Where the frontier of the Atlantean Empire met the nation of Mizraim lay a swamp, at the foot of the mountains that rose above the mists and formed the border between the two lands. The Iron Springs flowed to the Atlantean side, feeding the vast expanse of bog and cypress forests. There was life there: pitcher-plants and sundews supplemented what their starved roots could obtain with bog spiders and yellowflies; foxes darted about the forest thickets, never a human seen in their lifetimes; fat frogs fed on firefae beetles and were in turn fed upon by the tentacled creatures that hid themselves in the tannin-brown water. The swamp was useless for crops and herds, and so it had been left untouched by the waves of Atlantean pioneers, despite their ever-growing, never-slaked thirst to push outward into the wildernesses still unseen by any children of Cain. For the Atlantean border rangers – the virgin huntresses called the Wa-Mizhan – it was enough that the lords of Atlantis laid claim to it. For this reason, Tehama, daughter of Dyeus, now led a group of rangers to confront those who had violated Atlantean sovereignty.
Unlike the giant men of her kind, females with the blood of the angels grew to normal human height. The Nephilim huntress did have a preternatural beauty far beyond that of a purebred daughter of Eve, but that was all that set her apart from the women with her – that, and her age. Most of the Wa-Mizhan failed to protect their virginity for more than a few decades, although several with Tehama had served for over a century. She remained the standard, the first Huntress and the eldest, nearing five hundred years and never knowing a man, despite the countless who had made an attempt. She maintained that she wished to serve a greater good, and this was true; but her shame at her family’s constant fornications and a desire to prove herself different from them drove her more than she would admit. Those in her company strengthened Tehama. From atop her elk she turned, surveying the huntresses behind her, strong women she loved more profoundly than anything romance could offer them.
The Wa-Mizhan wore no uniforms. Their tasks and surroundings informed their clothing, gear, and tools, both practical and martial, and what each of the women wore gave a unique history of her service. Most of the huntresses had bows, although some preferred slings, and long knives were ubiquitous. In lieu of the gold and orichalcum of their pampered urban sisters and mothers, totems of wood, tooth, and bone hung at their necks and from their ears. Armor of boiled leather or drakehide or horn scale covered woolen hooded tunics. Hair was kept short or tightly braided; ornate and flowing was the fashion in Atlantis, but the jungles and forests demanded practicality.
Their line of light horses trotted on the higher, dryer paths, above the waterline but in the midst of the mists that never quite cleared. A predatory menagerie flanked the horses on either side. Every Wa-Mizhan chose her own animal familiars, invaluable partners in their patrols, supplementing the huntresses’ craft with sight or smell, talons or teeth. Tehama noted that panthers had become popular with the latest generation, as had armored tarasq dragons and wolf-sized badcats. Owls and falcons flew low patterns above, and one veteran had trained a pack of peccaries that skimmed the soft ground with razor-sharp tusks.
Tehama rode bareback on her grand-elk, the latest in a centuries-old line that she bred herself. Despite the colossal span of the beast’s antlers, it could navigate all but the densest woodland at speed, and no other fleet mount established such dominance so quickly, without creating the fear engendered by a dragon-mount.
“There,” said Kiah, her beth, the second-in-command of the group, riding at her side on a mist-grey mare. She pointed at a cluster of lamps in the distance, the manmade lights discernible from the flickering firefae only by their constancy. As they approached the lamps, peat-built structures took form through the haze.
“No telling how long they have been here,” mused Kiah. “The mist never leaves the swamp, and peathouses upon peatland is fine camouflage.”
“There is telling,” corrected Tehama. “We ask. They tell. Come.”
Tehama led her rangers down to the collection of peat hovels, making no effort to mask their coming. They rode slowly, stopping at a long, round-topped structure where a group of men wearing high waders and damp-looking cloaks huddled near the canvas-covered doorway. Scarves swathed their faces and heads, making it impossible to ascertain from what peoples they came.
Kiah addressed them. “Who are you, and why have you invaded the lands of Atlantis?”
The lead man, his eyes hidden by curious dark discs, held up his lamp. “Do you intend us harm?”
“We are a skein, not a pack,” Tehama said, “otherwise we would not now be speaking, and you would be dead. We are scouting, not hunting. Answer the questions.”
“My name is Ninniachul, ah, ah, and we are from the tribes of Mizraim, across the mountains,” he said. Tehama could not ascertain if the man were scared or merely awkward. “We need the iron from these bogs – bogs that belonged to no man forty years ago, when last I was here.”
“You people have no turbary rights here,” started Kiah, but Tehama stopped her. “Why do you need this iron?” the Nephilim asked.
“Why?” sputtered Ninniachul. “Why? Because the, the hordes of Zuthi are raping their way through our lands! My people are murdered, our homes burnt, our herds slaughtered, our daughters defiled, our sons tortured. Are these reasons enough for you?” His anger gave him fluency.
“That is no matter for Atlantis,” said Kiah. “This incursion into our territory is.”
“Damn your ‘territory!’” The protestation that came from a slight person behind the disc-eyed man was higher-pitched than Tehama expected; the Nephilim took him for a eunuch and stopped his complaint short.
“Let me finish. We are a fair nation. My Wa-Mizhan will take inventory of what you have thus far obtained. Your work will not go unrewarded; you shall be paid a fair portion, but the remainder will go to its rightful owners.”
“Meaning you?” said Ninniachul angrily.
Tehama did not answer him, but continued. “Then this skein will escort you and your workers to the borders of your lands, and we shall consider the matter settled.”
“We cannot leave!” said the slight man. He pulled his scarf from his face and stepped forward. To Tehama’s surprise, he was, in fact, a she, and young. “Our loggers are missing.” Ninniachul sucked in air through clenched teeth and placed a hand on her arm, but the girl brushed him off.
Tehama tilted forward on her elk. “Keep talking.”
“What forests of our own we did not cut for walls to defend our villages, the Zuthians put to torch when they fell upon us. We need wood. We need iron. My father knew that this wilderness had both, so we came here. The men logging the swamp forests have been gone three days too long, and I am the only one willing to search for them.”
“And neither do you have timber rights, even in a swamp,” snapped Kiah.
“Our men might be dead,” implored the girl. “Please. Help us.”
Tehama saw the truth of the matter in the girl’s sky-blue eyes and the covered faces of the men behind her, downcast in shame but willing to suffer it in safety. She unslung her longbow.
“Wa-Mizhan, ready your weapons,” she said loudly. “This skein is now a pack. We go hunting.”