The hot summer winds of Patmos stirred up the dust around the battle circle in the Leopard training grounds. It howled and bent every tree top sideways, as if bowing to Artemis, the ancient goddess who raised it from the sea. Its force reminded me of a story Ama told me as a young girl sitting around the family fires back home. Ama became a force of her own when she held her bow and spoke the ancient stories.
"Once long ago," she began, "before our grandmothers and great grandmothers lived along the sea, our Beloved Artemis, Goddess of the hunt, convinced her father to help her raise Patmos from the Aegean at the pleading of her dearest friend, Selene, Goddess of the moonlight. Night after night Selene would stare at the island submerged just below the surface and dream of shining Her full light on it. She wanted it to bloom with life again and knew Artemis would want that too. So, one night when Artemis walked beneath Selene's light talking about the creatures she loved, Selene told Artemis what She most desired.
Artemis loved Selene and would do anything for her, so she bargained with her father. He owed her for how he treated her mother and he agreed. Together they raised Patmos and nurtured it, never allowing it to sink into the sea again."
Ama said that even the strongest quakes could not sink the island. Patmos would always be in their care and that is why we make offerings at the rock of Kalikatsou, to make sure Patmos never sinks again.
I could hear Ama's voice as if she were standing beside me. I missed her. Her story made me wonder if Artemis and Selene were angered at the warriors and horses tearing up the lush beauty and making their island a playground for battlle. Did they send the relentless winds as punishment? Winds that howled through the cliffs and seaside caves that were homes for Amazzi warriors while they trained here.
A sudden shift in the dirt below my feet shuffled my balance. Quakes again, another warning from the Fire Mother. The circle of warriors I was training didn't seem to care, they just waited until it stopped and added it to their stories, marking another notch on their lances.
It was unsettling to me, I was meant for solid, unmoving ground like the horse and the leopard. If I was supposed to be like the birds, fluttering off when the ground moved, I would have wings.
Shouts and curses drew my attention back to two warriors dodging and slashing at one another. Their dull blades slammed against wooden shields covered with cow hide. Leather greaves coated with black dirt were strapped around their shins and danced above the dusty ground, rising and falling in kicks and stomps.
"Move forward, Cassia, don't let her push you back, you'll lose your balance." I shouted. "Plant your feet or I'll make you fight in mud so deep you'll be cleaning it out of your ass for weeks. Cyra! Force her away from you."
General Leona stomped up beside me. "No, no! Don't shove her, use your sword, use your shield. If you want to be a Leopard, then for Gaia's sake, fight like one."
The warriors danced, advancing and retreating but making no progress in either direction. A shuffle of feet in a swift move, a spin and kick in another, neither warrior would stay close enough to hit their mark.
They were new, just off the boat a few days ago and assigned to me for training. I recognized their skills, as underdeveloped as I was when I first arrived. They were too accustomed to their city's civilized way of fighting. They were on Patmos now, if they wanted to be a Leopard, they would have to adjust.
Captain Leona and I watched until she stepped between the warriors, losing what little patience she had.
"Enough!" She bellowed through the dust. "You're putting me to sleep. I know you're both new here, but you will not be training to be a Leopard for long if you fight like that. An enemy would charge at you and slice you like cheese before you could lift your shield."
She motioned for me to join her.
"Captain Myrine, take your stance and let's show these suckling babies how it's done. Ready?"
I planted my feet solid and leaned forward with sword and shield in hand.
She thrust forward, sword fisted, and arm extended, aiming at my head. I ducked just before the sword made contact with my helmet. I squatted and rolled forward. General Leona rebounded with a slash upward at my arm. She moved back to gain her balance.
I rushed at her before she was steady, determined to push her to the edge of the ring of boulders.
She leaped out of my reach, twisted around in a spinning cloud of dust and rolled into my knees. I hit the ground hard. My right shoulder smashed into the dirt. Clumps of brown sedge tore at my skin. I lifted slowly and spun around. Our eyes met, affirming the repetition of the same moves we did for all new trainees.
Arms lifted high, sword anchored in both hands, I braced myself for the blow. As her sword fell to meet mine, I countered the weight of the blow and pushed her sword upward sending her backwards into a heap on the ground. She bent over to find her balance and stand but as she did, I rushed forward and brought it down to the top of her head, flicked my wrists and halted by her neck, just below her chin.
Captain Leona leaned back and drew in a deep breath. My arms fell in front of me, my blade clamored in the dirt. I reached out to help her up, but she swiped my arm aside. She stood, brushed herself off and nodded at me.
Aiming to catch the eye of every warrior in the circle, I pivoted around, staring at them, then addressed the contest they just witnessed.
"One small mistake, and your head is a trophy on a spear in an enemy's camp. You must expect anything and be prepared for everything, especially what you never trained for. No battle is the same, every enemy is new and dangerous, Use all your senses. Hone your skills. There is no mercy in battle."
"Do you see how balance is most of what sword skills are about," Leona interjected. "The position of your feet, the motion at the center of your body directs your movements. Strength is not in your arms, it's in your core supported by your legs and feet."
The warriors sat quietly until Cassia shouted, "Show us again, this time bets on who the winner will be."
"Yes! My bets are on Captain Myrine. " a warrior shouted.
"Captain Leona will win this time. I'm for her," another warrior announced.
They continued, some calling my name and others shouting Leona's. We stared at one another.
"This was only to be a lesson, nothing else," Leona shouted over the warriors' taunts and jeers. "You need the training, not us. " .
"I don't want to beat you again anyway," I chuckled and winked.
"Beat me again? You'd have to actually do that, Myrine of Apasas."
I bristled at her name calling. I'm a Leopard Captain now, not that girl from Apasas anymore.
"I just beat you and I'll do it again. And I'm Captain Myrine, a Leopard in the Amazzi ranks, I know no Myrine of Apasas, she is dead."
"She's not dead and I'm going to make her cry. Let's make this interesting. Choose your weapons, Myrine."
I smiled, watching the expression on her face. I was never sure how serious her challenges would be and prepared myself for what might happen. I walked to the weapons bench and skimmed over several types grouped together. Small short bronze swords lay in a pile, a bundle of spears leaned against the wood and a few bronze battle axes lay propped against the edge of the bench.
"One or two weapons?" I spun around and asked her. "How lucky do you feel today, Captain?" The warriors silenced their jeers.
"Just one," she boasted. "That's all I'll need. Myrine of Apasas,"
I paced slowly to the circle examining my shield. The warriors moved back, lining all sides of the circle. We weighed our weapons and adjusted our bodies to wield them then stepped to the center of the circle. We turned and faced one another, fingers stroking the scratched and stained bronze metal.
I chose a battle ax, twirled it in my hands, over my head, then took my stance. General Leona gripped a sword in her fist, closed both hands over its hilt and twisted her wrists, swinging it from side to side.
"Come on Captain Myrine, cut her down," a few warriors growled. "No one wields the ax like you. Easy as mutton pie!"
"Stick her like a pig, Captain Leona," another warrior cried. "Make her squeal!"
I waited at the edge of the battle circle until she made the first move. I danced this circle before when I was new and not a Leopard yet. Captain Leona flattened me in the dirt and pine needles, leaving bruises I could still feel. When it was over, she offered her arm to me, but I refused, determined to never be shamed and beaten by her again. The night I was accepted as a Leopard and received my cape was the night she ate dirt at my feet. I pummeled her with my ax, belting the wind from her lungs. After she fell, I leaned down to offer her help, but she wouldn't accept it. It wasn't long after that day she asked me to stay, make captain and train with her. I've trained beside her since, partly because she was the Leopard of all the Leopard units to beat. She made me a better warrior and I wouldn't have to return to Apasas.
Captain Leona moved forward then hesitated her advance. I charged at her, ax swinging high, jerking it down to make a sweep at her midriff. She jumped backwards. l leaped up on one of the boulders that lined the circle. She gave a shrill cry and flipped forward at me. I pulled back and waited for her to drop and advance.
Her feet hit the dirt. She made another charge at me. I braced myself behind my shield to receive the impact. I lifted my ax high again ready to slam it down on her back. She broke form, surprising me and ran forward. She flipped from her feet to her hands and landed on her feet, crouching at my knees. I bent forward and thrust my ax at her, but she rolled backwards out of the way.
"Is that all you got, Leona, tricks?" I said.
"You haven't seen anything yet, warrior from Apasas." She laughed and ran at me before I could get my arm in the air to bring down my ax again.
The wind kicked up more dust and the cries of warriors blasted like thunder at us. She rushed forward, her sword extended. I pulled up my shield to block the blow and rushed at her, pushing her back until she tumbled in the dirt. She flipped backwards and found her feet, her shield up, but her hands weaponless.
I lunged again, swinging, landing a hard blow on her shield, cracking the wood and tearing the leather. I pulled back and swung once more, breaking the shield. I lifted my ax in victory.
Captain Leona threw her broken shield aside and rolled forward at my legs, shoving all her weight into my knees. I toppled and fell backwards. She crawled up my body and pulled something from her shin greave. A flash of sunlight flickered then disappeared and a bronze blade jagged my throat sharp enough to prick blood and reveal it wasn't a practice blade.
"I yield!" My head fell back in the dirt. "Damn tricks."
She drew back the blade, stood and straddled me in a victory stance. I lay silent, listening as she addressed the half cheering crowd.
"Always anticipate the unanticipated move. You have to think more than act when you fight. And keep your eye on every part of your enemy's body. It will save your life."
She extended an arm to me and yanked me up.
"You all know or have at least heard about Captain Myrine and her skills with an ax. I wanted you to see that even she can make mistakes and that's all it takes to determine if you live or die."
Leona turned sideways to me. "Do you have anything you would like to add, Captain?"
I swallowed the dust thick in my throat and glanced at the warriors, some smiling, some still wide eyed in disbelief. Was I getting slow? Or was the thrill of beating another Amazzi becoming a bore?
"Always check the greaves." I rolled my eyes and looked away.
Small bursts of laughter broke out among the warriors. I spun around and glared at them until they were silent.
"I mean it," I said. "Look at your enemy, check them over and look for hidden places to hide weapons. It will save you a surprise and as Captain Leona said, your life."
I stepped back and weighed the silence settling over the battle circle. Did any of these warriors think what I thought in my first days of training. I knew what fighting for my life was. Catching horse thieves at the southern border with Gryne taught me enough to know what battle might be like. Doubt and fear pushed me harder to be the best at every drill, every contest. When I lost, I vowed never to lose again, except when I taught with other Captains. Did any of these new recruits have those same goals?
"Your dismissed for water," Leona said, "but come right back and be ready for more, much more."
Leona waved her hand at the trainees then patted me on the shoulder. She spun sideways and stared at me. "Did I catch you off guard that much?"
"The blade was unexpected. You know how to keep me guessing, but it could have been all those tumbles and flips too. If you want to show off, next time let me know and I'll add a few rolls myself."
Her laughter broke my injured ego.
"You think our warriors will be on the beach tomorrow practicing tumbling and flipping?" Leona said.
"I might take a run by there just to see," I said.
We collected our weapons and shields and returned them to their place near the circle.
When the warriors returned, I mounted my horse and led them across the island and up through the hills to the summit of Mt Letois. After they caught their breath and were full of water, I ran them down the mountain and back across the island to the beach where most of the warriors puked up the water they had guzzled at the summit. Then I dismissed them for the mid day meal.
Sizing up each warrior as they lifted their bodies from the sand and drug themselves back to the meal tents to eat, I remembered my days before coming here. I had no doubt I was ready to be a Leopard then, learning skills I would need for battle., but horse thieves aren't anywhere near as frightening as a line of Mycene warriors.
Three seasons passed and I had yet to see a real battle. I waited for the call, for my unit to go to battle. I was ready for anything, except another group of warriors who thought they wanted to be here, then changed their mind halfway through training. Becoming a Leopard was an award of endurance for me, rather than an accomplishment anymore. I wasn't ready to go home, but the longer I stayed, the more I realized there wasn't much more for me here. Winning competitions was one thing, but a real battle is what I have honed my skills for. Some units of Leopards where going east to protect cities along the coast north of Apasas against the Mycene tribes invading their cities. I was never chosen to go, General Lita's decisions were kept quiet and the units picked to go were chosen by her and our other two Generals.
I hoped to be chosen soon, until then it's just another day on this damned dusty island.
I gathered my things and left the battle circle in pursuit of a meal.