|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
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"My sweet Persia. What will become of you?"
Baron Oxyartes peered out the entrance to his family's tent observing the winds blowing in from the arid plains. The brisk breeze pestered his soldiers as they stockpiled spears, swords, and quivers loaded with arrows. In the distance, the rhythmic ping, ping, ping of a blacksmith's hammer ignited a fearful churn in his belly. Women hurriedly packed food and belongings into woven baskets while children herded groups of sheep, geese, and goats toward the winding path that led to the top of the great Sogdiana Rock. Anticipation saturated the camp as preparations occupied the minds of his people. With the war already lost, Oxyartes felt certain the battle to come would be his last.
"Who are you talking to, Father?" a soft, feminine voice asked behind him.
When he turned, a young woman stood at the back of the tent. Dressed in a man's baggy pants and dirty top, she could have passed for a common stablehand, but her stunning smile took his breath away.
She glided forward, and her movements reminded him of the lightest linen caught up in a breath of wind. The hint of round curves beneath her loose-fitting clothes made him mourn the loss of his little girl. Where had the time gone?
He admired her long brown hair shimmering in the afternoon light, and how her skin resembled the purest goat's milk — creamy and without blemish. Then he noticed the flush of exercise on her sculpted cheeks, and the light film of sweat covering her high, regal brow.
"What have you been doing, child?"
"Exercising your horse." She wiped the dust from the front of his red robes. "You told me I could this morning."
"Ah, yes, I did say that, didn't I?" Oxyartes debated how to share his concerns with his daughter. "You should be packing to go to the great rock with the other women in the camp."
She planted her feet. "I want to stay with you."
He chuckled at her resolve. "Your grandmother would never allow it."
"Atimexis wouldn't care what I do. She hates me."
Oxyartes sighed as he inspected the young woman. "Atimexis cares for you like a daughter, so try and get along with her. Can you do that for me?"
Roxana's shoulders slumped. "Then why is she always angry with me?"
His heart broke for the poor girl. A half-bred, part Persian and part barbarian from the north, she never truly fit into his world.
"Mother is angry with me, not you. She's never forgiven me for marrying your mother, so you must work especially hard to show her the respect she deserves."
Roxana smiled, instantly dispelling his doubts about her future in his tribe.
"You will break hearts with that smile." He frowned at her filthy outfit. "If you ever hope to catch a suitable husband, you'll have to dress like a woman. I should have insisted you start behaving like a young lady years ago. I was wrong to let you scamper about with your brothers."
Roxana's lively green eyes flickered. "I don't want a husband. Why would I want a man to tell me what to do and take me from the people I love? And what's wrong with learning the things a man learns? I can ride, hunt, administer to the sick, and even fight —"
"Who have you been fighting?" Oxyartes demanded, crossing his arms. "I told your brother to watch out for you. Histanes should not let you get into any more skirmishes."
Her skin paled, and she lowered her head. She reminded him of her mother in that instant. She had Tasia's fair beauty, her seductive mannerisms, and her notorious temper.
"You must learn to control your anger." He raised her chin. "You must think before you attack. Use your head to solve arguments, not your fists. I need you to be very careful and remember all the things I've taught you."
"You're worried about the Greek who is coming for us. He's the reason we left Bactria, isn't he?"
He let her go, nodding. "Ever since Gaugamela, I've refused to accept this man as our Great King. That has made me his enemy, and why we had to flee our home. There's no way to predict what he will do when he arrives in Sogdiana. If we're lucky, and our supplies hold out, perhaps we can survive for eight months ... maybe even a year in the fortresses atop the great rocks. I wonder if Alexander will be able to last that long in this valley with a large army to feed."
"Do you fear this Greek?"
"I'm not afraid of this Greek or any other Greek, my love." His arm went around her, and he detected the fragrance of spring in her hair. "He's just another general; another invader who will, in time, leave us as he found us."
He wished he could tell her they would weather the storm, but he feared what would happen if Alexander got hold of her; or worse, if his men took her for themselves.
Oxyartes stroked her cheek, amazed by the contrast of his dark hand against her pale skin. "I survived for years in the courts of King Darius, I can do the same with this Greek. After all, he will need Persians who know the Persian way of things and the Persian people." He pulled his hand away and touched his oiled black beard, debating his plans. "It will not be the first time I've had to bend with the winds."
She stepped closer, coming right up to him, distracting him from his thoughts of war.
"Let me fight alongside you."
Oxyartes bristled at the notion and clasped his hands behind his back. "You're a woman, and a woman's place is with other women. You must help Atimexis and your stepsisters to the top of the great rock." Oxyartes stooped down to one knee. "I would feel much better knowing you are with them." He paused and switched from Persian to Greek. "Please, little star."
Whenever he spoke her name in Greek, Oxyartes knew his daughter could not resist the request. The language of the barbarians he'd learned from her mother. He used it to calm her and chase away her unhappiness.
She tilted closer, a wrinkle marring her smooth brow. "You're not going to be with us on the great rock, are you?"
Oxyartes ushered her to the tent doorway and pushed back the large flap. Pointing across the valley to the steep mountains, he said, "I will be there. On top of the small rock, I will wait for Alexander while you, your mother, and stepsisters remain safe on the big mountain."
Roxana darted her eyes back and forth between the two craggy peaks. "And where will the army and soldiers be?"
"With me, on the smaller rock. A few men will be garrisoned with you."
"What if Alexander comes for us?"
He kept up his stoic demeanor, not wanting to frighten her. "Alexander is known for his kindness to women. If he makes it to the top of the great rock, he will not harm you."
"Will the Greek fall for your deception? Making him chase women on the big mountain while you hide on a smaller one with your army could be dangerous for all of us. Look what happened to Troy when the Greeks deceived them."
Oxyartes tapped the tip of her nose, impressed. "You're truly a wonder. You're smarter than any man I know."
"Even smarter than this Alexander?"
"Yes, perhaps, even smarter than Alexander." He nodded to the tent flap. "Go and help your sisters. We must have you settled on the great rock by nightfall."
She stepped outside and turned to him.
"Will I see you again before we leave?"
He offered her a fleeting smile. "I will come and say my goodbyes."
She made her way across the camp, dodging goats, children, and soldiers. Then he lost her behind several tents.
Oxyartes wanted to rush after her and hold her once more, but such affection would be frowned on by his people. She was a woman and not worthy of his devotion, but he'd never embraced such prejudice. Roxana had been his one true treasure in life, and now he feared he would lose her.
He glimpsed the shadow of the large rock stretching across the ground. Daylight was slipping away, and there was so much still to do before the mighty army of Alexander arrived.CHAPTER 2
Roxana peered over the edge of the cliff next to her new home atop the great rock. Dust clouds swirled along the valley floor — clouds that came from the hooves of horses running over the barren ground. She hugged herself as the bitter wind smacked against her face. The Greeks had arrived.
Despite what her father had professed, he feared the Greeks, and suddenly, so did she.
"What are you looking at?"
In her blue coat with a matching long dress, her stepsister, Yasmin, came alongside her. She was a tall, brown-eyed beauty, who shared Roxana's slender build.
"The Greek army is in the valley." Roxana stepped back from the edge of the cliff. "I heard the soldiers stationed with us talking about it. They think they will attempt to climb the rock."
Yasmin pulled her coat closer, fighting against the stiff wind. "I thought no one could climb this rock."
Roxana gazed into the afternoon sky, not liking the change in the air. "Perhaps these Greeks can."
"Do they have wings?" Yasmin snickered. "Because I don't see how else they can get up here."
She wished she had her confidence, but her father's uncertainty had become her own.
"Father said this Greek general, Alexander, is very clever, and very determined. He will try to find a way."
Yasmin twisted her lips — something she always did when thinking. "You know what's going to happen to us, don't you?"
Roxana turned away, wanting to hide her fear. "Men in time of war can be unpredictable. You've heard the stories in the camp."
"Yeah, I've heard. But father won't let that happen to us." Yasmin peeked over the edge of the cliff, taking in the swirling dust below. "Perhaps we should tell grandmother of the Greeks."
Roxana chafed at the mention of the woman. "Let the captain of the guards tell Atimexis. She wouldn't believe it coming from you or me."
"You could try and be nicer to her. She does have our best interest at heart. She means to make you, me, and Irania wives to noblemen, and perhaps mothers of great men one day."
The idea of marriage to a nobleman tied Roxana's stomach into knots. "I'll never marry. I know it's what they expect for us, but I would rather die than give up my freedom to a man. Why can't we hope for more?"
"Like what? Women were made to marry. You need to get your head out of the clouds." Yasmin stepped back from the cliff's edge. "Do you think it's true what they say of the Greeks? That they hate all Persians?"
Roxana remembered something her father had once said. "Doesn't the conqueror always hate the conquered."
Yasmin frowned at her. "Are we the conquered?"
Roxana gave her an encouraging smile. "Not yet."
* * *
Roxana awoke with a start from a fitful dream about Greek soldiers caught up in the brutality of war. The blackness around her was occasionally interrupted by streams of light from the torches burning in their camp. An uneasiness settled over her. She was not alone.
Then something nudged her arm.
Yasmin stepped into the light next to her cot.
Roxana let out a relieved breath and tossed her blanket aside. "Again?"
"You're lucky grandmother doesn't make you share a cot with our little sister." Yasmin settled in, tugging on the blanket. "Irania's snoring is driving me mad."
Roxana punched her pillow. "Could be worse. Could be your husband's snoring keeping you awake and then where would you sleep?"
"Let's hope when the time comes, Father marries us off to wealthy Persian noblemen who have many bedrooms in their homes and don't beat us when we leave their beds in the middle of the night." Yasmin yawned then stretched out her arms. "That would be a happy marriage for me."
"Do you think Father would force us into marriage? Maybe he will let us live out our lives with him."
"You need to accept the fact you will have to marry, Roxana. From what I hear around the tents, marriage is a strange business. The women talk about how they cater to their men. Then they get pregnant, bear the children, cook, clean, and must continue to let the man have his way, whenever he pleases."
"'Have his way'?" she asked, drawing her knees to her chest.
"You know ... sex." Yasmin sat up. "The older women always talk about sex and —"
"Oh, by the gods, enough!" She waved her sister's thoughts away. "I swear all you talk about is sex."
"Aren't you interested in sex?" Yasmin poked her shoulder. "Or do you plan on spending all your time with horses instead of men?"
"I prefer horses to men. On a horse I'm free. With a man, I would be —"
A faint cry came from outside their tent.
Yasmin tipped her head. "Did you hear that?"
A shrill scream pierced the air.
The two girls scrambled from the cot. They were about to run to the front of their family's tent when Yasmin halted.
Roxana turned to her. "What is it?"
"What if it's the Greeks?" Yasmin's hand went to her throat. "What if they have climbed the rock like you said they would?"
Another scream cut through the night.
Heinous visions of Greeks swinging blood-covered swords terrified Roxana.
Then, the curtains dividing their sleeping quarters parted.
Her youngest sister, Irania, stepped inside, rubbing her sleepy brown eyes.
"I heard someone shouting." She clutched a doll made of rags and horse hair. "What's going on?"
Roxana straightened out the nightgown clinging to Irania's short, chubby figure.
"We're not sure, but —"
"I have an idea," Yasmin called out.
She went to some trunks set up at the edge of the room and flung open the lids. Yasmin rummaged through Roxana's colorful coats and long pleated dresses.
Roxana gaped at her as if she'd lost her mind. "What are you doing?"
Yasmin picked up two thick red coats and tossed them to her sisters. "Put these on over your nightgowns and cover your heads with shawls. Place all the bracelets and necklaces you can fit under your clothes. If we have to escape, we might need them to barter for food later on."
Roxana hugged her coat. "Don't you think you're getting carried away."
Yasmin took a long pearl necklace from one of the trunks and wrapped it around her neck. "No, we must plan ahead. Grandmother always speaks about the wars she's witnessed and how ..." She went quiet, a glimmer of fear rose in her eyes. "Roxana, no matter what happens to us, I want you to promise me you will save yourself. Use your Greek. Speak to them in their language. Stand up to them."
The images of bloodshed and death from Roxana's dreams still haunted her. "But what if ...?"
"Oh, Roxana." Yasmin cupped her face. "For years, I've envied how men have looked at you. Now you can use what you have to save our lives. Use what Tasia has given you."
When the three young women arrived in the reception area, the oil lamps flickered. Their grandmother, the gray-haired, steely- eyed Atimexis, stood in the center of the room.
She raised the oil lamp in her hand, the lines in her brow cutting deeper into her skin. "What is this? I didn't tell you to dress."
"The Greeks have come to kill us all!" a woman shrieked outside their tent.
Roxana's heart sped up as frantic footfalls echoed around her. "Is it the Greeks?"
"I don't know." Atimexis searched the tent behind them. "Where is your sister? Where is Irania?"
Irania came out from behind Yasmin, covered from head to toe, allowing only her eyes and the bridge of her nose to peek out from beneath her clothes. "I'm here."
Roxana rushed toward the tent flap. "We need to find out what's going on?"
Atimexis put an arm in front of her, stopping her from leaving. "Don't go out there."
The fright in her grandmother's quavering voice made Roxana want to flee. But where would she go? Trapped on the high mountain rock, with only one steep road out that could never be negotiated in the darkness, she could not escape if she tried.
Irania clutched her doll, tears welling in her eyes. "The Greeks!"
"Hush up!" Atimexis pointed at the girls with her bony finger. "We must stay here and wait —"
The tent flaps billowed as if unseen hands pushed them aside.
Roxana grabbed for Yasmin, noting the iciness of her skin.
A handful of muscular men, wearing white chitons and cuirasses made of layers of thick linen, entered the tent. The coldhearted stare of the Greek soldiers sent a shudder through Roxana, knocking her knees together. The men formed a line at the entrance; their long spears gripped tightly in their hands. They stood at attention, and when the last soldier held open the tent flap, Roxana's heart stuck in her throat.
Atimexis fell to the ground, kneeling before the soldiers. Yasmin gave a quick, pleading glance at Roxana to do the same, before grabbing Irania's hand and pulling her down with her. Roxana swore she would be sick, but she didn't move.
She remained standing, and held her head up, determined to meet her enemy on her terms.
I will not grovel before a Greek.
Roxana held her breath as two men in bronze cuirasses, short tunics, and purple woolen cloaks strolled into the tent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Realm"
Copyright © 2019 Alexandrea Weis.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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