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Book 1, the Sabazel series
What if an Amazon queen had a love affair with Alexander the Great? What if
their son had to defend his lands from the Mongol Horde? What if his sister
was the priestess of a bull-cult on Crete? What if her son started the
Trojan War -- between India and Persia?
In a world rooted in Mediterranean history and mythology, armies clash, magicks compete, and the gods set their pawns onto the gameboard. Danica, a warrior-queen, is forced to form a more-than-political alliance with Bellasteros, a warrior-king, making his enemies her enemies. When she rides into battle at his side, carrying his child, his friends become her enemies, too. Trapped, with no choice but to play the game to the end, they begin to re-evaluate their loyalties. And as their worlds are torn apart by both the clash of arms and supernatural powers, Danica and Bellasteros discover that only overcoming their old prejudices—and leading their followers into the same change—will save them and their child.
"...I love this book. A functioning Amazonian society with a kickass
queen, navigating the waters of political alliance and war? Sign my silly
butt up. This is one of those books I read every few years, and I’m always
pleasantly surprised by how good it is each time."
---Lilith Saintcrow, author of the Dante Valentine series
“Sabazel is the first treatment of Amazon society that can be considering a major success. It has the first honest and convincing milieu with wholly believable characters. It's my idea of genuine heroic vision.” —Jessica Amanda Salmonson
“...a story told at many levels...a lot of thought-provoking conflict...what makes these books instructive...is the lessons they teach on the clash of cultures. What the author has to say is well worth reading.”
—John T. Sapienza Jr., Different Worlds
“A marvelous sense of romantic adventure...strong characterizations
complimented by an evocative magical poetry in the imagery.”
—Robert Hadji, Borderland
NOTE: The first two chapters of Sabazel, the novel, consist of a slightly re-written version of the short story “The Borders of Sabazel”, originally published in Amazons II (DAW Books) in 1982.
This book was inspired by two sentences in a Smithsonian Magazine: "Which Alexander the Great shall it be? Shall it be the libertine who married three women and slept with at least four mistresses, a eunuch and even--or was this merely legend--an Amazon?"
At daybreak they crossed the borders of Sabazel, riding down from the high plains and mountains sacred to Ashtar. At noon of the second day they came to the edge of an escarpment; the land fell away into a thick forest that edged a glistening rim of the sea. The Sardian encampment lay there, on the sea strand, in a clearing hacked from the wood. The purples and scarlets of its pennons were muted by a haze of sun-gilded smoke.
Danica gazed narrowly at the tall cloth-of-gold pavilion that dominated the camp; Bellasteros of Sardis, the conqueror, rested there. “The oracle,” she commented to the woman at her side, “told him that a victory would be won beyond the borders of Sabazel.”
“He threatens to throw down Ashtar’s high altar,” returned Atalia. “But Sabazel is small pickings compared to those provinces of the Empire he has already won.”
“Perhaps the victory to be won here is not his.” Danica glanced back at her Companions, a hundred warriors ranged in good order behind her, breastplates gleaming and crested helmets spilling sunlight onto spear and shield. She nodded in satisfaction. Her shield rested securely on her arm, its emblazoned star humming with a latent power.
“Look.” said Ilanit, Danica’s daughter. She thrust her chin toward a slight disturbance in the brush nearby. “His sentinels grow clumsy. It would be great sport to flush that one.”
Danica exchanged a smile with Atalia over the young woman’s eagerness. “Our gambit must be more subtle,” she said. “We play for more than our own lives.” She urged her horse on down the path and the company was engulfed by the moist stillness of the lowlands.
Then a wind purled down from the mountains, stirring the trees with a distant melody of chimes. Danica’s mind stirred with the words of the goddess; her thought rippled like the surface of a pool disturbed by a touch. Bring him to me, daughter. When he pays the debt he owes me, redeeming the bones of his mother, then shall Sabazel be secured.
The camp was encircled by a palisade of sharpened logs and a deep ditch. The horses’ hooves clattered on the drawbridge, and the guards waiting in the gateway stepped aside, their weapons at rest. Their plumed helmets swiveled curiously after the company as it passed. The Sabazians were expected, if hardly honored, guests.
White water birds wheeled overhead, their screeches blending with the cacophony of voices that rose and crashed against the riders like waves against the shore. “I’ll be damned,” cried one ill-shaven soldier, starting up and dropping the scarred armor he mended. “Sabazians!”
“So they do exist,” exclaimed another. “I never quite believed the stories.”
A third called, loudly and pointedly, “Are they truly women?”
And someone answered him, “Only women worship Ashtar.”
Danica looked neither left nor right but guided her horse up the main street of the encampment toward the gold pavilion. The Sardian legionaries closed around the company and the man-scent overwhelmed them: Ilanit’s nostrils flared. Atalia leaned to the side and muttered, “Some of these men must have followed Gerlac even before he was husband to the conqueror’s mother, before her child was born.”
Bellasteros doubtlessly believed that these same men would desert him with derisive laughter if they knew the truth of his birth. Why else would he threaten Sabazel? Danica’s brows tightened; she remembered well the imperial princess, Viridis, who had been secretly consecrated in Ashtar’s rites before her marriage to Gerlac. She had died not in childbirth as rumored, but at Gerlac’s hand, for delivering in seven months a full term babe conceived in Sabazel. Bring him to me, sighed the Goddess in Danica’s mind.
Danica spat a command and Atalia, with an oath, thrust her horse ahead. She pushed a way through the crowd with the toes of her boots and the butt end of her javelin, and the Companions drew closer about their queen.
In the shadow of the pavilion an orderly group of soldiers surrounded the Sabazians, throwing back the mob. Officers shouted orders and the crowd dispersed. Danica leaped to the ground. Ignoring a pageboy who ran forward, she threw the reins of her horse to one of her own warriors. The others ranged themselves in a line before the tent, weapons to hand.
The doorway was flanked by standards bearing the bronze falcons of Sardis, symbols of Harus, the godling said to be the conqueror’s true sire. Danica paid them no obeisance as she strode into the shadowed interior of the tent. Ilanit and Atalia followed closely.
An official of some kind, dressed in imperial robes, came fluttering up to the women, but Danica brushed by him, directing her steps to a group of men gathered before a low platform. Over the dais hung a tapestry, threads of scarlet and of gold depicting a great battle, Sardian cavalry overrunning imperial chariots and Sardian phalanxes deflecting the arrows of imperial archers. Above the silent battle floated the widespread wings of another falcon.
The group of men parted as Danica approached. She passed through without slackening her pace, glancing from side to side. Sardians stood there, and imperial and other peoples as well. None of the faces showed the sycophancy Danica had seen at the imperial court.
The two men at the edge of the platform she identified immediately: General Mardoc, grizzled veteran of many Sardian wars; and Patros, childhood friend and chief companion of his king.
And seated in a chair placed at the center of the platform, under the protective wings of the embroidered falcon, was Bellasteros himself.
Danica stopped at the platform’s edge, braced one foot on the step, and removed her helmet. She tucked it under her arm and shook free her fair hair. Her shield she set before her; as it left her grasp it shimmered in a quick murmur of light. Ilanit and Atalia paused a decent two paces behind her, young face and old equally impassive. Behind them the Sardians closed their ranks.
The game begins, sighed Ashtar. Above the pavilion the scarlet pennons of Sardis whipped in a wind that whispered of distant chimes.
Bellasteros leveled his dark eyes at the tall woman standing before him. He was indeed young, she noted, but his body was lean and hard-muscled with rigorous campaigning. His mouth might have hinted at boyish caprice if it hadn’t been so tightly closed, set firm with the habit of command. He was short-haired, clean-shaven, and dressed in a short tunic, carrying the customs of Sardis with him into the heart of the Empire. If he felt any discomfiture at the appearance of the daughters of Ashtar, he concealed it well.
She had waited long enough. His gaze had not wavered. Danica sketched a brief salute with her hand. “Greeting,” she said. “I am Danica, queen of Sabazel. These are Atalia, my weapons master, and Ilanit, my squire and my daughter.”
“Greeting,” Bellasteros returned in a mild but formal voice. “I am intrigued to find that we rest near legendary Sabazel.” He made no effort to repeat the salute.
“Felicitations on your defeat of Kallidar’s imperial armies before Farsahn,” she went on.
His mouth twitched and settled into an amused smile. “My thanks, but I am told that you were Kallidar’s ally.”
“Then you were told wrongly. He sought to hold us in fief, but he failed. We, too, would welcome his death.” Danica’s smile did not even attempt amusement.
“Ah.” Bellasteros nodded. He leaned back in his chair and allowed his fingers to tap a lazy pattern on the curved armrests. “I had thought to visit your capital; the oracle did suggest that I placate all the gods at the end of the world.”
“Had you thought to come alone?” she replied. “At the turn of the year, when men are allowed across the borders of Sabazel to celebrate the rites of Ashtar? Or had you thought to come with your armies, at your pleasure?”
His fingers stopped dead on the armrests. “But you sent a message to me, asking for this meeting,” he continued smoothly. “May I hope for your allegiance?”
Atalia made a growling sound in her throat and Ilanit grimaced. Danica said, “My Companions and I come to offer you a gift.”
“Ah,” he said again. “A bribe, you mean, to turn my attention from your barbarous ways and leave you . . .”
“Free.” She swallowed the insult and clamped her teeth on it. So that was to be his excuse for invading Sabazel. What of the barbarisms of Sardis? The shield hissed, a spark swirling against Danica’s thigh. Several officers started, exchanged wary glances. Danica lowered her head and gazed at the conqueror from under her brows.
His hands clenched on the arms of his chair but his voice remained light, almost bantering, as if he were indulging a precocious child. “And what gift do you bring me?”
“The fortress of Azervinah.”
One of the Sardian officers gasped. Others muttered among themselves. “Kallidar himself hides there,” one of them said,
“Our victory is incomplete while he yet lives,” said another.
Patros frowned. “It would be the work of years to starve him out, and our soldiers grow restless. Azervinah guards the pass to the southern provinces of the Empire and the summer capital Iksandarun.”
Bellasteros slapped the arms of his chair and leaped to his feet. He strode forward, his indolence discarded and replaced with the vigilance of his falcons. “Azervinah is impregnable,” he said. “My scouts surround it now, but Kallidar only looks down and laughs.”
“He told you, I believe,” commented Danica, “to grow wings.”
Again the officers muttered to one another. Mardoc thrust forward. “She knows too much, my lord,” he asserted, but Bellasteros waved him away.
“And how do you suppose to deliver the fortress to me?” the conqueror demanded.
She let him wait a few moments; she dropped her jade green eyes and looked curiously around the pavilion. When she looked back at Bellasteros he hadn’t blinked. “Sabazel is a land of mountain as well as plain,” she told him. “The rock of Azervinah can hold no mystery for us.” Our spies are indeed most efficient, she told herself.
“But you would not be able to take it alone,” he shot back.
Very good, Danica thought. Aloud, she said, “No, I fear you would have to contribute a few of your warriors to gain your gift.”
Again the king scrutinized the queen before him, searching the planes of her face and the smoothly muscled angles of her body as if he could read her thoughts. Danica suffered his inspection calmly. Only Ashtar was privy to her mind.
At last Bellasteros sighed, settled his hands on his hips, and tilted his head to the side. “And in exchange for Azervinah I must bypass Sabazel, leaving you and your people unharmed?”
“Yes,” Danica answered. “I am told that Bellasteros of Sardis is a man of honor and keeps his bargains.”
He released a sudden grin then, as if pleased by a game well played. “Agreed,” he announced. “Sabazel is little price to pay for the Empire.”
Danica sensed that the women behind her breathed only a little more easily. She bent to slip her shield onto her arm. “Agreed,” she said, and permitted herself to return the smile with which Bellasteros had favored her. He had, it seemed, an interesting humor . . .
Ashtar whispered, First game for Sabazel and for me.
The first day of the journey up the Jorniyeh River to the mountain foothills of Azervinah passed in silence, Sabazian and Sardian not mingling but riding separately. Danica said nothing to the conqueror, warned away by the set of his jaw. Jests flew behind his back—good-natured jests, if they concerned Bellasteros himself—but he would tolerate none in his presence. Jest was too close to hate, and if it came to hatred, Bellasteros would himself choose its target.
The second day of the journey began in a silence even tighter than that of the day before. But at midmorning a Sardian scout burst out of the tangled woodland that filled the river valley and cried that a herd of deer had been sighted.
“I am told that Sabazians are great huntresses,” Bellasteros called to Danica.
“And so we are,” she replied, pressing her heels into her horse’s flanks as she spoke. The animal lunged forward.
“Hail, Bellasteros!” shouted Patros. “He has the mastery of man and beast!”
Ah, murmured Ashtar. The game is joined again.
The chase led over the tumbled roots of the great trees, through thick stands of fern and thistle and over hidden ravines. Some of the Sardian chargers stumbled and fell, but the lighter Sabazian horses leaped over concealed vines and potholes, seeming to spend as much time in the air as on the ground. The Companions shouted encouragement to each other as they rose in their stirrups to cast their javelins.
The hunters, like the deer scattered to the winds. Ilanit led a group of Sabazians and Sardians in a plunge through the forest. Her breastplate and shield sparked as she flicked from viridescent shadow to sunlight and back, like a gleaming exotic bird in headlong flight through the wood. Her voice, raised in an exultant paean, echoed through the branches until it sounded like the cries of an army. Atalia rode at her side, watching her proudly.
Danica found herself riding flank to flank with Bellasteros, her mare keeping pace with his great warhorse as they crashed through the underbrush after a stag. She noted that the rest of the hunters had gone another way; she could no longer hear the shouts and cries, the rhythm of hoofbeats and the wail of Sardian hunting horns. But the golden-brown body of the stag flicked through the trees before her and the muscles of her horse flexed and loosed between her thighs. The goddess laughed in her ear, the leaves of the forest chimed with melody.
She glanced to the side and saw the conqueror grinning like a child, his eyes gleaming as he leaned low over the neck of his horse. The scarlet horsehair plume of his helmet streamed behind him.
The deer hurled itself across a brook, the froth that dripped from its mouth mingling with the water droplets stirred up by its hooves. On the other side it plunged into a thicket. For just an instant it vanished into shadow. Then the hand of Ashtar touched the forest, and the stag catapulted back out of the bushes. The hunters, storming across the stream, had but a glimpse of the rough hide of the boar and of the glint of sunlight along the curve of its tusks before those tusks buried themselves in the deer’s flank. The stag thudded to the ground in a melee of legs. The boar stood over its shuddering body, tusks dripping blood, black points of eyes fixed angrily on the approaching horses.
“By Harus!” cried Bellasteros. He reined in his horse so abruptly that it reared.
“Ashtar, my thanks,” Danica hissed under her breath. The shield thrilled against her skin. But in her eagerness she urged her horse onto a patch of mud at the edge of the stream; even as she raised her javelin the horse lost its footing. With a squeal it fell sideways into the water.
Danica threw herself clear, rolling over and over on the greensward with her javelin held at arm’s length. She sprang to her feet, inhaling sharply, as her horse scrambled up with a questioning whinny. She heard clearly the man’s delighted laugh.
The boar’s tiny, red-rimmed eyes glared at her and she matched its stare. The bristles heaved along its sides, scattering the sunlight. Then it jumped, tusks lowered, straight toward her. Danica grounded the butt of her spear on a rock, braced her body against it, and raised her shield.
Then the boar was on her. She leaned on the javelin as the beast’s impetus carried it onto the sharp point. The point struck deep into its body and it screamed. Blood gushed, burning, over Danica’s hand and arm; where it touched the shield it steamed. The huge body of the boar carried her backward, but in its killing frenzy it only impaled itself more deeply on the spear. Danica fell beneath it, her shield protecting her throat from the slice of the tusks. She released the spear to draw her sword. Even as her slender blade turned and bit, another blade flashed with fire before her eyes. The boar screamed again, grating the forest with its death cry; then it collapsed, a reeking hulk that oozed blood and foam over her shield.
Danica exhaled, slowly, and pulled her sword from the animal’s throat. For a moment she rested beneath the sheltering circle of the shield, considering the falcon-headed sword that protruded from the boar’s breast. The image remained branded in her mind; Bellasteros, feet braced wide apart, hewed the boar with a two-handed stroke. His eyes blazed and his teeth were bared in a killing frenzy as strong as the beast’s.
A shadow came between her and the sun. She looked up. Bellasteros extracted his sword from the body, drove it into the ground beside the carcass, and levered the animal away from her. “Foolish,” he commented, “to turn your horse on the mud. Even the most sure-footed beast would slip.” He was breathing hard but his expression was of casual interest
“My thanks for your assistance,” Danica said politely. She ignored his proffered hand and clambered to her feet. The sun-dappled surface of the stream beckoned and she made no effort to resist. She laid the quiescent shield down, stripped off her armor, boots, and the softer garments beneath, and cleaned them as best she could. Naked, she threw herself into a pool to wash away the blood and sweat of the hunt.
Bellasteros watched with great interest, not even pretending to avert his eyes. At last he, too, laid aside his bronze armor to bathe in the stream. “What did you think?” she asked him, catching one of his glances. “Did you believe the tales that we Sabazians mutilate ourselves, cutting away our womanhood to better draw our weapons?” He dropped his eyes then, and she laughed. “How could we nourish our infants?”
Bellasteros splashed out of the water, laid himself on the bank of the stream, and regained his composure. “Indeed,” he said, with a sly sideways gleam, “a people that did not bear offspring would soon perish.”
“Truly,” she replied. She seated herself some paces away, drying the golden waves of her hair in the sun and in the breeze that rang through the forest. The water murmured to itself, singing a half-remembered song of ancient heroes and their deeds.
After a time Danica said, “We are not the barbarians you name us.”
“You take many lovers and marry none,” he told her by way of evidence. “How do you know your child’s father?”
“We accept those men who wish to make offering to Ashtar,” she returned. “I know well my child’s mother. Your marriages have not prevented your taking lovers.”
Bellasteros opened his mouth, shut it, frowned slightly, and tried again. “We bury our dead according to the rites of the true gods.”
Danica smoothed her hair over her shoulders and picked up her trousers. “Ashtar, the true goddess, requires that we bum our dead.”
“And you give away your sons.”
“To be cherished by our neighbors. You expose your daughters, to die at the mercy of the cold and the wolves that prowl the garbage middens of your cities.”
“Harus,” muttered Bellasteros. He grabbed his tunic. Danica settled her breastplate over her chest and slipped her sword into its scabbard, making no further comment but watching him through her lashes.
He buckled his cuirass and strolled across the grass to stroke his horse’s nose. “Bellasteros,” he mumbled, “the master of man and beast.” The horse nickered against his shoulder.
Danica surprised herself with a smile. When the conqueror turned back to her their eyes met and held, exchanging not challenge but wary respect.
Game and set, sighed Ashtar. Bring him to me, daughter, in Sabazel.