The Queen's Belt

Vicky is an ordinary 16-year-old girl from Edinburg. Accidentally, she comes into possession of a stone, which leads her to a time portal. Vicky becomes involved in the search for a stolen ancient artifact. Not fully in control of her time travel ability, she takes a chance and travels to a prehistoric world. There she lives with a female Amazon tribe and learns horse riding and archery. But will she find the stolen relic and be able to come back home?

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4. Chapter 4: Scythia

~~Vicky just could not believe that her grandfather, George McCray, could steal, let alone something so precious. He who always taught her about integrity and honesty and who explained her about the historical and cultural values of stones and artifacts beyond their material value just could not have done something like this. She had to make sure that it had indeed been her grandpa who showed Skeleiei the belt, so she decided that she needed to find out what Skeleiei knew. She also felt that she needed to prove that her grandfather was not a thief. There was only one way to accomplish all this.
Vicky folded the copy of the article, put it in her backpack and hurried out of the library. She looked at her watch.
“Half past four. I might just be able to make it,” she thought.
A minute later she was walking down the George IV Bridge. She turned left to Chambers Street, quickly found her way through the main entrance of the museum and proceeded to the elevators. She felt the temperature of the stone rising.
This time she did not bother to go by the cloakroom and leave her jacket there: Vicky imagined that the jacket would be useful to her where she was going. When Vicky reached the gallery, she headed straight to the displays with the jewellery. When she approached the display where she earlier noticed the round pendant, she realized that this piece was that same amulet which she saw on the drawing in grandpa’s file. Now she knew why she could not brush off the feeling that she had seen it before. On her first visit to the museum the door to Scythia had attracted her full attention so she had forgotten all about the amulet.
Just as Vicky expected, beside the jewellery display she saw the door and walked through it.

***

Vicky felt a fresh breeze on her face as her feet touched the summer grass of the open Scythian field. Vicky immediately felt that she was in a land much more southern than Scotland: whether it was early summer or late spring in Scythia, it was impossible to tell, but the earth was warm enough not to free the whirls of cold air, of which she grew tired during the Scottish spring. Warmed by the burning sun in the cloudless Scythian sky, Vicky had to take off her jacket.
Suddenly she heard the sound of the neighing horses and barking dogs somewhere behind her, and when she turned around, she saw a camp covering a vast area of a field. It was an amazing sight. There were horses pasturing on every bit of grass in between groups of women engaged in different activities. There were life and action everywhere. The whole area was organized in stations where some were preparing food, some were making clothes, some were training horses, some were sharpening metal sword blades; the range of activities performed was endless. But what attracted Vicky’s attention most of all was that there were groups of young women training girls of Vicky’s age or younger to ride horses, to shoot arrows and to throw spears. The bows with which the girls were practicing were not, as Vicky knew them from the Robin Hood stories, of a semicircular shape. They rather looked like two waves united by a short straight handle in the center of the bow.
Vicky was awoken from her silent amazement by a voice coming from her right.
“Greetings,” heard Vicky.
The hot stone in her pocket was working at its full capacity making Vicky able to understand everything she heard uttered in the peculiar language of the Scythian amazons, which she had earlier heard from Skeleiei.
She turned her head towards the sound and saw two beautiful women in their mid-twenties in full warrior outfits, who looked just as if they had stepped off the drawings in grandpa’s file. One of the women was red-haired, the other had black hair.
The red-haired one had her long hair plaited into a braid. Her hair was almost completely hidden under a peculiar round hat following the contours of her head with the exception of the slight cone-like elevation on the top. The hat was black and red with spangles of metal here and there. She had enormous dark blue eyes.
The black-haired woman had no hat on. Her short straight hair was stirred up as if by the wind. Her eyes were dark brown and had a charming Mongolian droopiness about them.
“Hello,” answered Vicky not knowing what to say otherwise.
“Are you Victory?” asked the red-haired.
Once again between the gibberish of this strange language Vicky heard the now familiar “Wagma” being uttered by the woman.
“Yes, I am Wagma,” she quickly answered.
The women stood quiet for a while studying Vicky’s appearance while Vicky took the opportunity of studying the details of the two women’s attire in return. Compared to the rest of the women in the camp, visible to Vicky at this point, these two women had one distinguishing feature in their outfits: their footwear. Whereas other women seemed to wear some kind of short soft footwear made of cloth on their feet, these two women wore high leather boots with lacing in front, very much resembling modern boots.
The red-haired had a bird of prey resting on her right arm.  To Vicky, who was no ornithologist, the bird looked like a falcon. In order to protect the skin against the bird’s sharp claws, the woman’s arm was covered with several layers of dirty-grey piece of thick cloth serving as a protecting glove.
Vicky imagined that at a distance these women’s attire made them look like men. At a short distance, however, their fair face features gave them away.
 “Come with us. You have to be presented,” said the red-haired.
“Presented?” asked confused Vicky.
“The queen wishes to see you,” explained the black-haired one morosely.
“Oh,” Vicky paused reflecting. “All right,” she finally said, and all three started walking. “But,” Vicky stopped again, “who are you?”
“We are the protectors of the queen,” answered the red-haired, who was obviously more talkative than her companion. “Call me Swaseeia,” she added.
By means of the stone Vicky learned that her name literally meant “the breath of life”, which suited the woman’s noticeable lively disposition.
“And this,” Swaseeia continued turning her head towards the black-haired, “is Serahwe.”
The black-haired woman’s name meant “one wearing a sword.” As if to confirm the literal meaning of the woman’s name, Vicky looked at her sword. Then she looked at that of Swaseeia’s: Serahwe’s sword indeed was much longer and looked heavier than the one Swaseeia was carrying. Compared to Serahwe’s weapon, Swaseeia’s looked more like a very large knife.
As the three were walking past the different stations, Vicky noticed a group of young animated horsewomen. They had obviously just returned from the hunt since the sides of their horses were hung with dead hares and birds which to Vicky looked like partridges and pheasants. Just like Swaseeia, some of these hunters had birds of prey on their arms. The sight of these horsewomen, with bows hanging off their shoulders, quivers full of arrows and with raptors resting on their arms, was majestic. The skill and elegance with which they mounted, dismounted and rode their horses were stunning.
What stroke Vicky most of all was how these horsewomen were riding without saddles or stirrups. It was curious to her that they seemed so comfortable mounted on their horses when the closest they got to a saddle was a sheep skin thrown onto a horse’s back. With an amazing ease these women seemed to control their horses with knees, lifting their heels up to the animals’ croups.
“I wish I could ride like this,” she thought in amazement, “maybe then Edward would notice me.”
Vicky was curious about how these women managed mounting and dismounting their horses without stirrups. She stopped and watched in hope that one of the hunter women would get off her horse. Serahwe turned around and waved indicating that Vicky should continue walking. Vicky started again. She managed to get a glimpse of one of the hunter women leaning forward onto the horse’s neck, then stretching her legs as if lying along its back, gathering her legs and finally gracefully sliding off the horse along its one side down onto the ground.
Vicky decided to contain her amazement and try not to look like a child in Disney Land.  She reminded herself that she was on her way to see Skeleiei, the leader of this tribe. She decided to obtain some information on the customs of the tribe from her new acquaintances. 
“So, is there a specific way you greet your queen?” asked Vicky, shifting her sight from Swaseeia to Serahwe indicating that the question was directed at both women.
“You show your respect to the queen,” answered Serahwe.
“Well, yes, but how do I do that?” Vicky insisted, “Like, do you bow when you see her? Or is there a special ritual you perform?”
“We perform rituals sometimes,” said Serahwe.
Vicky saw her mistake: she asked too many questions at once, and lost her chance of getting an answer to her initial question. Besides it was too late: Skeleiei was already well in sight. Vicky decided to go with the flow, do what she would find natural to do when she would meet the queen.
Skeleiei was standing near a large tent made of pieces of animal skin.  She was busy stroking a beautiful white horse. When the two warrior women and Vicky approached, Skeleiei did not seem disturbed by their presence but simply continued stroking the animal, which obviously enjoyed the procedure. Skeleiei turned to Vicky and said: “Be greeted. I am glad you joined us, child.”
“Greetings,” said Vicky, “thank you for having me.”
Vicky did not bow or call Skeleiei anything like “your majesty” – she assumed that these ways of greeting royalty probably appeared much later on in history. Her intuition proved right as Vicky heard Skeleiei’s response: “Your ways are more appropriate than the old man’s.”
She stopped stroking the horse and made a sign to a young woman standing close by. The woman immediately took the horse by the bridle and went leading it away.
Vicky wanted to ask about Skeleiei mentioning “the old man.” She wondered whether grandpa had visited these women but decided not to spoil Skeleiei’s first impression of her with questions which might be construed as impertinent.
“But let us not hesitate,” Skeleiei interrupted Vicky’s contemplations, “you met Swaseeia and Serahwe?”
“Yes,” answered Vicky.
 “They are your protectors while you are with us,” said the queen. “They will teach you to defend yourself too. You strangers are not taught to fight. In order to be with us, you have to learn this skill.”
“Will I also learn to ride horses like you do?” asked Vicky.
 “Of course, child, you cannot defend yourself without riding a horse,” assured Skeleiei, “but you do not own a horse yet. You have to deserve to own a horse. You’ll practice with Swaseeia’s horse.”
“Thank you,” answered baffled Vicky feeling that she needed to say something, but not knowing what was appropriate. Skeleiei smiled.
“These folk have strange ways – travelling without arms. Strange clothes too,” now the queen was talking to Swaseeia and Serahwe, “she needs arms. Take her to the weapon makers.”
“Right away,” answered Serahwe with complete obedience.
“Are you very poor?” asked Skeleiei looking at Vicky.
“Not especially,” said Vicky, “why?”
“You do not wear any gold. Don’t you have gold in your land?”
“Oh, I see,” grinned Vicky, “yes, we have gold. We just do not carry it with us all the time,” answered Vicky.
“Then how do you protect it?” asked Skeleiei.
“Well, we do not really need to guard what we own all of the time,” Vicky paused thinking how she could best explain modern mentality and customs to someone so far back in time. “We have special… well … groups of people whom we can go to if we need protection or if our things get stolen. They are called the police,” said Vicky, wondering how much of what she had just said Skeleiei actually understood. “We also … um… live in buildings, which we lock so others can’t just walk in and take whatever they want,” continued Vicky in hope that she could clarify things for the women.
“She also speaks in riddles, like the old man,” Skeleiei smiled addressing Swaseeia and Serahwe again.
“She means,” said Swaseeia unexpectedly, “that she lives in a settled tribe.”
Swaseeia’s remark seemed to clarify a lot for the women as they suddenly nodded approvingly to each other. Vicky felt relieved.
“Tonight we celebrate you joining us, child. At sunrise you start training,” said Skeleiei looking at Vicky. “Take this,” the queen unstrapped a pair of long worn-down leather gloves, which a moment ago had been hanging off a leather cord tied around her waist. She then handed them over to Vicky. “You’ll need them for shooting.”
“Thank you very much. It is a great honor,” said Vicky, “but I don’t think I will be any good at archery or fighting. I’m not strong enough.”
“There’s no need to be good at fighting or to be very strong, child. Every warrior finds strength in learning her weaknesses,” explained the queen, “when she knows her flaws, she is worthy of battle. Think of your name. It is with the purpose that they call you “the one who never fails”. Now go, child.” 
Vicky felt surprised that her conversation with Skeleiei was about to end while the very matter why she joined the Scythian women had not even been mentioned.
“And when…” Vicky hesitated, “will you tell me about the belt?”
“Others will tell you. Go, child, much needs to be done,” said the queen.
Vicky was not sure she understood what Skeleiei meant. She also wanted to ask Skeleiei about “the old man”, whom the queen had mentioned a couple of times during their conversation, but in order not to appear ungrateful or impolite she decided not to ask any questions as yet.

***

When Vicky left with Swaseeia and Serahwe, Skeleiei went into her tent. Khase was already waiting for the queen.
“What do you say?” asked Khase.
“The child is fit, curious and eager. But she is inexperienced,” answered Skeleiei, “she has no skill with arms or horses. I don’t see how she can ensure our victory or find the belt. Time is scarce.”
“I agree,” said Khase, “The scheme is near but not in effect yet, Tabbitti be thanked. Still the child needs to hurry. We can be sure that she is the oracle. The Rose of Scythia is never wrong. The child will show her worth, no doubt. Be patient.”

***

The rest of the evening was spent on walking from the camp’s one station to another where Swaseeia or Serahwe explained the manufacturers of arms Vicky’s necessities, about which Vicky herself had no idea. Her heights, her arm length and her hand size were measured and marked on wooden sticks with pieces of charcoal. At one of the camp’s stations she was asked to shoot some arrows first with the right and then with the left arm. Vicky did not understand half of what was going on, but noticed that the women spent some time discussing her eye sight.
“So what kind of arms will I have to learn to use?” inquired Vicky while trying to keep up with the women’s brisk tempo as they were on their way to yet another station.  
“All kinds,” answered Serahwe. By now Vicky knew that Serahwe’s answers were short and to the point so she needed to find a way of fishing more information out of the woman. 
“So it is shooting arrows, fighting with a sword,” listed Vicky in hope that Serahwe would continue the list. Vicky’s strategy produced the expected result.
“No, not a sword. An akinakes,” Serahwe corrected Vicky’s inaccuracy.
“And what is this akinakes?” asked curious Vicky.
“You can’t ride a horse with a sword. The sword is too long and heavy. Akinakes is shorter and not so heavy,” explained Serahwe.
“But I saw you do it,” disagreed Vicky.
“Yes, I can ride and fight with the sword, but you can’t.”
This conversation seemed unreal to Vicky: she still could not believe where she was and what was ahead of her. She was hungry and tired by now, and prospects of learning to defend herself with arms seemed too fantastic. Nevertheless, she did not feel she could protest or convince these women of the impossibility of their project.  
“Come, let’s eat,” said Swaseeia looking at Vicky.  “She is hungry,” this she said in an almost apologetic tone turning to Serahwe. Serahwe did not seem to object, and the three headed towards the huge campfire ahead of them.
The campfire did not look as if the food would be prepared on it. It looked more as if it was a place where the camp’s inhabitants gathered for the purpose of socializing: There was no food in sight, but several herds of women were gathered around the campfire. Once in a while, the women shot curious glances at Vicky. Sometimes they seemed talking about her. It did not surprise Vicky since she could only imagine how bizarre she must have looked in her T-shirt and jeans and, as Skeleiei noticed, wearing no gold. 
Although Vicky felt as if she had never been so hungry in her entire life, she decided not to ask her two guardians about the food or rather about its absence. Instead, she thought she would clarify the question which had been bothering her since the first moments she entered this amazing camp.
“Can I ask you something?”
She looked at her companions. Swaseeia and Serahwe looked back at Vicky conveying readiness to hear her question.
“There’s something that I’ve been wondering since I’ve arrived. See, it’s as if there are no men in this camp. Is that right?” asked Vicky.
“Yes,” answered Serahwe looking bewildered.
“But I have seen children in the camp and again only girls. So you must have had … um,” Vicky was about to say “sex”, but stopped considering whether her question would insult her hosts. “Well,” she finally continued, “I mean you must have had contact with men at some point.”
Swaseeia and Serahwe looked at each other as if trying to decide who would be answering Vicky’s question.
“Yes, we know some tribes of men who live where the sun rises,” the more talkative Swaseeia took as usual the lead. She pointed towards the East. “We do not stay here for a long time. We came here for the hot period. When it’ll become colder again, we’ll move towards the sunrise,” she explained.
“Ok, but the women in the camp must have given birth to the boys too, right?” Vicky kept on asking.
“Yes,” this time it was Swaseeia who sounded bewildered. 
“Well, what do you do when the boys are born?” asked Vicky.
“Ah,” said Swaseeia as if first now understanding the purpose of Vicky’s questions. “The men from the tribe come and take them.”
“And the mothers just give away their children to the fathers, just like that?”
“Yes, that’s the custom. And they don’t necessarily give the boys to their fathers – just to the men from the tribe,” continued Swaseeia in a manner-of-fact way.
“How do you mean?” asked bewildered Vicky.
 “Well, a woman doesn’t really know which of the men is the father of her child.”
“So what happens to the children then?”
“I guess they distribute them somehow amongst the men” said Swaseeia, who now also seemed perplexed by all these questions. “I’ve never thought of it before,” she continued.
“Oh, then I guess you’ve never given birth to a boy,” observed Vicky.
Swaseeia smiled a conspiratorial smile as she looked at Vicky and said: “No, I haven’t given birth yet.”
The conversation was interrupted by a tumult in the crowd of women close to where Vicky and her two companions were standing. She saw some women carrying a huge animal, which looked like a lamb. It looked cooked whole, with the skin still on the animal. The animal was placed carefully on the fresh grass a bit away from the fire so that there was room from every side of it for women to approach. Vicky realized that this was what they, including herself, were meant to eat tonight.
“Well, what did you expect: lamb steaks and chips?” thought Vicky mocking her own naiveté.
Only just now it occurred to her how unprepared she was for this journey: she had not thought about the practicalities of her stay with these women prior to joining them. Somehow she did not expect that she would be staying overnight here, or that she would be sharing a meal with the women. She imagined that she would be taking short trips back and forth in time in order to get clues that would help her find Skeleiei’s belt. What she could not have dreamt was that this world would be so fascinating that she would want to stay, at least for a while.  All she knew about these women’s customs and traditions was what she learned from her grandpa’s file and from her few visits to the museum, which really was not much. But now she had a chance of getting a real hands-on experience of this world. It also occurred to Vicky that even if she wanted to return home, she really would not be able to as she did not yet know how to operate the stone so as to be able to come back.
“Come,” said Swaseeia, awakening Vicky from her reflections.
It looked as if the women present sat down onto the grass making a tight circle around the animal.
“Don’t tell me we are going to eat from one “pot” now,” thought Vicky terrified by the prospect.
When the animal skin was cut with a knife into pieces, the camp women used the skin pieces instead of plates, filling them with the animal’s stuffing. To Vicky’s amazement, this procedure was orchestrated by one camp woman serving others with a metal spoon. Once they got their food, most women ate with their bare hands. The cutlery was obviously scarce in this world. Some women, including Swaseeia and Serahwe, had their own spoons which they brought for the occasion. This observation seemed to Vicky a very good excuse for enquiring about the eating customs in this peculiar world:
“Swaseeia,” whispered Vicky, “why do you have a spoon, but most women don’t?”
“You have to have a rank to deserve a spoon,” answered Swaseeia.
“What do you mean, what rank?”
“You have to be a general or a noble woman.”
“Oh, I see… and which one are you?”
“I’m a general,” smiled Swaseeia.
“What like an army general?”
“Yes! We both are, Serahwe and I. I told you – we guard the queen,” reminded Swaseeia.
“Wow,” uttered bewildered Vicky, who had difficulty imagining that as gentle-looking creature as Swaseeia could fight so well as to deserve a rank as high as a general.
At least half of the women surrounding the campfire were eating their dinner by now. The animal must have been cooked quite some time ago and managed to cool down considerably as the women eating with their bare hands did not seem to be burning their fingers by the food.
“Well,” thought Vicky optimistically, “at least it is cooked. They might as well be eating raw meat.”
As primitive and unappetizing as all this looked to Vicky, she was surprised to see that before getting their portions, the women washed their hands in a bowl of water which was sent round for the purpose. Vicky’s amazement must have been very obvious since Swaseeia said:
“It is an old tradition. We have it from our ancestors. This way we sanctify the food before we eat.”
“She is observant, that one,” thought Vicky.  Aloud she said: “It is a very good tradition.”
The bowl of water reached Vicky and her two companions. The water was far from clean by now, but Vicky did not want to insult her hosts by asking for the clean water. She dipped her hands. She was so hungry that she did not much care about these women’s standards of hygiene. She imagined that she was a girl scout, camping with her classmates in some god-forsaken area of Highlands. She also reminded herself that she was so far back in time that expecting more would have been ridiculous: the mere fact that these women washed their hands already exceeded her expectations.
Soon it was Vicky’s turn to take the food. When Vicky stood over the sheep, she saw that inside the skin there was a sort of stew of what looked like barley with pieces of meat. When she received her portion, she decided to wait with sitting down until Swaseeia and Serahwe found a spot and sat down with them.
“Do you grow barley then?” Vicky asked her two companions.
“No, we do not grow anything,” said Serahwe in her usual abrupt manner, “we hunt and fight.”
“Then where does barley come from?” inquired Vicky.
“We steal it from the neighboring male tribes,” explained Swaseeia, “we don’t know to sow and harvest. We know war and hunting.”
“Those male tribes must be pretty angry with you then?”
“Sometimes,” answered Swaseeia in an indifferent voice.
The sun was well on its way down. Despite the late hour the evening felt incredibly mild. The earth heated by the sun during the day was warming the air. The wind stopped as if it got tired and went to sleep. On a quiet night like this, in a Scythian field, for the first time in her life Vicky understood why for centuries people used personifications of nature in their folk tales, songs and sagas. Nature looked so exaggerated, almost alive, and personifications were the least a human brain could do in order to encompass this immense, overwhelming grandeur.
Sitting by the fire and enjoying the strange meal served on a piece of cooked animal skin, Vicky suddenly heard the sound of drums. The sound started faint, but grew louder as a procession of women appeared at a distance and was moving towards the campfire. The women sitting near the fire stirred, and in the incomprehensible gibberish of their language, she discerned the name Khase, which she had earlier heard from Skeleiei. Amongst the women in the procession, Vicky saw a figure of the same woman in a long dress whom Vicky had seen in front of the altar stone back when she had accidentally walked out of the museum walls and into Scythia for the first time.
“So this is Khase, the Shamaness who can tell me how to operate the stone,” guessed Vicky.
When Khase approached the campfire, the sound of the drums stopped, and so did the murmur of the camp women, who went immediately quiet. Now the night silence was only filled with the frantic singing of crickets.
“Sisters,” Khase addressed the women present in a loud voice, “today we celebrate a visit of an important guest.”
“Gosh, I wonder who that is,” thought Vicky looking around to see whom Khase was talking about. Vicky noticed how everyone turned their heads to look at her and realized that Khase meant Vicky herself to be this guest of honor. She felt uncomfortable, so many curious eyes staring at her.
“Her name is Wagma,” continued Khase, “we welcome her in our camp today with a story of our ancestors, a story we cherish and pass on from our ancestors to our children.”
A loud cheer of camp women followed as a sign of approval of Khase’s choice of the story. Vicky expected Khase’s next words to be something like “once upon a time…” yet instead Khase started to sing. Khase’s voice surprised Vicky. Vicky did not expect this woman to be so in control of it. Her voice was graceful and full of sensual undertones. “Wow, a sexy voice!” thought Vicky, “she could have been a real hit.”
Vicky closed her eyes in order to absorb better all the sensations and sounds surrounding her while the stone in her pocket was conveying the meaning of Khase’s song:
Long ago, when women folk
Owned cities and Empires,
A wise queen with golden locks
Safeguarded her campfire.

A great male conqueror once came
Approached the queen with order:
“Surrender to my rule,” he said
And showed his troops in order.


Although Khase’s singing was loud and powerful, Vicky felt her body giving in to the overwhelming tiredness of this crazy day. She opened her eyes again in order not to fall asleep and not to miss the rest of the song. She looked up and saw a clear starry sky above. A falling star cutting the sky into two halves with its white tail seemed so close that for a moment Vicky thought she could catch it.
Only just now it became clear to her that she grew up in a city. Somehow the buildings and the lights of a night city always limited the sky, no matter how clear it was. Never in her life had she experienced the night sky being so close to her that she felt as if it was about to swallow her.
For a moment she felt very small, vulnerable and humble before the nature’s magnificence. It all made sense to her now: all of the history classes when the teachers tried to explain the pre-Christian faith and worship of sun and moon, the myths of ancient Greece and Rome and the gods riding flaming chariots across the sky. All that to which she had so far paid little attention, all which had seemed ridiculous to her suddenly made sense. She lay on the soft grass and continued listening to Khase’s voice, which now sounded sentimental and even sad, while the song was fading into the calming sounds of the singing crickets.

The wise queen sent a message back
With rich gifts to support it,
A message, though, was her mind worth,
So simple yet important:

“If you fight us and succeed,
It will not bring you glory,
You will make us, women, bleed -
But it won’t be worth a story.

If you fight us and you fall
Of a female hand untamed
The story will be worth it all,
But you will suffer a great shame.”

The queen with golden locks be praised
In songs of glory and in odes:
Her wisdom kept the death at bay
And saved her folk against all odds.

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