The chase was not as fulfilling as Miri had first imagined. Miri was put upon a fiery black stallion who had a mind of his own, and very much resented the inexperienced rider upon his back. Amniteri of course rode as if she were a part of the horse. The cavalry assembled were all women.
The Kandake explained though the horsewomen lived on the plains of the Sahara, they had sworn allegiance to the Realm of Meroway to resist the barbarian Greek and Roman intruders. Schooled in the ways of the black knights of Bornu, they traced their traditions back to the Libyan cavalry of the Gorgon Amazons of the Great Queen Myrene.
"Myrene conquered Syria, Phrygia and Egypt, as well as the Greek islands of Samos and Lesbos, Pathmose and Samothrace. Wherever there is a city of Smyrna, that place was dedicated in her name. She was buried near the city of Troy, and it is because of her that the men of Ilium were such renowned horsemen! And now we face the barbarian hordes of Tiberius together!"
The company was dressed from throat to toe in intricate iron chain mail and their mounts were extravagantly liveried and finely trained. The women were fierce and proud and Amniteri warned Miri they were in a fiery mood for they had arrived too late for the siege of Meroway, and they had been aching for a chance to prove their mettle in combat.
"I pity any who might cross our path with malice in their hearts!" said the Kandake grimly, as she assisted Miri personally with the fine adjustments of reign and bridle of her a stallion. "When we find Taharkameni, he will be ripped to shreds so small, even the birds will find none of him to feed upon!"
As they rode, Miri's horse sidled sideways nervously away from Amniteri, and Miri tried vainly to rein him in.
"You're giving him mixed signals!" shouted Amniteri. You must lead him with your legs!"
Miri pressed her legs against the great stallion's chest, but he continued to trot in a rather haphazard manner.
Suddenly, a tall and lanky warrixen of great grace and dignity rode up silently beside her. She frowned contemptuously at Miri's efforts.
"You are pulling him too hard!" she said gruffly. Loosen the reigns, or you will cut his mouth!" Miri dropped the reigns and grasped the saddle pommel.
"That's better!" She stared into Miri's eyes, and her eyes softened for a moment and she smiled. "This is too much horse for you, Sister!"
The rider then glanced briefly back at Amniteri. "Though the Kandake has given you the horse, it is up to you to ride it. He is a proud animal, and he will not change his ways for the like of you or the Queen!
Therefore, you must change to suit him! Sit straight!"
Miri straightened her back sharply at the order.
"He is trained for lancers, and so will respond to your movements, not the reins! Feel his movement between your thighs, Sister. Each footfall passes into you from his back. And just as his every movement passes into you, so he feels everything you do! You must think of him as more than a part of your own body. He is your body as you are his!
Twist your shoulders to the left!"
Miri turned her upper body to the left, and the horse turned the same way as she had moved. Miri squealed in delight, and the warrixen, maintaining her position beside her, smiled with satisfaction.
Within a few minutes, Miri had learned to move her horse to either side, and the warrixen guided her through a few paces. Backwards. Forwards. Gallop Trot. Walk. Miri was most delighted by spinning on the spot. She laughed as the stallion wheeled about at an incredible speed.
"Thank you!" she gushed to her mentor, and looking up, realized their exercises had left them a fair distance behind the rest of the cavalry column.
"We shall catch them!" replied the warrixen simply. "Come!" She wheeled her horse about, and Miri followed suit, and they trotted side by side along the trackway left by the other horses. Miri had some difficulty matching her movement with the horse and the bouncing jarred her. The warrixen coached her, and as Miri learned to gauge each hoof beat, and anticipate its rhythm, the ride smoothed out.
"You are a fast learner!" said the warrixen in admiration. "Many can climb upon the horse's back, but only a few are born to ride!
They tell me you come from Isra El, beyond the realm of the Two Ladies."
"Yes," replied Miri, "You have heard of my home?"
The warrixen snorted. "Of course! I am of the nation of Axum, ruled by King Bazem, cousin to the Kandake!"
She seemed to think all was explained, but the perplexed look on Miri's face told the warrixen otherwise. The rider frowned.
"My name is Falasha. I am named after the the ruling tribe of Axum, and we worship the god of Suliman."
"Suliman?" asked Miri in surprise. "As in Solomon of Palestine?"
"Suliman of Isra El," Falasha replied gravely.
"Where I was born!" added Miri.
"How lucky you are!" gushed Falasha, "To have been born in the land of Moses where King Menelik was conceived! Such a blessing!"
"Who is King Menelik?" asked Miri.
"The son of Makeda the Great! Have you never heard of him?" Falasha asked with great surprise.
"The same Makeda who wed Moses?"
Falasha shook her head.
"No! No! That was Amun Makeda! She was the Queen who took the land of Midian as a protectorate of Axum! I was talking of Makeda the Great, of the city of Sa'aba. She was the greatest Kandake of Axum and Kush! She united the tribes into the nation you now call Meroway. She was a great warrixen and a noble leader!
In those Ancient Days, the boats of Hiram of Tyre and Suliman the Great reached the realm of Makeda. She was much impressed by the wealth of goods and the fine Phoenician wares which the Canaanite traders brought with them.
She had heard much of the wisdom of Suliman and determined to visit him. She thought he would make her a fitting husband. So, laden with spices from Arabia, ivory, pearls, sapphires, rubies and the dark woods of Afrika as a dowry, she journeyed to Yerushalayim. There she met with the Great Suliman, but was horrified to discover he already had many, many wives. For a ruler as great as Makeda, she could not join with a king to whom she was not the Great Royal Wife, and her heart was burdened, for she had envisioned a great Empire stretching from the land of the Baganda to the land of the Hittites. Such an empire would have been a great pincer, the extended claws of a crab, set and poised to enclose the land of Egypt.
Suliman, though, was a handsome man, and Makeda comforted herself by entertaining him in her quarters and he she in his. He was a great lover, and she so beguiling, while she was there he ignored his duties to his other wives. Soon Makeda was with child, and so that Suliman would remember her only for her great beauty and their fabulous lovemaking, she took her leave before the child growing within her altered her form. Her dowry, she left with Suliman as a gesture of friendship between their two lands and returned to Sa'aba."
"Makeda was the Queen of Sheba!" cried out Miri.
"Sa'aba," corrected Falasha.
"Yes! Yes! Sa'aba!" said Miri excitedly, "But in Canaan, we call her the Queen of Sheba!"
Falasha seemed non-plussed by Miri's revelatory experience, and failed to see the significance of Axum's greatest Kandake being honoured in another land. What could be more natural?
"So, her child was the king, Mene-?"
"Menelik. Yes, he grew to be a fine prince. Makeda had brought many Habiru scholars back with her from Yerushalayim, officially to transcribe the Books of Moses into Merotu script, for Moses is held in high esteem, not only by the Falasha but by the Kemant as well!"
"The Kemant?" asked Miri.
"I am of the Kemant," said Falasha fiercely. "We are descended from Noah himself through his son Ham and his son, Anayer"
"I am not aware of a son of Ham called Anayer," replied Miri, her mind slipping back to her lessons in the fields of Canaan, "though it is written he had a son named Kush! And Sheba!" She marvelled at the coincidence, for she was in two minds concerning the veracity of Falasha's tale. "I cannot believe that the tribes of Canaan spread even to Ethiopia!"
Falasha frowned. "Why is it so difficult? Yeadra moves in mysterious ways!"
"The Lord God!"
Falasha frowned. "You are very Greek in your thinking!"
"Forgive me!" replied Miri, "but I have never heard people other nations speak of the Almighty God of the Habiru as their own, and it sounds strange to my ears! My blood races swifter by your words for it seems as though truth gives my heart its energy! Please tell me the rest of the tale, and I shall not interrupt!"
Falasha still frowned at Miri for she found Miri's disbelief irritating.
"In essence, the scholars of Yerushalayim were brought to Axum to educate the child Makeda carried inside her belly. She was a very shrewd woman, and reasoned that if she could not obtain the throne of Palestine from marriage, then she would produce an heir to Suliman's throne. So, she had obtained the service of several priests of the god El Yahweh and scribes who could educate her son in the ways of the Habiru.
The scholars, on the other hand, were delighted that a monarch as magnificent as Makeda wanted her son brought up in their faith. Accordingly, it was they who circumcised the young prince, rather than the priests of Amun, and consecrated him to God. He learned the Books of Moses, and became devoted to the service of Yahweh. His tutors were amazed at the wisdom of the young prince.
Meanwhile, Makeda and Suliman had done more than make love to each other during the Queen's visit. They had also formed an accord and treaty of commerce between their two realms, and soon many Habiru made their way to Axum, and married into many families of our land.
It is thus the Falasha were born. The name means "Children of the Diaspora" also "The Wanderers" or "The Exiles". I suppose it depends on your point of view. It is hard to translate the term exactly. Over the years other Jews have joined the Falasha from Elephantine in Egypt. These are special people, for they are inspired by the notion of the lost tribes of Isra El, and come to us seeking that mystery. There is a great reward, for the Falasha guard the Ark of the Covenant."
"Ark of the Covenant! It was brought to Sa'aba by Makeda's son Menelik."
"But how can that be?" asked Miri incredulously. "The Ark of the Covenant rests in the Holy of Holies in the temple at Yerushalayim!"
"Have you seen it?" asked Falasha testily.
"No," admitted Miri, "But it-"
"The Ark is brought out to be seen by our people seven times each year! I, myself, have seen it!"
"The actual ark?" asked Miri, still not convinced.
"To look upon the Ark would mean instant death!" cried Falasha, "It is respectfully covered with a sacerdotal cloth so that none may be blinded by its beneficence. But it is the Ark!"
Miri held her tongue, thinking of the strange paradox created by such an artifact. If it indeed is the terrible scourge claimed, and it can never be looked upon, then how would anyone know that it exists? True knowledge of its nature would kill whoever obtained that knowledge, and the object itself then still remains a mystery. Or if you were Greek, a philosophical conundrum. To a Roman cynic, a hoax which must be tested. By a slave, of course, for one never knows.
"How was it brought to Sa'aba?" asked Miri.
Falasha frowned. "It is a dark tale," she whispered glancing about furtively, "But worthy of the telling," she added with glee.
"When Prince Menelik had come of age, his tutors felt he must return to the land of Isra El and be consecrated at the temple in Yerushalayim. Seeing an excellent opportunity for her son to be received in the court of Suliman, Makeda sent the young Menelik off in the company of his priests and tutors with a train of magnificent gifts as would befit the soon of the Queen of Sa'aba. To ensure it would not fall into the wrong hands, he was also accompanied by a considerable number of the Queen's own guards.
However, when Menelik arrived in Yerushalayim, though his father Suliman greeted him with open arms, he sensed he was not welcomed with an open heart. Suliman was a changed man, or so it seemed. Menelik's mother Makeda had regaled him often with the beneficence of his father, of his honour, his wisdom and his physical prowess. The years had not been kind to Suliman, for he had fallen prey to the ills which drag every monarch to his premature end. So many were his wives, his children had multiplied as to be uncountable, and the presence of another mouth to feed seemed to irritate the old king.
He had his hands full, for there were many contenders for his throne, and most of them were his offspring. How the seed of David had fallen! To make matters worse, Suliman had fallen from the worship of El Yeadra, and sacrificed daily to Ashtoreth of the Sidonians-"
"Astarte," corrected Miri.
"I only know the names in the holy scriptures," replied Falasha stiffly, "That Astoreth might be Astarte or vice versa, I can't say. I only know what is written!"
Miri held her tongue.
"Hadad the Idumean, son of Suliman had returned from exile in Egypt where he had wed into the Pharoah's family. He now claimed the throne through Suliman's Great Royal Wife, as he was related now to her through marriage but not by blood. And Rezon from Damascus, and Jereboam of Nebat, rose to claim the throne also. And Rehoboam was crowned king in Shechem, and declared king of Isra El. Such was the state of Canaan, upon the arrival of Menelik.
For a young lad from a stable land, protected from such intrigue by his studies of the scripture and the hand of his mother, this terrible infighting filled him with great dread and dismay. Though he stayed in a palace of his own occupied by his mother's guard, he feared for his life, and indeed, though he did not know it, his siblings from his father's side were already planning his demise, though he had been in Yerushalayim for only a few days.
Shunned by his father and maltreated by his half-brothers, Menelik resolved to sacrifice at the temple of Suliman and take his leave once his penance and service to El Yeadra was fulfilled. While he was in the temple, and sacrificed by the great basin, he was approached through one of his tutors by the High Priest Shemayah.
Secretly, Menelik was ushered into Shemayah's apartments. There, the High Priest and his advisors spoke at length. They were amazed at the wisdom of the young prince and they questioned him at length about many matters, and his answers were so very profound, it seemed God himself spoke through his virginal lips.
"Why are you here?" they asked him.
"That which my ancestor Moses has begun, I must fulfill."
"How can that be done?" they asked.
The young prince shook his head.
"It is not for me to know what is in Gods heart!"
But the prophet knew and dreaded the prince's words for he alone had read the sacred scrolls that others had not.
The elders of Zion spoke at length with the young prince and determined, he alone of all Suliman's offspring was true of heart. Once he established by divinations and certain signs that Menelik was of noble birth, and carried the true seed of King David, and from his descent from Amunmakeda, was incredibly, a true son of the prophet Moses himself, he unveiled God's intentions for the young Menelik.
'The House of The Lord has become an abomination!' he cried, 'Woe to all Isra El! They sacrifice to Astoreth and Melcaart and a thousand others in the Holy of Holies! The temple of Suliman is cursed and will never be made clean! It is certain that Isra El shall fall to its enemies for they have forsaken their God! You alone, of all the sons of Suliman came to pay homage to El Yeadra!
You must take the Ark of the Covenant away with you immediately, for if you do not, El Yeadra has revealed to me, the holy relics will fall into the hands of the enemies of Isra El.'
Menelik was overjoyed at the honour and cried out excitedly.
'Of course I will take the Ark away with me! The Realm of the Kandake has always been inviolable! There I shall build a great temple to house the tablets of the Patriarch Moses!'
'No! No!' cried Shemayah in horror. 'Have you learned nothing from what you have seen here? Do you think that gold and marble can enhance the true Ark? That the Laws of Moses can be improved by encasing them in jewels? That the Holiness of God can be gilded over to make him a truer god?'
Menelik saw the wisdom of the words of Shemayah.
'What should I do?'
Shemayah placed his hands on the shoulders of the young boy.
'The Ark can only be carried and cared for by a true believer, however humble his place. That man must be possessed with the Love of God, graced by cleanliness of Mind, possessed of cleanliness of body untouched by the carnal knowledge of a woman, and finally, a perfect Purity of Heart'
'How will I know such a person?' asked Menelik in despair.
'God will grant you the Grace you require,' replied Shemayah. 'But before you can approach the Ark, there is one last test you must undertake to be sure that you are true of heart.'
'Then let's do it!' cried the young Menelik eagerly.
'Not so fast! Not so fast! There are rituals which must be undertaken and prayers to be learned!'
Menelik seemed crestfallen.
'More lessons!' he cried out, 'Will I never be rid of my lessons?' The teachers of the Law cautioned the young prince.
'Life will always present you with new lessons, for only when you sit by the right hand of God can you do without them!'
And so, Menelik sent word to his household to retire to the desert of Nabatea and await his word, and then took up residence with the priests of El Yeadra. He was versed in the mysteries of the Hebrew cult of El Yeadra, and learned them by rote. Then by heart. And eventually the scriptures filled his very soul and his being was infused with the Grace of God, and he was ready for the final test.
He bathed and was anointed by the priests, and donned clean linen, and in the darkest hour of the night, in the darkest night of the month, Menelik was brought by the secret ways to door of the Holy of Holies. There, before the great door between the pillars Yachin and Boaz, a sacred rope was tied about his waist. And the other end, of great length, was held by the priests of Yeadra.
Shemayah and the other priests slit the throat of the Sacred Lamb and collected the blood in the sacred gomer, the Holy Chalice. The Cup ran over with blood and they passed the chalice to Menelik.
'When the Great Door swings open," they told him, "you must enter alone and approach the Sacred Veil. You must pass the table of the shew bread, where you will lay your offering of the loaf of the shew bread, but shall not touch the altar upon which the bread is placed. Beyond that you will find a great stone. Do not step upon it, but stand before it and you will anoint the rock with the Blood of The Lamb of God. Then you will find the entrance to the Well of Souls. As you stand at its rim, you must give the rope three tugs. We shall feel your signal and you must descend into the well. We shall let out the rope slowly so you will not fall.'
'What will I see there?' asked Menelik, for his heart faltered right then, just a little.
Shemayah shook his head.
'I cannot tell you. Each man will see what he will see. But only the Pure of Heart can return!'
And so, the Great Doors opened and Menelik walked alone into the Holy of Holies. Ahead of him he saw the Sacred Veil upon which was embroidered two cherubim, male and female each embracing the other. To his left was the most amazing table he had seen. Made entirely of gold, the legs were capitals shaped like lilies and entwined about the golden table were a filigree of vines entwined with acanthus, the sacred metal worked so expertly, he was sure that they were living plants of gold. Fruits of all kinds formed from jewels condensed from a rainbow. There were dates, apples, olives, pomegranites and ears of wheat and barley. More than a table, the object seemed a golden tree teeming with supernatural life. Menelik resisted an impulse to reach out and pluck the precious fruit from the golden tree, and remembered Shemayah's instructions, and reverently placed the shewbread offering upon the interlaced branches of the golden bower. He stepped to the Veil before the Ark of the Cov
After an incantation to Yahweh, Menelik then stood before the Great Stone. Though he was sorely tempted reach out and touch it, he did not. He dipped his finger into the bowl of the Blood of the Lamb and splashed it once upward, and then dipping his finger again seven times, splashed the blood down on the stone.
Nothing happened, though he expected a great revelation and epiphany, and his heart filled with great apprehension and fear. Afraid he had not sacrificed in the proscribed manner, he squeezed his eyes shut and called out a prayer to God for deliverance.
'Lord, you are my shepherd,
Fortified by prayer Menelik opened his eyes, and to his great amazement and consternation, the Great Stone hovered in the air above his head. His heart faltered and he called upon Yeadra to save him once more, for he was sorely afraid. Then the hands of the Holy Spirit lay upon his shoulders and he fell becalmed as he had when his mother Makeda had laid her hands upon his shoulders as a young child.
He took a deep breath and pulled three times on the rope and looked into the pit over which the Great Stone had lain. Though unsure of what he had expected to see within the Well of Souls, he certainly did not expect such complete darkness. Carved from the living rock, the well descended rapidly into the darkness,. Asking God's protection, Menelik took the first tentative step into the Underworld.
At first, he lowered himself handhold by handhold, but the walls became smoother as he descended deeper into the well, and soon he had no choice but to allow himself to lowered by the rope tied about his waist. He dangled and spun wildly, and reached out with hands and feet to control his lateral movement, but he could not reach the sides of the well. The descent seemed to last an eternity, and at a point when he thought it had gone on long enough, he realized the rope itself no longer stretched upward. It had unravelled, and now only a cubit remained hanging on either end of the knot.
To his amazement, he floated like a feather on the wind. He felt no discomfort, and had no sensation of movement either up or down. Indeed, he had no sense of whether he stood vertically or lay horizontally, and he had the distinct impression he was at the centre of the Universe and no force acted upon him at all except that which emanated directly from inside him, and in an instant, he realized that the force, the energy of the entire Universe was indeed the power emanating from within his own soul.
In that moment, that absolutely sweet and sad moment, Menelik knew he was alone in the Universe. The loneliness of his soul caused it to split in two, and a cloud formed before his eyes, and began to spin. As it spun, it took on substance, and he could see within the form, the faces of two women, one dark and evil and the other fair and wise. Such was the rate of the spinning women, he saw only one form, yet it changed rapidly from the face of the goddess he knew then as the nocturnal consort of god, Lilith Buznai to the diurnal consort of Yeadra he knew as the Shekhina.
He soon realized the creature before him was not spinning in the sense of revolving about an axis, but that the visage of the two sides of the same woman changed so rapidly that he could not focus upon the one without seeing the other. And as he watched more carefully, he saw a third face between the other two, an ancient gnarled crone. He was in the presence of the Great Lady who was at once, an unblemished virgin, a pregnant mother and a wizened crone. At length, when she was satisfied Menelik knew of who he was in the presence, she spoke to him.
"You have been chosen to escort me from this place, Menelik. The tides have turned against the House of David, and I can no longer abide within this house his unholy spawn has built!"
Menelik was very concerned by the woman's words for he himself was the spawn of David, and could not bear to hear his lineage despoiled. Yet at the same time, he realized the woman was right. The House of Yeadra was no longer his exclusive household, and other gods were being worshipped upon the temple mount.
"You must carry the me back to the land which Moses forsook so long ago. That you are his descendent is not chance. That you are a Son of David is not merely chance. That you have been lowered into my domain by the High Priests Shemayah is not chance!"
The goddess, for that is what she was, then offered her hand to Menelik, and he took her hand in his. At the instant she touched him, Menelik could see his own end. Nothing, past, present or future was withheld from him, and he saw what he must do.
The woman at once both beautiful and terrible, took on human form and became an ancient crone. An old woman of uncountable years. Her skin was traversed by deep wadis carved in her by the ravages of time and her hands were but the shrivelled claws of a vulture. He could feel the creak of her brittle bones through her fingers as he held her, but such was the fullness of his heart, he still loved the woman as he loved his mother, and in many ways more.
At that instant, the darkness fell from his eyes. He stood alone in the Holy of Holies, and before him was the Ark of the Covenant. Worked in gold, two Seraphim, their wings folded overhead and wingtips touching, embraced each other, one male, and one female. The spirit of the goddess rose from the form of the old woman, and the body she had inhabited collapsed upon the floor and the flesh turned to dust and fell from the bones. The Holy Spirit of the Shekhina descended thereupon Menelik, and he gathered the bones together in the folds of his own robe. As he picked up the last bone, the spirits within the two gold seraphim on the ark lid broke their embrace and left their carved likenesses. Shining with an unbearable radiance, the two golden beings waved their hands over the lid of the ark and the cover rose and hovered above the ark as the great stone had hovered above the Well of Souls. Menelik carried the bones of the Shekhina's incarnation to the ark and laid them carefu
But to the eyes of the host awaiting his return, the Seraphim were invisible, and their eyes opened wide, for to their eyes, the Ark floated in the air and followed Menelik as a dog follows its master.
Such was their awe, the entire household bowed down before Prince Menelik. The prince set his face to Bethany, and those who saw the miracle followed in his footsteps. The steward of his household sent messengers ahead to take word to the Ethiopian soldiers waiting in Nabatea for their sovereign to join him. Though many priests of Solomon's Temple followed the prince, Shemayah and his closest disciples remained in Yerushalayim, for their work there was not yet done.
The priests did not tell the people of Isra-El that the Ark of the Covenant of The Lord of Hosts had been taken by the Ethiopian prince, but certain spies of Suliman informed him of the theft.
"Thy son whom thou has begotten, who sprouts from an alien people into which God has not commanded you to marry, that is to say from an Ethiopian woman, who is not of thy colour, who is not a kin to thy country, nor is even moreover black!"
Suliman shrugged off their accusations, disbelieving it.
"How could such a man lift the ark, for it is immoveable! How could such a man remove it from its place in the Holy of Holies where no man can enter? How could such a man survive the wrath of God for it is He who protects the Ark in its place?"
For this the spies had no answer.
"And as for what you say concerning the going of the Ark of The Covenant to the country of the Ethiopians, if God willed it and the Ark herself willed it, there is none which could stop the deed, for if of her own will the Ark went out from Mount Zion, she will by her own will return when God wills it!"
So saying, Suliman retired from his court and wept for he knew the Shekinah of Israel had forsaken him. Despite his words, Suliman sent his chariots out to intercept the Ark, but the Shekinah had warned Melenik of Suliman's intent, and instead of fleeing through Elat, and joining his mother's fleet, Menelik and his entourage left Isra-El through Gaza!"
Falasha reigned in her horse.
"Look!" she said as she pointed northward, "We shall stay at the oasis there overnight!" In the distance, a circle of small wattled huts raised on stilts lay shimmering ahead of them on the hot flood plain. The retinue of cavalry had already reached the tiny hamlet, and its inhabitants flooded out, their arms holding out baskets for the knights of Bornu.
"Come!" Falasha leaned forward and dug her heels into her horse's flank. Miri had no need to urge Artaxes forward. He plunged into a headlong gallop almost before Falasha's mare broke into a run. She almost lost her balance but the war pommel held her tight, and she quickly recovered and leaned into Artaxes neck. The smoothness of the gallop compared to the trot they had maintained was a welcome relief from the jarring trot, and Miri thrilled to the speed of the horse. Never had she flown at such a great speed before, and the joy of the running filled her entire being, and she whooped in excitement. Artaxes responded to her cry and though she would not have believed it possible, he sped up. Falasha moved up on her flank, and again another spurt welled from within Artaxes, and again he ran faster. Miri laughed. A race fever caught both riders and horses, and they pulled up in a cloud of dust at the alongside the halted cavalry column.
But the excitement of the race clouded immediately. Quite a different atmosphere prevailed at the head of the column. Such was the obsequiousness and fawning of the villagers, and the scarcity of offerings in the baskets, especially as offerings for the Kandake, the knights were disconcerted.
"Something is wrong!" said Falasha darkly to Miri. "Wait here!" The warrixen spurred her horse forward and she spurred her mount level with Amniteri. The two warrixen rode past the supplicant villagers, who stared after the Queen in dismay.
The other knights also sensed something amiss and suddenly the entire world sprang open, for Falasha and Amniteri were suddenly accosted on all sides by pikesmen springing from hiding places amongst the huts in the village. At the same instant her comrades charged the village, lances down. Miri's own horse surged forward with the other chargers, but with a great effort of will, she managed to reign him in, though he refused to stand still while the other horses sped on ahead of him. Only the padded supports of the war saddle pommel kept her from falling from her frustrated mount. Miri had no more heart for warfare, and she realized she no longer cared about running Taharkameni to ground. Artaxes reared onto his hind legs, and gave a quick kick of his back legs, and Miri could hold him back no longer. She rode helplessly and unarmed into the fray
As Miri was carried into the carnage, Falasha rode forward to meet her.
"Bandits!" She spat the words out distastefully. "They have been sucking the blood from this village for three weeks!"
She struck downwards with her sword and dispatched an attacker without even seeming to look at him, as if she were swatting a fly. She then took hold of Artaxes reins, and held him fast against her mare, much to Miri's relief. Thankfully, the knights around them made short bloody work of the brigands hidden in the village walls.
The carnage was over.
Villagers fawned about the mounted women once more, but though there was gratitude in their eyes, they feared the fierce women of the plains, for warrixen, warriors and bandits were all the same to the common folk who had to support them. There was great relief when the news the strangers were staying only for a night's sleep. It was very costly to support a Queen and her entourage with their meager resources. That night as they sat about the fires, one of the villagers told Amniteri he had seen a great cloud of dust to the east, and had thought that they were perhaps men on the move for it was not the season for the great migrating herds. He agreed to lead the Kandake to the next watering hole where they should meet the trail of the distant travellers.
Two hard days' ride later, the cavalry reached the watering hole. Miri's pubic bone was so sore from riding at a trot, she had placed her cloak between her butt and the saddle. Her thighs ached from gripping the sides of her mount, and trying to stay with the rhythm of the horse's stride. She was sure her spine had compacted to half its original length during the torturous pace the troupe had kept up. When the horsewomen stopped to water the horses, Miri thankfully slipped from the saddle and lay down on the damp sandy soil beside her horse.
A shadow passed over her.
Miri opened one eye.
Falasha stood over Miri, her hands on her hips.
"You must water your horse!" she said sternly.
Miri groaned and stood up painfully. Falasha wrapped a dark arm about Miri and smiled.
"You are no longer a virgin, sweet sister," she said with a grin, "Artaxes, the great stud has taken your hymen! Now you must give up your old life and serve him as you would any other man!"
The women around Miri laughed, and patted her on the back in sympathy, moving her forward to the water. Without prompting, Artaxes walked after her as a dog would follow a shepherd, and her heart was filled with a great connection to the horse. She turned to look back at him. He stopped and his great beautiful dark eyes stared back at her as innocent and trusting as any eyes could ever be.
"No man will ever be as faithful to you as him!" whispered Falasha in her ear.
Later that night, there was a council of war around their campfire. One of the clanswomen suggested they should send to Meroway for infantry, but the others hooted and shouted her down.
"We are enough to take Taharkameni as long as we catch him before he reaches Ethiopia." replied Amniteri. "He has allies there, and could easily overrun us. But in this heat we cannot push our horses to the limit."
"We are less than a day's ride behind him," said another, "His spoor is fresh, and if the dogs which travel with him were the four-legged kind, they would smell us on their tail!"
Heads nodded in agreement.
"We will leave an hour before dawn!" said Amniteri, her mind suddenly made up. "We will advance on him at full gallop once we sight him, Red to the left and Blue to the right. I shall lead the White Company down the middle!
You-" she pointed to the scout, "will leave with two of your women and sniff him out!"
The scout stood up and disappeared into the darkness.
"Well, girls!" declared Amniteri grinning expansively, "It's time for bed!"
Miri was woken by a gentle shake.
"It's time to go!" whispered Falasha.
Miri sat up groggily. The air was cold and she shivered. She could hear creaking of saddles and jangling of tack being assembled, an occasional snort from the animals, the stamping of impatient hooves on the ground, and the groans of women waking to a hard day's ride. She lifted the saddle onto Artaxes' broad back, and went through the motions of saddling and bridling him, her mind still not really awake. Falasha, leading her mare, came to inspect her handiwork.
"Not bad!" she commented after fiddling with the cinch, and then suddenly kneed Artaxes in the chest. At the same time, she pulled tightly on the cinch strap, and deftly retied the leather.
"He blows his stomach out when he doesn't want to ride!" she said with a grin. The company watered the horses and filled the water skins on the wagon with water, and everything was tied down and given a last check.
"Mount up!" called the cavalry leaders, and the column fell silently into order and step, and headed east toward the approaching dawn. Before mid-morning one of the scouts rejoined the column.
"We found them!" she cried breathlessly, pulling up beside her queen. "They are in a large rise of rocks two hours' ride from here!"
"Are they moving?" asked Amniteri.
"No, they are digging in!"
"Damn!" spat Amniteri, and shook her head. "So the desert fox is going to make us dig him out!"
She stared back at the cavalry stretched out behind her, then back at the scout.
"Did they see you?"
The scout nodded.
"Very well, lead on!"
The scout rode with Amniteri, who dispatched some of her women out on point either side of the column.
"What's wrong?" asked Miri.
"One, he knows I'm coming. Two. We cannot use the horses against him amongst the rocks," replied Amniteri, "And we are not enough to lay siege. I had hoped to catch him by surprise on open ground!"
They soon caught sight of the promontory where Taharkameni waited. The ground lost its softness and the horses had to pick their way carefully through the increasingly rocky ground. The cavalry dismounted and the warrixen walked beside their charges.
The cavalry stopped just short of bow range from the rocky promontory, and the women prepared for a ground assault. Amniteri asked Miri to help the senior priestess perform the sacrifice for their efforts. An altar was built and the priestess selected the best horse from the column and brought her to the cache of stones. Wood was placed on the altar and a fire started.
Thankfully the beautiful mare to be sacrificed was hooded, and under the watchful eye of Miri and the two acolytes, the priestess called out to Neith to bless their venture. She punctured the mare's throat, and Miri, hoping she would remember her lessons, held a great copper bowl beneath the mare's beautiful neck The mare's blood gushed out into the copper bowl, and the horse flinched at the cut, but the priestess had performed the ritual with great precision, and the horse was unaware of her impending demise.
"Neith, hear our call!" cried out the priestess, "We have presented to you the best of our best, and beseech you not to ask for any but our best. We are at your mercy, O Great Goddess, and have fulfilled our duty to you!"
As the great bowl filled, another was presented and the first poured out over the makeshift altar. The mare staggered and fell to her knees, and Miri called out.
"Apedemek, hear our call!" cried out Miri, "We have presented to you the best of our best, and beseech you not to ask for any but our best. We are at your mercy, O Great God, and have fulfilled our duty to you!"
Taking a flail, the priestess scourged the body of the horse.
"Apedemek, hear our call!" the priestess cried out, "We have presented to you the best of our best, and beseech you not to ask for any but our best. We are at your mercy, O Great God, and have fulfilled our duty to you! The suffering you see before you is the suffering of us all. We have suffered enough!"
The flesh of the dying mare was carved from her still living body and placed piece by piece on the altar. Soon Miri was covered in the blood of the dead horse, and the smell of roasting meat filled the air. Miri called for the blessing of the meat, and each woman in the assembled company stepped forward and was offered a drink from the great bowl of blood, and given a small piece of the roasted meat.
The ceremony lasted two hours, and Miri was left completely drained. She wandered away and stood beside Artaxes who shied at her approach.
"Forgive me," wept Miri, tears suddenly springing from her eyes. She felt her legs would give way and her knees seemed to suddenly loosen, but a hand on her shoulder strengthened her. She turned. It was Falasha. There was a grimness Miri had not seen before in her face.
"You will stay with the horses,"
"Will you come back?" asked Miri.
Falasha did not answer, and Miri knew in the coming moments many of the women around her would soon be dead. Tears filled her eyes. Falasha gently wiped a tear from Miri's cheek.
"I love you, little sister!" she whispered, her voice catching in her throat.
In a sudden impulse Falasha grasped Miri's head in both hands and kissed Miri full and passionately on the lips. Without a word she turned and passed into the dust and the crowd. Miri and two of the scouts, the mule drivers, and wagoneers were left in charge of the animals, and the warrixen, armed with sword, pike and shield moved forward. As the line of warrixen ran forward, a flight of arrows rattled down, striking the rocks, shields and armour. The shots were few and sporadic, and most missed their mark.
Those that hit their mark did not seem to make a sound. A woman hit, seemed to curl about the shaft as it entered her and drop to the ground. If she screamed, it echoed loudly in the deathly silence that was not of this world. Miri looked about her. Not even her charges made a sound. Miri stood feeling helpless and useless. The animals were all tethered by their forelocks and would not have wandered away even if the women left behind were not there.
As the line of women disappeared in to the rocks Miri could stand it no longer. She slipped a battle club from its place on the wagon behind her and whispering a silent prayer to Anath to guide her hand, and to Auset to protect Falasha and her sororitaires from harm, she ran toward the rocks that housed Taharkameni and his followers.
Her feet passed swiftly over the ground, and she felt the hands of Anat lift her from the ground. The spirit of the goddess filled her being and she cried the terrible war cry of Anat aloud. The rocks about her crumbled beneath the onslaught of her voice and revealed the hiding places of her enemies. Her mighty club swung and crushed the skulls of her foes! All about her men struggled and fell as she waded into the besieged phalanx of men who protected Taharkameni. Her eyes fixed on his and for a moment he froze in recognition, and in the space of a heartbeat, the sword of Amniteri gutted him and his bowels spilled out onto the ground. His spirit, though was still transfixed by Miri's gaze, and his eyes protested his downfall while acknowledging its certainty.
With their leader dead, the most of Taharkameni's entourage fled the battle, and those who were caught were slaughtered without mercy. All around her, Miri was assailed by the dead and the dying. She administered to those she could, and tended the wounded, but always, always her eyes searched for the face of Falasha. A growing sense of despair overtook her. More and more the look in Falasha's eyes when Miri had asked her if they would see each other again, filled her being. And then from out of nowhere, Falasha was there, a smile of triumph and embarrassment on her face, hobbling on a slashed leg, carried towards Miri by two other warrixen. Miri ran to her and wrapped her arms about her. She kissed Falasha again and again for she had given up all hope of seeing the cavalry woman alive.
Still, when the tally was taken, one women had died for every three of Taharkameni's followers. yet, the cost was high. Corpses of the dead were strapped to the mounts they had ridden in life, and the column trudged silently back to Meroway. The trip back took a week, and some of the wounded died along the way.
They were met by Sherkarer, who had the foresight to bring a change of clothes for the horsewomen. So, a half-day's journey to the city, they made camp, and Sherkarer sent for reinforcements to bolster the entrance of the cavalry women into Meroway.
But the women had no stomach for the parade for they had lost too many friends in the battle, so while Sherkarer and a host of warriors entered the city bearing the head and corpse of Taharkameni before them, Amniteri's warrixen entered quietly through the North gate and retired to their barracks and the royal stables to lick their wounds.
Amniteri, though, joined the parade, for she was always faithful to her duties as the Mother of her country. And her children cheered her return. Miri, at the Kandake's insistence rode alongside her. The cheering of the crowd and the adulation they showed their returning queen, filled Miri's eyes with tears, and her heart with gratitude. Somehow in that parade, in that moment, her life felt truly fulfilled. She had done something. Been somewhere. And all was as it should be.
So, within the week, and with the blessing of Amniteri and the entourage worthy of an heiress to the throne, mixed with a thousand tearful goodbyes, Miri prepared to set out overland to Napata. The Kandake sent Miri off with great fanfare and with a train of donkeys burdened with gifts for the Temple of Auset, as well as offerings for the temple of Apedemek. She was assigned a company of Bornu horsemen of regal bearing to accompany her back to Napata, and much to her delight, Artaxes was dispatched to carry her to the Nile.