"Amid the barren deserts of Arabia, a few cultivated spots rise like islands out of the sandy ocean...several illustrious women have sustained with glory the weight of empire. Zenobia was esteemed the most lovely, as well as the most heroic of her sex. Her large black eyes sparkled with uncommon fire."

 – Edward Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"





Zenobia watched the covers rise and fall several times—labored breaths that tore her heart and taxed her patience. Her mother had dozed off once again. She allowed her gaze to wander as she waited, knowing it would not be long. Thick red curtains added to the pervasive presence of death, but Zenobia’s eyes were accustomed to the gloom. To think that only one year before her mother had looked young, strong, and as beautiful as any woman in the entire Eastern Roman Empire! Now here she lay, decimated from the wasting sickness like one three times her age, the smell of decay overpowering the perfumes intended to mask the odors. The tic of Zenobia’s right hand, spilling a few drops of cool water from the silver ladle in her hand, was the only sign of the shudder that threatened to flash through her body like a flame racing up a bolt of silk.

The woman stirred, and Zenobia forced a smile to her lips. “Did you rest a bit, Mother?”

“I will rest eternally with the Rephaim very soon.”

Zenobia’s eyes flared at the mention of the gods of the underworld, but she held them steady on the drawn face of her mother. She forced the distress at her mother’s words into anger, cursing her lack of control. The oppressive air of the darkened room helped fuel that anger.

“Of course not, Mother. As you often say, this trouble is only a stray camel passing across the face of the great desert.”


Zenobia knew her mother’s thoughts: such pretense was another mark of weakness. The fetid body, wasting away to a shriveled hulk, made the inevitability of death clear. The only question was how long her mother had left.

“You have always taught me to fight through all adversity, Mother.”

Her mother sighed, but the sound rattled as it came up her throat and passed her cracked lips. In spite of constant drips of water from the ladle, Zenobia could not keep them moist. When her breathing steadied once more, her mother continued.

“The blood of Cleopatra, the greatest queen the world has ever known, flows through your veins. You must not let this chance go to waste.”

Her mother boasted Queen Cleopatra VII as an ancestor through Drusilla, granddaughter of King Juba II of Mauretania and Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. How much of this was true, if any? It didn’t matter … especially now. Zenobia opened her mind and her heart wide as she prepared to obey. “What must I do?”

Moments passed before the older woman spoke again. Zenobia was not certain if she were gathering her thoughts or her energy.

“You must know that, even now, Shapur I leads a mighty army against our wealthy neighbor of Antakya to the north.”

With her free hand, Zenobia rubbed her fingers lightly over her lips. “No doubt Shapur wishes to make an impact after his father, Ardašir, proclaimed him co-ruler of the Persian Empire above his older brothers.”

Her mother gave a tight smile, clearly pleased that her daughter understood the political implications. “Emperor Valerian will ride with Lord Odaenathus in two days to witness his destruction of the southern bandits.”

Zenobia nodded. The Tanukh, one of the larger nomad Arab clans, had seized this opportunity to send a strong raiding party along Palmyra’s southern border. But she did not see the connection.

“And then?”

Another pause as her mother once more gathered her strength. “It is said Valerian will grant him command of the combined armies to face the Sassanids if he is pleased with the result.”


Now she understood.  Since the rule of Tiberius, Odaenathus family, the Septimii, had controlled the city of Palmyra in an uneasy truce with Rome. It seemed that Valerian now wanted to formalize the relationship, and viewed the current Septimii prince as the man to take charge of this desert city that acted as a buffer against the mighty Persian Empire. Quietly, it was rumored Valerian was getting old and wanted to spend some time in his villa in southern Italia. Before he handed over his legions, however, Valerian wanted to witness the vaunted leadership of Odaenathus using only his own Beduin cavalry.

Yes. And you must go with them.

Zenobias eyes flared once again, but she stifled an exclamation. She fussed with the ladle while she regained her composure.

“To what purpose, Mother?”

The woman inclined her head slightly on the beautifully made pillow, a sign she was pleased with her daughter’s reaction. Before her illness she would have been more subtle, but now she came right to the point.

“The passing of Princess Lejka has left a gap that Lord Odaenathus must fill. When Emperor Valerian makes him governor—which he will—he must have both a wife and a mother for his young son. You must become that wife.”

“Mother! He is still in mourning.”

The exclamation slipped from her before she could catch it. Zenobia had forbidden the servants from speaking to her mother of the latest developments, not wanting her to exert herself over politics, but she should have known better. Dying or not, the woman’s mind remained sharp and her strength of character like steel. Her mother’s hand rose only slightly, but it was enough to dismiss the outburst.

“Lord Odaenathus must have a woman stronger than the one who died of the birthing sickness. You are strong, and have been trained since childhood for just such a position. You must not let this opportunity pass.” Her voice cut through the silence of the household as she repeated the command.

Three years before, Prince Odaenathus had proudly held his heir aloft for the citizens to see: Hairan, named after his father. But Princess Lejka had died three days afterward. It had taken more than a year for the citizens to recover from the loss of the beautiful young princess, whose charity and kindness were renowned throughout Assyria. Only the presence of enemies to the north and south of his city had pulled Palmyra’s prince out of his sorrow.

As Zenobia gazed around the large, richly-appointed bedroom, she reflected that she had indeed been trained for this moment. Her father, Zabbai bin Selim, had been a very wealthy minor nobleman of Palmyra. In keeping with the warrior queen tradition of Assyria, Zenobia had been trained from an early age in riding, hunting, and the use of weapons. When a trading caravan led by her father had been wiped out by bandits, her mother had focused all of her attention on preparing Zenobia for some great destiny, no doubt envisioning a rejuvenation of her glorious family heritage.

“And how am I to manage that, Mother?”

Her mother gave a slight smile, reminding Zenobia of the woman of only a year before. “It is already arranged. Lord Odaenathus will allow you to join the other young nobles who will get their first taste of battle. You must make certain to capture his eye, not just as the great beauty you are, but as a brave, strong warrior. When he is ready, he will think of you first.”

Zenobia dipped the ladle once more into the cool water, giving her mother time to regain her breath. Lord Odaenathus was a great warrior, a splendid man, and no doubt soon to be second in Assyria only to the emperor himself. But he was old, at least twice her own age of seventeen, and now had a son and heir. How could she ever find happiness as the wife of such a man?

“Is it … so important?”

“There is only one thing important in life.” Once more, her mother’s eyes gazed at her like those of a hawk about to stoop on its prey. “The only thing that gives one control of life.”

“Yes, Mother.” Zenobia had been told that often enough by both of her parents. The only important thing in life was power, because only that could make you safe. As she dipped the ladle toward her mother’s eager tongue, a sigh crossed her mind, but not her lips.

*               *               *

The early morning air was crisp, invigorating. The sky was cloudless, and not even the cry of a desert hawk broke the stillness. The morning was glorious, with shades of crimson complementing the yellows and browns.

Zenobia sat calmly on her horse, a bow in her left hand and the reins held loose in her right. A Roman gladius hung from a sheath at her side. She stared down a slight rise at the Tanukh camp. If she joined in the conflict, she would guide her swift Arabian with her knees to leave both hands free to use her weapons. The other young nobles, poised atop their mounts on either side of her, wore heavier armor, and each carried a spear and the longer Assyrian sword. To their left sat Emperor Valerian surrounded by his turma, a detached cavalry unit of thirty men from his Praetorian Guard.

Below, a few horses nickered and a handful of camels chewed their cuds. Some of the Tanukh stirred. Otherwise, the camp was quiet.

The bandits had found a large oasis only a few leagues from the village they had raided the day before. They slept on the ground with their horses tethered beside them. The camels, still weighted down with the booty from the Assyrian nomad camps they had attacked, stood at the center of the circle of Tanukh warriors. The guards posted along the rise and on the far side of the camp had been dispatched by stealthy Beduin, who had slithered across the sand under the cover of darkness, their long knives clenched in their teeth. When the first light of the sun broke the horizon, they had pounced as one to slit the throats of their assigned sentry.

A sudden war cry pierced the silence, and the main Palmyrene cavalry flew over the ridge toward the invaders. Odaenathus led the charge, the point of his sword circling above his head. The air suddenly roiled with the thunder of horses, the battle cries of men, and the dust that rose like steam in a cauldron.

With amazing speed, the Tanukh sprang from their bedrolls and grabbed their weapons. Some loosed arrows, while others leaped on the backs of their horses before the first wave of Palmyrenes swept into their ranks. Throwing their spears or shooting arrows, the Beduin horsemen wreaked carnage among their startled foe. Just as the Tanukh organized some resistance, a smaller band of cavalry swept from their rear, completing the trap.

From her vantage point, it looked to Zenobia that the battle would be over before she and her companions could enter the fray. Her brows furrowed and the corner of her mouth twisted, yet a sigh of relief fought to escape her lungs. Her mount pranced at the violent noise and motion of men in conflict, but she steadied him with a firm hand. At that moment something caught her eye: a group of Tanukh must have recognized Odaenathus as the opposition’s leader and determined to exact some measure of revenge. Forming into a tight mounted group, they charged the spot where the prince was already occupied by two of the bandits, his back to the half dozen warriors bearing down on him. Without thought, Zenobia kicked her horse into motion and raced toward the same spot.

At a full gallop, she managed to get off one arrow before she entered the melee. She felt a strange thrill to see the man fall, although there was no time to evaluate her feelings. As the distance closed rapidly, she drew her short sword and shouted a warning to the prince, who had killed one of his foes but remained oblivious to the greater danger.

Startled by her shout, the prince glanced up. In the time it took him to see both Zenobia and the enemy bearing down on him, the man below him gave a fierce grin and stabbed upward. His blow caught Odaenathus’ horse squarely in the chest. With a scream, the horse reared violently, throwing his rider to the ground, the sword embedded in its muscular torso.

As though the flow of time had stilled to a mere trickle, Zenobia saw the attacker on the ground draw his long knife. At the same time, the rider now leading the pack raised his sword to cleave the prince with a mighty blow. Her warrior instinct still ruled her, an unconscious reaction to the unfolding scene. She pulled hard on the reins with her free hand, guiding her horse to a point in front of Odaenathus, who was just rising to his feet, one hand automatically reaching for the sword that lay on the ground beside him. The stench of blood, leather and sweat filled Zenobia’s nostrils.

Just as the bandit began his downward stroke, Zenobia’s horse rammed his mount from the side. Both animals went flying from the violent contact; the other rider slammed headfirst into the ground. The man’s horse came down squarely on the assailant on the ground, crushing him beneath its weight. Zenobia had already launched herself into a dive, breaking her fall with both hands and rolling with the impact. Her shoulder smashed down even so, and the breath whooshed from her body. She just had a moment to see the other horses veer from the carnage in front of them before she tumbled over once more, slamming her heels hard into the yielding sand.

Dazed, Zenobia lay flat on her back for several seconds, amazed the sand had softened her fall enough so that she was not seriously hurt. Struggling to sit up, she saw Odaenathus already standing, swinging his sword ferociously at the riders who had regained control of their mounts to renew the attack.

But it was too late for them: more than a dozen Palmyrene cavalry had closed in, frantic to defend their prince. Within seconds, the Tanukh warriors were all dead or dying, while Odaenathus remained standing. He stared down at Zenobia with wide eyes, panting heavily.

Zenobia drew in great gulps of air, and suddenly realized that both of her arms trembled violently. Her heart beat as though to burst its way through the light armor she wore. Her head and shoulder throbbed, yet strangely she thought only of the concern and wonder that lay deep in the dark, soft eyes of Odaenathus.

Then the prince bent down and took her hand. Gently, he pulled her to her feet to stand beside him. His voice was deep, but flowed like a refreshing desert stream.

“Thank you … my lady.”

Zenobia giddily had but one thought: her mother’s command had been realized. The prince of Palmyra had definitely noticed her.

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