For my children. I would walk through fire for you.




Acknowledgments

Thanks for making this book a reality go to my agent, Holly Root, editors Paula Guran and Jennifer Heddle, and many others at Pocket Books whose names I do not know.

Special thanks to Pat Rice and Sasha White for their input on an early version of the first few chapters of this book. I'm afraid little of the original survived rewrites-thank you for that! Also to Ann Voss Peterson for reminding me of things I really shouldn't need reminding of.

I'd also like to thank Rob Francis for answering my fire questions and the Castle Coalition for answering questions on eminent domain, even though eminent domain did not make it into the final book.



Preface

Descendants of the god Ares and nymph Otrera, the Amazons were blessed with strength, longevity, and mystical powers. As their divine bloodline was weakened by mating with humans, they learned to focus and maintain their powers through the use of body decoration, mainly tattoos.

Despite their descent from Ares, the Amazons worshipped Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, forests, and hills, and the womanly concerns of virginity, fertility, and childbirth. As the world outside of their community moved to worship gods over goddesses, their desire to stay separate-and exclusively female-grew.

Dividing eventually into twelve tribes each identified with a protector animal, the Amazons lived in the area around what we now call the Black Sea for centuries. Then the ancient Greeks encountered a few of their settlements. Their stories of a tribe of woman warriors began to draw the interest of the outside world. To survive, the Amazons became increasingly nomadic. Although they dispersed in all directions, most moved to the steppes of Russia.

The animals that had identified their settlements became family totems, a reminder of their past greatness. These totems were tattooed on each member of the tribe, tying them together magically when the Amazons weren't together physically. The tattoos became known as telioses.

Amazons fall into four basic talent groups: warriors, priestesses, artisans, and hearth-keepers. Amazons may have aspects of power from all of the groups, but there is usually one that is obviously dominant. Their personal power tattoo (the givnomai) is chosen to enhance those powers, helping to lock them into their role for the tribe. It is rare for an Amazon to have significant powers from more than one group.

Warriors possess superhuman strength and flexibility. Priestesses can harness elemental powers-fire, wind, water, earth-without use of objects. Priestesses also call upon the goddess Artemis for guidance for the tribe. Artisans create objects that store power: tattoos, fetishes, and jewelry. The power these objects have is based on what they represent: a bear fetish would provide strength, a coyote stealth, a fox cunning. Some artisans can put the power into the object; others can only create the object and must have assistance from a priestess to embed the power. Home, food, and child care are provided by the hearth-keepers. Their powers are protective and medicinal.

Although not immortal, Amazons do live for hundreds of years and retain a youthful appearance for several centuries.

Even in the New World, the Amazons kept their nomadic ways. The twelve tribes continued to keep a low profile by traveling around the country, much like modern-day gypsies, settling for short periods of time in one of six "safe camps."

Camps are located on enough land to provide a buffer between them and the human world. Each has a hearth-keeper, priestess, and queen (from the warrior talent group) assigned to them by the high council. These queens maintain order within the camp and work to protect it from human detection through both magical and mundane ways. They stay longer than the other Amazons, but still shift to a new camp every few years. Individual Amazons move freely between these camps, never settling for too long in one place.

Amazons mingle with the human population on a limited basis. Just like their ancestors, they take human lovers but do not marry. Since most Amazons believe themselves superior to humans, most have no issues with stealing from humans or conning them out of money. Their seminomadic lifestyle aids them in evading confrontations that might come from such an existence. A few do offer legitimate-or semi-legitimate-services at area fairs and bazaars such as selling craft items, such as fetishes and jewelry, telling fortunes, or offering self-defense classes. They do not, however, take jobs that require them to work day-to-day in one place or get to know any humans in depth. If anyone begins to get too close, they move on.

The Amazons have never trusted men, nor brought them into their camps. They even feared their own male offspring might rise up and try to control them, as Greek males had tried in the past. Because of this fear, their male children were put to death. Over time they stopped the killing and instead maimed the infants by breaking an arm or leg, then leaving the boys where humans could find and raise them.

Some of these offspring survived; many didn't.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Bubbe Saka, a priestess, was instrumental in stopping all of this. Male children thereafter were left unmaimed at human churches and hospitals.

Although the Amazons were unaware of it, even before the maiming stopped, these sons had begun gathering together. Also unknown to the Amazons, their sons possessed similar powers to their own.

Through an encounter (told in Amazon Ink) with Melinappe (Mel) Saka-Bubbe Saka's granddaughter and an Amazon who had left the tribe-the Amazons discovered both the sons' existence and their powers.

For the first time in their history, they are forced to face the fact there is a group who can match them power for power.

What the Amazons don't know is if that group will choose to try and destroy them.


Chapter 1

Full noon sun in the middle of a busy downtown street, and I was about to steal a baby.

An older white two-door, with a bumper that obviously wasn't original to the car, angled its way into a parking spot. I whistled, signaling the two warriors I'd brought with me that our target was close.

Thea Caras, our new high priestess, opened the door to our Jeep and set one foot on the pavement. I motioned for Tess, a hearth-keeper and our driver, to be ready. Then I followed suit, trying to look casual, although Thea with her full-sleeve tattoos was not your usual downtown Beloit shopper. For that matter neither was I, nor were the two warriors hidden in shaded doorways nearby. Still, I grabbed a hoodie from the seat beside me and threw it at Thea. She frowned but pulled it on.

It was the middle of July and hot, but better she be sweaty than flashing her unusual art.

The men took their time getting out of the vehicle. I glanced over my shoulder, checking to make sure the fifth member of our team, Lao, a three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old hearth-keeper, was in position to take the child once we had retrieved her from the sons who had stolen her.

Finally the men exited the car. The tallest reached into the backseat and pulled out the carrier. I could see the baby inside, fast asleep with a blue-and-white checked blanket tucked around her. The shorter of the two, maybe six foot three to the other man's lanky six six, scanned the street. I ducked down in a pretense of checking my tire. Thea cut around behind the back of the Jeep to approach them from the street.

Back on my feet, I signaled Areto. She was short for an Amazon, with no visible tattoos. Dressed in mom shorts and a scoop-necked T-shirt, she blended nicely with the humans. Fumbling in a purse we'd picked up at Goodwill before setting this stage, she walked between the sons and stopped.

Disguised as a man, complete with a trucker hat, Bern moved too. She headed toward an old VW Bug that Lao had hotwired earlier and parked at the corner.

With Bern and Areto in place, Lao was next. Pushing a rolling shopping cart, she moved into the tall son's path, then stumbled and fell. The cart tipped over. Onions and peppers rolled across the concrete. Lao lay sprawled across the sidewalk, the picture of elderly distress.

Areto rushed to Lao's "aid." Falling to her knees, she stared at the Amazon son. "She needs help."

I joined Areto and placed a hand on Lao's shoulder. "She's hurt," I cried. "Her arm is bent. Can one of you help me?" I moved as if struggling to flip the older Amazon onto her side.

Neither male moved.

Eight feet behind the man with the infant, Thea lifted a blowpipe. Something shot from its end. The man slapped at his neck, then took an unsteady step to the side. Confusion clouding his eyes, he set the carrier down.

Also confused, I blinked. I had assumed Thea would use magic to divert the men; I hadn't expected the priestess to use a weapon and what appeared to be some kind of drug. However, in the middle of our mission, I didn't have time to analyze the priestess's unusual choice.

The shorter man had missed the exchange. When I looked back at him, his attention was still on me.

"Mateo, Amazons!" he yelled, leaping toward us.

I stood, meeting him head-on, and jammed the heel of my hand into his nose. He cursed; blood streamed down his face.

The first son, the tall one, was barely standing; only his arms, locked at the elbows and wedged against the cars beside him, kept him from falling. His face drawn, he lunged toward the carrier, but it was too late. Tess had already pulled up behind his car and Thea, the baby carrier firmly in hand, had already leapt inside.

With a shriek of the Jeep's tires, they raced away.

The son whose nose I had just busted cursed. He took a step toward me, but the taller son yelled there was no time. The first son headed toward me, hesitated, emitted an angry growl, and flashed his teeth. The taller one staggered to their car, then slapped his palm against the door.

With a last snarl, the shorter man jumped behind the wheel and they sped off after the Jeep.

They got to the corner before Bern placed her foot on the Bug's front bumper and pushed it into traffic in front of them.

At the shriek of tires and metal, she turned and strolled toward us.

Lao was already on her feet. She made a tching sound. "Must have forgotten to put the damn thing in park. It's hell being old, Zery."

"Lucky we have another ride," I replied.

"Yep." She grinned. "It most certainly is." She climbed into the truck we'd parked only a few spaces away; Areto slid into the center, and Bern hopped into the bed. I stood by the truck and watched the action.

Police had arrived almost immediately. Both sons stood tense and silent; neither, I was sure, willing to say they had been outsmarted by Amazons. Not only would that have been humiliating, but as far as humans knew, we were nothing but myth. Plus the sons had no proof the baby we'd taken from them was theirs-telling the authorities would have had no benefit anyway.

We had won, and they knew it.

The shorter son turned. His eyes found me. For a second I thought I'd been mistaken, that he would say something to the cops.

But as he stared, I realized he wasn't thinking of pointing me out to the humans. No, he was thinking of what he would do to me when he caught me.

With a smile, I swung my body into the truck and pulled the door closed with a click.

He could think all he liked. It wouldn't change that these men-men who claimed to be sons of Amazons, sons who had inherited our powers and long life spans-would never be a match for the Amazons-ever.

Our safe camp was only an hour's drive from Beloit.

When we pulled in the drive, most of the camp's current occupants were outside waiting for us. Everyone except Thea and the baby.

I jumped down and strode toward Tess. The young hearth-keeper was sitting on the old farmhouse's front porch next to the baby's seat. She was holding some kind of stuffed animal-a cow, a flat cow. I raised a brow but didn't comment.

"Where's Thea?" I asked. The priestess had joined our camp only a week earlier, two days before the call came that two sons had stolen a high-council member's child and was headed in our direction.

Tess dropped the stuffed toy back into the empty carrier. "She went to the clearing with the baby."

I frowned. Thea had taken the call telling us about the child. As queen of this camp, I'd have preferred to have been part of the conversation myself, but I had been out and the high council had chosen to tell Thea-it wasn't my place to quibble.

Now, though, I wasn't sure what we were supposed to do with the child. I assumed we would reunite her with her mother, but I didn't know when, where, or how.

I didn't like not knowing, and I didn't like Thea disappearing with her.

"I think she was doing some kind of blessing," Tess offered. "She had a bowl and some oil."

A bowl and oil. . sounded to me more like Thea was planning to make salad.

I grunted and turned to go into the woods. At the last minute I went to the truck and grabbed a staff, one of my shorter ones for easier maneuvering in the trees.

I didn't normally walk around armed, but these were not normal times. The sons had grown bold, stealing the child. Who knew what they might try next?

It was a bit cooler in the woods than it had been in the open sun, but it was still hot and humid. My shirt stuck to my skin and bugs zipped around me. I waved them off with one hand and mentally cursed Thea for dragging the child to the clearing in the middle of the day.

The blessing could have been done at the farmhouse, or Thea could have waited until dark. Artemis was a moon goddess; any blessing from her would be strongest then.

Muttering another curse, I tugged on the elastic band at the bottom of my jog bra and let it snap against my skin. The three seconds of cool air that provided was no relief. My palms were sweaty too, making it harder to grip my staff. I took a second to wipe them on my shorts and blow a lock of blond hair out of my eyes.

A few feet away something crunched through the underbrush. Heat forgotten, I regripped the staff, but there was no further sound and no other signs anything might be amiss.

An animal, then, maybe a stray dog. We saw plenty of them, raccoons and possums too. Could be anything.

Still, the interruption made me remember my task.

I gripped my staff with renewed earnestness and kept walking.

I stepped over a fallen log, paused and listened again. There was no movement in the woods, though, and little sound. The animal I'd heard earlier must have left the area. I swung my back leg over the log and kept moving. I was close to the obelisk now.

Just before entering the clearing, I stopped. I wanted to see what Thea was doing, what had been so important that she had fled with the baby as soon as arriving back at camp.

The obelisk that marked the center of our place of worship was black and glossy in the sun. Thea stood next to it; as Tess had said, she held a bowl. She had lost the hoodie and her tattoos were now clearly visible: Medusa dominated one arm, an owl the other.