The women gathered, anxious to hear the words of goddess Artemis’s emissary. On the first day of every spring he would appear in their village to review all the births, both boys and girls, even though the women never kept the boys but left them to their fathers. Today, however, was neither spring nor was there any report of any new births to be given to him. He was there to argue again that what they wanted was not acceptable to the goddess. It was last spring that he was first informed of this and he was furious over it:
‘A queen! A queen! That is most unacceptable. Out of the question. And despite calling yourselves the women of Amazon, you are all priestesses of Artemis, not citizens of a nation to demand for someone to rule over you. Your queen is the goddess Artemis herself. And I can tell you now that the goddess is most displeased with your conducts. You have broken every law that was originally set out for you. And now this!’
He was even more scathing towards those who were the direct descendants of the gods themselves. He admonished them severely for bearing children to mortal men, and as if that was not bad enough, they now wanted to follow the custom of ordinary humans.
A hush fell over the women as the emissary stepped onto a stone platform to deliver his speech:
‘Ever since you told me of your desire to elect a queen, I have been coming here every new moon to stress to you that the goddess will not grant you permission to have a queen. And today is no different. The goddess is your queen and she will not countenance another. You are obedient to Artemis and to Artemis only. So I have nothing new to add to that, except to say that it is grave enough that you have broken the law concerning your chastity—’
‘We had very good reason for that,’ several women interrupted the emissary. ‘We told you that if we remained virgin, soon the goddess will have no priestesses to serve her.’
‘That was not a matter with which you should have concerned yourselves,’ the emissary shot back, waving his forefinger at them. ‘The goddess is the one who must decide, not you—’
‘How do we know that you speak the truth?’ interjected one woman. ‘We never communicate with the goddess, only you. And we don’t even know you. We don’t even know your name. You, a nameless man, come here every spring to press your rules and your laws upon us.’
‘Not my rules, but the goddess’s. Not my laws, but the goddess’s,’ the emissary returned, stabbing the air with his forefinger.
‘So you say,’ retorted the woman.
‘Who are you?’ the emissary demanded.
‘I am Saba,’ she answered proudly, holding her head high. Not only she was the tallest and the most athletic among the women, but there was also an air of uncompromising superiority about her.
‘Saba! Are you the same woman who is under consideration to be queen?’
The emissary looked hard at her before telling her that he wished to speak to Eliah.
‘She is resting. As you know she is of a great age,’ Saba answered sharply.
‘Yes, I know, take me to her,’ the emissary ordered angrily.
At Saba’s nod, several women came forward and directed the emissary to a little hut where Eliah lay in bed. She was of a great age, indeed. Close to one hundred and forty. All the descendants of the original priestesses lived very long lives, for in their veins coursed the substance of the gods.
At the sight of the emissary, Eliah moved herself into a sitting position on the bed. It had been her general experience that whenever the emissary sought to hold direct talks with her, it was because the women were acting in contravention of the goddess’s rules.
‘So what is it that they are doing now?’ Eliah asked with an exaggerated sigh.
‘Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?’
‘They don’t tell me much these days. I think they don’t want to fatigue me unnecessarily.’
‘You have to speak to them, Eliah,’ the emissary urged.
‘Electing a queen!’
‘Oh! Well, I don’t see a problem there,’ she said with considerable ease.
‘Eliah, these women are becoming more and more militaristic. Once upon a time they were only engaged in singing and dancing and praying to their goddess and now they go hunting and practice sword fighting and archery. And as if these things by themselves are not bad enough, they now want for someone to rule over them.’
‘What do you want me to do about it?’ Eliah cried. ‘I am an old woman.’
The emissary sighed wearily and came to sit down on a wooden chair by the side of Eliah’s bed. ‘Eliah, how much do you know of your great-grandmother, that sagacious woman after whom you were named?’
‘Ha!’ she scoffed. ‘I know enough to tell you that she thought a lot of the rules governing our order were nothing but goose dung.’
The emissary drew back his head, shocked by the revelation. ‘I had many private meetings with her, but she never said such a thing to me.’
‘Doesn’t surprise me,’ Eliah shrieked. ‘She wouldn’t have shared her private thoughts with you any more than she would’ve shared them with her own mother. She didn’t trust her and she didn’t trust you. She never believed that her mother was a goddess and she never believed that you were the emissary of a goddess. She didn’t believe in gods and goddesses. She might have not known the full truth behind all of this, but she knew enough to believe that the law against bearing children was put in place to ensure that our kind – whatever our kind might be – would eventually die out. So if you are here to remind me of her wisdom to make me help you with the women, then I am afraid that you are calling on a wrong person.’
‘You have become bold in your old age, Eliah,’ the emissary rebuked.
‘It has taken me this long to stand up to you,’ riposted Eliah.
‘Don’t you believe in the existence of deities?’
Eliah shrugged her lips. ‘Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. And then there is you! Though you are old, you never age and you have been around as long as our tribe has been around. So obviously you are not a mortal man. You claim to be the emissary of a goddess, and I guess we all have to take your word for it, which means that gods must exist, but my sagacious great-grandmother did not—’
Eliah was interrupted by a soft knock at the door.
‘I have a visitor. Come back later, whoever you are,’ Eliah sang out.
‘It is Sabina,’ came a gentle young voice from behind the door.
‘Oh, well, that’s different then, isn’t it? Come in, my love.’
‘Eliah, I am not here to make a social call. I have urgent matters to discuss with you. Can’t you see this child later?’
Ignoring the emissary’s objection, Eliah opened her arms to receive Sabina in her embrace. ‘You see, emissary, I never had a daughter. I never gave birth to a child, for that was denied to me by the rules of our order. Had it been different, given my advanced age, I would have been a great-great-grandmother by now.’ She heaved a deep sigh. ‘But since that didn’t happen, I took to being this child’s great-great-grandmother. And why shouldn’t I? Look at her, emissary! Just look at her! Have you ever seen a more beautiful child than her? Only fourteen years old and already all the neighboring tribes have heard of her beauty. I even hear that songs are sung about her beauty. And why not? Hair as dark as midnight, yet it shines with such brilliance as if the stars have kissed every strand of that beautiful hair. And whoever has seen skin like hers? So radiant and flawless. And eyes that put sapphires to shame. Have you seen her mother, by the way?’
‘Who is her mother?’ asked the emissary in a disinterested tone.
‘Saba?’ The emissary widened his eyes. ‘You mean the woman who might become your queen?’
‘The same.’ Eliah ran her hand over Sabina’s head in a caressing motion. ‘It was our one cardinal rule that all the priestesses had to be the most beautiful women in the world. And as such the only ones deemed worthy of being priestesses to Artemis were the daughters of the gods. But take a look at her! Take a look at this child! She is fully human. Only mortal blood courses through her veins and yet she has surpassed all the daughters of the gods in beauty.’
‘Eliah, I am here to discuss important matters, not to sit around and—’
‘All right, all right, I see your impatience—’
‘Do you see my anger too?’
‘That too, old man, that too.’ Eliah smiled at Sabina and told her to go and tell the cooks to prepare an old woman some chicken broth. ‘Speak,’ she said to the emissary when Sabina left the hut.
‘Having a queen is not acceptable.’
‘I disagree. You know why these women are in favor of Saba to be our queen?’
The emissary waved an impatient hand. ‘No idea, but I am sure you will enlighten me.’
‘I will. They favor her because she is the bravest woman amongst us. She is the most skillful archer and swordswoman.’
‘Goddess Artemis doesn’t want her priestesses to become archers and swordswomen. She doesn’t want soldiers. She wants priestesses, peaceful priestesses,’ the emissary argued. ‘Why is it so hard for you women to understand this? After all, wasn’t the singing and dancing among the original priestesses that attracted human females to join this order?’
‘Times have changed, emissary. Back then the women weren’t threatened. Now, we have jealous neighbors who envy us. We have good harvests, when they do not. We have food in winter, when they do not. We are rich, while they are poor. We are more intelligent and more civilised, while they are but a bunch of barbarians with outdated views and practices. So if we are to survive in such a hostile environment, then we have to learn to defend ourselves.’
‘With a queen?’
‘Yes, with a queen … a warrior queen.’
‘You don’t need to be ruled by a queen!’
‘Well, the women think differently and there is nothing you or I could do about it.’
With a sigh of resignation, the emissary stood up. There seemed to be nothing he could do or say that would change the minds of these women. ‘All right, but I have to lay down a law which cannot be broken and that is those females, whose ancestry goes right back to the original priestesses, must not defile themselves with humans. This law cannot be broken – must not be broken. No descendant of a god can copulate with a mortal man. Do you understand that, Eliah?’
‘I will discuss it with Saba,’ she said, throwing her hands up in the air in exasperation.
‘No, you must do more than that.’
‘I will discuss it with Saba,’ Eliah repeated stubbornly. ‘I can do no more than that, emissary.’
‘Why do you have to discuss anything with her?’
‘I am an old woman,’ Eliah cried. ‘I have no sway with the women, but she does.’
‘Eliah, you are the oldest among these women. They will listen to you.’
‘No, they won’t. But they will listen to Saba.’
It was now the emissary’s turn to throw his hands up in the air in exasperation. ‘Convince Saba of this, Eliah.’
‘I will do my best, but I can’t promise anything. However…’
‘What? However, what?’
‘Why don’t you try to speak to her yourself?’
The emissary considered the idea much the same way a mortal would consider drinking a poisoned cup. Saba did not seem like someone with whom he could reason. She came across as a very bold and headstrong woman with her own ideas and her own way of doing things. Oh, heaven help me! ‘When is the election going to take place?’
‘I have been told that it is tomorrow night. Why? What has the election got to do with you speaking to Saba?’
‘If I have to speak to her, then I shall wait until she actually becomes queen. No point in speaking to her if there is a chance that somebody else might take that position.’
‘Not much chance of that, I can assure you. Voting for her to become our queen is just a formality. She is already our queen in all but name.’
‘Even so, I would rather wait. When will the coronation take place?’
‘The following morning. All the preparations are made. As I said, the voting is just a formality.’
Queen Saba! Oh, heaven help me, the emissary sighed.
Saba’s coronation was not without pomp. It was a cold winter’s day, but the women bore the chill bravely. Except for young children and the elderly, the rest wore white garments and stood solemnly in two columns, forming a long corridor for Saba to pass through. Saba herself wore a purple garment, a color that best reflected her new royal status. Once seated upon a gilded chair decorated with hundreds of peacock feathers arranged in the fashion of the bird’s tail in full display, ten women came from behind and fanned themselves to her sides, forming two wings. They were to be her permanent guards. Then Sabina, carrying a crown of gold studded with rubies and sapphires, approached her mother and knelt before her.
‘Mother, it is the will of the women of Amazon for you to be our queen. And I, your daughter and the daughter of Amazon, have been chosen to offer you this most sacred crown, newly forged by the hands of your subjects. Take this and wear it in our name. Take this and wear it for our glory. Take this and wear it as our first queen. Take this and wear it as a symbol of your authority, but know too that you are now the mother of many, for all the women of Amazon are your daughters as well as your subjects,’ Sabina declaimed.
‘I, Saba, accept this crown from you, my daughter and the daughter of Amazon, as a symbol of my devotion to the glory of the women of Amazon. Henceforth, you are all my daughters,’ Saba said, taking the crown and placing it upon her head.
‘Hail Saba, queen of Amazon,’ pronounced the ten women.
And the women shouted with one voice: ‘Hail Saba, queen of Amazon.’
Two days later, after the celebrations had ended, the emissary sought a private audience with Saba and it was immediately granted.
‘So, what did you think of our little ceremony?’ Saba asked.
‘Striking,’ the emissary said.
Saba nodded. ‘Eliah already told me of your new rules.’
‘I am impressed that you are addressing me appropriately, emissary.’
‘Of course. You are the queen.’
‘And you are the emissary of a goddess.’
‘Indeed, but still my position does not demand to consider yours any less.’
Saba smiled, satisfied by the response. ‘State your rules.’
‘Actually, there is only one rule and that is for those females whose ancestors were gods to not produce any children.’
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
‘All right. I shall ensure that this law is enforced.’
‘Your Majesty, this is of utmost importance. There can be no children between them and mortal men.’
Saba narrowed her eyes at the emissary. ‘You say that with such fearful intensity. It is as if any child that were to come out of such a union would be an aberration to the laws of nature, when in fact our noblest women have been the products of such unions.’
‘Even so, this can never happen again.’
Saba nodded, though her eyes displayed a look of incredulity. ‘Who are you, emissary? Who are you, really?’
‘I am the emissary of the goddess Artemis,’ the emissary responded with a degree of unease, which Saba did not fail to notice.
‘Strange. I have never heard of any other god or goddess who has an emissary.’
‘I cannot speak for other gods or goddesses. Maybe they too have emissaries; it is just that you have never met them.’
Saba regarded the emissary for a long moment before speaking again. ‘My great-grandmother used to tell a story of a group of immortal beings who long ago came to earth and posed as gods and mated with humans, but in doing so they lost their immortality. The story—’
‘Just a bedtime story, I am sure.’
‘The story goes,’ Saba resumed as if she was never interrupted, ‘that when they found out that their female children could produce immortal children, they exiled them to this place to live as virgin priestesses in the hope they would die out.’
The emissary shook his head. ‘As I said, just a story, Your Majesty.’
‘Perhaps! But then—’
The conversation suddenly stopped when they heard a commotion outside. Alarmed, they both rushed out to see what was going on.
‘She is missing,’ a woman was shouting.
‘What is happening? What is all this fuss about? Who is missing?’ Saba asked.
‘Yes, my queen. Princess Sabina was playing hide and seek with these children’ —she pointed to five little girls— ‘in the woods when she went missing.’
‘What do you mean she went missing?’
‘Princess Sabina was supposed to hide and these young children were supposed to find her, but they never did.’
‘Well, Sabina is much older than they are, so she must have found a really good hiding place and that is why they couldn’t find her. She is not missing. She is just hiding. Don’t spread panic. Where is the old nurse?’
‘My queen, there is no sign of her either.’
Bewildered, Saba frowned. Their part of the woods was quite a safe and secure area, though there were wild beasts about from time to time. ‘Did children hear anything or see anything?’
‘Children didn’t see anything, but they did hear the neighing of horses.’
‘Well, that doesn’t mean anything. Our horses roam in the woods to graze,’ Saba said, then went to organise a search party.
At the head of fifty women, Saba and her ten commanders, now joined with the emissary, went into the woods in search of Sabina and the old nurse, but nothing was found. As daylight drew to a close, Saba ordered for the torches to be brought in and for the search to continue. All through the night, they looked for Sabina and the old nurse, leaving no stone unturned, not a leaf untouched, or a tree unshaken, but there was no trace of them. When the hours of darkness passed, Saba ordered the women to return to the village. Sabina was not in their part of the woods. The search had to be widened still.
After two whole days of frantic but fruitless search for Sabina, it was obvious that she was nowhere in their territory. At daybreak on the third day, Saba ordered her commanders to visit the neighboring tribes in the hope that someone might know something, though what that something was, she did not know. Herself was going with the emissary to the forest beyond to look for Sabina. And she didn’t know what she would find there. Her heart fled from her chest at the thought of some wild beast having taken her beloved daughter.
They were all about to mount their horses when a great wailing was heard. It was the old nurse. And she was in a state of disarray, beating her chest and tearing at her hair. Saba rushed to her.
‘Where is Sabina? What happened to her? Where have you been all this time?’ Saba asked hysterically.
‘Oh, my queen,’ the old woman cried and fell on her knees to tell a mother the most devastating news. A neighboring tribe, which had been having difficulty with both disease and bad crops, believed that the solution to their twin woes was to sacrifice a virgin of perfect beauty to their gods. And since the report of Sabina’s beauty was widespread, they abducted her and cast her down into the sea to secure the favor of their gods.
When the old woman finished delivering the news, Saba let out a loud groan and fell to the ground, tearing at her hair and face with her dagger.
For seven days, the women mourned, singing dirges and following the example of their queen by shaving their heads and scarring their faces with their daggers. Only Eliah, due to her extreme old age, was prevented by Saba from slicing her face. But grief overwhelmed her and she died on the eighth day. After giving her a burial and allowing three days of mourning for Eliah’s passing, Saba made her army of women ready for battle. The tribe that killed her daughter was to be completely annihilated.
All the women gathered. It was a freezing winter’s day. Saba, wearing her black mourning garment, rose from her seat to address her nation:
‘Women of Amazon, five days ago we proved what brave warriors we were. What fierce warriors we were! We went to war with no shields and wearing no breastplates, no helmets and no greaves, only our swords, our bows and arrows, our fury, our grief and our vengeance. And yet, with no loss to our own, we completely destroyed the enemy, sparing no one, not even their animals, and took as prisoners their king, their queen, their priests and priestesses, their advisers and the men who abducted Sabina, the daughter of Amazon. These barbarians, however, will not remain prisoners for long. The punishment I have devised for them is befitting of their crime.’
Saba ordered for the prisoners to be brought out. The emissary watched, as thirteen men and five women were marched onto a wooden gangway constructed specifically for the occasion. Stripped of any clothing, they were all shivering and whimpering, though more from fear than cold. They were quickly ordered to lie down and stretch their bodies across the gangway, where they had their feet and hands tied with ropes to short wooden stakes lining each side of the gangway. Then eighteen women, clad in short leopard skin tunics, carrying axes moved in to stand over each one of them.
‘Women of Amazon,’ Saba roared, ‘look at these vile creatures! At these pathetic barbarian fools who thought that by sacrificing a child they could secure the favor of their gods. How wrong they were, for not only they secured the wrath of every god in heaven, but they also secured the wrath of the queen of Amazon, and my wrath is more terrible than the wrath of any god. I have already made them eat their own lying tongues and now I will have their bodies cut to pieces. My daughter, your daughter, was fourteen years old, so these filthy creatures will have their legs and arms cut into fourteen pieces before they die. Starting with their feet, they will feel the terrible pain they caused us with every stroke of our axes.’
The women then raised their axes, ready to strike as soon as the order was given by their queen.
‘Strike,’ Saba shouted her order, before sitting down.
And the axes fell.
Amidst ear-piercing screams each man and woman had their legs and arms hacked into fourteen pieces, before the axes finally fell on their necks to put an end to their howls.
‘Now bring me the old nurse,’ Saba ordered.
Frightened out of her wits and wailing dreadfully, the old woman was brought before Saba.
‘Tell your sisters of the events that led to the death of your future queen.’
‘I was watching the children,’ the old woman began with much weeping and trembling. ‘Princess Sabina found a perfect branch high up on a tree and she was going to hide there, so the children couldn’t find her too quickly. But it was at a distance from where the children were, so I went with her to watch over her. Then suddenly three masked men appeared out of nowhere and took the princess. She couldn’t even scream. They put a thick black sack over her head. When I saw this, all I could think of was to run after her—’
‘You fool of a woman!’ Saba interrupted, looking furious. ‘Why didn’t you immediately alert me of this?’
‘I wanted to alert you, my queen,’ she cried, ‘but I feared to take my eyes off Princess Sabina. I feared that if I did that, she would be lost to us forever, that we would never be able to learn the identity of her abductors or to where they were taking her. They also rode on swift horses. So I thought that if I followed them I would learn—’
‘You, foolish woman, how were you going to follow them? They were on horses and you on foot!’
‘Yes, yes,’ the old woman wailed, striking her face and head. ‘I wasn’t thinking clearly. Forgive me, my queen! Forgive me! When they saw me running after them, they took me too. But my queen, had I not gone after them, I wouldn’t have been able to return to you and tell you which people had her abducted—’
‘You, foolish old woman, had you reported this to me, instead of running after them, I would have sent my best mounted swordswomen to scour the neighboring tribes in search of my daughter. I would have put every single village to the sword to find her. I would have struck fear into the heart of every man, woman and child, so that no one would have dared to hide the truth from me. And I would have done all of this rapidly and simultaneously. Every single village would have been attacked at the same time and my daughter would have been found. UNHARMED. But instead, you decided to think for me. You, an old woman of no consequence, decided to think for me and make my decisions for me.’
‘My queen, I swear to you that it was not my intention to think for you or make any decision on your behalf. All I wanted to do was to save Princess Sabina. When I learnt of their intention I tried to talk them out of it. I begged them not to—’
‘You? An old woman! Why would they listen to you? What even gave you the idea that they would listen to you? Were you a queen? Were you someone of authority? No. You were just an old woman who was given the light duty of supervising children while at play.’
‘Stop,’ Saba bellowed, lifting a hand up. ‘I have no patience to hear any more of your foolishness. You are to be confined to your hut and there you shall remain without fire for warmth, water for thirst, or food for hunger. This shall be your punishment for your stupidity. Stupidity deserve no mercy. My daughter paid for your stupidity with her life, now you must atone for it by giving up your life.’
Immediately upon passing the sentence, the old woman was taken away.
Saba then stood up, looked at the crowd and shouted: ‘Those barbarians, who abducted Sabina, did not know that the women of Amazon were a force to be feared, or that you had a warrior queen, otherwise they would not have let the old nurse go. Those barbarians knew us by our old reputation, that we were a bunch of priestesses. Well no more. From now on, every woman and child in our nation will learn every skill of combat. We will become the fiercest warriors this world has ever seen. No longer shall we wear the white garment of a priestess, but the bronze armor of a warrior. And we will make every man, every tribe and every nation on earth tremble before us.’
The shout that went up was spontaneous. ‘Hail Saba, queen of Amazon. Hail Saba, mother of Amazon. Hail Saba, daughter of Amazon.’
The snow was falling heavily when the emissary made his way to the queen’s throne-room. Given the recent events, he was of a heavy heart and did not particularly wish to see Saba, but she had sent for him, so he had to comply with her wishes. After all, she was queen, so due respect had to be allowed. Besides which, it was not wise to alienate her. The law concerning the chastity of the descendants of the original priestesses could not be implemented without Saba’s cooperation.
Seated upon her peacock throne, with her crown upon her shaved head and still wearing her black mourning garment and still bearing the scars on her face, Saba had a remote look in her eyes when the emissary entered the throne-room.
She acknowledged the emissary’s presence with a nod and motioned him to approach the throne.
‘As the emissary of Artemis, you came here with all sorts of rules and regulations from her, but as you can see, not only I rejected them all, but I also made a few rules of my own, and yet I do not see Artemis punishing me. What say you?’
The emissary raised his brow. ‘Artemis watches. Artemis judges.’
‘She certainly wasn’t watching when my daughter was getting killed,’ Saba shot back.
‘I share your grief over the loss of your daughter, Your Majesty.’
‘Spare me your empty platitude, emissary. You can never share my grief, for you are neither a mortal nor a mother. At any rate, I did not send for you to discuss my grief. I sent for you to discuss the law concerning the chastity of those females whose ancestors, you say, were of divine origin.’
The emissary looked alarmed. ‘Your Majesty, I hope in amongst the laws that you have rejected, you made an exception to this one law.’
‘Well, that depends.’
‘On what?’ the emissary asked, frowning and looking troubled.
‘On whether or not Artemis would be willing to become our patron goddess of war, for if she refuses, we will find ourselves another goddess and I will not be implementing any of your laws.’
‘I have no laws; only Artemis’s laws.’
‘I am not interested in semantics, emissary. You heard my terms,’ she retorted.
‘I have to discuss the matter with the goddess.’
‘Emissary,’ she snapped, ‘let me make myself clear to you. So long as my eyes are unable to set their gaze upon the face of any deity, I refuse to believe in the existence of one.’
‘And yet you want Artemis to become your patron goddess of war!’
‘Because those women out there,’ —she thrusted forth a hand— ‘believe in her. They need a patron goddess of war. They need to believe in a deity who in on their side—’
‘For when they go to war?’
‘For when they go to war,’ she acknowledged with a nod of her head. ‘Emissary, I am not a fool. I deal with facts, not fantasies. So let us do away with childish games and talks of gods and goddesses. You need me more than I need you. You need me to make sure that those women, whom you say are the descendants of the gods, and whom I believe to be the descendants of the immortals and one of your kind, remain virgin so their kind will die out. All you have to do in exchange is to make a formal declaration that Artemis is now our patron goddess of war. If you do not, I will simply announce another goddess as our patron and will not pass the chastity law. What say you?’
The emissary felt the earth shifting beneath his feet. Saba had figured out the truth about him and the daughters of the immortals. To try to prove her wrong was futile and would achieve nothing except provoking her anger. The best course of action was to remain silent and neither affirm nor disaffirm her belief. ‘I will do as you wish,’ the emissary said, with a look of utter defeat. ‘But is war what you want?’
‘War is what we must be prepared for, emissary. We don’t seek it. We don’t chase it. We certainly don’t relish it. But we must be ready for it. And that,’ she paused for emphasis, leaning forward and looking hard at the emissary, ‘is the reality of mortal life…’