Full noon sun in the middle of a busy downtown street, and I was about to steal a baby.
An older white two-door, with a bumper that obviously wasn’t original to the car, angled its way into a parking spot. I whistled, signaling the two warriors I’d brought with me that our target was close.
Thea Caras, our new high priestess, opened the door to our Jeep and set one foot on the pavement. I motioned for Tess, a hearth-keeper and our driver, to be ready. Then I followed suit, trying to look casual, although Thea with her full-sleeve tattoos was not your usual downtown Beloit shopper. For that matter neither was I, nor were the two warriors hidden in shaded doorways nearby. Still, I grabbed a hoodie from the seat beside me and threw it at Thea. She frowned but pulled it on.
It was the middle of July and hot, but better she be sweaty than flashing her unusual art.
The men took their time getting out of the vehicle. I glanced over my shoulder, checking to make sure the fifth member of our team, Lao, a three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old hearth-keeper, was in position to take the child once we had retrieved her from the sons who had stolen her.
Finally the men exited the car. The tallest reached into the backseat and pulled out the carrier. I could see the baby inside, fast asleep with a blue-and-white checked blanket tucked around her. The shorter of the two, maybe six foot three to the other man’s lanky six six, scanned the street. I ducked down in a pretense of checking my tire. Thea cut around behind the back of the Jeep to approach them from the street.
Back on my feet, I signaled Areto. She was short for an Amazon, with no visible tattoos. Dressed in mom shorts and a scoop-necked T-shirt, she blended nicely with the humans. Fumbling in a purse we’d picked up at Goodwill before setting this stage, she walked between the sons and stopped.
Disguised as a man, complete with a trucker hat, Bern moved too. She headed toward an old VW Bug that Lao had hotwired earlier and parked at the corner.
With Bern and Areto in place, Lao was next. Pushing a rolling shopping cart, she moved into the tall son’s path, then stumbled and fell. The cart tipped over. Onions and peppers rolled across the concrete. Lao lay sprawled across the sidewalk, the picture of elderly distress.
Areto rushed to Lao’s “aid.” Falling to her knees, she stared at the Amazon son. “She needs help.”
I joined Areto and placed a hand on Lao’s shoulder. “She’s hurt,” I cried. “Her arm is bent. Can one of you help me?” I moved as if struggling to flip the older Amazon onto her side.
Neither male moved.
Eight feet behind the man with the infant, Thea lifted a blowpipe. Something shot from its end. The man slapped at his neck, then took an unsteady step to the side. Confusion clouding his eyes, he set the carrier down.
Also confused, I blinked. I had assumed Thea would use magic to divert the men; I hadn’t expected the priestess to use a weapon and what appeared to be some kind of drug. However, in the middle of our mission, I didn’t have time to analyze the priestess’s unusual choice.
The shorter man had missed the exchange. When I looked back at him, his attention was still on me.
“Mateo, Amazons!” he yelled, leaping toward us.
I stood, meeting him head-on, and jammed the heel of my hand into his nose. He cursed; blood streamed down his face.
The first son, the tall one, was barely standing; only his arms, locked at the elbows and wedged against the cars beside him, kept him from falling. His face drawn, he lunged toward the carrier, but it was too late. Tess had already pulled up behind his car and Thea, the baby carrier firmly in hand, had already leapt inside.
With a shriek of the Jeep’s tires, they raced away.
The son whose nose I had just busted cursed. He took a step toward me, but the taller son yelled there was no time. The first son headed toward me, hesitated, emitted an angry growl, and flashed his teeth. The taller one staggered to their car, then slapped his palm against the door.
With a last snarl, the shorter man jumped behind the wheel and they sped off after the Jeep.
They got to the corner before Bern placed her foot on the Bug’s front bumper and pushed it into traffic in front of them.
At the shriek of tires and metal, she turned and strolled toward us.
Lao was already on her feet. She made a tching sound. “Must have forgotten to put the damn thing in park. It’s hell being old, Zery.”
“Lucky we have another ride,” I replied.
“Yep.” She grinned. “It most certainly is.” She climbed into the truck we’d parked only a few spaces away; Areto slid into the center, and Bern hopped into the bed. I stood by the truck and watched the action.
Police had arrived almost immediately. Both sons stood tense and silent; neither, I was sure, willing to say they had been outsmarted by Amazons. Not only would that have been humiliating, but as far as humans knew, we were nothing but myth. Plus the sons had no proof the baby we’d taken from them was theirs—telling the authorities would have had no benefit anyway.
We had won, and they knew it.
The shorter son turned. His eyes found me. For a second I thought I’d been mistaken, that he would say something to the cops.
But as he stared, I realized he wasn’t thinking of pointing me out to the humans. No, he was thinking of what he would do to me when he caught me.
With a smile, I swung my body into the truck and pulled the door closed with a click.
He could think all he liked. It wouldn’t change that these men—men who claimed to be sons of Amazons, sons who had inherited our powers and long life spans—would never be a match for the Amazons—ever.
Our safe camp was only an hour’s drive from Beloit.
When we pulled in the drive, most of the camp’s current occupants were outside waiting for us. Everyone except Thea and the baby.
I jumped down and strode toward Tess. The young hearth-keeper was sitting on the old farmhouse’s front porch next to the baby’s seat. She was holding some kind of stuffed animal—a cow, a flat cow. I raised a brow but didn’t comment.
“Where’s Thea?” I asked. The priestess had joined our camp only a week earlier, two days before the call came that two sons had stolen a high-council member’s child and was headed in our direction.
Tess dropped the stuffed toy back into the empty carrier. “She went to the clearing with the baby.”
I frowned. Thea had taken the call telling us about the child. As queen of this camp, I’d have preferred to have been part of the conversation myself, but I had been out and the high council had chosen to tell Thea—it wasn’t my place to quibble.
Now, though, I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do with the child. I assumed we would reunite her with her mother, but I didn’t know when, where, or how.
I didn’t like not knowing, and I didn’t like Thea disappearing with her.
“I think she was doing some kind of blessing,” Tess offered. “She had a bowl and some oil.”
A bowl and oil . . . sounded to me more like Thea was planning to make salad.
I grunted and turned to go into the woods. At the last minute I went to the truck and grabbed a staff, one of my shorter ones for easier maneuvering in the trees.
I didn’t normally walk around armed, but these were not normal times. The sons had grown bold, stealing the child. Who knew what they might try next?
It was a bit cooler in the woods than it had been in the open sun, but it was still hot and humid. My shirt stuck to my skin and bugs zipped around me. I waved them off with one hand and mentally cursed Thea for dragging the child to the clearing in the middle of the day.
The blessing could have been done at the farmhouse, or Thea could have waited until dark. Artemis was a moon goddess; any blessing from her would be strongest then.
Muttering another curse, I tugged on the elastic band at the bottom of my jog bra and let it snap against my skin. The three seconds of cool air that provided was no relief. My palms were sweaty too, making it harder to grip my staff. I took a second to wipe them on my shorts and blow a lock of blond hair out of my eyes.
A few feet away something crunched through the underbrush. Heat forgotten, I regripped the staff, but there was no further sound and no other signs anything might be amiss.
An animal, then, maybe a stray dog. We saw plenty of them, raccoons and possums too. Could be anything.
Still, the interruption made me remember my task.
I gripped my staff with renewed earnestness and kept walking.
I stepped over a fallen log, paused and listened again. There was no movement in the woods, though, and little sound. The animal I’d heard earlier must have left the area. I swung my back leg over the log and kept moving. I was close to the obelisk now.
Just before entering the clearing, I stopped. I wanted to see what Thea was doing, what had been so important that she had fled with the baby as soon as arriving back at camp.
The obelisk that marked the center of our place of worship was black and glossy in the sun. Thea stood next to it; as Tess had said, she held a bowl. She had lost the hoodie and her tattoos were now clearly visible: Medusa dominated one arm, an owl the other.
I had commented on the Medusa when we first met.
It wasn’t idle conversation. Her choice of the snake-haired female was unusual. Amazons tended to animals and other symbols of nature, like the moon on the back of my neck or the owl on her other arm. Even our telioses, tattoos on our lower backs that depicted our family clans, and our givnomais, personal power tattoos on our right breasts, were all animals.
In fact, while we couldn’t shift into animals like the sons supposedly could, we did get strength from the animals we chose, at least the ones we chose for our givnomais.
But Thea had seemed to have a different theory on tattoos than I did. She claimed body art didn’t have to relay power, that Medusa reminded her what could happen if you acted with passion instead of logic.
I hadn’t bothered to reply. All of my tattoos had a purpose. And I didn’t consider personal reminders a purpose. Besides, logic was fine, if you had time for it. In battle you frequently didn’t. Gut instinct had saved my hide more than once.
The sun shone through the trees onto Thea’s short dark curls. Her eyes closed, she murmured something over the bowl, then dipped her fingers into whatever was contained inside it.
Her fingers glistening, she looked down. I realized then the baby was on the ground, wrapped in her blanket and snoozing.
I hesitated, unsure whether to make my presence known or not. It was obvious Thea was in the middle of some ceremony, and despite my annoyance that she had whisked the child off without consulting me first, I didn’t feel right about interrupting her.
Something rustled in the woods. The priestess froze, only her eyes moving as she scanned the trees. Knowing she would spot me soon, I stepped forward.
“Zery.” She glanced at the child, then set the bowl onto the ground and wiped her hands on her shorts. She took a step back, her foot hitting something white.
I tilted my head. I couldn’t make out what the object was, but the way Thea was standing gave me the distinct impression she had no desire to show it to me. Which of course meant I had to see it.
I strode forward. “You left before we could talk.”
She flipped both of her hands palm up. “The child needed to be accepted by the goddess.”
“Accepted?” I’d never heard the term.
“Presented as a gift. Children are the most precious gifts, you know.”
It sounded like the kind of worn sentiment you’d find on a two-for-a-dollar greeting card.
“I’ve never heard of a child being ‘accepted’ before.”
She shrugged and glanced at the baby. “Perhaps your former high priestess preferred doing the ceremony in solitude. Many of us do.”
A barb for interrupting her. With a frown, I took another step into her space, then kneeled, placed my staff on the ground, and scooped up the infant. She opened her eyes, curious and blue, and stared up at me. I had the strange urge to pat her on the chest or run my finger down her face. I grimaced. I’d never held a baby before; as a warrior, I’d never had the need or desire.
Seeing my discomfort, Thea held out her arms. “I can take her.” I moved to shift the burden of the child’s weight to the priestess’s arms, but as I did, my eyes locked onto the white object lying behind her: a knife, made of bone.
I pulled back. “What’s that?”
She stiffened, then followed my gaze . “Oh, the knife.” She bent to retrieve it. “Have you never seen one of these either?”
A knife made of bone and carved in the shape of a small spear lay across her two hands.
She smiled. “It’s a ceremonial knife. Carved over a thousand years ago. About as dangerous as a wooden spoon, as a weapon anyway, but full of magic. I use it to stir the oil.”
I could see now the tip glistened. She picked up the bowl and held it out. An inch of oil covered its bottom.
So, I had interrupted something. Still, she shouldn’t have wandered off with the baby we had just gone through so much effort to reclaim, not without telling me where she was going and why.
“Are you done?” I asked.
She tapped one finger against the rim of the bowl. “For now. The magic is gone; I’ll have to recall it another day.”
A prick to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t draw blood. “Or perhaps after she is returned to her mother, she can be ‘accepted’ then,” I parried back, but I wasn’t done. I had another question for our new priestess. “What did you use on the son—the dart? It wasn’t part of our plan.”
Thea’s jaw tightened. “Do you have a problem with the outcome? We did get the child.” With her thumb she twirled a ring around her finger. It was gold with a black enamel spider clinging to its band.
Despite myself I shuddered. Last fall the Amazons had been attacked by a son. I’d been staked out in a yard, a spider’s web of magic stretched over me, keeping my warriors from me, holding me down helpless. I had never feared anything, still didn’t, but spiders . . . I couldn’t help but associate them with that nightmare, lying there vulnerable and exposed . . . I pulled my gaze from the ring as I realized Thea was watching me.
“Perhaps,” she replied. “Here.” She held out the knife. “You’re a queen. Someone should have shared this part of our history with you before.”
I glanced at the weapon, reluctant to take it but still eager to pass off the child. Finally I slipped the baby into Thea’s arms and took hold of the knife.
The handle was smooth and warm and seemed to pulse with life inside my grip.
“Do you feel it?” she whispered.
Running my thumb down the blade, I nodded. She was right; it was dull. I felt nothing . . .
A shriek, loud and harsh, startled me from my thoughts. I stepped back, my attention dashing around the clearing. Another shriek, this one closer and overhead.
A bird, bigger than any I’d ever seen or dreamed existed, soared toward us. Its wings, probably eleven feet tip to tip, blocked the sun. Its head was featherless and red, its beak hooked.
I froze, my brain not moving fast enough to process what was happening, to form a defense or an attack.
Thea cursed and my instincts snapped into place. I threw the knife, but the blade wasn’t crafted for tossing. It fell with a thud to the ground.
I bent to pick up my staff and swung it overhead, like a child batting at a piñata.
The circling bird barely seemed to notice. His focus wasn’t on me; it was on Thea and the child she held.
The child . . .
“A son,” I yelled. The bird was a shape-shifted son, probably one of the two whom we’d tricked in Beloit. How they had found us this quickly I didn’t know, but I had no doubt the monstrous bird wasn’t natural . . . at least not for northern Illinois.
Something blasted from the dirt beside me. My staff, caught in the explosions, flew from my hand.
I coughed and rubbed dirt from my suddenly streaming eyes. Rocks flew from the ground and shot into the air like missiles. Thea stood in the center of the minefield, her arms held out and her lips moving. She was trying to down the bird with rocks previously buried beneath the soil.
But she had set down the child.
“Thea!” I yelled, trying to warn her to get to the baby, to take her and run. I could fight the son, but if we lost the child . . .
The priestess didn’t hear me. She seemed lost in her fight. Her hands formed claws and dug down in the air, like she was digging in the dirt; then with a quick twist she flung her hands back up overhead and a new batch of rocks flew into the sky.
Realizing it was up to me to grab the child, I fell forward into a somersault and rolled, landing in a crouch next to the infant. Relief washed over me. I reached for her, ready to grab her and run, but she had been moved, bumped aside by a growling, snarling animal.
The thing stood next to the now screaming child, almost over her. Its body was stocky like a bear but smaller, maybe forty pounds. His teeth, attached to snapping jaws, were sharp and jagged, obviously built to tear flesh from bone. A wolverine.
I knew he was the shorter son as soon as I saw him, but his expression left no doubt. He stared me down with a hatred so intense, it felt personal. Animals don’t emit emotions like that, but humans do . . . and sons do.
I’d wronged him, and he meant to make me pay.
A mix of a growl and snort escaped his jaws.
The knife was close, had fallen less than a foot from where I kneeled. I leaned out, willing my hand to close over the bone handle.
It pulsed against my skin. I loosened my grip, then, remembering why I needed it, tightened my hold again. The internal reminder took only a second, but when I looked up, ready to pounce, the animal was gone.
A man stood in his place. Naked, he looked more muscular than he had clothed.
A tattoo of a wolverine covered the top half of his shoulder, but I didn’t spend long studying his art. My focus latched onto his hands instead, on the squirming, screeching child he held over his head.
© 2010 Lori Devoti