Judith Tarr returns to the always fascinating character of Alexander the Great in this fantasy novel that springs from the legend that the Queen of the Amazons came to meet him in Persia, and became his friend.
Hippolyta was Penthesilea, or Queen of the Amazons. She ruled as war leader and high priestess of a scattered tribe of women warriors who had dwelt on the high plains to the north and east of Persia for time out of mind. They were not isolated—travelers came and went through their territory, bringing news from the west, and carrying tales of the warrior women back home with them.
But the Queen had a great grief in her life: her daughter and heir was a strange child. The girl had been born, so the Priestesses said, without a soul. And it was true that she was like no other child alive. She did not speak, and often seemed not to even see the people around her. She could not dress or feed herself, but she could ride and hunt like no other woman of the tribe. Many of the Amazons believed that the child must never be Queen, but that was a problem for a later time—Hippolyta was young and strong.
Selene, the niece of the tribe's Seer, was put in charge of the child, to be her nursemaid and guardian. And it was a good, though sometimes difficult, life for many turns of the years. But then one day news came from the West of a new Conqueror, a young man who came out of Macedon with a spirit like flame, intending to rule the whole world. The Queen's daughter responded to the tale as a woman in the desert would to the sound of falling water. That very night she stole out of the camp and rode west. Selene could not stop her, and so she must follow, praying that the Queen would understand. Hippolyta herself followed the next day, and so they rode together, controlled by the child's compulsion, until they had crossed the mountains and entered into Alexander's Empire, and under the sway of Alexander's powerful personality.
About the Author
Judith Tarr is the author of more than twenty widely praised novels, including The Throne of Isis, White Mare's Daughter, and Queen of Swords, as well as five previous volumes in the Avaryan Chronicles: The Hall of the Mountain King, The Lady of Han-Gilen and A Fall of Princes (collected in one volume as Avaryan Rising), Arrows of the Sun, and Spear of Heaven. A graduate of Yale and Cambridge University, Judith Tarr holds degrees in ancient and medieval history, and breeds Lipizzan horses at Dancing Horse Farm, her home in Vail, Arizona.
Read an Excerpt
Queen of the Amazons
By Tarr, Judith
Tor BooksCopyright © 2005 Tarr, Judith
All right reserved.
The queen's daughter lay in her cradle. Her hands and feet paddled aimlessly as a newborn's will. Her skin was beginning to lose the redness of the very young; one could see that it would be ivory and her hair would be ruddy gold. Her eyes were wide-set and lucent blue, and perfectly blank.
"She has no soul," said the seer.
She had come long day's ride to look on this child and conjure her name, traveling to the westernmost edge of the hunting runs, where Queen Hippolyta had paused to give birth to her daughter. The celebrations were just dying down when she came. The last of the wine was going round, and the birth-festival of a royal heir advanced toward its ninth evening.
Selene happened to be abroad in the camp when the seer was sighted riding up the steep track to the summit of the hill. She had gone altogether blind since last Selene saw her, but she had acquired no servant or acolyte. Her little bay mare was all the eyes she needed for the road. In camp she had the goodwill of the people to guide her.
She hardly needed a guide to bring her to the queen's tent and the child in it. The Goddess led her, bringing light where others could see only dimly if at all. Selene followed in silence, soft-footed as a hunter, but she knew the seer was aware of her.
Hippolyta was not with her daughter. Her attendants had persuaded her to snatch a little sleep while the child slept, and Selene had setguards to keep her there until she was rested. Charis was watching over the child, rocking the cradle with her foot while she suckled her own daughter.
She rose at the seer's coming and offered reverence. The seer passed her as if she had been invisible.
The child was awake, watching the play of light and shadow on the tent wall. She took no notice of the figure that bent over her. The seer's nostrils flared. She straightened abruptly and said the thing that Selene had been thinking--and dreading--since the day the child was born.
"She has no soul."
Selene's throat closed. It was impossible, and yet the seer had seen it at least as clearly as she had. This beautiful child, this first-born of the queen, was as empty of soul and self as an image carved in ivory.
"How can that be?" said Charis. "She lives, breathes. She eats. She clasped my finger just now. Surely she can't be--"
"There is no soul in this body," the seer said. "The breath of life is in it, but no spirit fills it. There is nothing here to name."
"We name animals," Charis said. She was stubborn, and she had formed an attachment to the child.
"This is less than an animal," said the seer. She turned her back on the cradle. The child's eyes never flickered, her face never changed. The seer might not have been there at all, for all that the child knew of her.
* * *
The seer found Selene that evening by the cookfires, tending a pot and pondering imponderables. She did that when she needed to think long and hard: found a pot or a spit and a bag of herbs and created something for people to eat.
She looked up from seasoning the pot to find the seer standing over her. She sighed, making no effort to hide it. "Still pursuing me, aunt?"
"Always," her aunt said. She had been Kallinike before she left her name behind to become a voice for fate and the Goddess.
"The answer is still no," Selene said.
"And my response is still that this is not a choice. The gift is given. You must take it."
"I refuse," Selene said. She was calm--a warrior's calm, with powerful resistance beneath. "My gift is to ride and fight and defend my queen. I am not meant for the gift you wish on me."
"Never my wishing," the seer said with great sadness. "Believe that, child. Never mine. The Goddess lays Her hand on whom She wills."
"Not this one," Selene said.
That was an old fight, as old almost as Selene. Time was when the seer had tried to press her. They had both been younger then. Selene had fled to the queen and found asylum there. The seer had accepted that defeat, but it was only a single battle in a long war.
"I am not a seer," Selene said. "I will not accept the visions. I will not be the gods' plaything."
"In the end," her aunt said, "that will not be your decision to make. May the Goddess help you then, for I may not be alive to do it."
Selene turned her back on her, just as the seer had done to the queen's daughter. It was a monstrous rudeness.
The seer did not lash her with anger. The air was full of regret and long-suffering patience.
Selene shut her mind to it. When at length she looked over her shoulder, her aunt was gone. Selene prayed it would be a long while before they spoke to each other again.
* * *
"Kill it," Phaedra said.
She had called the clan-council, then once it had met, she had done most of the talking. No one seemed to mind that a mere commander of ten was ordering them all about. She was the queen's sister-daughter; until Hippolyta's daughter was born, she had had fair claim to the rank of royal successor.
Hippolyta was still asleep. They were hoping to resolve the matter before she woke, and have it settled and put firmly out of mind.
Not one of the elders and clan-leaders, not even the warleader of the tribe, ventured to protest Phaedra's blunt words. Selene was there on sufferance, mute and supposedly meek in the war-leader's shadow. Ione was silent, listening, betraying nothing in her expression. Selene wanted to shake her, to shout at her to say something, do something, wield the power of her rank to strike Phaedra down.
"Yes, kill it," Phaedra said. "Kill it before our lady wakes. We should have disposed of it when it was born, when we saw the emptiness in its eyes."
They growled like men, struck with a sudden hunger for blood. Phaedra smiled.
Selene could not bear that smile, its smugness and its deep self-satisfaction. "You never saw anything!" she burst out. "None of you did. You never knew--"
"Child," said Phaedra with an air of patient kindness, "you're forgiven. We all know how you love our lady. But this thing she gave birth to is flawed beyond recall. Best be rid of it. Once she recovers from the birth, she'll go to the men again and make another."
They seemed to be wise words. They sounded sensible. Yet they set Selene's teeth on edge. Phaedra was not thinking of the queen, and she certainly was not wishing her well.
Phaedra nurtured a deep sense of injustice: her mother had been queen, but when she died suddenly, the late queen's sister had been chosen to rule after her. Phaedra had been a child, not yet come to women's courses. She had been aggrieved then, and the grievance had only grown as she grew older.
Few ever seemed to see the heart in her, only the smile and the soft words. In this council, where everyone was so much of the same mind, she said exactly what they all wished to hear.
"There are wolves in the wood beyond the river," said the chief of the priestesses who were in the camp. She did not say it gladly, but neither did she flinch from it.
Phaedra shook her head. "Wolves aren't certain enough. Let us offer the thing to the Lady of the Wolves, as a sacrifice for the good of the people."
Again it was reasonable; it was right, surely, after the seer had refused to give the child a name. The child was not a human thing; it was a shell, a husk of flesh around a core of nothingness. And yet Selene's heart would not let her bow to Phaedra's will, however skillfully she had imposed it on the queen's council. Even Ione had given way to it.
Selene has been resisting the Goddess all her life. A single mortal woman was nothing beside that. "The queen--" she began.
She had expected to be shouted down. She had not expected absolute silence.
Once the seer had told the council what she had seen, she had retreated to a corner and, it seemed, fallen asleep. Now it was clear that she had been wide awake. She did not move or speak, but the words died in Selene's throat.
The seer seemed to do nothing, simply sat in her bit of light and shadow: a bone-thin woman, not young, with a lined plain face and the milky eyes of the blind. And yet she held in her the beauty and majesty of the Goddess through Whose eyes she saw.
She drew the silence to herself. When all of it was centered on her, she spoke. Her voice was soft; they strained to hear. "There will be no wolves and no sacrifice. This child will live."
"Live!" cried Phaedra, forgetting herself for once. "But you said it has no--"
"That is the will of the Goddess," the seer said.
"How can the Goddess will this? What is She thinking? Did She simply forget to provide a soul for it? Will She force us to leave it open to any demon or dark spirit that may happen by?"
"She is protected," said the seer, as soft and serene as ever. "The wolves will not take her, nor will any power for ill."
"Why?" Ione demanded, speaking at last and to the point. "Tell us, lady. What do you see?"
The seer stood erect. Her clouded eyes were fixed far beyond the circle of women, over the long roll of the steppe and the vault of the sky. "The child will live," she said.
"Then you must name it," said Phaedra. "If it is to live, it must be named."
"A name will come to her," the seer said. "Wait and be patient. You will see."
She walked away from them then. She did not walk quickly, nor did she ask for guidance. Any one of them could have caught and held her, but even Phaedra lacked the power to move.
The seer had left them with far more questions than she had answered. The priestesses knew no more than any. The Goddess did not choose to enlighten them.
Selene left the circle as it erupted in confusion. They would shout at one another until the sun went down, and some would shout the moon across the sky, but it would all come to nothing. They were railing at the wind.
* * *
The shouting had died down by morning. As the first rays of the sun touched the hilltop on which the royal clan had camped, a new and quieter commotion brought out everyone who was not already up and about.
Selene had snatched a few hours' sleep among the horselines. She had not wanted the seer to find her, and it seemed she had succeeded. What she could not escape were the dreams.
They came to her out of the dark, each one whole and complete: visions of places she had never been and people she had never known. She saw a woman who she knew was the queen's daughter, a woman very like the queen, tall and strong, with hair the color of ruddy gold, and eyes as blue as flax flowers. There was life and self in those eyes, an intelligence so keen and a spirit so strong that in her dream she caught her breath.
The vision neither faded nor vanished, but the woman was gone. Selene saw a man on a black horse. His hair was as bright as gold and his eyes were as blue as flax flowers. The spirit in him was like a living fire. He rode across a dim and half-seen country, and an army of men followed him.
The eyes of her vision rose up from the earth until she hovered like a bird in the sky. All the world spread out below her, with all its tribes and nations, its kingdoms and empires. The man of her vision swept across them like a storm over the plains.
He came from the setting sun. The lands he swept across would matter, she knew in the way of dreams, without reason or logic. She would remember them, just as she would remember this dream, because she had dreamed true.
She was almost at ease, almost ready to accept what had been given her. But the spirit inside her, whether it was the giver of the gift or some adversary, twisted the dream and tore its fabric. She struggled to escape, but she was powerless as always. She had to stand transfixed, and see what she had seen in the first dream that she remembered.
She was very young. She could ride--every sister of the people could from the time she was old enough to sit upright on a horse's back--but she had not yet learned to shoot a bow. Her mother would teach her in a year or two.
Her mother was chief priestess of the royal clan. Even so young, Selene expected to receive the same calling and the same office when she was old enough. She was gifted, everyone said, and wise beyond her years. There could be no doubt that the Goddess loved her.
When people spoke of the Goddess, she saw her mother: tall, strong, beautiful. That was the face she saw when she prayed, and the voice she heard when the priestesses told her the Goddess spoke through the things of earth: the whisper of wind, the fall of water, the shifting of stone. Her mother was everything that was wonderful. When people said that Selene would grow up to be the same, she was ineffably proud.
Today she was weeping with anger. Her mother had gone away without her--the first time that Selene could remember, and if she had anything to do with it, it would be the last. She did not know or care where Dione had gone, only that she was elsewhere and Selene was here, in the camp of the clan. The queen's sister Hippolyta was looking after her, and Selene adored Hippolyta. But she was not Selene's mother.
Daughters of the people learned to weep in silence, but Selene made sure everyone knew how angry she was. Her head ached and her throat was locked shut.
Hippolyta fed her a cup of warm milk laced with honey and wine. It had gone down before she understood that it would make her dizzy and then make her fall asleep.
In sleep she saw her mother. Dione was inside of walls. Selene recognized the temple of the Goddess to which she had gone with Dione the summer before. It was not a tent such as the clans lived in, but a house of wood from trees that grew all around the Goddess' hill.
Lamps flickered in it. The image of the Goddess loomed in the dimness. She had a fire in Her belly. Selene was not afraid of Her, though She had no face, only the huge breasts and burgeoning womb. She was the Goddess, Mother and beloved.
Selene's mother prayed with other priestesses. It was a great rite, very holy, very secret. Selene knew that the way one did in dreams, without doubt and without question.
It was a peaceful dream, full of the Goddess' warmth and Her blessing. Selene let it lull her. It took away the worst of her anger at being left behind.
That first time, Selene did not see exactly how it began. Later, when the dream came back again and again, she saw the gust of wind that shot like an arrow through the hole in the roof and scooped the fire out of the Goddess' womb. Sparks flew.
The wood of the temple was very old and very dry, and had been covered over with the black water that bubbled out of the ground not far away. It was thick and oily, that water, with a strong smell, but it kept wood alive long after it should have rotted.
The temple went up like a torch. The priestesses in their rite were caught without hope of escape. The one door, the walls, the roof were sheets of flame.
Selene watched them burn. In her dream she could not close her eyes or turn away. She saw the flesh melt from her mother's bones, and yet she still lived. She was alive long after her body was a charred ruin. When at last the fire consumed her, it had gone beyond mercy, even beyond cruelty.
Selene woke screaming. She screamed until her voice was gone. Nothing that anyone could do would comfort her. And the worst of it--truly the worst--was that when she dreamed that horror, it had not happened yet. She could not speak of it, or warn anyone.
Three days later it happened, and it was her fault. If she had not been so far gone in horror, if she had told anyone what she saw, her mother might still be alive. The priestesses might not have died. She would not have to live that nightmare over and over, night after night, until she dreaded sleep and shrank from dreams. Nor would she ever, though the Goddess Herself commanded it, accept that she was born to be a seer.
* * *
On this morning, the ninth day of the soulless child's life, Selene left the dream of fire behind and crawled wearily out of her blankets. The murmur of voices roused her to something like consciousness. She sat up, blinking in the pale early sunlight.
People were up and moving, gathering toward the sunrise side of the camp. The queen's tent was there, and the shrine of the Goddess that went with her wherever she traveled.
A cairn of stones had stood in that place since the people first came to the sea of grass. The shrine was set within its circle, laid on a broad flat stone: a canopy made of spears, with a roof that was a war-cloak, and beneath it the image of the Goddess that was older than the oldest memory of the people.
It was a black stone that was said to have fallen from the moon, too heavy for a single woman to lift. In its rough shape one could discern the outline of a head and shoulders and the curve of a swollen and fecund belly. It had no face, no eyes or mouth, and no feet or hands. The more skittish of the priestesses could hardly bear to touch it; it was too strong, too heavy with age and power.
Hippolyta was standing in front of it. Her hair was free, flowing down her back. She had put on the garment that from the beginning had marked the Penthesilea, the ruler of the people: a girdle of knotted cords, red as blood. No other garment was ever worn with it, nor was it made for modesty. In it a woman was utterly a woman, and all the more so this one, with her belly still slack from the weight of the child, and her breasts heavy with milk.
She held her daughter in her hands, lifting her up before the Goddess. The child was still, but she breathed: Selene saw the lift of her breast.
Selene was not the last to come there. The elders were behind her, and the priestesses bleared with sleep, and Ione the warleader with an air of one who had been expecting this--the only one of them all who had.
Phaedra came late and last, looking as if she had drowned her sorrows in a vat of wine. Her voice rose like a hawk's cry above the murmur of shock and astonishment. "You cannot do this! It has no name. The seer--"
The queen took no notice of her. She offered her child to the sun and the sky, to the four quarters of the earth, and last of all to the Goddess. Just as she would have laid the small body in the lap of the image, binding her to the Goddess and the people, Phaedra sprang between. Her eyes were blazing; her hands were clawed. "You cannot do this. This is not a human thing. It is an abomination--a horror; a visitation of the Goddess' wrath upon the people."
Hippolyta looked her in the face. She could hardly avoid it; Phaedra was all but pressed against her. "Cousin," she said mildly, "you are interrupting the rite."
"There can be no rite! There is nothing to offer but an empty husk."
"I offer Her what She has made," Hippolyta said.
"You will not," said Phaedra.
Hippolyta's eyes narrowed slightly. She was still far more self-possessed than the one who faced her. "Are you telling me what I may and may not offer to the Goddess Who made me?"
"This is an insult to Her," Phaedra said.
"How can She be insulted by Her own creation?"
"It is monstrous," said Phaedra.
"It is my daughter," said the queen. "My heir, the firstborn of my body."
"This cannot be your heir."
Then at last Hippolyta's composure broke. Her face went stiff. She thrust Phaedra aside as if she had been made of bundled grass, and laid her daughter in the Goddess' lap. "By heaven above and earth below," she said in a voice that throbbed in the watchers' bones, "by all the Powers that dwell beneath the moon, I swear: This is my daughter and my heir. This and no other shall be queen of the people. This alone shall rule when I am dead. If this oath be broken, may the earth gape and swallow me; may the sky fall and crush me; may my soul die forever to the memory of the light."
To a woman they shuddered; some of them gasped and made futile gestures against the terror of that oath. There was none greater or more binding. She had condemned her soul for the sake of a creature who had none.
She had condemned the rest of her people, too, as some declared, loud and long--and Phaedra louder and longer than any. None of them pointed out that if Phaedra had held her tongue, she might not have driven the queen to this. She had spoken when she should have kept silent. The queen had named her heir--and that heir had neither will nor living spirit.
It was done. It could not be undone, however vehement the protests. Hippolyta lifted her daughter from the lap of the Goddess and cradled her to her breast, where with blind persistence the child sought the nipple and began to suck.
Selene had been as shocked as the rest, though maybe her anger was less. That gesture, as simple and natural as any in the world, for some unfathomable reason melted her heart. She could still see the emptiness within that body, but she saw too that it was her queen's child whom she had carried beneath her heart, whom she loved with a mother's intensity.
Selene had miscarried her first child in the winter. The child would have been a son--a lesser tragedy, she was told, than if it had been a daughter. Her womb did not know that. It was empty and her arms bereft. Her breasts still ached, although the milk had long since dried.
Maybe the Goddess guided her. Maybe it was her own foolish will. She looked at this child and loved her, though the child would never return that love, or any other human emotion. She belonged to Selene's queen; she would be Selene's queen--and how the Goddess would bring that about, only She knew.
Selene approached Hippolyta. She laid her right hand on the queen's breast over the beating heart and her left hand on the child's soft head. Steadily she spoke the words that bound her to the queen who was and the queen who would be.
She thought she would be alone, but after a stretching pause, Ione followed her. Others were at her back: warriors, hunters, but no priestesses. Not one, of the dozen in the camp who were consecrated to the Goddess.
When the last of them had come and gone, Selene reckoned the tally of those who had taken the oath. It was a little more than half of the grown women of the clan--but it was enough for the moment. They were stronger than those who held back; they had more skill in weapons. If it came to a fight, they would win.
"You are mad," Phaedra said. "You'll destroy the people, all of you--you and this monster that you serve."
Maybe so, Selene thought. Maybe not. That was in the Goddess' hands.
Copyright 2004 by Judith Tarr
Excerpted from Queen of the Amazons by Tarr, Judith Copyright © 2005 by Tarr, Judith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"A cool twist on the classical legend. Tarr's fluid plotting and careful research will keep readers intrigued despite her deceptively simplistic prose."Publishers Weekly on Queen of the Amazons
"Tarr's gift for combining her own brand of magical fantasy with fully drawn, compelling characters acting within the framework of history bears fruit again... Tarr's meticulous research ensures the verisimilitude needed to realistically anchor her liberties with recorded history; so detailed are her descriptions of tools, weapons, clothing, and the stuff of everyday life, including such predators as wild boars, that readers effortlessly enter a fantasy world seamlessly constructed from anthropological and archeological verities. Sure to please established fans and win new ones."Booklist on Queen of the Amazons
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Judith Tarr and the sacred feminine are back with this story of the ancient Amazons and Alexander the Great. The Goddess-worshiping female warrior culture of ancient times faces a problem: the heir to the throne has been born without a soul. Etta, as she is called, is a beautiful young girl with instinctive hunting and fighting skills, but her blank expression and lack of interest in human relationships disturb and divide the huge clan, and many believe she is unfit for the job. Her encounter with Alexander the Great at the height of his powers ultimately directs Etta to her true destiny. This is an engaging tale, but for a superior and fully-drawn characterization of Alexander the Great, read 'The Persian Boy' by Mary Renault.
Queen Hippolyta rules over the Amazon tribes. Though she is quite young and healthy, she is concerned over the succession to the throne as that has always come down through matriarchal lines. Her female progeny is born soulless causing fear among the toughest of these female warriors. Unable to name a creature without a soul many of the tribeswomen led by the queen¿s cousin Phaedra believe ¿that thing¿ dubbed Etta must die as even animals are named. She must never sit on the throne. Hippolyta differs and proclaims Etta as her successor as she expects the infant to one day gain a soul. Years later Etta still remains within herself as a soulless person is apt to be. However, word has arrived that a great army led by Alexander is coming. Shockingly Etta reacts and flees into t he night towards the camp of the great Macedonian with Hippolyte following. Neither mother nor daughter knows what awaits them when they reach Alexander¿s camp, but the Queen prays to the Goddess that her child¿s sudden obsession means a soul awaits her. QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS is an engaging historical fantasy that hooks the reader the moment the seer informs Hippolyte that her daughter has no soul. The somewhat simplistic story line never slows down gripping the audience who will keep reading to learn what happens when two amazons encounter Alexander. Will Etta obtain a soul at last, and how will Phaedra avenge her exile? With a few neat twists to the tale to add spice, sub-genre fans will appreciate Judith Tarr¿s latest tale that takes the reader back to an already successful Alexander conquering the world. Harriet Klausner