They met in an open space, naturally rounded, like an amphitheatre made of hills. It wasn’t the traditional place for such meetings, but it would do. Everybody could sit down and watch, and there was plenty of room for the horses outside the formation. They had made camp on opposite sides of it. Tamra to the east, since they worshipped the Golden Mare; and Eodagh in the west, as befitted a tribe following the Mare of the Moon. There were at least two hundred warriors in each camp, and at least as many followers; men watching the children born under the campaign, weaponsmiths and other parts of the tribe that travelled with the warriors. All in all there were a little over a thousand people meeting here.
The war had been hard on both tribes, and it seemed to have gone on for such a long time. Children had been weaned and sent away from the warriors and still the war had raged. Sometimes it was slower, when they needed to hunt, or had a temporary ceasefire because they needed to train new recruits and send the old and injured home. But for some of the women it had been an unremitting war for too long now. All of them were tired. War was something that they sang songs about, something that was an integral part of their culture, but there was a limit to what a tribe could endure. That was passed a long time ago. The herd was starving. The Mothers couldn’t support this and so the war had to stop. But stopping a war is harder than starting one. You can’t just stop. Measures must be taken, promises must be kept, and the warring leaders must meet and exchange a fruitful promise of peace.
It was one of the most sacred rituals of the Tribes.
It was survival. There was no shame in this peace. All had fought valiantly. All had abided by the rules of war.
Ianthe of Tamra stood still as her son Iodimeus strapped her ceremonial armour to her body. He worked fast and silently. She watched him with the pride of any mother. He was lean and nimble. Hard working and obedient. He had golden hair and a luster to the skin that gave women, young and old, a longing in their eyes. And he was intelligent. She had lost count of how many times she had asked the Great Mother of Horses to turn him into a woman, so that he could take the leadership after her when she was gone. But the Goddess was silent to her prayers, and the laws of the Tribes were clear. Only children of female sex could succeed their mothers. She sighed. He looked up and smiled. Her heart was warm for him and she smiled back.
“What is troubling you, mother?” he asked.
“Aye, nothing, my darling. Just the weight of leadership. Just an old woman’s longing for peace and quiet.” She smiled at him. He smiled back.
“I wish I could ease your burden,” he said, strapping the last part of her armour to
her chest. Her back ached from the hard riding to get here. She was truly getting older. She would need to find him a mate soon. It needed to be someone young enough to bear him children. To make her line continue. She knew that he would make her proud. That he would excel. She was ready for grandchildren. She truly was. After this, she would sit down with her trusted advisors and see who among her brave warriors would be a match for her son. But first, she needed to get through the day.
“You do, Iodimeus, you do. When this is over… we will have more time for each other. I know it has been hard for you. I will make it up to you, I promise.” She kissed his forehead and went out of the tent. He followed, falling into step with her. She couldn’t see him, but she knew he was following decorum and had his head bent in submission and humility.
The whole of the Tamra Tribe stood in waiting for her. She stretched her back and told herself that yes, she was tired, but soon she would get to rest. Soon this tiresome war would be over, and she would concentrate on regular things for a while. Hunting game. Fucking a willing man. Ending petty disagreements with the traders that came to her grounds. Normal things. Things of peace. Goddess, she had earned it.
As she ascended into the amphitheatre the Eodagh Tribe did the same from the other side. Their leader Zosime mimicked her steps. It was of utmost importance that they did everything in pace, did everything alike and matched each other’s every move. The peace depended on it. She watched Zosime while getting closer to the bottom of the hill. There the priestesses had set up an open tent with chairs and a big table. The first tokens of peace would be between them on that table. The Eodagh chief was the same age as herself. A long and wiry woman with stains of grey in her copper hair. She was muscular and strong. A true leader. Ianthe hoped that she was just as imposing. And she reminded herself of what Iocaste had told her about her enemy; that Zosime also was known as the “snake”- she was cunning and deceitful. And that she would try to do something today, even though tradition spoke against it. Ianthe didn’t need to be reminded that she was to remain vigilant.
At the same moment they sat down in the chairs. All the warriors did the same. They would remain still until someone in these chairs told them to do something. But if prompted, or provoked, they would not hesitate to strike. That would be devastating to both the tribes, but if honor demanded it, they would. The peace and the future of all of these people was hanging in a loose and fragile thread between them. Ianthe felt sweat breaking out on her forehead. Suddenly she wished that it was not her that had to do this. Why couldn’t she be the second daughter of her mother? At this moment, if the Great Mare had stepped down and made it so, she would have wept of relief. Instead, her sister Iocaste, her closest friend and advisor, stepped up at the right side of the chair. Iodimeus went to get an amphora of red wine and served both her and Zosime. Her heart rejoiced when she saw the grace he was showing.
Another young man served them grapes and olives and salt. It was the traditional peace offering. They both drank a sip of the wine, and took one grape and one olive each. They sprinkled salt in their hands and licked it up. Never taking their gaze from one another.
She was just finished when Zosime started talking. Her voice was loud and clear and strong. It rang so all in the amphitheatre could hear. The voice of a true leader.
“The war was long. The war was hard. We have all earned the peace.” Murmurs of agreement from the warriors. “But how to go to home and hearth with pride? When no enemy is defeated, no spoils of war is brought home?” More murmurs from the warriors. From both sides.
Ianthe bowed her head in acknowledgement of Zosime’s words.
“It means that neither of these brave and honourable tribes were weaker in this war.
It means that we can go home with the victory of not losing in our hearts. That we faced an equal opponent who fought brave and hard, just as we did. There is no dishonor in a peace like this.” She was pretty proud of her statement, and that her voice carried just as well as Zosime’s had done.
“Yes,” Zosime agreed. “As custom dictates, we now need to exchange gifts of equal measure to close the wound of enmity between us.”
This was expected. She nodded. Thinking of the twenty white mares that she had prepared as a peace offering gift she said: “We, the Tamra Tribe, are willing to match whatever offer of trade the Eodagh Tribe offers.” Zosime smiled. She felt a touch of her sister’s fingers on her wrist, but it was too late. If this was a trap, it had already closed.
Zosime saw her in the eyes and said steadily and calmly:
“I then offer my oldest son.”
The world fell silent. She could hear gasps of shock from the onlookers. Ianthe felt the blood drain from her face. She stared at Zosime. It was masterful. It was so cleverly done. If this peace would hold, she had to match it. And it meant that she would lose Iodimeus. Immediately. Her golden boy. Her pride. Her son. It was unthinkable. It was insulting. It was… no. Holy goddess of horses, help me, she prayed.
Her heart wanted to weep, and her hand gripped her sword without even thinking. This could not be! But she felt her sister’s hand again on her wrist. And she knew it was this or continuing the fruitless war. She forced herself to look Zosime in the eye. The woman smiled a light and victorious smile. She knew that her oldest son was only one of many children, of many daughters, but that Iodimeus of Tamra was Ianthe’s only child. She knew, and she rejoiced.
Ianthe took a long hard breath and then, without knowing if her voice would carry and spoke the necessary words.
“Then I offer you my eldest son as an equal exchange of gifts.” Tears wanted to break through, but she would rather die than let them run freely. She couldn’t look at him, or she would break down, but she waved her hand and felt rather than saw him go over to the other side of the table. Zosime’s oldest son, the other boy that had served the olives and the salt, did the same. He bit his lip nervously. But he also knew of the victory of his mother and his back was straight and proud. Iodimeus back was also straight. And his neck was red. She longed to hold him. She longed to tell him she loved him more than everything in the world. But he was lost to her. She would never see him again.
“Goodbye my son, my heart, my life,” she said inside herself. And then she did the hardest thing she’d ever done. She rose and stretched out her hand to Zosime, who took it and shook it. Her hand was shaking. But she gripped the other leader’s hand, firm and strong. She could feel her warrior’s anger and sorrow. They would support her if she wanted this slight avenged. But she did nothing, for the good of her people.
The peace would hold. It must. It had to.