Chapter 1

The white stallion whizzed through the forest, his hooves a thunderous rumpus on the pathway lightly covered with short cedar shoots and spiral needle clusters that fell from the dense canopying trees.

The cracked barks and branches along the way became just blurred variations of green and brown textures as the horse raced up the steep incline, climbing higher and higher up the mountain as if the weight of its rider had no bearing on his performance at all.

Hinane hunched down with her face almost level to the stallion’s neck, her mind vigilant, her body alert in steering the animal with fine balance and skill perfected by years of instruction.

The fast pace and wind rushed a flushed smile to her cheeks and lips, her thick dark brown hair tinted with golden strands, tangling in strings behind her. A crimson fringed warrior skirt was shifted high up on her thighs, exposing the spiral shape henna tattoos on her legs, with leather greaves tied up to just under the bend of her knees.

She wore dark tanned leather guards on both wrists up to her elbows, and a cuirass of hardened leather, lined with silk moulded to the shape of her small pointed breasts, protecting her from the whip of the bowstring.

The lynx caracal, running up ahead, sensed the heightened thrill of its hunter and increased speed, zigzagging through the dense foliage layers in between the trees. The cat glanced anxiously from side to side for any chance of escape, the black ears pointed sharply upright with the long hairs on the tips waving backwards in the charge.

A flock of Moussier’s Redstarts took fright from the sudden disturbance and startled in abrupt flight from where they were feeding on berries in a bush. With a svee-svee-tweet, the birds brushed past the lynx and Hinane laughed at the cat’s panic.

Lunja, dressed in leather-plated jerkins and similar type of skirt and tattoos as Hinane, tailed from a short distance. Although the one following, the belt around Lunja’s waist that ignited with the sun’s reflection from the precious metal and stones, clearly marked Lunja’s superiority over Hinane.

But her status did not mute the excitement which gleamed on her face, or the pride that glistened in her hazel eyes when she prompted the colt to keep pace with rider and horse ahead of her. She watched closely with much interest when Hinane drew the charge to an end, closing the distance between her and the wild cat with quick strides.

Hinane lifted and whirled a slingshot above her head in rapid motions, then released it exactly at the moment the projectile, an iron ball the size of a date knotted in a looped strap, was in line to the target. The sling whistled through the air, knocking the animal in the nape of its neck, crippling it slightly, but it still loped forward.

With one hand, Hinane hauled the bow from her back and picked an arrow from the gorytys quiver case strapped to her shoulders. She dropped the reins, nocked the arrow in the bowstring, drew and aimed while still in perfect balance on the stallion with her legs clamped firmly around his barrel.

She fired the arrow straight, fast and controlled, sinking it deeply into the soft hide of the cat near the right shoulder blade. It split a rib then worked its way into the lungs and heart.

The lynx crushed into the earth, tumbling and rolling forward, rose back onto its paws for a few slow paces, then with no energy left, slumped into the dust. Hinane raced in next to it, bent over and scooped it up by the shaft of the arrow, keeping it in hand with the cat’s weight pulling slightly on her arm until the horse stopped on her command.

‘Finally,’ exclaimed Hinane slightly out of breath and dropped the carcass over a low lying branch nearby.

As per their custom, Lunja blew on a ram’s horn, trumpeting the victory, the sound echoing far into the mountains, bouncing back from the cliffs in reverberating tones.

She listened to the fading sounds for a while then halted the colt next to Hinane with a satisfied grin, ‘Excellent manoeuvre daughter, I trained you well.’

Hinane slid from the stallion’s back and with a, ‘Gratitude mother,’ rested her head against her horse’s neck and caressed him. The short white, grey and light brown hairs that all together glowed white in the sun chaffs that cut through the branches tickling on her cheek.

She whispered with affection, ‘You test a fine creature Burn, no faltering, not once dishonouring your master.’

Lunja gazed upon the display of affection with a small smile then foraged around, inspecting the terrain, ‘I take this a good spot as any other for setting up camp?’

Not waiting for an answer, she led the golden chestnut to a shaded spot among the evergreen shoots of the cedars, the spicy-resinous scent of the wood prickling in her nose while she tethered the horse to a branch.

Hinane followed her lead, fixing Burn next to the chestnut, took the waterskin from the saddlebag and swallowed the liquid to soothe the burning of her dry throat. She handed it to Lunja who reached thankfully for it. Hinane squeezed on the bulging pouch, splashing a burst of water into Lunja’s face in playful gesture.

Lunja wiped her face with teasing scorn, ‘When will time show your feminine side.’

‘Ah, that’s no option,’ snorted Hinane.

Lunja beamed at her with a soft glow in her eyes while Hinane took the bedrolls and overnight kit from the saddlebags to arrange their camp.

Hinane was the only child spawned from the only man who ever owned Lunja’s heart, still does, even though he had been dead for many years. She helped Hinane prepare while her thoughts travelled far back to when she was the same age as Hinane was now, twenty-five.

Lunja was born in 380AD in the city of Oran, close to the ancient land of Hespera, which was located in north-western Africa within the marsh of Tritonis near mount Atlas in ancient western Libya.

But now it’s just a stone desert. A vast area between Egypt in the east, the big seas and mount Atlas in the west, bounded in the north by the Roman Mediterranean shores, and in the south, hooked in by the deadly forests. The land of the black peoples who harboured many curious and eerie things, with the ocean river they call the Austral seas beyond that.

Lunja peered at Hinane who already watered the horses and gathered them fodder. She was butchering the lynx, the carcass hanging from a branch while cutting through skin and flesh with a trained hand and clean eye.

Lunja thought of how much Hinane inherited from her father, his capability in doing almost everything, his bravery, his sharp instinct and shrewd creativity in resolving matters.

It’s a pity he was taken from them when Hinane was just a toddler as if history repeated, as Lunja was also raised single-handedly by her Libyan Amazon mother, never knowing her own father.

Lunja was skilled in fine horsemanship, combat and warfare, similar to those of the Parthian cavalry archers. They were known as the Amazon, but in essence were merely strong and fierce looking women soldiers, valiant, proud and very capable in the art of battle.

In ancient times, the Parthians adopted the Scythian bow, a double curved weapon ideal for horseback with bowshot able to pierce armour and shields, a design which the Amazons espoused.

The Amazon believed the strength of an army rested in unity and practised skilful tricks for combat. Sometimes, they would make as if retreating, or breaking the front, firing arrows back at the enemy from horseback, then would suddenly wheel and attack. And when moving their cavalry and hoplites, they travelled in single file to disguise their numbers, surprising their enemy into defeat.

Besides the curved composite bow, the Amazons wielded the labrys, the forearm-double-axe, various types and lengths of swords, slingshots and spears, but applied most skill in using the sagaris, a single edged axe.

Through the ages, the Amazons became known for their phenomenal cavalry and archery, admired for their range, accuracy, and ambidexterity with the bow and axe.

Thousands of years ago, even before the chariot horse formations of the Hans, Turks, Hyksos or Greeks, they were the first to tame horses, forming a prominent force of mounted warriors and chariots, using one, two, or four horses, displaying great prowess in charging into combat.

In ancient times, the young warrior women served in the army for a fixed period whilst maintaining their virginity. Then when the years of their service had expired, they laid with men to bear children.

Symbolically, in the act of giving birth, the mother was seen as a human gateway between the realms of the living and that of spirit which was considered physically dangerous, therefore an exclusive task, survived only by the warrior.

The elder women formed a nomadic core, supporting the activities of the operational warriors, producing food and manufacturing clothes and armour while the men conducted trade and parented the young. The retired warrior women were in charge of magistracies and affairs of state, giving advice and direction.

Lunja’s thoughts were interrupted by Hinane, ‘Tell me again about Philo, my father, as I can see, again, he lives in your eyes.’

Lunja smiled softly, ‘I told you many times,’ she said and settled down next to the fire which Hinane had already lit. The heart, liver and kidneys of the lynx hanged ready on a lance in a branch, keeping it safe from scavengers while waiting for the fire to die down into hot coals suitable for cooking the meat. The remainder of the carcass was bound in a leather bag higher up in the cedar to keep cool overnight.

‘I know. But it remains a sweet story of love, one I yearn for also, maybe one day meeting the chief of my heart, the one who would adore me the same way Philo adored you,’ said Hinane with reverie glistening in her crystal blue eyes.

Lunja stared into the flames, her face bright with memories, ‘He was a noble Greek-Berber from the Western Empire of Rome, living in Carthage. He was deadly attractive, with eyes the same colour as yours and a voice that tingled down my spine.’

Hinane shuffled excitedly, ‘More.’

‘He was huge and strong. I could never beat him with sword or lance.’

Hinane smiled with a tease, ‘Never? Not even as the once famous warrior who roamed the deserts, ridding it of thieves and killers?’

Lunja’s eyes filled with tears, shaking her head with a weak smile, ‘Philo means, to love, and I fully devoted myself to him. He was worth it. He would never shame me, or let harm befall me, which is how he died, protecting me, us.’

Hinane put her hand on Lunja’s arm and gave it a sympathetic squeeze, ‘Apologies, no upsetting you intended.’

‘You didn’t, I love talking about him. Each time I do, he comes alive.’

They both sat in silence for a while, staring into the coals till it was ready. Then while Hinane cooked, Lunja relived history.

The ancient Greeks described the Amazons as descendants of the god of war, Ares and the sea nymph Harmonia. But the Amazons worshiped Artemis, moon-goddess of the wild and the hunt, Sipylene of the moon and sea, and Athena of the sun.

Greek myths are filled with tales of the Amazons and their exploits, love affairs and combats, stories of beautiful and bloodthirsty female warriors thundering across arid battlefields, depicting them in their art and poetry.

A few centuries before, the connections between the Berbers and the Greeks were in Cyrenaica where the Greeks had established colonies. The Greeks influenced the eastern Berber pantheon, but by the same token, were also influenced by the Berber culture and beliefs.

Cyrenaica was originally the name of a mythic Berber-Amazon known as Cyre, who was according to the legend, a courageous lion hunter. The emigrating Greeks named the city Cyrenaica after her and made her their protector along with their Greek god Apollo.

Many of the existing cities in North Africa prospered under Roman rule, including the Carthaginian and Greek colonies along the coast, the Berber tribal centres, the Numidian capital cities, and smaller market towns and villages.

Few of the smaller towns had the facilities to satisfy the whims of a Carthaginian or Roman, so many cities were redeveloped according to a very high standard of Roman principles that would reflect their economic importance.

The Greeks of Cyrenaica intermarried with the Berber women, provoking their men and cultures, and soon Berber tribes started fights against the Greeks. Unfortunately, the Greeks were mostly the victors and some Berber tribes called the assistance of the Amazons in combat against the Greeks.

By that time, widely spread on pasture, desert, mountains, and seashore, the Amazons were accomplished sailors and inland traders, recognised for their art, textiles and orchards. Therefore, the Amazons also suffered violent raids by the Greeks, as much due to the trade competition in the ports and villages, as their different cultural values, for one, Greeks despising a woman’s rule.

The Greeks found their initial encounters with the Amazons especially frightening. Not only were they fighting fiercely to defend their homes and their way of life, they also fought mounted or on foot and switched easily between the two, a strategy that demanded much awe and respect. Moreover, the Amazon practiced battle cries in language unfamiliar to their opponents which the Greeks found so disarming they froze or panicked.

Lunja grinned when saying, ‘It’s to no surprise then that the Greeks believed the Amazons casted spells on them,’ as she remembered fondly how Philo accused her of bewitching him.

Despite repeated attempts and later claims, the Greeks never really scored a clean victory over the Amazons. They retreated to the mountains and further across the land, camouflaging themselves and survived many other onslaughts, not only by the Greeks, but later also the Romans, the Berbers and other tribes of the forests.

‘The Amazon’s legacy still live, and our proud traditions and practises trickled through many generations. Your grandmother instilled in me all the magic and powers of those ancient warrior women, the Kahunas, just as I have passed it on to you.’

Then Lunja blushed lightly, ‘But, when I was young and wild, I landed into lots of trouble, all magic and power lessons forgotten, that one incident specifically, in which I met your father.’

Lunja concluded dejected, ‘Even though we warrior women are courageous and bold, daring and fearless, defeating men in wars and able to exist without them, I could not minor your father and swallowed much of my pride. But I never lost my dignity.’

Hinane handed her a plate fully laden with meat, the hearty smell of it steaming in the air. A jackal howled nearby, calling its mate closer in wait for possible scraps.

Hinane smirked at the jackal’s futile cry, as around their encampment, no waste would be found. It was their custom to use all parts of the hunted animal, to waste a fraction, would insult its spirit and that of its maker.

Lunja’s mood jumped a few nicks, ‘But at least I had some power over him, my appealing beauty and magic, which I also bestowed upon you.’

She stared strongly at Hinane, putting a staid hand on her shoulder, ‘Woo men into battle with cunning splendour and craft. In love, resist and entice without exchanging yourself cheaply. In trade, find your niche and watch your rear. Do all three daughter, and you’ll wield much power.’

Hinane considered what Lunja said, slowly chewing on the meat, their eyes locking intensely. Then, as if harbouring all the secrets of all the seers in the world, they grinned at each other and finished their meal in comfortable silence under soft moonlight with only the faint sounds of countless creatures living in the backwoods resounding in their ears.