A tall woman with long dark hair and very pale blue eyes paused in the very last leg of her journey home to stetch out a kink in her back. A long day, but a good one. A long day that was part of a very long trip. Not every result of the trip was a happy one, but in the end, the good outweighed the bad. Humming a little, feeling uncharacteristically cheerful, she found herself just feeling, happy.
Was it happy? She paused, giving the question some real, almost sobre thought.
Well, who'd have thunk it? For this moment, right now, that was what she was. Really happy. She couldn't explain it, so she didn't waste energy trying, instead she ran the rest of the way home, slowing down just out of sight of the house and stilling her face into pseudo composure before approaching the door.
Inside the house, a rather shorter, slightly stockier woman sat working at a desk, one hand full of her hair, which though it had faded to platinum since her much younger days was staying stubbornly on the non-white side of grey. The scroll she was working over gleamed slightly in the fading sunlight where the rich, purplish-brown ink was drying. The right end to the verse was almost there, on the tip of her mind, she was sure of it.
The uncharacteristic sound of her partner thumping up the front steps and smacking into the front door before opening it made her raise her head.
"Are you drunk?"
"No I'm not drunk! Sheesh, hello, I love you, I missed you too!" By now it was pretty clear why Xena had made such an unusual racket. Her arms were full of firewood, gathered up from the woodbin by the front door. When Xena banged and clattered up the stairs, it was because she had already surmised that her partner was in a barding haze.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry." helping Xena offload her burdens into their spot by the fire. "And I most certainly do love you, and I did miss you." Gabrielle batted her eyelashes, and wrapped both arms around Xena, heedless of woodchips and the smells of the road.
"Uh huh." They shared a kiss before Xena spoke again. "What are you working on?"
"A song, this time. I really think this one is singable!" Gabrielle smacked one fist into an open palm (luckily, her own, Xena's would have been quite a reach as she had walked back to her desk).
"I sure hope so. Will you try this one out on Avi first instead of me this time?" Xena pulled her tunic off over her head, parleying the gesture into hanging the garment up beside a single storage box she used across from the fireplace.
"You don't want to try it out first?" Gabrielle sounded nettled.
"Sure I do, if only to save your bardly rep from the stain of unsingable songs!" Gabrielle threw a pillow she customarily sat on at her. "I just meant that after the usual, try it on Xena and see if she can get through it stage, you should give it to Avi. You write perfectly for her voice except for the occasional unsingable line." Sitting down with unfailing grace even after so many years fighting, Xena stretched out her legs and began turning something around between her hands.
"I write perfectly for a woman whose voice sounds like she's suffering from smoke inhalation?" This was an old joke, one Avi herself had told. Avi being a rugged, middle-aged priestess of Artemis and an old friend. Avi didn't sound bad at all. Her gravelly voice just tended to surprise people. 'I've sounded like this since I was six, honest!' she had protested to Xena once.
"Mmmm." Xena made a point of conspicuously peering at whatever she was holding.
"What have you got there, anyway?"
"Oh, just a little something that it finally seems like the right time to give you."
"Ah hah! Presents!" Gabrielle gave a triumphant cackle and worked her way right into Xena's side on the sofa. The sofa was a rather weird piece of furniture, the idea for which Xena had come home with one day after a sojourn in the more northwesterly parts of the Amazon Nation.
Xena chuckled. "You could say that." And then she just sat there.
Two can play that game. Gabrielle folded her arms, determined to wait her partner out, whom she could now see was in an uncharacteristically ebullent mood.
Three and a quarter maybe.
Moving with speed and authority, Gabrielle straddled her partner and managed to get a good grip on Xena's powerful forearms. By no means a bad position, actually. The sturdy, corded muscles in Gabrielle's own arms surprised even some of the most unflappable Amazons. "Now I've gotcha!"
"Okay. I give up." Neatly snaking one arm loose, Xena dropped whatever it was down her lover's shirt.
"You damn jerk!" They were soon both laughing as Gabrielle struggled to get whatever it was out of her shirt without taking it off while remaining dignified about it. The effort gave Xena a very pointed view of some of her partner's assets at close range.
"Wow, I oughta throw presents down your shirt more often." Xena commented, almost forgetting her original purpose.
"Such a filthy mind." Gabrielle beamed, and having finally extricated the gift from her shirt, took a good look at it. And then nearly fell off of Xena's lap onto the floor.
She was holding a gorgeous silver pendant, the kind one Amazon gave to another only when proposing a full-blown, for really Amazon joining ceremony with all the trimmings.
When she had managed to catch her breath, Gabrielle carefully checked her partner's forehead. "Are you sick?" she asked bluntly, when the results seemed normal.
"Nope. It just felt like time I officially asked you if you'd like to have one of those big ceremonies I know you've wanted for years."
"That's not the point."
"The noise? All the hand shaking? The teasing?"
"Gabrielle, the whole point is that this is my gift to you, if you would like to have it. I made up my mind a long time ago that if ever it was in my power to do this, I would." Xena admitted to herself mentally that she might regret this later, but not enough to outweigh the huge, face splitting grin on her bard's face.
And certainly, much later, having made some serious use of the blanket that usually covered the back of the sofa and the bear rug in front of the fire, Xena figured it was almost too bad you couldn't give that sort of gift more than once.
All of this is not to say that Xena and Gabrielle hadn't been joined. In fact they had, in a quiet village ceremony back in Amphipolis when Cyrene and her divine lover had still lived there. Years before the warrior and bard had relocated to the Amazon Nation for good, after the queenship stuff had been sorted out, and Aphrodite had made some unexpected arrangements on their behalf.
A very modest ceremony, although Xena's daughter Xander had been present by arrangement of her foster mother whose name was generally unpronouncable to Greek speakers, so everybody called her Larth. It was Larth who had brought the request that finally led Xena and Gabrielle to move to the Amazon Nation itself, not merely an outlying village like Arboria. Ephiny and Eponin had followed not too long afterwards, bringing their merry baby Kleis and mischievous toddler Otto with them.
It wasn't all happy days. Xena still had many bad old days to work against, and she still suffered hostility and even stone throwing in some places. Even as Gabrielle became more involved in participating in Amazon society, Xena was still heading out to help those who asked. Until, that is, the day Gabrielle grabbed her by the ear and hauled her back to their home to give her a very pointed explanation of what Aphrodite's arrangements included.
Xena's response to the news that Gabrielle was pregnant and barring the obvious Aphrodite factor only she could be responsible?
"Heh heh. Oops."
End result, while the kids were small, Xena stayed much closer to home. This gave her a chance to get to know her daughter Xander better, an excellent side effect. By the time Xena and Gabrielle had five small girls keeping them busy, the juggling act was sufficiently complicated that Gabrielle went and had a heart to heart chat with Aphrodite.
Two more diametrically different, yet strikingly similar young women as Xander and Xena and Gabrielle's eldest daughter, named Leuko, could not have been imagined.
Xander was very like Xena, sharing her pale blue eyes, dark hair and height. But she was stockier, with a divet in her chin and wavy, unruly, hair rather than Xena's straighter, tidier mane. Somewhere along the line Xander had determined that having her hair much longer than about mid-neck was too much. Still, she had that 'Xena-esque' quality as Gabrielle referred to it that shouted loud and clear whose daughter she was as if it had been carefully drawn on her forehead.
On one hand, Leuko was even more like Xena in appearance than Xander. She looked much as Xena had herself in her early days, before Cortese and a thousand other things. Where Xander was quiet spoken, Leuko was breezy and voluble. Where Leuko was the life of the party and an irrepressible ham, Xander tended to avoid big gatherings, preferring smaller, more intimate settings with a few friends or family. Both were excellent warriors. These days Leuko was busy building her reputation as a weaponmaster, while Xander was rising rapidly in the warrior-priestess order of Artemis. End result, Xander and Leuko were practically the poster children for ongoing sibling rivalry. Ongoing, but not too obnoxious. Well, most of the time.
For her part, Gabrielle tried to keep the peace, and gave quiet thanks that she had made the decision to give up the queenship of Arboria for a council seat in Themiskyra instead. Political plays by those hoping for influence on her through her eldest daughters would then have been corrosive instead of amusing. She hadn't been sure, initially, if this was the right path. But the position was flexible, she wasn't bound to Themiskyra except insofar as she wanted to bring up her children there. And it allowed Gabrielle to rectify a mistake she had made because of a jealous streak she still struggled with.
And now here they were, Gabrielle reflected, sitting beside her partner in the anteroom of Artemis' only roofed temple. Waiting to officially declare to the temple head priestess, who happened to be Avi, that the long-awaited, hoped for, and betted on Amazon joining ceremony of the Nation's most famous couple was at last going to happen. Whoever was in Avi's office at the moment sounded unlikely to stop talking before sometime next spring, unfortunately.
In reality, it only took a short while, and then Avi was brskly handing the previous person out and practically shoving Xena and Gabrielle into chairs, presenting them with mugs of tea. This meant she needed a break, so Xena stifled her impatience and Gabrielle tried not to stare too blatantly at the fearsome looking panther sprawled on the hearth rug. The panther's name was Meep. Xena and Gabrielle agreed between themselves that the name was appalling, but the panther in question didn't seem too preturbed by it.
"Sorry you two. Maia always makes my skull ache." Setting down her empty mug, Avi stretched her arms and resettled herself in her seat. "So what brings you here? Xena, have you ever set foot in here before?" Winning for herself a pair of glares.
Clearing her throat, Xena decided to take the plunge. After all, she had sort of started this, although it could equally be argued Gabrielle had much earlier. "Well, Gabrielle and I have decided to have an Amazon joining ceremony at last..." She stopped short. Avi's eyes had gotten almost comically round. Even the panther looked up from its comfortable position by the fire.
"Seriously?" They had no idea what this meant. Maybe she could convince them to hang tight just one more season?
"Yes!" Gabrielle declared vigorously, a bit put out by her friend's reaction. You'd think she and Xena had been living in sin or something.
"Now then, don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad thing. Of course not, it's wonderful!" And you're gonna try to kill me when I explain the rest. "It's just, you two have managed to bang into one of the craziest, most obscure Amazon marriage laws. Don't ask me who came up with it, I don't know."
"Oh?" the warrior and bard managed to state the syllable in deadly unision.
Avi sighed. "And this means I have to spoil someone else's news." The panther stood up and moved to curl itself around her legs. "Mm... hello, sweetness." She absently ran her fingers through the animal's fur. "Well, anyway," snapping to attention. "Were you aware that Leuko and Evadne have already been here, making a similar declaration?"
"We knew they had almost made up their minds about it. Why didn't they say something!" Gabrielle burst out.
"Maybe they were waiting for a family get together?" Avi suggested.
"How does this cause our joining to invoke an obscure Amazon marriage law?" Xena interrupted.
"Ah well, that's just it, isn't it?" Avi took a deep breath, and wished her mug wasn't empty. "Many years ago, for reasons perhaps related to a bad practical joke at least, that's my best guess an addition was made to the Amazon joining laws. It states basically this: if it should happen that the parents of a daughter who is going to take part in a joining ceremony have not yet have taken part in such a ceremony themselves, and they decide that they would like to get joined too..." Avi paused to take another breath. "the eldest daughter of the parent couple must also get joined, or else the next oldest who has not yet gotten joined if the eldest daughter is already joined, all three joinings must be held during the main summer solstice ceremony. Each couple must successfully meet a different challenge to allow their joining to go forward, and the arrangements must be made and the challenges met by three days before the summer solstice."
A vein had started jumping over Xena's right eye.
"So, I would recommend that you hold back until say, next year, and that way you won't have a three ring circus trampling all over your fun." Avi knew all too well of what she was speaking. She wasn't exactly an ordinary friend, being immortal, and having seen the results the last time the law got invoked. Lots of fun was had by all, and the party had gone down in history, although a few chroniclers insisted it had been a sort of glorified riot.
"You have got to be kidding." Gabrielle didn't have any veins bulging in her forehead, but somehow she made Avi feel more nervous. "What kind of idiot came up with such a stupid, unmanagable, uncalled for..."
"Or maybe it was somebody's way of making sure such unusual and fortunate circumstances were greeted by a huge party." Avi said, as if attending to a different conversation.
"Ah bacchae tits." cursed Xena.
"It's pure Aphrodite, isn't it?" Gabrielle sighed. "Another gift, in a way."
"We can't just throw it back at her, I mean..."
"And it would be a great thing for the Amazons. It'd be like giving something back to them for all the years they've supported us, and..."
Xena put her head in her hands.
"What? How hard can this be?"
"Gabrielle," Xena turned so that she was looking Gabrielle deeply in the eye. "Xander doesn't even have a steady girlfriend. When she hears about this, she's gonna have a stroke!"
"Oh. Good point. In that case, we can wait one more year, right?" But the note of total disappointment in Gabrielle's voice wrung Xena's heart. The warrior sighed. One of these days, she was going to remember to get Gabrielle to set her heart out of wringing range for sticky questions like this. Better yet, she was going to remember to check for stupid issues like this before trying to give a gift like this again.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, but unless Xander does actually have someone in mind I don't know what else we can do."
"Loophole." Gabrielle jumped to her feet. "There has to be a loophole!"
Otto sank blissfully back into piping hot water, trying to remember the last time she hadn't had to heat and pour her own bath water. The effort in remembrance soon sputtered out, napping being a more attractve prospect.
"If you're this tired now, are you sure going through the Test is such a good idea? Couldn't it wait until, oh, never?" Eponin sounded uncharacteristically fretful.
"Mother, would you please relax? I've been training for this test for over five years. I wouldn't even be in the running if there were any doubts about my ability to withstand the challenges." Otto kept her eyes shut.
"If you seriously expect that to make me feel better, you haven't learnt a thing at Hekate's temple." groused Eponin, throwing a couple of handfuls of bath salts in Otto's water. Otto was limping noticably, whether from the long ride to Themiskyra or from a nagging injury, there was no way to tell.
Peeling open one eye, Otto smirked. "I am well aware that you and Mom will only be happy if some way, somehow, you can pack me up in cotton wool and straw." She wiggled her toes and peered through the steam at the bath water. "For pity's sake, if you throw anymore bathsalts in here we'll be getting crystal deposits on the edges of the tub!"
In the main room, Ephiny chuckled as her partner and her eldest daughter bantered back and forth. She missed having both her daughters around the house. Kleis was at sea, working as a navigator on an Amazon merchant ship. Otto had been away for the better part of seven years now, barring short visits home. Her decision to apprentice into the Order of Hekate, let alone into a branch of the order so far away had garnered protests from practically everyone Otto knew, let alone her mothers. But Ephiny hadn't protested as vigourously as some believed she should. 'Some' being those who didn't know Otto as well as she did.
"You're sure about this? This isn't even vaguely a knee-jerk sort of idea?" Otto had been broody and foul-mooded for days before announcing her decision. Ephiny was among the very few who understood that her sturdy, practical daughter was eating her heart out over the eldest daughter of a certain warrior princess.
"Yeah. I need to get away, Mom. Face some different challenges." Follow an unexpected talent for temple singing and potion making alongside an expected talent for weapon-wielding. Get away from this embarrassing unrequited love thing.
"And that's all this is about."
"Yeah. That's all." Otto insisted sturdily. So Eponin helped her pack, saying the odd time her partner caught her mopping at her eyes, 'The dust in this kid's room, can you believe it?'
Hekate could be a fearsome Goddess to serve, as she put up with no nonsense and demanded her followers face their fears and insecurities. Still, Otto never wavered after her mind was made up, and the experience had done her a remarkable amount of good. An unexpected growth spurt set her a head taller than Ephiny, and she had put on a solid layer of muscle. On the other hand, Otto had also acquired a rather alarming scar collection, a tattoo running from behind her left ear, down the left side of her neck and over her left shoulder, and an eerie, penetrating gaze. Otto's new 'look' was already famous.
"I don't know what it is," Leuko confided to Eponin one day. "her eyes are weird now."
At last Otto emerged from the steamy bathing room, scrubbing her hair dry with a towel. "That was awesome. Thanks Moms." she warbled with a broad grin, giving Eponin a hug and kissing Ephiny on the cheek. "Want me to make tea?" An old habit, this offer was, as well as a reflection of Otto's flare for potion making. Potion making had actually started from her experiments with making interesting herbal teas and spiced ciders.
"Actually, we're a step ahead of you this time." Drawing the tea pot out of the coals and uncovering a dinner tray, Ephiny added, "For this evening at least your mother and I are going to monopolize your attention, and that means we refuse to let you work."
Leuko and Evadne had joined Gabrielle in the determined search for a loophole in the bizarre Amazon marriage law.
"What sort of loophole are we looking for?" Evadne asked after lugging down what seemed like the thousandth scroll.
"One that gets us out of what amounts to making one of your soon to be fated-sisters get married when none of them are ready for that yet." The twins were barely twelve winters old, Cyrene the younger was far from settled down, Ino was too busy training as a healer, and Aydin Aydin was like Gabrielle, except taller, as Xena liked to tease. Trouble followed Aydin wherever she went, or failing that she brought it along. Not only was she silver-tongued, she had an alarming aptitude for picking pockets and the like. When it became clear Aydin and her rascally uncle Autolycus were natural pals, Xena had forced him to swear on pain of loss of certain body parts he would rather keep not to teach Aydin anything from his trade. Not that Xena need have worried much. Aydin was gloriously indifferent to 'stuff.' It was the sleight of hand that fascinated her. When Xena was hoping for a responsible, calm life for her children, she hoped Aydin would settle on being a parlour magician or something else equally innocuous. In her heart of hearts, though, she knew that the adventurous streak she had inherited from Gabrielle probably meant Aydin would end up being the Queen of Thieves or something.
When it came to the crazed Amazon joining law though, everything kept coming back to Xander. She didn't have a steady girlfriend, didn't even seem interested these days. Gabrielle tipped her head to one side and sucked at the feather end of her quill. The sort of exception to the rule was Otto. She and Xander were nearly inseparable friends, or at least they were, until Otto had gone off to join the Order of Hekate. For the first month or so after Otto left, Xander had gone around with a bewildered expression like that of someone who had managed to misplace their right arm, and found it firmly attached to somebody else.
Anyway, Xander had been away from home now herself for nearly four years. They had hardly heard from her at all in the last two. Gabrielle was afraid to think much about what that might mean.
"Can we just make a loophole?" Leuko asked suddenly. She was a bit bored, truth be told.
"What do you mean?" Could you argue for such a thing in council? Gabrielle wondered.
"I mean make a loophole. You know, write one in." gesturing at the scroll explaining the troublesome law in question. "Look at all the space. Otto's back, isn't she? Get her to mix up a matching ink, and presto! No more trouble."
Seeing Gabrielle's expression shift into outrage mode, Evadne spoke up quickly. "Or why not just go and ask Aphrodite to sort it out? It's fair enough to explain why the law is unworkable and ask for a change, surely?"
"If Aphrodite was the one who came up with it." piped up Xena from her place holding up the doorframe. She was full of sawdust and woodchips from helping to build a new house.
"You don't think she did?" asked Evadne.
"The more I think about it, the more it seems too convoluted for her somehow. In view of the challenge Avi suggested Gabrielle and I meet, I figure Ares had a hand in it, the jackass."
"What? Oh come on. We've dealt with him lots of times. How b..." Xena quickly covered Gabrielle's mouth.
"Every time you say, 'how bad could it be?' the sky practically falls. Let's not tempt Fate anymore, okay?" Satisfied her partner would avoid the dangerous phrase, Xena grimmaced. "The challenge Avi suggested was making peace with your family."
"Oh great." Gabrielle threw down the scroll she had been poring over with disgust. "Forget it, we can wait until next year."
Although her father had died some ten years before, and her mother had originally seemed the more accepting of the two, it was as if Hecuba felt she had to carry on her husband's opposition on his behalf. Which was not say she didn't have doubts and worries of her own. She just seemed to have extra cold shoulder to give when she expressed them. Even Lila had become less tolerant.
"Bummer." commented Leukos, who was more fond of Aphrodite's diction than she would ever openly admit. She couldn't imagine what sort of challenge she and Evadne could face under the circumstances. They were actually kind of, ordinary. Met during one of the harvest festivals. Went walking together and spent hours talking. Managed to find something deeper than pure lust. Moved in together and negotiated the adjustments and usual conflicts new young couples face. Not that any of this was unduly easy. Leukos knew very well she and her partner were lucky. Still, 'challenge' implied something, big. Difficult. "Did Avi say what the point of the challenge is supposed to be? I mean, a challenge could be about anything."
"The purpose of the challenge is to provide a reality check." Avi drawled, carefully gathering up some scrolls making a break for the floor. "A reality check for you, and for those who witness how you handle it. If you aren't being realistic, getting joined is probably a bad idea." She frowned at the quill and ink by Gabrielle's elbow. "Think what an excellent example you can be of perserverence, bravery, and quick thinking."
"I thought that was what strategy games were for." Evadne muttered.
"My dear, we're talking about relationships where the parties don't actively try to kill each other on a literal or mock basis at irregular intervals." Shaking her head in mild irritation, Avi began rolling up the scrolls.
"So you're saying this is supposed to be a sort of public demonstration?" the vein was bulging on Xena's forehead again.
"Eww, Xena, you ought to have a healer check out the twitchy vein on your forehead." For several long moments, Avi pondered how to answer Xena's question. "Yes, and no." She said finally. "The challenges get at doubts, Xena. The fundamental doubts that can seriously endanger a relationship. Hmm?" Giving Gabrielle a significant look.
"So instead of keeping a doubt, you do some freaky challenge?" butted in Leukos.
"Quite so. Doubts have a nasty habit of growing and getting nasties encrusted on them until they crowd out the things in your head you'd rather think about. Like good food and better sex. Or cliff diving." Pausing, Avi looked at her compatriots, who were all paying close attention now. "So instead, the challenge gives you a reality check, and you either lose the doubt..."
"Or bail out of the relationship." Gabrielle sighed. "Dammit, this is actually starting to sound like a good idea, at least for couples who haven't been together for years already."
The clearing was quiet, and utterly empty except for one person who sat cross-legged in the precise centre of it. The person was dressed entirely in black, and wore a light hood pulled most of the way over her face. One hand loosely held a stone, smooth, almost egg-shaped, the other a chain with an amulet hanging on it. Anyone passing by, if they managed to see her where she sat stone-still in the shadows, would have thought she was praying. Which, as it happens, she was.
"Otreros, I would speak with you."
In spite of what were now years of training, Otto nearly jumped out of her skin anyway. Even though she actually felt the odd, tingling sensation, heard the almost hum that preceded her Goddess' arrival. Even forewarned, she still jumped like a startled fawn. It pissed her off a little.
"There is no shame in being startled. It means you have escaped at least one form of arrogance. Probably several." Hekate sat down carefully in front of Otto, and gently pushed her hood back. "We have gone through this already, and you need not cover your eyes in my presence anymore."
"I know. Force of habit, I guess." Otto smiled a little. "Hey, do I actually see what you look like, or just what I can handle?"
"A little of the one, and more of the other." Hekate was pleased by the question, because she tapped one finger gently on the back of Otto's left hand. An obscure gesture in many ways, Otto had learnt its meaning nearly a year ago.
"Your Test will begin in three days. But yours is not the only Test and the other tests ultimately tie to your own. The others fear to face the One Who Doubts. Do you?"
"Yes. That won't stop me from facing the One Who Doubts." Otto replied grimly.
"The One Who Doubts will show to you the doubts you did not know you had, the doubts that you have perhaps forgotten. They will not be put aside easily."
"I understand. I will still take the Test."
"The others who shall be tested never intended to take such a challenge. They think to avoid it. I rule the Test, and I will no longer allow them to avoid it. Perhaps they would call you foolish, seizing the challenge I give, instead of avoiding it for as long as possible."
"That could be. Somehow I'd rather choose the time to take the challenge, rather than be caught unawares."
"Still, perhaps you are unready."
"The others most certainly are."
"Well done." Hekate relaxed a little. "Let no surprise from the events of the next seven days show on your face."
The order made Otto feel alarmed. Hekate always gave a smaller geas for candidates to hold. She hadn't expected one quite like this. Inoccuous on one hand. A terrifying prospect on the other. Otto had been infamous for her transparent face from the age of eight when she accidentally showed how one of Aydin's favourite sleight of hand tricks worked via her astonished expression when she saw the coin drop into Aydin's sleeve.
"Okay." What else could she say?
"Still water is transparent, yet it conceals more than it reveals the deeper it is. Think on it." Then Hekate was gone. Just like that.
Shivering, Otto mopped at the cold sweat gathered on her face. All pretty smooth from her perspective, until right at the end. Ah well. Couldn't expect it to be all smooth sailing, Hekate was a Goddess and she was most definitely not. Fair enough.
Returning her amulet to its usual spot hung around her neck and the black stone to its designated pouch on her belt, Otto began the walk home. Frowning, she stretched the cold stiffened, achy muscles in her right leg, legacy of a nasty break. Otto stretched them out and massaged the warmth back into them. She couldn't allow herself to hobble too much, if she was going to avoid talking with her Moms about the break in the first place. They just didn't need to know how close Otto had come to dying a mere three months before this trip home.
Deep in the night though it was, candles were burning in the living room, and Otto could already see the likely scene in her mind's eye. Mother struggling valiantly to stay awake, even though she was an early riser. Mom fletching arrows to keep her hands busy. For a few moments Otto stood in front of the door, wishing Kleis was home to finish the picture properly. She'd be sprawled on her stomach on the hearth rug, drawing and colouring in yet another fanciful map of places never seen or never real. Adding dragons and bats to the corners.
The rest of what she imagined was there, though. Suppressing a grin, Otto paused by the door to unbelt her overtunic and pull it off over her head. It was made of heavy wool and beaded besides, so it was physically fairly heavy and excellent in cold weather or the chill of early mornings and late evenings. Her Moms approved of it.
At long last, the tall double gates of Themiskyra became visible in the distance. They were open at the moment, and even this far away trading caravans could be picked out, straggling in their centipedish way in or out. Almost, almost, Xander thought she saw the flashes off of the well-polished strings of coins Amazons from the northeast customarily wore over their hair, or from the garish metal tooling the Chadesian spearwielders so loved to apply to their leathergear.
The sun was beating down on her head, and all Xander could taste in her mouth was acrid dust and the metallic taint from a healing split in her lip. She had felt far worse. Tasted worse, too, she reflected. Taking a swig of water from a half-empty waterskin, she rinsed her mouth before taking a long drink. The temptation to push her loyal mare to get them to Themiskyra as quickly as possible was nearly overwhelming. Anemone was too good a companion for Xander to do that to her, though. So when the wind brought the unmistakable smell of the sweet waters of the Thermodon ford, Xander dismounted and led Anemone to the water.
"We'll take a rest 'til the sun has gone down a bit, okay girl?" Patting the mare fondly, Xander stripped off the saddle and tack, using the saddle blanket to rub Anemone down. "How 'bout I check those hooves?"
Anemone was one of Xena's beloved warhorse Argo's foals. Born very small, things hadn't looked too promising for her. A pint-sized version of Argo but for her startling black mane and tail, Anemone had struggled to stand, and after the first day was barely walking beside her mother. Six year old Xander had absolutely refused to hear of anything bad possibly happening to Argo's new foal. For the better part of three weeks she had slept in the stable, carefully covering up Anemone with her favourite blanket in the evenings when the foal had curled up in the straw for the night. The logic of this was not necessarily clear to outsiders. Xander knew, with all the certainty a determined six year old could muster, that this blanket was magic, and was good against being sick and having nightmares. About the nightmares, well, Mom had made the blanket to help chase the away when she wasn't visiting at Larth's house. And when Gabrielle got a terrible fever when Xander was five, Xander had insisted on covering the bard with the blanket because it was easy to get nightmares when you were sick. And then Gabrielle had gotten better in fact, she had recovered far faster than anyone expected. Which meant the blanket was magic, Xander was sure of it.
The jury might have been out on the powers of Xander's favourite blanket, but if it wasn't magic it didn't do any harm. By the end of the three weeks, Anemone was trotting proudly alongside Argo out of the stable and into the adjoining field. From then on, Xander could invariably be found in the fields first thing in the morning, playing with Anemone and Argo.
"Xena, are you sure Xander doesn't think she's a horse?" Larth asked one day.
"Sure I am. The real question is if Anemone thinks she's a human."
Sitting down with her back propped against a tree, Xander dug some dried meat out of her pack and stuck a chunk of it in one cheek. Since she wasn't hungry, at least it would drown out the metallic taste. Her lip was still tender and prone to weep a bit in spite of Xander's best efforts not to break the scab. Oh well. She turned her mind to more important matters.
So, Xander. What are you going to tell the folks about where you've been these past two years?
The question seemed impossible to answer, even though the truth wasn't too complicated.
Her cousins, uncle Toris' kids, for whatever reason, had never liked her much. Still, Xander was brought up to be a civil person, and when she was in the area she stopped in Amphipolis to visit the old inn and pay her respects. The old inn wasn't in the happiest shape nowadays. Oh, it was well taken care of, busy, popular even. With a hard drinking crowd, catering mainly to the Athenian garrison. The catering was becoming quite extensive, so extensive Polyneices was sniffing around for comely slaves to serve as prostitutes. Not a good scene.
Thinking it over now, lazing in the shade a bare afternoon's ride from Themiskyra, Xander wondered if Polyneices' actions had been motivated by fear she'd tell her mother what he had done to Cyrene's Inn, and the sorts of things he was now able to countenance. If that was the case, the sad irony was, Xander had sworn to herself to say nothing and simply take a few quiet steps to ameliorate the worst of her cousin's new business interests. Breaking her mother's heart wasn't on Xander's to do list. And her heart wasn't up to taking home such terrible news about the nephew who so resembled uncle Lykeus.
Maybe at the last second, Polyneices had an attack of conscience, though. Well, conscience of a sort.
He had asked her to help unload a supply wagon, Xander remembered. When her arms were full of heavy boxes, the lights suddenly went out. Later she determined that he had bashed her upside the head with a cudgel. Bashed her so hard in fact, Xander had remained unconscious for four days and Polyneices thought he might have killed her. By the time she woke up, he had a plan. A more lucrative one than his original, which apparently involved selling her to some southern slave traders who paid a merry premium for blue-eyed body slaves.
Xander woke up to hear her cousin muttering, "She's like Xena, right? Sure she is, she lifted that stupid damned box usually only four of us together can push. Look at all the weapons and shit in her stuff! Right, right." His next step was to crop Xander's hair. Xander could deal with bad haircuts. Hair grows back, after all. It was the next thing she'd never forgive. "Well, you haven't got much to speak of up top anyway, no good on the southern market right now." Polyneices chewed violently at his lip. "Look, I'm doin' you a favour, see? A big favour. I'm looking out for you." Then he punched her in the throat.
Through the stars in her eyes, Xander had come up off the floor in a rage, actually breaking apart most of the bindings Polyneices had trussed her up in. Except for the concussion, things would have been far worse for him. The result, after the swelling had gone down, was Xander's voice had become rough and difficult to categorize. Male or female?
Satisfied with his handiwork, such as it was, Polyneices dragged her down to the Amphipolis market the next day. By early afternoon, Xander was on a broad-bottomed trade ship heading for Latium, the latest acquisition of one of the rising provisioners for the gladiatorial games.
For two terrible years, Xander's days had been circumscribed by the training grounds, the arena, and the barracks. Every place a place to fight. Fight for a place in the pecking order in the barracks. Fight hard enough on the practice grounds to get away with it when a whip-happy overseer finally took a whipping himself. Fight in the arena to survive.
One day, with the roaring of the crowd in her ears, dully watching the arena slaves throw fresh sand over the bloody patches, Xander gave up. Shuffling out as ordered, she hadn't looked up or paid any attention to who her next opponent was. She didn't care. It didn't matter. No matter what she tried, how she watched, she just couldn't get out of the hell cousin Polyneices had managed to put her in. It was over.
The crowd was roaring. Of course they were. Roaring was the natural sound of a crowd. Xander was sure not one of the people in the crowd knew her. Oh, the slaver had given her a latinized name, meaning dark-haired or something stupid like that. But Xander was like Xena, shared her fighting ability. Soon the crowds had given her a new name. 'Marius, Marius the Magnus! Marius the Magnificent!' At first it had amused her, to be given a monicker meaning 'follower of Mars.' Follower of the Roman god of war. Well, so he was called these days. From what Xander had seen of his priests and heard of his stories, Mars was more of a farmer and a warrior by accident.
Anyway, Marius the Magnus she had become. A name to be used by a crowd of strangers. Yet, one person in the crowd on that terrible day wasn't a stranger.
Larth, Xander's foster mother, was from Etruria. On one hand, her people were the reputed inventors of the gladiatorial games. On the other, she hated them, and avoided them as much as possible. All the more so now her days as a mercenary were long over. Between one thing and another on this family visit, Larth had been unable to get out of seeing these games.
It goes without saying she was horrified to see her foster daughter walking listlessly out of the chambers where the gladiators waited to fight, some to live, some to die. Some hooligans were throwing things at her, trying to get a rise out of Marius the Magnus. Shouting curses when he didn't respond as desired.
Larth had seen more games than she cared to admit. She knew the look of a gladiator who had given up. the situation was dire. What could she do? The only thing she could come up with was ridiculous. Insane, even. So she did it.
Standing up, Larth roared at the top of her lungs, "Marius! Marius!" She knew something about crowds. It took a few minutes. Her family members were utterly poleaxed, unsure if they should hustle their hapless cousin who must have finally snapped off home. And then, other people began to take up the chant.
Later, Xander would describe it as being like having cotton slowly dissolve out of your ears. The mindless, meaningless roar gradually cleared into something quite different. A chant, unbelievably, of her acquired Latin name. Lead by a tall, unmistakably Amazon woman Xander could see now that she had lifted her head, a woman she would know anywhere, anytime.
Marius the Magnus lived to fight another day, while Larth called in favours and outright bullied some ex-colleagues who wanted to keep their pasts quiet until she had enough funds to get her foster daughter out of the gladiator barracks. Then she had marched Xander straight to the temple of Carma to be manumitted.
The trip back to Greece was certainly much nicer. Xander spent most of it on deck, even at night, opting to sleep in a pile of spare rope rather than endure the dark, closed confines of belowdecks. It was too much like the barracks she had so recently left behind. Her voice was still rough. It would never be the same, but at least she could still sing well, which stood her in good stead. The crew found her intense and taciturn until one night, after a chat with the captain and a few cups of good Greek wine, Xander had sung a series of drinking songs, ranging from funny to baudy. After that, the crew was even willing to forgive her the hangovers they incurred.
All of her gear was gone, of course. But Anemone was more than capable of holding her own, and after she had laid a few savage bites and a couple of well-placed kicks on Polyneices, he cut her loose and left her alone. She successfully tracked down her wayward travelling companion bare days after the ex-gladiator stepped off the ship.
The expression on Polyneices' face when he saw her was indescribable. Xander quite enjoyed it.
There it was. The truth was quite simple. Just unpleasant.
"Ready to go home, Anemone?" Anemone strolled over and blew water on her. "Okay, okay, I get it, silly question." Xander chuckled.
The ground kept trying to grab her feet. It always did when she had a little extra to drink, Leukos reflected. Only a little extra. Otherwise, the hangover was far too nasty, and Evadne got mad at her. Still, navigating was just a little tricky.
Sticky ground aside, tonight had been a good night. Leukos had been on real form, regaling her friends with a few of their favourite tales of her parents' daring-do. The stories were well-known, after all, the bard Gabrielle lived in town. Luckily people rarely tired of hearing them, especially since no one had ever heard them all, except of course, Xena, and she didn't repeat them.
Tonight had almost been a bad night, when one of Leukos' friends who was still pretty sobre asked suddenly, "Hey, Lukey, how'd your parents wind up on the road pulling all these crazy stunts anyway? And how come Kallisto kept trying to toast your Mom's butt?" These were questions Leukos emphatically did not care to discuss. They actually made her angry. One of her other friends saved the day by ordering a round of drinks and shouting for one of those poems by Sappho. "You know, the raunchy one that isn't!"
Carefully closing the door behind her, Leukos paused to pull off her boots. Then she poured herself a big mug of water from the wooden pitcher by the front window, and watched the stars as she patiently drank it down.
"Just a bit of carousing, huh?" Evadne asked, wrinkling her nose a little when she got within smelling distance. "Were you trying to drink the ale through your chest, or what?"
"Nah, just an accident." Leukos carefully refilled her mug.
"No more nights like this for awhile, okay?"
"Whaddya mean?" genuinely surprised, Leukos tried to focus a bit better.
"Just what I said." Evadne helped her lover take a seat on their version of Xena's sofa. "You've been drinking a lot lately, love. That can get bad fast, so I worry about you."
"Oh. S'not anything bad. 'M just havin' a good time." protested Leukos.
"Do you have to drink to have a good time?"
Squinting her eyes nearly shut against the sun as she got ready to warm up for the day's classes, Leukos was still pondering Evadne's words. One part of her wanted to be angry and holler at Evadne to mind her own. Tell her she could handle herself just fine, thanks. She didn't need any almost-lectures about drinking. The other knew quite well Evadne was loking out for her, and if Evadne was speaking up, then things had gone quite a ways already. Leukos chewed her lip. When was the last time she hadn't had at least a throb-headed workout after the days of rest?
"Well, well, well. Do I smell smoke? Could it be the local ape is thinking?"
"Piss off, Tagris." Tagris had never been a friend.
"Aww, a little hung over are we? Well, don't feel bad. After all, what better thing to get Xena's image tarnished back to reality than one of her kids becoming the town drunk?" snickering, Tagris made a move to hit Leukos with the butt end of one of the chobos she was carrying.
A grave mistake. She was flat on her back, feeling the unmistakable beginnings of two black eyes before the chobo hit anything. And the anything the chbo hit was the ground.
"I don't expect you to like me, and everybody knows how much you don't like my mother, Tagris." snarled Leukos. "But I always thought you were smarter than to say and do such stupid things."
Unable to come up with a comeback that satisfied her desire to be venomous and avoid losing anymore face, Tagris beat a retreat.
Over an hour went by before Leukos realized that instead of slipping into her usual focussed practice pattern, she was fuming over the town drunk comment. What the furk was with people? All of a sudden, she was a drunk? Even Evadne seemed to think so.
"Whoa! You're gonna throw something out if you swing like that again, Lukey." Phoebe waited until her friend had stopped moving before saying anything else. "Look, I wanted to apologize about last night. We no, I should have walked home with you."
"I got home fine." Leukos muttered.
"Yes, I know. That's not why I'm sorry. We, kind of, accidentally, sort of, set you up for a fall last night, Lukey. We all feel like shit about it."
Phoebe looked uncomfortable. "You like your cups, Lukey. And sometimes... sometimes, you being Xena's kid and all, we get stupid ideas in our heads once we've had too much to drink ourselves. Ideas like seeing if we could get you passed out under a table or not." She looked away. "We, umm, made an arrangement so you weren't getting much water with your wine last night, so, so, you were pretty unsteady on your feet by the time you headed for home, Lukey."
Well. Now, like it or not, Leukos felt pretty sure she was going to have to throw up in the near future. "Now I know one more important thing, and I'll be smarter in future."
Sighing, Phoebe felt a little better. Leukos was taking it pretty well after all.
"You aren't real friends." Point made, Leukos walked off to get her class of intermediate staffwielders going.
The rest of the day went by as such days usually did, but a question niggled at the back of Leukos' mind. What did Tagris mean, tarnishing Xena's image back to reality?
"I wish she could have eaten breakfast, at least." tightening her belt and rechecking her regalia, Ephiny bit her lip. Gods, she hoped she hadn't managed to say that three times already.
Smiling, Gabrielle handed her friend her bracers. "Yeah, I know. We can stuff her silly when she's finished passing this big Test, though."
"Uh huh." shaking her head wrily, Ephiny held the door open so Gabrielle could walk out ahead of her. "Gabrielle the manically optimistic bard."
Otto had left the house before dawn to go to the temple of Hekate and begin her Test. No one outside of the priestesses of Hekate themselves seemed to know what the Test consisted of; all Ephiny and Eponin had been told was to be present at the temple an hour past midday. So they had rounded up their old friends and Leukos and Evadne for moral support, and made their way through Themisyra's broad and busy streets to Hekate's obsidian and basalt covered temple.
The day had been so hot the building felt as if it were radiating like a coal. More than a few Amazons were waiting to see what would happen, thronging the roadsides twenty or thirty deep. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it really depended on your perspective an area closer to the temple was designated for families to wait. Several older couples were already seated on bales of hay, fanning themselves and struggling not to wilt too much.
Most temples had simple thresholds, Hekate's was one of the exceptions. Instead of a nice, smooth paved entrance or a well-loved and tended patch of greenery, Hekate's temple had twenty-seven formidable black steps. In the sweltering heat, with the air seeming to blur and shimmer the closer to the bulk of the temple it was, the steps looked more like a cliff. But if you kept your eyes peeled, and didn't let yourself become cowed by the grim prospect of vertical, black heat, you would see, probably to your great surprise, a more modest door to the side. It was marked out by a red and black striped awning, and even though the door was made of black ebony, since it was set in a wall that never saw direct sunlight, it was cool and inviting. Most people used this door, rather than facing the dread double doors at the top of the cliff-like steps.
Blowing her hair out of her eyes, Xena began to case the crowd out of age-old habit. Quite a few of Otto's acquaintances and buddies could be picked out, no surprise. One startling woman stood out, though. She was wearing Etruscan armour, with a light cloak tossed over one shoulder and a bulky set of saddlebags over the other. Xena counted three daggers, a long and a short sword, and what looked suspiciously like a bullwhip. All worn with easy familiarity, well-kept but not polished. Signs of an experienced warrior. Stranger though the woman seemed to be, Xena was quite sure a stranger was exactly what she wasn't. The woman had to know this area well to have taken over the one shady spot on the east side of the road. Her posture was overtly casual, but to Xena's eye the woman was using the shade to hide her face, and every nerve and muscle was alert. Very strange indeed.
Her musing was interrupted by the priestesses of Hekate, who pushed open the tall, narrow double doors. One of them strode to the very edge of the top step, and raising a hollowed goat horn to her lips, blew three long blasts. After what seemed a very long time, three answering blasts came from somewhere to the west, but evidently still in the city. A second set of three blasts came from the area of the market. Then silence.
Until a sound so quiet that at first many of the bystanders thought they had imagined it became clearly audible. A steady thud. Not a drumming thud, or a stomping thud. Too light to be anything big. People began craning their necks, unsure where it could be coming from. Maybe one of Hekate's priestesses was sweeping or something?
The answer soon appeared at the end of the long avenue leading up to the temple. A single woman, running barefoot with only the lightest of tunics, carrying three waterskins, two empty, one mostly empty. At such a distance her skin seemed polished, which meant she had to be streaming with sweat. Her face was painted black around the eyes, extending down the middle of each cheek in a long triangle, and out in a triangle from the outside corner of each eye. It wasn't until the woman laboured halfway down the homestretch that it became clear who she was.
"Holy shit! Otto you never said you could run!" somebody blurted.
Understandably, Otto didn't pause to chat. The Amazons started cheering. Here, no one had told them about any race!
For her part, Otto was caught between relief at seeing the end in sight, and wishing she could just drop dead. Her legs were killing her. Even though most of the race course had been in shade and even under cover, the heat was murder. And actually, she didn't have to go on. She didn't have to ascend the steps. The point was to arrive in front of the temple before the second hour past midday.
Except, the candidate who was able to get up those steps would actually finish the circuit. And not have taken the easy way out.
Face it, Otto. This proves that you're either stupid or insane. Otto felt it was important to face the truth as instead of stopping where she could have, she began climbing the temple steps. Other candidates began to arrive as she did so, many of them gulping for air like landed fish, several flopping shamelessly on the ground as soon as it was clear they had finished their run. One other woman glanced at the steps, and at Otto's sweat-soaked back.
The steps ended so abruptly Otto almost fell over.
"Otreros, I begin to think you like punishment." Anatha, Otto's first instructor shook her head in disbelief. "Luckily three days must pass before the Test continues!"
Once the last of the runners had arrived, the stern-eyed high priestess held up her arms for quiet. Addressing the candidates: "It is good to see you all here. You have all shown extraordinary physical and mental endurance. You may all hold your heads high." Now speaking to the crowd in general. "Each year, at least one candidate manages to climb these stairs. I must confess, the one who did it today is not the one I would have expected." With those words, the high-priestess presented Otto with a sprig of mistletoe, and swept off into the temple.
"Gosh," Eponin drawled. "Congratulations with a side order of furk you." A beat. "Miserable old cow." Spoken with a level of venom that was shocking.
"Come on, gorgeous. Instead of wasting energy on cussing out the old woman let's go pick up our kid." Hooking a finger in her partner's belt, Ephiny hauled her off. Otherwise she might have started cussing out the old woman herself.
After a two-hour nap, a long drink of water and a soak in a lukewarm tub, Otto was tired but feeling like herself again. So they all trooped dutifully back to the temple at sundown, which was of course quite late, to learn the parameters of the next part of the Test. A different priestess with one sightless eye met them at the temple side door, and took them inside to seats with the other candidates and their families.
It surprised Gabrielle how few the candidates seemed to be. Only thirteen of them, most suffering from varying degrees of sunburn, all looking a bit raccoon-eyed. She was even more surprised they were gathered together in the main temple, with the walls seeming to spring up from the ground in the form of spires all around them.
"Hello everyone." the one-eyed priestess said. "I hope those of you who have loved ones taking the test have forgiven us a little."
"I don't know about any, let alone a little." grumbled Eponin.
The priestess smiled gently. "I don't blame you. One of my own daughters took this Test as well, and even though I've taken the Test myself and know its purpose, I hold a bit of a grudge that my child suffered as I did." Arranging her robes, she sat down in front of them and continued. "Three days from now is the most difficult part of the Test. You will journey through the caverns below this temple, where you will deal with three obstacles, and finish with one last challenge. The trip takes three days, but you will not be alone. Each of you will have a Shadow. The Shadow is not permitted to help you overcome the obstacles or face the challenge. The Shadow is your witness."
Gabrielle turned her quill slowly over and over between her fingers. She wanted very much to write about what she had seen yesterday. Hekate's temple, and the Test. Yet somehow she couldn't. The words wouldn't come. Even worse, Xena was off on a wild goose chase, trying to find someone she had noticed in the crowd yesterday. No matter what Gabrielle said, Xena wouldn't listen.
"Xena, how could it possibly be Xander? You said yourself, you couldn't see this woman's face! We haven't heard from her in nearly two years! Maybe..."
"Don't!" Xena snapped. "Don't you say it." Then she had stormed out, determined to find the stranger who wasn't a stranger walking around in Etruscan armour, a Thrakian cloak, and a veritable arsenal.
Sighing, Gabrielle set the quill down and went to glance out the window. It served her right, in a way. She had gotten some news from Amphipolis, bad news. Bad news she didn't want to tell Xena. News that made her feel all too sure the likelihood of seeing Xander's bow-legged form in Themiskyra, or anywhere else, was small. How could she tell her? How could she tell Xena about tormented Polyneices, who had shown persistent signs of bad conscience for years, who had suddenly had a sort of breakdown a few weeks ago? According to the messenger, Polyneices insisted his cousin's ghost was tormenting him. Had been since a ship carrying trade goods from Latium arrived.
He was quite adamant that it was a ghost, not a living woman.
Shaking herself, Gabrielle returned to her writing table, thinking to write out something about Xander. What she was going to say to Xena, maybe. Maybe then it would be easier. Well, no, not easier. A little lighter to bear. She was interrupted by a rude pounding on her door.
"Who is it?" grabbing her staff, Gabrielle got her left hand fixed around the specific spot she liked best when she wanted to look casual but be ready to crack skulls, and opened the door.
Lila glared at her, gesturing rudely at the two Amazons who had insistently accompanied her after she was forced by Amazon law to leave her husband and son at the border. "Can't you do something about these people?"
"Those people were making sure you didn't get lost." Her sister looked thinner, and angry. For so long Lila was her friendly rock in a sea of unfriendly people. Not anymore, it seemed, Gabrielle thought sadly.
"Well, if you won't be bothered, I guess we don't need any privacy." snapped Lila.
"Lila, you haven't even said hello! Privacy for what?"
"Do you seriously think I'd be here if it wasn't a family emergency?"
"Look, come inside here out of the sun, have a drink of water and calm down. Then tell me." Responsibility won out over curiosity. Unfortunately, so did experience. A few years back Gabrielle learned the hard way that Lila's definition of a 'family emergency' was not always fair or appropriate anymore.
By the time Gabrielle finished pouring her sister's drink, Lila's mouth had set in a hard line. "Have you been enjoying yourself?"
"You heard me. Have you been enjoying yourself, living like a perpetual child?" Lila stood up abruptly and began pacing around the room. "Refusing to take any responsibilities in the real world?"
"Lila, I can see you're upset. Otherwise you wouldn't say things you know aren't true. What's wrong? Why did you come all this way? You used the token I gave you to get here, it must be serious." Outsiders could only get to Themiskyra if someone from there gave them a pass token. Even then, the outsider travelled a long way blindfolded.
"Mother is very sick. The healer says she doesn't have long, another month or so. Three weeks, maybe two now."
Gabrielle's stomach dropped to the floor. "Why didn't you say anything in your last letter? Xena and I..."
"Because I didn't think you'd care. And anyway, I didn't want you to upset Mother by bringing her with you."
Gripping her staff tightly, Gabrielle found herself back at the window. "Hurting me isn't going to help Mother. When Xena gets back here, we'll pack and start for Poteideia."
"Dammit Gabrielle, I..."
"Don't talk like Father to me!" snapped Gabrielle. "I don't know what's happened to you, Lila. But we don't have time to indulge in sniping. Can you tell me anything about Mother's symptoms?"
"Why, when she can't be helped?" Lila turned away abruptly. The only way to keep back the tears was to stay angry. Anger was all she had. The tears turned traitor and started leaking out of the corners of her eyes anyway.
"Because even if Mother's illness can't be cured, Xena or the other healers here may know of things to make her more comfortable." Rarely at a loss for how to deal with emotional or angry people, Gabrielle found herself utterly at sea now. She could bridge the distance between herself and practically any stranger, only to discover she had no way to do that for her sister.
"Gabrielle? Is everything all right? Why are runners here?" Hurrying through the door, Xena found herself face to face with a thin, worn looking Lila with tears running silently down her face, a desperate, stymied looking Gabrielle standing across the room. "Oh no, Lila, what happened?" A flippant remark, a bland or even callous one Lila could probably have withstood. The expression of genuine alarm and concern undid her, and in spite of her best intentions, she burst into tears and fell into the tall warrior's arms.
For her part, Xena was momentarily too stunned to move. She looked over at Gabrielle, honestly bewildered. 'Shouldn't she be crying on you?' she mouthed. Lucky for her, Gabrielle understood the meaning behind the rather undiplomatic question. 'Long story.' she mouthed back.
Needless to say, they weren't going any place until morning. Lila was too exhausted, and Gabrielle needed to make arrangements. There were regular stations with fresh horses, and they would have to use them to get to Poteideia as quickly as possible. Armed with a description of Hecuba's symptoms, Xena had collected what she knew could be useful, then went to consult with the elder healers. Leukos and Evadne were busy packing to accompany them.
Lila poked at a bowl of broth. The past while, she just didn't feel like eating. Not since Mother had gotten sick, on top of her husband becoming so distant. Even her son, the apple of her eye, rarely had a respectful word for her now, let alone a kind one. The life she had worked so hard for seemed to be unravelling before her very eyes no matter how desperately she grabbed for the threads.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.
"No." Gabrielle sighed with disappointment. "You know, I don't understand it."
Looking up, Gabrielle kept quiet.
"You, when have you done what you were supposed to? Been responsible? Done what you were told? Followed custom?" Gabrielle mentally counted slowly to ten. Maybe it was time to give up, if this was what it was going to be like. Getting blamed and accused of being immature got old pretty fast. "And here you are. With a house. Children. You're a bard, an Amazon I suppose, like these other women." Lila pushed her bowl away with a jerk. "And look where I am. A farmwife with one ungrateful son, an indifferent husband, and a house with a roof that is no better to block the sun than it is to keep out the rain."
Gabrielle stared at her hands. In a real sense, it wasn't fair. Everything she and her sister had ever been taught said that if they followed the rules, played the game, they would be rewarded for it. The rewards were of a specific kind, but they were supposed to be enough, more than enough. Standing in a group of Poteideians about to be sent off into slavery, Gabrielle could no longer accept those rewards were enough for her. Faced with a life where she could make no choices and foresee an old age full of regrets, she had found an unexpected core of fearlessness in herself. The fearlessness of a person with nothing to lose.
To Lila, the designated rewards had seemed quite enough. But she had never really gotten them.
"I can't undo what is already done." Gabrielle said quietly. "I can offer you a home, if ever you need it."
"Hmmph." Lila turned back to her broth with more attention.
It was a start. Maybe, at least, they'd be able to put up a good front for Hecuba.
The Poteideians struggled not to stare, but it was impossible not to. The Amazons were too exotic not to draw interest, with their practical tunics and lack of modesty. They spoke Greek well enough, the ones who spoke to the Poteideians anyway. Greek with an odd accent, one putting some of the emphases in the wrong places and dulling the intensity of the consonants. They set up camp outside of town, and only a few of them went out to Hecuba's place, where the old woman lay dying. A fair haired woman who seemed familiar. A dark haired woman several of the oldsters insisted was Xena, the warrior princess. A grey haired old woman festooned in pouches and carrying the sort of bag healers always carried. Two more women followed later, both young, obviously a couple.
Perhaps, if Evadne had been a scholarly sort, she would have taken notes. In real life however, she was a scout who preferred working the soil when she wasn't on rotation. Pushing a lock of sandy hair behind one ear, Evadne scanned the list in her hand again before returning her attention to the locals.
Having grown up in the Nation, Evadne didn't know what to expect apart from the basic warnings about how most outsiders reacted to Amazons. The generally harried, weatherworn people were a real surprise. Poteideia was on the verge of going to seed thanks to the forays by the Athenian garrison in Amphipolis. One of the merchants referred to the garrison as a glorified warlord's army, the warlord being a bunch of fools with more money than sense in Athens. People were leaving the area, and those remaining sequestered any money and prized possessions they had, hoping to wait out the attacks without losing too much.
It was a relief to get out of town, away from the noise, smells, and suspicious glares. Town living in and of itself wasn't so bad, Evadne reflected, but why were things so dirty? Not that Themiskyra was spotless, far from it, of course. But it wasn't like Poteideia. It helped farm animals were not allowed to run loose inside the city, mind you. And the scouts were part of an organized regular street cleaning. Evadne had always hated that aspect of the job; now it seemed a bit less onerous.
Tucking the list in her belt, Evadne began searching for the herbs it tallied. Most of them couldn't keep their potency if not used right away, others were out of season in a place as far north as Themiskyra. The task gave her time to think. Under the circumstances, joining arrangement imaginings were not even remotely appealing. The solution, as it often was, was to think about the garden. Evadne had a flair for getting practically any plant to grow, and was forever experimenting to see which plants grew best together.
An idea for keeping the birds out of her berry patches had just occurred to her when the voices of two men coming in from the fields became audible.
"Bitch has some nerve coming back here. I don't care what anybody says. She'll always be a murderer and a butcher. By rights someone should have done her in and put her head on a spike years ago."
"I don't know one way or the other."
"'Course you don't. You're too damn young to have any sense about it. Here now, this'll smarten you up. You ever heard what happened to Cirrha?"
Evadne wasn't one to eavesdrop. For some reason though, she was rooted to the spot.
Much later, Evadne returned to Hecuba's house, turning over the herbs. Oddly, she didn't ask after Hecuba or say much of anything. Distracted and upset, she retreated out of the house again rather than trouble the sick woman with her unease.
"What's wrong?" Leukos asked on finding her partner perched on a rickety fence, glaring broodingly at the horizon.
"Must be a pretty nasty sort of nothing."
Evadne glared at her. "I just need some time to think."
"Oh-kay." a bit hurt, Leukos backed up. "I was just trying to help."
A bitter laugh answered her. "I doubt you'd be much help in this case. This problem has to do with one of your blind spots."
"Hey, where the Tartarus did that come from?" Since she had proposed things seemed to be going to pot all of a sudden between them. What was going on? Leukos wondered.
Waving a hand impatiently, Evadne jumped down from the fence. "As far as you're concerned, your mother can do no wrong. She's Xena the hero, and skip over all those stories about when she wasn't so heroic and the real reason she helps people."
"The real reason?"
"Yeah, the real reason." snapped Evadne.
"Which is?" prodded Leukos, whose temper was beginning to fray.
"To help herself, Leukos. It has nothing to do with helping people, and everything to do with keeping her ass out of Tartarus. Takes the shine right off the hero image, seems to me."
"What? Evadne, that's not true at all! Where'd you hear this crap?"
"Are you telling me I can't tell the difference between good information and bad?" Evadne's face was getting flushed, a bad sign.
"Are you saying after all the years you've known my mother you think she's totally selfish?"
"See, there you go, keep her up on a pedastal and damn the facts."
"Evadne, that's not what this is! Look, I'm not a big fan of hearing about Mother's bad old days, how could it be otherwise? That doesn't make me incapable of..."
The argument went downhill very rapidly from there. Evadne was extremely upset. To Leukos it sounded as if Evadne thought she had been lied to. If Leukos defended Xena, that was her hero worship; if she acknowledged Xena's imperfections, that was hero worship too.
Finally Evadne stomped off, leaving Leukos hurt and bewildered.
"Wow. That argument sounded pretty serious." Gabrielle watched her daughter's face, trying to gauge what the unusual, corded jaw expression meant.
"You guess. Well, honey, I'm afraid I don't guess." Leukos looked at her in puzzlement. "Did you have any idea how loudly you two were shouting?"
Gods, just leave me alone. Tell me how much I suck some other time. "I guess not."
"Maybe give some thought to where you are next time? You've been a bit out of practice on that lately."
"Of course." Gabrielle's lips thinned.
"I'm still your mother, and I expect you to speak more respectfully than that."
"Yes, Mom. I guess I just keep hoping someday you'll stop treating me like a child." Leukos' tone was actually neutral. With a huge argument with her lover under her belt already, she was hoping to avoid one with her mother.
"It would be easier if you didn't act like one."
"Hmm. Yes, well. Funny, it just occurred to me, I found your loophole." Clapping her hands and rubbing them together in mock joy, Leukos looked Gabrielle in the eye. "'Cause somehow I think Evadne and my joining plans are off." Then she turned on her heel and walked away. Not a good closer. Marginally better than a roaring argument, maybe.
Xena was waiting a short distance away, working at a piece of tack. "Do you have anything to say?" Gabrielle asked when she had closed the distance beteen them.
"No? No? Your potential daughter-in-law thinks the worst of you, our daughter is becoming a jerk, and you have nothing to say?"
"I think it's understandable that you're all upset."
Lost for words, Gabrielle returned to the house. Xena shook her head in disbelief. "This is probably the closest I've ever been to being an innocent bystander at a cart wreck in my whole life. Gods, I hope the proverbial many skills are up for it."
Caves were dark, perforce as sunlight couldn't go through rock. The thought was inane, luckily it made Otto feel a bit better anyway. Once she got going she'd be fine, it was the first steps that were the worst. Truthfully, Otto had believed she wouldn't get this far, because unlike her twelve compatriots, she came to Themiskyra with no Shadow. Much as she lover her friends, three days in the dark dealing with fearsome unknowns was far more than she could ask of them. After them, no one else she knew was around to do the job. Yet Anatha had informed her the day before last someone had arrived in Themiskyra to Shadow for her. Otto simply couldn't fathom what this meant. Had someone been sent from her base temple?
The point was to journey through the caves, but no other instructions were given. So Otto had opted to follow her nose, first downwards to where the air smelt stale and full of rockdust, then upwards, back to the sunlight. She knew ways to keep herself from becoming disoriented, still not always an easy task.
At her best guess, she had hiked for at least four hours. "Well, the trip is supposed to take three days, so the obstacles can't come up too soon, eh, Shadow?" The Shadow was defintely following her. Otto had heard the Shadow's footfalls continuing after hers a few moments when she stopped more than once. A smooth stride, very light. So the Shadow might be small in stature, except the time between footfalls belied that. Certainly, she was wearing soft-soled boots. Riding boots, possibly.
Returning her attention to the way ahead, Otto started walking again. Only a few moments later she slowed down again. The echoes sounded odd ahead of her. Like something was swallowing them. Clutching her torch tighter, Otto forced herself to go on. The reason for the strange echoes became clear around the next corner.
The way ahead was barred by a great, irregular patch of inky, non-reflective darkness. A hole.
Otto swallowed rapidly, struggling to keep her breakfast from jumping out. She had been climbing trees since she was four, cliffs since she was ten, although she would never admit that to her Moms. Yet somehow, a pit terrified her far more than any cliff or high tree. The torch started shaking.
"Okay, okay, Otto, deep breaths or you'll hyperventilate or something. Have a drink, take another look around. Come on..." Her personal pep-talks usually worked, though admittedly sometimes they got rather long. It was a tactic many of her teachers looked on with a jaundiced eye. They always seemed to be in a hurry. Having got hold of herself again, Otto began studying the problem more carefully.
The pit did have visible edges. In fact, it had a nice ledge along each side of the corridor. A careful measurement against the length of her index finger showed the ledges were far too narrow to be used to walk along. A fact for which Otto was actually deeply grateful. Sitting back away from the whole, she thought over the contents of her pack. Light rations, three water skins, an extra pair of boots, torches, and a bit of rope. Not enough for a rope bridge, even if there had been something to loop it over on the other side.
"Shit." Otto bit out. And was struck again by the weird echoes. Something was swallwing them, but now she thought about it, a pit shouldn't do that. Gazing at the apparent pit ahead of her, Otto decided maybe, just maybe, she should test whether her eyes were deceiving her in this bad light. Digging in a belt pouch, she found a few copper coins. Taking a deep breath, she flipped one towards the centre of the possible pit.
The coin dropped with a mild piff noise, not merely flat onto the spot, but sticking upright. Emboldened, Otto knelt down, holding the torch closer, only to burst out laughing. The pit was a patch of black sand.
She woke to the sound of an unfamiliar voice singing nearby. A beautiful voice, singing a song far too modest for it. A song about Amorgos, very old.
"The water is from Amorgos.
"Much as I love my Gabrielle, the girl can't hold a tune in a bucket." Opening her eyes, Hecuba looked over, finding Xena sitting beside her, sewing a torn tunic.
"She's not quite that bad anymore. Not now she has a bigger bucket." The sick woman managed a chuckle.
"Wonder of wonders, the fearsome Xena has a sense of humour."
"Mmmhmm." Biting off her thread, Xena began reloading the needle.
"Not much to say?"
"No, I suppose not. I realize you'd probably prefer someone else was here, but both Lila and Gabrielle are wiped, and even though they tried they couldn't get to sleep in here."
"Hmmph." Hecuba fussed with the covers a little. "The things the Gods send us. Whenever either of the girls got sick, if I was going to get any rest, I'd need a friend to watch over them while I slept in another room. Otherwise I'd wake up almost as soon as I fell asleep." Xena nodded gravely, and began sewing again. "You can relax, Xena. I'm through being angry." The warrior looked up in surprise. "I've wasted a lot of years."
"Go figure, I'm a charter member in that club." Xena smiled a little.
"Such an evenhanded response. Where does that come from, Xena? How can you just let it all roll off of your back?"
"Hecuba," Xena replied gently. "an ex-warlord responsible for more rotten things than she wants to ever imagine has no business holding a grudge on anybody."
A fairly comfortable silence drew out between them, and Xena thought Hecuba might have gone back to sleep. "Tell me about my grandchildren?"
"Gabrielle's the storyteller..."
"Nonsense. All parents are storytellers when it comes to their children. Go on. Tell me about my grandchildren." So, Xena thought to herself. Here's where Gabrielle gets it from. Once she makes up her mind it's full speed ahead, chin tucked in, shoulder forward.
"All right. But don't blame me if you'd like more polish. I stink at that kind of thing." The disclaimer made Hecuba chuckle.
Meanwhile, one of those grandchildren was sitting out in the fields, well away from her grandmother's house. Leukos hadn't felt quite this miserable in a long time. A couple of the locals had gotten started on her about her mother on top of all else. Apparently word had got around quickly about her and Evadne's argument, and how they were connected to each other and to Xena. Which led to another argument, this time with Gabrielle, who was angry about her causing embarrassment to already suffering family. Whether she did something or nothing, she was making things worse.
Leukos got to her feet, slinging her pack over her shoulder. Fortunately, the fix for that was simple and effective. It would take her the better part of three weeks to get home on foot. The walk would do her good.
"Is this a private trip, or can anyone tag along?" Evadne. Leukos hadn't said a word to anyone about what she was thinking of doing. So how had Evadne caught her? "In your shoes, I think I'd start walking home too. Better than getting smacked in the head all the time."
"I wasn't looking for company."
"Yeah, I kind of figured." Evadne ran back up beside her. "Tell you what, could we try starting today over?" A flat stare answered her. "Okay, okay, it's a little late, but if we talk really fast..."
"Evadne, what do you want?" Leukos was long out of patience.
"To apologize. To ask you not to give up on us. I mean, we've made it so far."
"I guess, until today, I never realized the one hero-worshipping Xena was me." Leukos sighed. "And I've been kind of unfair on the whole, not giving you credit for having good sense lately."
"Such as the mini-lectures about my drinking?" Leukos commented drily. Evadne winced.
"I didn't mean to sound quite like that, honest."
"Yeah. I know. And it's not as if I don't agree things were getting a bit ridiculous."
"So, do you figure we might be able to close that loophole?"
"Loophole?" Leukos repeated blankly.
"Yeah, the one you pointed out to your Mom?"
"She it mentioned to me because she was terrified that you might be serious after she got a handle on that knee-jerk 'defend Xena at all costs' impulse. An impulse I can kind of relate to, admittedly."
"That depends." Leukos set down her pack, as her arm was tired.
"On whether you say there's a loophole."
"Well, let's put it this way. I'd sooner cut off my right arm with a dull knife than make a loophole."
"Evadne, that'd be messy."
Evadne fought back her tears with an effort. "Well, sure. And if you think that's the only drawback to dull knife amputations, let me tell you..."
Otto sighed. From what she could tell, this was as far down as the path went. The second obstacle had been the proverbial selection of tunnels without any obvious indication of which was the best route to take. So Otto had to be patient, and test each one, hoping to luck onto the right one at least the second time. She hadn't. The penalty was exhaustion and a severe depletion in the torch department.
Ahead of her now was a fairly wide river, its slow, majestic flow and torchlight revealing she was at a fordable spot. The prospect of wet feet wasn't a great one, it never was. Hitching up her trews, Otto stepped carefully into the stream, getting used to the strength of the flow and feeling out the slipperiness of the rocks. Satisfied she could make her way across successfully, she got started, resisting the temptation to keep her feet so close together the current would be able to throw her off balance.
She had one foot on the opposite shore and her mind far ahead on the last test when the unmistakable sound of someone slipping and falling hard met her ears. A sound only her Shadow could have made. Throwing her pack on shore, and jamming the torch between a couple of rocks, Otto turned around as quick as she could, and sucked in an appalled breath.
The Shadow was sprawled in an awkward heap, one leg twisted in a way that meant nothing good. Without a second thought, Otto went back. "I'm sorry, this is really going to hurt."
"Ah, so this is some other sensation I'm feeling." the voice barely sounded female, let alone familiar.
"Oh yeah. Just a simulacrum of pain." Getting the Shadows limbs rearranged so that her injurred leg at least wouldn't be further twisted, Otto got a good grip on her beneath her arms and proceeded to drag her across the river. She was about to go for the last stretch when the Shadow stopped her.
"Need a break." she gasped hoarsely. "A pause, I mean."
"Okay, okay, we can do that." Otto wasn't too sure of that. Her own bad leg was beginning to cramp up, and they were only halfway across. The current was faster here, the water a bit deeper.
You could have left your Shadow behind. You still could now.
The thought made Otto feel so sick she actually gagged. That such a craven idea could ever come to mind made her feel hollow. Was she just some kind of fake then? A real simulacrum, oxymoronic as the term was? She rubbed at her face, struggling to get her equilibrium back.
"While we're hanging around for a bit anyway, I have to admit, you're a far better woman than me. I don't think I would have been paying enough attention to realize my goofball Shadow forgot how to walk and took a bad spill."
The comment popped Otto's panic like a soap bubble. Sure she could have left the Shadow behind. But she hadn't hesitated to go back, and here she still was. There were times your thoughts were far less important than your deeds.
"We have to get a move on, I'm afraid."
"I know. Sorry about all this. You didn't need the stress after those lousy tunnels." The Shadow knew she was starting to babble, which meant she was probably slipping into shock. Shock was not an option, dammit!
"No. Somehow I doubt you broke your leg trying to ford a river just to raise my stress level." Feeling the Shadow start to shiver violently, Otto cursed. Hauling the injured woman up on the beach, Otto set about splinting her leg with the only things she had to work with. Two of the few remaining torches, and the rope. Then, lacking any blankets, Otto did the only thing she could to keep the Shadow's shock from getting worse, and propped her up against her own body.
The torch ensconced between two rocks was sputtering its last light when the Shadow finally spoke. "Not quite the way I dreamed of getting myself into this position."
"No? And you've spent a lot of time dreaming about it?"
"More time than any self-respecting person should ever admit."
"You idiot! Why didn't you get your head out of your butt years ago? Instead of winding up stuck down here, we could be, we could be... we could be somewhere else!"
"I know. Except, until you weren't there, I didn't realize my head was in my butt in the first place. How else do you think I navigate in a cave system so well?"
"If there is any other I way I don't think I could handle it if you told me. Xander, what's happened to your voice?"
"Ask me again later? Way, way, way, way later?"
"All riiii-ight." Otto rested her chin on the top of Xander's head and thought through the options. "Do you think you could hobble along at all, if you leaned on me?"
"Dunno. Let's try it and find out."
"She did! I couldn't believe it either. How dry beans could ever say to a kid 'go on, try putting a few of us up your nose' convincingly I'll never know."
"You never did such a thing?"
"No, no. Not like that." Dawn was still an hour or two away. Xena wasn't sure how long she had been regaling Hecuba with all the embarrassing stories her kids would probably kill her for telling if they only knew, but suddenly she felt awkward. "Hey, listen, maybe I should get Gabrielle and Lila up. You're feeling so well, and I'm hogging the time that really belongs to them." Giving Hecuba's hand a squeeze, Xena moved to get up.
"Xena," Hecuba stopped her. "Please sit back down. If Hades tries to get me out of here before I've spent some more time with my other two daughters, he's got another thing coming. It's not as if I can chase him off for good, so he might as well be patient." She rearranged her covers and reached for a cup of water on the bedside table, graciously accepting Xena's help with it. "Now," she declared. "I know from Gabrielle's letters that you have another daughter, and you haven't said a word about her yet. If Gabrielle loves her that makes her my grandchild too, so come on, spill it." Her tone was so Gabrielle-like, for a few moments Xena couldn't say anything.
"Well," she cleared her throat. "She's a big story all on her own, that's for sure."
Unbeknownst to Xena, but quite well known to Hecuba, her other two daughters had crept into the room to listen hours ago. Yes, Hecuba reflected. She had wasted a lot of time. But maybe the cliched old saying was true. What counted most in the end was you figured out you were wasting time, and did whatever you could about it once you figured it out. Whatever happened, you made the last time you had count in the best way you could. Hecuba was quite sure mending her broken family counted.
The walk back to Hecuba's house wasn't very long. Yet Leukos was dragging her feet and dawdling as if they had walked a thousand stades.
"Leukos, come on. What's the matter?" They were okay now, weren't they? Evadne swallowed hard.
"I'm just not looking forward to having Mom give me shit for being away all night. She probably thinks I went away to sulk." Her lover hesitated, unsure what to do.
"Maybe you could just poke your head in to start with, see how she reacts?"
"Or maybe you could come and have breakfast and then spend some time with your grandmother." Xena suggested mildly, making both of them jump. "Your Mom isn't going to yell at anybody, Leukos. Now come on."
The last vestige of the cave system was finally behind them. Forced to navigate the last four hours of the trip in the dark, Otto had found her way by the smell of fresh air and the faint but growing sound of birds. "Next time I get any ideas like taking some rotten test, I hope somebody knocks me senseless until the impulse wears off."
"Knocking sounds kind of painful." Xander commented.
"Way less painful than this." grumbled Otto. She felt as if her entire body had become a giant cramp. Her reserves were gone, so it was all over. The Test had beaten her.
"You know, logically, if you wanted maximum benefit from using periods of senselessness to fend off bad ideas, you'd want a less physically nasty method of inducing senselessness in the first place. Then you deal with any sort of bad idea or unwanted bout of brooding."
Otto glanced at Xander suspiciously. "Are you slipping into shock again?"
"No, no, I'm quite serious. Come here, and I'll explain to you my method."
"You will, will you?" Otto raised an eyebrow. Maybe Xander was a bit addled after all.
"Sure, listen, Otto, I'm just looking out for your best interests." Xander tried to put on her most winning expression. She wound up settling for looking pathetic. Waterlogged, dirty, sweaty, and splinted as she was, it would have to do.
"Okay, okay." throwing up her hands, Otto sat down beside Xander and waited.
"Oh, that's too far away." So Otto moved a bit closer. "Nope, still too far away. Way too far." She had managed to wheedle Otto into getting generally closer, but things still weren't quite right. "There's nothing for it, Otto, you're just gonna have to sit very close beside me."
Otto really wasn't feeling up to this. She couldn't imagine ever having an ounce of patience anywhere in her body again. Still, she marshaled her temper and plunked herself down beside Xander. "Well?"
"Ah, now this is very good. Very good indeed. So, here's how I propose to induce senselessness without any risk of concussion." And then Xander kissed her.
Some time later, Xander murmurred, "So, what do you think?"
"Who thinks when they're senseless?" Otto replied. Try as she might, she couldn't get herself back on topic. Topics like the Test, and getting Xander to a healer. "Maybe I should stay this way. Then flunking the damn Test won't bother me so much."
"You flunked the Test?" Xander blurted.
"How can you have done?"
Slowly opening one eye, Otto sighed. "Three obstacles, one more challenge. I still haven't done the last challenge."
"And you're not going to?"
"Xander, I don't think I can get up, much less do whatever else I'm supposed to."
"Wait, I don't get it, the priestess never said anything about another challenge to me, and I'm supposed to witness everything." Xander protested.
"I never told you about another challenge because there isn't one." Anatha said calmly. "Here they are, you lot. Did I or did I not tell you something like this had probably happened?"
Several other priestesses entered the clearing, carrying medical supplies and related gear. Poor Otto sat in shock while the healers checked Xander's leg and lifted her onto a stretcher.
"Otto." Anatha gave her a gentle shake. "Listen, there is no fourth physical challenge. The last challenge is mental. How do you handle an apparent severe defeat? Several of your compatriots failed here."
"You're saying I passed?"
"Facing up to an upsetting reality is one of the toughest things to do for anyone. A priestess who deals in healing must be able to do it, because sometimes an illness can't be healed, despite all the potions, prayers, and shamanic hard work in all the world." the elder priestess smiled. "Give it some time to sink in. And don't forget to invite me to your joining ceremony." winking, she stood back so the priestesses could put Otto on a stretcher of her own.
"Hey, I don't..."
"Yes you do." One of the priestesses insisted. The others all nodded like a crowd of unusual ducks.
"Listen, I'm just going to shut my eyes and ignore reality, at least until we get back home."
"I like your plan Otto." Xander piped up. "Can I hang out with you?"
Xena took a deep breath, and told herself she wasn't nervous. She wasn't telling herself very convincingly, but telling herself had to count for something.
In the end, all of them, Leukos and Evadne, Otto and Xander, she and Gabrielle, had waited a year to get joined. No one could face the idea of the preparations let alone trying to face a huge party so soon after Hecuba's passing. Hecuba had insisted on giving Gabrielle the necklace she had worn on her wedding day, and it had taken a long time before Gabrielle could look at it without bursting into tears. And then there was getting Lila resettled after her decision to separate from her husband. "I'm just making it unequivocal." she told him the day she left.
But now, now the harder times were over for the moment. With any luck she wouldn't throw up on her partner at the altar. Squaring her shoulders, Xena at last emerged from her house to walk with Eponin to the temple of Artemis. "Well?" Xena asked.
"Now you just look pasty instead of green. I figure you're good to go."
"Gosh Ep, you're a pal."
Eponin smirked. "You have no idea." Even if Xena killed her for the joining gift she had picked out for her, Eponin figured it would be a worthy death.
"Ah, Eponin, the temple of Artemis is this way." Xena pointed in the correct direction.
"You're right." Eponin agreed, and continued walking in the wrong direction.
"Eponin, I'm getting joined in the temple of Artemis, unless you've forgotten."
"No, you can't. Come on."
"Excuse me?" Xena's voice dropped an octave.
"There's too many guests, so the priestess moved your ceremony to the banks of the Thermodon. Now come on, do you wanna be late for your own joining again?"
"You're never gonna let me live that down, are you?"
"Nope. Never." laughed Eponin.
"Is anybody in Themiskyra not standing out here?"
"Probably not." Ephiny replied unhelpfully. The Amazons were making happy use of three of the natural river terraces as seating, wearing their ceremonial best for the occasion. "Everybody wants to pay their respects, Gabrielle. You've always thought of abdicating as a failure, but the reality is, a woman honest enough with herself to hand over a throne to a better person is highly revered."
A round of applause began on one side of the crowd as Xena and Eponin walked up to the site. Xena had dug out her old armour, and after a lot of elbow grease she had it burnished and wearable again. It pleased her inordinately it still fit, for the most part. The breastplate was a bit more optimistic than her breasts could provide for these days. Gabrielle seemed to have had the same sort of idea she had. Goddess knew how she had managed it, but she had managed to find a gorgeous green tunic with bilious green sports bra undertones and a copper coloured skirt. Her mother's wedding necklace glowed on her neck in all its amber-beaded glory.
"Blast from the past, bard?"
"Yup." grinning broadly, Gabrielle tangled their fingers together and added, "Shall we get this show on the road?"
"If we don't, there'll be a riot." Xena pointed out.
The priestess of Artemis smiled at the dignified couple who stood together in front of her. "Artemis isn't known for advocating fancy joining ceremonies." she commented. "Still, her ceremonies are not undergone lightly. Are you certain this sort of bond is one you want? It cannot be undone."
"Yes." Gabrielle declared without hesitation.
"Yes." Xena agreed.
"All right. Oh, before we begin, don't panic if I seem to have trouble getting the words out. I stutter." The horrified expressions on her charges' faces made her relent almost immediately. "Kidding, kidding, I was only kidding!"
First the priestess censed them with burning incense. "We begin with fire. This incense whose smoke covers you drives away the thoughts and worries that could stand between you." Next, she lifted up a plate with a small loaf of bread on it. "Share this loaf. It is a gift from the earth." Under her breath she added, "You do have to eat it!" This took a few moments.
Gabrielle expected the bread to be plain, homely stuff. Instead, it turned out to be nutbread. She was so surprised she asked in a whisper, "Is this a mistake?"
"No, of course not. Artemis said I could provide any bread that was most appropriate to you as a couple." the priestess declared virtuously.
So they ate the nutbread.
The priestess paused here to bring out a silver goblet and a flask of clear water. Filling the goblets she continued, "This water comes from Artemis' sacred fountain at Omphalion. Drink."
The water was a little salty, oddly enough.
After they had returned the goblet to the priestess, she set it down carefully and whispered, "Okay, you two will really like this part." Aloud she said, "You have shared the benefit of fire, the nourishment of the earth, and the boon of clean water. You have only to share the element of air, and the bond will be made." Her part done, the priestess clasped her hands and took a step back. "Go on!" she hissed.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other.
"We're supposed to share, air?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Apparently." Xena whispered back.
It was all Ephiny could do not to roll on the ground laughing. Those two were priceless. Taking advantage of her close proximity to the dais, she shimmied closer to Xena and stage whispered, "Kiss her, you idiot!" A round of laughter ran through the crowd, and Xena blushed to the roots of her hair.
"Sleep with one eye open, Ephiny." Then Xena put the thought of another thing she was going to be teased about for the foreseeable future out of her mind, and turned back to Gabrielle. "Now then, where were we?"
"Oh, I'd say right here."
The debate is ongoing whether this particular example of sharing air is the longest on record. Mind you, the folks debating it are the same ones who argue about whether the subsequent party, which lasted a week, was really a party or a riot.
- The END
* For the record, I didn't write this. It's a very loose rendition of a folk song still sung in Greece.