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she painted her cheeks with blood

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Every woman on Themyscira has a story for little Diana.

Hippolyta does not want her daughter’s head filled with nothing but tales of war and glory, of course, and so the Amazons do their best. Diana learns the names of every plant and flower on the island, every star that flashes above them in the heavens. They tell her of the creatures, how the bird of paradise got its long, colourful plumage, why the ferret’s belly turned white, and Diana listens with rapt fascination. Those who were mothers, before Themyscira, sit Diana on their knee and tell her of their children, now long dead.

Diana loves the stories of the world outside the island, the various countries rich with language and culture. The other Amazons tell her of their journeys, of the knowledge they brought to man and new discoveries that returned with them, of the strange little marvels that these mortals created to give meaning to their short little lives. They show her fragments of art, pottery and tapestry and pieces of fresco, read her poetry scrawled on ancient scrolls or tablets so old they warn her she cannot touch.

There are many stories to tell Diana. Antiope tells Diana of war.

She feels Hippolyta’s displeasure like a physical force, but what else can she do? Antiope is not a botanist. She cannot pretend to care about coaxing pretty flowers from the soil or tending to the vegetables, although of course she blesses the earth and those who coax their living from it. She is not an artist, unless her canvas is the battlefield and the sword her paintbrush. She knows no songs save the war cry that fills her throat as she leaps from her horse into the fray, no music save the pounding of her blood as she rides her army toward enemy lines.

Hippolyta pretends she is nothing but a doting mother now, that the milk of war has soured on her lips. It is a lie of course but she wears it well, even if Antiope sees her lips thin when Diana looks at her puzzled disappointment. Antiope could pretend, she could file down her rough edges, put on a covering of velvet and make herself a soft child’s toy, but — no. No, Antiope loves Diana with a fire that only battle has ever matched, but she will not fold herself small, make herself smooth and palatable like cutting off the crusts from a piece of bread or plucking out the bones from a fish so that Diana can swallow her safely.

Her niece will take her as she is, and will not choke, whether Hippolyta likes it or not.

Once, Diana asks Antiope what she knows of men.

Antiope freezes. She has a habit of playing with her knife when she tells stories, flipping it over her fingers and tossing it in the air, delighting Diana with her tricks. Now she looks down and sees it clutched in a death grip, ready to strike an unseen enemy, her hold strong enough to drive the blade through her opponent’s armour. She loosens her fingers one by one, returns the dagger to her belt. “What would you have me tell you, little one?” she asks, forcing air through the iron in her throat.

“I don’t know.” Diana looks up at her, sweet moon face and wide dark eyes, curious and guileless and untouched by man’s grasping, greedy hands. “Did you ever meet them outside of battle?”

For every story Diana has heard, there are a thousand she has not.

Diana knows the story of the Amazons, birthed from clay at the bottom of the ocean and given life by the gods themselves, as well as she knows her letters — however. She does not know that the Amazons were born from the souls of women defiled and murdered by man, that Aphrodite looked on them in love and compassion and gave them the chance to live again with the power their first life denied them. Antiope remembers nothing of before the sea save a few dark, chilling flashes, but they are enough. Diana’s bedtime version, the one she hears snuggled under her blankets with the soft, sweet scent of honeysuckle hanging in the air, has nothing of this.

Antiope has told her of war, of course, but she fills her tales with glory — the thrill of battle, the song of the hunt, the chase, the feel of the horse’s muscles beneath her thighs like power made physical, the swing of the sword in her arm, the flash of sunlight on the blade. She does not tell Diana of the scent of death, thick and choking in the relentless summer heat, nor the sound of a hundred men dying slow and painful, trapped beneath the fallen bodies of their comrades, too far for the healers or a quick thrust of a merciful companion’s blade.

Too, she leaves out the children starving in their mother’s arms, gaunt women with hollow eyes and paper-thin skin drawn over pointed bones. The cities built on the bodies of the poor while the rich gloated and poured out their wine because they had drunk their fill, the food tossed to the dogs rather than let the servants touch anything too fine for their station. Wars waged for sport rather than for righteousness, hundreds of deaths to serve the whims of a few bored men with little better to do than gamble with the lives of those who served them. Antiope fought those wars and she made them pay for it, cut off their heads and let their blood turn the sand to crimson slurry, left their corpses for the jackals to scavenge and never looked back. These are not the stories for a little girl.

Diana knows, of course, that the Amazons spent years in slavery before Hippolyta broke free and carried them to victory, but she cannot understand — that it might have been Ares’ treachery that brought them down but it was men who held them, men who delighted in their pain. Antiope remembers. She remembers the heavy chains around her wrists, rubbing her skin raw and bleeding. Remembers their laughter, ugly and mocking, until she heard it in her sleep, chasing her in her dreams until she woke to find the nightmare begun anew. Remembers their hands, the way they clutched her, how she felt their touch as brands until she wished she could leap into the fire and burn every last fingerprint from her skin.

When Hippolyta freed her, Antiope smeared the blood from between her legs across her cheeks like war paint. For every man she killed, she dipped her fingers in his blood and added another stripe. By the end of the battle she felt less a woman and more a monster of legend, a snarling mass of red from head to toe with fingernails broken to the quick, wearing a torn shift and borrowed sword.

“Antiope?” Diana’s voice pipes in the silence, startling her from the ugly reverie. Antiope snaps back and there she is, frowning, her soft, pink mouth drawn into a worried moue.

Diana could speak a dozen languages by the time her head reached her mother’s waist and will learn hundreds more by the time she’s grown, but the word rape is known to her in none of them. One day Antiope will teach her that war is more than glorious victory but she will not — cannot — be the one to breach that particular wall.

“I did,” Antiope says. The words come out short, just short of snapped, and she finds herself struggling for breath. “They were — men are not a kind people, Diana.” But now Diana’s frown has deepened, and Antiope wades through the last of her memories like she would a sea of bodies and comes out the other side, bends and snatches Diana up into her arms. “I would rather have one Diana than a hundred men,” she says, pressing a messy kiss to her niece’s forehead.

Diana claps her hands. “What about a thousand men?” she asks, eyes dancing.

“A thousand thousand,” Antiope says, with exaggerated seriousness, and Diana shrieks with glee and collapses against her, still giggling. Antiope’s heart still hammers, and tonight she will seek out her lover in the hopes that her kisses will overwrite the memories of those awful, grasping hands, like the tide washes away the twisted gnarls of seaweed from the sand. But for now she has her niece, and the ocean, and if Antiope has no songs to sing, she’s sure that Diana will teach her some.

“Come, little one,” Antiope says, lifting Diana up onto her shoulders. “Let us see if we can race the sunset to the shore.”