Chapter One: Making Up
It was the third day after her second whipping. Xena was lying flat on her stomach, silently berating herself for having so easily given in to Gabrielle's request. She had promised to stay in bed for at least four days after her punishment, and by now she was cursing herself of being unable to resist the pleading eyes of the blonde.
The objective part of her mind, however, told her that all in all it had been a good decision. A moon ago, when she first submitted to the Goddess' whip, she had had to acknowledge, at least to herself, that the strokes had been harder to take than ever before. This time, it had been even worse; every stroke felt like fire and lightning hitting her back. Every stroke felt like it would need suturing, and some of them really did. For the fraction of a heartbeat she even had begun to doubt the wisdom of her decision to offer herself up to Amazon justice.
More than a season ago, when she left her palace in Corinth to personally look into the rumours about an Amazon uprising at the north-eastern border, she just had had in mind a peaceful trip with her lover, some quality time away from the every-day demands of ruling Greece and Rome, with as small a compliment of guards as she could get away with. Her frontier fort really had been destroyed, but not by Amazons.
Nearing the Amazon border, she found them at the brink of a battle with soldiers wearing her colours, and she instinctively had stepped in to keep those men from breaking the almost five summers old peace treaty she had with Amazons and Centaurs. Gabrielle, her fair haired, kind hearted lover, had been gravely injured -- along with all of her surviving guards. She had offered herself up as a prisoner to ensure that all of them would be taken care of. While tending to the injured and caring for Gabrielle whose right leg had been almost shattered, all the feelings of a past long put aside had come back to her.
She remembered the time spend with the Northern Amazons and how she had repaid their kindness. She remembered the seasons she had lived in an Amazon village while still a child. Looking down at the peaceful face of her sleeping lover she once again felt that she wasn't worthy of the younger woman's love but she desperately wanted to be.
So, Xena the Conqueror stepped down from her throne and declared that she wanted to stand trial for her crimes against the Amazon nation, only then realising that she probably would have to pay with her life. To her utter surprise she wasn't condemned for murder but only for sacrilegious behaviour; and next moon, she had to be whipped a third and last time to scale the balances of justice with the Amazons who now no longer called her the Conqueror but a friend, and even a sister.
More than two candlemarks ago, the younger woman had left to get some more of the repugnantly smelling poultice the Amazon healer insisted on putting on her back. She couldn't blame her companion for taking her time coming back, she knew as a rule she wasn't easy to live with when injured but now, with the Goddess Artemis having granted her plea, it was even worse. Lying there with nothing to do but to think was slowly driving her stir crazy, and she was hard pressed to keep the anger and irritation she was feeling from showing in her voice. She was healing agonisingly slow, and that alone made her cranky and hard to keep from being bored.
More than a moon ago, Gabrielle had been livid when she found out what her stubborn lover had done -- begging the Goddess to take away her supernatural healing abilities in her eyes was not only stupid, it also bordered on suicidal.
When the Amazon jury came up with their decision, the sentence for sacrilegious behaviour, they had taken this special ability well in account. But with the execution already set in motion the sentence could not be changed. Gabrielle was exaggerating, the whipping didn't endanger her life but as it was it would leave a whole set of new scars on her back -- and in a twisted way she would be as proud of them as she was of the scars left by the gauntlet. Her blonde lover hadn't been the only one angry with her.
Queen Melosa had given her a lecture that Amazon justice was nothing to play with and that no culprit had the right to make it neither better nor worse for herself by asking someone, be it God or human, for help. Anara also lectured her -- on the dangers the repeated whipping could present to the muscles in her back and the fact that the blatant disrespect for her own health and well-being was setting a bad example for the other equally stubborn Amazons.
Only Eponin and Theano showed some kind of support. Eponin told her that she didn't like her decision but that a warrior had to follow her instincts and her heart regardless of the consequences. Theano was the only one to really understand her need to atone for the crimes she had on her conscience and the deaths she had caused over the years. She understood her motives and her reasoning but not her methods. The older Amazon just knew her too well.
These thoughts automatically brought back the reason Xena had to tell them about her deal with Artemis in the first place -- without the incident with the barn, she was convinced, she would well have been able to cover it up.
After the first whipping and her somewhat surprising proposition to Gabrielle slightly over a moon ago, Eponin and Theano laid her down on her bed and Anara began to clean the lash marks. Part of her verdict stated that no painkillers could be administrated but the healer still applied a soothing balm to her torn flesh and insisted that she took at least a minimum amount of sleeping herbs. She wouldn't have given in if not for the stern look of the Queen and the hurtful expression of Gabrielle's eyes.
In the afternoon of the second day, Xena was still half asleep, she heard the distinct whiny of her horse. At first she thought it was part of a dream but then she was convinced that Argo was afraid of something. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the sound. There was no doubt, Argo was in danger. The tall woman hoisted herself out of bed, put on one of her sleep shirts, jumped out of the window, and ran to the barn. She could smell the fire half across the compound and accelerated her steps. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see others also hurrying towards the barn and stables.
When she threw the double door open the smoke already was thick enough to cause her eyes to water. She stifled a cough and entered. The horses were in a frenzy, she couldn't get near enough to let them loose. Argo alone stayed relatively calm when she heard the voice of her mistress. The next horse she was able to approach was Eponin's black stallion. With the two of them gone she managed to near the others from the front, and as soon as they knew they were free most of them bolted away. It was an arduous process and took her longer than anticipated. The smoke was burning in her lungs when she reached the far corner of the barn.
The last two horses didn't move an inch, two mares, much smaller than most of the other horses. They belonged to the delegation of the mountain tribe, the first one was black with white spots, the second one white with black spots. They didn't react at all to her, they just stood still, seemingly petrified. Only when she put two burlap sacks over their eyes was she able to lead them out of the smoke infested barn.
Xena knew the fire was on the upper level where the bigger part of the hay supply was stored in bales. She let go of the two small horses. The Amazons meanwhile had organised a chain to douse the flames leaking out of the roof and she turned around to make sure that there was no living thing left in the barn. She knew it wasn't the safest or most sensible thing to do but she somehow felt that it was important.
The tall woman once again closed her burning eyes and concentrated on the sounds surrounding her. One by one she shut them out, the Amazons shouting orders, the horses running wild through the central square, the crackling of the flames, and the angry hissing when water hit them -- so far, so good, but there was more. It was a sound like the subdued wailing of a small child too feeble from hunger to really cry. The sound definitively came from the barn. Xena took some steps inside, the smoke making it impossible by now to see anything and concentrated once more.
Under a blanket in the corner where Argo had been stabled she found a small bundle of fur. She couldn't see what it really was but she cradled it in her arms and turned to get out. Xena almost had reached the doors when a ceiling beam came down in front of her. She hopped back to avoid the flames, stumbled over a pitchfork and crashed backwards in the central stone column that guaranteed the stability of the barn. Instinctively she took a deep breath and almost lost her cargo from coughing.
The burning beam was blocking the entrance, there was no way around it, and she knew she was running out of time. She had to get out, immediately. So, she gathered all of her energy to push back the pain that was radiating from her back through the rest of her body, went as far back as possible, took aim and somersaulted over the flames. She made a few stumbling steps forward, still almost completely blinded by the smoke.
Xena more sensed than heard the front part of the barn collapse, instinctively regaining her balance she propelled herself in two flying flips to better get out of the way. The Amazonian bucket chain froze for a second and then frantically continued to douse the flames in order to keep the barn from totally burning down and also keep the other buildings in the vicinity from catching any sparks.
The furball in Xena's arms began to squirm and to sneeze at the same time, and it was only then that she took a closer look at her charge. Her eyes still rimmed with burning tears she at first took him for a dog but the pointed ears and rather narrow and long muzzle identified him as a mountain lynx puppy, not older than two or two and a half moons. She carefully knelt down and put him on the ground but he didn't run away. When Gabrielle and Anara found them only a few candledrops later they were still staring at each other.
They slowly brought her back to her hut, with the puppy only inches from her heels. They showed her what was left of her sleeping shirt after they had to cut it from her body to tend to her back. The back part was literally soaked with blood, most of the whip marks obviously having broken open when she collided with the central column. The following conversation was nothing she was too fond to remember, well most of it. Gabrielle was nearly out of her mind with worry and Anara was clearly puzzled.
"I don't get it. This isn't healing as it should, not at all." The Amazon healer was mumbling to herself. "The lash marks should have scabbed by now but there's not a trace of it. I don't understand it. This back looks as if the wounds just recently have stopped bleeding but that's impossible. I know you crashed into this damned column but still, there shouldn't be this much damage. It's against everything I know about your healing abilities."
Xena knew that Anara didn't expect a reply but she also was sure that at least some of the wounds would need stitches. The older woman had to know the truth to treat her back accordingly. Not only healing would take longer now, her sensibility to pain was also considerably heightened. This much she knew since the first stroke had hit her back the day before, and in a strange way she had welcomed the pain. But it also made it more difficult to cut her mind from her body's reactions, to keep a distance from her injuries.
When she had finished her 'confession' Anara was speechless and Gabrielle now was not only worried but also very angry. At the time the blonde still depended on the wheelchair to move around due to her shattered leg, and Xena was certain that if she had been more mobile the younger woman wouldn't have stopped by pounding only the armrests but also stamped her feet. As it was she began to shout at her lover and soon had herself worked up in a full fledged temper tantrum. The tall woman couldn't help but find her adorable in her wrath.
While Gabrielle was still venting her anger something happened that guaranteed that this afternoon always would count among Xena's more pleasant memories. She knew the puppy had entered the hut with them but she soon had all but forgotten about him. In the midst of Gabrielle's outburst she heard a faint growling. She turned her eyes from the younger woman's face to her feet, and there he was.
His tail was pointing straight to the sky and he did his best to appear taller than he was. He was growling at Gabrielle, his upper lips drawn back and his pointed teeth gleaming in the daylight. Anara and Xena started laughing at the same time. The young woman stopped her tirade and the puppy turned to Xena and wagged his tail, obviously proud of having silenced the other one.
Xena told him that he was a good boy but that Gabrielle was a friend and that she had every right to be angry with her, and that it now was his job to protect her as well. He looked at her as if understanding every word but the pattern repeated itself with everyone from the Queen and Eponin to Theano and Ephiny. Xena first had to approve of them before he tolerated them around her.
The tall warrior knew that as soon as he was big enough to survive on his own she had to bring him back to where he belonged, back to the mountains. She didn't have a clue how he came to take refuge in the barn but after only a few days she knew that she would miss him a lot. That's why she didn't want to name him while Gabrielle and the girls soon began to throw name suggestions in her face whenever she talked to them. More than once she tried to get them to see reason but the lynx puppy quickly was becoming the darling of the village. Even Queen Melosa and the rather stoic weapons' master couldn't help being enchanted by his antics; and though some of the elders were loudly complaining about wild beasts running rampant through the village square and scaring the live stock out of a year of growth they also weren't totally immune to his charm.
Having to spend the day after the fire in bed, Xena nonetheless was able to give the Queen and her carpenters some pointers about the rebuilding of the barn. Officially she was a slave carrying out the Queen's orders, in reality she soon was supervising the whole operation. She even enlisted the help of her brother who still was staying with the rest of her soldiers waiting for a message telling him about their mother.
The barn would become bigger and more solid. The central column would be supplemented by four more of the same built. Beside the two ladders inside of the barn an external staircase would lead to the upper level. The opening for the hay bales in the back would be enlarged and there also would be a second one at the front side of the building. Two metal beams embedded in the ceiling would make handling the heavy bales easier and more comfortable. All in all, the barn would become a much bigger reproduction of the one standing next to Amphipolis' inn.
Xena took advantage of her new assignment to get out of bed and to the building site. Despite her best intentions she soon involved herself, and not only theoretically, in the rebuilding process. She was carrying beams and helping to erect the outer poles though her rational mind knew that this wasn't one of the smarter decision of her life.
At the moment, she easily was able to ignore the pain her back still gave her. What was lost to her was her innate sense of how well her back was healing. A very new and unsettling feeling. She knew that this was one of the reasons why she tended to overdo it.
On the fourth day she was about to take a step up a ladder when something connected with her other foot and sent her to the ground. Moments later the steps of the ladder burst under the weight of one of the newly cut roof beams. When Xena shook herself back to reality the first thing she saw, apart from Gabrielle's rapidly approaching wheelchair was the young lynx growling at the beam. She slowly eased herself in a sitting position but wasn't able to suppress a groan of pain. The puppy turned around and found her eyes.
"You know, buddy, you just saved my live. We're even now."
He looked at her for a long moment, and then jumped aiming right for her chest and began to lick her face furiously thus effectively ruining her tough warrior image. The Queen took a look at the blood stains on her shirt and sent her to the healer's hut. The next two and a half days she had to spend flat on her tummy and also had to suffer through another set of lectures from Queen Melosa, Anara, Toris and Gabrielle.
During daylight she did what she was ordered to do: nothing. The nights, however, found her sneaking out of the infirmary to her own hut. She didn't dare to lie down but she knew that Gabrielle needed her next to her in order to sleep undisturbed without the help of herbs. She told the puppy to take care of Thania and the other Amazon warriors still in the healer's hut and he reluctantly stayed behind. When she returned long before dawn she always found him curled into a ball sleeping next to Thania's cot. Anara wasn't at all happy to have 'a dirty animal' in her hut but whenever she tried to get rid of him he looked at her with his green and yellow speckled brown eyes and she no longer had the heart to send him away.
The day Xena was released from the healer's hut, Thania also was allowed to spend a few candlemarks outside for the first time. The gut wound she had received from the renegade Amazon's arrow while saving Toris' son, Lyceus, now was healing nicely. Anara was convinced the change in scenery would speed up her healing even more. The middle aged Amazon healer especially was concerned with the nightmares disturbing the young girl's sleep, dreams she refused to acknowledge.
Under an old tree next to the training grounds two bedrolls were spread and a lot of fluffy cushions were waiting for her. Eponin gently sat her down on the furs and told her to pay attention to the staff class so she wouldn't fall behind her age mates too much. But there were a lot of other things going on that were more fun to observe.
Having spent the whole morning checking on the barn's progress and smoothing the feathers of some of the Amazon craftwomen who didn't take well having to listen to a man in her absence, Xena now was teaching archery. Though there were no absolute beginners in her class their arrows more often than not missed the targets. The puppy one moment was quietly sitting at her feet and the next raced to retrieve the misguided arrow and proudly brought it back to her.
He was at her side when she helped Gabrielle to take the first tentative steps with the help of crutches. He also stayed next to her when a late afternoon sparring session with some members of the Royal Guard began. Xena barely avoided being knicked at her right arm while trying not to stumble over the puppy who obviously believed that he was taking part in some sort of exciting game.
She was annoyed at her obvious lack of coordination due to the fact that she hadn't been able to do her usual drills during the last moon and a half. She only now was getting back to her routine and wasn't at all pleased with her performance.
The dark haired woman ordered the excited puppy to go and stay with Thania and Gabrielle but to no avail, he didn't budge an inch. Then the Amazon girl shouted as loud as she could. "Shadow, come here," and the small lynx followed her command immediately.
When evening came and it was time for Thania to return to her cot in the infirmary Shadow longingly looked from Xena to the young Amazon to Xena 'til the tall warrior took him in her arms, whispered in his ear and returned him to the ground. He had to hurry to catch up with Eponin and Thania -- and slipped in the healer's hut just before the door fell shut.
From that day on he all but abandoned Xena and stayed with the girl -- at first to Anara's great annoyance. Then she had to admit that the injured girl's sleep was much more peaceful with Shadow at her side. She even was healing faster. So, after only three quarters of a moon of recovery Thania was allowed to move to her room in the Queen's hut.
"You were as morose as Amazons on a rainy summer when I left. What happened that you are smiling now, Xe?"
"Do you know that you're the only one that can get this near to me without me knowing you're there before you even enter the hut?"
"So you keep telling me but your mind obviously was miles away. It's time for your salve. I know you don't like its smell, but it works and Anara is very proud of it."
"I do appreciate her ingenuity. The poultice does speed up the healing but it doesn't numb the pain. It's perfect for my needs, and as soon as I'm out of here, we'll work together on improving the smell."
"You didn't answer my question."
"I was thinking about Shadow and the fire in the barn. We still don't know how it happened and it's driving Solari to distraction. It could have been anything, glowing embers flying from one of the fire pits, a piece of metal or glass in the sun. She is sacrificing too much time to this accident."
"Solari feels responsible not only for the security of the Queen but also for the security of the whole village. It's part of her job to worry about these things. She just wants to make sure that it really was nothing but an accident.. She's suspicious of everything and everyone since Najara's treason. -- Still, a burning barn is no reason to smile."
"No, the fire in itself is nothing to smile about but it had some unexpected side effects. Because of Shadow Thania no longer has bad dreams. The barn soon will be bigger than ever, and the village will need the new stalls. It's still too soon to be absolutely sure but considering the trouble we had to recapture some of the horses there probably soon will be a whole group of foals. Argo wasn't the only mare in heat at the time."
"How do you feel about Argo possibly becoming a mother?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I'm not sure that Argo will make a good mother."
"Why not? She's very protective of her mistress, she certainly will also be very protective of a foal or a filly of her own."
"Perhaps you're right, love." All of a sudden Xena's high spirits were gone but before the younger woman could question her about this unexpected mood swing there was a knock at the outer door.
"Come in, Thania. We're in the bedroom."
"Hello Gabrielle, Queen Melosa wants you to come to the council's hut as soon as possible. She also wants you to come, Xena."
"I gather it's official?"
"Yes, I think all the adults will be there."
"Good, Gabrielle could you get the Amazon leathers from the dresser. Please don't look at me as if I've lost my mind. What ever else I may be to the Amazons, officially I'm still a slave -- and now I have to dress the part."
Gabrielle went to the dresser and handed the rather skimpy leather outfit to her lover. "I love the way you look in these, though I'd prefer to keep the sight of this much skin to myself. I just think that it's still too early for you to get up. -- Do you know what this meeting is all about, Thania?"
"No, I only know that one of the carrier pigeons arrived earlier this day."
"Yes, we use them to communicate with some of the more remote Amazon villages and with the Centaurs. -- Xena, the Queen told me to accompany you to the council's hut."
Xena now was dressed but still barefooted. She answered. "I'm at your command, little one."
The girl's smile wasn't completely sincere. "I don't like giving you orders, Xena. That's not the way it should be, and I will be happy when it's finally over at the end of next moon."
"I know you don't like it, Than, but it's part of your duty as the Queen's apprentice. Just try and look at it from another point of view. You're just the messenger giving the Queen's orders to a slave. It's nothing personal."
"I still don't like it, and I will be happy when this damned collar will be gone."
"Me too, Thania," answered Gabrielle. "It's less than a moon 'til then. The time will be up before we even know it."
Gabrielle entered the council's hut and took a seat next to Ephiny. The room was packed with women, some of them came visibly directly from the training grounds and others were still wearing the clothing of their respective crafts. Thania and Xena came in through the back door and knelt next to the Queen on the ground, the tall warrior on her left, the young Amazon on her right.
"Members of the council, Amazon sisters," the Queen spoke, "the time has come for our annual meeting with the Centaurs and their leaders, Tyldus and Kaleipus. The invitation arrived today. I called upon you to let you know whom I've chosen to be with me on the journey. Solari already has decided upon three members of the Royal Guard: Kelara, Silea, and Siana. Akyra and Theano will represent the elders. Last year I took members of the crafts, so this year Solari, Ephiny and Chandala will be there for the warriors. Gabrielle, the bard, will be the ninth member of my party."
"Gabrielle isn't even an Amazon, why take her?" An unidentifiable voice came from near the entrance.
"It never was the habit of Amazon Queens to give any explanations of their decisions, and I certainly won't be the one to start. -- We will leave the village tomorrow at dawn, Eponin will be in charge until I'm back, with Anara as second in command. This meeting is adjourned."
Soon the big room was empty except for the members of the delegation, and Xena. The tall woman had tried to leave with the others but the Queen's hand on her shoulder had stilled her movement. "I should go and prepare your travelling gear, Queen Melosa."
"I'm perfectly capable of packing my things myself, thank you. You're not a servant, Xena, you're one of my warriors and teachers. Besides, you will have enough to do to prepare your own gear and to help Gabrielle. You will go with us, the Centaurs asked for your attendance."
"But that's impossible, my? Queen Melosa. I will not be prosecuted fpr the crimes my men and I committed during the war but the peace treaty clearly states that I'm not allowed to enter Centaur territory, under no circumstances. You must have been mistaken."
"I also was surprised, Xena. You will not be allowed to wear weapons at the village but that's about all. Read for yourself."
Melosa handed her a small piece of parchment with the encrypted message. "It's written in another hand, probably by someone not really comfortable with the code, someone rather young."
"My thoughts. It could be a trap, a way to get you to the village, and to try and kill you. There still are a few among them regretting the treaty and your role in it. It's your decision. I understand if you'd rather avoid going there. You could stay here and we'll send a message if the invitation was genuine."
"There also are others remembering the time I almost annihilated the village and the Centaur nation. Yes, it could be a trap but the things I did during the war are among my debts still unpaid for whatever the treaty says. I'm ready to take the risk. It's possible that Kaleipus and Tyldus don't know about this extended invitation. They won't be happy about it, and the treaty gives them the right to punish my trespassing according to their laws. If they insist, please don't interfere, please."
There was a long moment of silence, finally the Queen, knowing the stubborn streak of the tall warrior, sighed and answered. "I won't promise not to interfere. But I can promise that I won't oppose any of their decisions. However, I will try to influence them. They don't know you. They only know someone who no longer exists. I will try and make them see the real woman behind your warrior's mask."
Xena nodded her consent, she knew this was the best she could hope for from the outwardly stern but deeply caring Queen, and though she also knew better than to think that the old Xena, Xena, the Conqueror, Xena, Destroyer of Nations, was well dead and gone, there was a small part of her that desperately needed the other woman to be right and revelled in Queen Melosa's confidence and friendship.
Gabrielle was excited to get the chance to see a real, living and breathing Centaur but she also was angry with the reaction of her raven haired lover. So when they were back in their hut she loudly burst out.
"You're the most stubborn, pig-headed, single-minded being I ever met. I don't want you to go with us. Tell the Queen that you've changed your mind. You're still dealing with the aftermath of your last guilt trip and now you're rushing headlong into the next. What by Hades is wrong with you? Did Athena hit you in the head as a child instead of giving you brains? Damn it, I won't let you harm yourself further?."
The young woman was so absorbed by her temper tantrum that she didn't see the changes in Xena's face that went from amusement to hurt to anger to coldness. She just stood there and looked at the blonde whose head just barely reached her shoulder level. Gabrielle's outburst continued on and on, invoking every God on Mount Olympus and beyond but the older woman didn't even try to stop her ranting.
When Gabrielle finally finished Xena's eyes were about as warm as chips of ice in the middle of winter, she still didn't react to the other's accusations but every single muscle in her body was tensed and ready to explode in action. Her voice was calm and expressionless.
"I'll check the bedrolls and see that you are provided with a horse of your own. You certainly don't want to ride with someone as stupid and insensible as I am. You better decide upon at least one change of clothes for yourself and pack some bare scrolls and quills. Don't touch what is mine. I'll be back."
Xena turned and even managed to close the door quietly though she rather felt like rattling the whole house to its foundations by slamming it with all her might.
She could feel anger and hurt rising in her heart and felt the temptation to act on these emotions as she had done so many times before. Years ago she would have gone berserk, killing everybody unfortunate enough to get in the proximity of her sword, replacing anger with battlelust, and later on quenching battlelust with sex.
At the palace she would have held a sparring session with the soldiers of the First Order and probably sent a lot of them to the healers, and in the evening she would have returned to her rooms too tired to think or to feel.
A familiar voice snapped her out of her musings. "The Queen wants you to wear your leather dress and armour during our trip -- and now I think you need to burn out some energy. Move it, to the training grounds."
"You know me too well, Theano."
"You're very good at hiding your feelings but you never could fool me. Your eyes always gave you away. Now, move it, little one." Came the gruff response.
When they reached the training grounds Eponin was already facing off against three of the more experienced warriors. "Seems as if I'm not the only one with anger management problems."
"Don't talk, little one, fight."
A seemingly negligent sweep of Theano's staff send the tall woman flying but she didn't land on her back as most others would have. Instead she turned her fall in a rolling motion, flipped and faced her opponent. It was midday and the banging of the staves and clanging of the swords at this rather unusual hour soon brought them an audience. The Queen and Gabrielle among them.
The training square was a blur of motion but while Eponin's sparring partners soon were weaponless and with some minor scratches from the tip of her blade, the staff fighters didn't show any signs of stopping or slowing down. They obviously were equally matched, well versed with the other's moves, and they were moving so fast that for the first two candlemarks it was difficult to tell whom was attacking whom or even where one began and the other ended.
The audience slowly began to thin out, after all most of them had their chores to tend to. Gabrielle, Eponin, Solari, Ephiny, Melosa, and a few of the warriors stayed. When their movements began to get slower, the intensity of the strokes increased, considerably. Theano's weapon connected with the hollow of Xena's knees and she went down on her knees but didn't break her own striking rhythm. She effectively used the suddenly changed angle of attack to her advantage, the older woman went down, Xena jumped to her feet and Theano was pinned to the ground, the end of a staff at her throat.
Theano took the taller woman's hand and got to her feet. The Amazon lawyer could tell that she still was angry. "You've greatly improved since our last sparring session. Congratulations. I think we both have earned a long, relaxing bath. Come with me, my second daughter."
"I'm honoured, me second mother. It has been too long." Xena answered and followed her to the bathing area. The others cast questioning glances at each other until Eponin broke the silence.
"It didn't work, she still is angry. -- Oh, please, Gabrielle, don't look at me with these big innocent eyes. You know what I'm talking about. She was intrigued and slightly worried about the Centaurs' message, nothing more. During the fight with Theano, anger was literally dripping from her like sweat. She's calmer now but there still are storm clouds in her eyes. You must have said or done something to push her this close to the edge."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Eponin, and how can you even have the slightest idea of what Xena was thinking?"
"That's easy to tell. It was in her eyes, a single unguarded moment, not longer then a fraction of a heartbeat. There's more to her and the Centaurs than she is ready to admit. And you know damn well what I'm talking about. Theano and her, that fi?, it was the same kind of fight Xena and I had the day we found out about the girls, about Najara and the others abusing them. We both were trying to get a better grip on our emotions but it seems that this time all the good it did to her was physical exhaustion."
Gabrielle suddenly found something very interesting to observe at the ground, and to cover her up Ephiny asked. "Queen Melosa, do you know more about Xena's history with the Centaurs? I remember that at the time of the treaty negotiations she stayed outside of Amazon as well as Centaur territory, except for the signing of the treaty. It struck me as rather strange that she insisted on coming to terms with the first draft of the treaty by way of emissaries."
"It was and still is a really unique situation, Ephiny. She stopped a war both our nations had been involved in for more generations than anyone cares to remember. But you're right, it was rather strange that she used different messengers for either party instead of trusting only one. -- During our first visit I asked Tyldus but he was rather evasive in his answers and unwilling to tell my about Xena. However, I found out that about two or three seasons after the deaths of the Northern Amazons Xena launched an all out war against the whole Centaur nation. She had them all but defeated when she suddenly stopped and turned her army around to conquer Corinth. She just stopped and didn't look back. We can ask her what this was all about but I doubt that she will be very forthcoming with her answers."
There was a long moment of awkward silence, then Gabrielle found Ephiny's eyes. "Would you help me to get some items from the storage hut, Eph? I think there is something I can do to improve Xena's mood."
Moments later the weapons' master and the Queen were alone. "Are you still angry with me, Ep?"
"No, my love, please forgive me. I hadn't the right to react as I did. I didn't want to let you go without my protection though I know that you're very capable of protecting yourself and that Solari and the guards will see to it that you're safe -- but still. While I was looking at Xena and her second mother, I understood that you want to give me the opportunity to spend some time with Thania, and now I appreciate the effort, my love. I'm still not sure that I'm mother material but she has the right to know me better."
"Sometimes you can be as stubborn as a mule, as stubborn and single-minded as Xena even but I love you, Ep. Perhaps after I've packed my stuff I can find a way to assure you of my forgiveness." The Queen answered with a smile.
"Your orders are my deepest desires, my Queen."
Xena and Theano were soaking in the big bathing tub. They were alone, so the only movements in the hut were the steam clouds rising from the water. "It didn't work this time. Tell me why?"
Xena tried to avoid the eyes of the older woman, without success. She took a deep breath and answered. "It worked, Theano, but not the way you expected it to. Years ago you taught me to transform emotions, negative emotions into action, into energy, and spending this energy cleaned my soul from the emotions. But it doesn't work this way any longer, it hasn't for a long time." The younger woman fell silent but Theano let her take her time. "It doesn't work when I'm really angry or hurt or both.
"I simply spent too many years letting anger and hatred rule every aspect of my life. They still tend to take control if I don't reign them in. The old techniques now only would lead me to kill my opponents, no matter if its for real or sparring, no matter if there is only one or many, no matter if I'm injured or not. It's what I do while on a battlefield.
"Still, spending excess energy helps to put some distance between me and these emotions; it helps me to clear my head, at least enough to control them by meditation. This way they don't get the chance to overwhelm my rational mind."
Xena took another deep breath and lowered her eyes to the steaming water. "There's a lot of darkness in my soul, there always will be. I've learned the hard way that negative emotions trigger this darkness -- and since I have someone to love in my life I can no longer afford to give free reign to the darkness, not even for a moment."
"Even when these feelings appear because of this loved one?" The older woman speculated.
"Especially then, my second mother. My head knows that she only said these things because she is afraid for me and because she doesn't want to see me hurt or in pain.
"I told her a lot about the years after I took Corinth and the time I united Greece, and even the campaigns against Persia and Rome. But I only let her know bits and pieces about the time before. She knows about Caesar but I didn't mention M'ila. She knows about the crucifixion but not what it really did to my soul. I told her about Borias but not why he died. She doesn't know why I fought the Centaurs or why I stopped. She doesn't know the extend of my crimes, and there's a part of me that is afraid to let her know, a part that's afraid to loose her love."
"Since the trial Gabrielle knows that there are a lot of things too hurtful to you to talk about. She also knows that the burden of guilt you carry is much heavier than any of us knows or ever will know, little one. Your anger and hurt comes from another source, they didn't call to your dark side, they were dark in themselves."
"You're right, my pride was hurt. She told me that I was stupid, and that what I'm doing now isn't real but only a guilt trip."
"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, I know that I can't right all my wrongs by letting the people I've hurt punish or kill me. Revenge won't give back what they lost because of me but the Amazons and the Centaurs are special. I owe them, more than most of them ever will know. Before the trial started I tried to explain it to her but she couldn't understand, and today, she didn't even ask why I want to go there. She didn't ask, and there's a part of me that really longs to let her know -- despite my fears."
"It's hard to live with a secret like this, little one. But there's more to it. It wasn't just your pride, your anger was born out of fear."
While the wads of steam around them began to thin out, the silence became almost oppressive. "Talk to me, Xena."
The younger woman's answer barely was audible. "She said, that she was sorry that I rescued her from slavery and saved her life, only to have her see me suffer and die. -- I love her so much, and her life out-weights mine more than a hundred times. I can't stand the thought to lose her, but one day soon I will 'cause I keep hurting her."
The dejected undertone in the younger woman's voice and her obvious self-loathing made the Amazon lawyer's heart ache, but she also knew that only the blonde haired bard had a chance to re-adjust the tall warrior's perspective. She had to get them back together in a room, with no distractions for at least a couple of candlemarks. Then they would be able to work it out.
"You know she only said this because she's worried, because she's afraid for you, don't you?" The dark head nodded tentatively. "Then, let's get back to the problem at hand. I suppose you still love her more than your life." Xena nodded vigorously. "You want her to ride behind you during our journey and to close her arms around your waist?"
"Yes, but how do you know?!"
"I had a whole moon to get to know her. I listened to her stories, one of her favourites is you rescuing a whole bunch of slaves and saving her life. She also told me how she fell in love with you and how you made the pain and fear go away, and she told me about a romantic trip to a certain Amazon village, about long candlemarks of riding, cuddled against your back and hearing your strong heartbeat. She told me about nights spent next to you at a secluded camp fire, away from the protective eyes of your soldiers, sharing a bedroll and searching patterns in the night sky
"This young woman is madly in love with you, little one. -- Help me out of this tub before I turn into a dried grape, and then go and tell her that you're sorry at getting this upset, and that you love her, and why you were hurt. And then?."
"Please don't, Theano, I know what I have to do to make it up to her."
"Hey, I only wanted to say: prepare for tomorrow!"
They both were laughing when they left the bathing area, and Xena went directly to the dining hut. Talking with the only human being that knew all her secrets and fears got her more relaxed than meditation ever could.
Shortly after, Xena struggld to open the door to her hut while balancing a tray overflowing with food on her upraised right knee. She had raided the kitchen before the dinner crowd came in. With the help of the head cook who had a soft spot for the tall warrior who always managed to get her the fish she wanted, Xena had assembled a lot of Gabrielle's favourites: mulled cider, venison stew, nut-bread, honey cakes, vinegar cornichons and other treats reflecting the younger woman's fancy for sweet-and-sour dishes.
The blond woman had apparently been pacing the central room when Xena put the tray on their table. She looked up and found herself rapidly engulfed in her tall lover's strong arms.
"I'm sorry, I got angry, Gab, I know you're just worried about me." The tall woman was surprised to feel tears trickling down her chest. "Hush!, please don't cry, my love, don't cry. Everything will be all right. I owe the Centaurs as much as I owe the Amazons, perhaps even more. Please believe me, I don't want to go there just to get punished, I don't enjoy hurting but this is a risk I simply have to take. I love you and I plan on being with you for a long time to come. Please, don't worry."
Gabrielle pushed her upper body from Xena's comforting embrace and green eyes found blue ones filled with love and devotion.
"I'm sorry, my warrior. I shouldn't have said what I did. I know you're not stupid and I never will regret the day you walked into my life. You're the most intelligent, most caring woman I ever met and ever will meet. And I know you're very earnest in your need to atone but I can't help worrying. I love you but this whole thing is scaring me half to death and I don't want you to hurt. I hate the feeling that there's nothing I can do to help, and I hate?"
The young woman was silenced by a kiss. It was soothing and gentle at first but gradually grew more passionate when Gabrielle invitingly opened her lips to the other woman's gently probing tongue. They soon were thoroughly exploring the other's mouth only coming up to breathe. Xena took the blonde's chin in her right hand and looked at her as if she were trying to memorise every square inch of her face.
"I love you, Gabrielle. You are my life and my soul. You command my heart and my body."
Now, it was the smaller woman's turn to seek out Xena's mouth but instead of exploring, she posed tiny kisses on her lips and slowly worked her way down to Xena's throat. She had to get to her toes to comfortably reach the taller woman's pulse point and lingered there while her hands gently eased down the straps of Xena's leather top. With one hand the warrior opened the laces holding her bra in the back, and Gabrielle quickly made use of the opportunity and began to worship her lover's breasts. Meanwhile Xena proceeded to loosen the belt around the smaller woman's waist.
"Please don't, Xe, I'll do it this time. Just enjoy the show -- for now. I want to feel you and I want you to feel me. Our stuff is all ready and waiting, we have all night."
"Do you know how much I adore you, my lovely bard? Do you know what a ?" Xena managed to get out between moans of pleasure, "what a simple touch from you can do to me? When I wake up with you in my arms, our legs entangled, your head resting on my shoulder I know that I found something I never had expected to find, something I don't have the right to ex?."
Gabrielle's index finger sealed the tall beauty's lips. "Hush! I don't want to hear what you think you deserve or not. Let me be the judge of that. I plan on exploring every inch of your body. These passed days I so longed to take possession of your skin, your scent, the way you move with me?"
"Gab, you're driving me crazy." Xena's voice was nearing a low angry murmur.
"I do?" The blonde asked teasingly. "So, perhaps, we should eat first? Have to keep my strength up..."
The tall woman now was growling but only in mock frustration. Her sensitive sense of smell told her that her young lover was at least as ready to push their game to a the next level as she was. So, she tried to turn the tables.
"Eat? Food? Yeah, there's something I'd love to feast on, two luscious apples I'd like to get all smooth and hard. I'd like to chew every single pore until they go all mellow on me, and then I'd love to make them stand at attention once again."
Gabrielle visibly gulped but she also wasn't ready to relinquish control yet, so, she answered. "That's a privilege you will yet have to earn, my beloved warrior."
Xena growled like a caged animal but when the blonde once again turned her attention to her breasts, it slowly morphed in a very sensuous moaning that sent shivers down Gabrielle's spine and directly to her own overexcited centre.
Gabrielle's hands wandered down Xena's sides, conspicuously avoiding the tall woman's back, and she began to undo the thin leather straps holding the short skirt in place. It fell to the ground leaving her only in her briefs. With her thumbs the smaller woman was retracing the outlines of the suede leather garment while her mouth continued the assault on Xena's ample chest. She placed quick wet kisses on tender skin, never even coming near the proudly erect nipples.
They somehow managed to negotiate their way from the table to the fireplace and by then there was no fibre of cloth or leather left on Xena's body while Gabrielle apart from the belt still was completely dressed.
Xena's heart was racing, she had a hard time standing still. Part of her was itching to take over, to simply rip away the young blonde's clothes and ravish her but she also knew that soon she would get her chance and deep down she loved relinquishing control to her lover.
Early in their relationship, she had stopped questioning herself about the reasons, the tall independent warrior just knew it to be true. With Gabrielle she felt free, free to let herself revel in her emotions rather than ignoring them, carefree and playful, opened up to new experiences. The burden of her past wasn't half as heavy when she was with the younger woman.
Xena suddenly snapped out of her passionate haze when hands and mouth were abruptly removed from her skin. She opened her eyes and saw Gabrielle standing more than three feet away, hands on her waist. Her facial expression was inscrutable. She didn't say a word, just standing there, staring at her. Xena's heart still was racing and her skin was burning with the need to once again get showered with kisses. Finally she found her voice.
"Let me undress you, my love, please."
"Why should I do this? You weren't even paying attention to what I did to you."
"Oh, sweetheart, you're so wrong," the tall woman whispered. "Your kisses sent me in a world of bliss, you make me feel safe and loved and cherished. Please let us go there together."
For the fraction of a heartbeat a mischievous smile was flickering over Gabrielle's face, and Xena knew without the shadow of a doubt that she just had swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker.
"All right, my sweet warrior, you'll get another chance. Clasp your hands behind your back and kneel in front of me. I want you to watch while I strip for you. Don't move, just watch."
Xena visibly gulped, she knew she was in for a show. As a rule the young woman loathed to make use of her training as a body slave when they were making love, it simply brought back too many dark memories. This day she obviously was willing to make an exception.
The thought alone made Xena's hard nipples ache with readiness and brought her throbbing clit even more to her attention. She sank to her knees, opening them up to let Gabrielle have something to look at herself and entwined her fingers behind her back.
Gabrielle took another step back and began to slowly undo the buttons of her long, oversized shirt. The upper two afforded her audience a view of the silver necklace with the jade pendant Xena had given to her after their first night of making love. It snugly rested just where her breasts were beginning to swell. Her hands were hovering over the third when she hesitated and instead let them lingeringly travel down to the last one. While she continued her torturously slow unbuttoning, her tongue dreamily slid over her lips, her eyes half closed as if she were tasting something extremely delicious. Xena's breath caught for a moment in her throat, her arousal went up another notch and she had a hard time to stay in her assigned position.
While the last button was opened the younger woman began to sway her hips in a very slow, very sensual rhythm. Instead of discarding the garment immediately she turned around, let it slowly slide down her back thus revealing her slightly bronzed skin. But she wasn't naked underneath!
The tall woman couldn't help but moan at the sight of her lover wearing a set of light brown Amazon leathers complimenting the tone of her skin. The skirt was hugging her hips and thus accentuating her lean calves, from the top all she could see was a braided strap but there were no laces to open it up. Gabrielle's hands appeared at the small of her back and found the clasps holding the skirt in place. She tenderly caressed them but it was just a tease. Instead she put her fists on her hips, the sensuous circular motion immediately stopped and she turned around.
"Enjoying the view?" She asked with sparkling eyes.
Xena barely managed to nod; she was way beyond reasoning and no longer able to utter a lone syllable.
"Thought so." There was a predatory smile adorning Gabrielle's face.
She closed the distance between them and soon stood less than a foot from the kneeling woman. Near enough for Xena to smell the scent of the younger woman's arousal mixing with her own. For long heartbeats Xena's face was on a level with the other's centre but she had no appreciation for the intricately woven pattern of the broad girdle adorning the front part of her skirt. Gabrielle bent her knees and soon was whispering in her ear.
"You're the most beautiful woman in the whole village. I love the way your will is commanding the urges of your body. You're doing fine. You're so amazing."
No one ever had talked to her like this, they would have paid with their lives for even trying, with Gabrielle, however, she simply didn't mind. -- But still, she was surprised to feel something akin to pride at the words of her lover.
The blonde once again stood and gently posed her right foot on Xena's left shoulder, the rim of the sandal almost touching the slave collar. Her eyes were holding Xena's while she bent and untied the leather laces holding her footwear in place. Falling down one of them grazed an erect nipple and the tall woman almost jumped at the sensation, almost.
Gabrielle's feral smile intensified when she discarded the sandal and began to repeat the process with her other foot. The sole resting on Xena's collar bone she once again bent down. Her hands reached for the laces but then her movements stilled. She straightened up, and said.
"You do it! But keep your hands where they are."
The raven haired beauty struggled once again with the desire to take control. It would have been easy to overpower the younger woman, to let lose of her raging need. The years she'd spend as a warlord and leader no one dared to refuse anything to nearly took over - however, in her heart she knew that this display above all was a sign of Gabrielle's trust and also of her slow healing. The damage done to the blonde's soul in the years of slavery was bit by bit losing its hold on her. She tentatively began to act on her dreams and desires, and Xena knew that this day was an integral part of it.
So, she smiled, bent her head and bit down on one of the laces. She tucked and the knot easily opened. She stopped in mid-motion when her eyes followed Gabrielle's thigh under the skirt. She saw the almost glistening wetness of the other's arousal -- not on her panties but on the blond curls of her nether region. Xena's stomach did a flip, her heart missed a beat and she involuntarily began to shiver in anticipation.
The sandal was shook from Gabrielle's foot but the taller woman's eyes remained fixed on the skirt and its now hidden treasure she craved. The young bard was mesmerised by her lover's reaction but before she gave in to her own desires there was one more thing she longed to do.
She asked. "Xena, what do you want me to do now?" Knowing for certain that the tall woman wouldn't be able to speak, and she was right.
Xena's mouth opened but she wasn't able to form even a single coherent sentence. Instead she quickly leaned forward and tucked on the leather skirt with her white teeth.
Gabrielle smiled. "Good answer, my beloved. Now, I want you to spread your legs a little wider, as wide as you can. -- Yeah, that's good. -- Now, your upper body needs to go backwards, as far and as low as you can. Use your hands and arms to steady yourself. And now, look at me."
The kneeling woman somehow managed to lower herself on her elbows. The position by no means could be called comfortable but she didn't care. She had to strain her neck to once again establish eye contact with her lover but the vision she was presented with was well worth the effort.
Gabrielle was gyrating her hips, slowly accelerating the speed of her movements. Her hands were waving an intricate pattern in front of her, suddenly she turned and bent forward, giving Xena an uninhibited view of her bottom cheeks lurking from underneath the skirt. When she raised herself and turned once more the leather top was gone. Taut nipples were looking down at Xena, and she spent some candledrops playing with them and making Xena groan with frustration.
The younger woman knelt down, her voice was heavy and deep with arousal. "Close your eyes and enjoy, my warrior."
Xena gladly complied and almost cried out when her clit immediately was sucked on. She had been more than ready but the aggressiveness Gabrielle showed was unexpected. She gave herself over to the experience and the intense emotions when a small hand found its way to her right breast and began to circle the nipple area. She soon was completely lost.
The way her body was stretched out made it almost impossible to move her hips. She could hear Gabrielle lapping up her juices and the sound alone brought her nearer to the edge. Xena tried to hold out as long as she could but when she felt the flat of a tongue rubbing over her clit and then quickly dipping into her centre she cried out Gabrielle's name in ecstasy.
The blonde didn't stop. When Xena began to relax from the first wave of orgasm two fingers were thrust into her centre, teeth grazed her clit and her left nipple was rolled between thumb and forefinger. Her inner walls clenched around the blissful intruders and another cry was wrenched from her throat. But her lover was insatiable, she helped her to unfold and stretch her legs. The blonde lowered herself on the longer body, pushing up the skirt to let pubic bone rest on pubic bone. She used her arms to keep some leverage and went for the proudly protruding breasts with her lips and teeth.
Xena was lost in a haze of desire and longing, satisfaction and newly building need, fulfilment and sensual overload. A mouth harshly bit down, she felt the additional wetness from her lover's release and Xena's arms gave way landing her flat on her still slightly hurting back. She instinctively grabbed for her smaller partner and pulled her up in her embrace. Her chin resting on Gabrielle's head she murmured. "Love you, Gab," and promptly fell asleep. The other woman smiled and followed her in sleep.
Xena opened her eyes to a sound halfway between rumbling and growling. She was laying on her back, vaguely aware of the silly smile adorning her face, with Gabrielle tucked securely in her arms, still wearing the skirt. Her partner obviously was hungry, so she carefully unwound herself from her human blanket, and went to the table.
The sun was just about to go down, so she had been sleeping for a couple of candlemarks. She picked up the tray with their food and also retrieved Gabrielle's belt. She built a backrest of cushions and pillows near the fireplace after putting the tray on a low table nearby. Having built a small fire to heat up the stew and the cider she turned her attention to her lover. Gabrielle still was sleeping soundly. She unclasped the skirt and used the belt to bind the young woman's hands in front of her. Then suddenly changed her mind and discarded the belt. She took her in her arms and made herself comfortable, the blonde's back now resting against her chest.
Xena began to place gentle kisses on the other's shoulder and neck. Finally she breathed in her right ear while her hands were keeping Gabrielle's crossed wrists immobilised. The smaller woman's eyes flew open and she immediately began to strain against her lover's grip.
"It's all right, my love, it's just me. You're save. Just me holding you. I want to feed you now." The blonde instantly grew calmer. "I will do nothing you're not comfortable with, sweetie."
"I trust you, Xe. You hold my heart prisoner, you may as well hold my hands."
This brought a dazzling smile to the tall woman's face. She shifted slightly from behind her beautiful lover and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.
"Do you smell the stew? It soon will be ready for you. But to keep your strength up, there's some nut-bread waiting. You won't need your hands, I will feed you, bit by bit and morsel by morsel."
When Gabrielle took the first slice of nut-bread out of her fingers, the younger woman's tongue lingered on her fingertips, and Xena was acutely aware of her once again strongly building arousal. She took in the scent of her lover's hair mingling with the warming venison stew. She let go of Gabrielle's hands to get the steaming bowl, and her former captive used the opportunity to let her fingers wander, retracing the strong muscles sculpting the tall warriors thighs, then turning sideways journeying up to her hips, lingering at her waist and somehow finding her way to already erect breasts and hard nipples.
Xena couldn't suppress the long, growling moan these attentions elicited but she also didn't care. She took a piece of venison between her teeth and offered it to the blonde. They shared the meat and a kiss at the same time, their tongues still playing long after the morsel had been swallowed. The warrior put the stew back to the fireplace, and began a thorough sensual exploration of her lover's mouth and eyes and throat and chest and ?.
It took them a long time to finish eating their food, and when they finally migrated to the bedroom the games were only just beginning.
Xena left the hut about one candlemark before dawn after having checked their saddlebags and rearranged some items to make them more balanced and easier for Argo to carry. She brushed the mare down and gave her an apple to munch on.
In the bathing area she ran into Theano and Akyra; and inevitably she took some teasing for the rather vocal signs of passion emanating from their hut almost the whole night through. Her only answer was to give them a smug grin and continue to wash.
A trip to the dining hut provided her with some trail bars, a strange mix of honey, cereals, and fruits she always has been kind of fond of, and another small loaf of nut-bread, her lover's all time favourite. Not to mention a hearty breakfast for her still slumbering partner.
By the time she had put on her leathers and armour Gabrielle opened her eyes. She still was half asleep but her stomach was wide awake. "If you ever go anywhere without me I'll have to send a warning ahead, my bard, to let them know how to properly feed you and the monster living in your stomach."
The blonde launched herself out of bed intend on bringing Xena to the ground but she safely was caught in strong arms. Her naked skin produced goose bumps at the contact with the cold brass breastplate. The raven haired warrior bent down and kissed her passionately, only coming up to breathe.
"What a way to wake up! I'm beginning to think that you're way overdressed, Xe."
"Oh no, I'm not. You on the other hand are underdressed. I wouldn't approve your riding Argo in your birthday suit. Better hurry, Queen Melosa wants to get going shortly after sunrise."
"I'll get you for teasing me like this, for totally neglecting my need, o warrior of mine."
"Yeah, you're right, I'm yours, yours alone, my beloved. Besides, I brought food, there's cereals with milk and honey and sliced pieces of apples, peaches, and oranges, and tea -- waiting only for you."
The younger woman peeked around Xena's shoulder at the table and began to smile broadly. "I think for once you will be forgiven, my warrior."
"Thank you, my princess. I'll go and saddle up Argo and check on the Queen's mount." Xena answered and shock herself free from the hypnotising sea green eyes of her partner.
Half a candlemark later everyone was ready to go when Thania stormed out of the Queen's hut, Shadow hard at her heels. "Xena wait," she shouted, "you have to take him with you. Shadow will protect you like he did at the barn."
Xena jumped down from Argo and knelt in front of the girl thus ensuring that they were eye to eye. "Shadow and I have balanced the scales, Thania. I saved him and he saved me. He made his choice, and moved on to a new companion. Shadow now is your protector and your friend. And he always will be. He will be by your side as long as he lives."
"But I don't want you to go all alone." The girl answered defiantly.
"I'm not alone, little one. I'll be with my friends the whole time, and they all will keep an eye on me and see that I don't get in too much trouble, I'll be back, I promise." To her own utter surprise the tall woman found that she really meant what she said. "But while we are gone you and Shadow will have to take care of Eponin and Anara and you also have to keep an eye on Lyceus. Promise?"
"Lyceus? But he's just a boy!"
"Yes, he's a boy but I also know that he's really, really good at getting into trouble. You saved his life, so you also have to see that he stays safe. You can't risk your effort being in vain, can you? Besides, I know that he's really bored with all the soldiers in the camp."
"I'll do it. You know the other girls say that he's kind of cute -- for a boy, but I think he would rather like to be looked upon as tough and strong."
"You're right, little one, but one doesn't exclude the other. Think about it."
Thania nodded, got a heartfelt hug, and the Queen's party quietly left the village.
Chapter Two: Journeying
After a short visit at the encampment of Xena's soldiers, they were riding the whole morning in comfortable silence due to the fact that Gabrielle almost immediately had fallen asleep on Xena, their long, practically sleepless night taking its toll on the younger woman. The blonde's arms were tightly clamped around Xena's waist and one of the warrior's hand protectively rested on top of them to keep her in place.
"How can she sleep like that? It looks awfully uncomfortable." The Queen asked.
"She learned to sleep whenever and how ever she got the chance but only a few moons ago, when she first learned what it meant to be free, then, your words would have sent her back to reality in the blink of an eye. That she's sleeping like this is a sign of her healing. Her body needed a lot more time to understand that her suffering is in the past than her mind did but finally it's taking roots even there."
"She will have the swirls of your armour imprinted on her cheek when she awakens."
"No, she won't, my Queen, Xena put a folded cloak under her head shortly after she fell asleep, as a pillow." Theano answered with a bright smile. "I always knew that you're a romantic at heart, little one, but you're developing into a real mushball where Gabrielle is concerned."
"You wanna tell me that I'm pussy whipped, old woman?" Xena said with a deep rumbling in her voice.
Theano only laughed and the tall warrior broke in a smile. The threesome fell silent and then the Queen asked. "Why do you call Xena 'little one', Theano? It's a somewhat odd name for someone more than half a head taller."
"Well, she wasn't always this tall." The Amazon lawyer answered with a grin. "Where I come from 'little one' is reserved for second daughters only. Actually I never told you how she came to be my 'little one'."
"I never insisted but I'm still curious. I never heard of an Amazon taking an outsider's child as a second daughter, not during the last two or three generations and even then it was very rare."
"The proceedings were registered in my home village, my Queen." The older woman answered with a hint of defiance in her voice.
"Theano saved my life when I first met her, Queen Melosa." Xena interfered to disperse the growing tension.
"You would have found a way, little one. Even as a child you were rather inventive." The Amazon answered with a smirk.
"Now, you two got me really curious."
"It was in my seventh summer." The raven haired woman answered. "There was a ravine next to Amphipolis. Since I first saw it some two or three summers earlier I wanted to see the other side, I wanted to stand on the other side but my mother and all the others told me that it was too wide to jump and too long to walk around in one day and that there was nothing different or exciting to see. They didn't let me return there on my own but I didn't forget, and I practised jumping, soon I could outdo most of the other children, even the older boys.
"One day during summer festival, I stole away from my mother's inn where the whole village seemed to mill around. I studied the chasm between me and the other side, then I took my chances, ran and jumped. As you can imagine, I missed the edge but nevertheless I was lucky. I landed on a ledge and everything went black. When I came to, my whole body was screaming in pain, something I never had to experience before. At the time it looked like a sheer cliff, impossible to climb. I tried to get on my feet but I couldn't. I tried to use my arms but I wasn't strong enough. I don't know how long I tried. -- I was about to give up when the end of a long rope began to dangle in front of me and a voice told me to stand up and wrap it around my waist."
"At the time I was on my way to another Amazon village in the south," Theano continued with some hesitation, "crossing the ravine would have been fastest but there was no bridge, and I wasn't ready to risk my horse by trying to jump. The ground at the edge just didn't look solid enough. I was getting bored when my mare picked up on a rather unfamiliar sound. Some heartbeats later I heard it also. It was the voice of a child, yelling curses more suited to a tavern brawl than a peaceful country-side."
For a few heartbeats Xena's warrior mask gave way to a dazzling smile, her eyes glinting mischievously.
"When I finally managed to get her to the top she had a dislocated shoulder, bruised ribs and a broken leg. I'm still not sure how she managed to secure the rope and hold on while my horse was pulling her towards the edge." Sensing the tall woman's discomfort, a familiar reaction whenever someone close to her mentioned her extraordinary skills, the Amazon lawyer came back to the subject at hand. "I had to knock her out, not only to stop the constant expletives but also to set her shoulder."
"When I opened my eyes," Xena once again took over the story-telling, "I was looking at the sky, the clouds looked like a rooftop with a smoking chimney. They were slowly moving away from me. It took me some time to discern that it was me that was moving, not the clouds. I tried to sit up but I couldn't. I raised my head and saw the ground also was moving, that's when I became aware of the ropes binding me to the litter. I wanted to fight the ropes but the pain once again flooded my mind and I drifted off to a realm where it couldn't reach me."
"When dusk approached I made camp and tried to put her injured arm until then bound to her litter in a sling. Before I even was able to touch her the other hand was wrapped around my wrist. She didn't have the strength to keep me from doing what I had to do but the instincts were there, even then. I searched her face but her eyes were closed. I tended to her bruises and put her leg in a splint. I once again looked up and was captured by the most intense blue eyes I've ever seen."
After a long moment of silence Xena continued their tale. "It took more than four days to walk around the ravine and return to Amphipolis. I don't know how Theano put up with me. I was a real pain. I was hurting and I didn't want to show it. I also didn't take the painkillers she offered. And I felt sorry for myself for failing in my quest."
"I had more pleasurable journeys, that much is true but behind all her grumbling and ranting there was an intense passion for life I never before saw in someone this young.
"Half a day's ride outside of Amphipolis we were met by a search party. The men obviously never before had seen an Amazon and so were rather suspicious of me. Their leader was a man with more muscles than I've ever seen. He said 'thank you' and wanted to leave me to my own devices. He said something to the effect that this unruly child already had taken enough of my time and that this time she would be severely punished for her antics.
"I still don't know how she did it but before I could think of an answer, she was standing in front of him, with spread feet, totally disregarding her broken leg. Her eyes sparkled with anger and she told him that what she did never would be his business, and that he should go and try and scare someone else. She also told this bulk of a man that I was her friend and that her mother certainly would like to thank me personally for saving her life."
"To make a long story short. Theano and my mother quickly became friends. They have the same twisted sense of humour, and I was fascinated by the stories about Hypolita and Penthesilea and Artemis and Athena she told while my leg was healing. When she left I was determined to become an Amazon myself, one day. -- She came to visit about every other season and each time she taught me more about Amazon history and lore. She gave me my first staff lesson and taught me how to train by myself, how to build up my strength and stamina."
"I know, my Queen, it still doesn't explain why I took her as a second daughter and why her mother didn't oppose it."
"I suppose you fell in love with her mother."
"Good explanation, and one in tune with our traditions but that's not how it happened. Actually I had a hard time convincing Cyrene, Xena's mother, that I didn't want to take her daughter away from her. Cyrene always was a very proud woman, she had three children to raise and ran the local inn all on her own after her husband's disappearance some five years earlier. She didn't have the time to cuddle her children the whole day long and she felt that they missed out on a lot of things because of this. But I'm ahead of my story. It was exactly one year after we first met when I once again returned to Amphi?.
She could feel the eyes of the villagers on her back, following her progress along the main street of Amphipolis towards the inn. Her back was straight and she wore her long dark blonde hair in a loose braid. The Amazon leathers were partly obscured by a light summer cloak. A single tail whip was coiled and rested on its hook at her hip, and her staff was secured to the saddle. She ignored the part curious, part hostile, part anxious looks she got, and was in the process to dismount when she heard the crying and cheering of children. At first she thought that it was just a game but somehow it didn't sound right. She changed direction and her mare brought her to the backside of the barn.
Most of the village's children seemed to be present. The younger ones were standing around a heap of bodies in the middle of the pasture. They were cheering and yelling indiscernibly. When she slid from her horse she saw that Xena and her younger brother were in the centre of the constantly shifting pile of arms and limbs, and that the village's teens obviously were ganging up on them. She let out a shrill whistle and cracked her whip over their heads. But most of them were too high pitched to react. The Amazon began to take them out, one after the other. For the most part it was enough to get a grip and yank them away from the commotion but some of them had to be knocked out.
Xena obviously sensed what was going on and began an attack of her own instead of only trying to keep them at bay. She was breathing hard, her sleeveless shirt was ripped and there was blood trickling down her temple but her eyes were sending lightning bolts towards her opponents. A quiet moan distracted her and a fist got through her defences and impacted with her stomach. She doubled over, avoided another blow by going with her body's momentum and a knife aimed for her chest sliced through her left shoulder. This definitively wasn't any longer an innocent brawl among children, and with renewed energy Theano strove to end it.
The girl was standing over the moaning body of Lyceus, oblivious to the blood flowing down her arm. Only one of the attackers was left, he was tall and muscular, more than two heads taller than Xena. In his right hand was a blood-dripping dagger, and he had a sneer on his face as he once again advanced towards her brother. She stopped his booted foot with her unprotected shin. Theano could see pain flickering across her face but instead of backing off she drove both of her fists in his stomach with all her might. He reacted and her knee found his chin. He dropped to the ground, unconscious.
The girl turned around and slowly knelt next to her brother but before she even could take his hand a low menacing voice brought her back to her feet.
"What by Hephaestus' anvil did you do to my poor nephew? This time your mother's influence won't safe your hide. You are an abomination of nature and a danger to every single child in the village."
Meanwhile his shouting had attracted a bunch of other villagers. The man, still wearing the apron of a blacksmith, advanced towards Xena who stood her ground. Her eyes were stormy. With the help of her staff, the Amazon woman stopped him before he could reach out and grab the girl. She could feel the anger radiating from the small body behind her and saw the surprise on the smith's face.
"This is none of your business, Amazon." He spat out. "She attacked my nephew, look at him. She could have killed him."
At this moment Cyrene and the village elders rounded the corner of the barn, let by a frantic boy, the slightly taller, male version of Xena. They wanted to know what had happened. "A moon ago I told you that this abomination has to be locked up. A girl has to learn that her place is in the house and in a man's bed, not running around in the woods, playing boys' games. But you all didn't believe me, and your leniency almost got my nephew killed today. That's what happened."
There was a murmur going through the ranks of the assembled villagers. Encouraged he continued. "She attacked him. She has to be locked up and purged from her sinful ways."
"If this only was between Xena and your nephew why are all the other kids here, why is my son unconscious, and why is my daughter bleeding?" Cyrene countered.
"I knew you would take her side but this time you won't sway the elders' opinion with your sweet-talking."
"The elders don't have an opinion yet, Castritius, don't try to make up our minds for us." The silver haired man now asked Theano what had happened and she told them what she had witnessed and what she had done to end it.
"I don't know how it began, venerable elders, but I know that Xena only tried to defend herself and her brother against an opponent much older and bigger than she is, an opponent attacking her with a knife he still holds in his hand. The wound in her shoulder was made with this weapon; if it hadn't been for her fast reflexes the boy could easily have killed her. Now, if you don't mind I'll take her and her brother to the healer now."
One of the younger children tucked the old man at his tunic, he bent down and the girl whispered hurriedly in his ear. The elders then formed a circle and only three or four candledrops later the spokesman addressed the villagers as well as Castritius and Theano.
"My granddaughter just told me that the older boys attacked Xena's younger brother. She sent her older brother to get their mother and rushed to his defence but didn't stand a chance against the superior number of opponents. The Amazon woman arrived and stopped them one after one. Castritius' nephew was their leader, he cowardly came at her with a dagger and wounded her but she still managed to put him out. Xena is not the one to blame here.
"It only is fair that the attackers of today suffer the same fate as Xena did a moon ago when she was found guilty of striking one of her peers without a reason. Starting tomorrow the parents can make appointments with the council to ensure that there are at least two witnesses to the punishment.
"Castritius, your nephew not only goaded the others in this cowardly deed, he also used a weapon against a child. I don't want to know what would have happened if she hadn't been able to defend herself and if this Amazon warrior hadn't been here to interfere. Since he came here, one and a half moon ago, he caused nothing but trouble and bad blood in our village. You will keep him confined to your own property for at least three seasons or immediately send him back to his mother. We won't tolerate any more disturbances."
The tall smith growled but didn't dare to oppose the council's decisions. He dragged the still half unconscious teenager to his house, and the villagers slowly returned to their chores.
"Cyrene, Xena, after what happened today, I apologise for what the council made you go through last moon. I now believe that you were provoked in slapping Castritius' nephew, and I'm sorry that I didn't know better." The old man continued.
"I never lie, and I'm still not sorry." The young girl said before her knees gave way and she hit the ground.
When Xena opened her eyes once again, it was dark outside, a candle was flickering next to her bed and her left arm was strapped to her chest. She tried to sit up. "Stay put, little one."
"Lyceus -- I have to make sure that he's okay. They hurt him."
"Your brother is sleeping, Xena. He wasn't hurt, just the wind knocked out of him. You weren't as lucky. The dagger was dirty, it caused a small infection but your mother got it under control. She's a very good healer. You slept for more than two days. You both will be all right."
"I want to see him. He's my responsibility and I didn't keep him safe."
"I'll help you to get dressed. You'll check on your brother and then we will go down to the kitchen and get you something to eat. And then we will talk."
"It was a very long talk and I didn't like what she told me one bit, most of it at least. But somehow she convinced me that being stronger and faster also meant having more responsibilities. I always felt responsible for Lyceus but she made me understand that I also was responsible for everyone not as fast or strong or bright as I was. I learned my lesson and she helped me to develop my natural abilities. This night Theano offered to become my second mother. She taught me how to fight and how to think, and she taught me not to take my skills for granted but to hone them. She taught me how to work for the things I really wanted, how to focus."
The tall warrior whose eyes until then fixed to the path they were following, now looked up to the older Amazon. "I'm sorry I perverted your teachings, my second mother, and I'm sorry I twisted the sense of what you really meant with responsibility." Her blue eyes were full of sorrow and once again cast to the ground.
"Look at me, Xena. Do you remember, the following evening when I told you about what it really means to have a second mother?"
It had been a rhetoric question but still Xena answered. "I remember. I didn't understand it then. It took years and years of darkness to finally accept in my heart that you really were sincere then. 'A second mother does not judge but guide. She demands no explanations but offers understanding. She is the voice of love and reason, she reminds of the things you're not willing to hear?.'." Her voice trailed off.
"Hey, little one, you found your way back, that's all that counts." Xena gave the older Amazon one of those rare smiles usually reserved for the young woman behind her, and they once again fell silent.
What Queen Melosa just had learned explained a lot but she still didn't have the faintest idea why Theano took the tall woman as a second daughter in the first place. There would have been other ways to teach her and develop her natural skills. A strong part of her wanted to know more and wanted to know it now but there also was an equally strong part telling her that now wasn't the time and place to ask these questions. It was the priestess in her that cautioned her to take her time and wait. So, she decided to join Solari and Ephiny in the front of the line.
A rumbling noise let her reign in her horse, and a sleepy voice said. "I'm hungry."
"I know, my love. How about some trail bars? We'll take our lunch on horse back. There's a clearing about five candlemarks from here, with a small creek. We'll be there with enough time to take a swim and have something warm to eat."
For the rest of the ride there were no further in-deep conversations, just some stories and chatter. They had a mayor water fight while bathing after Xena caught a string of trout for dinner. Now they all were sitting at the fire place. They still were on Amazon territory, so there was no need for guards. Gabrielle was comfortably nestled between Xena's thighs, leaning against the tall woman's chest, and just about to finish the second story of the evening, dealing with Amazon spirituality.
Gabrielle's story told about a time long ago, a time when the Amazons believed that every Amazon had been gifted with a guiding spirit at the day of her birth by the Goddess herself. The guiding spirits usually appeared in the form of an animal and helped to find peace of mind and harmony. Once, so the young woman related, there was an Amazon warrior who wasn't at all happy with the choice of her guiding spirit for to her it took the shape of an ant, and so she left her sisters and began to search the known world for her true guiding spirit. She fought giants and dragons, men and nature but whenever she called upon her spirit only the ant appeared, and she kept on searching.
One day she found herself in the middle of a great battle. The enemy had withdrawn behind the gates of a well fortified city holding the inhabitants as hostages. They were stuck and camped in front of the gates. Every day five of the citizens were led on top of the fortifications, killed and thrown down. The first nights the Amazon didn't want to believe what her dreams told her but as day followed day she knew that she couldn't risk to not at least try.
After speaking with the few refugees they were able to round up she found the entrance to a system of caverns and tunnels crossing beneath the acres and also leading towards the city. She nearly got lost with her soldiers but this time when she called upon her guiding spirit she did what the ant proposed. They ended in a cave full of wine near the city walls, were able to open the gates, and the enemy was defeated. She then returned to her home village where she was named weapons' master and died decades later as the leader of the council of elders.
"But that's ridiculous, an ant guiding a warrior." One member of the royal guard said.
"Really? I don't think so. Ants live in a very complex community. Every one of them knows what to do without being told, every one of them is able to carry many times their own weight, and every one of them values the community more than its own life." Akyra answered.
"I never saw it that way. But I still don't think that such a thing as a guiding spirit exists."
"Tell me, Kelara, did you never dream of running through the forest without exactly knowing why? And wasn't it much easier then than it is in reality?" The silver haired Amazon with the black eyes asked.
"No, venerable Akyra, but sometimes I dream of flying over the forest and the fields. I see the village and the temple and the training grounds from high above and I even see landscapes I never visited in reality. -- Do you think my guiding spirit could be a bird of some kind? Would you help me to find out when we return from the Centaurs?"
"I'll tell you what to do but this is a journey you'll have to take on your own. I think we should call it a?."
The Amazon elder suddenly fell silent when Argo appeared out of the darkness and butted her tall mistress in the head. Xena slightly twisted her upper body and answered while one of her hands patted the tall mare's neck. "Yes, girl, I know."
"Don't tell me your guiding spirit is a horse, Xena." Ephiny said, amusement tinting her voice.
Xena's muscles immediately tensed at the teasing but Gabrielle's hand on her left thigh helped her relax and return the banter. "Okay, I won't tell yah." The tall woman answered, enjoying the confusion on the lawyer's face. "No, Eph, Argo has nothing of a spirit. She is my friend, and she came to let me know that there are three panthers out there stalking the other horses. I will go and bring them nearer to the fire."
"The guards will see to the safety of the horses, Xena, stay." The Queen's words stopped her attempt to get up from behind the blonde.
"So, you know what the horse is thinking?" Akyra who was sitting to her left wanted to know.
"No, not really. There's a lot of tension radiating from her body, her heartbeat is slightly faster than normal and her ears are twitching. So all I had to do was observing and listening." She answered and then continued much quieter, so only Akyra and Gabrielle could hear her. "What ever you may make yourself believe, I am no shaman and I never will become one."
The members of the royal guard took turns guarding the camp but the night was uneventful.
Long before the break of dawn, when the night is at its coldest and darkest, Xena extricated herself out of the bedroll she shared with her blond lover, donned her leathers, and stole away. As soon as she was out of sight, she began to run through the forest without making a sound. Half a candlemark later she came to a stop in the middle of a small clearing.
Xena closed her eyes and knelt down on a knee, her hands rested lightly on her left knee. She waited. A few candledrops later, she heard them. They slowly entered the clearing and circled her. Two of them lay down at her sides, right and left, and the third sat down in front of her.
The tall woman could feel the hot breath on her face, and slowly opened her eyes, locking her blue orbs with the pitch black but vividly sparkling eyes of the animal in front of her. The panther was one of the biggest she ever saw. They almost were eye to eye. Her hands seemingly of their own accord left her knee and began to stroke the two smaller cats at her sides.
When the first hints of predawn began to colour the sky, she once again closed her eyes, and the formidable creatures left the clearing as soundlessly as they had come. She stayed motionless for another candledrop, and returned to camp after having caught three rabbits for the morning meal.
They had an early start and were able to cover a lot of ground. So, the Queen decided to let the horses rest and walk for a few candlemarks, soon Gabrielle was engaged in a friendly conversation with the guards and Xena brought up the rear. Half a candlemark later she was joined by Ephiny.
"You' okay? You seem awfully quiet today, even for you."
"Yeah, I'm good, Eph. No need to worry." The tall warrior looked at the curly head. "What do you really want?"
"This morning, I followed you."
"I thought it was Akyra, spying on me." The tall warrior answered shrugging her shoulders.
"It wasn't my intention to spy, Xena," Ephiny said slightly wounded, "but you left camp without your weapons. I was worried."
"I'm sorry, Eph, I didn't want to snap at you." Xena gave the curly haired woman a small smile and fell silent, arguing with herself if she should down-play the incident or tell the truth. The slightly younger Amazon lawyer had become a good friend of hers and Gabrielle's, especially after the trial. She deserved the truth but?
Her thoughts were interrupted when Ephiny spoke again. "I asked Akyra about it but she only smiled and sent me over. I never before saw someone treating one of the most dangerous predators around like harmless kittens. They could have killed you."
"They would have killed me, had I come with my weapons and armour. Not wearing them was a sign of trust on my part. Letting me touch her daughters was a sign of trust on hers."
There were a lot of questions pursuing each other in Ephiny's mind but one was more powerful than the others, and so she followed her instincts. "What did she tell you? The panther, I mean."
"She told me that there's danger ahead, and that I will need all my strength and all my weakness to keep safe the ones I love and care for. She told me that my past once again has risen to haunt me and that what I do about it now will influence not only my own future."
"You should warn the Queen, if it's this dangerous, maybe, it would be better to return to the village and postpone the meeting."
"I'll warn her as soon as we leave Amazon territory but I can't go back. I was told that more harm would come from avoiding the danger. I don't know what is expected of me but I can't afford not to find out."
Ephiny nodded, and they continued in silence but finally another question burst forth. "The panther is your guiding spirit as the lynx is Thania's, isn't it?"
"I always thought that one contacts them in the dreamscape or something. I never believed them to be real, living beings."
"Guiding spirits can speak to you through your dreams but they also can pop up in your mind during the day. Usually a guiding spirit isn't really a separate being. Once you accept it, it becomes part of you, of your soul. You simply know it's there. But you're right, usually they don't appear in flesh and bone." Meeting the inquisitive eyes of the lawyer, Xena swallowed the remainder of her trepidations and continued quietly. "Akyra probably would tell you that they only come to people with great spiritual powers, to a shamaness, a priestess or a Queen. But that's not the only answer. They can come when a young Amazon is just learning to find her way. They also can come when an adult has lost her path."
Xena fell silent. She didn't dare look at her bright eyed friend when she finally took a deep calming breath and said. "I think this is what happened today. -- Years ago, I was proud to have such a powerful and independent animal as a guiding spirit. It carried me through a very dark and confusing time when I still was but a child. -- When my soul lost itself in darkness I also lost my guiding spirit. I thought it never would come back. I think they came to let me know that I'm on the right path but that I also still have a lot of ground to cover."
This time Ephiny respected her friend's silence. She still had a lot of questions, actually now she had even more, but she also knew that Xena wouldn't answer any of them. In the past moon, she had learned enough about the raven haired woman to know that her openness today was a rare privilege; probably brought forth by the fact that the meeting with her guiding spirit still had her preoccupied and somewhat disturbed. The warrior could talk for hours about fighting techniques or battle strategies but apart from Gabrielle she seldom let anyone have a look in her heart.
Some candlemarks before dusk and still in the middle of the forest, they reached the edge of the Amazon territory. According to the peace treaty regulations with the Centaur Nation the border was unguarded by both parties. It was a sign of trust Queen Melosa had had real difficulties to get approved by the council. Ephiny, with the royal guards Siana, Kelara and the newly appointed Silea, was busy building solid lean-tos to ward off the heavy rains expected during the night. Meanwhile Xena told the Queen and the others about the warning she had received.
"You must be kidding, Xena. This whole thing with guiding spirits, it's nothing more than a children's story. You must have been dreaming." Solari, the captain of the royal guard replied.
"Guiding spirits exist, my unbelieving friend. Why do you think I have a squirrel in my crest?!" The Queen turned her attention from her speechless warrior back to Xena. "Apart from being careful and keeping our eyes and ears open for trouble, is there anything we can do?"
"I'd like to send Gabrielle and the elders back to the village to keep them out of harm's way."
"No way, Xena," Akyra and Theano answered with one voice. Akyra continued for both of them. "I may be older than the stones, Xena, but I still can hold my own in a battle. Besides, if the threat you told us about is coming from the Centaurs, you young folk may need my help. I have more experience with fighting them than I care to remember."
Meanwhile the discussion had attracted the attention of the others, and as could have been expected Gabrielle also wasn't willing to go back.
"Please, Gabrielle, be reasonable. Your leg may be healed but it still isn't as strong as it was. I won't risk your life, not again. We'll send you back to safety."
"No way, Xena." The younger woman retorted angrily. "You have no right to talk about my health while you're still recuperating from the whipping. Do you really think I don't know that your back still is hurting with this heavy armour throbbing against your back all day? And you'd better not forget that no one has the right to order me around, Conqueror. I'm my own woman, and I follow my own command."
This said she stomped off towards the cover of the trees. Xena was stunned by the force of her partner's outburst, so she didn't pay attention to what the Queen was saying, telling everyone to keep their eyes open from now on and ordering a look-out constructed in the trees.
"What are you waiting for, Xena? I want the look-out ready in no more then a candlemark. You better get started."
"I have to follow Gabrielle." Xena's voice came from far-away, her eyes still fixed to the spot between two old trees where her lover had disappeared.
"Xena, don't force me to punish you for disobedience. Just get going. -- Give Gabrielle some space to calm down. You can make your apologies later."
The tall woman visibly was fighting her instincts but finally she bent her head and muttered. "Yes, mistress."
Less than half a candlemark later, while the royal guards still were busy with the lean-tos, the look-out was ready, big enough to comfortably seat two warriors and with a solid roof of intertwined leaves and branches.
Xena found Gabrielle by hearing alone, following the sound of a staff hitting a tree trunk. When the young woman came in her line of view at the edge of a clearing barely big enough to be called thus, Xena took off at breakneck speed, jumped, and landed against Gabrielle, effectively bringing her sideways to the ground.
The big boar that had targeted her lover missed by mere inches. The tall woman barely managed to get them both back on their feet when the animal charged again. She shoved Gabrielle towards a stand of trees and told her harshly to hide. Her hand reached for her sword but it already was too late. All she could do was turn to the side to try and get out of the way but still the force of the onslaught took her to the ground, pinning her beneath his weight; the boar's big tusks dangerously close to her face.
Her sword was all but useless in such close quarters and the chakram was trapped under her own body together with her right arm. She tried to turn the tables but pinned as she was, she didn't have enough leverage to affect the infuriated animal. She somehow managed to press him backwards a few inches but that was all. Xena could feel one of his fangs grazing along her upper arm protector and then slicing through her skin towards the elbow, leaving a burning gash. She had a short glimpse into the small, beady eyes of the animal and groaned when another slice was made, crossing the first one and much deeper.
Blood was dropping to the ground, and time came to a stand-still. Her left arm was weakening. She knew she couldn't hold him off much longer. In her peripheral vision she could see Gabrielle slowly creeping nearer, staff at the ready. She took aim and slammed it as hard as she could against the boar's rib case.
Seemingly unfazed by the attack the boar slowly turned his head as if measuring the new target with his red rimmed eyes. He shifted his weight towards the blond woman thus freeing Xena's right arm and giving her the opening she needed. She wound her injured arm around his neck and pulled as hard as she could at his front legs with the other hand.
The beast toppled over, and Xena slit his throat with her chakram, holding it down with her whole body until it had bled out. She came to her feet and turned to the young woman, still breathing hard.
"You all right, love?"
"Oh, Xena. I'm sorry. I almost got you killed. Please forgive me," she blurted out when her tall lover wrapped her in her arms, "I'll go back to the village. You're hurt and it's all my fault. I'm so sorry."
"Gab, my love, it's all right. We're safe now. It wasn't your fault. You just saved my life. He would have killed me, if you hadn't diverted his attention. What you did was very, very brave, my bard, and ?."
One of Gabrielle's hand sneaked up to her lips. "And incredibly stupid, I know. You're not angry at me for running away?"
"No, I'm not angry, just relieved that you're not hurt. You, my love, have every reason to be angry with me. I'm worried about your safety but I shouldn't have ordered you around. I'm sorry. I'll try and not do it again. Forgive me?"
"You're forgiven, my warrior. I love you." The young woman answered smiling but still slightly trembling. "Let me put something on your arm, you're still bleeding."
"Not yet, Gab. Let's wait another two or three candledrops. The bleeding will get rid of most of the dirt. This way there will be less risk of an infection." Seeing the worried frown in Gabrielle's face she continued. "Did I recently tell you that I love you, sweetie?"
"I'll never tire of hearing it, Xe, and I love you too, with all of my heart." Gabrielle snuggled closer to her, deeply breathing in the scent so specific to her lover.
Xena was about to field-dress the boar when her sensitive hearing picked up on the sound of two warriors coming their way. She stood and issued a series of bird-calls that immediately were answered. Soon Kelara and Siana dropped out of the trees and helped them to get the huge beast back to camp.
While Gabrielle let all the others know what had happened and Theano tended to Xena's wounds, the others were cutting the boar to pieces. One part was designed for dinner and the rest set aside to smoke-dry throughout the night.
Cyrene was riding at the point of the slowly advancing column of horses and wagons, together with the Commanders Palemon and Theodorus.
More than a moon ago, almost a moon and a half, the two men had appeared at the backdoor of her house in Corinth in the middle of the night, to save her life, they had claimed.
By now, she knew they had been right, her house having been burned down the day after her escape. The ruling council of Greece and Rome, as they called themselves, this day not only had announced the 'unfortunate, accidental death of Xena, the Conqueror', they also immediately began to try and destroy everything associated with her reign, declaring that now would begin a 'long period of peace and prosperity'. Her banners were taken down, the streets in the newly built quarters of the town renamed, and some of her laws revoked. Xena's sudden disappearance didn't cause any kind of riot or civil war, just as she had predicted. She also had been right to assume that the people personally associated with her, be it by choice, by blood, or by rumour only would face some danger by the new rulers of Greece.
The clearing Palemon and Theodorus had let her to in the first place turned out to be an easily guarded valley where soon more than three hundred refugees were assembling -- only a third of which were soldiers. Most of them were craftsmen with their families, workers and even some farmers. They now were headed towards a small fortified island Xena had prepared for her followers in case of an emergency, together with most of the soldiers of the First Order, Xena's personal guards and elite squadron.
Cyrene herself and about half a dozen veterans had started out to join Xena or as they called her 'the General' at the Amazon village, after a detour to Amphipolis where Xena's mother wanted to gather some medicinal herbs. They not only had found the herbs but also the first three of the wagons now trailing behind her. Word of their destination must have spread with lightning speed for almost every day they were met up by small groups of soldiers or other wagons loaded with goods, families or elders. Everyone of them seemed fiercely loyal to her daughter, and every single conversation she had with one of these newcomers left her disbelieving, bewildered and unsure of herself.
The feelings Cyrene had for her only daughter for a long time now were somewhat ambivalent and confusing. She never really managed to hate her child, not even in the darkest of times, and regardless of the things she voiced out loud. But she had been more than certain to hate the Conqueror. And now she on a daily basis had to deal with people who for one reason or the other defended most of her actions.
The new messenger they had encountered a few days ago didn't make things easier for her. He told them of a great battle fought by Xena and the Amazons against one of her former commanders intend on destroying the Amazon Nation and the frontier outposts Xena had established along the whole length of the northern border. He also told them about Xena's brother, Toris, and an Amazon girl saving the life of Cyrene's grand-son, and her daughter saving the life of the girl by some sort of strange Amazon magic.
The middle aged woman was jostled out of her musings when Palemon, a tall dark haired man brought their caravan to a sudden stop. When she looked up she saw one of the scouts advancing towards them at top speed. Immediately all the soldiers on horse back fanned out in a defensive pattern and the others readied their weapons. When he drew nearer he signalled that there were friends ahead, and the men visibly relaxed.
"Palemon, it's the children from Corinth and Cirra. They'll cross our path in about three candlemarks. They'll need food and some rest. The new leaders ? they tried to kill them. Some of them are injured, too."
"Theodorus, take the others and set up camp at the end of the woods on our left. That's where the crossroad from Cirra ends. We'll need some more meat." The blonde man he had spoken to signalled that he would send out the hunters and also asked how many children they were talking about.
Palemon cast a questioning look at the scout who immediately answered. "Fifty to sixty children and about five adults."
"Damn bastards, the orphanage in Cirra alone had close to fifty children. -- I'll take a score of soldiers and see what we can do to help them now. Cyrene?"
"I'll be with you, Palemon. Perhaps I can help." She kneed her horse into motion and soon they were on a fast canter along some sort of half overgrown forest path.
When they had to slow down to cut trough a denser part Cyrene asked him about the orphanages. "I know the children are the ones suffering most from war, so I can understand that Xena sponsored an orphanage for the children of her soldiers but surely there aren't enough of them to fill more than one."
The tall man looked at her as if she had spoken in a foreign language, then there was a shadow of a smile on his lips, signalling to her that her words once again had ventured in a realm she did not have the slighted idea of. He shook his head and answered. "You'll just have to wait and see for yourself, Cyrene."
The following day of travel saw no excitement at all. To be on the safe side Queen Melosa once again had a look-out erected and Ephiny, Solari and Chandala volunteered to take watch. They weren't the only ones going practically without sleep.
To everyone's relief the wounds on Xena's arm were healing remarkably fast, Xena herself, however, didn't seem to notice. She was surrounded by a cloud of dark brooding that even began to affect the easy chatter of her fair haired companion. Her answers to questions were monosyllabic at best and she didn't venture any comment of her own. After everyone had retired to their bedrolls she listened to Gabrielle's even breathing but this night it didn't give her the solace she longed for, the solace she had become accustomed to.
Xena's mind kept wandering back to her past, to her campaign against the Centaurs, and to how driven she had been by the need to find that damned stone. While signing the peace treaty more than four years ago she didn't feel the pull of the stone she wasn't able to ignore the first time. She could feel its rhythm, like her own heartbeat but the longing to possess it was gone, even then. Now -- more than four years later -, she had a hard time to remember why it ever had been important in the first place.
Even Gabrielle's body snuggled close to her own, the familiar feeling of the younger woman's legs intertwined with her own, this night was not able to keep the nightmares at bay, nightmares born out of memories usually hidden in the deepest and darkest part of her brain. She needed all of her mental strength to keep her mind void, and one after the other played through all the meditation techniques she knew. Still she couldn't help her growing anxiety.
The night was still dark and cold when Xena couldn't stand it any longer. Once again she slipped out of their bedroll careful not to awaken her young lover. She donned her leathers, armour, and weapons and headed for a clearing nearby.
After some candledrops of stretching and loosening up her muscles she unsheathed her sword and began to swirl it in front of her in an easy rhythm. Soon her movements became faster and the simple figure-eights she had started out with grew into intricate patterns. When she was satisfied with her range of mobility she began to fight invisible opponents by adding the occasional jump and flip. When the sun started to rise her uneasiness had dropped to a manageable level, and she was pleased with the range of her abilities.
With a smooth movement she sheathed her weapon, suddenly knowing what it was that had her on the edge the whole night long; she turned around and growled. "Show yourself, Ares. I hope you enjoyed the show."
The morning air began to shiver, sparkling blue light morphed to a solid leather-clad body. One hand casually resting on the hilt of his sword, he was eye to eye with Xena. "Why do you always have to spoil my fun, Conqueror? Oh, I forgot, you no longer are the Conqueror. You're a lowly Amazon slave, wearing a collar like a good little lap-dog."
"So, why does the mighty God of War waste his precious time speaking with me, a lowly slave? What do you want, Ares?" She growled.
"I really don't know why I put up with your arrogance, Xena, but you still are my favourite mortal, and yes, I enjoyed the show. You're as lethal as ever. I came to give you one last chance. Swear allegiance to me, and you and your beloved little Amazons will live to see the harvest festival. Refuse me, and you all will be destroyed."
Xena's lips curled in a smile that didn't reach her eyes when she answered. "You're really tenacious, Ares. But my answer is still the same. I didn't fall for your charms and promises when I longed for power and blood-shed more than for everything else. Why should I now fall for idle threats? Go, and search someone else to play with."
"Finish what you started almost ten years ago. Destroy the Centaur nation, find the Ixion stone and use it -- then I will give the world to you. This is your last chance. The Centaurs will go down before this season is through. They will be easy pickings for my army. Fight on my side, and get the Amazons to stay clear of this war, and they will be allowed to live their boring little lives. If not, if they're stupid enough to side with my enemy, they also will be destroyed. So, for one time in your life, be smart, and lead my army."
"Thanks, Ares, but no, thanks. Besides, if I really would use the Ixion stone, the world would be mine even against your will. I'm not interested."
She turned around ready to leave the small clearing. A big hand grabbed her left shoulder. In a fraction of a heartbeat, Xena bent her knees, her strong fingers encircled the God's wrist and she pulled forwards with all her might, propelling the dark haired figure on the ground in front of her.
His astonishment quickly turned in a smirk. "Glad to see that you haven't lost all of your fire, Xena. I didn't plan on you leaving Amazon territory. But things will definitively get much more interesting now. For all the entertainment you gave me with your battles, I'll give you one last piece of advise. You soon will be facing my army, if you fight them you will die. That's what the Fates see in your future but if you can keep them from finding and using the Ixion stone, the Amazons and the Centaurs will have a chance to survive. Think about it." Without bothering to get to his feet he disappeared in another wave of red-blue light.
Breakfast was ready when Xena returned to her companions. She internally debated with herself if she should tell Queen Melosa about her discussion with the God of War, but then decided to wait and see what the Centaurs knew about this army and its commander or if Ares had only been bragging and pushing her buttons.
Only a few candledrops after their midday break, Solari joined Xena at the end of their steadily advancing column. "What will we do about our stalker?"
"What we did from the beginning, ignore him. He's just a child, I don't think that he poses any kind of threat. He kept his distance for more than two candlemarks but since our break he's trying to overtake us. He probably is planning some kind of ambush at the edge of the forest. We should just wait and see."
The Queen however had other plans, she ordered her Amazons to speed up their journey, and soon their stalker was left far behind. They returned to their former travelling speed about a candlemark later, and reached the edge of the forest at mid-afternoon, about two candlemarks early.
"We'll wait for the Centaurs to escort us to their village. Xena, please put your weapons away. We don't want to offend their leaders should the invitation be genuine."
Xena nodded, slid gracefully to the ground, and did as she was told while the others also dismounted. Her ears were still toned towards their stalker who once again had caught up with them. The tall warrior turned her back to her companions and waited for him to show himself. Soon he dropped out of a tree, brandishing a sword twice as long as his arms.
His unruly hair was of a light brown, with hints of blond in the summer sun. He wore a simple tunic and loosely fitting trousers. He was short of 5 feet tall and couldn't have more than ten or eleven summers. His shining blue eyes seemed oblivious to everything except the dark haired woman in front of him. He attacked wordlessly but Xena easily side-stepped his thrust. The momentum of his weapon let him lose his balance and he landed face first on the hard ground.
He quickly turned around and got back on his feet. "You killed my father, you killed the great Borias, and now you will die."
He renewed his attack, Xena just stood there, rooted to the ground, and didn't even attempt to avoid the oncoming weapon. Years of fighting experience kicked in and instinctively her right arm shot upwards, she stopped the blade with her bare hand. The boy loosened his grip and the weapon fell on the sun-bleached grass. He looked at the tall woman's bleeding hand with an expression of utter astonishment on his face.
When Xena knelt to retrieve the weapon, her sensitive hearing picked up on a group of Centaurs rapidly approaching. She also was aware of the scrutinising eyes of her Amazon companions. At the same time a frighteningly familiar tingling feeling coursed through her fingertips and her eyes found the ornate hilt of the sword.
"This was your father's weapon. It was a good choice to try and avenge his death with but it should have been maintained better." Xena balanced the blade on her right knee, almost caressing the hilt with her uninjured hand. "I didn't kill your father but I'm responsible for his death. You have the right to take my life, young man. I'll show you how to do it."
Xena turned the hilt towards him and he automatically took it. Then she sat down on her heels and opened the clasps holding her breast and back plates in place. She put the heavy brass pieces on the ground and once again grabbed the blade with her still bleeding hand. She put the tip against her chest, between her breasts, slightly to the left. The Amazons surrounding them seemed as mesmerised by her display as the child in front of her.
"The tip of your blade is still sharp enough to break through my ribs. Take care to keep this angle when you press down with your whole body. This angle will not only pierce my heart but also part of my lungs. This way most of the heart's blood will end up in the lung, there will be less blood on the ground. My dying will be quick."
Heartbeats stretched to candlemarks while they stood motionless. Xena's hand still was wrapped around the blade, the blood dropping from her palm colouring the hard ground. Her blue eyes locked with his. She almost could feel the boy's inner turmoil. Her hand went down to her side, and shortly after, the weapon once again fell to the ground. The child's whole body was shivering, and there were angry tears in his eyes.
"Killing someone in cold blood isn't easy, Solan, it never should be easy, regardless of the reasons. Every time you take a life, a tiny part of your own soul also dies. I don't want you to ever experience this kind of emptiness. Take your father's sword and return to the village, and one day I will tell you everything you want to know about Borias and me."
"How do you know my name?"
"Your uncle, Kaleipus, told me when I was in your village almost five years ago."
"I still am your greatest enemy, Conqueror." Solan picked up the sword, sheathed it, turned around, and was facing a group of six Centaurs and two humans.
"What are you doing here, Solan? No, I don't want to know. We'll talk later. Go back to the village and wait in your room." The tall, one-eyed Centaur now turned his attention towards Queen Melosa and Xena whose hand was quickly cleaned and bandaged by Gabrielle. The tall warrior unsuccessfully tried to ignore the more than disapproving gaze of her younger lover. "Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, why did you violate the peace treaty and bring her on our lands? Conqueror, you are not welcome."
Instead of an answer the Queen rummaged in one of her saddle-bags and produced the message they had received from the Centaurs. Kaleipus studied it curiously, and turned his head to the boy. "Solan, we have a lot to talk about. Leave us now."
"Kaleipus, please, don't punish him. He only followed the voice of his heart."
"You, Conqueror, have no right to tell me how to deal with 'my' son. He never will be yours." Xena swallowed hard but didn't object. "But I will try to honour his word. With signing the peace treaty you were granted a pardon for the things you and your army did during the war. But you can't enter the village without facing dire consequences for trespassing. I grant you freedom of movement outside of the village. You can stay in an old hut about one and a half candlemark's ride west for as long as the Amazons are our guests."
Xena could see that Queen Melosa was itching to interfere, and Gabrielle was literally bristling with indignation. She had to speed up this conversation. "Tyldus, Kaleipus, I knew the consequences when I entered Centaur territory. Please, tell the council of elders that I will submit to Centaur justice without questions or reservations. I will stand trial for illegal trespassing whenever they are ready."
For the first time the Centaur next to Kaleipus spoke. He was as tall as his brother with slightly darker hair, his left front foot inadvertently scraping the ground. "You are wearing the collar of an Amazon slave, Conqueror. As far as I know you don't have the right to decide on such things."
"Xena may officially be a slave to the Amazon nation but she also is one of our best warriors and teachers. As soon as her punishment for sacrilegious behaviour is completed, the collar will be removed for good and we will gladly accept her as one of our own. That's why I granted her the freedom to satisfy her obligations to the Centaur nation should the need arise."
Before anyone could answer, they all heard the sounds of rapidly approaching hoofbeats. Everyone turned their heads when a Centaur galloping at full speed quickly drew nearer. He stopped dead in his tracks when he recognised Xena, shook his head disbelievingly and scooped her up in a breath taking bear hug.
"Xena, so glad to see you. The Gods did hear my prayers. Thank you that you changed your mind, father." The young Centaur said to Tyldus.
"Calm down, Phantes. I'm sure you didn't come all the way from the village just for me."
Immediately the fair haired Centaur sobered up. "No, I didn't but my wife really needs your help. -- Father, uncle, one of the advance scout is back. He has spotted a large army heading our way."
"How large and how far away?" Kaleipus and Melosa asked simultaneously.
"About two hundred on horse back and another three hundred on foot. They are well equipped and disciplined. They are about seven days of fast travel away but are advancing rather slowly. The scout estimates we have at least eleven or twelve days before they reach our border. Their progress is slow because they are thoroughly searching every single cave in the hills."
"So, Ares was right." Xena whispered quietly to herself but not quiet enough not to be over-heard by Solari.
"Did you just say Ares? As in Ares, the God of War?"
After two heartbeats of hesitation, Xena told them about her encounter with the dark haired God earlier this day, however, without mentioning his threats against her or what he had told her about the Fates.
"Why should Ares try to destroy the Centaur nation? They're great fighters. He should be pleased with their existence. It doesn't make any sense." Akyra said.
"Yes, it does. Centaurs fight to defend their homes and their families as do the Amazons. They don't fight for the sake of fighting, and they always refused to pledge allegiance to Ares." Xena answered. "Their searching the caves means that they are looking for the temple of Ixion. I really doubt that they'll find the stone there -- and then their advance movement will speed up considerately. I know I was close when I stopped my campaign against your forces. So, my guess is that we'll have nine days at best."
The tall woman knelt and began to draw lines on the hard ground at the edge of the grass land with a short stick. "Here's the village, the mountain range begins here and drops down to a mere hill side about here. I suppose the enemy at the moment is about here." She looked questioningly to the young Centaur who nodded in agreement. "Good, I was about two and a half days march from the village when Borias began to get nervous. I put it down to other circumstances then, but now his behaviour begins to make sense. We'll have about four days before they'll find the real temple. Enough time to find out more about the army and its leader. If he is any good, he will send scouts of his own to find out about our defences. You should double the sentries."
"This isn't your fight, Conqueror. We don't want your help." Tyldus angrily retorted.
"An army of 500 hundred men isn't something you can face alone, Tyldus," Queen Melosa replied, "the peace treaty also includes a mutual defence agreement -- and Xena will fight with the Amazons. Just over a moon ago, we were able to defeat an army three times our size with her help. I sincerely hope that you won't disregard our assistance just because of the former Conqueror." Almost unconsciously the Amazons now were facing the Centaurs.
To ease the tension, Kaleipus took two steps forwards and offered his arm in a warrior handshake. "Queen Melosa, we'll gladly accept every help you and your warriors are willing to offer. These last years, I learned to trust your judgement. Do you trust your slave, Queen Melosa?"
"Yes, I do, with my life and the lives of my people." Xena couldn't entirely suppress the surprise flickering over her face at the Queen's statement. "She's living with us for over two moons now, we fought side by side, she saved my life and the life of many of my sisters, not only on the battlefield but also in the healer's hut. She isn't the Conqueror any longer, she's just a honourable warrior with a very dark past."
"Tyldus, the Con?, Xena's advice was sound. I may not like it but she is a great general, an even better fighter, and she knows these hills almost as good as our best scouts. We learned this the hard way, all those years ago. So, we would be foolish if we didn't accept her input." Kaleipus pleaded with his brother.
"I can understand your reasoning but I for my part won't turn my back on her, and she will not be allowed to enter the village, not without facing Centaur justice first."
"Father, please don't," the young Centaur entered the conversation. "Ter?, my wife needs her now. She is in labour since last night and the midwife doesn't know what to do. Xena asked us not to tell anyone but it was her who helped her birthing my son. She needs her help. I don't want to lose her."
"Tyldus, please let me try and help. I will stand trial as soon as your daughter in law is out of harm's way. And I will submit to every punishment you and the council of elders find suitable. She is a friend and I owe her, please."
The tall Centaur nodded, Xena grabbed one of her saddlebags, mounted on Phantes' back, and off they went without even a single word of explanation to the other women.
Chapter Three: Daughters
Cyrene sank to her bedroll and wearily closed her eyes. The small tidbits of information she had been able to overhear about the attack on the orphanage disturbed her greatly, with more than fifty innocent children killed at the break of dawn and killed by men whose duty it should have been to protect them.
The bright spot of her day had been the fact that the injuries of the survivors were less severe than the scout's report had lead her to believe in the first place. Obviously they had been properly tended to some time ago. On the other hand, they all were completely exhausted and on the point of starving; some of them driven forward by will power alone.
So, Palemon reluctantly agreed to a full day's rest the following day to give the children a chance to regroup. They also had to take into account that now there were 73 more hungry stomachs to fill . Therefore a larger group of the men would dedicate this day to hunting for edible plants, fruits and game.
The next day, Cyrene found herself working in the make-shift kitchen area side by side with a tall woman about her age whose attention every now and then turned towards a young woman with blond, curly hair. She was almost as tall as her own daughter but her shoulders and hips were considerably less broad and her eyes were of a dark shining brown. She wore a black leather dress with a lot of silvery adornments, strategically placed to double as armour pieces. The gleaming hilt of a sword strapped to her back completed the warrior-like image. She also had the easy catlike motions of a good fighter. To Cyrene's utter astonishment, for the better part of the morning, she stayed in the middle of the smaller children, obviously telling stories, helping them to wash up and even patiently combing their hair.
"What is it you find so intriguing about my daughter?"
Cyrene looked the other woman in the eyes and slowly answered. "I don't know for sure. -- She looks every inch the warrior, except for her eyes and the way she holds herself with the children."
"Oh, she knows how to use that weapon of hers and a whole lot of others. Without her a lot more of us would have been killed. She stopped those soldiers. She had the best teachers the General could find. -- Since Cirra was destroyed almost eight years ago, she thinks that she has the obligation to keep me and the few other survivors safe. Xena tried to convince her that there are better ways to do this than fighting but even as a child she was rather headstrong."
"Eight years ago. She couldn't have been more than ten summers old."
"Eleven. Palemon told me that you're the mother of the General. You should know. Xena had her first staff lessons when she had barely more than eight summers, didn't she?"
"Yes." There was an awkward silence between the two of them. "I never was comfortable with the idea but it meant so much to her."
"Neither was I. -- But over the years, like you, I learned that her fighting exercises serve more than one purpose. My daughter learned how to contain her temper and she learned how to let go of her anger. After our village burned to the ground, Xena was a great help to keep her from becoming angry and bitter. She dissipated the darkness in my daughter's heart. I'll always be in her debt."
"I'll never understand you, either of you." Cyrene muttered to herself while seemingly concentrating her attention on the big pot of stew they were preparing.
"What are you talking about, Cyrene?"
"You're from Cirra, Xena destroyed your village, most of your fellow citizens were killed, Arleia -- she told me so herself -- and still you're speaking about her with kindness and gratitude. I really don't understand you."
"Let's take a walk, Cyrene, the stew will be fine on its own. There are some things you should know about your daughter and her history with Cirra. I suppose she told you that she is responsible for the destruction of my village and that's probably what she still believes -- but it's not the truth."
The two women walked towards the edge of the encampment and found a shady place with a view towards the crossroads where the two treks had met. Xena's mother patiently waited for the other woman to gather her thoughts.
"When the General was on her way to conquer Corinth, about nine summers ago, her army also passed through Cirra. It was a small village, shepherds and farmers. She promised to protect us in exchange for provisions. Our council agreed -- though at the time we thought that she was just another of these marauding warlords who never even intend to keep their promises.
"The harvest promised to be good, exceptionally good even and so she got enough to keep her and her army going for a long time.
"One year later, she once again passed through. This time she didn't ask to be provisioned. She said her army had all it needed at the moment. And she also said that she was on her way west and that there had been some rumours of other warlords nearby. She said that they all should know by now to stay clear of Cirra and she told us to send a messenger if one of them was stupid enough to threaten what was hers.
"She left and rumours about a big battle against the combined armies of some of the smaller city states reached us, together with news about a new warlord rampaging our area. We tried to appease him with provisions, as we had done numerous times in the past but he wanted more, much more. We didn't know what to do, so, the council sent a message to the General. The warlord caught one of our messengers, but the other one somehow got through.
"He was furious and decided to set an example by destroying us. He also saw it as a way to challenge Xena. He surrounded the village, so no one could get out. He told us to surrender and perhaps he would show some compassion and kill us quickly. We didn't answer fast enough, I suppose."
The tall woman fell silent for a long moment, obviously trying to hold her emotions in check. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for the horrors she now was about to give voice to.
"They sent flaming arrows into our grain storage. The tips were coated with Greek fire and water did nothing to douse the flames. While all of us where out trying to save what we could, he lead his men to the village square. They killed every man they could find and then proceeded to herd the women and children into the communal barn. His men began to place shackles on our wrists but he stopped them." Arleia's voice now was almost toneless, only the slight quivering of her lower lip betraying the depths of her emotions.
"He told them to leave us alone and for the fraction of a candledrop, I, we hoped that he would let us go for good. Instead he set flame to the hay in the barn and closed the doors. As we later learned, they also set fire to the outer walls and suddenly there was no way to escape. The last thing I remember was his voice telling his men to also burn all the other buildings and kill every living thing from cat and dog to sheep and oxen. He said: 'This will show the Thracian Bitch what it takes to rule Greece.' And he laughed."
"Mother, are you all right? I could feel your distress."
"Yes, darling. I'm good. I want you to meet Cyrene. She's Xena's mother. I was just telling her how we met her daughter."
"You were telling her about the barn?"
"Yes, Cassy. Perhaps you should tell her what happened after Krykos torched the barn."
The young woman looked at her mother with an expression that seemed to say. 'Are you really sure that you want me to go there?'
"Cyrene believes Xena to be responsible for the deaths at Cirra, Cassandra."
"But without her, none of us would still be alive." The young woman sank to her knees next to her mother and sought Cyrene's eyes. "I know Xena blames herself for what happened; but that's simply not true." The young woman took a deep breath. "The gates were closed, the barn was burning, the women were crying and shouting but none of us had the courage to try and open the doors. The roar of the flames around us slowly began to drown out the noises from outside. I heard shouts of fear and pain and I was sure that Krykos had found another group of my fellow villagers. The shouting was getting louder, I heard the clashing of swords. Before I could tell the others, I realised that my younger sister was missing. She had been hiding in the hayloft when the warlord came. Callisto always was in some kind of trouble or other and the hayloft was where she usually went to wait out our parent's anger.
"I spotted the ladder, still about three feet away from the flames. Up there under the barn's roof it seemed to be even hotter than next to the fire. I later learned that the thatch roof was already burning. I didn't find my sister but from the opening we used to get the hay bales to the loft I was able to see most of the village. I just stood there, looking at the street below and not believing my eyes. There were a lot more fighters than before; one group fighting the other and Krykus' men were losing.
"I saw him at the end of the street. By now, most of the buildings were ablaze but my attention solely was focused on him. He was fighting someone with broad shoulders and long black hair flowing over a light, equally black cloak. Even to my inexperienced eyes it was evident that he was way out-classed. To me, the motion of their swords was almost a blur and then one of the swords came flying straight through the air and embedded itself in the wall of one of the houses. Krykus was lying on the ground; the other fighter sheathed their sword, bent down and put her hands to his throat. They were talking.
"The cloaked figure turned around. It was Xena, her eyes found the barn and she broke into a run. Within heartbeats she was next to me in the hayloft. She didn't say anything. She unclasped the cloak from her shoulder guards, swept it around the both of us. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see red-hot embers dropping from the roof like raindrops. She took me into her arms, made a few steps and jumped right in the middle of the barn. The shock of her arrival effectively silenced even the most hysterical of the women.
"She told us that as soon as the barn doors were opened the flames and the heat would increase. She told us to get down on the ground and to protect the children as best as we could. By then, the doors already were burning but I knew she could do it and the others also knew it. She ordered me to hide under her cloak but I couldn't help watching. She went as far as possible to the rear end of the barn, began to run and somersaulted right into the flames. The barn doors burst open, an immense heat wave thundered over our heads and suddenly there were a lot of men with cloaks and blankets carrying us away."
"When the flames died down early the next day, there were only five buildings left." Arleia continued their tale. "Over one hundred and twenty people were dead and another three scores badly injured. Cassandra and I had been lucky, we got away with a few scratches and bruises but my husband was among the fatalities and there was no trace of my younger daughter. We were staying in tents Xena's soldiers had prepared and as soon as Cassy was asleep I went to offer my help in the healer's tent.
"There were a lot of burns as well as sword and mace wounds. Some of my fellow citizens still were too terrified to accept the help that was offered to them and I tried to calm them down, as much as my own grief would allow. The injured were lying down in neatly arranged rows of ten, some on cots and some on blankets. When I came to the end of the third row, Xena was kneeling next to one of the makeshift beds. It was one of the children, a small boy of about six or seven summers with curly brown hair and dark brown eyes. A spear had pierced his chest, penetrating his lungs. He didn't have a chance and he knew it. Xena's left hand suddenly shot forward, two of her fingers stabbing a point to the left of his throat. He smiled, his mother kissed him a last time and he died."
"So, she killed him with one of these damned pressure points." Cyrene whispered.
"She ended his suffering, Cyrene." Cassandra continued. "She didn't kill him, she just blocked out the pain. She allowed him to die in peace. -- I followed mother when she left our tent and while she was calming down the others I had my eyes on Xena. She still wore her armour but the feral glint I saw in her eyes when she first landed at my side in the hayloft was gone. There now was only sadness. As soon as Grigori had closed his eyes, she stood and left the healer's tent. I followed closely behind. She ordered a score of her men to mount up and come with her. I heard her saying: 'We'll hunt them down. None of them will ever have the chance to brag about the destruction of Cirra. They won't live long enough to tell anyone.' My eyes were irresistibly drawn to hers. They now were burning with cold hatred. She left and didn't return but two days later. I once again sought her eyes but now they were void of any emotions.
"Then, I didn't understand what her face and her eyes really told me but I was highly intrigued, so I followed her whenever I got the chance. She asked me why. I didn't answer. She knelt in front of me and suddenly I was eye to eye with these amazing blue orbs of hers. Later, I learned that the expression they held was one of slight amusement. She didn't say anything and finally I found the courage to ask if she had killed them all. The amused glint vanished and I began to regret asking. She answered: 'Yes, never again will they harm innocents.' I asked: 'Did they have a quick death?' She nodded. I said: 'They should have suffered for what they did. I would have liked to see them suffer.' My eyes must have told her that I meant what I said. I wanted to hear them cry and beg for their lives and to see them die and I wouldn't have felt any regret for them.
"The blue eyes facing me turned darker. She said: 'Killing them in cold blood won't give you back the people you love and lost. It won't undo the damage the fire has done and it won't take away the pain you now feel, it won't take away the mourning.' I didn't understand what she was trying to say and she must have sensed that I didn't, so she added: 'They will pay for what they did with an eternity in Tartarus. Hades doesn't take kindly to people who kill just for the sake of killing.' I asked: 'How do you know?' She smiled and answered: 'I know, young one, I know.'
"I wanted to know how she could be so certain but there was so much sadness and hurt in her eyes, I didn't have the courage to ask. I didn't want to end our conversation, so I told her that my name was Cassandra. She replied that hers was Xena and that we should go and find my mother."
A pensive expression was in the young blondes face while she studied Cyrene's features. "Xena's army stayed about half a moon. They built wagons to transport the injured and what was left of our belongings. We then were escorted to Corinth to start a new life. 'Til then we spoke every day and the hatred that had filled my heart slowly subsided. Through the following years, whenever she was in Corinth, we spent some time together. She taught me the basics of staff fighting and when I insisted on also learning how to handle a sword, she gave me the best teachers available. I not only learned how to defend myself, I also learned how to control my temper. Without her I would long ago have given in to hatred and violence. Your daughter saved my soul, Cyrene and over the years she was as close as a sister to me as someone not of your blood can be."
There were long candledrops of silence. Finally Cyrene, almost despite herself, asked. "How did she know about their souls suffering in Tartarus? Did she ever tell you?"
"Yes, she did, one year later. But I didn't believe her at the time because I wasn't able to read her face like I can now. It sounded like an outlandish story only children and fools would find some truth in. She told me that some time ago she had been badly injured, at the brink of paying Charon's fare. For a moment, she said, she had been able to see the Elysian Fields from afar but then she found herself in Tartarus, hanging from a Roman cross with her legs broken. There was pain radiating through her whole body, consuming her soul. At the foot of the cross Hades and Celesta appeared, they were arguing. Hades said that Xena wasn't supposed to be there yet and his sister admitted that she had taken her prematurely to spare her a painful death. She said that Xena shouldn't be here at the deepest level of Tartarus, but Hades retorted that she had earned her stay there the day she gave in to the darkness in her soul after her brother's death, the day she first killed not to defend herself and others but out of hatred and a sense of revenge.
"Xena told me then that there was no way to save her own soul, but that she didn't want me to make the same mistakes."
Cassandra's words left the grey haired woman totally stunned. Only some candledrops later, she finally found her voice. "Listening to you, one could get the impression that she's some kind of selfless hero or something."
Arleia and her daughter just laughed but the older of the two soon sobered up. "No, Cyrene. I don't think one could call her a hero but she also isn't the monster you see in her. She is capable of great violence and even cruelty. Otherwise she wouldn't have killed the remainder of Krykus' army. She's ready to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. She asks a lot of the people next to her but from herself she demands even more. If Greece is a safe place to live now and to raise children, it's only because of her. But she tends to forget this and more often than not sees only the heartless killer, not the loyal friend.
"I won't ask you to change your mind about your daughter. She certainly gave you reason to think the worst of her -- but regardless of what you or even she herself believes, regardless of how dark her path seems to be, I know that her soul holds a spark of light that one day will win out against the darkness."
"You have no idea how much I wish you were right, Arleia." Cyrene whispered.
For a few heartbeats Queen Melosa and the other Amazons stared after the galloping young Centaur and Xena. "Would you care to explain what just happened, Tyldus?"
The big Centaur was almost squirming under her inquisitive glare but before he could come up with an answer Solan's young voice piped in. "Aunt T is expecting. She told me that the Conqueror taught her what to do the first time, when she had Xenon. I think she is gone to help her again."
"But I read that normal women die when forced to birth a Centaur?" Gabrielle asked.
"They did, but four years ago my son, Phantes and my daughter-in-law disappeared at the end of her pregnancy. It didn't strike us as unusual then, because when there is real love between a woman and a Centaur they sometimes are reluctant to share the last moments of the woman's life with others. About two weeks later they were both back and with a son. I wasn't thrilled when I learned that they named him Xenon -- now I know why. When the next woman found herself pregnant my daughter-in-law taught her and the midwife some relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. We never again had to mourn the loss of a woman."
"Aunt T was with the Conqueror's army. She even went away for a while to help defeat the Romans." Solan proudly declared. "She is great, she knows a lot of neat stories and is the best scout ever and?" He fell silent for a moment, thinking very hard. "If aunt T really needs her help, then I'm glad I didn't kill the Conqueror."
Most of the adults looked at him with confusion but Gabrielle said. "I'm also glad, Solan. -- Why don't we start for the village? We won't find out anything about this army if we just keep on standing here."
"Gabrielle is right. Let's go."
When Xena entered the medium sized hut at the edge of the village, she found the midwife crying in front of the fire place. She didn't turn around when she heard the footsteps but said between sobs. "She will die. The baby won't come out. It will tear her up from inside. Did you bring the herbs to ease her passing over?"
"I'm not ready to let her go with Celesta and the Goddess of Death isn't here yet."
The old woman turned around surprisingly fast at the deep unfamiliar voice coming from the door. "How would you?. You're the Conqueror. You're not welcome in this village."
"I'm well aware of this, old woman, believe me. But Terreis needs help you obviously cannot give."
The woman facing Xena seemed to size her up. She noticed the bands protecting her upper arms and the heavy knee and shin protectors, the leather dress emphasising her womanly built as well as her muscular legs, shoulders and arms. When she observed Xena's face she found impatience warring with concern. She made her decision.
"You saved her life once, when delivering Xenon. -- Terreis trusts you. -- I don't, but she should have a chance to live and see her sons grow. She is in the next room but I'll keep an eye on you."
The ghost of a smile crossed Xena's face. She opened the door to one of the adjourning rooms and was confronted with darkness. She couldn't see beyond the point of light coming from the living room reached. A string of curse words burst forward and she was about to turn around and snarl at the woman behind her when a voice came out of the darkness. "Xena? Is it you? It must be, no one else I know uses as colourful a language. -- Or am I dreaming?"
"If this is a dream, it's a Gods' cursed nightmare. It's as dark as in a pitch in here. Where's the damned window?"
"Two paces forward and then five to your right. Marianna believes that the Goddess of Death won't find me in the darkness." The melodious voice answered though Xena also could distinguish the strain it tried to mask.
The tall woman opened the window and the heavy shutters keeping the light of day out. She turned around and had to force a smile on her face when she saw her friend. Her usually curly hair was damp with sweat and plastered to her skull, her vibrant eyes were glazed over with fever and deeply sunken in. "It's good to see you, Ter. I'll do everything to keep Celesta from getting too close to you, I promise."
"I also would have preferred to meet with you somewhere in an inn, with roasted pork and a mug of good ale. It's been too long." Meanwhile Xena had reached the bed and knelt down at the side. Terreis' right hand slightly touched the collar fastened around her neck. "So, the rumours we heard were true. You'll have a lot of explaining to do, Xena, my friend. But I'm really glad to see you."
The pregnant woman rapidly closed her eyes to ward off another contraction and the pain concentrated in her lower torso. "No, Ter, don't try to resist the pain, breathe with it and it soon will subside. Yeah, that's it. You're doing fine. Here, take a sip of water." Xena offered the water skin she always kept with her medical kit to the woman's parched lips. "I'll have to take a look at you, feel your baby."
"Go ahead, do what you have to do, Xena."
The midwife, Marianna, took a better observation position at the end of the bed. Xena pushed Terreis' shift upwards and began to follow the outline of her protruding belly with her hands and then the tips of her fingers. She then put her ear repeatedly to either side of it. About twenty candledrops and another contraction later she locked eyes with her patient and smiled.
"Congratulations, Terreis, you'll have twins. There are two strong heartbeats but I don't think that they are Centaur. I could feel at least one human foot."
"But that's impossible, Xena. Centaurs always father other Centaurs, that's how it has been since their creation."
"It may seem impossible but nevertheless it's true. And that's not the problem. The problem is that one of them is a breech, it's upside down. I'll have to try and turn it around."
"You'll have to reach inside to do this, like with a mare having a filly?" Xena nodded. "Marianna, you will have to hold me down."
"I'll first give you something to relax your muscles, so it will be easier on you." The midwife answered.
"No! I'm afraid that's not possible. -- Ter, if I succeed, you will need control over your muscles to get them out as soon as it is turned around. We also have to take care that they don't get entangled in the umbilical cord. It could choke one of your babies to death."
"Do what you have to do, Xena. Marianna, come here, give me something to bite on. I don't want to alarm the whole village by screaming out loud. Put your hands on my shoulders and hold me down while Xena is working."
The older woman did as she was told reluctantly; her pride was bristling at the thought of this stranger, this murderer simply taking over. But her compassionate heart told her that if the Conqueror was right, a closer examination on her part could have spared Terreis a lot of suffering.
"I can't take away the pain, Ter, but I'll put the pinch on your thighs. You won't be able to move them any longer because you won't feel them. It's important that you don't move around too much. Everything will be all right soon."
Xena stood and went to the central room to wash her hands with the hot water simmering over the fireplace, wincing slightly when the steaming liquid met her bandaged right hand. She took an earthen jar out of her healing kit and coated her left hand and lower arm liberally with some sort of grease or jelly, after having removed her bracers. She closed her eyes for a moment as if in prayer and began her arduous task. For the next candledrops all one could hear were three sets of breathing, Xena's low and steady, Marianna's faster but still normal, Terreis' matching her frantic heartbeat and the grinding of her teeth against the wooden bit.
The tall warrior withdrew her arm, loosened the pressure points and with another pinch to Terreis' neck put her to sleep. Then she motioned for the midwife to follow her. She once again washed her hands and stood in front of the fireplace staring into the flames. For two long heartbeats her face was open, reflecting anguish and fear. Expressions not lost on the midwife who couldn't help but rejoice in the obvious helplessness of whom she saw as her adversary.
"So the great Conqueror doesn't know what to do. You're as helpless as I am. How does it feel? Having to tell her that she will die, having to tell her that her son will grow to be a man without her guidance and without his brother?"
Xena whirled around, her left hand automatically reached for a weapon no longer on her back. At the same time her still bandaged and slightly damp right hand curled itself around the woman's throat. She easily lifted her from the ground and saw the uneasy triumph in the woman's face change to utter fear. She held her, for one heartbeat, two heartbeats, three heartbeats, and then she slowly put her back on her feet; once again facing the flames. Marianna's first impulse was to run and alert the militia, but she just stood there as if mesmerised by the silent figure in front of her.
Heartbeats became candledrops, finally Xena turned around and asked her if some rare herbs were available in the village or the surrounding area. For two of them the midwife knew there were none and two others she didn't even know by name. The tall woman looked at her for a long time and made her squirm under her cold blue eyes.
"If Terreis accepts, I'll need your help, midwife." She once again turned, re-entered the bedroom and began to gently wake the pregnant woman.
"I put you to sleep because I didn't know how to tell you, Ter."
"Tell me, what? You didn't manage to turn my baby around, I know. I could feel your hand inside. You checked them out but you didn't turn them. Why?"
"They can't go out one after the other, Terry. They are connected, somehow, maybe intertwined. I don't know for sure but we will have to take both of them at the same time and there?."
Terreis put two fingers on Xena's lips. "I understand. You only call me Terry when it is really bad news. Regardless how much I relax, there's no way I can open up enough to let both of them pass at the same time. Right?" Xena nodded and the other woman took a deep breath. "Then there is only one way left. Open my belly and take the babies out. This way at least they will survive. My life isn't important."
"I disagree, Terry. There is a possibility to slow down your heartbeat. The internal bleeding wouldn't be as bad and you would also have a chance to survive. The easiest way to reach this state would be with the help of herbs but I don't have them in my kit and Marianna tells me that they can't be found around here. There's another way. It's dangerous, but it can be done, Terry."
"I'm certain, I won't like what you're going to say but I'm willing to listen."
"I didn't come here alone, Terreis. I'm part of Queen Melosa's entourage. -- No, please wait, let me speak my mind. After Persia, on more than one occasion, I showed you that the mind could control the matter, the body. Your mind can tell your heart to slow down but you will need a guide to do so and also to come back. I'm not good enough to guide you myself, especially with my attention focused on more physical matters like cutting and sewing. But there's one person in the Queen's party who is."
"You know how I feel about Melosa knowing that I'm still alive. I usually leave the village while she is here."
"I know but the Queen doesn't have to know, Melosa doesn't have to know. What I intend to do will give you a chance to survive. There's no guarantee. Phantes told me that he would be lost without you and Xenon also needs his mother. -- Akyra can keep her mouth shut if you and I ask her to. Please, Terry. Please think about it, the sooner we begin the better." The raven-haired woman turned around and regained her former place in front of the mantle.
Marianna didn't know what to say. What they were talking about was pure craziness. It was foolish and dangerous and arrogant and? She simply was speechless because at the same time it was the only possibility left.
About three candledrops later, Terreis called Xena's name. She returned to the bedroom. "Do it. Ask her. I don't understand what makes you think that she could be my guide but ask her."
"Thank you, Terry."
"Would any of you care to tell me what by Hades' helmet is going on here! Why is Lyceus hanging upside down and why are you all standing there, laughing like a bunch of damned hyenas?" Eponin barked.
The five girls immediately fell silent and suddenly found great interest in something on the ground. One of the girls named Coryma, part of her staff class, finally answered. "We were practising tree climbing when Thania asked if she and the boy could join us, but he was clumsy and fell."
"Get him down, now!" Thania cut the rope and three others helped him on his feet. "And now, I want the truth. I saw him playing catch with some girls of his age and he is all but clumsy. Coryma, you have one last chance to tell me the truth."
"We didn't practice. When Thania told us that she didn't have time to play with us because Xena wanted her to play with the boy; we thought this would be a great chance to have some fun. We played some hide and seek and he wasn't as bad as we expected. So we made it more interesting and took to the trees. We then wanted to make it even more of a challenge and went to the practice area for the scouts and hunters. That's how he ended upside down." The girl answered with a quivering voice.
"I suppose you all knew that there were traps and you all knew what to look out for, right?" She got hesitant and embarrassed nods as an answer. "And none of you thought of at least warning him." Even smaller nods. "Do you think that you acted like an honourable Amazon warrior should? Lyceus may be a boy but he also is a friend. Would you do this to your friends?" Their heads now were hanging even lower.
"It's one candlemark to sunset. I'll accompany Lyceus to his father's tent and I want you all to return to the village. I want you all to go to your mistresses or mothers and I want you to tell them that you acted without honour and that you have to be punished accordingly. Tomorrow morning, you all will go to Lyceus and the other men and you will tell him that you are sorry and that they shouldn't judge all Amazons by what you have done."
"But then everyone will know." One of the girls said.
"Well, that's what you will have to live with for acting as you did, isn't it? Go now, all of you."
When the weapons master entered the Queen's hut, some two candlemarks later, she found Thania kneeling in the far corner of the central room, naked, her back turned towards the door and a cane lying on a table next to her.
"Come here and put your clothes back on." The girl slowly got to her feet, picked the cane up and presented it to the dark haired warrior with trembling hands.
"I won't beat you, Thania. Corporal punishments are for adults only. It's a sign that they accept their guilt and are willing to pay for the damage done to the nation or individual Amazons. With first time apprentices, punishments serve to teach them, to help them not to make the same mistake again and again. Beatings don't serve this purpose, they don't teach anything."
"But by acting as I did, I dishonoured my mistress, I dishonoured the Queen. Only pain can help wash away something like this." Thania answered with tears in her eyes. Meanwhile the girl was once again on her knees in front of Eponin who sat in one of the chairs next to the desk.
Discarding the cane still offered to her, Eponin knelt next to the slim child, she took her chin in one hand and forced her to look into her eyes. "Thania, look at me and listen well. Honour is something one has here," she touched the girl's heart with the other hand, "and here." She touched the girl's head. "It's deep inside of you and nothing you do can taint the Queen's honour. It's her alone who can do damage to it or preserve it. What you all did to Lyceus wounded your own honour, not hers. Come on, stand up and then we'll sit down and you'll tell me what you really had to do with this stupid game."
Thania's whole body was trembling and having no great experience with kids Eponin at first was at a loss what to do. Finally she encircled the girl's shoulders and drew her nearer to her until she had her head against the warrior's chest. With the other hand she grabbed a soft blanket from the other chair and reluctant to let go of her charge, wrapped it around both of them. Small arms encircled her waist and the girl began to cry, silently at first but then sobbing loudly.
"It's all right, baby girl, everything will be all right. There was no harm done and Lyceus isn't angry with you. He told me that the children in Britannia also tried to make fun of him at first, but that they became very good friends. He also said that he doesn't need an apology but lessons in finding and avoiding traps."
"But I want to apologise, Eponin. I knew from the beginning when we changed the playing ground to the hunter's exercise area what they were up to but I didn't have the courage to say anything. I was a coward." The girl looked up to her with tears still running down her face.
"It's difficult to act against a group of one's peers, my girl, but I know that next time, you will think before you go along with any of them, even with your elders. Won't you?"
"Yes, Eponin, I'll try my best. What will be my punishment? -- I still think caning or whipping would be best."
"That's out of question, Thania. No. -- I spoke with the head cook, for the next five days you will spend three candlemarks daily helping in the kitchen. You will help to wash the plates and clean the frying pans and pots, scrub the floor in the dining hall, whatever the cook tells you to do, whether you like it or not. -- And now go and put some clothes on, I brought something to eat."
"I'm not really hungry. May I go to my room? I have a lot to think about."
"Of course you can, but don't be too hard on yourself. You're trying to find your way, you're still learning and making mistakes is part of learning; it's part of growing up. Everyone makes mistakes once in awhile, I know I do and even the Queen does." The Amazon warrior bent down and kissed the girl first on the forehead and then on both eyes. "Sleep well, baby girl."
Not wanting to eat alone, Eponin put the bread and cheese away to serve as their breakfast and sat down to do some paperwork. Some candlemarks later she woke with a start from soft paws insistently scratching her knee. The torches anchored in between the windows at the wall were fuming slightly having evidently just burned out and she still was sitting at the desk. While she was about to gather her wits, she heard a sound between keening and wailing coming from Thania's room.
Eponin patted the young lynx on the head and whispered. "Well done, little friend." She cautiously went over and peeked around the door. The young Amazon was crying and thrashing around on the mattress, obviously deep in the grip of a nightmare. Eponin lit the candle next to the bed and sat down. She didn't have the faintest idea what to do.
When Thania felt the mattress move under the weight of the weapons master, her body got absolutely still and rigid. She whispered. "Please, Mistress, don't do it, I promise, I'll never do it again. Please don't use the harness. Please, I'll never again eat without your permission. Please?."
Another wave of anger rushed through Eponin's veins. Her heart was breaking with every word the girl uttered, so she took her in her arms and began to awkwardly hum an old lullaby she remembered from her own childhood. She gently rocked her to and 'fro, stroking her hair. It seemed to work.
Thania slowly settled in a more normal breathing rhythm. The woman carefully turned around and made herself comfortable against the headrest, still cradling the smaller body in her arms.
For the first time in years, Eponin felt completely at peace, at least for a few precious moments, before her thoughts began to run rampant. Since the truth about Najara and the others had become public knowledge she never was far from wanting to kill the traitorous woman. But she also held herself responsible for the suffering of the innocent girl sleeping in her arms and now, in the middle of the night, she gave voice to her thoughts.
Eponin continued to stroke her hair, the girl's head resting comfortably between her breasts. "It's all my fault, baby girl. I failed you. I always tried to make sure that you were happy and that you were loved, but I failed you. I watched you grow from a helpless baby to an active toddler and a beautiful and smart kid but I didn't do what I should have done, I didn't keep you safe. I just hope that one day you will be able to forgive what your mother did to you."
"Why didn't you tell me, Eponin?" The warrior's body was paralysed with surprise but when the girl continued it once again drove a dagger in her heart. "I must have done something wrong to make you reject me. Tell me what it is and I promise I'll try to get better. I just found you; I don't want to lose you again."
"Oh, baby girl, you didn't do anything wrong. It's me, I'm not worth having someone as perfect as you as a daughter." The girl turned her head to look the older woman questioningly in the eyes. "I have to tell you the truth, you deserve to know the truth. The woman you knew as your second mother was my older sister." She fell silent but Thania didn't make any move to hurry her.
"She and our mother were weavers. I grew up in an Amazon village far south from Corinth. My mother and her mother and grandmother before her were famous for the quality of their fabrics but I never had patience enough to walk in their footsteps. I wanted to see the world; I wanted to go to Athens and Delphi and Ephesus and Rome and Britannia. So, I decided to become a warrior. I trained very hard during my first apprenticeship and got my mistress and the weapons' master of our village to recommend me for further training to the local regent. My folks weren't happy with my decision but finally I was able to convince them. The day I received the beads of a warrior was one of the happiest days in my life."
The Amazon once again fell silent and Thania said. "You don't have to tell me if it hurts too much. You can tell me later or not at all."
"No, Thanny, you have to know the truth, all of it. -- I did guard duty and tagged along with the hunters and the scouts. But a few moons after my initiation, I got the first mission leading me outside the confines of the village and its hunting grounds. A party of weavers and leather makers and other craftswomen went to a harvest market in a village about three days voyage west. Three other warriors and I were to escort them. It had been very peaceful and the contact with our neighbours was pretty good, so the Regent decided that more than four guards would equal a provocation.
"We made good time the first two days and decided to have an early night. We were looking forward to the market and the fair, especially the warriors because we were sure to win the archery and running competitions. I took the first watch and was also scheduled for the last one. In the middle of the night I got up because I couldn't sleep. I told my superior that I would take a walk and that I would be back for the last watch. She just nodded and turned around to continue to sleep. I got lost in the unfamiliar forest and when I finally found my way back, dawn already was breaking.
"I found my sister and my fellow Amazons surrounded by a group of men, outnumbered and bound. They were slavers and prepared to transport them the Gods only know where. I had to do something but instead of hurrying back to the village and getting help, I decided that I had to save them all on my own. I just walked into their midst and taunted them. It was a stupid plan but somehow it worked. They were able to escape but I was captured."
Eponin stopped talking and soon she felt a small hand caressing her cheek. Thania who some time ago had recognised the intonation Xena used to speak about something she was ashamed of or about something that still was hurting her said. "Please, don't hurt yourself. I can imagine what happened next."
The weapons master's left hand captured her right by the wrist, she gently turned it around and kissed its palm. "What is causing me pain is not what these men did to me while I was their prisoner, it's what I did after my sisters had freed me, Thania.
"The four or five days I was in their hands I didn't receive any physical injuries. I was bound, unable to defend myself, unable to hurt myself, unable to end my life. My Amazon sisters killed thirteen of them but another seven escaped. I didn't return to the village. All I wanted to do was to end their lives. And that's what I did. But I didn't stop when I had found them. I kept on killing, every man who had the courage to look into my eyes, every man coming near enough to touch me. I didn't care if they were slavers or soldiers or simple village folks. When one of them ended his life at the end of my sword I felt alive and only then the images of the men grabbing my breasts and thrusting their cocks inside of me disappeared. I was about to lose my soul and I didn't even care.
"About three moons later, I stumbled exhausted into a temple. I just wanted a place to sleep and I didn't know whose temple it was. To me it was just a building, a means to take shelter in a storm. I collapsed in front of the offerings to the left of the altar and when I regained my spirits I was laying on a comfortable cot, surrounded by warmth and the scent and sounds of a fireplace. I tried to get up but I couldn't feel my legs, from the waist downwards everything was numb. I heard footsteps and instinctively reached for my sword but it had disappeared along with my daggers, bow and arrows.
"There was a curtain facing the bed, it opened and a tall woman with big blue eyes glided through. Thinking of it, she bore a great resemblance to Xena. She told me that her name was Lea and that she was the high priestess of Hestia. I began to laugh but she didn't see anything humorous in finding an Amazon in front of the statue of the Goddess of Virginity and to make it worse, a pregnant Amazon . That's when I stopped laughing.
"I spent the winter with the Hestian virgins. They mostly left me to my own devices; Lea was the only one who insisted on talking to me. Bit by bit, I told her what had happened and she talked to me of love and forgiveness and about the dangers and temptations of darkness. She also saw to it that I had lots of things to read. I'm not really fond of reading, but with my legs being immobilised there was nothing else to do. Most of the scrolls she gave to me were about Amazon law and Amazon history, about victories and sacrifices. She never told me where she got them. Slowly I began to feel the new life growing inside of me.
"The first days after she told me all I wanted to do was to get rid of this thing," Eponin internally flinched at her own words, "but the stories I read changed my mind. I learned that every life is a gift regardless how it came to be and I began to talk to you about the things we would do when we were back in the Amazon village. The day I first felt you kicking me, feeling returned to my legs. It took another half moon before I was strong enough to begin my journey back to my sisters. For a while I even thought to become a weaver to give you the peaceful life I felt you deserved.
"But there was no village left, only the long burned out ruins of our huts and remnants of hastily erected funeral pyres. There were faint traces of footsteps in the ground of early spring. I followed them to a cave we had intended to use for emergencies. Only four of my fellow Amazons were left, my sister was one of them, the others had been killed or taken to slavery about one and a half moon earlier by a warlord and his army. When my sister told me how my mother had died, trying to defend herself with one of her weaving spindles, I was blinded by anger and hatred and darkness, a darkness I thought I had left behind in the temple of Hestia. All I wanted to do is kill them. Then you began to kick out, as if you were able to feel my emotions.
"We decided to join one of the other Amazon villages but we waited for about four moons after your birth to set out on our journey. We were on foot and though we tried to stay clear from the main roads, I still had a lot of fighting to do and every time I had to kill one of our opponents I was tempted by the darkness lingering just behind the surface of my soul. I felt that I couldn't risk that you might suffer from my violent heart or fall prey to the darkness, so, when we came here I asked my sister to take care of you and not to let anyone know who your birth mother was. -- It's sad to know that by trying to protect you from the darkness, I made you the victim of a dark soul."
Silence settled over them like a blanket, finally Eponin closed her eyes and continued. "I can understand if you don't want to have anything to do with me any longer, Thania, now that you know the truth."
"Eponin, is it okay to call you 'mom'?"
"You really want to?" The older woman asked with wonder in her voice.
"Yes. I always dreamed of having a mother as powerful and honourable and sincere as you are. Before Xena came here, I wouldn't have understood why you believed you had to keep your distance from me, but she taught me a lot about the temptations of darkness when telling stories about her past. I know that it hurts her to recall her actions; I can hear it in her voice as I just heard it in yours. She told me that the memories were helping her not to go back to those dark times. I loved my second mother and now I once again have someone to give this love to, now I have you, mum."
Eponin closed her arms even tighter around the girl's body, kissed her hair and whispered. "Thank you, my daughter."
Continued in part II