The air was not yet warm enough to shimmer, and the view over the endless grass was clear. His horse cropped the tender young shoots without a care as Gangut stared over the plain, willing his eyes to be better than they were.
“There!” spoke Babaya. He pointed to the distance. “There, by that twisted tree, the one that looks like Maumets trinket bush.”
Gangut squinted his eyes hard, and finally made out the figures. He couldn’t hope to count them, but there were obviously some people making their way across the prairie. Their brownish color blended in too well.
“I think they’re on foot,” said Babaya in a quiet voice.
Gangut raised his arm and brought it down. In seconds the rest of the far patrol was with him, eight warriors, his own little command.
Speaking softly for reasons he did not know, he detailed four of the warriors to hang back as a reserve, while the remaining two, with Babaya and himself, would go and investigate. The reserve would hold back no farther than a quick dash. Close to enough to help, yet far enough away to see any surprises and not be caught in an ambush.
The horses were reluctant to get moving again, the lush grass was a true delight to them, but they were soon trotting over the plain, approaching the strangers. Gangut took a quick swig from his water bag to wash the nervous dryness from his mouth. He could hear a warrior behind him humming a monotonous tune. Fur cloaks, so good for cutting the often mischievous spring winds, were an encumbrance to fighting, so they were slipped off the shoulders as weapons were checked. Babaya kept his own sword, a souvenir of Kung Sah Kopsh, on his saddle, where he could draw it crossways. Gangut’s own phasganon stayed on his waist. It was short enough to draw across the horse’s neck without risking injury to the beast.
The group slowly grew into focus to Gangut’s weaker eyes. It was a party of around a dozen. They were on foot, with a couple of cattle being led at the rear. The carriage of the walkers seemed odd to Gangut, as did their outfits. Deep browns greeted him, no real colour. As they came closer the party seemed stranger yet. Some had spears and he saw a leather shield or two, but their heads were bare and their hair seemed awfully long for warriors. And he saw no beards.
Soon it was obvious that the party were all women. A couple of breath-intakes were heard behind him, but for all that the Ungirrad warriors remained silent. The women looked tired, and their leather vests were stained and dirty. He could see their long hair was unkempt and tangled. As they stopped and eyed the scouts, their expressions were tired, weary. They kept their weapons tight in their hands, but made no aggressive move. A couple more leather shields appeared.
As the two warriors behind him made ready their bows, Gangut and Babaya approached the women.
“I am Gangut of the Unggirad! Who are you?” he called.
He cast a sideways glance at his backup. “I am Gangut of the Unggirad!”
“We heard you,” said a tall woman at the fore of the group. “What do you want?”
“We want to know who you are.”
Oddly, that question stumped him. ‘Because we want to know who you are’ was the obvious answer, but his instinct told him that would illicit nothing. So he decided to guild the truth.
“We want to know why you come to the land of the Unggirad,” he said in his most official voice.
The woman stood splay-legged and put her hands on her hips. Then she laughed a bitter laugh. “And where did YOU people come from? This is the land of the Unggirad?”
Gangut smiled and looked her in the eye. “If it wasn’t, why would we be here?”
The woman broke eye contact and looked tiredly into the distance. “So, man of the Unggirad, where do you want us to go?”
“I want you to tell me who you are.”
She sighed, and brushed idly at her jerkin where it flared over her hips. Her fatigue made her look older than she was, but Gangut saw she was not unattractive. Her body was more muscled than he was used to in a woman, and a scar was visible on her shoulder when she dropped her hands. She pushed a strand of black hair away from her eyes and looked briefly at the ground in front of her. Then she took a deep breath.
“I am Portia! Commander of a Hundred! I am a warrior of the Amazons! I have killed enemies with my spear and with my hands and personally fought and helped destroy the besotted and weak Green Horde. These,” and she made a bitter sweep with her arm “are my Hundred.”
Gangut saw they were all women. They were tired, dirty, dispirited.
Portia regained some of her swagger and her hands returned to her hips. “Now, man of the Uniggirad, what do you intend to do about us?”
“Why are you here? Where is your tribe?”
“I am here because I walked here! My tribe?” she laughed, “My tribe?” her eyes became moist. “My tribe?” she said in a softer voice. “My tribe is no more. We are all there is.” Her eyes again returned to the ground. She seemed to find it painful to return the stare of Gangut.
“Were you destroyed by war?”
“No. We touched no metal, but no one could defeat us.” She looked at her pitiful little party with pride. “No, it was disease that took us. My people began to die. We left to find herbs and medicines, but all was gone before we returned. We have walked for two moons now and no one has become sick, so we are free of the pestilence. But we don’t know what brought the disease. The gods obviously decided we had erred.”
“We are taught that you must remain true. The thing that most surely brings on the wrath of the gods is disobedience. Were you true to your gods?”
Portia sighed. “Well, a sect formed which I was not a member of, and it was growing. The sect was harsh. Maybe the gods were displeased by that.”
“Yes, could be.”
Some spark returned to Portias’ eyes. “Well now, we have chatted nicely. What will you do with us?”
Gangut pointed to the distance in the south. “There is a fine river there and plenty of game. Go there. You will not be bothered.”
“And are the Amazon wenches to just do your bidding?”
Now it as Ganguts turn to sigh. “We do not destroy remnants. It is not our way. Go to where I pointed. Go in peace. Try to rebuild something the gods will not hate. Obviously the gods hated what you had. Disease is their weapon.”
The spark died again. Portia wanted to regain the pride she obviously once had in abundance, but her loss was too deep. The sadness that crept into her expression was painful to watch for all its subtlety. Gangut saw that she was a leader. She tried to keep her pride. She tried to be Amazon in her heart, even though her heart knew that the Amazon was dead. She could see no future, but tried to lead her sad party to it anyway. He knew of the Amazon and knew of the horrors committed upon the Green Horde by them, yet he couldn’t hate this lost group. He felt nothing but pity. Temuchin once said that no matter how much you hate an enemy, if you can not pity its children you are not human. These children he could pity.
He turned his horse and his warriors followed him. As he rode away he looked over his shoulder to see the Amazons turn the way he had indicated. A couple of them watched him go, but most just stared into the distance where they were going. Babaya was making marks on a parchment as they rode. The warriors with him pulled their fur robes back over their shoulders again; there would be no fight this day. Soon the reserve fell in and Babaya had put away his parchment. As they rode, the Amazons became brown dots, then blended into the prairie, disappearing like their tribe.
I have found much death and loss on this task, thought Gangut. If there is one thing that can be counted on in this world, it is death. Gangut pulled his own fur robe tighter around his body, and pushed his sword back away. Soon the grass had swallowed the Unggiraders too, and the prairie was left alone with the wind.