Artemis [ Chapter 5a ]
Artemis climbed onto a block of marble that was still not yet completely carved and polished.
It stood more or less in the midst of the slave camp besides the small channel, where the gravel was sent off in little boats down to the city. The sun would rise soon, but the Kaltani had not yet been woken to go to labor.
She had snuck into her brother’s tent and woken him. Then they went to the tribe leader, a stout woman named Eoforhild of Sluridyke. She was a red-headed, battle-worn shield maiden, who had seared out her left eye in honor of Allfather Odin before the great battle sixteen years ago.
When Artemis and Sem-la had entered her tent, she had already been waiting for them: the old lady and her strongest fighters at her side. And Artemis had been filled with fear for a moment, when she wordlessly held out her hand to inspect Windfall. Still, she had handed over the weapon, and Eoforhild had returned it to her after a short inspection, saying: ‘A curious bow. I sense the power of the Angels within it, but no Angel smith forged this. It will do.’
They had spoken many words then, and decided that Artemis would call forth the tribe.
“KALTANI~!” she cried with the loudest and most lordly voice she could summon, standing elevated on the block of marble, half engraved with Kaltani motifs of wolves and conifers. The call echoed through the camp and was followed only by silence. Eoforhild, her men, the old lady, and Sem-la stood behind Artemis. Had they not, she had felt foolish now and disheartened. “TODAY WE FIGHT; TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” Artemis yelled in the tongue of the Kaltani, and there was no mistake in the purpose of her words.
Again there was a dragging silence that followed her call, but it did not last. Heads started poking out of the tents looking at her as she held Windfall high above her head. The bow now reflected and amplified the light of the rising sun, shining like a bright beacon, and the leadership standing behind her framed the message unmistakably: Today was war day.
“To arms… to arms…” The murmur was all around her. “TO ARMS! TO ARMS!” she called once more and this time Eoforhild and her men began to howl behind her, mimicking the cry of the wolf. The call was picked up by her people: to arms they clamored now, and some howled as well. They streamed out of the tents and onto the still cool sand; they grabbed whatever they could for weapons: hammers and ropes and sticks and nets and chisels.
During his reign, paro Iaret, Artemis’s father, had not been well liked by his slaves, for the Kaltani were willful. But they had held a strange respect for him as he had defeated them in war; and the cruel, bloody reign of paro Ôshiris had turned Iaret into somewhat of a martyr to the Kaltani: Iaret the Kind, Iaret the Just, that was what they liked to call him only half-mockingly, and they all knew his daughter Artemis and her brother Sem-La, who had been forced into slavery after Ôshiris had struck his head off and hung his wife out to bake in the sun until only her bones were left.
Now Artemis raised the bow she had recovered from the hidden ruins up high, the feather ornaments that defined its shape gave her the look of a Valkyrie in her people’s eyes and they rallied around her like a pack of wolves around their leader.
“KALTANI, HEAR ME!” she yelled into their midst, “I, ARTEMIS IARET, HAVE CHOSEN THIS DAY FOR OUR OPPRESSION TO END! A GREAT POWER HAS BEEN BESTOWED UPON ME, AND WITH IT I WILL SMASH THE USURPER! TO ARMS, MY BROTHERS! TO ARMS, MY SISTERS! MARCH WITH ME AND WE SHALL REAP BLOOD AND FREEDOM!”
Blood and freedom were fairly high on the Kaltani list of ‘pretty neat stuff to have; double value for anything acquired in battle’, this she had learned in her time with them, and sure enough they took up her call and raised a great din all about the encampment.
She jumped down from the marble block and walked to the front of the crowd towards the royal palace. The Kaltani went to the side to give her walkway and some held out their hands so they could touch her as she walked by. It was said amongst the Kaltani tribes that the touch of a worrier could bestow the strength of his spirit upon you. They began to whisper her name here and there until they called it out loudly, chanting, cheering. In all her life Artemis had never felt such power and admiration, never had she felt more a queen than now. She could see at the rim of her sight how the mob dragged down several guards that had the misfortune to be in the encampment during the uprising and they tore them apart like rabid wolves, tearing with the hatred a man grows with whip lashes, day after day. When Artemis had reached the front, her new sense of authority almost wavered, as she saw blood in the sand. One of the guards had been hacked down with implements, still twitching slightly on the ground. Nothing had ever seemed more real and horrific than the shape of the dying man in front of her, safe one. But the moment passed. She walked on towards the castle.
“MARCH!” she commanded, barely parting her clenched teeth, weaving her army with her bow to follow.
They did not march long, for the castle lay close to the tomb the slaves had been instructed to build for the new paro, letting the one they had almost finished for her father lay bare, even tearing parts of it down for material. Artemis signaled her army to stop when the gates lay maybe five-six hundred feet in front of them. The paro’s castle had strong walls and a sturdy gate that had been hastily closed to the Kaltani’s arrival. They would stand no chance to break in and there was no siege equipment they could use at hand. Artemis raised Windfall. The last time she had fired that strange bow, it had opened a portal, just as she needed it, and she hoped, no knew, it would do something similar this time as she drew, nocked, and aimed at the gates in a wide arc.
At that point she saw a rain of arrows fly from the castle walls towards her and her people. She loosed and let her arrow fly as well. For a moment it was no different than the hundreds of arrows flying in the opposite direction towards her and she could feel the men and women around her hold their breath. Then it happened: A white and blue vortex began to whirl around the arrow like glowing snow, no… not like glowing snow; it seemed to actually be snow, falling gently towards the sand where it passed outside the aura’s glow! The sand under the arrow was covered in white quickly and a storm wind whirled up the red dust, blowing all the arrows away that would have rained death upon them.
Windfall’s arrow was now surrounded by an astral shape that seemed to grow legs and a head until it took the form of a great frost wolf that rammed the gate and tore it to pieces.
There was a long moment of absolute silence, so thick that even an Angel blade might be slow at slicing through it. Then all hell broke loose. The Kaltani screamed as if victory had already been achieved and stormed towards the castle with all their might.
Nothing was in the way to hold them anymore; there was no moat, not here in the desert, and the gate was in shambles as was the watch tower on its left side. Artemis had no choice but to go with the charge or she would have been trampled. The magical arrow seemed to have routed the ranks of the castle guard, but they found the presence of mind to shoot again and another hail of arrows came down on them. Artemis lifted Windfall and shot upwards. This time there was no frost wolf: the arrow exploded mid-air in a wide glowing disk that tore all the incoming arrows apart and turned them to useless shreds of wood. It only served to strengthen the resolve of the Kaltani slaves and most certainly crush any fighting will the castle guard may have had left. There wasn’t that large of a contingent there anyways: a few hundred at the most, probably less. The main force of Arkatrash was located in barracks around the city, often assisting in construction projects during peace times.
What followed now seemed like a hollow dream every time Artemis tried to remember afterwards. The castle was sacked mercilessly. Many guards laid down their arms and where killed where they stood. The Kaltani had suffered much, and now the bloodlust was on them. Artemis had to shoot at least one man as well and she would never forget his face: it seemed more surprised than pained as he looked down at the feathered shaft in his chest.
Other than that she had to knock around a few attackers with the bow itself. She wasn’t very strong; but slender and quick, which made her a difficult target, and Eoforhild actually stayed close to her, to keep her alive. A great sacrifice, considering it reduced her chances to kill as many Arkatrashians as possible. Nonetheless, Artemis took a fair share of cuts and bruises during the sack. After three long hours it was over and the castle was hers.
Somewhere Artemis had known how bloody this would be, but she still hadn’t been quite ready. She would have retched, but there wasn’t any food in her stomach, a fact that she now became painfully aware of. She may had fainted had she not already suffered the bloodbath the false paro had inflicted upon her when he murdered her father and his personal guard and left her mother to rot.
As Artemis looked over the dead bodies of castle guards and Kaltani alike, she remembered that day. It was two days after Ôshiris had strapped her mother to that pole. They gave her water once a day so her death would stretch on for a long time, and even though she knew it, she drank that water greedily every time. Artemis still remembered as much, still remembered how she kept thinking ‘why?’, how she kept, somewhere in the dark recesses of her heart, hoping she would refuse the offer one day. In the night of the second day, Artemis had crept close to her mother in the veil of darkness. She had moaned in pain, too weak to scream. The hot sun of the day baked her alive, and the dead cold of the hours of the moon chilled her to the bone. It was suffering not befit for anyone. Artemis had risen behind her bound mother; she held a heavy jagged rock in her hand. Slowly she lifted it with the tears welling up in her eyes and… “Schamani!” a bulky Kaltani man called out to her. Schamani were the Kaltani mages of old, who worked tribal magix passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, druids, not of healing, growth, and seeing, but of war. They were revered by their peers, sometimes even worshiped. The man’s name was Ísenbôg, a name from one of the Kaltani’s lexica in the tongue most used in and around the Winterpine Woods. It meant iron arm.
Artemis snapped out of her flashback and looked at Ísenbôg, his scarred back was unharmed but his face, bosom, and his arms had taken long cuts and bruises. He held an Arkatrashian glaive forged of shiny bronze. Ôshiris had struck a bargain for iron with the fat frog from the Rusty Shore not two days ago, Artemis remembered it well, but the frog had not even returned to his home yet, and no iron had yet been shipped upstream over the Giranja, at least none meant for Arkatrash.
“What is it, mighty Ísenbôg?” she asked, honoring him the best way she could. She had seen him crush his way through enemy ranks with a hardwood broomstick as if it had been a steel forged war hammer, fearless and unstoppable.
He clacked the shaft of his new glaive on the ground and stood straight. “I give thanks to you Schamani, me and my people, your people. We are free once more! The retched pigs have been tied up in the throne room. What shall we do with them? String them up, gut them, flail them?”
Artemis thought back to the pain in her mother’s eyes. “Cut them down swiftly. I wants be done with the traitor and his thralls. May the dark side of Helgard give him the warm welcome he deserves.” Then she paused briefly, struck by sudden thought. “In fact, make it so: give him the lodestone of one of our fallen comrades; I am sure there are many in Helgard that would like a meeting with their former king.”
Ísenbôg gave a belly laugh to that remark. “I’d rather give them a taste of that now myself, but I shall honor your request, Schamani.”
Artemis assumed that he chose to address her as such because of the miracles Windfall had performed before their eyes. She herself had no powers to speak of, but nothing would be gained from arguing that point. She nodded and Ísenbôg went back into the castle. Suddenly her head jerked left and right, and she turned all around looking wildly. “Sem-la? Sem-la! Sem-la!”
Where was her brother? Where was he? She ran around the plaza behind the castle walls, calling for him when he suddenly came into sight. “Artemis,” he said panting. His left arm showed a deep cut and hung loosely from his shoulder, but otherwise he seemed well and alive. “Sem-la!” she called out in relieve and embraced him. “Are you well, is everything alright? Your arm!”
Sem-la hugged her back one armed. “I can’t move it, but I can feel it still. I will be fine, sister. How are you, are you unhurt? What did you do back there, what is this weapon you carry? I did not understand when you woke me and we spoke with Eoforhild, I understand it less now.”
Artemis let go and showed Windfall to him. “The old woman told me to walk into the desert, saying that there I would find my destiny. I fell into old ruins and uncovered this bow: it is called Windfall. I am not sure yet how it works, but it gave me the power to free our people. Surely it is a gift from the Aesir.”
Sem-la touched the bow and stroked over the silver-steel feathers. “What a beautiful creation,” he marveled, “I did not think I would see this day, sister. Thank you.” His embrace tightened briefly before he let go. She could hear the relief in his voice: the relief of seeing an end to the slave labor, to the hours on end under the burning sun of the Red Sands that would rend his body and soul, the relief of being a free man once more, the relief of the murderer of his parents being served justice.