly bitter taste.
“All I have done for the past ten days is take photos. That isn’t a lot like work to me, you know. You’ve been cutting through all those vines and stuff for days now. I just wanted to take my turn. You know, pull my own weight for a change,” the reporter said softly.
“I suppose I’m more used to it, but you’ve been doing fine. I’m paying you to take those photos but I do wish I wasn’t your main subject all the time,” Diana mumbled around the mouthful of leaves. “Here. Give me your hands.” Taking the other woman’s blistered hands in her own callused palms, Diana spat the chewed leaves onto them, gently rubbing the mass of greenery and saliva into the blisters.
“Gotta go with your strengths. I cut and you photograph. You’re a lot better at spotting food in the undergrowth than I am, and you can even make trail rations almost edible,” she laughed lightly.
“I’m lower to the ground, that’s why I can see those things lurking under the bushes. Besides, you’re concentrating on making sure no more of those Wait-A-Minutes grab me,” she said, smiling in return. “Oh god, Diana. Whatever that is, it sure feels good,” Rell said gratefully, as the liquid in the chewed pulp soaked into her stinging blisters, quickly easing the pain. She had to make a deliberate effort not to think about where those leaves had been before ending up on her hands.
“Local version of an antibiotic,” Diana explained, rinsing the last of the bitterness from her mouth with some water. “Should stop them from stiffening up overnight as well, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use them for days…that is, if they didn’t infect first. You probably won’t be able to use your camera for a few days, though, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem. You’ve got plenty of shots for the moment. Might as well save some of that film for later.”
Rell breathed a quiet sigh of relief. She had been concerned about how she was going to keep up her end of the deal if she couldn’t grip her cameras properly.
“You seem to know a lot about this jungle?” Rell commented, watching as the taller woman’s dark head bent over the task of carefully wrapping the reporter’s abused hands in a light gauze.
“I’ve been travelling in it for a few years now,” Diana admitted. “I just seem to pick up bits and pieces along the way. There, all done.” She patted Rell on the shoulder as she stood to stir the pot where their dinner simmered away quietly.
Rell sat silently, memorizing the touch so she could call it up again if she wanted to. Over the past ten days, the two women had grown more comfortable with each other, to the point that Rell no longer thought twice about stripping off her heavy, cotton clothing in front of Diana to cool herself in some jungle pool or stream. The other woman was usually just as quick to take advantage of an opportunity to cool herself as well. Rell also found herself surreptitiously admiring the taller woman’s strong, tanned body in the process and allowing herself to indulge in the odd fantasy or two at night. It seemed a relatively harmless pastime. After all, she assumed nothing could come of it because her traveling companion never made any mention of partners or lovers. Rell had eventually concluded, somewhat reluctantly, that Diana was one of those people who chose not to have sex for some reason. The reporter thought it was a bit of a pity. The other woman had both a stunning body and a fine mind, two things Rell had always found attractive, regardless of gender.
Diana, much to her surprise, found herself wanting to touch the other woman, looking forward to her friendly caresses almost as much. It had made her a little uncomfortable at first ,the way the other woman seemed to always be finding some reason to lay a hand on her arm or to gently grip her shoulder, but she had grown used to the idea that Rell was a very tactile person. Accepting her touches after that had been amazingly easy. She couldn’t remember quite how or when it had happened, but she was relishing it while it lasted.
Over the years, Diana had enjoyed an active sex life, but this was nothing more than the connecting touch between two friends. There were no demands attached to them and this caused her to relax around Rell in a way she hadn’t permitted herself to do with anyone else. It had a grounding and centering effect she found soothing at the end of a long day of battling with the jungle, and her memories.
As Diana stirred the impromptu stew she was making for them, Rell clumsily fumbled opened her backpack, feeling carefully inside. Pulling out a rolled shirt, she awkwardly loosened the knot she had made with the sleeves, unwrapping something with a bit of a flourish.
“How does a little of this with dinner sound?” she asked, carrying a medium-sized bottle over to the fire.
Diana glanced up from the pot, her eye falling onto the bottle held in Rell’s bandaged hand.
“Glenfiddich? Kinda expensive for a jungle setting, don’t you think,” she asked wickedly, but loving the surprise anyway.
“If I’m going to be drinking scotch in the middle of some unnamed section of jungle, then I want to be sure it is the best I can afford,” she answered. “Picked it up in the States before we got on the plane for San Jose. Thought it might be nice to have a little celebration, seeing we’ve been moving for ten days now and finally made fifty miles. Only twenty-five to go and we reach the top of that mountain.” I also happen to know it’s your favorite too, Rell thought to herself.
Taking the bottle from Rell, Diana cracked the seal before pulling the cork with her teeth. “Well, if you insist,” she said.
“I most certainly do insist,” Rell replied, watching the other woman take a long, slow mouthful from the neck of the bottle. “Besides, can you think of a better place to be drinking this?” she asked, as Diana handed the bottle back to her. Taking a mouthful herself, she raised one questioning eyebrow at her traveling companion.
Laughing lightly, Diana turned back to the pot again. “It’s not where I am drinking that matters,” she said. “It’s the company I am keeping at the time. Personally, I can’t think of any finer right now.”
“Thank you,” Rell replied, blushing a little at the compliment. Sitting back down on the log they were using as a substitute seat, she waited for dinner to cook. Taking another sip from the bottle, feeling the pleasant burn as it slid down her throat, she wondered again what her companion had been doing for the past few years. All she knew for sure was that this capable woman had spent some time in the jungle and seemed to know enough to keep them both out of trouble.
“Last mouthful, Diana,” Rell said, waving the almost empty bottle over her shoulder towards the other woman.
“You have it. After all, you did cart it all the way here. Only right you get to kill the bottle,” Diana answered. Stretching her back a little where it rested on their log, she settled the reporter’s shoulders a little more comfortably against her chest.
In the course of trying to eat her meal, it became clear to the taller woman, that Rell was going to need some help. Her blistered hands could wrap around the scotch bottle without too much trouble, but a spoon was too thin for her to get a proper grip. Rell had protested she was perfectly capable of feeding herself; she only gave in when she spotted that glint in Diana’s eyes she had come to learn meant the tall woman was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. The most sensible arrangement had Rell leaning against Diana’s chest, the dark-haired woman alternating between her own plate and Rell’s as she fed them both. Even though dinner was long finished and the bottle now completely empty, neither woman really wanted to move. The close proximity felt right in some way, and both women were loath to move for the time being. Neither Rell nor Diana were willing to admit the relaxing effect of some excellent scotch was probably contributing to the ease they were feeling.
The pleasant haze of good scotch was lifting a few of the restraints Diana usually held over herself. She found her curiosity speaking for her before her mind had a chance to censor the question, or worry about its possible consequences.
“Tell me about Peter,” she asked very gently. Diana assumed their marriage had broken up, and was curious to know what was so special about him that Rell hadn’t taken a lover since.
“Why do you want to know about him?” Rell replied, a little shocked the taller woman even knew about him. Then again, Diana did make it clear back in LA she had checked out the reporter before meeting her, so knowing about her husband shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. It was not like she’d made any efforts to hide her marriage.
“Just curious,” Diana whispered back, the subtle feeling of her warm breath on the back of Rell’s neck bringing the little reporter out in goose-bumps. “I mean, you don’t talk about him or anything.”
“He’s dead,” Rell answered sadly. “That’s why I don’t mention him.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry like that. Guess the alcohol is doing the talking for me,” the taller woman said, a little uncomfortably.
“It’s all right. That was a few years ago now. Hardly hurts anymore to think about him.”
“So what happened?” Diana asked, tightening her hold around the other woman’s body simply because she felt Rell needed it.
“Usual story – childhood sweethearts, that kind of thing. He was a few years older than I was. I went into journalism straight out of high school and he stayed at home to go to college. Bit of a late starter in that respect. Guess he wanted something I didn’t. At least, not at that point, anyway. I’d been on the road for a couple of years and suddenly he turned up out of the blue, press card in hand, determined to work with me. He wanted to write the stories, while I took the pictures.” She stared into the fire. “It worked for a while, but he wanted more. I didn’t even see it coming, but he asked me to marry him one day, and I said yes. I guess it was what everyone expected of us.”
“But you weren’t really in love with him, were you?” Diana asked perceptively.
“No. That’s the funny part. I thought I was, right up until I had say ‘I do’ to the love, honor and obey part of the vows, and then I wasn’t so sure anymore. I’d always worked hard at being completely independent of anyone, controlling my own life, my own destiny. But when I married Peter, I felt like I was handing over control of my life to someone else and I guess I didn’t much like the idea. I mean, I did love him but I wasn’t in-love, if you can understand that.”
“I think I do,” Diana nodded. “Then what happened?”
“We got married in South Africa and were going to honeymoon there. We hadn’t been married one full day when he was killed. Someone shot him in the stomach. There just wasn’t anything I could do. He died in my arms within a couple of minutes,” Rell continued, clumsily wiping a single tear from her cheek.
“I’m sorry,” Diana said, leaning against the side of the other woman’s head, her lips a bare inch from her ear. “Must have hurt like blazes afterwards.”
“Yea, it hurt but not as much as it should have, somehow. Peter died happy, though. I never told him how I really felt and I guess he never knew. I don’t think I’ve ever really been in love with anyone. Guess I‘m just waiting for exactly the right person to come along. Then again, being a journalist on the road most of the year doesn’t leave a lot of time to get close to people, so I just don’t make much of an effort anymore.”
Sniffing back her tears, she turned a little to see Diana’s face better and asked her own question. “How about you? Any great lost loves?”
Diana’s dark head snapped back startled.
“You don’t have to tell me. I guess I was just being nosy again. Must be my biggest failing,” Rell said hurriedly, feeling as though she had overstepped some boundary.
“No. It’s all right. Guess it’s only fair, seeing I was asking about someone from your past,” Diana answered, dodging for a moment to give herself some time to think.
“There was someone. His name was Mark. We’d worked together, too, and he got himself killed trying to save a child’s life.” Smiling at the memory, she continued. “To be honest, I think it was the only good deed he ever did in his entire life. I was always attracted to the bad ones, and he was definitely one of those. But he had a good heart under all that bluster; pity it got him killed in the end. We might have made a decent pair.” Diana decided it was probably best to leave a lot of the details out, like the fact Mark had been working for one of the drug cartels. She had been asked to rescue a girl, a kidnapping victim, and run across Mark while in the compound. Diana had all but convinced him to leave with her and start a new life, when a lucky shot killed him. Although her own life had not been lived completely within the law, she felt she was making small differences in ways that mattered to her. At least it gave her life a mild sense of purpose, something she had been without for a long time.
Rell sat quietly, wanting to know more but not willing to push the other woman for information she was not ready to reveal. It was frustrating, yet intriguing. Even though she had sworn never to allow another to get as close to her as Peter, this mysterious woman was working her way into Rell’s mind and soul without either of them being conscious of it. Rell was unknowingly having the same effect on Diana.
Together, they sat staring into the fire for a while longer, Diana’s arms still wrapped comfortingly about the smaller woman’s body. It felt natural, as though it was meant to be.
Half an hour later, when their physical closeness had ebbed away the emotional tension, Diana said, “Come on. Time we hit the hay. We’ve got another long day ahead of us tomorrow and if you think what we’ve seen was bad, wait ’til you see what’s coming.”
Groaning as she climbed unsteadily to her bare feet, Rell asked, “How can it possibly be any worse than what we’ve already been through? I’ve never seen jungle so thick or overgrown before, and I thought the Kakoda Trail was hard going.”
“Tomorrow,” she paused for a moment to drag out the suspense. “It starts going uphill,” Diana replied wickedly.
“Ick. I can feel my thighs aching already,” Rell said, dramatically. “Remind me to cut a length of branch to use as a walking stick,” she said, starting to fumble with the buttons on her shirt.
From the beginning, both women had taken to sleeping naked at night because it was cooler. Their sleeping bags protected them from any early morning chill, but even this close to the highlands, the humidity was still too much to make sleeping fully clothed anything but miserable.
“Here, let me help you with that,” Diana said, as Rell struggled to undo the buttons of her shirt with her blistered and bandaged fingers.
“I’ll get it, just have to.…” Rell started to say.
“Take all night about it,” Diana finished. Gently pushing the reporter’s hands away, the taller woman slowly undid each button on Rell’s shirt, stepping behind her to pull the material from her shoulders.
Rell couldn’t help the momentary catch in her breathing as Diana’s strong fingers slipped around each button; she took her time working her way down to the bottom of the shirt. An inadvertent knuckle brushed against the reporter’s stomach, causing her muscles to jump in response. She could feel her heartbeat starting to speed up until she was sure the other woman could hear it thudding against her chest. Licking her suddenly dry lips as Diana moved behind her, Rell felt only the sensation of her shirt being slid sensually, from her shoulders, exposing her breasts to the cooler night air. She could hear the tall woman’s breathing behind her and feel the warm, tantalizing brush of her hands as she gently peeled the sweat-damp material from Rell’s body.
Two arms wrapped themselves about her waist, feeling for the catch at the top of her trousers, Diana’s shirt-covered breasts rubbing over the bare skin of Rell’s back. The tingling worked its way quickly around the reporter’s body setting her nipples to hard points. The slow, scratchy experience of her zipper being lowered set a series of other feelings crashing through her body like a tidal wave, most of them centering between her legs. As the heavy material dropped away from Rell’s thighs, she could feel Diana’s shoulder touching the back of her legs, her breath brushing softly against her knee. One powerful hand on the small of her back balanced her as she stepped from her jungle trousers, to stand naked in the firelight. Trying to regain her self-control, the reporter watched as Diana unzipped Rell’s sleeping bag, indicating she should get inside. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, and Rell felt as though it was taking an eternity to walk the couple of paces to her sleeping bag. Once Rell climbed in, Diana zipped up the side and stepped back.
“See you in the morning, then,” she said, appearing completely unaware of her effect on the reporter.
“Yea, in the morning. Night, Diana,” Rell replied, quickly rolling onto her side. And she expects me to sleep after that, Rell thought, settling her hips and shoulder into the ground beneath her. If she can do that to someone just casually undressing her, what could she do if she really meant it? And would she even survive? The reporter eventually dozed off thinking about it and wishing there were some way of actually finding out. Just before falling into the oblivion of sleep, she silently cursed her bandaged hands, wondering if it was possible to live with so much arousal coursing through her body.
Diana squatted by the fire, watching as Rell tossed restlessly for some time before finally dropping into a peaceful sleep. It had taken every ounce of self-control she possessed not to brush her lips over Rell’s bared shoulders as she helped her undress. In fact, she had been tempted to move her head the fraction needed to kiss the side of the reporter’s knee, but at the last moment, she remembered the look on Rell’s face as she spoke of her dead husband. Come on girl, Diana thought. She’s made her preferences clear. She’s into men and has no interest in women.
Stripping off her own clothing and climbing into her sleeping bag, she tried to convince herself she had not seen the obvious signs of arousal on the other woman. It was just standing about in all this cool night air, she told herself. Except that the night was muggy and warm, just like every other night in the jungle. Turning on her side away from the other woman, she forced her eyes closed, trying to tempt sleep. Just let it go, she thought. There’s nothing there at all. She is simply here to get her story, and then leave. You’ll probably never see her again after we get back to civilization.
Almost against her will, she rolled the other way, watching the little reporter as she slept. As her eyes slowly closed, she reminded herself of what happened to anyone she got close with. It didn’t still the voice quietly calling in her heart.
“How are those hands feeling since I took the dressings off this morning?” Diana asked, turning Rell’s free hand over to look at the healing blisters.
The taller woman had meticulously changed the dressings morning and evening for the two days since Rell damaged her hands; she was aware that infection was their biggest enemy in the middle of the Amazon forest. This morning, the injury appeared healed enough to do without the light bandages, so long as Rell kept her hands off the panga knife and left Diana to cut a path through the thick jungle.
Glancing down as Diana’s strong fingers began to gently feel the healing edges of the blisters, Rell saw the faint green staining from the pulpy mass the other woman had used to stop any infection.
“Considering how messed up they were, they don’t feel all that bad now,” Rell said, enjoying the taller woman’s touch. “Still a little stiff, but I think using this walking pole should help ease it over the next couple of days. Will that green ever go away?”
“Yea, it’ll fade in time,” Diana replied, glad to see the wounds had dried completely.
“I still can’t believe it’s only been two days since I ruined my hands. Whatever that stuff was, I think you should market it.”
“Sometimes these jungle medicines are more effective than anything in the so-called civilized world. At least they don’t cause as much harm as some of the drugs in Western medicine.” Diana didn’t release her gentle grip on Rell’s hand as she stepped a little closer, looking at the sky over the shorter woman’s shoulder. “There’s a storm coming,” she said, after seeing the beginnings of a dark blur on the far horizon. “I think we’d better find some cover, and soon. These tropical storms can be pretty violent. I don’t want us caught in it.”
Rell turned enough to see what Diana was looking at, noticing the fast moving blur. “I’ve been caught in a few storms before. I find them pretty exciting,” she said, a grin starting to twitch at her lips.
“I think the storms we get around here might give you a bit more excitement than you bargained for,” Diana replied. She started down the small rise they had stood on viewing the surrounding countryside before the trail dropped below the level of the tree-line again. “If you think the jungle’s been bad, the storms are far worse.”
“Oh,” Rell said, her long walking stick moving in counterpoint with her steps. “Is there any shelter around here?” she asked.
“Uh huh. Off the track, to the left. I know there is something cave-like over there,” the other woman replied, her eyes scanning for a decent break in the trees and overgrown vines. “At some point in history, a lot of rocks were washed off the plateau above, successive floods moving them along the valley floor towards a river canyon. It’s cleared the ground pretty well too, so we can make better time than we have through this thick stuff. Where the rocks have piled up together, you can sometimes find gaps large enough to offer some shelter,” she explained, her hands making graceful circles in the air as she described the rocks falling, then piling up. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep us out of the worst of the weather.”
Rell listened to the explanation, momentarily distracted by the other woman’s hand movements. She had a brief mental flash of what those hands might be able to do to her body, then shook her head, forcing her wayward mind to concentrate on where she was putting her feet. Part of her hoped they would find a small cave so they could sit snuggled closely together. Over the past couple of days, as Diana had been helping her eat and dress, Rell had grown used to being physically near the other woman, and the feelings it was raising in her body; she had become accustomed to being in a state of near constant arousal. It was making it difficult to focus on the job at hand, as images of what she’d rather be doing filled her mind at the most inopportune moments. Reminding herself one more time that Diana had chosen a life of celibacy after the death of her lover, Mark, she jogged along to keep up with the other woman’s longer pace.
Far behind them, to the west of the highlands, the storm gathered strength. Pushed along by the El Nino effect, the storm soared higher into the atmosphere as it rose to climb the mountains, and the murky clouds rapidly filled the horizon as far as the eye could see. Hurried along by the racing upper level winds, it crossed the lands beneath it like some speeding malevolence, greedily sucking in the moisture given up by the jungles below. Over eighty inches of rain fell in the area each year and this storm appeared to want to dump it all in one titanic cloudburst. Slowing as it approached the wall of up-flowing air created by the highlands, it sulked, unable to move forward. Its thunderheads grew menacingly as more water was fed into it from the trees underneath. The first rumbles of booming thunder alerted the two women, still far from the sheltering rocks, that the tempest was about to strike.
The jungle grew silent, the birds, animals and insects preparing themselves for the blow to come. For the briefest of heartbeats, all was still. The rising wind held its breath for a moment, as every living thing in the forest below strained in the unnatural stillness preceding the storm. The clouds gathered themselves into a mighty black cloak in the sky, a whirling mass of water and power, finally unleashing a sheet of lightning across the darkened heavens as if announcing the intention of destroying everything in its path.
Temporarily blinded by the flash, both women missed seeing the rain falling from above like a dirty, gray blanket dropped from beyond. They did not miss the sharp retort of the thunder as it echoed, almost painfully, in their ears. In the time it took for the women to draw breath again, the jungle disappeared under the heavy, lace curtain of cascading rain.
Pouring over leaves and tiny branches, the rain rapidly pooled on the ground, filling the crevices where the tiny creatures sought shelter. Those not immediately drowned where they hid were swept along to be battered to death on the rocks and branches tossed in the swirling waters. First forming little runnels, then larger streams, the fallen water quickly became a mighty flood, gaining destructive power as it surged along the valley floor, and headed mindlessly for the small river canyon at the other end. The churning flash flood roared its way over the ground, obliterating everything in its path and heading for the two scampering women.
Oblivious to what was coming from behind, Diana suddenly stopped, waiting until Rell was level with her before attempting to speak. There was no way she could have made herself heard over the continuous booming of the thunder and the loud, steady shushing of the icy rain.
“RELL!” she shouted in the other woman’s ear. “I’VE MISSED THE PATH!!”
Rell nodded in understanding. Diana pointed to herself and then to the small stand of trees part way up the gently sloping valley wall. Nodding again, the reporter knew the taller woman was going to climb into the high branches to see if she could spot the track towards the rocks where they hoped to find shelter. Pointing at the shorter woman, Diana made it clear she wanted Rell to stay where she was until she returned. Patting the dark-haired woman on the arm, Rell urged her up the slope while she herself moved around the tree. It was one of the few larger ones left standing after years of sudden floods over the valley floor.
Diana glanced back over her shoulder for a moment before scrambling over the low undergrowth. Somehow, through the shadowy curtain of cascading water and dim light, she had lost sight of the faint path to the rocks and needed to get herself and Rell back on track as soon as possible. The waterfall of rain was rapidly chilling both women and Diana had seen Rell hugging herself in an effort to keep warm. Gotta find that path and get us under cover, she thought. Neither of us is going to last long in this cold. Spotting a likely tree, she was quickly shinnying up its branches and scanning the ground for any sign of the trail they were supposed to be on. Shaking the water from her eyes, Diana tried to peer through the murk to find what she as looking for. Suddenly, over the rolling vibrations of thunderclaps and pelting rain, a new sound reached her ears – a low, rumbling roar coming from behind her. Twisting on her branch, her jaw dropped in disbelief as a tall, brown, churning wall of water rushed down along the valley floor.
“Oh no! Rell!” she gasped
Looking back down the slope, she saw the stocky reporter standing in front of a tree, sheltering a little from the heavy rain. With the noise of the thunderstorm right overhead, Rell was unaware of the danger coming towards her like an express train. Diana screamed the other woman’s name. At the last moment, Rell turned to see the wall of water bearing down on her. There was nothing either woman could do to prevent the disaster from happening. One moment, Rell was standing frozen in place, her eyes like saucers at the sight of the on-coming water, and the next, there was nothing but a swirling, agitated wave where the woman had once stood.
“REEEELL!! REEEEELL!!” Diana kept screaming out to the reporter as she all but fell from her branch onto the ground. Stumbling over obstructing bushes and clinging vines, the tall woman ran alongside the fast moving water looking for the little reporter.
So, this is what my washing feels like, Rell observed silently, her mind a little slow to catch up with the sudden change in circumstances. After the first shocking moment, when she was certain she was going to drown, she realized her backpack was acting as a life jacket, keeping her afloat. Somehow, she had also managed to keep her grip on her walking stick as the floodwater had yanked her from her feet. Guess standing in front of that tree stopped me from being sucked under as the edge came past, she thought. Rolling over her pack, she pushed her face above the water, hurriedly sucking in another lung full of air before letting the pack resurface.
Beneath the water, rocks and branches bounced painfully off her limbs, tearing at her clothes. Eventually, she decided she’d had enough of being pounded by debris, and flipping over the top of her pack to breathe was becoming too tiring. Grabbing the straps of her backpack, she twisted until she was facing upwards, making breathing a great deal easier. With the pack riding behind her, she was high enough in the choking flood to see what was coming ahead. She soon regretted her decision to change position.
Far in front of her, the leading edge of the water tore at everything in its path, devouring huge chunks from the landscape as it ripped trees from the earth. Bobbing all around her were various forest animals, large and small, caught out by the unexpected flooding of their jungle homes. Most were already dead, or soon wished they were. Just gotta ride with this until it hits some flatter ground, Rell thought, swept along helplessly in the tide. Once we get to flat ground, it’ll spread out and slow down. I should be able to get to the bank then.
Rell tried to stay calm, concentrating on staying on top of her backpack cum life jacket, until the flood lost some of its impetus so she could strike out towards the side of the valley. This was not the first time she had been caught in an unexpected deluge, so it was a little easier to keep her head until the water released her. Over the roar of the water around her, she heard a new sound. It took her a moment to identify the noise, but once she did, it filled her with a sinking dread. Just ahead, she could see where the flood had found its way to the riverbed it had been seeking, draining over the side of the canyon like some miniature Niagara Falls.
Oooooooh shit! I knew I would regret this trip, she thought as her section of the floodwaters joined the millions of gallons already flowing into the canyon beneath. It would be her last coherent thought for some time as she struggled to stay alive and floating in the tumultuous waters of the rapidly filling riverbed.
Diana raced frantically along the edge of the flooded valley trying to spot Rell’s brightly-colored backpack or red-blonde hair in the rushing waters. All she could see were uprooted trees, floating dead animals, and more water. Her heart was pounding with fear that the other woman had drowned immediately in the onslaught, but a part of her prayed Rell had somehow survived those first dangerous minutes. If she still has her pack, she should be able to float with it, Diana kept repeating to herself like some ancient mantra. The tall woman herself had made a point of making Rell’s backpack completely waterproof from the outside to protect the reporter’s valuable camera equipment. Now the enclosed bubble of air on her back may well save Rell’s life.
Stumbling through more of the clinging undergrowth, Diana thought she caught a glimpse of Rell’s pack as it bobbed helplessly in the floodwaters. Still running, she shielded her eyes against the falling rain with one hand, trying to make out what was dipping and riding the waves ahead. Diana had just decided it was Rell when, to her horror, the brightly colored blob disappeared over the edge of the canyon and into the riverbed below.
Digging into her own stubborn core, she found a fresh burst of speed and dashed towards the edge of the canyon as though her very life depended on it. Rell’s life certainly may.
Rell found herself wedged into a small hollow in the canyon wall, watching the rising floodwaters around her. Her mind had yet to catch up with the fact she had found some kind of temporary safety from the maelstrom. It was completely beyond her comprehension that she had managed to find the little sanctuary. She had long ago lost track of which way was up or where anything was around her. She’d struggled simply getting enough air into her bursting lungs to keep her alive until the next time she popped up to the surface.
Her pack was still strapped firmly to her back, having been both a hindrance and a help in her fight with the raging river. It kept bringing her back to the surface but once there, the twisting water would spin her in dizzy circles before forcing her to the bottom again.
After several minutes of blinking vapidly at the river flowing past, her brain finally kicked in, snapping her awareness back to the present. She suddenly realized she still had her walking stick clutched in a death grip. Now, why didn’t I let that go? Rell wondered. The flood was whirling around her knees, slowly creeping higher, as more water poured into the river from the valley above. Hundreds of tiny, and not so tiny tributaries added their own burdens to the deluge. As the heavily silted liquid moved past her, the eddy her little hollow created caused it to gradually eat into the softer earth, dropping small sections of her refuge into the water. It wouldn’t take long for the force of the water to carve its way deeper into the bank, eliminating her hole in the wall. With no obvious way to escape, except by falling back into the river, Rell realized she had to do something to stabilize her exhausted body in its little pocket of temporary safety. Jamming her walking stick across the open space, she wedged herself behind it.
Come on, woman, think. You’ve been in worse situations than this and gotten out okay, she thought to herself, scanning the bank opposite and trying to peer through the rain to see what lay above her. Part of her mind was trying to remember a time worse than the one it now found itself in, and was coming up empty. Shrugging its mental shoulders, that part of her mind joined in the effort of trying to find a way out of the river canyon. Rell saw she was stuck beneath an overhanging section of the canyon wall, so there was no way up; the only way down meant getting back into the river again. No thanks, she thought. I barely got out of it the last time.
Looking over at the opposite wall again, she spotted movement through the gradually lightening rain. Breathing a sigh of relief, she realized Diana had followed the valley down until she reached the canyon, and was now searching intensely along both banks for her. She’s never going to spot me in this cavity, Rell thought. Gotta make myself more visible if I want her to see me.
Leaning back against her soaking pack, she dug her boot heels into the soft earth before tugging her walking stick free from the hole’s crumbling walls. With her other hand, she tore the partially ripped sleeve from her heavy jungle shirt, tying it securely to one end of her stick.
“Come on. See it,” she mumbled desperately as she waved the impromptu flag back and forth. “See it. Come on, Diana. Look down.”
Diana finally reached the edge of the river canyon, staring in disbelief at the amount of water rushing along what was once a lazy stream at the bottom. She’s been swept downstream, the tall woman told herself, but how far? That pack should have kept her near the surface, though. Jogging along the high right hand bank of the canyon, she carefully examined both sides, looking for some sign of either the backpack she hoped was still strapped to the other woman’s back, or some hint of her blonde hair. The last thing she wanted to see was Rell’s broken and lifeless body draped grotesquely over some river rock or logjam.
Moving along the ravine’s wall, the river gradually widened, the rush of floodwater slowing as a result. Less than half a mile down the river, the water had lost enough speed that Diana hoped, if Rell was still alive, she might have found her way to the bank. Dropping her pace to a fast walk, she searched the banks on both sides, praying to see something to indicate that the other woman had been there, or was still there now.
As she searched, Diana found herself wondering why finding the little reporter was so important to her. It was more than just getting to the top of the mountain driving her now. To Diana’s surprise, the tough photojournalist had come to mean a great deal over the past month. Rell’s freely offered friendship and gentle trust soothed an ache deep in Diana’s spirit – an ache that Diana didn’t even realize was there, until it had faded away. To the tall woman, Rell suddenly mattered. Pushing the thought aside, Diana promised herself she would think about it later. Right now, she had to locate the reporter in all that mud-filled water.
Stopping for a moment to survey the opposite bank, Diana caught a glimpse of something flapping from a shallow hole in the wall. Keeping her eyes on it, she moved down the canyon wall until she was level with the twitching shape. She almost shouted in sheer relief when she spotted the saturated reporter tucked into the tiny hollow, waving something on the end of her long walking stick. Motioning with her arms to let Rell know she had been seen, Diana then turned her mind to the problem of getting the other woman back onto drier land.
“River’s too wide here to cross,” she mumbled to herself, pulling the plastic-coated map from her pocket. Tracing her finger along the valley, then downstream, she saw that the river would continue to widen for some time. “Guess I have to go back upstream then,” Diana muttered, checking the map to see just how far she needed to go before the banks were close enough for her to cross.
With exaggerated gestures, she pointed to the map in one hand, indicating she had to go back the way she came before she could cross the river. Rell nodded in understanding and settled herself to wait for the time being.
I’d better make this fast, Diana thought, jogging away. She’s already shivering, and that’s not good.
Taking less time than she’d thought, Diana found herself back at the point where the floodwaters from the valley still ran over the right hand side of the canyon’s wall. Looking closely, she tried to gauge how deep it was. The rain had slackened off considerably, though the dark, ominous clouds still hung low in the sky and she could hear the continuing roll of thunder in the distance. Can’t be too deep, she thought. It was just a flash flood, after all, not some overflowing river. Stepping into the running water, she edged her way carefully through it until she was finally safe on the other side. Even at its deepest point, it hadn’t reached above her knees, but she had stumbled a few times, tripping on unseen rocks or branches lodged in the bottom.
Picking up her pace again, she headed further upstream looking for the narrowing of the ravine she had seen on her map. She estimated it to be less than a half mile from the valley, but she wished it were a lot closer for Rell’s sake. Sticking as near to the canyon wall as she safely could, and jumping over any obstructions rather than wasting time going around, Diana set a fast pace to reach the narrowed section of the gorge.
A hard five minutes later, Diana arrived at the section of the ravine she had seen on her map. Not exactly the two minute half mile, she joked with herself. Probably would have been faster if I had ditched the pack. Standing on the edge, she guessed the distance from one bank to the other to be approximately eight or nine feet. Definitely not as narrow as I had hoped, she thought, wondering if she could make it across. The disconcerting sight of millions of gallons of dark, brown water boiling through the bottleneck the narrowing had created, caused her stomach to knot up on itself a little. Shrugging her pack off, she mentally prepared herself for the hurdle.
Standing a couple of steps back from the edge, she bunched her powerful muscles, tossing her backpack over the divide easily. Diana watched as it crashed into the tangle of vines and low shrubs on the other side.
“Now my turn,” she muttered aloud. Taking several more paces backwards, she took off for the edge of the ravine, both feet hitting the ground bare inches from the boundary of the canyon itself. As tensed thighs prepared to spring her high into the air, she felt the ground drop slightly under her booted feet. Uh oh, this does not feel good, she thought, flinging her arms upwards.
The rush of stirred up liquid had seriously weakened the earth along the sides of the ravine, making them unstable to any show of force from above, such as someone landing heavily on the edge. Collapsing under the stress of Diana’s jump, the right bank tumbled wearily into the flooded river, leaving the tall woman with no choice but to hope she could somehow make it to the other side. Stretching out her arms as she moved through the air, her hands connected with the edge of the canyon, her fingers curling gratefully around a solid tree root left exposed by the carving force of the water. Diana’s legs and body followed behind, splashing into the river. Hanging shoulder deep in the flood, the tall woman began to claw her way up the bank to safety.
She had barely pulled herself a few inches up the soggy wall when a large rock, bouncing helplessly through the fast flowing water, slammed into her unprotected left side. Whoofing out with the sudden pain, Diana felt, rather than heard, the sound of a rib snapping under the onslaught.
“Kee-rist!” she hissed through clenched teeth. “If it doesn’t rain around here, it freaking pours.” Trying to ignore the grabbing pain of her broken rib, Diana struggled her way up the wall until she was finally stretched out on the ground above the river.
“Sweet Jesus, five minutes ago I was freezing my butt off in the rain and now I’m sweating like a field hand. Amazing what pain can do for a person sometimes,” Diana said aloud. Rolling over to crouch on one knee, she gently felt her way over the break, hoping there wasn’t too much damage. Prodding one particularly sensitive spot a little too hard, she sucked air through pursed lips as her rib protested the rough treatment. “Well, that’s going to smart for a few days,” she said, mirthlessly. “Looks like I won’t be doing any more Jane of the jungle leaps for a while.”
Finally climbing to her feet, she hugged her left elbow tight against the injured side as she dug out her pack from its landing place with the other hand. Slinging it awkwardly over one shoulder, Diana started a slow jog back downstream to the tiny hollow where Rell was wedged.
Watching the water creep higher up her body, Rell focused on staying inside her hollow until Diana could get back to her again. Wriggling her toes in her boots, she was aware she had lost nearly all feeling in her feet and the shivering was getting worse. Clamping her teeth tightly together, she tried to control the chattering.
“G…great hairy, horny toads. I am about to d…die of hypothermia in the b…bloody tropics.” Rell’s gallows humor did little to cheer her. The last of the storm-chilled water poured in from the valley above and swirled lazily around her breasts, stealing her precious body heat as it inched higher. The overhang was gradually breaking apart from the bank as the supporting layer of earth was washed away in the flood. Sections of the overhang would fall into the water near Rell, sending icy splashes over her body.
“This is not quite how I imagined myself dying, you know,” Rell said to no one in particular. She was simply trying to stay awake and focused until Diana could, somehow, get her back up onto the ground above. “I figured on something a little quieter, maybe old age, perhaps,” she giggled, the idea of simply wearing out from old age appealing to her slightly twisted sense of humor. As her body temperature slowly dropped because of the cooling effects of the icy water, she found it harder and harder to stay alert, her mind wandering in the most idiotic fashion.
Pressing back against her pack, Rell reset her feet in the mud at the bottom of the hollow watching, almost without interest, as yet another large section of the overhang separated from the rest, thudding into the water in front of her.
“Gee, I wonder where Diana got to?” she asked herself. “Maybe she fell in?” Thinking for a moment, Rell answered her own question. “Nah. Knowing her, she’d probably walk on water.” The image of Diana simply waltzing across the tossing waves set the little reporter off in a spasm of silly giggles. “I wonder if I fluttered my eyelashes at her, she’d ask me to dance with her?” Rell’s giggles became outright laughter, seeing in her mind’s eye the two of them dancing, cheek to cheek, on top of the swollen river.
Over her head, the entire overhang finally gave in to gravity and came thumping down into the water. Rell was momentarily buried in its musty smelling earth until she could shake herself free again. Looking up, she was greeted with the sight of a long, snaking coil of rope flying out over the new edge of the canyon. One end landed in the river, fascinating the reporter with its intricate swirls and circles before sinking into the water. The rope was quickly followed by two brown boots attached to a pair of long, familiar legs swinging down into what was left of the hollow. Rell watched blearily as Diana splashed into the river beside her.
“Hi ya, Diana. You wanna dance?”
“Ummm, not really,” Diana answered. Completely focused on the job at hand, she had been a little taken back by the unexpected question. Oh boy, she thought, seeing the silly grin plastered across Rell’s pale face, she really is cold. I’ve got to get her out of here, and fast.
“Sorry about the overhang hitting you, Rell. Had to break it away from the bank before it was safe for me to climb down.”
“Is that what hit me?” she asked, seeing a slightly blurry shape she assumed was the other woman moving in front of her half-lidded eyes. “I just thought I’d been caught in another media crush. Real bad being this short sometimes,” she said, a little sadly.
“Well, being short is going to be an advantage right now cause it means you’re light,” Diana explained. Even soaking wet, you’re not going to weigh much more, thankfully, she added silently in her mind. “I need you to get out of that backpack though, Rell.”
“But I’ll lose my cameras,” Rell replied, a surprised expression on her face. “Can’t do that. I’ve got a job to do for this really beautiful woman. She’s on a treasure hunt, you know,” the reporter added in hushed tones, forgetting completely this was the very woman who had hired her to begin with.
“I won’t lose your pack, Rell. Promise. But I can’t get both you and it up this bank at the same time,” the tall woman said, reasonably. Not with a broken rib, I can’t, that’s for sure. “I’ll tie it off on the end of the rope and pull it up after us, okay?”
Rell thought for a moment, distracted by the closeness of the other woman. “Okay,” she finally said. “But be sure you tie it tight. Gotta take my pictures. Only way to tell a good story. Lots of pictures,” she said, as she wriggled out of her backpack.
Freed from the weight of Rell’s body, the pack bobbed to the surface of the deepening water. Diana quickly knotted the rope through the shoulder straps as Rell watched owlishly.
“You’ve got pretty hands,” she commented.
Diana glanced at her hands for a moment as she released the backpack to float in the water, secured on the end of the rope. Yea, pretty grubby right now, she thought.
“Okay, lets get out of this freezing water so we can get warmed up again,” she said. Uncoiling another, shorter length of rope from around her waist, she maneuvered the smaller woman around until Rell had her arms looped loosely over Diana’s shoulders.
“You haven’t got a lot of strength left in those cold arms, I guess. I need to tie you to me,” she said, matching her words with her actions.
Once she felt Rell was properly secured, she took a tight grip of the dangling rope, digging her booted toes into the soft earth of the bank. Damn, she thought. If the climb down was a pain, this is really going to hurt. Least Rell can’t see my face. Guess I should count that as a blessing. Cocking her head back for a moment before starting the long crawl back to the top, Diana listened to Rell mumbling to herself as she gently slid into semi-consciousness.
“Hang in there, Rell. Just a little longer and then I can get you warmed up again,” she muttered, pulling them both up the rope. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her side from the broken rib, she inched them up the wall towards the bank.
Rell’s awareness slowly emerged into a place that was warm, dry and unbelievably comfortable. Under her ear she could hear the soothing beat of someone’s heart and the gentle rush of air breathing into lungs. All around her was the soft crackling of some material she couldn’t identify. It was enough to have her opening her eyes to see where she was. She was greeted by blackness so complete, she had no idea where she was. Breathing in, she had to admit that it was the best smelling darkness she could remember ever experiencing.
“Hi there, sleepy,” a familiar voice said over Rell’s head, as a soft glow entered her dark little chamber, the rustling growing a little louder as the light filled her eyes. Diana carefully pushed back the edge of the sleeping bag to reveal the other woman’s face in the firelight.
The reporter suddenly realized she was being held comfortably by the taller woman, and for some unexplained reason, she was totally naked.
“Hi yourself,” she answered, wondering what had happened. The last thing she could clearly recall was standing chest deep in the flooded river wondering what had become of the tall woman. “Where are we?” she asked, lifting her head a fraction.
“About fifty or so steps back from the edge of that canyon you fell into,” Diana replied a little wickedly.
“Oooh. The canyon. I remember now. How’d you get me out?” Rell asked, not at all inclined to move just yet.
“Tied you to my back and simply climbed up the side.”
“You make it sound easy,” the smaller woman commented, realizing it was probably anything but.
“No big problem. You were mostly out to it anyway. Once I got us up here, I built a fire and then stripped us both down to bare skin. Thought you might like to know that if you hadn’t already noticed,” Diana said. “You were absolutely freezing, so bare skin, a couple of space blankets and the sleeping bags supplied all the heat I needed to get you warmed back up again.”
“Hurray for technology,” Rell said, more disinclined to move than before. If this is as close as I’m going to get to paradise, I might as well make the most of it, she thought, sensing the warm tingles that seemed to flow from the other woman’s body. She could feel the way it was arousing all the pleasure centers in her body; although she’d grown used to that over the past several days, it didn’t make it any easier to ignore.
“I really can’t believe it,” she grumbled, distracting herself from the thoughts trying to make themselves known to her.
“Can’t believe what?” the other woman asked.
“Two weeks ago I damned near fell on my face with heat exhaustion, and today I get bloody hypothermia,” Rell explained. “What is it with this country?” she snapped lightly.
Lifting her head completely, she suddenly found herself trapped by a pair of impossibly blue eyes looking back at her. Something in their azure depths called to her soul, something in her own replied joyfully. Still tired and little shocked by her experience in the river, Rell didn’t have the strength to fight with herself anymore. Tilting her head slightly to one side, she closed her eyes and gently kissed Diana’s full lips. It was a soft kiss, undemanding, but rich with the potential passions the little reporter could offer.
Rell’s movement was so totally unexpected, Diana was startled into complete stillness, astounded by what was happening to her. By the time her brain had caught up with the situation, and thought to return that mind-blowing kiss, Rell had broken away, ducking down against the taller woman’s chest.
“Oh god, I’m sorry, Diana. I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know what came over me,” she mumbled, upset. Aware that her naked, completely aroused body was stretched full length over the other woman’s bare skin, Rell tried to roll off. Sliding to the left, she tried to move over to the wide gap between Diana and the edge of the sleeping bag. She was barely halfway, when the dark-haired woman gasped in pain, her hand instinctively moving to protect the broken rib.
“What’s up? Did I hurt you?” Rell asked, concern for the other woman temporarily wiping her embarrassment out of her mind.
“It’s all right, Rell. Really,” Diana said, a little painfully. “I just busted a rib when I was crossing the river.”
“You should have said something sooner,” the reporter scolded. Lifting herself up on her hands and knees, she quickly pulled down the long zipper where Diana had unfolded and then zipped their two sleeping bags together, making it large enough to hold both of them comfortably. “Let me see,” she said.
“It’s fine. I’ve had broken ribs before and survived. I’ll survive this one too,” Diana replied.
“You break a rib crossing that damned river and then tie my less-than-dainty weight to your back to get me out of it,” Rell stated in very firm tones. “Let…me…look…at…you,” she continued, spacing each word out to make sure the dark-haired woman knew she was serious.
The stubborn light in her blue-green eyes made it clear to Diana that Rell had no intentions of letting it go. Diana sighed, a little dramatically, secretly delighted that Rell had the courage to stand her ground.
“Okay, if you’re determined to look at nothing,” she finally answered. Rolling carefully, she exposed her battered left hand side to the firelight and the inquiring eyes of the reporter. A large, black bruise, easily the size of Diana’s outstretched hand, covered the tall woman’s ribs, the deepest part of the discoloration being right over the place where her rib was broken. “See, it’s nothing,” Diana said.
“Nothing, my ass,” Rell snorted, gently feeling her way over the bruising, attempting to sense how badly broken the rib was underneath all the swelling. “Hmmm, feels like just a simple fracture. I should strap it for you, though. It’ll probably make breathing a little easier. Where’s your kit?” she asked, fingers still lingering softly over Diana’s skin. “And why on earth did you let me lie on you for so long? It must have been killing you.”
“Kit’s in my backpack over there,” Diana replied, pointing to her pack drying by the fire. “As for letting you lie on me, well, I had to get you warm again and that was the quickest way I could think of.” What she had no intention of admitting was the way Rell had all but climbed on top of her while still only semi-conscious. Even though it hurt to breathe, having the smaller woman clutching her had felt so good to Diana that there was no way she wanted to move Rell from her obviously preferred position.
Although the little reporter was unaware of what she was doing, Diana had reveled in the chance to hold Rell close and gently stroke her warming skin with her callused hands. It had felt like some wonderful dream come true; it could only have been made better if Rell had been a willing participant in the embrace. Diana believed that if Rell knew what had been happening, and how the tall woman truly felt, her dream would have rapidly become a nightmare. Diana had reminded herself again about Rell’s desire for men – that much was clear. After all, she had married one. She had spent several minutes convincing herself that Rell’s tight grip around the other woman’s body was merely a response to her scare in the river. The tall woman refused to feel guilty for the gentle pleasure she had been feeling as she held Rell in her arms, but there was a wistfulness to the way she had softly stroked the other woman’s skin.
Rell started to move from the warm sanctuary of the sleeping bag to pull Diana’s first aid kit from her backpack. Standing up, the chill breeze blowing off the river laced its icy fingers about her body, trying once again to steal away her precious internal heat. Goosebumps quickly rose over her flesh and she shivered slightly in response.
“Here, wrap this around you,” the tall woman said, dragging one of the space blankets from inside the sleeping bag. “That storm’s left it a bit cold around here, at least until morning. I don’t want you to start shivering again after I finally got you warmed up.”
“Thanks,” Rell said gratefully, draping the shiny, metallic-looking material around her rapidly chilling shoulders. Blocking the kiss from her mind completely for the moment, the reporter started to dig through Diana’s pack searching for the first aid kit. Finally finding it in a large, waterproof side pocket of the pack, she pulled it out, bringing several pieces of paper with it. One fluttered to the ground, opening out as it landed. Rell picked it up, intending to replace it in the pocket, when her eye happened onto the wording. Startled by what appeared to be poetry, surely not written by Diana, she held it up for the other woman to see.
“What’s this?” she asked as she turned back to Diana. Crouching down, she handed the paper to the tall woman. Momentarily distracted by searching through the first aid kit for a wide bandage for Diana’s ribs, Rell didn’t see the expression crossing the other woman’s face.
“It’s…” Diana started to say. She stopped for a moment, then continued. “Strap my ribs, Rell, and I’ll tell you about it afterwards. I was going to have to in a day or so, anyway,” she finally finished.
Looking up, the reporter saw the odd grimace but decided that now was not the best time to push the issue. “Sit up for me then and raise your arms a bit,” Rell said, patiently containing her rampant curiosity. Once the other woman was sitting up, Rell took the wide roll of sticky electroplast bandaging and began to wind it snugly around Diana’s ribcage to support the broken left rib.
“This is probably going to itch like crazy in a day or so, but it’s better than puncturing your lung if you forget about that break,” she explained, taking a secret, guilty pleasure in gently brushing her hands close to the other woman’s breasts with each turn of the bandage.
Appearing to concentrate on what she was doing, Rell was thinking at warp speed about what she had done earlier. Rell, you are sometimes the dumbest thing on two legs. I’m surprised she’s even letting me near her after that kiss, the reporter chastised herself. You know she has chosen to be celibate, and no matter what I think of that decision, I have no right to do what I did. I just hope she can forget all about it.
Almost against her will, the memory of those few wonderful seconds rose in her mind, causing her to flush with embarrassment and shame. Gently smoothing down the sticky edge of the dressing, Rell returned the rest of the roll to the kit at her feet. As she closed the lid, bringing her eyes back the ice blue ones watching her carefully, she thought, I really have to take myself in hand or I am never going to cope with the next couple of months. It’s either that, or Diana might be beating me off with a damned stick soon.
“Okay, all strapped up,” Rell said aloud. “Now what is it that you want to tell me about?”
Though it had hurt a little getting her ribs strapped, Diana had enjoyed the touch of the other woman’s hands against her skin. Every time Rell’s fingers had moved away, the taller woman could hear her body screaming for their return. Trying to distract herself, she watched Rell’s face, the tip of her tongue poking just past her lips as she concentrated on what she was doing. She looks so young, so innocent, I keep forgetting she lives a pretty hard life sometimes. Must have seen quite a bit over the years, Diana thought. In her own field, I’ll bet she is every bit as capable as I am. Better remember that and stop thinking I have to look after her all the time. For the moment, Diana didn’t want to even think about the possible implications of that unexpected kiss. She had already partly convinced herself it was merely an overflow of gratitude on Rell’s part.
Shaking her head free of her thoughts, Diana addressed Rell’s question. “You remember how I said back at the rough camp that a prophecy had been stopping me from getting to the top of the mountain?” she asked. Rell nodded back curiously. “Well, this is that prophecy,” she said, holding out the paper for the other woman to see. “When Hunk found me in the jungle, all but dead from heat stroke, he took me back to Ilha de Maraca to recover. While I was there, the medicine man cum local witch doctor came to Hunk’s little shack one day, saying he had something for me. I was a little surprised because no one in the area really knew who I was.” They also didn’t know I was training mercenaries in the jungle not twenty miles from their town either, but Rell doesn’t need to know that.
“What was it?” Rell asked into the momentary silence, her curiosity humming along with the tale.
“He gave me what looked to be an incredibly ancient scroll of some kind. I had to go back to the United States to get it translated from old Greek,” Diana continued. Escaped would more accurately describe my frantic dash out of Brazil once my men realized I hadn’t died in the jungle, she mused to herself.
“Anyway, after I had it translated, it turned out to be some sort of prophecy. I puzzled over it for months before it started to make any sense,” she said. I also killed the man who did the translation. Really regret that decision now, but I was still thinking like a mercenary and a killer back then, regardless of the change Hunk helped me see in my heart. I simply didn’t want to leave any witnesses behind. At least I made up for it a little by seeing to it his wife and children were looked after. The family estate can certainly handle putting his kids through college, she thought.
“And what did it say?” Rell asked impatiently. Now that she was having some of her questions answered, she wanted it all, and was finding Diana’s pauses a little irritating.
“Oh, sorry. Guess I just keep remembering some the things that happened back then,” the tall woman apologized. “Most of it was some sort of history relating to a group of women warriors from Greece.”
“Amazons?” Rell questioned excitedly.
“As far as I could work out, yes. For some reason not made clear in the scroll, they had left their homelands and traveled across the Mediterranean. The scroll gave a description of their journey across the top of Italy, through France, over the Pyrenees Mountains, and through Spain to the coastline – Cape Ortega, to be exact,” Diana said, remembering the translated story.
“Wow! That musta been some trip to make on foot,” Rell gasped. She knew how long it could take to drive that far, let alone walk; it would have easily trebled the time, and there were no hotels back then to stop at along the way.
“The scroll made some slight references to the Samnite and other tribes further to the north of Cape Ortega. There’s a little island in the mouth of the Loire River, across the Bay of Biscay where a group of woman sailors were said to live. They traded across the English Channel with some of the people they found there. It appears the Amazons learned about sea travel and long distance sailing from them. That part of the scroll was pretty obscure. Anyway, the women decided to seek out a new homeland and took to the seas. As far as I could work out from the little that was said in the scroll, they ended up on the coast of Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon River. I’m assuming that is how it might have gotten its name, regardless of what the history books might say. Men generally write those things anyway, and usually leave out any references to women. There was also a mention of a little village, a full-sized town now, called Macapa.”
Rell’s mouth was just about hanging open in surprise. “Wow just doesn’t cover it anymore,” she said. “That has to be one of the most amazing ancient sea journeys I have ever heard about. It can’t be true, can it? I mean, this is all some sort of story, a legend perhaps?” she asked.
Diana shook her head. “As far as I have been able to find out, every word of it is the absolute truth,” she replied.
“So where did they go after that?” Rell asked, still not believing what she was hearing.
“They traveled up the Brazilian coast a little ways before heading toward the Guyana Highlands, and that mountain, Paraque Cerro. The scroll never said why they went there, or how the documentation of their journey ended up in the hands of the medicine man.”
“I gotta say it again – wow. So what does the prophecy have to do with all this, and why did you end up being given that scroll?” the reporter asked.
“The medicine man said the scroll had been handed down from father to son for thousands of years, and was to be given to a woman like me. It was in pretty amazing shape considering it was at least two thousand years old,” Diana explained.
“A woman like you?” Rell queried, hoping she was about to learn a little more about Diana’s mysterious past.
“Greek descent, tall, dark-haired with eyes of blue ice. The instructions handed down with each succeeding generation said a woman would be brought to the village by a mountain of a man…” Diana replied.
“That’s Hunk, all right. He really is one seriously big human being – almost a Titan,” Rell cut in.
“Anyway,” Diana continued, giving Rell a bit of a glare for the interruption. The reporter shrugged in response. “This mountain of a man would bring a woman who was near death to the village; through a heart’s change, she would find life again. I guess that pretty much describes me at the time. I was a little unfeeling in those days, so I suppose that is a kind of death. Hunk did help change my life though, so there was the heart’s change the medicine men had been told to look for.” Diana smiled to herself. ‘Unfeeling’ is a real understatement, she thought. Soulless might be a more accurate description. I just didn’t care about anything or anyone until Hunk helped me see I could still make up for all my wrongdoings.
“Must have been one spectacular change of heart for them to hand over something they’d been holding for generations,” Rell commented. “And what is this prophecy?”
Tilting the paper towards the firelight, Diana began to read the few lines she’d transcribed to the sheet, instead of reciting it from memory, making sure she had it word perfect.
“With hair as though a moonless night,
Eyes of a frozen lake.
A gentle start. A violent past.
Redemption a way of life.
With flame red hair and flashing eye,
Sift through the sands for her.
Seek the storyteller, bright and bold.
Two separate halves become the whole.
To the Eastern sky,
On a Western wall,
A place of birth is found.
Not one alone knows the way,
Both joined at heart and soul.
When the time is right, a question asked.
Be warned, a price to pay.”
“Well, it sounds pretty much like a prophecy to me. All obscure and full of veiled references, I’m sure,” Rell said after thinking about the words for a moment.
Rell shifted a little from her crouched position next to the tall woman resting in the sleeping bag. An icy cold draft whipped its way up her back as the space blanket lifted. Shivering again, the reporter concentrated on trying to figure out what the words of the prophecy meant and how they related to Diana.
Seeing the little reporter shivering with cold again, Diana lifted the open side of the sleeping bag, indicating Rell should get back into the warmth it offered. It also meant they would be lying close together once more, but the tall woman decided not to say anything about that.
“Ummm, if it’s all right with you, why don’t we separate those again. I mean, it can’t be very comfortable with the two of us in there,” she said a little nervously. She didn’t want to admit aloud that being curled up in the sleeping bag with Diana was the most comfortable she’d been in weeks.
“Rell, you were hypothermic not so long ago and it won’t take much to lower your core temperature again. Better you stay somewhere warm, at least for tonight. I’ll know you’re safe then,” Diana explained, mercilessly using the logic of the situation to her advantage, summoning up her best don’t-argue-with-me expression at the same time.
“It wouldn’t take a minute…” the reporter started to say, suddenly catching the look in Diana’s eye. “Oh god. Where on earth did you learn to do that?” she asked, climbing back into the sleeping bag with only minimal reluctance. “That is one amazing ‘tude you have there, you know. I bet you’d make a devastating politician if you wanted to. Might get a few things done,” she grinned at the other woman, babbling a little to hide her nervousness at being so close to Diana’s nude body.
Rell carefully settled herself to Diana’s right to avoid accidentally bumping her broken rib. Once settled, with only the very thin layer of one space blanket separating them, Rell continued to think about the prophecy. It was better than thinking about Diana’s close proximity, or about how much Rell wanted to be doing more than simply lying there.
“I guess the first part is about you,” she stated. “I can understand the references to moonless-night hair and frozen-ice eyes, but what is this “gentle start, violent past” stuff about?”
“I think it refers to my childhood, the gentle start. I was loved and I knew it, so it was gentle. I know of much worse childhoods to have endured,” Diana said carefully, leaving out a great many details in the process, including the fact that she was no longer welcome at home after what had happened. If Rell noticed the omissions, she had enough sense not to push for more, yet. “The violent past, well, I suppose some of it might be considered violent.”
“Uh huh,” Rell commented. She had already made the connection between Diana’s presence in South America and some of the many small civil wars that seemed to always be taking place. It was not unusual for westerners to get themselves involved with the South American locals. A ’cause’ was better than the boredom at home. Getting involved with any of the local outbreaks might have caused the other woman to do things that could be quite violent. Many of the people could be extremely well-armed and wherever there were weapons, there was usually much savage bloodshed.
“Okay, what about the “redemption is a way of life” line, then?” she asked.
“I like to fix things. You know, problems and stuff. Guess that could be interpreted as some sort of redemption,” Diana said, being deliberately vague with details again.
Rell overlooked the lack of explanations, deciding she would pin the other woman down about them one day, but not right now. There was the rest of the prophecy to sort out yet.
“Ooookay, if the first bit is you, what does the second stanza mean?”
“That’s about you,” Diana said carefully, wondering what the little reporter’s reaction was going to be.
“Now, you are going to have to explain that one to me,” Rell said, quite surprised.
Holding the paper up, Diana ran her finger along each line as she explained how she had come to the conclusion the second stanza of the prophecy was about Rell.
“The flame-red hair bit is that dye job you told me you did when you first became a journalist,” she said.
“But I’m a blonde,” Rell offered in reply.
Diana laughed lightly. “Well, a red-blonde but it does kinda flame in the sunlight,” she commented. “Looks quite nice, actually.”
Rell blushed with the compliment, but remained silent. It just felt so good to hear Diana saying things like that to her, she didn’t want to break the mood by speaking.
“I interpret the “flashing eye” to mean your camera.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” the reporter replied. “I can’t remember not having one in my hands; I even sleep with one sometimes.”
“I noticed,” Diana said, looking at the woman beside her.
“Okay, okay. So I have a strange teddy bear. What about the “sift the sands” line?” Rell questioned, not unhappy that the other woman was aware of her sleeping habits.
“I figure, with it being Amazons who wrote the original scroll, that they meant a woman. The “her” at the end just confirmed it. But it had to be a woman who carried a ‘flashing eye’. So I started looking for women photographers in places where there was a lot of sand, mostly the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. I did check a few other places as well. The deserts came up empty but there were a couple of photographers in the Middle East. It was the “storyteller, bright and bold” that truly identified you, though,” Diana explained.
Rell nodded for her to continue, fascinated by the other woman’s logic.
“I’ve seen your work, Rell, and you do tell a story with every single picture you take. Even with the really bleak ones, full of death and destruction, there are elements of brightness; I still have a copy of that flowerpot photo you took in Bosnia. The other thing is the way you are so bold with your subjects. It’s not the subject matter, which is always interesting, but more the way you take the photos,” the tall woman said.
Rell couldn’t help laughing as she thought of some of the situations she had gotten herself into trying to get that perfect shot. Take her recent experiences in the harem, for example. She’d snuck in dressed as one of them, then once inside, whipped out her camera. There had been that perfect photo of a woman, the shadow of the of the window grill shading her beautiful face, giving the impression of someone trapped in a gilded cage. Well, that was how Rell had seen it.
“So, you found me. What about the rest of the prophecy?” Rell asked.
“I have no idea,” Diana replied. “I’ve been trying to understand it for months and I still don’t know what the lines mean. Maybe they have something to do with the mountain top itself. I just don’t know.”
“Why, exactly, haven’t you been able to get to the top of that mountain if you have been trying for so long?” Rell asked, determined this time to get a full answer and not just the few details Diana thought she should know.
Diana thought for a few moments before answering. If it happened again, she’d have to explain anyway, so decided she might as well do it now.
“Because two, maybe three days from here, something I don’t understand happens, and I find myself back at the rough camp again. I have no memory of how I get there. I simply wake up and there I am.”
“Somehow I don’t think teleportation is the answer here,” Rell joked. “So, tell me what you do know.”
“I get about halfway up the mountain side; it’s quite a hard climb at the best of times,” she started. “About halfway up there is a small plateau where I generally camp for the night. Actually, it is the only place to camp on that whole side of the mountain. I know the mountain is only two thousand feet but it takes more than one day to get to the top simply because it’s so steep in places. I make camp and go to sleep. When I wake, I am back at the rough camp again and two or three days have passed. I can’t remember walking back and I have never had any sign of a head injury. To date, it has happened seven times and I still haven’t gotten past that plateau.”
“Well, no sign of head injuries blows my first theory out of the water,” Rell said, thinking about how Diana could get back to the her rough clearing without remembering any of it. “Maybe someone is taking you back?” she offered.
“Maybe, but I would hear anyone coming into the campsite at night, and how do they keep me out for two or three days. The other point is, it has taken us almost two weeks to get here and I am back at camp in a few days. There just isn’t any way to cover that ground so quickly. Well, none that I know of. The jungle is too damned thick,” Diana said, her confusion apparent.
“So what makes you think both of us can get past that plateau if you haven’t been able to do it alone?” the reporter asked, quietly, not too keen on the idea of losing time to something she didn’t understand.
“That line in the prophecy. ‘Two separate halves become the whole.’ I think I needed to find you and bring you with me, to get past whatever is stopping me from reaching the top,” Diana explained. “I have no idea why it’s important for you to be there too, but it must be. I think together, we can reach the top of the mountain.”
Rell stared up at the few stars she could see overhead through the covering of branches and leaves. All along the river canyon, the ground was far more open than it had been in the depths of the jungle, but Diana had made their little overnight camp under a few trees to protect them from the sun when it rose in the morning. The two women had talked for a little while longer before deciding to get some rest. Diana dozed off quickly, probably exhausted from running along the river to find Rell, then rescuing the reporter. Rell couldn’t have got Diana to admit to her tiredness, but she was glad to see the tall woman had slipped away into sleep so easily, even with her broken rib.
Rell, however, was wide awake and thinking deeply. She had pulled the space blanket off her body and tucked it under the edge of the doubled sleeping bag they were resting in. Though the storm had chilled the air, with both women generating body heat the sleeping bag had become too warm for the reporter to stay rolled up in the space blanket. Deciding an inadvertent contact with the other woman’s bare skin was worth the risk, she had gotten out of the thin metallic blanket, and now felt a great deal more comfortable. It didn’t help her fall asleep, though.
I still can’t believe I actually kissed her, she thought to herself. What was I thinking? I’ve spent days constantly reminding myself that Diana is celibate, and what do I do the very first time I get close enough to her? I launch an all out lip lock. No wonder she didn’t react. Rell felt a little disappointed with the lack of reaction. Even women who saw themselves as absolutely heterosexual kiss back a little, even if only curious about what it felt like to kiss another woman. I guess being celibate means not reacting at all, she thought a little sadly.
Brushing her fingers lightly over her lips, Rell remembered the feeling of kissing Diana. Her mouth was so soft, Rell recalled. I wonder what it would feel like to really kiss her, with her kissing back. She tried to imagine how it would feel, two fingers against her own lips simulating Diana’s mouth. She could see it in her mind’s eye, Diana closing the distance between their faces, the subtle smell of good scotch on her breath, just like the night they had gotten a little drunk together. Rell could still feel the whisper of the other woman’s breath on the back of her neck as she had spoken. Just thinking about that sensation sent a tingle zinging up and down her body.
Abruptly pulling herself out of the developing fantasy, she glanced over at Diana as she slept. As far as the reporter could tell, the other woman was deeply asleep and, short of being disturbed by something coming into camp, Rell doubted anything would wake her until sunrise.
The past few days had been particularly trying for Rell. With her hands bandaged, and her body constantly aroused after the first night Diana had helped her undress, there had been little she could do to quiet some of her body’s needs. Now that she had use of her hands again, she was stuck in the same sleeping bag with the woman who caused her heart to race just by looking at her. Rell checked on the tall woman again, finally deciding to risk it. If she didn’t do something to calm her body’s clamor, she didn’t think she could be held responsible for anything that might happen. Besides, she thought, if I am quick and quiet, Diana will never notice a thing.
Closing her eyes, she called up what was quickly becoming her favorite memory of Diana. It was an image of the other woman, standing naked and relaxed by the side of some jungle pool they had found, still dripping from her brief swim. Lit from behind by the setting sun, the light bounced off the little water droplets that covered her body; it surrounded Diana in a rainbow haze so beautiful, that Rell had wished she’d had a camera so she could photograph it. Turning her head a little, Diana had let loose with one of those easy, heart stopping smiles she had in her arsenal of facial expressions, then reached out with one strong hand to help Rell from the pool.
Rell imagined that instead of reaching out to take her hand, Diana instead brushed her fingers lightly over the reporter’s cheek. The stocky woman’s own hand mirrored that movement in reality. She imagined Diana repeating that touch, only this time it continued down the side of her neck until her fingers rested on the reporter’s shoulder. Diana entered the water again, stepping close to Rell, pulling her into a gentle embrace, one hand slowly running down the shorter woman’s back, ending with her palm cupped over Rell’s buttock. Soft lips began to nibble their way around the reporter’s ear, whispering quiet nonsense sounds. Moving backwards, Diana eased both of them from the water, laying the other woman on a waiting bed of leaves.
One of Rell’s hands had drifted over her chest, carefully supporting the weight of one breast as her thumb rubbed over the hardening nipple. The other hand began a slow journey further down her body until her fingers were easing their way through her little field of blonde curls. Skipping over her center, which already started to swell from the increased blood flow, and pulse gently with the beat of her heart, she stroked the insides of her thighs in the same way she was imagining Diana doing in her fantasy. She could feel the gathering dew of her own excitement as she watched Diana in her mind’s eye.
Gently squeezing one breast, she allowed her other hand to make a sensual circuit of her stomach before returning once again to her center. Instead of passing over it, she slipped one finger through the swelling folds to press down softly on her sensitive nub for a moment. Moving it further, her fantasy lover slid one finger inside her moistening well, massaging the walls. Rell pushed her finger in deeply, biting down on her bottom lip to stop herself from groaning aloud. Withdrawing it again, she almost felt disappointed to lose the sensation, even though she knew it would be back again in a few seconds. The Diana in her mind teased the opening until Rell’s hips were starting to rise in search of that questing finger. Placing a second to join the first, she slipped both inside, delighting in the increased feeling.
She spent some minutes slowly sinking and withdrawing the full length of her fingers as she watched Diana doing the same in her mind. Not wanting to wake the real Diana beside her, Rell forced herself to lie still, her hips firmly pressed into the material of the sleeping bag beneath her. Her other hand, tiring of kneading her breasts, swept down, seeking her point of power. It lay nestled between her folds, bathed in slippery dew, waiting for her to pay it some attention.
In Rell’s her mind, Diana moved up her body to lay full length over her, two fingers still gently plunging into her opening, her thumb coming up to brush over her swollen place of pleasure. Rell’s heart rate increased as she carefully began to stroke herself, feeling the sensations growing in her groin, flooding outwards to fill her entire body. She quickly matched the rhythms of both hands on her center as her lungs started to pant, trying to keep up with her heart’s demand for oxygen. The power building up within her was quickly blocking her awareness to everything around her. No longer concerned with waking Diana, she increased the speed of her fingers, using a little more force to enter her flooding wellspring.
Rell quickly reached that point of no return where all she wanted was the release of orgasm, and nothing short of death was capable of stopping her. She felt the peak as it arrived, slamming her conscious mind into blankness for a moment, multi-colored lights streaking across her tightly closed eyes. Continuing to stroke herself rapidly, she rode the wave until she found herself exhausted on the other side. Gently massaging her center, she drew out the last few pleasurable shudders before letting her hands rest, quietly nestled between her tensed thighs.
Damn, she thought as she tried to get her breathing back under control. I most certainly needed that. Turning her head to one side, she checked Diana was still asleep, satisfied she had not woken the woman. Pulling her hands away from herself, she rolled onto her side facing away from the other woman, feeling tight muscles relaxing, to leave a humming afterglow in their wake.
At least it took the edge off, she considered briefly, yawning deeply before dropping into sleep without even being aware of it.
Diana’s eyes opened groggily, unsure what had woken her from such a sound sleep. Turning her head slightly, to check Rell was okay, she noticed the intense expression of the little reporter’s face. Wondering what kind of a dream the other woman could possibly be having, it took her a moment to become aware of the hurried, fluttering movements inside the sleeping bag. The tense, expectant energy flowing from the fiercely concentrating woman made Diana all too aware of what Rell was doing. Part of her cringed at the thought of watching such a private moment, even if it was happening right beside her. Another part of her mind avidly soaked in every impression it could pick up from Rell as the power of her release started to build.
A quickening pulse deep in her own groin made Diana aware of just how long it had been since she’d last made love with someone – and enjoyed it. She forced herself to remain completely still, fearing any sound or movement would alert the other woman that she had a very appreciative audience. The scent of Rell’s singular passion wafted up to Diana with every stroke of the reporter’s hands over her heated center; the taller woman breathed in, relishing the odors.
The pitch and speed of Rell’s hand movements suddenly changed as the peak drew closer, and Diana sensed the nearness of the release by the steady tightening of her companion’s muscles. She tried to imagine what the stocky woman was actually doing under the cover of the dark sleeping bag. Diana found herself craving the sensation of gently sliding her own fingers into the Rell’s willing opening, and caressing the sensitive nub the other woman was stimulating so passionately.
Suddenly, most of the movement stopped and Diana heard the sound of Rell’s teeth grinding together to try and contain any sounds of pleasure within her throat. It didn’t stop the unbelievably low growl from rumbling deep in the other woman’s chest and throat. She could sense the towering wave of sensual power Rell was riding, the flicking of her fingers not slowing for several moments. The taller woman felt the last slow strokes Rell was making and the gentle shudders of her body as she came off the high. Diana quickly closed her eyes, feigning sleep as Rell started to pay attention to the outside world again. She felt the other woman turn her head for a moment before rolling onto her side, her back to the tall woman.
Opening her eyes again, she glanced over at Rell, as her breathing evened out and settled into a sleeping pattern. I wonder what she was thinking about? Diana asked herself. Probably some man – maybe Peter. A tiny part of her hoped Rell had been fantasizing about a woman. It didn’t matter whom, but it would leave a minute crack open to the possibility of feelings between them. Permitting her eyes to close again, Diana felt honored to have witnessed the intensely personal experience of Rell pleasuring herself. She felt only slightly guilty, yet honored none the less. Diana would never say anything to Rell about what she’d seen, but it was a memory she would cherish for quite some time.
The old crone crossed the small compound and headed towards the hut where her closest friend, the leader of the tribe, lived. Stopping for a moment in the middle of the square, she looked overhead to see the stars subtly lighting the sky. She enjoyed the view over the inner rim of the mountain, especially when the moon was full. It gave the village a silvery glow that often tempted lovers out into the night air, although not tonight. The savage storm earlier in the day had cooled the air too much, making outdoor activities unpleasant. The priestess Ardeen, the last of her line, sighed deeply before continuing her journey across the compound. She had spent the day fasting and praying, trying to decide if what she knew was true, or merely some deep need to help save what was left of the tribe.
Entering the antechamber of the hut, Ardeen nodded at the guard. A long-standing agreement between herself and the leader permitted the priestess to enter the hut, including the bedchamber any time of the day or night. It was an honor she rarely needed to use, but tonight was different.
She was startled to find the leader still at her desk working on her parchments at this hour, perhaps a candlemark short of midnight.
“Well met, Meropa,” Ardeen said as she entered the room. “I’m surprised to see you still laboring this late.” Sinking gratefully into a comfortable chair in front of the desk, the old priestess tried to ignore the sound of her bones creaking in complaint at being out on such a cool night.
“Well met yourself, Ardeen,” the Amazon leader replied, wearily laying her quill to one side, massaging the tiny, tight muscles in her hand. “And what brings you to my home this late at night?”
“Social call,” the priestess joked. An easy understanding had grown between the old friends over the cycles.
“Try again, Old One,” Meropa said, locking eyes with the other woman. “You would not be here so late if the reason were not a sound one.”
The gentle smile on the old priestess’ face dropped away to be replaced by a completely serious expression. “She’s coming,” Ardeen stated simply. “I saw her in a dream the other night. She brings the storyteller with her as well.”
Meropa sat back in her chair, stunned at the news. She ran her fingers through her curly graying hair. “But the prophecy is so old, I thought it no more than legend,” she finally said. “I won’t ask if you’re sure. You would not have come if you’d had doubts.”
“You told me yourself about the woman the scouts have seen on the plateau over the past few cycles. I think this is the same one, but she has finally found the bard,” Ardeen said, a guarded tone in her voice.
“There’s a problem of some kind, isn’t there, Ardeen? I have been your friend too long not recognize that tone,” Meropa asked.
The old priestess sighed deeply. “Yes, there’s a problem. They are not yet whole. Each still hides from the other. I heard the heart’s cry in my dream. There is such loneliness in their souls, but they do not see the golden thread that binds them tighter than any secrets between them,” she explained unhappily. It always saddened her when two hearts called across the divide, yet were not able to hear the longing. She was an old woman, and had seen it too many times before.
“You know the prophecy as well as I, Ardeen. If they are not whole, they will never find their way to us. We are bound by honor not to assist them in any way until they pass the portal,” Meropa said. A wicked glint suddenly lit in her muddy blue eyes. “I believe there is enough slack in the prophecy, though, to allow someone to watch over them until they reach the place of birth. Don’t you agree?” the leader asked, cocking one eyebrow at the other woman.
“If I wasn’t such an old priestess, I might be scandalized by such a suggestion, but even I know Artemis is a forgiving goddess. After all, she did give us the prophecy to start with, and instructions for where to leave the journey chronicles,” she said.
In her heart, she silently blessed the priestess who had first received the prophecy, and taken the time to scribe out the first long sea-journey of the Amazons, so that one day the warrior would be able to find her way back to them. No one had really expected it to take two thousand summers for the prophecy to be fulfilled, but those were the gods for you. Timeliness was never one of their strongest virtues.
“In your dream, did you see where they were?” Meropa asked. “It would make them a little easier for the scouts to find.”
Ardeen laughed lightly. “No. I don’t know where they are, exactly. You know how vision dreams can be sometimes. I only know that they are close enough to be sensed. They may still be several days away from the portal.”
The Amazon leader grumbled a little under her breath about the vagaries of dream states and how they made planning difficult. “I’ll inform the scouts near the plateau to keep a close watch then. There is only one way to the portal and the women will have to cross the little plateau to reach it,” she said.
“There is one more thing I should tell you, Meropa. I sensed pain. I think one of them may be hurt – not too badly, but maybe enough to stop them from completing the passage through the portal,” Ardeen said.
“If they are whole, as you say they must be, then nothing short of death itself will stop them from reaching us,” Meropa stated confidently. “Neither the warrior, nor the storyteller can stand in the way of their own destinies. If Artemis can believe they will find their way here, then who are we to doubt it.”
Rising creakily to her feet, Ardeen looked deeply into the other woman’s eyes. “Sometimes, I wonder who is the real priestess among us, you or me,” she said seriously.
Meropa allowed herself to enjoy the laughter bubbling out of her. “I have enough to deal with here, Ardeen. Get some sleep, my old friend, and let me return to my parchments. I would like to see my bed before the sun peeks over the rim in the morning.” Making gentle shooing gestures, she urged the old woman to leave, hoping Ardeen would take her advice and get some rest. Watching the other woman as she slowly left the room, Meropa wondered if the priestess felt as old as she herself did that night. Then again, it might simply be all the parchment work in front of her. Sighing, she picked up her quill and turned her mind back to the dullness of crop figures and how many sheep they could safely graze next season.
Ardeen chose to ignore Meropa’s suggestion of rest. Her mind’s Other Senses would have kept her awake anyway as they tried to keep track of the two women she had only read about in prophecy, and in the most ancient chronicles the Amazons had brought with them from their original homeland.
“It has taken them two thousand cycles to arrive, and they couldn’t have chosen a better time,” she mumbled to herself. Entering the gray-stoned marble temple the built by the first arrivals some two millennia before, Ardeen paused at the altar where she had spent the day in prayer and deep meditation. Easing down to her knees before the altar, she quietly spoke to the goddess who had guided her steps for most of her long life.
“Artemis, goddess of the hunt, patron goddess of the Amazon Nation. Your prophecy has brought hope back into the heart of an old woman. If these are to be your chosen ones, show me how I may ease their minds and souls when they realize they have a destiny among us. Guide me, Artemis, as you have done for so long.”
The old priestess knelt quietly for some time until a gentle sense of peace slowly filled her heart. Climbing from her aching knees, she turned towards a set of roughly- cut stairs, polished smooth by generations of women walking over them. The stairs led into the depths of the mountain, to a series of chambers naturally occurring in the rock. Over the many cycles that the Amazons had lived inside the old volcanic basin, the chambers had been explored and then set up for various purposes.
Following the brightly-lit corridor to the far end, Ardeen unlocked the heavy wooden door to the last room. Pushing her shoulder against it, she managed to set the door swinging on its ancient hinges until she could open it enough to enter. Taking a candle from its sconce on the wall, she lit it from another just outside. Replacing it, she allowed her eyes to adjust to the lower light in the room. Surrounding her on all sides, were the carefully stored community possessions they had originally brought with them from their Mother nation. Many were so fragile they could no longer be handled and were spread beneath covers of thick glass so they could be safely viewed. Every Amazon girl-child was brought to this room at some point during her learning cycles so she could be taught about her history, and of the reasons behind the journey that brought the Amazons to the jungle.
In the far corner stood an ornate cabinet, built of rare local hardwood. Fashioned by the loving hands of a skilled master woodworker, it held what Ardeen saw as the most precious items in the village, if not the entire nation. Pulling the heavily patinaed brass key from the pouch at her waist, she inserted it into the lock and turned it. The locking mechanism had been designed so ingeniously, and crafted so cunningly that it opened with the barest of clicks, even though it hadn’t been turned in several cycles.
Ardeen heard the faint creaking of the hinges as she opened the heavy wooden doors of the cabinet. Inside were two narrow wooden cases, again made of local wood and put together by the same loving hands that had built the cabinet. One was at least three arm lengths long, the other, only one and a bit more. She picked them up carefully and lay them on the nearby bench. Sliding the panel from the top of the longer one, it revealed an Amazon fighting staff, a narrow white merkin at one end. Ardeen lifted it reverently from its box, running her hands over the smooth wood.
“Will she know you when she holds you in her hands once again?” she asked the staff. “Or will she abandon her soul before she can accept her destiny?”
The priestess did not understand what sort of magic kept the staff from disintegrating; she knew that only the true owner of the weapon would be able to wield it. For any other to even try, it would mean instant death. This much she had seen with her own eyes as one young warrior attempted to use The Staff of Gabrielle as a way of taking the leadership as her own.
Laying the staff to one side, she pulled the panel from the shorter box. Nestled in the silken folds was The Sword of Xena. The metal scrollwork on the leather sheath glinted a little in the candlelight. It too appeared to be protected from aging by the same magic that protected the staff. The weapon was said to be so powerful that only the legendary Warrior Princess herself could possibly control it. It was sheathed in the same scabbard that the old stories said Xena wore strapped across her back her entire life.
Ardeen smiled for a moment remembering an old tale her mother had told her. According to the story, the only time Xena ever willingly removed her sword was the day she was joined with her soulmate. Xena had insisted, though, that it remain in her line of sight.
“Typical warrior,” she muttered.
Ardeen carefully took the sheathed sword from its box, a little nervous that its power might somehow leap out to harm her. Then she picked up the staff and left the room. Once back in the main chamber of the temple upstairs, she lay both weapons on the altar, taking the sword from its sheath so the light of the many candles around the temple glinted from the blade.
“If you are truly the chosen of Artemis, then your weapons will call to you long before we show you they are here,” she said aloud.
Ardeen retired to the little meditation room at the back of the temple to see if her Other Senses could pick up anything new about the two women headed their way. For the first time in many cycles, she was actually hopeful for the future of the Amazons, so did not begrudge the effort tracking them with her heart was going to take. Knowing they even had a future gave her more peace than she had thought possible. Settling into a comfortable position, she began to send her senses out into the night, seeking the two golden sparks she had seen in her dream.
Diana opened her eyes just as the first rays of the rising sun lanced over the tree line, illuminating the sky in brilliant pinks and sparkling golds. The very first thing she noticed was the weight resting against her right side. Glancing down, she saw the top of Rell’s blonde head nestled into Diana’s well-muscled shoulder. One of Rell’s arms was draped over her chest, just brushing where Diana’s rib was broken. Then she noticed where the shorter woman had placed her legs…well, one of them anyway. Rell’s leg was tucked down between Diana’s thighs, just a hair short of being pressed against Diana’s center. Nice way to wake up, she thought. While she was trying to decide whether or not she really wanted to move, the other woman twitched several times then woke.
The tall woman could feel the heat burning across Rell’s face when she realized how she had tucked herself around Diana during the night. Not sure if Diana was awake yet, Rell moved her head very slowly until she could look up into the dark-haired woman’s face. She was hoping Diana was still asleep so she could ease away from Diana’s body. Instead, she was greeted by an easy grin, and a soft “good morning.”
The reporter tried to move away before the other woman could take offense at the intimate contact. Diana tightened her arm over Rell’s shoulders, causing her to look up in surprise.
“Get over it, Rell,” Diana said simply. “Even friends hold each other at night.”
“Ummmm, okay,” Rell answered. “I just thought you might not like it, that’s all.”
“What’s not to like about it?” the blue-eyed woman asked in all seriousness. Releasing her hold on the other woman’s shoulders, Diana yawned, only stopping the deep in-drawn breath when her broken rib protested the unexpected movement.
“Still hurts, eh?” Rell asked, a little cheekily. She rolled onto her back, throwing her arms over her head to stretch out her own spine, grimacing in pain herself. “Ouch. Guess I get to hurt today as well,” she commented, trying to extend her back a little more slowly. It was no more successful than her first attempt.
“Diana?” she queried, looking over at the other woman carefully levering herself into an upright position. “Is there any real need to rush off to that mountain today? I mean, we’ve been on the go for almost two weeks now, and a rest day might be really nice, especially after the battering we both took yesterday.”
The tall woman thought about it, gently massaging the bruise around her broken rib. They were so close, less than ten miles, but once away from the river canyon, the jungle would thicken again before the women started to climb the mountain. She was not looking forward to swinging that panga knife with her rib still aching so much. And Rell probably could use a rest day, Diana thought, noticing the bruises and scrapes over the other woman’s back as she climbed from the sleeping bag.
“Okay, I think we can take one day to rest and get all our gear dry,” she finally said.
“Great,” Rell said happily. “Speaking of our gear, where’s my pack? I really need to get some more clothes,” she asked, holding up the tattered remains of her trousers. Between the debris in the river, and the tall woman’s struggle to get a semi-conscious Rell undressed, the clothes had become pretty torn up.
Diana ducked her head, pushing one embarrassed hand through her dark hair. “Ummm, it’s still hanging over the edge of the canyon. I just didn’t have the energy to pull it up once I got us over the lip of the ravine and then set up camp. I didn’t think it would come to any harm, and it is waterproof,” she admitted.
Rell walked carefully to the edge of the small gorge, aware the earth under her feet might have been weakened by the raging river the day before. Leaning forward, she looked over the edge to see her pack floating half in and half out of the water near the bottom of the canyon.
“Something tells me it isn’t as waterproof as it used to be,” she said.
“Shit. Your cameras,” Diana swore, struggling to her feet.
“Should be okay,” Rell finished. “I did wrap them in plastic bags to protect them a bit from all the humidity.”
She watched the other woman climb painfully to her feet, supporting her broken rib with one hand. Part of her wanted to tell Diana to stay put, but they had been together long enough for the reporter to know how pig-headed the tall woman could be. Better to save the fights for something important, she thought. That immediately stopped her in her tracks. Why am I thinking about fights? she wondered. I’ve only ever had them with lovers in the past. She shook the thought from her head; she really didn’t want to go there after what had happened between them the night before. She stood quietly until Diana was level with her and peering down into the ravine.
“Probably got punctured by something when you were in the river yesterday,” Diana observed, watching the pack bobbing slowly in the water below. Reaching out with her right hand, she intended to start pulling the soaking backpack up. A surprisingly strong set of fingers suddenly wrapped themselves around her wrist before she had even touched the rope. Looking up, she saw the stubborn set of Rell’s face.
“Oh no you don’t, Miss I’m-Too-Butch-For-My-Jungle-Pants. Let me remind you that you have a broken rib. I am more than capable of pulling my own pack out of the damned river – by myself,” Rell stated clearly. “You can just go and sit back down again,” she ordered, making shooing gestures with her free hand.
Unable to keep the half-grin from her lips, Diana moved away from the edge of the canyon and back to the fire in slow, only slightly exaggerated movements. She was well aware of Rell glaring at her the entire time, two solid fists set on defiant hips. Capable and stubborn, Diana thought, settling back on the sleeping bag to watch Rell battling with the heavy, waterlogged pack.
Once she was sure Diana was not going to get up again to help, Rell turned her attention to her pack. Taking a firm grasp of the taut rope, she inched the pack out of the water. Great, hairy, horny toads, she swore in her mind. This thing is heavier than I thought it would be. Maybe I was a little too quick to pass up the offer of assistance. Well, got myself into it, might as well get myself out again. Straining against the weight, she slowly drew her backpack upwards.
Diana had no intentions of moving once she had gotten herself comfortably settled, one protective hand supporting her rib in an almost instinctive gesture. For the moment, she was more than happy to watch Rell’s well-defined muscles rippling under tanned skin as the heavy pack was raised. The fact that Rell was still completely naked only made Diana’s viewing all the more pleasurable. With Rell’s concentration totally fixed on the rope between her hands, Diana allowed her eyes to blatantly drink in the sight of the reporter’s nude body. Must sunbathe in the nude too, she thought, realizing the tan covered every square inch of available skin. The thought of gently running her fingers over all that sensitive flesh crossed Diana’s mind for a moment. Forcing the image away, she reminded herself again: capable, stubborn, incredibly beautiful, and absolutely straight – don’t you forget it for a second. Even though she knew she would never have her little fantasy fulfilled, she continued to watch the other woman drag her pack over the canyon edge.
Rell stepped back after draping the last of her clothing over a low bush on the edge of the ravine. Aside from items like her cameras, film and a few other more delicate things which had been secured inside extra plastic bags, every article she had packed was saturated because of the leak in the bottom of the bag. Her backpack was constructed with an unimaginably tough material. It had to be, having traveled most of the way around the world over the years. If not for the pack’s sheer tensile strength, the tear might have ripped the entire bottom and Rell would have lost everything, including her life. Thankfully, the tear was so small that the air bubble had remained intact, keeping her afloat the day before.
Flapping her way back to the campsite, Rell stopped for a moment to roll the long legs of Diana’s spare jungle trousers a little higher.
“Damnation,” she swore. “I feel like a kid sister all decked out in her big brother’s clothes.”
“Would you rather wander about naked all day? Not that the bugs would mind.” Nor would I, she added silently. “Acres of skin to munch on – they’d love it,” Diana replied, turning a little onto her uninjured side. “At least your boots were dry. I don’t think mine would fit you no matter how much grass we stuffed inside them,” she laughed, picturing Rell in the heavy boots. It was quite a comical image.
Flopping down on the sleeping bag next to Diana, Rell stirred breakfast heating in a small pot. “I still feel like someone’s younger sibling,” she grumped. She saw an unusual expression flash across Diana’s face before it disappeared behind ice-blue eyes. I’ll risk it, Rell thought.
“What were you just thinking, Diana, when I mentioned younger siblings?” she asked gently. She remembered checking up on Diana in London, and coming across the obituary notice for Diana’s younger brother; there hadn’t been an indication of how he died.
“I was thinking about my little brother,” Diana answered neutrally.
“Leon?” the reporter asked.
Diana merely nodded, her eyes fixed on the fire beside them.
“I read his death notice in the back issue of some paper when I was in London,” Rell said. “I’m sorry,” she offered. “He must have meant a lot to you.” It was just a throwaway phrase that somehow seemed oddly appropriate.
The uncomfortable silence stretched out between the two women for several minutes. Rell occasionally leaned forward to stir the pot or to toss another branch onto the fire. Gathering her courage, determined to learn a little more about this attractive, mysterious woman, she decided to ask about this painful area of Diana’s past.
“I don’t mean to pry…” Rell started to say.
“But you would like to know how it happened,” Diana finished for her, a subtle bitterness sharpening her tone a little.
“You don’t have to tell me about it. Really. I understand, Diana.”
“No, you don’t. You have no idea how hard it is to live with the fact a member of your family was killed because of your own stupidity,” Diana snapped.
Rell’s jaw sagged, unsure if anything could be said to such a statement.
The tension in Diana’s body abruptly vanished and she sagged back against the backrest Rell had put together for her.
“It was a long time ago, Rell. I should be used to it now, but I’m not,” she said. A far away look filled Diana’s eyes, and she stared off into the jungle. It was like Rell was no longer there and the tall woman was speaking to herself. Rell had to strain her ears a little to hear the more quietly spoken words, but what she learned was fascinating, and she wanted to make sure to not miss a thing.
“I was barely out of my teens,” Diana started. “Like a lot of young people, I was restless and wanted to see the world. I went searching for some excitement and found a lot more than I bargained for. I was in a little African village, Bukavu, on the border between Rwanda and the Congo. Civil war had broken out, which seemed to happen a lot there. I found myself taking sides, wanting to protect the villagers. They had welcomed me into their homes, and although we came from different cultures, I really did feel I was one of them. That village had become my second home in a way,” Diana explained. She paused for several moments, remembering.
“My brother and I had always been very close. He missed me while I was away, so I wrote to him all the time, telling him everything I was doing, the places I was seeing, the people I was meeting. I didn’t leave any details out. I’d only been in the village a few weeks, when Leon suddenly turned up out of the blue. I should have expected it, I suppose, but it was still a surprise. I loved having him there, sharing all my experiences, learning together. It was wonderful. But once that damned civil war broke out, there was nothing either of us could do but fight. I tried to convince Leon to leave; being white, he would have probably been allowed past the road blocks. But the rebels had closed off all access and there was no way to escape, even if we had wanted to. If he couldn’t leave then I tried to get him to at least hide, but no, he was determined to stay right by my side. So, we found ourselves fighting a losing situation.”
Rell sat completely silent, having learned more about Diana in the past five minutes than she had learned in the four weeks they had traveled together.
“I was such a cocky little snot back then. I’d spent years studying ancient Greek and Roman warfare as a hobby and, thought I knew how to run a battle. Even managed to convince the villagers I knew what I was doing. Boy, was I ever wrong,” she said, shaking her head ruefully. “I was so wrong, it got my brother killed in the biggest fire-fight of the entire war. I’m not sure what happened. After the fight, I went searching for him and came across his body. He’d been trying to protect an old woman and got shot in the process. He’d bled to death.”
“Oh god,” Rell gasped. “I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have had to find him that way.”
Diana’s eyes slowly turned to meet with the concerned blue-green of the reporter’s. As though seeing Rell for the first time, the tall woman continued.
“Shit happens, Rell. After I found him, I lost it for a while. By the time I was myself again, the government troops had arrived. They got me and my brother’s body out of the area and safely on the plane home again. Mother didn’t stop crying for days. Eventually she asked me to leave because she couldn’t stand seeing me there all the time, reminding her of Leon’s death. Just before I walked out of the house for the last time, I realized his death was entirely my fault. I had to do something about that, to make up for it in some way. I never wanted to find myself in the same position again,” she said.
Rell waited to see what Diana had decided to do. Sitting quietly beside the other woman, Rell’s finely trained investigative mind was racing to piece together a myriad of small details, some appearing so unconnected they surely had no place in the whole. She had so many questions still unanswered, but there were enough vague details for her to draw a few tentative assumptions. Being a reporter most of her adult life, she was used to drawing conclusions from a few apparently unrelated facts and then working to prove or disprove her theories. It was her own special gift and one of the reasons she was so good at her job. Telling the story was only half of it for her. The real challenge, and the thing that keep her in the profession, was finding that story to start with.
In the mean time, Diana lay quietly on the sleeping bag with her eyes closed. She had said far more than she intended, but it felt good talk; the open wound of her brother’s death had never healed. Even though her mother had asked what had happened in that little African village, Diana couldn’t bring herself to admit her own mistake, her own stupidity at thinking she had all the answers to the villagers’ problems. It was another weight she carried on her broad, muscular shoulders. Having said as much as she had, Diana didn’t really wish to say anymore. It would mean telling the little reporter about her darkest days and the decisions she had made back then. Rell had come to mean too much for Diana to allow that period of her life to become known. Diana was sure Rell would turn away, saying it was all too much. For some reason, she just couldn’t stand the thought of that happening.
After nearly fifteen minutes of silence, Rell finally had to ask what Diana had decided after her brother’s death. She’d reach her own conclusions but needed to hear the other woman’s side of things. If her assumptions were correct, it wouldn’t change how she felt. It would simply make her aware that there was a dangerous side to Diana.
“What did you do afterwards, Diana? Where did you go?” she asked, the gentle tone in her voice unmistakable.
“I don’t wish to talk about it anymore, Rell. Leave it be,” Diana replied, flatly, rolling onto her side and starting to rise.
Suddenly tired of the evasions and half answers she had been getting for weeks, the reporter’s patience finally snapped.
“No!” she shouted, grabbing hold of the other woman’s wrist with one strong hand. Diana could have easily broken the grip, but the unexpected flash of temper surprised her into stillness. “You’ve been calling the shots since day one, controlling the situation. First you tell me I was hired to take photos of this trip. I damn near kill myself with heat exhaustion the first day, then I just about drown in a flash flood, which results in my almost freezing to death. And only after all that, you get around to telling me I’m here because of some bloody prophecy. I think it is about time you came clean with me and answered my questions. I deserve that much consideration,” she snarled, her eyes ablaze with fury.
Looking into Rell’s fiery eyes, Diana slumped back onto the sleeping bag. “I guess you do deserve the entire story,” she said. “But I swear, I haven’t lied to you for a minute.”
Her temper not cooling in the least, Rell’s eyes bored into the woman. “You haven’t exactly been all that forthcoming with the truth either. So, tell me. Where did you go and what did you do after your brother died, and what does it have to do with this quest of yours?”
Diana sat quietly for a moment, her eyes locked on the fingers still wrapped, more gently now, around her wrist. “To try telling you all of it would take weeks,” she admitted at last.
“Just give me the Reader’s Digest™ version then, but I want the whole truth. No more evasions and half answers,” Rell replied, still angry but slowly getting herself under control again. She hated losing her temper so completely like that, but sometimes even her patience had a limit.
“You wanted to know where I went afterwards?” she asked.
Rell nodded, still maintaining her grip on the other woman’s arm. She had no intention of letting her go until she was satisfied she knew everything she wanted to know.
“I went to South Africa. There was a group there. Radical Afrikaners,” she said slowly. “I wanted to be trained so I would never get into another fight without knowing what to do.” Diana paused, fearful that what she had to say next would end the budding friendship between them, and any hope of a deeper relationship. “I trained to be a solider of fortune. A killer for hire,” Diana finally whispered.
“A mercenary, in other words,” Rell stated, blandly.
Diana nodded, not willing to raise her eyes and see the scorn on Rell’s expression.
“Are you still doing it? Are you still a hired gun for someone else’s army?” the reporter asked, her grip never leaving the other woman’s wrist. In a way, the answer to this question was more important to Rell than knowing how Diana had come to be the way she was.
Shaking her head, she answered, “No. I stopped taking money for my skills after Hunk helped me see that what I was doing was wrong. I was probably ready to make the change anyway. He just gave me the chance to do it.” Finally raising her head, steeling herself for what she knew was there, Diana continued, “Hunk was the very first person, in a very long time, to believe I could be anything other than the killer I had trained to be.”
As her eyes finally connected with Rell’s, Diana was almost shocked to see no scorn or repulsion there, only a gentle trust that her assessment of this woman was correct. She was suddenly left wondering what it was about this woman that made her so accepting of the darkness in Diana’s past. The sense of relief washing through the tall woman was almost enough to set her head spinning.
“How?” Rell asked, genuinely curious now.
It was a simple question Rell was asking but Diana had thought about it a great deal over the past three years and she didn’t have a simple answer to give.
“I’m not really sure. I guess it was his entire attitude. When I demanded weapons, he brought them to me, never trying to take them from me afterwards. He never even carried weapons when he was around me. The villagers didn’t look twice when I was strong enough to go outside for the first time, even though I was bristling with guns and knives. They weren’t afraid of me at all. They accepted me because Hunk accepted me. I don’t think it was quite as simple as I am making it sound but that is the best I can do. I was ready to change and he just made it easier for me to do it,” she finally finished.
Rell nodded, thinking deeply for several minutes.
Diana fidgeted with the buttons on her shirt with her free hand, waiting to see what Rell’s reaction would be. The tall woman drew some comfort from the way the reporter’s fingers were still wrapped around her arm. The fact she had not immediately run screaming into the jungle with fear also helped calm the other woman. It still didn’t take away her own deep sense of shame for all she had done since those early days of being trained in South Africa.
“I’d understand if you wanted to go back now. I’ll escort you if you’ll let me. Ex-mercenaries are not usually considered socially acceptable company,” she said sadly.
Rell suddenly shook her head, as though returning from some far off place in her own mind. Looking the other woman in the eye, the reporter said calmly, “Not all mercenaries are bad people.”
“All the ones I know are,” Diana snorted, then looked down embarrassed.
“I’ve met quite a few. Tend to run across them in my line of work,” the reporter said. “The first was quite a few years ago and he saved my life. I had gone to Libya to chase down a story about mercenaries hiring themselves out to Ghadafi’s army. In the process I managed to get myself tossed into prison. The Libyan government never did like having us reporter types about. We ask too many questions. I fully expected to either be trapped in that prison for the rest of my life or to be executed as a spy at the earliest opportunity,” she explained.
“What happened?” Diana asked, finding herself caught up in Rell’s simple words as they related what must have been a terrifying experience. She placed her free hand over the still grasping fingers Rell had on her.
“A mercenary I had spoken with briefly when I was originally tracking down the story, talked his way into the prison and got me out. I’m not quite sure how he managed it, to be honest, but I spent a lot of time in the trunk of a car. I had expected he was going to lock me up someplace and ransom me off to the highest bidder. Either my own government, because they wouldn’t want one of their nationals to be a prisoner of some supposed rebel. Or the Libyan government, simply to make an example of me. You know, spy attempts to escape thus proving my guilt. The same old story we saw during the Vietnam crisis,” Rell said.
“And who paid?”
“No one. Martin smuggled me out of the country and then let me go. He said I reminded him of his daughter. I ran across him several times after that just because he seemed to specialize in the Middle East and because I was there a lot. I knew I could trust him with my life. I already had, when you think about it, by letting him get me out of Libya. I was eventually able to repay the favor by clearing his name in a murder trial. He’d been framed and I had the pictures to prove it,” Rell answered, a small, triumphant smile on her face. “Through him, I met several others who sold their skills to various groups. Under all the bluster and tall stories, many a good heart could be found beating. A lot were nothing more than simple family men trying to make a living the best way they knew how.”
“Lucky them,” Diana said, sarcastically.
Rell sat up a bit straighter and pinned the other woman to the spot with her blue-green eyes, once again blazing with a barely suppressed fury.
“You used to be a mercenary, Diana, but beneath that soul you thought was stained so dark, there was a good heart. If there hadn’t been, you would have never changed and you can’t tell me otherwise,” she snapped. Making an effort to calm herself, wondering why she felt the need to defend Diana against her own bad opinion, she continued, “So, I have met a few mercenaries over the years and just because you used to be bad, you’re not now. So, what have you been doing since Hunk showed you there was a little good left in you?”
“Same as I’ve been doing most of my life, only now I try to help people,” she said simply, actually blushing at her admission. “Sometimes I fight. Sometimes I use a little of the family money. Sometimes I just hassle the right people in government to get the job done. Being seen as beautiful can be quite an asset in a country that likes that kind of thing. It’s opened more doors for me, and helped more people than all the bullets I ever fired. I may not have a real home anymore, or even a real purpose in life, but what I have been doing is enough, barely, to fill the gap in me and perhaps, make up for the things I have done in the past.”
“Okay, you were a mercenary. Now, you’re not. How does all this tie in with your quest for this Xena person?” Rell asked.
Diana could feel herself relaxing. The reporter had accepted her past as though it was no big deal. She was sure it was bound to come up again, but for the moment it didn’t appear to be of any real consequence to the other woman; her experiences with other mercenaries had been good ones. Perhaps it was true that what a person thought of another depended on what sort of things they had experienced in the past. Something to think about later, Diana thought.
Bringing herself back to Rell’s question, Diana thought for a moment about how it had all started. “Remember how I told you Hunk took me back to Ilha de Maraca to recover from the heat stroke?” Rell nodded. “When I was strong enough to move about the village, I visited the local taverna and spent some time with the village lads. I hadn’t yet been given the scroll, so listening to the stories they told helped pass the time. I certainly didn’t take a lot of stock in the stories they were telling me, really. I honestly assumed they were just trying to impress a beautiful woman with tales of daring-do. You know how young men can be sometimes.”
“Yea, I know the sort. They’re the ones who sweat testosterone just walking down the stairs if they think a likely female prospect is going to watch,” Rell laughed in reply.
The tall woman laughed lightly for a moment. “Sounds like a pretty accurate description. Anyway, they started telling me some old tales about demons or spirits in the jungle who came to a man in the night and stole his virility away. It was pretty scary stuff the way they were telling it. Guess they hoped I would be frightened enough to leap into their arms or something,” Diana couldn’t help smiling at the sheer idiocy of that idea.
“I’ve only been to places like Lima in Peru, but I vaguely remember being told something similar. The demons supposedly wore masks and were always dressed in black. I discounted it as just another story told to tourists in an effort get them to part with a few American dollars,” Rell said.
“I pretty much ignored the story, too, and forgot all about it. After getting the scroll translated, I returned to Brazil. I traveled from Ilha de Maraca down to Macapa, to see where the Amazons were said to have landed all those years before. I was trying to track their route overland, but the highlands are so broad that it was impossible to do it from the Brazilian side – well, it was impossible for a lone person. I tried to hire some guides and that was when I smacked into the story of the night demons again,” Diana explained.
“I tracked back along the coast from Ilha de Maraca to Quito in Ecuador. Every time I stopped to find guides for help up to the highlands, I heard that same story again. Everywhere I heard it, I couldn’t get anyone to come into the jungle with me, no matter how much money I offered. I was also told several times that these night spirits were often heard saying something, but it wasn’t until I reached Barranguilla in Colombia that I was able to get a translation,” she continued.
“What were they saying?” Rell asked completely fascinated by now.
“They were saying, ‘The spirit of Xena will rise one day, the storyteller by her side. This I do to ensure her fate. The Amazon Nation survives’,” Diana recited straight from memory. She had heard the little poem so many times over the years that it was almost permanently engraved in her mind.
“And how does this connect to you?” Rell asked, trying to make some sense of all the information. From knowing virtually nothing about the dark-haired woman, she suddenly had too much. It was going to take her a few days to settle it all into some kind of coherent pattern.
“I’m not sure it does, but it would explain a few things,” Diana replied.
“Like what, for example,” Rell queried, not sure if she was ready to hear any more information; her brain was overflowing with impressions, information, ideas and questions.
“Like why I haven’t given up this quest of mine,” Diana said. “Others would have just let it go after finding themselves back at the rough camp a few times. I haven’t. It’s become almost an obsession to me now,” the tall woman explained. “I’ve reached the point where I must know if there is a connection between me and this warrior woman. Now I can understand why Mel Pappas and Janice Covington spent the rest of their lives searching for the Xena Scrolls. For some reason, it gets under your skin and just won’t leave you alone until you have the answers.”
Rell walked quietly through the thickening jungle, away from the river canyon where they were camped. She had a new walking stick in her hand and Diana’s panga knife looped over her shoulder. She’d managed to convince the pig-headed woman to rest for a while and give her broken rib a chance to stop aching quite so badly. Needing to be on her own for a bit herself, Rell had decided to take a walk through the forest and see if she could find any goodies to have with lunch. Anything to add a little taste to the trail rations and dehydrated food packets they had been eating for the past two weeks. Diana had simply told her to be careful before closing her eyes in reluctant sleep. The morning’s revelations had taken more out of her than she was willing to admit.
Rell’s mind turned over everything Diana had told her. She was also trying to make sense of her own far-too-calm reactions to some of the things the taller woman had said. Dropping down on a convenient rock, she started to talk to the jungle as though it could explain everything to her.
“She used to be a mercenary,” Rell said to the trees and brilliant flowers surrounding her. “I’m not upset by that. I’m not even repulsed. I’ve met lots of mercenaries with good hearts and I think she’s just one of them. But why do I think like that. Diana made it clear she was trained by Afrikaners and they aren’t known to be nice at the best of times.”
Thinking back to everything she remembered over the past four weeks, there were dozens of little things that indicated Diana was not the nasty type she thought herself to be. Rell could only remember a couple of occasions when the other woman had snapped at her, but to date, she had not lost her temper at all. Not the way Rell had done a few times already. In fact, Diana was managing to remain remarkably well-tempered, even after the reporter had demanded the tall woman answer her questions.
Diana had also saved Rell from her fall out of the tree, dipped the reporter in the river when the heat had become too much, fixed the camera without a word, and coaxed Rell through the jungle to a cooling water-hole when she developed heat exhaustion. The memory of Diana’s fingers gently touching her own as she had related her experiences in Libya, and all the other times the woman had touched her, had not gone unnoticed. The taller woman had even gone to all that trouble after getting Rell out of the river.
“She could have just stuffed me into my sleeping bag and left me to warm up by the fire. That would have worked just as easily. I wonder why she felt the need to actually get in there with me?” she questioned.
A thousand images of the dark-haired woman filled her mind. She’d seen many of them through the viewfinder of her camera when Diana wasn’t aware that the lens was pointed in her direction. Something in her intense ice blue eyes seemed to call to Rell every time she looked at them. The small touches, the little glances forever being tossed her way, the myriad of things, large and small, that Diana did to ensure that Rell was comfortable and safe. It all meant something, but the answer lay just beyond reach. What was she missing?
Then there was this quest Diana was on. The dark-haired woman had tried to make clear why she was so driven by it but, somehow seemed unable to express herself completely. It was as though something was calling to Diana, but Rell didn’t know what.
“Well, there is certainly something in Diana calling to me,” she muttered. “But what? I know I am attracted to her, but she’s celibate.” She thought about that for a moment more. “At least, I’m pretty sure she is. But she seems awfully comfortable with herself, naked and all, for someone who has sworn off sex.” Rell stared at the spiky grass between her booted feet. “Maybe I have been thinking about it all wrong. What if I start with the premise that she isn’t celibate, but simply doesn’t talk about her lovers the way most people do?”
Rell let the idea filter through her mind.
“Okay, if she isn’t celibate, does she like women? She never reacted when I kissed her, so maybe she doesn’t.” The reporter thought about that brief kiss for a minute or so. Suddenly, a tiny revelation popped to the surface. “I never gave her a chance to react because I surprised her.”
“It still doesn’t answer whether she’s celibate, whether she likes women, or if she even likes me, but it’s about the best I am going to do without asking her outright,” Rell said.
Feeling as though some weight had been lifted from her shoulders, Rell stood to continue her search for whatever the jungle might have to offer in the way of edibles.
Two pairs of eyes watched from behind a jumble of boulders piled haphazardly on top of an overhang at the back of the small plateau as a tall, dark-haired woman scrambled over the lip of the steep incline. She was closely followed by a shorter, red-blonde figure, obviously out of breath after the climb. Between the two was strung a length of rope, linking the two women together. In the sultry afternoon air, their voices carried easily to the hidden watchers.
“Shit, Diana. You could have warned me about that last section,” the shorter woman grumped, quickly untying the rope looped about her waist. “Wow! That is some view,” she exclaimed as she turned to face one side of the plateau, entirely forgetting her skinned knees and scraped hands.
“Thought you might like it, Rell,” the taller of the pair replied, unobtrusively rubbing the strapping over her broken rib, hoping Rell wouldn’t notice. Scanning the clearing, Diana didn’t see any sign of intruders in the rocky clearing since her last visit six months before. The little ring of stones she had used as a fire-pit was still on the far edge. The flat area where she’d laid out her sleeping bag, almost under the overhang, was still clear of encroaching vines or fallen rocks.
“You’ll find a small pool over on the far side,” she said, pointing to the edge of the plateau where water trickled down from the highlands above, creating a crystal clear pond perfect for drinking.
The watchful eyes followed as the shorter woman strode over to the tiny body of water, dipping her hand into the cooling liquid before taking a long drink. Above, shadowed brown eyes met with green. Indicating over one shoulder, the brown gave silent instructions before turning back to observe the two women moving about the little plateau. Green eyes took in the scene for several more seconds, then soundlessly crawled back from the hiding place, and headed off towards the village with a message for the priestess.
Wandering back from the pond, still admiring the panoramic view on three sides, Rell asked, “Just what do we burn up here, Diana? I noticed last night how cool it was and I doubt it has gotten any warmer half way up this mountain.”
Looking up from the circle of stones just under the overhang, the tall woman pointed towards some of the vines and low shrubs growing tenaciously along the edge of the plateau. “Those,” she answered. “They burn surprisingly well once you have them going.” Slipping the panga knife from the sheath on her back, she held the handle towards the shorter woman.
“Hmm, I take it this is a hint for me to use that dangerous, blister-creating instrument to cut some of the vines for a fire tonight?” Rell said, a smile on her face.
“Looks that way,” Diana replied, her attention already refocused on setting up the rest of the camp before nightfall. Clearing the last of the ashes from her old fire, she laid a bed of soft fuzz, collected from several of the seed pods growing nearby, and placed smaller twigs on top. By the time Rell had brought over the first of the larger branches and tough, woody vines, the tall woman had the beginnings of a merry blaze burning in her fire pit.
“Diana?” Rell queried quietly as she dropped her bundle to the ground next to the other woman.
“Do you ever get the feeling up here of being watched?” Rell asked, a little nervously.
“Now and then. Most of the time I just put it down to an overactive imagination. I’ve never seen any sign of other people up here, not in all the time I have been trying to get to the top. Besides, if there were others around, Hunk would know about them and tell me. I always make a point of stopping at his village just to check,” Diana replied. Smiling up at the shorter woman standing beside her, she continued, “Seems Hunk has managed to make friends with just about everyone for miles; and they keep him pretty much up to date with all the comings and goings. Mostly, it’s just youngsters out for some adventure hiking through the Amazon jungle. No one ever comes this far. People think the terrain is too difficult to get across.”
“An impression both you and Hunk do nothing to discourage, I’m sure,” Rell commented wickedly, the laughter lighting up her blue-green eyes.
“Now, would I do such a thing?” the dark-haired woman asked in all seriousness, though the answering twinkle in her own summer blue eyes negated the weight of the question.
“Nope, couldn’t see you doing something like that, but I still can’t shake the feeling someone is watching us,” Rell mumbled. Scanning the edge of the plateau, the reporter had to agree that if anyone was near, they would have been spotted long before reaching the plateau. Trying to ignore the sensation, Rell went back to collecting wood for the fire.
Using the tin cup from which she normally drank her coffee, Rell poured water from the small pool over her head, luxuriating in the cool liquid rolling over her sweating skin. Although temperature on the plateau might drop dramatically at night, by day it was almost as hot as the sweltering jungle below. The only thing saving it from being completely insufferable was the constant light breeze. Having finally dissuaded herself of the feeling of being watched, Rell had decided to soak the heat from her body and wash away some of the accumulated grime.
Rubbing the soap over herself, building a generous lather, she marveled at the view once more. For hundreds of miles in every direction, there was nothing but the unbroken, undulating rooftop of the jungle. The stocky woman strained her eyes trying to spot some sign of civilization, a telephone pole, a road, or even a smudge of smoke on the horizon. She was subtly pleased when she saw nothing but jungle. Occasionally, a bird could be seen flying above, or some small monkey leaping gracefully from one high branch to another. The only sounds she could hear, other than her own, were the natural cries of the forest animals as they lived out their lives in the trees below. To the reporter’s appreciative eyes, it looked for all the world as though some god had tossed a beautiful, unending blanket over the ground, colored every shade of green Rell could imagine. It came right to the edge of the mountain, nestling around its base like small chicks surrounding some ponderous mother hen.
“Some view, eh,” Diana said, coming up next to the reporter. “No matter how many times I see this, I never tire of it. Reminds me just how insignificant we really are in the grand scheme of things.”
Rell chuckled briefly. “I used to get the same feeling whenever I looked out over the open desert,” she replied. “Not that I need reminding of how little my presence really means. I sometimes think if I were to drop off the face of the earth, no one would even notice.”
“I’d notice,” the taller woman mumbled quietly. Before Rell had a chance to react to the almost wistful tone, Diana continued, “Want someone to wash your back?”
“I think I can be persuaded,” the shorter woman replied, turning her back towards Diana after handing her the soap. “There is always that one spot right in the middle I can never seem to reach and it just about drives me nuts when the sweat starts to make it itch under my pack.”
“Well, I can’t have you going insane out here, too far away from the nearest straight-jacket,” Diana commented lightly as she began to gently wash the soap over Rell’s back.
With one hand on the reporter’s shoulder to steady her, the ex-mercenary could feel Rell slowly relaxing into her ministrations. Rell’s back muscles, tight after a day of climbing and carrying the heavy back pack, quickly unknotted under Diana’s fingers. The shorter woman was left almost limp with relief. Dropping the soap on the side of the pool to free both hands, Diana began massaging her way across Rell’s shoulders and down her back. She carefully felt for each knot along the reporter’s spine, pushing and rolling the flesh until the muscular tension faded away. Once the last of the knots had given way to Diana’s talented fingers, she simply enjoyed the sensation of smoothing her hands over the other woman’s slick back and shoulders, feeling the soft sighs of satisfaction Rell was making.
“Oh god, Diana. I haven’t felt this relaxed since my last girlfri…” Rell suddenly stopped herself, hoping the tall woman didn’t catch her reference to having had a woman lover. She tensed, waiting for the rhythm of Diana’s hands to cease their gentle journey along her back, soothing away the tension, easing the taut muscles. It wasn’t that the reporter was ashamed of having slept with women; she simply didn’t want to have to explain it while standing naked on the edge of a plateau, with the other woman’s hands stroking her body so sensually.
“Don’t you tighten up on me now,” Diana muttered, appearing not to have noticed Rell’s comment, nor the clipped sentence.
The reporter made a conscious effort to relax herself again and let her mind drift back into the sensual daydream she had been enjoying before she’d opened mouth without thinking. Rell quickly found herself floating off into a peaceful haze, with the slow push and pull of the tall woman’s hands against her skin.
Diana had heard Rell’s comment, but was so disciplined with her reactions that her hands never missed a beat. She wasn’t the least bit surprised to find that the other woman had taken a female lover. Being a reporter on the road most of the year probably made the opportunities for pleasurable meetings a little hard to find at times, especially in countries that frowned on women having sex outside of marriage. It seemed more sensible to enjoy an evening with someone of your own gender to avoid trouble. However, whether this was before, or after Rell’s marriage was something Diana didn’t know. The tall woman assumed it was probably well before, because Rell appeared to have enjoyed Peter’s company, even if she didn’t truly love the man.
For the moment though, Diana was more than content to allow herself the unusual freedom to gently touch Rell intimately. There was such a naturalness about the way she was massaging the naked woman in front of her, Diana soon found herself forgetting her own concerns about the rest of the trip. Her awareness narrowed to the feeling of Rell’s soft skin under her slowly moving hands, and the sensation of the other woman’s easy breathing.
Moving her hands higher, Diana began to smooth her fingers over the muscles on Rell’s neck, easing over her shoulders to her collarbone, loosening the tension she found there. Stepping closer to the shorter woman, Diana encouraged a surprisingly willing Rell to lean back against her greater strength, not minding the feeling of soap and water soaking through her jungle shirt.
Surrounded by the extensive view of the endless jungle and cooled by the breezes blowing over the rocky clearing, Diana lost herself in the sensation of following the line of Rell’s well-toned muscles. Eyes closed, the tall woman focused her hands and mind on chasing down every shred of tension she could find, and gently massaging it away. She swept her hands down the front of Rell’s chest, suddenly realizing she was cupping her soapy palms under the other woman’s breasts, brushing taut nipples with her thumbs.
Snapping back into reality, Diana snatched her hands away from Rell’s body as though they had been scalded, barely giving the reporter a chance to regain her balance again as the taller woman jumped back.
Embarrassed, she spun away quickly, mumbling, “I’m sorry, Rell.” Avoiding the reporter’s eye completely, Diana hurried back to the overhang and dropped down on her sleeping bag, her back facing the other woman. The photojournalist was left standing on the edge of the plateau, perplexed and frustrated.
Rell tried to catch Diana’s eye for about the hundredth time that night, but the tall woman was avoiding her glance completely. All evening Diana had been responding in mono-syllables to Rell’s questions, barely raising her eyes from her plate over dinner. It was clear the former mercenary felt she had stepped over some arbitrary, self-imposed boundary, and now hoped that if she ignored it for long enough, Rell would forget what had happened. Rell thought that if Diana stopped to think about it, she would realize that Rell had been enjoying and encouraging the intimate caress by willingly leaning back against Diana’s strong length.
Finally reaching the end of her patience with the game of eyeball dodge, Rell snapped at the taller woman, “Will you look at me, for Pete’s sake!”
Diana’s head reluctantly lifted until she met Rell’s eyes. The look of self-castigation was so blatant on the tall woman’s face, Rell found her anger evaporating immediately, replaced by an almost overwhelming need to see the beautiful woman smile again.
“Have I suddenly sprouted horns or something?” she asked, flapping the backs of her hands against her forehead imitating a particularly bizarre set of horns. “Oh, I know. I have this whopping great pimple on the end of my nose and you just can’t bring yourself to tell me it’s there,” Rell continued, holding her fist in front of her nose. “It’s something even worse? I knew it. I just knew it was going to happen. I’ve caught some awful jungle disease and I’m breaking out in these really huge purples spots all over my face.” Rell began to wipe her fingers over her cheeks, trying to remove the imaginary blemishes from her skin.
Diana was so taken back by the comical sight of Rell wiping her face and then minutely examining her palms in the hope of actually seeing the spots, she couldn’t keep the laughter inside. The tall woman’s face reddened with the effort as she compressed her lips tightly, pressing her tongue against the roof of her mouth hopelessly. Within moments, she was rolling about helplessly on the sleeping bag. Every time she looked up at the reporter, she broke out laughing all over again, until tears streamed down her cheeks.
Rell quickly dropped to one knee, steadying the laughing woman by the shoulders. “Hey, rolling about with a broken rib is not the best thing for the healing process,” she said, the concern echoing loudly her voice.
Clutching at her aching rib, Diana wiped the tears off her cheeks, regaining control of herself. “I’m sorry about that, Rell, but you just looked so funny swiping away at those damned non-existent spots.”
“Hmmm, maybe you should get out more if you think my pitiful attempts at humor are funny,” Rell stated. Settling down in front of the other woman, one hand gently grasping Diana’s thigh, the reporter was finally able to look her taller companion in the eye. “So, you going to tell me why you suddenly decided I wasn’t worth looking at anymore? It really doesn’t do much for a girl’s ego, you know.”
Diana immediately sobered, dropping her head again. “This afternoon,” she mumbled in reply, hoping it was all the explanation Rell needed.
Gentle fingers slid under the dark-haired woman’s chin, lifting it until Diana had no choice but to look at Rell sitting in front of her. “You didn’t do anything wrong this afternoon, Diana. I was enjoying it,” Rell declared clearly.
“But I shouldn’t have been doing it. I mean, you must be…and there was Peter…” Diana trailed off, her head dropping once more.
Rell snorted, bringing the other woman’s head up again in surprise. “Yes, there was Peter, but what do you think I did before he came along? What about afterwards? Oh god, especially afterwards,” she asked, one hand waving over her head in a frustrated gesture. “A woman isn’t made of stone, after all. I took my pleasures where I could and with whoever was willing,” she explained simply. “You know how hard life on the road can be for a woman. Every man you meet wants to take care of you in some way. It’s just easier sometimes to be with another woman.”
“Well, you mentioned…but I just assumed…” Diana started to say, realizing Rell was echoing some of her thoughts of earlier in the day.
“Well, you assumed wrong,” Rell cut in gently. “I’m more interested in what’s inside a person’s heart and mind than in his or her gender. I thought that much would be clear by now.” A delighted smile suddenly lit up the reporter’s eyes. “Judging from the way your hands know their way around a female body, I think some of your preferences have been made pretty obvious too.”
Diana blushed but didn’t drop her head again. “I guess I was like you in some ways, taking my pleasure where I could. You’re right about the road being a hard place for a woman, even for one who is a mercenary. I didn’t like to sleep with the men in my armies; it just caused problems later on,” she said.
Rell nodded in understanding. “Well, you’re not a mercenary anymore, and I am certainly not part of your army.” Snuggling closer, until she was all but sitting in Diana’s lap, Rell continued, “I’m willing, and I think, I hope, you are too,” she offered, tilting her head to one side, parting her lips slightly in silent invitation, still leaving the other woman enough room to back off if she wanted to.
It was an invitation Diana couldn’t resist, though she did hesitate for a moment. “Are you sure?” she asked, moving close enough that Rell could almost taste the subtle scent of the dark-haired woman’s breath.
“I’m sure. Just kiss me, please.”
The first gentle, almost uncertain kiss they shared seemed to suspend the passing of time. Neither woman wanted to just take her pleasure, as with others in the past. Both concentrated on offering up as much of themselves as possible through the tenuous contact of their lips, finding unexpected rewards in the simple act of giving. The sounds of their mingled breathing, the crackling fire next to them, and the cries of the forest creatures combined to create a music more moving than any orchestra. The powerful beating of two hearts in unison underscored the symphony, drawing the women closer, reaching through the physical contact to touch each other’s soul.
Deep within each woman, a spark suddenly ignited, potent and forceful. Spinning out a single golden thread, the brightness of a searching life-force sought out its matching half, finding it nestled, waiting patiently, in the mind of the other. The two sparks danced together in glorious, dizzying circles, faster and faster, becoming a blinding column of golden light before bursting into one all-consuming flame. Two souls, separated by centuries of time and distance, reaffirmed the unbreakable bond between them, renewing the promise of a life together, forever.
As the women broke apart, they were gasping from the sheer energy released with one simple kiss. Rell looked into Diana’s startling blue eyes, feeling as though she somehow recognized the person from elsewhere. Diana stared into the blue-green of her companion, vibrating with the knowledge that she must have known Rell her entire life, but had somehow managed to forget her existence.
Not understanding the feeling, but delighting in it, Diana reached up, almost shyly, to unbutton Rell’s heavy jungle shirt. She took her time with each button, giving the other woman every opportunity to protest. Rell merely inclined her head to one side, offering the sweep of her neck to the erotic touch of the Diana’s lips. She shuddered with pleasure as teeth and lips began to nip and suck their way along the tender flesh seeking the most sensitive places. The nearly soundless sighs coming from the shorter woman encouraged Diana to move her lips higher looking for even more receptive spots around Rell’s ear. Biting down lightly on a proffered lobe, Diana heard the other woman gasp.
Finally undoing the last button, Diana opened the reporter’s shirt as though she was unveiling some priceless treasure. She hesitated for several moments, not wanting to mar the perfect beauty of Rell’s lightly tanned breasts with her own undeserving mouth. An insistent hand on the back of her head encouraged her to lower her lips, brushing over the soft flesh. Nestled between the other woman’s breasts, Diana breathed in deeply, soaking up all the subtle odors which would forever identify Rell. Lifting her head again, not wishing to hurry this moment, she waited to see how Rell would respond.
The warmth of Diana’s breathing sharpened Rell’s nerve endings until her skin tingled. Rell’s own hands gently came to rest just below the collar of the taller woman’s shirt. Feeling for the buttons with her fingers, Rell pushed them through the holes, opening Diana’s shirt to the still night air. Only when she had all the buttons undone did she open her eyes to gaze down in wonder at the unrivaled elegance of Diana’s breasts. Almost tiny for a woman so tall, they stood high against her chest, a pair of proudly matched twins. Sweeping her fingers over the nearly unblemished flesh, she came across a small scar on the inner side of a breast. Stopping briefly, she lowered her head to kiss the spot. She felt the other woman’s head fall back slowly, eyes closing in almost feline pleasure.
Lifting her head again, Rell said, “If you promise to lie still, we might be able to take that strapping off you for a while. I don’t think it is very romantic to taste bandaging in my mouth but I don’t want you hurting yourself either.”
Snapping out her sensual haze, Diana shook her head for a moment, clearing it enough to answer the other woman. “I can’t promise anything like that,” she started, a wicked grin appearing out of nowhere. “But I’ll do my best,” the tall woman continued, reaching for the knife in her boot.
Between the two of them, they managed to remove the sticky dressing without hurting Diana too much. Quite the contrary. The sharp pulling of the adhesive against her skin sensitized the flesh until it almost sang with every subtle movement of her body. Diana shivered lightly, feeling the fire pouring along her nerve endings, igniting passions held in check far too long.
Having found the impetus to move apart for a few moments, the women undressed hurriedly, tossing clothing and boots to the four winds. Falling back into each other’s arms as though they had been separated for a lifetime, they continued the slow, gentle exploration of bodies that felt familiar in some way, yet were so new at the same time. The fire burned down to softly-glowing embers, as each re-acquainted herself with the other. Somehow, both seemed to know instinctively what the other liked and how she would react.
Murmuring quietly, Diana eased Rell into a kneeling position over her prone body, hands on either side of her broad shoulders holding the reporter’s weight. Spreading her knees widely and supporting herself on her elbows, allowed Rell to lie full length along the taller woman’s long frame without putting any pressure on Diana’s still healing rib. It also put her at something of a disadvantage because Diana’s hands were free to roam, while hers were occupied keeping her weight off the woman.
“Not fair,” Rell gasped, as Diana’s fingers brushed over an erect nipple.
“You were the one who made me promise to lie still, so I guess you get to live with that now,” Diana replied wickedly, trying to see just how far her long arms could reach. Sweeping her hands along Rell’s back, feeling the other woman arching subtly, Diana cupped the reporter’s tightly rounded buttocks before pulling gently, closing the gap between their bodies.
Rell found the position brazenly sexual, wanton even. It excited her, feeling so blatantly open. The touch of the night air brushed over her heated center, cooling and inflaming at the same time. The petals at her core unfurled, allowing Rell to feel the first rush of her passions as they poured from her overflowing well-spring. Her hips picked up the rhythm of the gentle throbbing at her point of power, moving gently against softness of the woman beneath her. Dropping her head, she tried to distract herself by kissing Diana, giving herself over to the sensual touch of the tall woman’s hands on her lightly sweating skin.
Lips joined again in another searing kiss, and Diana’s hands brushed over the other woman’s outstretched body. The touch was light, undemanding, yet Rell’s response was incredibly powerful. The tall woman could already feel the rhythmic thrusting of her lover’s hips against her own mound. Tilting her hips slightly to offer a better angle, Diana grasped Rell’s buttocks to help support her.
Unable to hold the kiss any longer, the shorter woman buried her face deep in Diana’s neck, clutching at her shoulders with incredible strength. “Oh god. Oh god. Oh god,” Rell muttered through gritted teeth as her thrusts grew more insistent, more frenzied as her peak rapidly approached.
Diana reached around with one long arm, her fingers seeking the entrance of Rell’s opening. She met with no resistance at all as her fingers slipped completely into the deep pool at the reporter’s center. Hot, velvet walls pulsed around Diana’s fingers, which somehow kept time with Rell’s wild thrusting. The pressure of the other woman against her own pinnacle was exciting, and Diana passed the point where she could concentrate solely on Rell. She opened her legs slightly to increase the friction. Fighting with herself to remain still, she soon caught the same wave Rell was riding.
Aware of what the taller woman was doing under her, Rell slowed the power of her thrusts, allowing Diana to match her pace. She could feel long fingers stroking her inner walls, exploding a different set of sensations through her trembling body, and further fanning the flames of her passion. Unable to hold herself back any longer, Rell’s hips picked up speed again, bringing her closer to the edge, while driving Diana towards the peak as well.
With muscles tightening like over-wound watch springs, and guttural groaning coming from both women, Diana managed to plunge the full length of her fingers into Rell’s willing opening one last time. It was too much for the woman above her; overloaded with sensations, the soaring wave grabbed the reporter and flung her mind into oblivion as her body spasmed violently. The instant the velvet walls snapped closed on Diana’s fingers, her own release ripped through her, shattering her awareness for several moments. Their cries of pleasure echoed off the walls and ceiling of the overhang, bouncing back and forth until they were lost over the green blanket of the jungle, startling the animals of the forest into wary silence.
High above the two women, well back from the edge of the overhang, a pair of tired brown eyes closed for a moment in satisfaction before turning towards the village hidden in the center of the ancient volcano. The owner of those eyes hoped the old prophecy of the Amazons would now be fulfilled, if the strangers truly were the chosen of Artemis.
Latona stepped quietly into the darkened temple, grateful for the few candles still burning in their sconces. She took a moment to kneel briefly before the altar, the fingers of one hand resting on the carved stone handle of Artemis’s bow, which stood out in bold relief on the front of the shrine. Rising, the middle-aged scout averted her eyes away from the weapons waiting on the polished stone slab, a little nervous of the power they were said to contain.
She hesitated entering Ardeen’s meditation chamber so late, but the priestess’ request, really an order, was for the scouts from the plateau to report directly to her about anything they saw or heard. One message had already been sent back informing the old priestess of the arrival of two outsiders in the rocky clearing. Now Latona was here to make her own report. The green-eyed guard, Scylla, had replaced her on the overhang.
Ardeen solved Latona’s quandary by appearing unexpectedly at the doorway of the chamber. Watching the crone shuffling painfully across the marble floor towards her, the scout thought to herself, The Old One has been spending too much time in deep meditation lately. I wonder if any of us can convince her to use the hot pools for a time? It would certainly ease some of the aches from her bones. Stepping forward, Latona met the old woman halfway across the large room.
“Well met, Latona,” Ardeen greeted.
“And to you, Old One,” the scout replied respectfully, bowing her head.
Accepting the homage due her age, Ardeen drew the younger scout with her to one of the benches surrounding the temple walls. Settling herself as comfortably on the hard marble as her old bones would allow, she waited until Latona was seated before speaking.
“So, you have something of interest to report?” she asked, her eyes twinkling with intelligence and wisdom.
“I do not know if these are the ones you seek, Old One, but even I could see the powerful bonding between them. Though, it was clear the bond was unknown to them before tonight,” she finished, blushing at the memory of what she’d heard from her hiding place. It was the last thing she’d expected to hear that night. The first joining was supposed to be a private and intimate time, usually spent apart from everyone else so the connection would grow strong between the pairing. Being forced to listen as the two women had merged their bodies and minds as one, caused the middle-aged scout no small amount of embarrassment. Regardless, it was not the first time she had been a silent witness to other, less private couplings.
The old priestess gently clasped the hand of the plateau scout, sympathetic to her embarrassment but equally eager to know what she had seen and heard. Once the flame had died away from the scout’s face, the priestess asked, “So, tell me. One is tall and dark, the other shorter and light?”
Latona snorted briefly. “Are you sure you did not simply ride the wind and see this for yourself?” she replied.
Ardeen smiled back at the scout, urging her to continue. Between her dreams and her Other Senses, the old woman knew all she could about the two outsiders on the plateau without meeting them face to face. The reports from the scouts served merely to confirm what she already knew in her heart.
“Yes, Old One. They are as you describe. The dark one wore a long knife of some kind strapped across her back, and the other one carried a makeshift staff, though I doubt she knew how to use it properly. She appears to think it is little more than a walking stick.” Latona snorted at the idea of carrying a weapon and not knowing how to use it. That was surely asking for trouble. “From what I could hear, the dark one is the leader but the light-haired one takes control when hearts demand to speak,” she continued.
Nodding, Ardeen offered, “Together, they are a balance of body and heart. It strengthens them in ways we do not understand. Strength enough, perhaps, that they have found each other again. Alone, each would be formidable in her own way, but together there is nothing on this plane, or the next, that can stop them for long.”
“Do you think they are the ones spoken of in the prophecy?” Latona asked. Rumors had been buzzing around the village for days when it became known Ardeen had seen the chosen ones in a vision dream. The rumors had intensified as the old woman had spent more and more time in deep meditation, tracking the outsiders with her Other Senses. The sheer number of women, from the oldest warrior to the youngest trainee, suddenly volunteering for sentry duty on the plateau had so overwhelmed Latona, she’d been forced to take the post herself to prevent any resentments from developing.
The old priestess thought for several moments before answering. When she had spoken with the Amazon leader a few days before, she was completely certain about who the outsiders were. With Latona however, she did not want to give any sense of false hope until Artemis had made it clear to everyone in the village that these two women truly were her chosen. Deciding on the middle ground, the old woman answered, “It is yet to be seen, Latona. First they must pass the portal and then hear the call of their destinies. If they pass those two hurdles, then we must test them ourselves as demanded by Artemis.” Looking up at the exhausted woman beside her, Ardeen said compassionately, “It’s late and I am sure your bedchamber is calling to you, even from here.”
Rubbing at tired eyes, Latona nodded. She had been on the plateau for days waiting and watching for the outsiders to arrive, once Ardeen had seen them in her vision dream. It would be a gift to sleep on her own pallet again, her lover curled protectively against her back. “Until they pass the portal, Old One, none shall hear anything from my lips,” the scout promised, rising to her feet.
“Until the morn, then,” the priestess said in reply as the other woman slowly left the marble chamber of the temple. In the mean time, I have much to do, she thought. And my first duty is to let Meropa know we might be having guests in the village for the first time in Artemis knows how long.
Climbing painfully upright once more, the old priestess headed for the leader’s hut as fast as her aching old bones would allow.
Rell woke abruptly, shortly before sunrise, feeling herself sprawled in a very peculiar position. Her legs were spread widely over something firm yet giving, while her upper torso was tilted oddly to one side. The moment she connected the strange arrangement of her body with how she had gotten there, Rell opened her eyes to see Diana’s azure depths looking back at her.
Diana smiled at the other woman hesitantly, apprehensive Rell might somehow regret what had happened between them the night before. It was not like mercenaries, ex or otherwise, were seen as preferred partners by most people, especially one with a past as dark as hers. Whatever fears and concerns she might have had were quickly wiped from her mind by the reporter’s enthusiastic morning kiss. What followed afterwards soon laid her doubts to rest forever.
Sometime later, as both women relaxed in the molten afterglow of their love-making, they watched the first rays of the sun rising over the edge of the forest, painting everything with its golden brilliance. Delighting in each other’s quiet company, they watched a Harpy Eagle* turning majestically in wide circles on the first updrafts of the day as the sun rose higher. Rell stirred briefly, turning her head away from the light now shining directly into her eyes. Noticing something unusual, she sat up suddenly.
“Diana, what’s that?” she asked, pointing to what had been an unremarkable shadowed corner under the overhang the afternoon before.
Supporting her unstrapped broken rib with one protective hand, Diana sat up to look in the direction Rell was indicating. Deep in the corner, there was a subtle silver glow she couldn’t explain, obvious only because of the inky darkness of the shadows. Rising gingerly to her feet, she went over to investigate.
“I don’t know, Rell,” she said. “It’s not like I have ever been here in the mornings to see anything like this,” Diana continued, shrugging her shoulders ruefully, reminding the reporter that the other woman usually woke back in the rough clearing, with no memory of how she’d gotten there.
Gritting her teeth against the ache in her rib, Diana squatted down to look under the small shelf she discovered in the corner. What she found was a blank wall, with thousands of minute crystals in the stone, scattering and reflecting a beam of sunlight from somewhere higher up. Opposite the faintly-lit wall was a narrow opening in the rock, filled with silver light coming from some unknown source further back. The light from the opening couldn’t be seen from where they had been lying, and the wall was only noticeable due to the darkness of the shadows surrounding it. If Rell had not looked over when she did, it could have easily been missed once the full light of the sun had reached the plateau. Poking her head into the fissure, the ex-mercenary tried to see what lay beyond the opening.
“Looks like there is some kind of a tunnel back there, Rell. I can’t see the end of it, though. Seems to turn a corner several yards further along,” Diana said, as she withdrew her head and turned towards the other woman waiting expectantly on the rumpled sleeping bags.
“No, wait. It couldn’t be. That would just be too easy,” the reporter replied, cryptically. Hurrying to the taller woman’s backpack, Rell pawed through the side pocket where Diana kept the sheet of paper with the prophecy she had shown the other woman a few days before. Finding it, she went over to Diana, reading the paper as she walked.
Standing next to the still kneeling woman, she recited, “To the Eastern sky, On a Western wall, A place of birth is found.” Sinking to her knees, Rell looked at the wall reflecting the sunlight and then the fissure opposite. “That wall faces to the west and if it wasn’t there, the opening would be towards the eastern sky. Guess you might call that a place of birth, Diana. It sure looks like, well…” she trailed off, a little embarrassed.
“Remarkable resemblance, don’t you think,” Diana said wickedly, one hand reaching out to almost touch what would be a woman’s pinnacle in real life.
Rell lightly slapped at Diana’s hand before it could touch the outcropping of rock. “Don’t be naughty,” she said, her eyes sparkling with merriment.
The taller woman grunted. “That’s not what you said to me this morning,” she replied, a completely incorrigible tone in her voice. “In fact, I believe your exact words were…”
“…of no consequence right now,” the reporter finished for the other woman, her face shading towards a bright pink. “Let’s get dressed and see where that tunnel goes. The prophecy says that one alone can’t find the way, but there are two of us now, so we should be able to get to the other end without too many problems.”
“It also says we have to be joined at heart and soul,” Diana said, a little tensely.
“Do you have any doubts left after this morning?” Rell replied, her eyebrows rising in mock surprise. “Guess I just need to do a better job next time.”
“Just checking,” the taller woman offered, climbing to her feet, pulling the reporter with her as she rose. “If we’re going to be wriggling through some tunnel, I’d better get this rib strapped again.”
“Oh goody. Another chance to get my hands on you. I think I like the sound of this,” Rell giggled as they walked back to the dying embers of their fire.
Diana just rolled her eyes skyward, mumbling about unleashing a monster the night before.
“I doubt we’re going to be able to get the packs through that tunnel,” Diana observed after looking at the narrow opening and then at their packs.
“Damn. I don’t like the idea of leaving them behind. What if we need something in one of them?” Rell replied, tucking the camera she usually carried around her neck into the plastic bag inside her own backpack. Examining the opening herself, she saw just how truly narrow it was. “It’s going to be a pretty tight squeeze, even for us. Do we have any other choices?” she asked.
“Not from the looks of it,” the taller woman replied, already hiding her pack deep into the corner to protect it from possible inclement weather.
“What if we tried going over this ceiling of rock,” Rell queried, pointing to the overhang above their heads. “Isn’t that what you planned in the first place?”
“You like the idea of hanging off some rope while I pull you up, broken rib and all?” Diana asked, frowning slightly, having seen Rell’s terrified reactions to their steep climbs yesterday. The taller woman had been forced to rope Rell to her waist before scrambling up the last couple of sections of the mountain. “Even then, there is no guarantee we could get to the top. It’s almost a sheer cliff above this overhang.”
Paling, Rell answered, “Guess it has to be the tunnel, then.” Nestling her pack and walking stick next to Diana’s, Rell watched the taller woman slide a torch into her trouser pocket; it was one of the few things they could take with them through the narrow tunnel.
Ducking down, Diana wriggled through the tight opening, shifting her wide shoulders sideways to get past the narrow entrance. Once her feet had disappeared into the passage, Rell followed behind. She didn’t much like the enclosing walls surrounding her, but she liked the idea of steep cliffs even less. She quickly found the squeeze wasn’t quite as confining for her as she knew it would be for the woman ahead of her. Those broad shoulders might cause Diana a problem if the passageway gets any smaller, she thought pulling herself along on her elbows behind the other woman.
The light the women had seen shining from the tunnel entrance had long ago faded into blackness as they crawled along the passageway; its source was still a complete mystery. Huddled together where the tunnel widened for a few yards, they shared a thirst-quenching drink from Rell’s canteen, using a little of the water to wipe over their scraped and raw skin. Their hands, elbows, hips and knees were being scoured bloody by the tiny, sharp crystals imbedded in the rock. Their heavy jungle clothing offered little protection, as the material over the bony parts of their bodies had quickly tattered.
Diana found herself in a worse position because of the tight walls rubbing her shoulders and back.. Almost from the moment they had entered, she had been forced to toss her panga knife in its sheath ahead of her every few yards because there wasn’t enough room to wear it strapped to her back. Rell was having a slightly easier time of it due to her lighter build, although she was just as bruised and sore as the taller woman.
“You all right, Rell?” Diana asked, seeing the expression of the other woman’s face by the light of her torch.
Looking at the palms of her grazed hands again, Rell replied, “Forget what I said about this being too easy to find…that was probably the simple part. Getting through it might be a lot harder. I’m starting to wonder how much further this tunnel runs. At this rate, I’ll be scraped down to the bone soon.”
“Can’t be too much longer,” the dark-haired woman said, directing the torch down the passageway. Crystal points along the walls glittered in the light but the beam was soon lost in the far distance. “We’ve been crawling for about two hours. You want to be up front for a while? It must be pretty dark back there with my body blocking most of the light.”
Rell smiled gratefully at the other woman. Even though she could hear Diana ahead of her, she was still being assailed by all the age-old fears of the dark. Her biggest fear was that the tunnel would suddenly collapse around them, trapping them forever. No matter how she tried to talk herself out it, every unidentified sound made her jump, convinced the walls were about to cave in. Reaching out and occasionally making contact with the other woman’s boot was the only thing keeping Rell from losing her grip completely.
“And I thought I was too old to be scared of the dark,” Rell commented, a little annoyed with herself.
The tall woman smiled in sympathy. “Hey, when I can’t see beyond the circle of light, even I get a little nervous and start imagining things that might be out there; being cramped inside this tunnel isn’t helping,” she replied.
Rell looked at Diana, not believing her for a moment, but she was more than happy to be up front for a while so she could actually see where they were going for a change. Taking the offered torch, she began to move ahead of the other woman, wriggling painfully along the tunnel and its sharp stoned walls.
After crawling for what felt like an eternity, Rell found herself in front of a particularly confined section in the tunnel. Shining the light ahead of her, it didn’t appear to be all that long, but judging the gap with her eye, she figured it was going to be an extremely close squeeze even for her slighter body, let alone Diana’s broad shoulders. As if compensating her for the constricted section, the tunnel opened out considerably on the other side, some ten feet further along.
Lifting her body a little and speaking under her arm, Rell said, “This next bit seems pretty narrow, Diana. Looks like it opens out on the other side, though. Let me get through it and see if I can turn around. I don’t want you stuck behind me with nobody to help.”
“I wouldn’t want to be stuck either, Rell. I’ll wait for you to wriggle through.”
Struggling into the confined space, Rell braced her toes against the rough bottom of the tunnel, edging forward a few inches at a time. Shit, she thought. I’ve seen cattle crushes that had more space than this. Pushing first one shoulder and then the other against the walls, she managed to worm her way through the passage until she could grab the lip of the tunnel on the other side. It was several minutes of sweaty and heart-stopping work for Rell, terrified she was going to be caught herself at any moment. Finally popping out the other side like a cork from a bottle, she gratefully fell to the floor of the tunnel, sucking air back into her cramped lungs.
Scrambling around, she peered back along the section she had just traversed. Kneeling at the mouth of the passage, she called to the waiting woman, “It’s almost wide enough to stand up over here. Just let me shine the torch down the tunnel so you can see where you’re going.” In the beam of light, Diana’s dirty and sweat-streaked face blinked back at her through the darkness.
Tossing her sheathed knife ahead of her, Diana squeezed herself into the narrow confines of the passage, using her toes to push her body forward. Grunting with the effort, she walked her wide shoulders along the walls as Rell had done, gaining a bare inch or so with each exhausting movement.
Halfway along, her body suddenly jammed tightly in the constricted space. Unable to move forward, Diana tried to back up a little, hoping to twist her body around into a better position. The heavy jungle clothing she wore rode up her long length, snagged on the thousands of tiny crystals covering the walls of the tunnel, until she was no more able to wriggle backwards as she had been able to move forward. Panting and incapable of drawing a deep breath, she called to an anxious Rell.
“Looks like I’m good and stuck here, Rell,” she said, fighting with herself not to panic.
The other woman relieved some tension by swearing creatively, and at some length before making a conscious effort to deal with the situation. “Can you move at all?” the reporter asked. Rell listened as Diana struggled to find some way of either struggling forward or edging back again.
“Not from the feel of it,” she finally admitted. “There just isn’t anything I can get a really solid grip on to use as leverage.”
“If I wedge my shoulders tight against the walls, could you use me to push yourself back again?” the reporter queried, after thinking for a few moments.
“Maybe. It’s certainly worth a try. Anything has to be better than just lying here waiting to get skinny enough to slip through,” the stuck woman joked.
“Great, hairy, horny toads, jammed inside this crazy pipeline and she starts cracking jokes,” the shorter woman muttered to herself as she wormed her way back into the passageway, wedging her shoulders firmly in contact with the walls when she was close enough. Bracing her feet as best she could near the lip, Rell concentrated on giving Diana something solid enough to shove against.
Carefully placing her hands on Rell’s shoulders, Diana began to press strongly, trying to push her body back through the tunnel, or release her clothing enough to allow her to maneuver a little. The reporter held her breath, struggling to maintain her position against the tall woman’s forceful muscles. For a full minute, nothing moved.
Rell was just about ready to give up on the idea of Diana pushing herself backwards, and was considering if she had the strength to pull the taller woman forward instead, when suddenly, everything seemed to happen at once.
There was a sharp snap from underneath the tunnel and a brief shiver of movement came through the rock. The overpowering roar of falling stones startled both women, as clouds of choking dust billowed through the air. Where two women had struggled within the confines of the passageway, there was nothing left but empty space.
“Oh, Grandma. I promise I will never drink Uncle Timothy’s new watermelon wine again,” Rell groaned, holding her aching head with one hand. Opening her eyes, she was greeted with blackness so complete, Rell doubted she could have seen her hand in front of her face. “Wonderful,” she grumped sarcastically. “I’m blind too.” It was the dry, slightly acrid smell of rock dust that brought the reporter’s memory rushing back. “Hmmm, not Uncle Tim’s watermelon wine. That freaking tunnel collapsed right out from under us,” she remembered.
Feeling around gently, she found the entire floor of the passageway had fallen as one complete piece, landing in a chamber underneath. “Which means Diana won’t be too far away then,” she deduced logically, pleased she could still think straight. Inching forward, she swept her hands back and forth over the slab, trying to locate the tall woman. If she were conscious, the reporter reasoned, Diana would have probably said something piercing by now.
Continuing to grope her way over what was left of the tunnel floor, she came across Diana’s panga knife, lodged in a wide crack. Looping it securely over her shoulder, Rell moved forward again searching for the other woman. When she finally reached the far edge of the slab, Rell still hadn’t managed to find her dark-haired companion. Musta rolled, she thought, but which way? Not underneath, I hope. I’ll never get her out if she is under all this mess.
“Diana?” she called tentatively into the echoing darkness. “Where are you? Can you hear me?”
A soft, answering groan came from the floor to her right, and off the edge of the curving chunk of passageway. Crawling over carefully, Rell felt blindly along the boundary of the tunnel slab until one hand made contact with Diana’s foot leaning against the rocks. She eased herself over the side until she was squatting in the darkness next the ex-mercenary.
“Damn, I knew I was strong but not that strong.” Diana swore quietly. “Remind me to take the slow elevator next time, will ya?”
“You okay?” Rell asked, slowly measuring her hands over Diana’s arms and legs looking for anything out of place.
The prone woman sat up slowly, gently shaking her head. Rell could hear several of the vertebrae in her companion’s neck snapping back into place with loud pops. “Pretty much, I think,” Diana replied after a moment of silently assessing any damage. “Rib hurts a bit though,” she admitted reluctantly.
That’s tantamount to saying it’s giving her merry hell, the reporter thought. “Here, let me give you a hand up,” Rell offered, surprised when the other woman gripped her shoulder with one strong hand, levering herself back into a standing position. Shit, shit and buffalo turds, Rell mentally swore. That rib isn’t just hurting if Diana actually accepted my help without a word of protest. The stupid thing has probably been fractured again.
“Do you know where we are?” Diana asked, less interested in her injury than in getting out of the cavern. Rell listened carefully to the other woman’s inhalations. Even though they were a lot slower than she would have liked, Diana did appeared to be breathing normally.
“Not a clue, to be honest. I’d only just woken up when I started calling for you. Haven’t had a chance to investigate this delightful holiday-resort-for-the-eternally-damned yet,” the reporter quipped lightly, hoping the layers of strapping would support the newly re-fractured rib. Because the women had assumed they were going to be spending some time crawling through the tunnel, Rell had strapped several extra widths of bandaging around Diana’s chest to protect her abused rib as much as possible. Now she was grateful they had taken the extra minutes necessary to take care of that.
“Well, let’s see if we can find the nearest wall, then,” the other woman replied. “We can probably find a way out from there.”
Walking side by side, one arm wrapped protectively around the other, the two women groped sightlessly through the pitch-blackness, searching for a wall or some other structure they could use to orient themselves. Some fifty paces from the slab, still walking with their hands outstretched in front of them, they discovered a very wide, very deep chasm in the floor. Rell stumbled into it first, her tottering body weight dragging the other woman with her into its depths.
The stocky reporter hit the steeply inclined bottom first, the greater weight of the dark-haired woman landing on top of her, forcing the breath from her lungs. Rolling helplessly over each other, they skidded along the polished surface into an even more precipitously angled tunnel. With no way of gaining a restraining grip, the women slid down the passageway, picking up speed until the wind rushed passed their ears noisily. Diana twisted herself around, quickly aligning herself so she was moving feet first along the sharply sloping tunnel. Pulling on Rell, she managed to get the smaller woman safely tucked between her longer legs, arms wrapped around her body.
Before either woman had a chance to wonder where the underground passage was taking them, the exit abruptly appeared from behind a thick, green curtain of vines. Shooting from the end of the tunnel, they found themselves some fifteen feet in the air momentarily hanging in space, defying the laws of gravity. However, gravity quickly reasserted itself, drawing the women back to earth.
Oh boy, this is going to really hurt, Rell thought to herself just before they made contact with the ground below. With her eyes squeezed tightly shut, she never saw the deep body of water rushing up at them until it closed over her head. Unprepared for her sudden immersion, the reporter sucked in a lung full of water before she realized keeping her mouth shut might be a good option. Somehow managing to hang on to each other, Rell and Diana struggled to get themselves back on dry land.
Neither woman was sure who was holding up whom when they finally staggered from the water, exhausted and beaten. Flopping down on the muddy bank, Rell looked up gratefully at the intense blue sky over her head. After so many hours in the barely lit gloom of the tunnel, seeing the sun again was a precious gift to the reporter. The warm, yellow light overhead was already taking the bone deep chill from Rell’s body and clothes after their dunking in the cool lake.
“I don’t know about you, Diana,” she said, tiredly. “But I think I’d like to lie here until I feel a bit better. Wake me in about a hundred years. I might just be human by then.”
Diana snorted beside the other woman, unusually willing to go along with the idea of simply lying flat and still for a while. The demands she had been placing on her body over the past few days were taking their toll, and for a change the taller woman was quite amenable to admitting she needed some rest, at least to herself anyway. The renewed pain of her rib let her know she had probably fractured it again. I don’t think I want to get up for a bit either, she decided. It’ll settle down if I just lie still for now. Reaching out with one hand, she gently interlaced her fingers with Rell’s before allowing her eyes to close. A few minutes won’t hurt, she thought.
She had barely relaxed when the touch of something sharp scratched lightly against Diana’s slowly warming cheek. Thinking it was nothing more than a blade of grass, she used her free hand to try to knock it away. The ex-mercenary’s eyes popped open in surprise when the blade of grass turned out to be the point of a spear, an incredibly sharp spear. Running her eye up the length of the weapon, Diana found attached to the other end a very strangely dressed woman, and she didn’t looked too pleased at having discovered two soaked and exhausted women lying by the water.
“Ummm, Rell,” the other woman said quietly, not taking her gaze off the woman standing over her.
“Yea,” the stocky reporter replied, not bothering to open her tired eyes. “What’s up?”
“We have company,” Diana stated simply. “Rather unhappy looking company, I might add,” she continued.
“Fucking hell, now what?” was about all the reply Rell could find to give, as she snapped back into full awareness.
Sitting up abruptly, startling the spear-holding woman into moving her weapon threateningly, Rell looked around. Standing in a tight circle surrounding them was another dozen or so women. All were dressed as strangely as the first, in short leather skirts split to the waist, and knee-high leather boots. Their breasts had been left mostly bare, with only a covering of colorful paint in wild designs. Ornamented sweatbands were tied around their foreheads and many had bright feathers or strips of patterned fur braided into their long hair. Wide leather straps buckled about their forearms from wrist to elbow completed the bizarre outfits.
Rell realized that, this was not a band of innocent forest maidens out for an afternoon stroll. Every single one of them appeared to be armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons in ancient styles. Swords, spears, bows, knives and beautifully plaited leather whips hung from belt catches, or were looped over a shoulder. Most of the women seemed to have two or three weapons on them; the reporter noticed from how the women held their weapons that they knew how to use them all. The reporter was relieved to notice there didn’t appear to be a single rifle or hand-held pistol among any of the weaponry. It didn’t mean they had none; perhaps the women were choosing not to show them yet.
The spear-holding woman suddenly flipped the weapon in her hands, using the butt end to poke Diana in the shoulder. Opening her mouth, a string of the weirdest sounding words were issued. Rell and Diana looked quizzically at each other, then back at the spear holder before Rell held her hands up indicating she didn’t understand what had been said. The spear-holder spoke again, much more loudly, hoping that volume would somehow overcome the language barrier. Poking the butt of her spear into Diana’s shoulder, she shoved harder, clearly trying to get the tall woman to do something.
“Hey! Stop that!” Rell snapped, in defense of the other woman. Rising to her knees, she tried to push the spear away from Diana.
One of the other strangely dressed women standing behind Rell immediately stepped forward, slamming the butt end of her spear into the back of the reporter’s neck. The hit was hard enough to rattle Rell’s brains as she dropped over the still prone body of Diana, leaving her with a loud buzzing in her ears.
“Okay, maybe that isn’t such a good idea,” she said, pushing herself painfully into a sitting position again. Rubbing at the back of her neck where the weapon had connected, she looked angrily at her assailant. “You didn’t have to do that, you know. A simple ‘you’re-stepping-out-of-line’ would have been enough.”
The woman who had struck her, looked as though she was ready to do it again, lifting the weapon to shoulder height. It was clear she was aiming for the stocky reporter’s face this time. Rell braced herself, not intending to back away from the confrontation, even if it meant adding a new bruise or two to the ones covering most of her body.
Before the blow could fall, a taller, middle-aged woman suddenly ran up behind Rell’s attacker, snatching the spear from her hands, and spinning her around. Flinging the spear to the ground in a gesture of complete disgust, the woman swung a ringing backhanded slap across the other woman’s cheek, startling everyone. She let loose with a flurry of harsh sounds neither Rell nor Diana understood, but it was clear everyone else did as heads hung and weapons were slowly lowered.
Having obviously dressed down the women surrounding Rell and Diana, she then turned her attention to the two people still on the ground. Quickly divesting herself of weaponry, she handed them over to the woman she had just slapped. Kneeling beside Rell and Diana, she held out her hands, palms uppermost, to show she meant no harm.
Touching a finger to the middle of her chest, she said quietly, “Latona.” Smiling at the women, she nodded her head and repeated the gesture, saying again, “Latona.”
“I think it’s her name,” Diana said to Rell. Pointing at the woman beside her, the prone woman answered, “Latona.” Moving her fingertip to her own chest, she continued, “Diana.”
The woman smiled and repeated Diana’s name before looking expectantly at the reporter.
“Oh, Rell. My name is Rell,” the stocky woman offered.
Gently touching Diana’s shoulder, Latona said a single word. Realizing the women didn’t understand, she thought for a moment. Again laying her hand on the tall woman’s shoulder, she said, “Venir.”
“Venir?” Rell repeated, a questioning look on her face. “I don’t know what that word means, do you, Diana?”
“It’s Spanish. She wants us to come with her. Venir means come.” Diana explained carefully. The word had been oddly accented in a way completely familiar to the tall woman, but she was having trouble understanding the language the women had been speaking. She was certain it was Greek, yet it was as though the words she knew had been slightly altered to mean something different. Shaking her head, the dark-haired woman decided to think about it later, once she’d heard a lot more of the language spoken around her.
Rising off the ground slightly, Diana grabbed at her fractured rib painfully, the grimace screwing up on her face. Latona’s hand immediately shot out, stopping her from sitting up any higher.
Through the rents and tears in Diana’s shirt, Latona could see something that looked like a dressing, though it was made of a material entirely unknown to her. Regardless, she did know what was wrong from the way the outsider was clutching at one side of her chest. Sweet Artemis, how badly is she hurt, she wondered silently, and will she accept our help? They don’t even trust us yet, and these fools haven’t helped the situation. Thank all the gods I was close enough to stop Antigone from hurting the little one again.
Looking Diana in the eye, Latona asked seriously, “Ayudar?”
“What’s she saying now?” Rell asked, worried about the way Diana was making no move to get up off the ground.
“It means help, Rell. I think she wants to help me.”
“Oh god. Let her, Diana. Please,” the reporter pleaded, seeing the pale, sweaty look on her companion’s face.
Nodding, Diana replied, “Si, Latona.” Falling back onto the ground, the tall woman allowed whatever was going to be done happen around her. Falling into the cavern had fractured the rib again, and the wild ride through the tunnel into the water left her feeling as though someone had stabbed a knife into her side.
Latona looked questioningly at Diana, her hands hovering over the place the blue-eyed woman was clutching so protectively. Moving her hand away, Diana permitted Latona to carefully examine her ribs, feeling for the break under the strapping. Hmmm, just the one feels broken but not too badly, Latona thought. Whatever this stuff is, it seems to be supporting the break properly but when did she do it? If she hurt herself before reaching the portal, like the Old One said, why is it still causing her so much pain?
Thinking for a moment, still gently assessing the break, she realized it must have been snapped again somewhere inside the portal itself. Oh, sweet Artemis, that’s got to hurt, she thought. Both of them look just about done in. Getting through the portal must be rougher than we realized…not that the prophecy was very specific about what they might face in there. And this dark one is determined not to show just how hurt she really is, but even I can see she isn’t up to walking to the village. The healers would probably drown me if I made her do that. No, I guess there is nothing to be done but carry her; to Tartarus with her sense of dignity.
Pointing to several of the warriors standing around them, Latona quickly organized a small party to carry the injured woman back to the village. Grouped on either side of Diana, they lifted her onto their strong shoulders in one smooth movement. The sudden jiggling caused the tall woman to hiss in pain as the party started to walk off.
“Is she all right?” Rell asked Latona, worried. “Oh damn. You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you either.”
The scout looked down at the woman by her side, one hand gripped firmly around her wrist. She didn’t need any words to see the anxiety shadowing the outsider’s eyes. Trying to give her some comfort, she said, “Seguro. Diana’s seguro. Rell’s seguro. Latona amigo.” Taking Rell’s hand, she gently guided her along the path towards the village, hoping someone there might speak a few words of the little one’s own tongue. She would settle a lot faster if she could make herself understood, even a little.
Wrapped in the most beautifully finished and luxurious fur Rell had ever seen in her life, the reporter was led to a palm-thatched building on one side of a small square. Inside, she found Diana stretched out on a wide, rough bed, another gorgeous fur tucked around her body. Settling tiredly into the chair beside the bed, not wanting to disturb the other woman in case she was dozing only lightly, she looked down on the pale face of her companion.
Once they had gotten to the village, Latona showed Rell where Diana had been taken. Even without the benefit of language, it was clear the building was some kind of primitive hospital, though Rell did wonder whether they could be of any real assistance if Diana’s broken rib had punctured a lung. Once the reporter had been assured the other woman was safe and being well cared for, Latona took Rell to the hot pools to wash the mud from her body and hair.
Once Rell had stripped the last of her tattered clothing away, the scout had been shocked to see the wide grazes and many bruises covering the reporter’s skin. The middle-aged woman had hurried off to drag one of the healers back to tend to Rell’s wounds. Although it was obvious no one understood anything she was saying, the small woman had kept up a constant stream of words while the healer gently rubbed a soothing ointment into the scrapes. Latona kept repeating that Rell was safe but the other woman simply didn’t know anything of the Amazon trade tongue, leaving both women a little frustrated with their inability to communicate.
Seated on the chair, Rell looked around the room. She thought it must be a recovery area, judging from the number of beds. To her civilized western eyes, everything looked unsophisticated, yet the combination of colors and textures on the walls, ceiling and floor were very relaxing. Gotta remember this just in case I ever get around to redecorating my place, she thought. It’s so primal, but god, it feels so familiar at the same time.
Through the open doorway, an old woman wearing a flowing, full-length gown made from lightweight material, quietly shuffled into the room. Seating herself on the empty bed next to Rell and Diana, she smiled winningly at the reporter before giving her the surprise of her life.
“Well met, Little One. My name is Ardeen,” she said in clear, though accented English. “Let me welcome you and your companion to New Amazonia, seeing no one else has thought to do it yet.”
Rell’s jaw dropped in shocked amazement. “But I can understand you. I mean, you speak the same language as I do.”
“Sweet Artemis, I should hope so. I spent enough time learning it,” the old woman replied, her eyes twinkling with delight. “I haven’t many chances to use the tongue but I am now glad I have a way of speaking with you. It appears I may be one of the few in the village who can talk with you, at least for the moment anyway.”
Rell felt herself relaxing immediately. Now that she knew someone could understand her, a knot of tension deep in her gut disappeared. “Is she going to be all right?” she suddenly asked, indicating the woman sleeping peacefully by her side. Communication was one thing, but what Rell really needed was information, especially about Diana.
Glancing at the pale-faced woman on the pallet, Ardeen replied gently, “Yes, she will recover within a day. The healers have sent her deeply into Morpheus’s arms. The energy she was wasting hiding her pain can now go towards her healing.”
“That’s Diana for you.” Rell commented, relief coloring her voice. “Stoic to the damned end.”
The old woman looked questioningly at the other woman. “Stoic? This is a new word for me.” she said, almost tasting the flavor of the word. “Please. I like to learn. Could you tell me what this ‘stoic’ means?”
“Oh. I guess it means she doesn’t want anyone seeing how she feels,” Rell explained, realizing that although the woman might speak the same language, there were bound to be occasional confusions. “I like to learn new stuff too, so I guess you’re the best person to ask, seeing we can speak the same language. What does ‘seguro’ mean? Latona was saying it to me all the time but I didn’t know what she was talking about.”
“Seguro is trade tongue for safe. Here, you and Diana are safe. No one will harm you,” Ardeen said.
“Except that woman who tried to take my head off with her spear,” Rell laughed lightly.
“Ahhhh, Antigone. Latona told me about the incident. When the pair of you left the portal exit, well, you were a little unexpected,” the old woman smiled over at Rell. “No one knew who you were and they were just being cautious. Antigone will probably find some way of making it up to you over the next seven-day.”
“I understand. She doesn’t have to do anything for me, though. Just the way you have taken care of us is more than enough, really,” Rell replied, brushing her hand over the incredible softness of the fur covering her clean and naked body.
“It is our way, Little One,” Ardeen said seriously. “An Amazon warrior is bound by her honor. Antigone might not have known who you were when you arrived but she does now. To ease her sense of shame, allow her to find some small way of serving you,” the old woman continued.
“Okay, but it really isn’t necessary,” Rell said modestly, filing away the fact she and her companion were somehow known by the people in the village.
Rising slowly to her feet, the old woman said, “Now, Little One. You need to be with your soulmate in Morpheus’s realm too. The journey here was just as hard on you as it was on her.” Lifting the edge of the fur covering Diana, Ardeen indicated Rell was to get into bed with the other woman.
Rell blushed furiously, embarrassed that someone obviously knew they were lovers.
“I am a very old woman, Little One. There isn’t much that surprises me anymore. She,” nodding at the sleeping woman in the bed, “will not thank me if she wakes to find you have rested elsewhere. That is never a good thing for a melding still as new as the bright season’s wine.”
Climbing into bed and draping herself carefully around the other woman, Rell let Ardeen tuck the fur about them tenderly, as though they were her very own children. She watched as the old woman shuffled from the room, dousing the candle flame and dropping a leather sheet over the doorway before leaving. Nestling against Diana’s familiar warmth, Rell soon slipped away into sleep, unaware of the barely suppressed sense of hope filling the village around them.
“Is that you, Ardeen? What are you doing hovering about my door like some scared trainee?” Meropa called from her common room cum office.
The old priestess poked her head sheepishly around the corner of the door frame. “I forget, you once ran the forest as a warrior and were not always our leader chained to a desk,” she said as she stepped into the room. “I see age has no more dulled your ears than it has slowed your mind.”
The Amazon leader snorted. “It is not age that is slowing me but all this endless parchment work I seem to have in front of me. I should have greeted our visitors by now, and still I am trying to sort out where to put the lambs we will have with the arriving of the new leaves.”
Seating herself in the one comfortable chair in the room, a minor concession to her old bones Meropa had quietly arranged, the priestess continued, “I would stay with the parchments for now, old friend. Our visitors were in much need of rest after their journey through the portal. I have had them billeted in the healing hall until they are strong enough to be placed more permanently.”
“The one you sensed was hurt, the dark-haired woman, she was that badly injured?” the leader asked.
“No. The healers say she has only broken a rib,” Ardeen paused for a beat. “Twice over.”
Meropa’s eyebrow rose, startled, a respectful expression on her face at the tall woman’s toughness. “And the other? Is she hurt too?”
“Both are covered in scrapes and bruises, but a night safely in the arms of Morpheus should see them well enough to greet you in the morn. Artemis seems to have tested them quite severely within her place of birth,” Ardeen explained. “Though, I doubt Thisbe’s hunting party will ever recover from the fright of seeing the outsiders suddenly appearing as though by magic. Perhaps we should have told the rest of the women the pair were on their way to us.”
“There was a problem, Old One? Why wasn’t I told about it immediately?” Meropa demanded, snapping into full “leader” mode at the first hint of some difficulty.
“It was not one we could have foreseen, Meropa. Thisbe’s party has been in the forest for the past seven-day. It seems they were just returning when they saw the pair appear from the portal exit. They did not know anything of the rumors in the village, and thought the outsiders had simply stumbled on us by accident. Antigone became a little…enthusiastic in her duty to protect the village,” Ardeen said.
“Was anyone hurt?” the Amazon leader asked more quietly, now that she knew some of the details.
“Only Antigone’s pride. She has already volunteered to be the Little One’s personal protector to make up for striking her. I explained it to the storyteller as being a question of honor. She should accept Antigone’s presence without too many reservations,” the old woman said, smiling “To err on the side of truth, once she starts to roam the village I doubt the Little One will lack for guides, protectors, and helpers, as well as the odd potential suitor. If the bonding was not already strong between the pair, I think we have some here who might give the dark warrior a real race for her dinars. In fact, that warrior is going to cause quite a stir by herself. If I weren’t so old, I might have made a play for her myself,” Ardeen said, a sensual tone replacing the usual calmness she normally radiated.
“You are certain the dark-haired one is a warrior?” the leader questioned, ignoring the old priestess’ lasciviousness. The village could always do with more warriors, she thought, especially as so many of our own are aging past the point where it is safe to send them out on patrol anymore.
“Yes, I am sure. I couldn’t speak with her. The healers were all over her the moment the hunting party carried her in but she has the feel of a warrior, a good one. Remember, old friend. I have spent almost every waking heartbeat watching over them until they entered the portal. I am sure this is the warrior and the story-teller we have waited for,” Ardeen stated with quiet confidence.
Smiling, hope glowing on her face, Meropa asked, “So what do we do now?”
“We wait to see if their destinies will call to them. Until they can accept their place here, there is nothing for us to do but hope and trust. Artemis might have her own ideas about time, but she has never let us down in many thousands of cycles. I think she will come through for us one more time.”
Diana opened her eyes slowly, an unfamiliar feeling of softness surrounding her. Shifting her head sideways, she could see the top of Rell’s head nestled into the dark-haired woman’s strong shoulder. Her arms and legs were so tangled about the taller woman that she didn’t have a hope of getting up without waking the reporter. Not that getting up was the first thing on her mind now that she was more awake.
Hmmm, she thought, after an experimental stretch, considering I was sure I had one foot in the grave yesterday, I don’t feel all that bad this morning. Whatever that herbwoman gave me to drink last night must have put my lights out quite nicely. Though, I certainly don’t recommend trying to explain complicated medical information with hand gestures and a few words of simple Spanish. Guess I should be grateful I can speak enough to get things across. Rell must have been in hell yesterday when that Latona took her off somewhere. I’d hate not knowing what was being said around me.
As though thinking about the woman immediately connected them, Rell yawned deeply beside Diana before opening her own eyes to the first pearly light of the rising dawn. Looking up and seeing the other woman was awake, Rell gently kissed the side of her face before struggling higher in the bed.
“Morning, Diana. You look a lot better now than you did last night,” she said happily. Still marveling at the softness of the furs they had slept in, she neatly tucked them around Diana’s bare shoulders, moving to smooth the sleep-tossed bangs on the tall woman’s forehead.
Smiling at Rell’s loving gestures, Diana replied, “I actually feel like I might live. My rib hardly aches today. They may not be very advanced medically here, at least not in the way we understand, but they do know their stuff when it comes to what the jungle can give them.”
“Ummm. You were snoring up quite a storm when I returned last night,” Rell teased.
“I don’t snore,” Diana stated firmly.
“Oh, now that was a pout if ever I heard one,” the reporter replied, giggling merrily.
“And I don’t pout either,” the tall woman sulked in return.
“Has the big, bad mercenary had her feelings hurt?” Rell baby-talked. “Should the defenseless, little journalist kiss the boo-boo better for you?”
“Humph. If you’re defenseless, then I’m a little ol’ prairie dog,” Diana said.
“Hey, if you’re a prairie dog, I think you might have to prove that claim,” the stocky woman pronounced.
Intense blue eyes sparkling in challenge, Diana suddenly ducked under the covers to prove her claim of being a small rodent. What she did under there soon had Rell forgetting all about proving anything, aside from how much she really felt for the beautiful woman.
Sometime later, after they had cooled the edge from their libidos, a scratching at the leather sheet covering the door let the pair know they had a visitor. Rell shrugged her shoulders when Diana looked questioningly at her.
Remembering the language difficulties of the day before, Diana decided to stick to the little Spanish she knew, calling out to whomever was at the door. “Entrar, amigo.”
She was surprised when an incredibly ancient woman came into the room, though Rell appeared to know who she was. Behind her was the friendly woman, Latona, as well as the one who had struck the reporter. Bristling a little at the sight of her, the dark-haired woman cooled her expression before continuing.
“Si,” she said. “Tu desear algo?”
“You speak the trade tongue very well for someone not born of us,” the old woman noted, enjoying Diana’s momentary start of surprise at Ardeen’s clear English. “But the only one with a wish among us, a demanda, meaning a request…” she explained for both Rell’s and the other Amazon’s benefit, “…is Antigone,” she finished, waving the woman forward.
Antigone stepped nervously towards the two outsiders, locking eyes with Rell’s. Speaking slowly, through what was clearly a carefully rehearsed request, she said, “Antigone hopes Little One can forgive. I was wrong. Allow me to show you village, meet others…” she stumbled, forgetting the rest of the English she had practiced that morning with the priestess. Slipping into the trade tongue she hoped the taller woman would understand and explain to the Little One, she finished, “Yo desear a facilitar algun calzado y ropa.”
“What did she say, Diana? I didn’t get any of that,” Rell asked the woman against her side.
“She said she wants to give you some footwear, boots most likely, and clothing. Facilitar means provide, I think,” Diana explained. “Considering the state of our gear, I’d take her up on it. About the only thing worth saving might be our own boots. You’ll probably look really cute in one of those split to the hip skirts they wear around here,” she finished wickedly.
Slapping at Diana’s arm, Rell replied, “Don’t be such an imp. I’m sure they have other stuff. After all, Ardeen wears that gown thing.” Ignoring the other woman’s raised eyebrow at the thought of Rell in the filmy, almost transparent gown, the reporter asked, “How do I say ‘thank you’?”
The tall woman leaned over to whisper in Rell’s ear, coaching her in the correct pronunciation. The reporter nodded when she thought she had it right.
“Gracias, mi amigo,” she said slowly, hoping she would be understood. The smile suddenly gracing Antigone’s face made it clear she had been.
Gesturing with one hand, Antigone said, “Venir, venir.”
“Oh, I know what that word means. She wants me to go somewhere with her,” Rell answered, pleased she had remembered the word from the day before. Starting to toss the fur to one side, she realized she was still naked under the material. “Hey, if anyone thinks I am about to parade myself around the village without a stitch to cover my modesty, they can just get their dirty minds out of the damned gutter,” the reporter stated firmly, her eyes never leaving the tall woman’s.
“Did I say anything?” Diana offered in mock innocence.
“You didn’t have to. It was written all over your face,” Rell grumped.
“Perhaps this would be of help, ‘ayudar’,” Ardeen said, holding out a colorfully woven woolen robe she had taken from the clothing press against the wall.
“Save me, please,” the reporter begged, sliding the robe around herself before tying the sash tightly. “Everything is going to become a language lesson around here until I can make myself understood.” Even wearing the most pitiful expression on her face she could muster, Rell found sympathy in very short supply. Shrugging her shoulders, she followed a grinning Antigone out of the room.
“Are you sure they’ll be all right together, aside for the obvious language barrier?” Diana asked, once the stocky reporter was out of earshot.
“Your soulmate lets the anger burn in her heart after forgiveness has been asked for?” Ardeen questioned, seriously.
“Not that I know of, but that was one hell of a hit she took yesterday.”
I think the anger burns in you more than it does the woman of your heart, the priestess thought silently. “Now that the Little One is getting herself properly covered, perhaps we should see about doing the same for you. Latona here will take care of your needs and then find you a sunlit place where no one will run into you accidentally. Does that suit?”
“Suits me fine. I hate being laid up in bed,” Diana replied, Especially when I’m alone in it, she thought naughtily. Throwing the furs to one side, the tall woman eased herself upright, not noticing the looks of delight and genuine appreciation crossing the faces of both Amazons at the sight of her beautiful, naked body. The only delighted looks she was aware of any more, belonged on the face of a certain stubborn reporter.
“Well, look at you,” Diana said cheekily, as Rell came towards her self-consciously. “I knew their outfits would be cute on you. I just didn’t realize how cute.” Propped up comfortably on a brightly colored blanket under the shade of a tree beside square, the tall woman watched as Rell walked slowly towards her, hands holding down the front of her skirt. “Definite improvement over that robe you had on this morning,” she continued, raising one eyebrow and remembering what was under the skimpy layer of leather Rell was wearing.
Standing in front of Diana, Rell plucked gingerly at the waist of her leather skirt. “I think there is more material in my bikini,” she moaned, blushing faintly. “And they don’t even wear underclothes; I assumed these things would have a gusset.” Lifting one edge of the leather to demonstrate this lack, Rell bared an expanse of flesh, which went up beyond her hip.
“Hey, I could get to like the look,” Diana said appreciatively, running her eye along the exposed area of tanned skin. “But what’s this?” she asked, indicating a broad leather piece across the other woman’s chest. “No paint?”
Rell blushed deeply. “No. I’m not used to wandering about bare-chested, unlike some,” she said archly, looking at Diana’s naked breasts. Not that Rell didn’t enjoy the sight, but she preferred to have it kept to the privacy of their bed. “I damn near hurt myself trying to pantomime ‘bra’ to Antigone. Ardeen eventually came to my rescue. She thought I looked like a dying monkey trying to get Antigone to understand,” Rell laughed. Touching the leather strapped firmly across her chest, she explained, “They call this a pecho venda, a breast band. Some of the hunters wear them so they don’t scratch themselves when they start chasing game through the thicker parts of the jungle.”
“Guess I’m safe in assuming the entire morning turned into a language lesson,” Diana said.
“And how!” Rell almost snarled. “After I was dressed, Antigone took me for a tour of the village.” Settling next to Diana on the big, woolen blanket, she started to point out the areas she had seen that morning, giving them the names she’d learned. “Over there is the enredo corredor, a mess hall. Everyone eats there, including us tonight. There is the caliente la piscina, hot pool, and we slept in the curacion corredor last night, the healing hall,” she said. “And up there, on that terrace thing, is the adiestramiento el suelo, a training ground for the women here. It’s where they practice with their weapons and stuff.”
“For someone who spoke zero Spanish this morning, you’re doing okay,” Diana praised. “What other words did you pick up?”
“Just the one phrase, but I had to ask Ardeen how to say it otherwise it would have been another of those dying monkey pantomimes with Antigone,” she smiled at the mental image. “So I decided to ask Ardeen instead,” Rell said. Leaning towards the other woman, she whispered in her ear, “Yo encanta tu.”
The utter stillness settling over the tall woman rattled the reporter. “Did I say it wrong, Diana. Have I just insulted you in some way?” Rell asked, nervousness making her voice tremble.
“No. No, you said it exactly right. It’s just been a long time since anyone…” she trailed off for a moment. “It’s just been a long time since anyone said that to me, and meant it,” the woman explained.
“Well, I do mean it. I love you. But,” Rell paused for a moment, “I’d rather say it to you in Spanish. It just sounds, I don’t know, like it comes from my heart.”
Wrapping one arm around the stocky reporter and pulling her closer, Diana said, “You can say it in any language you like, if that’s the feeling it gives you.”
In the shared moment of emotional intimacy, neither woman was aware of the young Amazon coming towards them. Nervous of approaching the outsiders, especially as they seemed rather occupied looking into each other’s eyes, she stood back for several moments before clearing her throat.
“Oh, hola,” Diana greeted the woman. “Hacer tu queria algo?” she asked gently, sensing the teenager’s uneasiness. The former mercenary quickly translated for Rell’s benefit. “I asked her if she wanted something,” she explained under her breath as the young Amazon came closer.
Pointing at herself, she said her name ‘Leda’ before asking, “Lata yo traer tu algo alimento y agua?”
Nodding, Diana replied, “Si, por favor.”
Watching the woman trot away, Rell asked, “Okay, I know ‘si’ means yes, but what have you said yes to? Not another language lesson for the reporter, I hope. I don’t think I could take anymore in at the moment. I feel like my brain is about to explode.”
“Lunch,” Diana laughed. “Don’t think I haven’t heard your belly rumbling away for the past half hour. Didn’t you get breakfast this morning?” she asked, seriously.
“Not when I don’t know how to ask for it. If I almost hurt myself acting out ‘bra’, I probably would have fractured something vital trying for ‘coffee’. I wasn’t sure I would have recognized what Antigone brought me, anyway, so I decided not to chance it.” Rell explained, ruefully. Thinking for a moment, she asked, “How long you been under this tree, Diana?”
“Most of the morning. Once I was dressed in one of these standard leather skirts, the herb-woman made it very clear I wasn’t to move about too much. I think she was threatening to tie me to the bed if I stressed this rib again, but I’m not sure. Why do you ask?” Diana answered.
“Notice anything missing around here?” Rell questioned. “It should jump right out at you.”
Diana took several minutes to look around the square and as much of the basin as she could see. There was the slow drift of women heading to the mess hall, the occasional movement of guards high on the rim, the background sounds of people talking together, and the grunts and calls of jungle animals carrying on the breeze. The delicate scents of forest flowers filled the square, mixing with the appetizing smells of lunch. To Diana, nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. Whatever was supposed to be jumping out at her was evading her searching eyes and ears.
Shaking her head, she said, “I think you’re going to have to tell me. I can’t see anything missing.”
“There are no children here.”
Diana shook her head briefly, looking around the square. “You know, I never even noticed. I wonder where they’re hiding them?” She was disgusted with herself for not perceiving the absence of youngsters running about the village.
“Don’t kick yourself, Diana. I wasn’t aware of it either. We’ve both taken in so much new information, I’m surprised we still know our own names,” Rell replied. “I didn’t even realize the children were missing until Antigone took me up to the training ground. To be honest, I don’t think they are hiding the kids from us.”
“What gives you that idea?” Diana asked, one eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“Well, first of all, there are loads of classrooms up there in one long building, but there couldn’t have been more than half a dozen teenage girls occupying just one small room near the front. I thought that pretty odd to start with. I mean, why build such a big place if there will only be a few people using it?”
Diana nodded at Rell’s conclusion.
“Then Antigone took me to where she lives. That was when I realized there were no children here at all,” the reporter continued.
“Well, there was this one bedroom towards the back that must have been for a kid. It was just full of carved wooden toys, miniature weapons, all kinds of stuff, almost to overflowing, but they had no signs of wear. If someone were playing with them, surely they’d be scuffed. And Antigone had just the saddest look in her eyes,” Rell explained.
“A sad look?” Diana queried.
“Yea, like something important was missing, something that belonged in that room,” the reporter finished.
“Her child could have died or been killed,” the tall woman offered as an explanation. “This is fairly wild jungle around here. Not the sort of place I would willingly let kids roam.”
“Look around us, Diana. Everyone is heading for the mess hall for lunch, but can you see one child anywhere?” Rell asked, glancing at the small gatherings of women. “I’m willing to bet that the youngest person we have seen was Leda. She looked about, what, sixteen? She certainly wasn’t much more,” Rell stated firmly.
“So, there are no children. They may be hidden away while there are strangers here,” Diana said, pointing to herself and Rell.
“Okay, then. Where are the men?” Rell asked, sweeping one hand around.
“They’re Amazons, Rell. They don’t need men,” the tall woman growled, exasperated the reporter didn’t know something so simple.
“Diana, even Amazons procreate. They need a man or two around for that,” the stubborn woman replied, logically. “So, where are they?”
“Well, maybe they’re somewhere else, with the children, for example,” she offered, suddenly realizing she was on the losing end of the argument.
Rell sighed deeply at Diana’s intransigent attitude. “I was all over this village this morning. The only places I didn’t go were the leader’s house and the gray-stoned building on the far wall. These places are tiny, by the way. There simply isn’t anywhere in the basin to hide a bunch of noisy kids and enough men to ensure an adequate gene pool,” Rell finished triumphantly. “And don’t even try to tell me they’re outside the village somewhere. You said it yourself – it’s dangerous in the jungle. Do you think any mother is going to put her children in danger, simply to hide them from us? Come on, Diana. We’re just not that important. I’m telling you, there are no children here, and certainly no men.”
The tall woman stared off into the distance and silently grumped. She knew Rell was right, but just didn’t want to admit it out loud.
Diana realized her eyes had been open for some time before her awareness caught up with her. From deep inside her dreams, she thought she might have been awake, though now she was awake she wondered if she was still asleep. Glancing down at the quietly snoring woman nestled into her shoulder, the ex-mercenary smiled briefly at the tiny, sated smile gracing Rell’s face as she slept.
Whatever had woken her from the depths of slumber tugged at her soul again, and Diana looked about the room trying to identify the sound her ears were not really hearing. Lit by ghostly beams of moonlight, the details of the area could be clearly seen. Piled haphazardly on the bed next to them were the clothes they had nearly torn off each other in their haste to get into bed, their boots leaning drunkenly against themselves on the floor. Draped a little more tidily over the end of the bed were two beautifully woven robes of fine wool the Amazons had given them to wear to the hot pools, or before getting dressed. The leather sheet over the door rippled gently in the soft breeze, bringing with it the heady scent of night-blooming flowers. Along the walls, the closets and clothing presses stood as silent sentinels in the dark corners. Whatever had woken her was obviously not in the room.
Sharpening her ears, she could just make out the sound of footfall as a guard slowly paced her circuit around the village. In the distance, there was the ever-present background rumble of forest creatures as they hunted for food or mates in the darkness. The whisper of conversation reached her ears as two guards passed on their circuits, briefly exchanging greetings before continuing on. A muted cry of pleasure drifted through the open window, bringing a smile to Diana’s face as she remembered a few cries she and Rell had made earlier in the evening. Clearly, whatever had dragged her from the deep whirlpool of her dreams wasn’t coming from outside.
Unable to resist the gentle pull, Diana slid carefully from Rell’s embrace, grateful she didn’t wake the other woman. Dressing quickly and silently in her leather skirt, not bothering with her boots, she crept from the room, determined to track down the source of the not-quite-sound she was experiencing.
After soundlessly exiting the building, she stood for several minutes, allowing her eyes to adjust to the increased light from the full moon and the torches burning cheerfully around the village square. Hmmm, not as late as I thought, she mused. After the cool darkness of the healing hall, the bright light caused Diana’s eyes to water, blurring her vision. She waited until the tearing settled so she could see.
She listened for the guards before letting the insistent pull guide her steps. A part of her wasn’t surprised to find herself outside the gray-stoned. Another part wondered what the building was used for. Stepping over the threshold, into a small antechamber, Diana quickly realized, just from the carvings on the walls and the decorated altar, that it was a space sacred to the Amazons.
Towards the back, she noticed archways leading deeper into the mountain. Most were dark, open spaces beckoning her to explore, but one had a painted leather drape hiding whatever lay beyond. Diana was tempted to step through one of the open doorways, just to see what was on the other side but she found her eyes being drawn back to the altar again and again. She had to admit, it was a beautiful piece of work, carved from one solid block of pure white marble, and brought here somehow.
By the candlelight along the walls, Diana could make out the finely wrought carving of a stunning woman with long, flowing hair running through a forest, a bow in one hand. Around the main image, there were smaller ones of grouped Amazons. Squinting a little in the candlelight, the dark-haired woman could see the reliefs told a story. The one that caught her eye immediately, showed a large group of women boarding a sailing vessel, their possessions piled in their arms. Running her glance over the rest of the carvings, she saw they described the Amazons’ journey across the ocean and over the land, until they finally reached the volcanic basin. Nice to have that old scroll confirmed, she thought. Now that the story was corroborated, Diana’s skepticism began to abate.
Once she was inside the marble-floored room, the pull she had been feeling grew stronger, tugging her gently towards the altar. Padding silently on bare feet across the cool floor, she approached the marble altar, seeing something lying on top of it. In the flickering light of the candles, she couldn’t quite make out what was there until she was standing right in front of the waist high stone.
Placed side by side on the polished marble top were a sword and a staff. Diana glanced briefly at the staff, noting a small piece of fur at one end and rope crisscrossed halfway along, just inside where someone would have held it. But the sword was what captured her complete attention.
To Diana, it was an instrument of lethal beauty. After years of studying ancient styles of warfare, she had gained quite an appreciation for old weaponry. A little over two and half feet long, with what appeared to be a solid brass hilt and pommel, the sword almost glowed in the light. A simple black leather strip carefully bound the grip, and there were three circles of shell inlaid into the hilt. Catching the light, the shell seemed to wink luminously in a rainbow of colors. The blade had probably been sharpened hundreds, if not thousands of times, giving it an edge keener than a razor. As the candlelight shattered along the edge, it became a living entity, a bolt of living lightning shaped and forged into this deadly blade.
Not understanding the impulse, she slowly reached out with her right hand, and wrapped hesitant fingers around the grip. Almost reverently, she lifted the sword from its place on the altar, feeling the comforting weight of the weapon settling into her palm. A mild tingle, like a shiver, swept up her arm and through her body. In many ways, it felt like being aroused, yet it was different at the same time. Stepping back, she experimentally swung the sword in a tight circle beside her head. Smiling, she realized the blade was like an extension of her arm, and not something made of steel and brass. Moving back further, well away from the altar, she began swinging the blade in a complicated series of movements in front and to the side of her body. She was almost laughing at the ease of the pattern. It seemed so natural, as though she had been doing it all her life. Bouncing nimbly on her toes, she began a series of tight, fast patterns in front of herself, the blade becoming a bright, silver-gray blur, the candlelight arcing from its edge like sparks.
Suddenly leaping upward, she somersaulted, laying her body out in mid-air before landing several feet from her original position, the sword slashing through the air with a whistle. Running, she bounced off a wall, using it to flip over before landing on her feet once more with the blade in front of her, ready to parry or thrust. It became like a child’s game. How far, how fast, how high, always having the sword ready to defend or attack. Still leaping and jumping, Diana added the high sweeping kicks she had learned as a mercenary, punching out with her other hand at unseen opponents. Without even having to look, she always knew where to place her feet, or what she could grip with her free hand to spin herself off in some unexpected direction, or land in some unforeseen place. The open space inside the temple became her own personal three-dimensional chessboard, and she alone controlled every move, every piece in play.
Safely hidden behind the leather curtain leading into her meditation area, Ardeen watched with amazed delight through a tiny crack between the leather and the door frame. Diana’s lethal ballet, her dance of death with sword and body, confirmed everything she knew or had sensed about the dark-haired woman. The healer is going to have Diana’s heart on a platter tomorrow for stressing that rib so soon, the old woman smiled to herself, but I doubt that warrior is even feeling it right now. The old priestess was stunned as Diana appeared to stand full length on her head after a high bounce off one wall. One arm was outstretched towards the ground with the other flung sideways keeping her balanced in space as she turned, the point of the sword missing the marble floor by a hair. Then again, I might have her heart on a platter myself if she scratches my floor, Ardeen growled silently.
Completely enthralled by the display of ability and strength, the last priestess of the Amazon Nation prayed the other outsider would also hear the call of her destiny.
Rell stirred briefly, reaching out sleepily for Diana. When her arm encountered nothing but the empty furs beside her, Rell suddenly snapped awake. “Now where did she get to?” the stocky reporter mumbled aloud. “She can’t have gone to the bathroom. We’ve got that pot thing under the bed.”
Rell had been a little embarrassed when Diana had casually reached under the bed earlier in the evening and seated herself on the pot as though she were taking the royal throne. The short woman knew the Amazon equivalent of a bathroom was on the other side of the village. She hadn’t looked forward to the long walk if she needed to go in the night, but she didn’t think she could have used the pot either. It didn’t matter to her that Diana would be the only one to see her.
Even when the two women had traveled through the jungle together, Rell had always sought out the privacy of a bush before relieving herself. It was just one of those things with her. The luxury of being that modest, either in the jungle or here in the village, had not crossed Diana’s mind for a moment. She was used to being in very close contact with a small army of ill-mannered men. “When a woman wants to go, she goes,” the taller woman had stated calmly from her position near the floor.
“Okay, if she isn’t doing her I-am-a-jungle-queen bit on the pot, where the hell did she get to?” the reporter asked herself. Feeling the warmth of the empty furs next to her, Rell figured the other woman hadn’t been gone too long. She could also smell the scent of their love making rising as the heat slowly dissipated into the cool night air.
Looking around, Rell noticed Diana’s skirt was gone but her boots were still on the floor. “This is becoming more and more curious,” she muttered, climbing from the bed. Grabbing her robe draped over the end of the bed, Rell quietly left the room, hoping to find Diana nearby.
As she left the building, she chose to follow her nose, trusting instinct to lead her to Diana. It was a technique she had used in the past to find people, and it did occasionally work. She hoped the strong connection between them would permit that odd knack to work now. Walking quietly through the sleeping village, she allowed an intuitive pull to gently guide her through the huts; she somehow knew when to stop to avoid a guard or sentry. Rell didn’t think there would be any trouble wandering about the village at night but felt it was better if she didn’t have to explain her presence to anyone.
In a way, Rell wasn’t the least bit surprised to find herself outside the gray-stone building. It was the only building, other than the leader’s quarters, that Antigone hadn’t shown her. Diana had expressed some interest in the building’s purpose, but Rell hadn’t been able to supply an answer.
“Trust her to want to know everything. I’m surprised she didn’t just march on over to the leader’s hut and demand a tour of the place,” Rell said quietly to herself. Poking her nose cautiously past the edge of the doorway leading into the antechamber, in case some guard decided to relieve her of the appendage, Rell was astonished to see Diana’s body sailing at a seemingly impossible angle, past the door into the next room.
“Shit,” she mouthed as she ducked quickly through both doorways and into the main chamber.
She caught one brief glimpse of Diana swinging from a bar high on a wall with one hand, a sword slashing through the air. Then, something at the end of the room grabbed her complete attention. Rell’s head snapped to one side as though someone had shouted urgently to her. Something twisted her towards the white marble altar. Walking slowly, she approached the slab, her eyes fixed on a long wooden staff lying there.
The staff was few inches over five feet long, and Rell could clearly see the dark stains where someone’s hands had long ago held the wood. A small piece of off-white fur had been lashed to one end with leather strips and rope had been wound in a crisscross fashion near the middle. Reaching out, her own hands naturally fell onto the darker patches. She lifted the staff from the altar and held it out in front of her, feeling a slight shiver through her body.
Turning away from the altar, she spun the staff slowly between her hands, feeling the weight of the wood as it rotated end over end. There was a familiar feeling to what she was doing, as though she had done it a thousand times before. Rell suddenly stopped the staff spinning and dropped to one knee, swinging the staff to one side in what would have been a vicious swipe against the back of someone’s legs. If there had been an opponent there, he would have been flat on his back now with a broken bone or two.
Jumping to her feet again, she spun in place, the staff a dark blur in her sure hands. The cool stone floor felt absolutely secure under her bare feet, and her woolen robe became a fanciful dragon’s wing as she turned. Lashing out with one end, she hit an imaginary attacker solidly in the gut before bouncing to one side. Rell snapped through a series of movements, bringing the staff underhand, overhead, back thrust, slice. Each movement shaded seamlessly into the next so involuntarily, it was as though she was breathing her way through every step. Rell knew, without knowing how, that she was gauging her strikes to a hair. With this staff she could disable, or kill, simply by choosing to put a little more force behind the blow.
Gradually, as she moved with the staff, an awareness was growing in her, a feeling for the immediate space surrounding her body she’d never had. She could sense what was behind her without have to turn around. The awareness flooded through her, awakening other things as it passed. Over time, it would awaken a slow understanding of who she really was. That fragment of self-knowledge however, would remain just beyond the reach of her consciousness until she was ready to accept it.
Diana had known of Rell’s arrival in the temple from the very moment the reporter’s nose had crept cautiously around the corner of the antechamber door. A sense she didn’t understand had warned her of the other woman’s presence moments before Rell had popped through the second archway. Caught on an upswing as she flipped over the bar, she didn’t have a chance to say a word before the stocky reporter’s attention had focused elsewhere. Dropping lightly to the ground, sword still held in her hand, she had watched as the short woman approached the altar and lifted the staff.
As Rell turned to face the main area of the marble chamber, oblivious to everything around her. There was a look in her eyes that Diana was sure mirrored her own. She watched as the other woman began to spin the staff slowly, then move into a series of sharp-edged, graceful patterns. Just as the sword was a part of Diana’s own body, the staff seemed to be a part of Rell’s. The reporter’s movements were precise and deadly, designed to kill or maim depending on Rell’s will. How Diana knew this, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that the staff was meant to be in Rell’s hands, as though it had been made specifically for her height and strength. In the same uncanny way she knew the sword had been made for her.
When the pattern of rapid movement finally wound down, leaving Rell standing in the middle of the chamber barely out of breath, Diana quietly approached.
“I see you’ve found a new toy to play with,” she said, glancing at the staff Rell held confidently in one hand.
“It’s not a toy, Diana. It’s a weapon,” Rell replied, arching her eyebrow at the taller woman. “It’s my weapon, my staff,” she finished a little uncertainly, not understanding how she knew the staff belonged to her. Dragging the focus from herself, she looked at the sword in Diana’s hand. “Interesting. You appear to have found something to play with yourself,” she said lightly.
The dark-haired woman held the blade out in front of her, looking at it in wonder. “I can’t explain it, Rell. Somehow, in a way I’m not sure I understand, this sword is as much mine as that staff is yours,” she said. Gazing back at the other woman, she continued, “I think we had better put these back where they belong. The Amazons might not be too happy to find us touching something they think is special in some way.”
Nodding, the two women turned as one to return the weapons to their place on the altar. Both had to fight with themselves, reluctant to release the weapons. Finally forcing their fingers open, they snatched their hands away from the marble top, and quickly wrapped their arms about each other to stop themselves from trying to pick up the weapons again. The siren call was so powerful it took every ounce of self-control Diana possessed to turn herself and Rell away from the altar and towards the door of the temple.
Even outside, both women could still feel the weapons pulling at their souls, crying for them to return and claim what they knew in the deepest chasms of their hearts to be their own. Almost running to get away from the temple and the weapons, the women headed back through the peacefully sleeping village towards the healing hall and their bed.
Only when Ardeen was absolutely certain the two outsiders would not return to the temple, did she finally step from her hiding place behind the leather curtain. She had watched as the women had struggled to release their weapons, almost staggering as they forced themselves to leave the chamber. Wiping joyful tears from her old and wrinkled face, she approached the altar, looking down on the sword and staff. Brushing her fingers lightly along the front edge of the waist-high slab, she quietly said, “Thank you, Artemis. Thank you.”
Gathering her thoughts, she turned to leave the temple. This night she was sure she would be waking Meropa with some very glad news. Just before crossing the threshold, she turned and whispered into the chamber one more time, “Thank you.” Pulling her gown about herself, she hurried into the darkness towards the leader’s hut.
After their visit to the temple, both women had tossed and turned restlessly for some time once they’d returned to bed. Neither was quite willing to discuss her feelings, or how the weapons were calling to them. Eventually, with a sense of exasperated relief, they had turned to each other for support and comfort. They had made love for hours, until they were both so exhausted they couldn’t even moan their release into the night. Pushing each other’s mind and body as far as possible, they were barely able to shudder as the pleasurable wave crashed over them time and again. Twined together as one, their fingers still sunk deeply into each other’s wellspring, they had dropped into a deep sleep at almost the same moment.
Rell woke first, trying to make sense of her surroundings before opening her eyes. The screaming need to hold that staff in her hands again had eased off during the night, making her even more aware than usual of the other aches and pains around her body. Comfortably embraced in Diana’s arms, she quickly cataloged her twinges and bruises. The sensation of Diana’s fingers still imbedded deeply inside her made the short woman very aware of how sore her power pinnacle now felt. Hmmm, won’t be doing that again any time soon, she thought to herself, remembering the almost driven way they had made love, trying to wipe everything else from their minds.
Wriggling her own fingers briefly, she realized they were also still inside the other woman. The sensation quickly brought Diana from the depths of sleep, muttering, “No. Please. Not again. I think I’m going to die if you make me come any more, Rell.”
“Okay, I won’t, if you won’t,” Rell replied quietly, opening her eyes for the first time since she had woken. Gazing into the endless blue of Diana’s eyes, a warm, safe feeling stole over her. “I don’t think I could, anyway. We pretty much wore each other out last night,” she said.
Diana smiled in return, slowly withdrawing her fingers from Rell, sure the other woman was probably just as sore. “Everyone is going to think we’ve been riding for a month when we can’t get our legs back together again,” she quipped quickly to cover the slight grimace on her face as Rell removed her own fingers.
Carefully rolling onto her back, trying to ignore the raw feeling at her center, Rell immediately noticed that the area around their bed had changed. “”Ummm, Diana?”
“Yea,” the other woman replied, still trying to turn over without hurting her rib. The ache seemed even worse than the day before, but then again, she hadn’t been bouncing off temple walls yesterday either. Why didn’t I noticed the pain last night? she wondered.
“I know I didn’t bring them, and I am pretty sure you didn’t, so how’d they get here?” Rell asked, a mixture of longing and surprise in her voice.
The dark-haired woman looked at the end of the bed where Rell’s eyes were now firmly focused. Leaning against the horizontal wooden bar was the staff Rell had been using. Next to it, hanging from the post was the sheathed sword.
“You don’t suppose they followed us home, do you?”
“Even if they did, we’re not keeping them,” Diana replied, using one elbow to push herself higher in the bed.
“I can’t see why not,” Ardeen said, pulling aside the leather curtain covering the door.
Her appearance was so unexpected Rell “eeped” in fright.
Shuffling over to the bed, Ardeen took a long moment to assess the two women before continuing. “They are your weapons, after all, so I can’t see any reason why you shouldn’t have them. Both the sword and the staff have made it quite obvious who they belong to, even if the women concerned aren’t willing to accept them yet,” she said, brushing a light finger over the fur at the top of the staff. “Are you going to risk the displeasure of Artemis by denying her clear wish that these weapons be placed in your hands?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Diana threw her best my-way-or-no-way glare at the old woman. She was startled when Ardeen met her glare for glare, and didn’t back down. It was only then that the ex-mercenary realized the Amazon priestess probably had a core of steel the equal of her own, earned by trying to keep her people alive and hidden in an increasingly technological world.
“Okay. We keep them,” Diana finally answered, reluctantly. The tall ex-mercenary could see the secretive little smile growing on the old priestess’ face the moment she accepted the weapons. Why do I get the feeling we aren’t being given a choice here? she wondered. What have I got myself into?
Several days later, Diana was starting to think wearing the sword was not such a bad thing after all. It certainly changed the way the other women acted towards her. It was as though they hadn’t been sure of how to treat her before, yet with the sword strapped across her back, they now accepted the outsider as one of them. It was a strange feeling to Diana, who was more used to people turning away from her once they knew of her past. She felt a part of herself settling down, as though she belonged among the Amazons.
The day she and Rell had accepted the weapons, Ardeen had all but hustled them from the healing hall and over to a small hut just off the main square of the village. Plain and utilitarian, it suited Diana’s simple tastes completely. All around the series of rooms, there were little touches of color and texture which spoke quietly to Rell, making her feel at home as well. The front entrance opened onto a common room filled with comfortable chairs and cushions – enough to seat several people easily without cluttering the room. Through the common room was their bedroom, with a wide window letting in light and the breezes that blew through the basin. Off the bedroom was a small curtained alcove where the ever-present pot was located. This tidy, and more importantly, private arrangement, convinced even the modest Rell to use it at night. On one side of the common room was a small area they could use to prepare snacks; most of their main meals were taken at the mess hall with the rest of the village. The shelving built against the walls was bare for the moment, though Rell seemed to be gathering quite a collection of little carved knickknacks and molded pottery animals.
Thinking of the stocky reporter drew Diana’s eyes back to the training ground where the short woman was testing her skills against Antigone. It was clear Rell knew how to use her staff, but was still a little slow to react to her opponent; she was still trying to strengthen unused muscles. Most of Diana’s and Rell’s bruises had faded to yellow, but Rell was sporting a brand new black eye after not ducking fast enough from a swift strike from the hunter. Good thing I wasn’t here when that happened, Diana thought to herself. I probably would have killed Antigone without even thinking about it.
Diana felt someone move up beside her to watch the two women as their staffs crashed violently. Only Antigone’s superior strength saved her from losing her weapon altogether. Rell grinned cheekily as she spun away.
“She improves with the speed of the black jaguar,” a now familiar voice said quietly. It was a voice both women had gotten to know quite well over the past several days. “Perhaps it is time to see if the night cat screams in your blood too, yes?” Meropa asked hopefully, turning to face the dark-haired woman beside her. “The healer said you could train today, but only a little. She still thinks you are not well enough yet to swing that sword. I think, perhaps, it has been a pain in the butt waiting.”
“You’ve been talking to Rell again. Your English is also improving with the speed of that jaguar,” Diana replied, laughing. “But yes, it has been a ‘pain in the butt’ coming up here every day and then only being allowed to watch.” Not that watching Rell has been too dull, she thought. In fact, she really is quite beautiful when she starts swinging that staff around.
“Well, let’s hope the pain in your ribs does not slow you too much,” Meropa said. “I will be easy on you today, but tomorrow we train as warriors.”
Diana snorted in reply, drawing the sword from its sheath on her back. Once again, she was entranced by the sound of the metallic slither as the weapon left the leather. Every time Diana drew the blade she could almost feel the power pulsing up from the earth under her feet and through her body. The niggling ache in her side disappeared from her consciousness, and she felt her awareness heighten just like the first time she’d held the sword. Facing off in front of the Amazon leader, she waited to see what the older woman would use as an opening move.
She sensed the thrust a split second before Meropa made the move and easily parried the blow. Spinning on her toes, she flung out her left fist, striking the older woman just below the ribs as she stumbled past. There was no real force in the punch but if there had been, Meropa would now be gasping for breath. Eyebrows raised respectfully, the Amazon leader was a little more circumspect with her next attack.
They sparred back and forth for several minutes, Meropa quickly deciding, after almost losing her own sword to a lightning fast move, that the healer’s admonishments about being easy on the tall woman were little more than an old woman’s ranting. She made a fast outside turn, bringing her sword over her head in a solid backhanded blow. Meropa was amazed when Diana’s sword blocked the hit, not wavering a hair. She had expected the young woman to simply move out of the way. The stories are true, she thought to herself, backing away from Diana. Two thousand cycles we have waited, but the Warrior Princess has returned, just like the prophecy said she would. Sweet Artemis, I have to be sure though. There’s too much depending on this to be wrong.
Using her eyes, Meropa caught the attention of several women now standing around watching. Placing them in a circle with a tilt of her head, the Amazon leader came at the dark-haired woman again. Using Meropa’s charge as their signal, the rest of the women lunged forward at the same time.
Rell had stood to one side with Antigone, watching the session between Diana and Meropa until the warriors began circling the tall woman.
“Hey! That’s not fair,” she snapped at the Amazon by her side. “Diana still has a broken rib.”
Antigone simply shrugged her shoulders, not understanding, though Rell’s meaning was pretty clear from the way she was bristling at the sight of all the women swinging their weapons towards the center of the circle.
Coming in from behind, Rell whipped the legs out from under two of the warriors, nimbly jumping their prone bodies to push her way into the circle with Diana.
Diana found herself in the center of a circle of flashing blades as warriors attacked from all sides. In a quick-silver blur of motion, she was defending against the concentrated push of the other women. Her heightened awareness warned her of approaching strikes, managing to deflect them moments before they would have gotten through. Spinning and ducking, she almost laughed as women found themselves tangling the blades of their companions in an effort to get to her. Her awareness of her surroundings suddenly told her of a body standing right behind her.
“Are we having fun yet?” Rell suddenly asked from behind, the sound of a blade cracking loudly against her staff.
“Don’t know about you, but I certainly am,” Diana replied, blocking a lunge before lightly tossing her opponent through the circle and onto the ground, where the woman had the good sense to stay.
“Okay, just so long as you’re enjoying yourself,” the stocky reporter commented, swiping a weapon from another woman’s hand. The disarmed warrior decided backing off might be a good idea.
Word of what was happening on the training ground had spread like wildfire, bringing warriors from every corner of the village, weapons drawn. In less than fifteen minutes, there wasn’t a single Amazon left standing, Meropa included. Rell and Diana stood where they had been defending themselves, covered in sweat and breathing hard. To outside appearances, the fight had been quite savage but no real damage had been done. The worst of the injuries were the odd bloody nose or painful bruise.
Ardeen, having heard the sound of many swords clashing violently, had hurried as fast as her old bones would allow to see what all the noise was about. Spotting the circle of warriors surrounding Rell and Diana, the Amazon priestess leaned against the fence and waited for it to finish. Once it had, and warriors were starting to pull themselves back to their feet, she crossed to Meropa.
“Didn’t believe me when I told you they are the Chosen of Artemis, did you?” she said pointedly. “No, you had to test them yourself.” Helping Meropa to her feet, she looked her in the eye, ignoring the bright crimson flow dripping off her chin from a bloody nose. “Now do you believe who they are?”
“I just had to make sure, Ardeen. It has been two thousand cycles, after all. I mean…”
“It’s okay, my old friend. Change comes hard after so long. They had to be tested in combat sooner or later. I just wish you had let me know that today was going to be the day,” the old priestess replied gently. “Come on. Let’s get that nose of yours seen to. I just hope it isn’t broken.”
Looking back over her shoulder towards the two outsiders standing closely together chatting quietly, she commented, “It was worth it, Old One.” Turning to face Ardeen again, she continued, “Invite them by for eve-meal tonight. I think it’s time they knew.”
Nodding in agreement, the old priestess assisted the slightly dazed leader from the training ground.
“There, that should hold it,” Rell said, tightly knotting the woven fiber dressing around Diana’s fractured rib. “At least until you decide to do that deadly ballet of yours again. I just wish we’d thought to bring some of the electroplast with us before we climbed into the tunnel.”
“Oh, this stuff isn’t too bad,” the tall woman commented, levering herself up on the bed.
“But it doesn’t stick, and every time you breathe too deeply, it gets loose again. How is your rib going to get any support if the damned strapping is forever slipping down to your waist,” Rell almost wailed, before jumping up from the side of the bed. Pacing over to the window, she looked out at the greenery that had been encouraged to grow right up to the walls of the hut, hiding any other buildings from view.
“God, Diana. I’d give just about anything for something as simple as a bloody safety pin,” she snorted, annoyed. “Or a zipper, or even a cup of that awful instant coffee they serve on airplanes.”
“You sound a little homesick,” the taller woman observed quietly.
“No. I’m not a little homesick, Diana. I’m a LOT homesick. I miss reading the paper at the start of the day, or being able to call someone on the phone. I miss shouting at the evening news on television, or eating a chili dog so spicy my eyes water. I miss the sound of traffic as I go to sleep at night and the smell of fresh smog when I wake up in the morning. I miss a bathroom with a real door, and a toilet that flushes, and a hot and cold running shower. I even miss tampons; here, all we have is that moss stuff,” Rell explained, her voice thick with suppressed tears. “I miss having choices here,” she whispered to herself.
“Rell, you’ve been away from home before, sometimes for several months. Why get homesick now?” Diana asked.
Turning to face the dark-haired woman, Rell snarled angrily, “When I was away from home before, I wasn’t away from all the civilized things at the same time. Everything here is so bloody primitive I’m surprised they’ve survived this long. You might be used to living in the middle of a damned jungle where the closest you get to civilized behavior is remembering to eat with a fork, but I’m fucking well not!”
The other woman quickly rose to her feet, wrapping her strong arms around the angry and upset woman. Gently kissing her on the top of her head, she mumbled, “It’ll be all right, Rell. You’ll see.”
Shoving Diana’s arms away and moving back, Rell shouted in raw fury, “NO! IT’S NOT GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT UNTIL I GET BACK TO THE REAL WORLD AND AWAY FROM THIS FANTASY STUCK IN THE PAST!” Turning abruptly, snatching up her staff as she passed the door, Rell stormed off into the night, the waves of pure rage radiating ahead of her, clearing the path until she was well up the gently sloping wall of the volcanic basin.
The dark-haired woman watched Rell’s progress through the village until she was out of sight. The hurt and confusion in her eyes not being remarked upon by the few people close enough to see her standing forlornly in the doorway. Turning back to the common room, she strapped the sword to her back in well-practiced movements, while trying to think of how to diplomatically make excuses for Rell’s absence at dinner tonight. Leaving the hut, she glanced towards the rim of the basin, catching one last glimpse of Rell’s silhouette against the deep purple-black sky as the stubborn little reporter crossed the top of the ridge. Sighing deeply, Diana started walking towards the leader’s hut and what promised to be a less than comfortable dinner with Meropa and Ardeen.
Entering the leader’s home with Meropa, Diana was surprised to see the young Amazon trainee, Leda, efficiently clearing away a fourth place setting at the small table. Glancing at the older woman, Diana raised an eyebrow in silent question.
“She was rather noisy when she left,” Meropa said, dropping her head for a moment. “For someone who appears so sweet-natured, she certainly has quite the temper.”
“Rell just needs to be alone for a little while,” the tall woman offered by way of explanation. “So much has happened over the past few weeks that I was kinda expecting her to blow a lot earlier than this.” To be completely truthful, Diana hadn’t been expecting anything of the sort. She had simply assumed Rell was as comfortable with the village lifestyle as she felt herself. It wasn’t like they could go anywhere while her rib was still healing. The irrational anger associated with Rell’s homesickness had taken her totally by surprise.
“Perhaps, all she needs is time. It is a difficult step she is being asked to take,” Meropa replied cryptically.
Diana’s eyebrow rose again in another silent question, but before she had an opportunity to ask for an explanation, Ardeen walked slowly into the common room, feet dragging slightly. Her arms were filled, almost to overflowing, with rolled bundles of paper-like material. The taller woman jumped forward to catch several before they slipped from the old woman’s arms.
“Thank you, child,” she said gratefully. “I didn’t realize I was going to need so many of these tonight,” Ardeen continued, shooting a look at the Amazon leader.
“You’d probably fit the entire lot on a single floppy,” Diana offered, without really thinking about what she was saying.
“A single floppy what?” both older women questioned together.
Diana laughed, suddenly realizing no one here had ever seen a computer, much less knew what one was. “Oh, it’s something from the outside, a computer. You might find it useful for storing all kinds of things in,” she explained.
“Like grain or fleece?” Meropa asked, always looking for ways to increase their storage capacity.
“Ummm, no. More like information. Like these paper things, for example.”
“It’s something we might look into later,” Ardeen said amicably, dropping the rest of her scrolls onto the table. Glancing about quickly, she decided not to say anything about Rell’s absence, having heard her shouting from the antechamber of the temple. “For the moment, we will just have to use these to explain the prophecy, and everything else,” she continued, indicating the pile of scrolls.
As Meropa came around the table, she raised her own eyebrow at the old priestess. Change was one thing, but she thought Ardeen might be going too far to want something like a com-put-er in the village. They had survived quite nicely without whatever it was, so there wasn’t any need to change things that much, prophecy or no prophecy.
“You know about the prophecy?” Diana gasped.
“Who do you think left it, and the journey chronicles, on Illha de Maraca in the first place? Of course we know about the prophecy,” Ardeen replied archly, dropping her aching body into a chair. “Put your jaw back on it’s hinge, Diana, and sit down. We can explain everything while we eat.”
Hesitating for a moment, and wishing more than ever that Rell had not stormed off so angrily, Diana lowered herself into a chair. She had known these were the women spoken of in the journey chronicles, but with so much happening in the village, and between herself and Rell, she’d barely had time to think it through. She certainly hadn’t thought beyond what would happen once she’d found the Amazons and fulfilled the prophecy. So much for remaining completely focussed, she mused, picking up her spoon. Listening carefully as the explanation progressed, Diana barely noticed what she was eating. Meropa and Ardeen slowly answered all the questions she had carried in her mind for so long.
Centuries before, there really had been a warrior woman named Xena, who traveled with a storyteller. The bard, Gabrielle, had been crowned an Amazon princess after trying to save the life of the Queen’s sister. Although she had failed in her attempt, the Right of Caste had been passed to her. The bard honored the memory of the Queen’s sister by accepting her role in the Nation, even though she was young and untried as a warrior. A few years later, the bard found herself as Queen of the Amazon Nation after the first Queen had been killed in single combat. Somehow, Gabrielle had arranged for one of the other warriors to act as Regent in her place so she could continue to travel with Xena.
More years passed. Finally the warrior decided it was time to stop traveling and settle in one place. That place had been among the Amazons. Accepting her position as the Queen’s Consort, she helped Gabrielle rule the Nation peacefully until their deaths. Oddly enough, they had died within a single day of each other. The legend said it was because they couldn’t stand to be separated, not even by death.
Just before Xena and Gabrielle passed beyond, a priestess had foreseen the demise of the Amazon Nation. The cause would be internal strife and the political machinations of some warriors desiring to take the Mask of Queen as their own, even though a successor had been fairly chosen. To try to keep the spirit of the Nation alive, Xena and Gabrielle arranged for small, hand-picked groups of Amazons to be scattered like seeds to the four winds, taking up residence in new homes in the farthest corners of the world.
One group that was to travel over the edge of the world and into the unknown, was given the sword and staff of the Queen and Consort. The group was given a series of prophecies and instructions; one prophecy was to be left on an island near to where the Amazons moved inland. The group then headed for a volcanic basin seen by the priestess in a vision dream. The journey chronicles were also to be left with the prophesy on the island so when the spirit of the warrior was ready to return, she would know who she was and how to find the remnants of the Amazon Nation in the trackless depths of the jungle.
But the prophecy left on the island had a condition placed upon it; only when the spirit of the warrior was reunited with the spirit of the bard, would both be able to pass through the Portal of Birth and return to their rightful place among the Amazons. Once there, the Nation would again thrive and grow as it had all those centuries before.
“And I am a direct descendant of this warrior, Xena?” Diana asked in wonder.
“You don’t seem to understand, child,” Ardeen answered. “To us, to this small fragment of the Amazon Nation, you are Xena. Her spirit is your spirit. How would you explain your ease with that sword when you have never held such a weapon?” the priestess pointed out logically.
“You’re right in assuming I’d never used a sword before this week but…” she started, then was struck with another thought. “Does this mean that Rell is supposed to carry Gabrielle’s spirit?” she asked.
“Yes. And in time, she will take my place as leader of the Nation. The Amazons will have a true Queen again,” Meropa replied, happily.
“You sound almost pleased with the idea,” Diana commented, trying to take in everything she’d heard.
“I’m not looking forward to laying my responsibilities aside when the time comes for me to pass over, but to hand the fate of the Nation to one such as our Queen does give my old heart a lot of joy,” the Amazon leader said seriously. “We have been slowly dying here in the basin. No men have come anywhere near our usual hunting grounds for many cycles now, and to move any further out in search of them would expose us to far too much danger. We left as many guideposts as possible to help you and your soulmate find us, but we were not permitted to help you until you found us yourselves. This was part of the testing Artemis decided you needed before your arrival.”
“The rhyme I have been hearing for years!” Diana suddenly realized. “Those were the sign posts you were leaving for me.”
Meropa and Ardeen nodded in agreement.
“Okay, I found my way to the plateau but until I brought Rell with me, how did you get me back to my campsite without my knowing about it?” the tall woman asked suspiciously.
Ardeen looked at Meropa before answering. “The pool on the plateau where you would drink,” she said.
Diana looked confused, not quite understanding what the old priestess meant.
“There is sap from a certain tree that grows in the jungle,” Ardeen explained. “As soon as a scout spotted you climbing up to the plateau, we would pour a little into the water. Not enough to cloud it, as too much would have killed you. We would put in just enough to make you sleep deeply for a few days. Then a small group of hunters and warriors would carry you through the trees back to your starting point.”
“But that’s over two weeks away from here,” the tall woman exclaimed.
“Cutting your way through the jungle overland, maybe. Through the branches, we can do the same journey in a matter of days. There are no faster travelers than Amazons moving through the tree tops,” Meropa said with some pride.
“Okay, with all your prophecies and plotting,” Diana said, eyeing both women distrustfully, “What does it all mean to Rell and me in the end?”
“Exactly as we have stated. You both have a place here with us…Rell as our Queen and you as her Consort. What is left of the Nation is slowly dying, and only with the hope you have given us, will we survive,” Meropa said quietly. “We are asking you to stay.”
“I need…I need to think about that for a while,” the tall woman replied, stunned. Part of her had been expecting the offer, but it was still a surprise to hear the old leader make it so clear. After so long with no real home, no real purpose in her life, except to try to make up for her darkly shrouded past, it was almost too much for Diana to accept. A real home, with people who need my help and experience. If only Rell were here right now, she thought.
“We have waited over two thousand cycles for you to come home to us, Diana. We can wait a little longer,” Ardeen said gently, patting the dazed woman’s arm.
Rell scrambled down the side of the basin, skidding along the path with no thought of her own safety. The guards and scouts who heard her coming knew she was angry, and had enough sense to stay completely out of sight. The reporter eventually found herself on a narrow, winding track, the beaten earth barely visible in the moonlight. Following it around, she was surprised when it finally ended on the rock overhang under which she and Diana had camped some days before. Looking nervously over the edge, she could just make out the small circle of stones Diana had used to contain their fire.
From her position high above the plateau, she could clearly see what was not discernible from the ground below. Looping from both sides of the overhang, tiny trails lead down to the rocky clearing, weaving their hidden way through the jumble of fallen stones and boulders; the one closest to her ended just behind the small pool where she had bathed. If either herself or Diana had moved just a few more paces forward, they would have spotted the trail, and an easier way up to the top.
“So much for nearly killing ourselves in that bloody tunnel. These tracks are so well hidden, it’s as though somebody wanted us to take the tunnel,” she muttered to herself. Following the path down, using her staff to balance on the steeper parts, Rell made her slow and careful way to the campsite. After her flying descent from the rim, the reporter decided she’d tempted fate quite enough for one night.
“I guess they have someone watching, so I’m probably safe here tonight,” Rell mumbled. “They’ll pass word back to Diana, letting her know where I am.”
Part of her wanted to be back with the other woman, but a louder part was telling her to run. Everything that had been happening over the past several days had left her feeling she had lost control over her own destiny. Rell felt she had struggled too hard and too long for independence, and she wasn’t about to give up that freedom for anything, perhaps not even to remain with Diana.
Sighing deeply, she sank down next to the cold ashes from the fire, trying to make sense of what had really been happening with her since meeting the tall woman. The constant breeze over the plateau soon had her heading for the packs hidden in the dark corner under the overhang. In the days she had spent in the protected confines of the volcanic basin, she had forgotten the icy evening chill of the plateau. She pulled out what she needed from her pack. Then she quickly built a cheerful fire and had the beginnings of a meal heating over the flames. Rell knew it wasn’t going to taste nearly as good as the food in the village, but she simply didn’t care. She just wanted to get something hot and reasonably nourishing into her body.
Seated on her sleeping bag, Rell stared miserably into the leaping flames and tried to think. It wasn’t being homesick that had set off her temper. She had merely used that to cover what she had really been feeling – the undeniable sensation of someone trying to control her decisions about her future.
“I’m not really feeling the least bit homesick. Diana was right; I’m not home enough to miss anything there,” she snorted. “Though I do miss some things, a little.”
Looking out over the night dark jungle, she realized the days they had spent traveling together were the happiest she could remember. It didn’t matter that she had been constantly aching with desire for Diana; just being in her company had filled a need in her soul. Then to have her longings fulfilled had made for one of the most magical nights of her life. Remembering that evening together on the plateau caused a tightening deep in her center. Sighing again, pushing the memories away. She briefly stirred the branches in the fire.
From the moment she had crawled into the tunnel with Diana, Rell had felt she’d somehow lost control of her life. Thinking about it, she realized it had probably started long before, when Diana had contracted her for the assignment. They had been weeks into the trip by the time the other woman had gotten around to telling Rell about the prophecy and what it meant to her. That still irritated the reporter a little. Plus, she was still angry at the way the other woman had kept so much of her past hidden.
For whatever reason, Diana seemed to have slipped into the lifestyle of the Amazons as though she had been born to it. Her years in the jungle, and as a mercenary meant she did have something to offer the women of the village. The dark-haired woman could easily become an Amazon warrior and earn her place among them. Surely that would be better for her than the near purposeless life she had been leading, attempting to make up for her supposed dark past.
“She’s safer with the Amazons than just about anywhere else I can think of,” Rell said to herself, hoping that was what the woman would decide to do. Despite her anger, she did want to see the other woman living in a safe place.
As for Rell, almost from the moment they had entered the jungle, she felt as though someone else was calling the shots, and she didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. The independent voice inside struggled with the idea of handing any part of her life over to an outside force. Through the years, Rell had taken responsibility for her own decisions, her own destiny, and living with the consequences afterwards.
Staring out toward the dark horizon, Rell decided she had to return to civilization before it was too late, before whatever was trying to control her future made it irrevocable. “I’ve got a life out there,” she whispered. “A good one, where I earn a decent living and can actually make a difference now and then.”
It meant leaving Diana behind, along with a very large part of her heart, but Rell would not, could not allow anyone to control her life or her destiny. Not even a force she didn’t understand, one she barely knew anything about. She had always chosen her own path and she was stubbornly determined to continue doing so, no matter what the cost. The moment she made the decision, she dissolved into bitter tears, eventually crying herself to sleep.
High overhead, stretched flat against the rock, two warriors looked sadly into each other’s eyes after seeing the little reporter drop into a tearful sleep. The question had been asked and now Rell and Diana were going to pay the price. Ardeen had told them to expect something like this, though how the old priestess knew was a mystery to both of them. Moving silently in the darkness, past a restlessly sleeping Rell, they made their way to the bottom of the mountain.
“How long do you think it’s going to take, Ardeen?” Diana asked, subdued.
“A moon, a cycle…maybe never. We can only hope and pray she will be able to accept her destiny before it is too late for the Amazon Nation,” the old priestess replied gently.
Diana stared out over the forest from her shared perch on the rim. Lying in bed after learning her true heritage, there had been no question in her heart about whether she would stay with the Amazons. Being in the village and living with the Amazon women just felt right, like a dislocated bone suddenly slipping back into place.
She had lain awake until dawn, waiting for the blonde to return so they could talk about their futures. When she learned Rell had left the plateau, dressed in her heavy jungle clothing, the tall woman had wanted to go after the little reporter immediately. Diana had been shocked to find a large party of fully armed warriors waiting outside her home. Their direct orders from the old priestess were to keep the tall woman in the village no matter what. The Amazons were not keeping Diana prisoner, but they wouldn’t allow her to follow Rell either.
Ardeen herself had faced the angry woman as she paced back and forth across the common room of the hut she’d shared with Rell. It had taken the old woman most of the day, but Diana eventually understood the reporter had to accept her role with the Amazons freely.
“I’m going to miss her while she’s gone,” Diana commented, sighing deeply. “I miss her already.”
“The heartache you both endure is a high price to pay, child,” Ardeen replied. Looking into the tall woman’s ice blue eyes, she added, “Artemis never asks more from us than we are capable of giving. Though I sense the journey your soulmate is about to take will be harder on her than it is you.”
“Are you sure she’ll be alright out there on her own?” Diana questioned, worry shadowing her eyes. “She has her staff and all, but that won’t be much use against a panther or some other large predator.”
“She unknowingly travels between Latona and Antigone. One clears the path ahead so she will not lose her way, and the other watches from behind to protect her from danger. Once she is safely back at your clearing, they will return here. That is all we can do until Rell realizes she truly is Queen of the Amazon Nation. Her destiny has called, Diana, and she is trying to fight its urging. How Rell fights that battle with herself is up to her, but she cannot fight her destiny. She will either return to us, or die,” the old woman answered.
“I realize that it’s best I stay away from her, but I have some friends on the outside who can keep an eye on her. You know, to see she doesn’t get herself too far into trouble. Can I do that much, at least?” Diana asked hopefully.
Patting the tall woman on the leg as she sat beside her, Ardeen replied, “Give it a few moons, child, and then set your watchers on her. She may not appreciate any assistance they offer but it will give us a little more time.”
The two women sat silently watching the moon rising over the forest canopy, engrossed in their own thoughts. The night breeze brought with it the scent of flowers blooming under the moonlight. Ardeen looked over at the worried face of the young woman next to her.
“Help an old woman back to the village, Diana, and I’ll tell you some of the old tales of the Amazon Nation,” she said, a cheeky smile lighting her wrinkled face.
“As if I need bribery,” the tall woman snorted. Climbing to their feet, they made their way back down the basin wall towards the village. Diana cast one last look over the forest before helping the old priestess along the path.
A short, well toned, red-blonde photojournalist stared out at the icy rain trying to beat its way through the dirty window behind her shared desk. Trying to keep her mind blank, she ran her fingers over the soft leather breast band she always carried in one jacket pocket. Like an aching tooth, she couldn’t help prodding at her last memories of the jungle and the day she left the plateau.
She’d woken the morning after deciding she had to return to civilization, still alone in the clearing, her fire burnt down to embers. Some part of her soul had hoped Diana would come looking for her, perhaps convincing her to remain there. But no, Rell wanted to be back in control of her own destiny again and that meant leaving the jungle, the Amazons, and Diana forever.
Changing out of the short leather skirt and back into heavy jungle clothing was like becoming someone else, someone she barely recognized. Borrowing the plastic- coated map from Diana’s pack, Rell had begun the lonely, often tearful journey back to their original campsite and the huge Land Rover.
The trip back to the vehicle had taken longer than anticipated, but at no point did Rell ever feel she was losing her way. Between the map, and following the paths Diana had cut on their journey in, she was soon back at her starting point. Rell had to admit that some of those trails looked suspiciously like they had been freshly cleared, but the reporter assumed she wasn’t the only one traveling through the jungle. After all, Diana had told her about the big man, Hunk, who occasionally still moved from place to place, helping out various people where he could. Rell eventually decided he had re-cut the paths, making it a little easier for her to find her way back.
On her arrival in the US, Rell was surprised to discover that the contract fee had been paid into her bank account the day after she and Diana had left. The entire twenty-five thousand was there, plus the extra ten, though Rell didn’t feel she had earned a penny of it. It didn’t stop her from taking the money. She simply chose to ignore the guilty voice telling her she should find some way to return it. In her heart, Rell knew returning the money would also mean contacting the other woman, and she wasn’t ready deal with the rush of emotions that would cause. Rell was not sure she ever would be.
In truth, she didn’t have a single photo to show for the time she had spent in the jungle. Several days into the trip back, she had dug out every roll of film she’d taken, and exposed them to the midday sun, ruining them. Just to be absolutely sure, she had built a small fire and tossed every roll into it, one at a time. Rell had hoped by destroying the film she could also wipe out her memories of everything that had happened.
The only things she had brought out of the jungle, aside from her cameras, were the clothes she had worn at the Amazon village and her staff. She had tried several times to get rid of that as well, but she changed her mind at the last moment every time. For now, it was leaning against the wall of her little apartment until she decided what she was going to do. That had been almost a full year ago.
Sighing, she turned back towards her desk and looked over her assignment sheet for the day. Grunting, she mumbled to herself. “Oh happy, happy, joy, joy. Three ribbon cuttings, a flower show and a baby born on the freeway. Surely there are better pictures to take?”
Rell knew she was lucky to even have her job after the way she had screwed up. A great deal of the money she’d earned from her South American trip had been poured down her throat in one monumental bender. Her fellow journalists, many of them recipients of free drinks from Rell’s bottomless pockets, assumed she had finally lost her nerve after being in the jungle too long. They figured she was attempting to wipe some terrible memory completely from her mind.
They were only half-right.
Rell was trying to forget an endlessly deep pair of sky blue eyes and the effect they had on her heart. Eyes that followed her into her drunken dreams and haunted her during the day whenever she was barely sober enough to think straight.
Sal had found her five months after her return, drunk, almost completely broke and rapidly sinking into the shadier sections of life. He had spent another three months drying her out and getting her sadly abused body back to some semblance of health. It had been a rocky recovery for her. Rell was grateful she had thought to leave her camera equipment in her apartment before setting off to drink herself senseless for as long as the money lasted. She probably would have sold her precious cameras for the price of a drink by the time Sal had come looking for her.
He never did reveal how he found Rell, but she eventually remembered to thank him once she’d stopped cursing him. She was also grateful, in her own surly way, for his solid presence when she woke from the sweat-soaked dreams she began having when she became sober again. Dreams of endless forest in every shade of green she could imagine. Dreams of shady jungle streams and the feeling of cool water sluicing over an overheated body. Dreams of strongly perfumed flowers drifting their scent on soft breezes in the night. The scents and sights of the jungle filled her sleeping mind, no longer numbed by alcohol, until she woke trembling with the effort to ignore the siren call in her soul.
When finally she was strong enough to go back to work, Sal pulled every string he had to get her another job. With her reputation having gone the same way as the money, it was not easy. Freelancing was out of the question for the time being, until she had rebuilt her reputation and bank account, so she was forced to take a staff position with a city paper. It was the only option open to her at the time. A journalist who’s supposedly lost her nerve is generally seen as useless to most newspapers, yet the overweight little man somehow convinced the editor to give Rell a chance to prove herself again. She hadn’t let them down yet, working so hard that she often didn‘t know what day it was. Rell had to admit, she was now getting tired of doing the junior assignments any first year photographer could have done.
Standing up, Rell swept a couple of extra rolls of film into her camera bag, not that she would really need them. She may have blown her reputation to kingdom come while on that five month drinking spree, but she still had a finely developed eye for a good photo, a picture capable of telling a story without needing words. Looping the strap over her shoulder, she stepped around her desk, brushing passed the edge of the cubicle she shared with another photojournalist.
“Damn,” she muttered loudly. “Forgot the bloody sheet.”
She spun around quickly and snatched the assignment sheet from the desktop, stuffing it into her pocket. Turning again, not looking where she was going, Rell ran straight into someone’s chest, bouncing off a soft, yet muscular body.
“God, I’m sorry. I wasn’t…” she started to say and then looked up into the gently smiling face of the person in front of her.
A pair of sky blue eyes looked back at the reporter from above high cheekbones on a face framed by long, jet-black hair. Tanned and healthy, looking even more devastatingly beautiful than Rell remembered, Diana was dressed in a yet another expensive pantsuit, the long fingers on her graceful hands reaching out to steady the other woman as she stumbled backwards.
Rell was struck utterly speechless as she let the camera bag slip from her shoulder. She had no idea what to say. For a year the reporter had tried to forget. Five months of constant, sodden drinking had not wiped Diana from Rell’s memory. Three months of cursing out the fat little agent from London had not changed how she felt. Four months of working herself into the ground, until she was too exhausted to even see the photo she was taking had not changed what she knew to be the truth. She had been so confused when she’d left the jungle, part of her wanting to stay, another part screaming that she couldn’t permit anyone to control her destiny. She had felt so very empty when Sal had finally dried her out again, as though some important part of her had been mislaid.
Now Diana stood before her, after so many months apart, like some image out of her dreams. And Rell still didn’t know what to say to her.
“It’s time to come home, Rell. Your people need you,” Diana said, the low, almost sensuous rumble of her voice vibrating through the other woman.
The vibration continued to echo deeply in the stocky reporter’s soul, ultimately unlocking the final fragment of memory she had unknowingly tried to forget – a memory locked in her mind from the moment she picked up the Staff of Gabrielle for the first time in over two thousand years.
“My people?” Rell mumbled as the knowledge of who she was came floating to the surface. “Yes, my people. They need their Queen, don’t they? Meropa has finally stepped through to the other side. They’ll need me now more than ever.” Acceptance, like a healing balm, soothed over the pain of the past year, making everything feel right inside again.
Diana nodded quietly, stepping closer to wrap her aching arms around the woman she had missed so much. “Welcome home, Gabrielle,” she whispered, before slowly drawing her into a gentle kiss.
“I’ve missed you too, Xena,” the shorter woman managed to reply before her lips were willingly claimed.
Continued in Moonlight Dancer
* The Harpy Eagle is currently an endangered species. They are in danger because of the continuing de-forestation of their natural habitat. More information about the Harpy Eagle and other endangered birds of prey can be found at the following site: http://www.peregrinefund.org/index.php *