Written for Halloween 2005
Note: The timeframe of this story is based on 'real' history and my previously posted story "Clonefic". Because I know that few people read that complete work, I have included the timeline from it, (Appendix 1). If some characters and backstory seem different from the TV series, therein lies the explanation. Consider it Alternate Universe.
It was a cold and rainy night in late October, just the kind of real-life cliché setting for mystery and the supernatural. Warrior Grade 2, (WG2), Trista hated it. An autumn storm front had stalled over the tribal lands. She hated the way the cold wind bit through her field jacket and swept up her sleeves, making her feel as if she'd plunged her forearms into running snowmelt. She hated the chill of wet cloth against the gooseflesh that had once been her skin. She hated the frigid spittle of icy droplets that spattered on her face. 2200 hours left her 3 more hours on duty tonight. Fate was a bitch.
Keep watch, she huffed to herself as she blinked to clear her eyes, as if anyone would be out creeping into the compound on a night like this. Sentry duty on the perimeter where there aren't even any overhanging branches to offer a little shelter. Yet for all her mental complaints, she would never give them voice to pass her lips. Instead she gritted her chattering teeth.
Like many of the tribe's warriors she had done a tour of duty in the US Army, but unlike her non-tribal comrades, she had not returned to the comfort of civilian life after her discharge. Instead she was huddled in a cement trench cut through the crown of a hill, 100 feet from the entrance road, shivering as she clutched an Alpine Hyperlite compound bow, and stared into the darkness through its night vision sight. All clear?duh. With a sigh she lowered the bow, blinking again to rid her lashes of water and allowing her vision to adjust from false green to true darkness.
"Nothing," she whispered softly.
"For the third hour straight and that's a good thing," muttered WG3 Kalica, the commander of the watch detail. She was kneeling in a puddle six feet further down the rain-soaked trench staring through her own sight. 'Wait?."
"What?" Trista hissed, jolted to sudden alertness. The weather receded and her training took over, focusing her awareness. She smoothly raised her bow and peered through its sight.
"On the road," Kalica said softly, "approaching at 10 o'clock."
Trista swiveled to her left and strained to pinpoint what had drawn the senior sentry's attention. At first she saw nothing, but then, passing the darker shadows of the wet pines across the road, she detected motion. An exhaled breath hissed from between her teeth as the movement resolved into a pale horse carrying a dark rider. She inhaled sharply, forcing herself to calm even as adrenalin raised her heart rate. Her eyes locked on the green night-vision image with the intensity of a hawk.
The intruder was calmly moving forward down the center of the road as if completely unaware of the weather; the horse's gait a silent, steady walk. In the false illumination of the sight's green glow Trista concentrated on the rider; a woman with a sword pommel just visible over her right shoulder. Her face was in shadow, her features indistinct.
Trista tapped the actuating button on her throat mike and alerted the six WG1s in the other two sentry emplacements that they had sighted an intruder on the road.
"She's almost to the marker," Kalica whispered, drawing an arrow from her quiver with slow deliberation. She fitted it to her bowstring, preparing to fire a warning shot at the intruder's feet when she passed the tribal totem lashed to its roadside post. Trista knocked an arrow, preparing to drop the stranger if she didn't halt at the warning.
They continued tracking the rider's advance. Faintly, the stretching sounds of two bows being drawn overlaid their breathing as they sought to squelch their tension. As if in response, the rider's head swiveled in a slow, deliberate movement. She turned to stare directly at their position! It was for a heartbeat only, but Trista would have sworn that their gazes locked and the stranger's lips curled in a wry grin, or perhaps a sneer. Then, right before her eyes, the intruder vanished, wavering and melting away like a phantasm at the waking from a dream.
Trista desperately swung her bow, searching for the intruder. For a split second in her peripheral vision, she saw Kalica doing the same. But now the road lay empty. No horse walked there and no rider advanced toward them. All was still as before, silent and deserted, and slowly Trista became aware of the cold and the rain again.
After a few more moments, Kalica relaxed her draw and motioned with one hand for Trista to remain in place and cover her. With silent care she slipped off down the trench.
Trista alerted the WG1s to cover their detail commander as Kalica passed away into the night with an arrow at the ready, moving warily towards the road. Trista followed her progress in the night vision scope. Swinging it slightly to each side, she tried to detect any hostile presences that could constitute a threat. She saw no one. Kalica advanced to the road unchallenged and then moved alongside the track until she was beyond the totem. In a defensive crouch she made her way to the place where the stranger had first been sighted. There she examined the road for a few moments, and then stood, breaking cover and walking upright. Trista watched as she finally peered in both directions down the road before she returned her arrow to her quiver and made her way back to the trench.
"Nothing," she said when she was back in position, "not a single track."
"Sentries, stand down," Trista ordered the others, then clicked off her throat mike.
"Ghost warrior?" Trista asked.
They settled again into silence and resumed their miserable watch as the wind blew and the rain fell, and the damp cold seeped up from the concrete into the soles of their boots. Both sentries were surprisingly calm about the appearance of the apparition.
The Ghost Warrior was a part of their history and a reminder of the continuity of their tribe. As they kept watch through their hours on duty, each reflected on her place in the present and the stories they'd learned of the past. They were part of something ancient, a way of life steeped in tradition, and a part of that which lay beyond the mundane society around them. It gave them an identity and a source of pride, and it provided grounding in a confusing modern world where beliefs that were right one day might be wrong the next.
"We saw her, my Queen," Kalica reported. At the question in their sovereign's eyes, Trista nodded in agreement.
She and Kalica stood before the audience their captain had requested. It was an informal meeting of a few, hastily gathered in the queen's study. Cinza, the Captain of the Home Guard, stood to their left, listening intently as her warriors were questioned. She, Shareen, the Keeper of Lore, and Marieve the Shamaness were in attendance. Marieve and Shareen sat at the table to the left of Queen Renée, while dour Sherice, the Queen's Champion, stood a step behind and to the right of the queen's chair with a sheathed sword on her belt.
The queen stifled a yawn; it was after 2:00am and she had been trying to clear the paperwork from her desk before the next day's tidal wave washed up in her In Box. Running a nation was a job that took almost every minute of her time. She rubbed her tired eyes and refocused on the two sentries and their captain. Fate was demanding.
A quick knock of two firm raps came at the door and after a nod from Queen Renée, Cinza called out, "Enter."
The door was opened by the sentry standing watch outside, admitting Darla, the Queen's Second. She offered a nod to each of the other women and a longer dip of her head to the queen, and then took a seat at her sovereign's right hand. Renée eyed her a moment, a grin curling her lips that brought a blush to the Second's face.
"Darla, I trust that Connie is well?" The queen asked innocently. Darla smiled in spite of herself and then contrived a serious expression. She had arrived late.
"She is well, my Queen," the Second replied self-consciously.
"I am sorry to disturb your sleep on this, the second night of your post-joining, my friend," Renée said, the light of humor glinting in her fatigue-brightened green eyes as she wagged her brows suggestively. Her gaze traveled pointedly to the fresh hickey on the side of her second-in-command's neck.
Darla choked and put her hands over her face, groaning as the others chuckled. Even Sherice allowed herself a brief laugh, remembering the tentative kidding after her own bonding. Darla was fair game for the rest of the week, but unlike the Queen's Champion, while the Second was also respected, she was not feared.
Indeed few had dared to tease the tribe's Master Warrior after her bonding ceremony three years before. At a solid 6'2" and after a lifetime of martial training, Sherice could be intimidating even to those who knew her well. She could bring fire and steel to her dark eyes at will, and with her teeth clenched, shining like bleached ivory against her ebony skin, she could be a fearsome figure. Sherice had earned that right, having seen combat as a Marine Staff Sergeant. Only Queen Renée had openly taken every possible opportunity to hound her with comically lewd innuendoes which her champion had borne with her usual stoicism.
When the laughter had died away and Darla uncovered her face, she was greeted with the sight of her queen edging a bottle of spring water across the table in her direction.
"You seemed to be choking a moment ago," Renée said with concern. "Some water might help?especially if it's something you ate still tickling your throat."
At this, even Kalica and Trista cackled. It was a while before a serious atmosphere prevailed again.
"My Queen, you remain single as yet," Darla finally managed to say, "and many will relish the day of your joining. The paybacks shall be many, mark my words."
Renée chuckled at this, knowing it was true. Yet she was already 34, and for the last ten years she had been married to her duties as queen. The longer she held the Queen's Mask, the less realistic the possibility of a joining seemed. She simply had no time in this life for love.
If the queen had held any other position in the tribe, many suitors would have vied for her heart, for Renée was beautiful, wise, and sexy. She had been an able warrior during her mother's reign, and though only 5'4", she was strong, quick, and lithe. A long fall of straight pale hair framed her heart-shaped face with its piercing green eyes. But even more than her appearance, it had been the intangible qualities; her vivaciousness, her sensitivity to others, the grace of her movements, and even the scent of her skin that set desire in the hearts of those around her.
Many had sought her hand in the years before she took the Queen's Mask following the death of her mother in a plane crash. From the days of her teens when she'd trained in the tribe, through the years she'd spent at universities in the outside world, men and women had wooed Renée. Always she had eventually turned them down, refusing their attentions past a certain point, and hoping to retain their friendship. Sometimes bitterness prevailed, but she had learned to gauge the point at which to withdraw. She did this with the uncanny skill and finesse of a born politician, and surprisingly often, she had been able to transmute the heat of passion into the warmth of friendship.
Beyond the borders of the tribal lands, the circle of contacts she had established over a decade before had pursued their careers and professions in the world at large. They were part of a reservoir of potential allies that the future queen had cultivated while she'd worked towards her BA in Political Science at GWU, and an MPA at Harvard's JFK School of Government. She had been within weeks of finishing when tragedy had struck, and in the middle of an April night she had been summoned home. Renée had left the campus for Logan Int'l at dawn the next day. Before her colleagues at the university had been awarded their degrees, the princess had become a head of state.
"Yes, the paybacks will be many," Renée agreed almost wistfully. Then she returned her attention to the sentries. "Tell us what you saw."
"We saw a dark rider upon a pale horse, advancing at a walk upon the road from the south, my Queen," Kalica said. "She reached the totem and then vanished. I found no tracks or any evidence that she had passed."
"She was a warrior and bore a sword, my Queen," Trista added. "She seemed to sense our presence and turned at the drawing of our bows." She didn't speak of her feeling that the warrior had stared at her for a heartbeat.
"My Queen, the night is dark and it has been storming since early this past afternoon. There is no light behind the hill and the trench is almost impossible to see even in daylight. It should have been impossible for these sentries to have been discovered under tonight's conditions," Cinza told the group, "and from 100 feet the drawing of their bows doesn't make enough noise to be heard over the rain."
"I don't doubt the abilities of your sentries, Cinza," Queen Renée said.
The Captain of the Home Guard dipped her head in acknowledgment of the queen's reassurance.
"Discovered or not they couldn't have stopped her anyway," Marieve said with certainty. "Our warriors were unable to hinder her even before she died. Isn't that so, Shareen?" The Tribal Shamaness asked, turning to the Lore Keeper for confirmation.
"So our legends say," Shareen agreed. "She joined the tribe by winning a challenge against twenty, but that was a long time ago, and now we know that we have no need to stop her. I am sure we shall be seeing her again very soon."
"Well, for once the most appropriate response is also the one most expedient," Renée said. "Cinza, post guards as normal but instruct them not to waste their energy on the Ghost Warrior. I would say ignore her, but we can't let our defenses down entirely. We must still verify that any intruder seen is actually her."
"I'll issue a notice that she has been seen, my Queen, but that any further sightings will have to be confirmed," Cinza said. Queen Renée nodded in agreement.
"Very good, Cinza," the queen said. She looked around meeting each of their faces and added, "Then I guess that's it, unless anyone has a question."
Unable to help herself, WG2 Trista blurted out, "Who was she really, the Ghost Warrior? I mean, I've heard some of the legends, but they don't really say more than that our tribe is periodically haunted by a warrior from long ago?" She trailed off, noticing that all the others were staring at her. Cinza was rolling her eyes at the outburst, never a good sign. Trista gave her queen an apologetic look, then shrugged and cast her eyes down at the floor, whispering, "I beg your pardon, my Queen."
Darla sighed and said, "It is late, and this is neither the place nor the time for a lesson in history."
"Of course not, my Second," the queen teased, "it's time for sleep. But perhaps if Shareen is willing, any who are curious can form a group to hear the legend while off-duty, perhaps tomorrow after the evening meal?"
The Keeper of Lore dipped her head in deference to her queen's suggestion. It was her duty to maintain the tribe's ancient knowledge and history, and the education of the women of the tribe in both subjects was her mission.
"I would be glad to recite the legend from the bard's seat after the meal tomorrow night, my Queen."
Renée nodded and then asked, "Cinza, would you make sure these two sentries are off-duty following the evening meal tomorrow?"
"Of course, my Queen," the Captain of the Guard said. "I'll rotate them both onto the afternoon detail and their duty will finish in time for the meal."
Trista and Kalica strove to remain straight-faced. Their captain had just agreed to place them on their normal rotation of duty for Saturdays, a mundane fact that none of the others would have been aware of. Thereafter the meeting was adjourned and the group dispersed. Each of them had things to consider, but most of all, Marieve and Shareen.
At the 7th hour past noon the evening meal was served in the communal dining hall and those not on duty gathered for the camaraderie as much as the food. Here, as in any institutional dining room, long tables were arranged in orderly rows over most of the floor space. Five lines formed at one end of the hall, where the members of the tribe waited their turn to file past the cafeteria style banks of steam tables, cool cabinets, and drink dispensers that separated the eating and cooking areas. The closer they drew to the food, the more strongly their appetites were whetted by the tantalizing scents wafting from the kitchen, an effect that made the orderly progress of the lines seem extended and cruel, a kind of slow-motion torture. But at last, after taking trays from a stack and cutlery wrapped in napkins, they made their selections and then returned to their tables. It was a scene familiar to anyone who has taken a meal in a public school, a hospital, or a military installation.
As in all such places where so many of kindred spirit gathered to slake thirst and hunger amongst friends and colleagues and family members, the aggregate of conversations grew into a comforting din that allowed a measure of privacy to those speaking cheek by jowl with hundreds of others. It was the white noise of the hive, the background of a society at idle, and the assurance of an individual's place within a greater whole.
Near the end of the hall furthest from the cafeteria lines, a table was set crossways to all the others, and at this table the queen and the officers of the tribe took their meals at such times when they dined in public. On this night most were present. It was Saturday night, and though the weekend held a slightly different atmosphere here than in the outer world, a weekend was still a weekend. It was a time for increased socializing, greater relaxation, and catching up on news. The drone of the hive was louder and many dressed better than on the weekdays, and a great increase in flirting and courting was the rule.
Over the heightened buzz of voices, the leaders of the tribe did their best to hear each other speak. They could have dined in a private room or even in their homes, but they all understood that their presence was a source of reassurance and evidence of the solidarity of their society. It was good form to see and be seen. It helped maintain morale. But most of all, the queen strongly encouraged it.
"Where is Shareen? And where is Marieve?" Renée asked no one in particular as she glanced around for the dozenth time. She furrowed her brows and looked across the table at Darla, who was seated across from her with her newly bonded partner, Connie.
"I'm not sure, my Queen," Darla said after swallowing a mouthful of salmon, "I haven't seen our lore keeper since this afternoon. Maybe she's been stricken with stage fright? And as for Marieve, I haven't seen her all day."
"I saw Marieve in the 'puter café around 1500 hours," Connie offered. The second's wife was one of the tribe's IT specialists and often took her work breaks in the public access computer establishment because she liked their coffee. She shook her head with disapproval, making the curly mane of auburn hair dance at her shoulders. "I believe she was exploring news groups. I know she was seeding pound cake crumbs into the keyboard again."
"I'll speak to her about it," the queen promised with mock severity.
Connie giggled and then nudged her tortoise-shell glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose with a slender index finger. Renée focused on her hand.
"Connie, what's that on your nails?"
The IT specialist held out her hand, presenting her fingertips for her queen's inspection.
"Jack O' Lantern and dancing skeleton appliqués on a black base polish," she explained. "It's for Halloween on Monday."
"But of course," Renée nodded with a grin on her lips. Halloween had always been special for her too, and though Connie could be mistaken for a ditz and a dork, with her obsession for holidays and her geeky glasses, she held a doctorate from MIT in computer science. Her dissertation advisor had submitted the results of an IQ test she'd taken for laughs while at a party drunk, and she'd subsequently received a membership in Mensa while never even remembering how she'd qualified. Upon her return to the nation, she'd redesigned the architecture of their computer systems.
"Somehow I can imagine Shareen with stage fright," Sherice said. "If you'd like, I could find her and suggest that she join us, my Queen." She said this completely straight-faced, knowing that the prospect of receiving a summons from the Queen's Champion could be quite compelling.
The queen pretended to give her offer serious consideration, finally saying, "If she's still absent after the meal then you should certainly deliver her to the auditorium forthwith."
The champion nodded. The queen grinned. Darla shook her head at their kidding, while Cinza chuckled at the prospect. The keeper of lore was a quiet, bookish woman of 47 years, blessed with a prodigious memory, but she was no warrior and the complete opposite of Sherice in all respects. Ironically, the Queen's Champion found the small, almost frail lore mistress an interesting partner for conversation and the two chatted several times a week. Shareen was actually able to coax the somber warrior to speak openly because of the champion's reverence for the tribe's martial past and the warriors of earlier eras. The lore mistress was also completely non-threatening. The two were preeminent in spheres of activity wholly divorced from each other and could therefore interact without a trace of challenge to each other's positions.
"I'm actually more curious about why Marieve isn't with us," Renée added, "it's not like her to miss a meal."
The others nodded in agreement. The shamaness was known for her appetite, her fad diets, and her midnight snacks. Though she carried some extra weight and her features were softened by it, her eating habits could have left her far heavier. It seemed that no sooner had the queen mentioned her name again than Marieve strode into the dining hall and made her way to the table. This was another habit she was known for; appearing as if from the aether when her name was spoken.
"I have been examining some recent events in the world at large," the shamaness told the others, "and have spoken briefly with Shareen. She was stricken with stage fright and opted to take her meal in her scriptorium, by candlelight, with her face pressed to the monitor of her computer. She should be here shortly." She then cast her glance in a circuit of the other diners, finally announcing, "The venison looks delicious but I think I'll have the salmon and the roasted potatoes. It's a meal I would hate to miss." She then looked at Connie and said, "I shook out the keyboard as I always do," before she paced away towards the cafeteria lines.
As usual the others, particularly Sherice, watched her leave with an unsettled feeling. The woman had appeared at the mention of her name, answered their questions, the second's suspicions, and even used Renée's phrase about missing a meal. It happened so often that it was regarded as a normal behavior for her, but it was still eerie to witness.
"I will never get used to that," Sherice muttered as she shook her head and dug into her salad. Ironically, she'd seen examples of the shamaness' powers all her life. She was 31, the same age as Marieve, and they had been raised and schooled together in their youth.
When the shamaness returned with an overflowing plate, which the others rolled their eyes at, she sat down and immediately began eating. It was only after consuming half a salmon steak and a handful of potatoes that she took a drink and sat back in her chair.
"My Queen, there are interesting developments in the world at large," she began, capturing Renée's attention. "There is a newly opened school on the east coast which I believe we should examine."
Renée raised an eyebrow in an encouraging gesture and canted her head.
"I have found several references to a martial arts school in Columbia, South Carolina?" she broke off at the hissed exhalation from the queen. With a nod she continued, "Yes, there is a connection."
The others at the table, particularly Sherice, stared at the shamaness with curiosity and suspicion. They turned to their queen, who was now staring off into space and obviously deep in thought. By the time they looked back, Marieve had returned to her food. It was obvious that this topic would not be continued during the meal.
The Queen's Champion felt apprehensive about the hints of trouble from the shamaness. Columbia had long been a locus of concern to the tribe. In fact for six decades it had been regarded as a crises waiting to happen. Three generations of warriors had gone there on scouting missions, had sat in classrooms at the university, and had reported no immediate danger from the breach that had occurred back in 1940, half a world away. Yet the tribe had always expected something to happen. Sherice suspected the worst. She resolved to redouble her training regime beginning in the morning.
The Queen's Second also felt apprehensive. There was great potential danger in the knowledge that had fallen into the hands of the outsiders in Columbia, though so far the impact had been minimal. In fact it had been astonishingly minimal all considered; just a few obscure scientific papers and a fantasy TV show that no one took too seriously. It could have been so much worse. The last queen's second and the previous lore keeper had urged their monarch to approve a limited strike aimed at the recovery of the material and the silencing of the academics who had discovered it. Renée's mother, Queen Alcarin, had refused, deeming the action too liable to draw attention. Her Captain of the Home Guard had concurred. The debate had simmered for 30 years and nothing had been done beyond surveillance. Now if something had changed the status quo then it could mean danger. Darla was worried about the possibilities and the ramifications for her tribe and her queen.
"Ahhh, Shareen has finally joined us," Marieve said with her mouth full, not even looking up from her plate.
Renée, Darla, Connie, Sherice and Cinza all looked toward the entrance where the lore keeper had just opened one of the doors from the hallway and was walking towards them. They stared at her as she approached, as if Marieve's pronouncement had gifted Shareen with the status of a ghost. She looked back sheepishly; everyone else was present.
"I thought I'd join you for dessert," she announced.
"And not a moment too soon," the queen said, shifting her eyes to the rest of the hall.
Around them the buzz of conversation had risen as more and more of the diners completed their meals. Soon it would be time for the interested ones to adjourn to the auditorium for the lore keeper's recitation of the Legend of the Ghost Warrior, and after the apparition's sighting during the previous night's watch, word had spread and there was a lot of interest in her forthcoming presentation.
"Come, my friend, I shall join you in the dessert line," Marieve said as she rose and set a hand on Shareen's shoulder, steering her away from the table and towards the cafeteria line. The two were almost immediately engrossed in conversation. When they had gone, everyone else looked at the shamaness' plate, finding it miraculously emptied.
"I don't know how she does that," Sherice said in amazement. The others nodded in agreement. Marieve's plate was completely empty save for a pile of bones, the slice of baked lemon, and the parsley garnish.
Dessert was a somewhat stilted affair that night. Renée, Darla, Cinza, and Sherice were worried about the ramifications of Marieve's discoveries, though nothing further was said about them at the table. Shareen was trying hard to assimilate what the shamaness had told her and was concentrating on how it might alter her presentation that was so swiftly approaching. And Connie was already wondering if she should investigate the browser trail Marieve had left during her web surf. There might be lateral investigations to be made into the cause of her mysterious announcement. As they ate, oblivious to much else, the din in the dining hall grew, members of the tribe became more active, and their anticipation began to show. Finally when it reached a certain level, known only to queens and clergy, Renée blinked her attention back to the present and swept her eyes across the room.
"I believe we should announce your evening program, Shareen," she said, catching the lore keeper's attention, "people are becoming restless and bored."
The lore keeper blinked and focused on her queen, then realized that she had been called to proceed with her program at last. She nodded, rose to her feet, and turned to face the diners. As she did so, Sherice reached behind the table, took up a padded mallet, and struck a blow on a hanging gong. The room quickly fell into silence.
"Thank you all," Shareen began. "As many of you know there has been a sighting of that apparition known as the Ghost Warrior, and in response to interest in the legend, I shall be holding a recitation in the auditorium, beginning in one quarter hour. I hope to see many of you there."
The lore keeper then surveyed the sea of faces staring at her, turned and dipped her head to the queen, and left to take her place on stage in the auditorium before the crowd arrived.
"Time to provide an example," Renée told the others as she rose and crumpled her napkin onto her plate. She took a last sip from her water glass as the others got to their feet, and then led her officers from the dining hall before they got trapped by the crowd.
A quarter hour later the auditorium was filling rapidly. The program was of interest to many and the theater's current movie was in its second week of showing. Capable of seating 6,000, the tribal auditorium was actually more a concert hall than a lecture hall. In fact it was rare to have only a single performer on stage. The space was also used for ceremonies and important announcements, though both would also be carried on the tribe's closed circuit TV. For Shareen's performance tonight, about 2,500 were expected.
The lore keeper had seated herself in a comfortable chair, up stage and center under a single spotlight. Because that instrument was hung almost directly above her seat, the lighting was stark and somewhat spooky, highlighting her head and shoulders, but leaving her features in darkness beneath the traditional cowl of her office.
Up until a few years ago, a small side table would have been placed next to her chair, containing a pitcher of water and a goblet, but these had been replaced. Now an unobtrusive cooler beneath Shareen's seat held a chilled drink bladder, while a long flexible siphon ran to a bendable outlet on the headset that also held her microphone. This was an adaptation of the hydration systems used by explorers and Special Forces operators in the field. It made for less visible interruptions in her recitations.
At Shareen's feet, a teleprompter had been programmed with document files from the computer in her scriptorium to display the evening's program. It could be advanced with a small footswitch on the floor. In most cases she barely consulted it, but tonight she had enjoyed only a short preparation time to review the material. Worse, Marieve had offered her new insights based on her investigations of that afternoon. Even as she sat waiting for the audience to finish seating themselves, she was still trying to decide what to incorporate. In the end, her queen took the decision from her.
Queen Renée strode out onto the stage and the audience fell silent. She was wearing the Queen's Mask tilted back off her face and a charcoal gray pants suit with a champaign blouse. The presence of the mask hushed the crowd even when displayed informally.
"Members of the tribe?fellow Amazons," Renée called out, using that rarely spoken ancient name, "we are gathered tonight to hear a legend from our history. This is a true story from the Old World, from Hellas, in waning the days of the first strength of our people. It was a time of tension when civil order and even the gods were changing. It was a time of upheaval and strife, of challenge and war. And it was a time of greatness.
In those days there came to us a new queen who brought a new perspective and a new way of living. With her came her champion, a great warrior; the greatest of her era. She had once been the deadly enemy of all Hellenes, but she became a true friend to the nation. Together they preserved our people against the threat of Rome, and none of us would be here today if it not for their bravery?and their love.
Tonight Shareen, Master Lore Keeper of the Tribe, will recite the ancient tale of the Ghost Warrior, for we come to that season when, from across the gulf of years, our past haunts us and we pay tribute to the heroines of ancient times.
Now I know there are several extant versions of this story, but one version is regarded as the traditionally sanctioned truth, and that is the version we will hear tonight. And so I give you, lore mistress Shareen and the Legend of the Ghost Warrior."
Renée then turned and swept her hand out to present the seated lore keeper. The house lights dimmed and the spot light came up, and the queen walked off the stage. She took her seat in the royal box with Sherice, Darla and Connie, and Marieve, and then with the rest of the crowd, settled into silence. When the auditorium was at last so still that the motion of the air could be heard as a rushing against the eardrums, only then did Shareen break the silence and begin.
For a moment the War Queen of the Amazon Nation watched in awe as her Queen's Champion moved too quickly for the eye to follow. In a blur the three swordsmen who had converged on her were slain, their bodies rent and flung from the two ring blades she wielded. The deicidal Chakram of Day and the morticidal Chakram of Night flickered in the broken sunlight under the trees of the Amazon Forest.
As usual the tall, dark-haired warrior had cut a swath of destruction through the legionary skirmishers. She dispatched the last in her way and then moved to engage the battle formation of the VI Ferrata Fidelis legion's first centuria, using movements from a training sequence called The Annihilation of the Line.
Queen Hope knew each movement in that sequence, but no matter how hard she trained she would never perform them with the same speed and assurance as her mentor and champion. No one could. Not the Warrior Princess?not even the God of War himself.
Watching her Champion in action had always made Hope's heart beat like thunder. Whether on the battlefield or the training field, the sight of her deadly grace contrasting with her arresting beauty took the queen's breath away. It had from the first moment Hope had seen her, before her champion had become an Amazon and years before she had become queen. Through all the years since she had known that no other would ever take the warrior's place in her heart. If only?
A sound, felt more than heard, prompted Hope to turn, broadsword preceding her, head snapping around to verify the target just as she had been taught. Thousands of repetitions governed her reactions as she handled her weapon, and the sweet spot, 80% of the way down the blade from the hilt, sheared through the wide, overlapping bands of the lorica segmentata of a Roman infantryman. Before he could fall, an Amazon arrow slammed into his chest, pitching him over backwards. It would have been a heartbeat too late to save her.
Sobered now, the queen returned to the rhythm of the fighting. Her warriors were driving the legionnaires back towards the eastern border river, while on the right flank, her champion slew any still foolish enough to come against her. The legions of the western empire knew better, but these had come from Aegyptus far away. In the silence after the battle, the tally would be counted at 267 dead by her champion's hand; a good day of fighting. And Secunda had never even drawn her sword.
By early evening the battle was over. The last resistance had fled back across the river and the border was secure. Of the enemy, nearly 3,800 had been slain. Hope met with the hekatontarchoi, the commanders of a hundred, to assess their nation's losses, ordered her second to arrange for the clearing of enemy corpses and the claiming of their own dead, and then joined her champion for their return home. It was 12 July, 31 BC, and the legions of Marc Antony were moving through Thracia on their way to Actium to confront Octavian.
A candlemark later the leaders of the tribe gathered in the queen's residence for an evening meal. There presided Hope, War Queen of the Amazon Nation and daughter of Gabrielle, the soulmate of the Warrior Princess. With her was the Queen's Champion, Secunda, a warrior from a place and time so strange that the queen scarcely believed her mother's explanation. In appearance she was identical to the Warrior Princess. In battle she was peerless. Hope believed that she could even defeat Xena herself, the onetime Destroyer of Nations and Hellene's Bane, but on those few occasions when the two met, Secunda addressed the Favorite of Ares as Strategos and did her bidding.
Also at that gathering were Anara, the Queen's Second, Valara, Medea, and Hipperia, the Chiliarchoi, or commanders of a thousand, Yakut, the Tribal Shamaness, Espurgia, the Master Healer, and Baselia the Lore Keeper of the Tribe. This was not the full Amazon Council, but rather a synedrion, a military staff meeting of those who wielded power in time of war. And war was upon them.
Since the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar on 15 March, 44 BC, the Roman Empire had been in turmoil. The decades of intrigues and civil war were still continuing, yet the leadership was finally stabilizing at last. The western portion of the empire had been consolidated under the power of Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, while the eastern provinces were ruled by Marc Antony and his consort Cleopatra. Unlike the years of constant danger under the threat of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, the forces of Octavian had ceased their assaults on the nation, concentrating instead on the internecine slaughter that had followed in the wake of the power gulf left by Caesar's death. Yet now it seemed that all was coming to a final battle.
Octavian had won the slow struggle to grasp the power of the western provinces, while Marc Antony had been gradually marginalized in Rome and left to fester in Aegyptus. In 42 BC the conspirators Cassius and Brutus had been defeated, thus avenging the memory of Julius Caesar for the public's benefit. It had been nothing more than the removal of adversaries. After their defeat, Cassius committed suicide and Brutus was later slain in a formal duel by Xena's daughter Eve. The once Livia had finally avenged her own kidnapping by Brutus in 58 BC.
Next in Octavian's rise had come the defeat of Lucius Antonius at Perusia in 40 BC. This was followed by the naval battle at Naulochus in 36 BC that brought down Sextus Pompeius. That same year a supposed ally had attempted to betray Octavian. Aemilius Lepidus, once the third ruling partner of Rome with Octavian and Antony, had tried to capitalize on his command of 22 legions, but when he'd challenged Octavian his troops had deserted him and he'd been forced to surrender.
Afterwards Octavian was left with only Marc Antony as a rival, and Antony had estranged himself from Rome by pursuing his affair with Cleopatra, a foreigner that he favored over his Roman wife, Octavia?Octavian's sister, whom he had married in 40 BC. Worse, he had attempted to set up a rival Roman Senate in Alexandria. It was a clear act of sedition.
So now the two camps were preparing for a final battle. Octavian's troops had marched east through Illyricum and Macedonia, while Antony's had marched through Asia Minor and Thracia. The battle site was to be Actium on the western coast of Achaea, where both navies were massing. And on the route leading from Thracia to Actium lay the homelands of the Amazon Nation.
The nation counted roughly 3,000 warriors in its army; Marc Antony commanded 16 legions with a total of 125,000 soldiers, auxiliaries, and mercenaries. To this could be added half again as many support personnel. Approximately a quarter would follow a route that traversed tribal lands. Almost 50,000 invaders were expected. Technically they weren't even at war, but the tribe knew what lands looked like after hosting an army of that size for even a short time. Game would be hunted to extinction, roads cut through forest, water sources polluted, villages despoiled, and people enslaved, raped, or killed. It was not acceptable.
So that morning, when the scouts who had shadowed the army for the last week reported that the first legion was marching on the border, Hope, the 28 year old War Queen of the Amazon Nation, had brought her warriors to halt them. She had committed the full count of her nation's army, and she had brought her champion. The battle had been fought in the first mile of open forest within the nation's border, and this had been a concession. Hope would have preferred to meet them outside the Amazon lands, but that country was cleared farmland. Tactically, meeting a Roman army on flat terrain while so badly outnumbered was suicidal.
Long before, in the days of Themiscyra, when the strength of the nation had been in its cavalry, a victory under such conditions might have been possible, but no longer. The might of the old Black Sea tribes was long gone and the Amazons of Hope's times were forest dwellers who fought on foot as archers and mixed infantry. There had been no choice but to fight on tribal lands and on their own terms. Because of that strategy they had won a great victory this day, but it was only the beginning. A minimum of three unfought legions waited to march through the Amazon forest, and if they came en mass, wary and expecting attack, or if they called on Antony to send reinforcements, the ensuing fighting might lead to the annihilation of the tribe.
After the meal the gathered leaders discussed the tribe's victory and their jeopardy in the near future. They had won a battle, but war still loomed before them.
"My Queen, again I urge you to send for Xena and Gabrielle," Anara said for the dozenth time. "They're in Amphipolis, only eight leagues away, and their aid would be valuable."
Hope sighed as she watched Medea and Hipperia nodding in agreement. She had thought of this course almost from the first moment she'd heard the reports of the scouts telling of Antony's march, and she had rejected it.
"My mother and the Warrior Princess are the mainstay of the defense of their polis," she reminded them, "and they cannot abandon their home for us when it is threatened. According to our reports, all 16 of Antony's legions were expected to march through the Stryma Vale. Besides, they are only two. They are better off rallying Amphipolis' defenders in their walled city. We would be better off marshalling the farmers of the surrounding countryside for their numbers."
"Beg men to fight for us?" Baselia said in shock. "That just isn't done!"
"It was a joke, Baselia," Hope said in a patronizing tone, "they have more than their share of worries for their homes too." Though unlike her more traditional Lore Keeper, the War Queen would have welcomed their aid. It was just one of many differences between Hope and all those who had come before. Her attitude was a legacy from the training of her early years under Xena and Gabrielle, warriors who were far better traveled and far less provincial and insular than her fellow Amazons. It had been with just such troops that the Destroyer of Nations had begun her career in 80 BC.
"You could ask the Blessing of?of Him," Valara suggested.
"Ask a male for aid? Even if he be a god?" Hope answered with a wry tone. "Yes, perhaps I could ask Ares for his Blessing. Perhaps he would even grant it and we would gain a victory against Antony. But there are other rivalries I have been told of that span generations, and I am very hesitant to seek the Blessing of the God of War. You see, although my mother's soulmate is still Ares' Favorite, Octavian is the Favorite of Athena. The gods have pledged non-interference with each others' Chosen Warriors?"
"But I thought?" Valara interrupted. Hope silenced her with a sharp glance.
"Ares has given me the benefit of his counsel at times, but I am not his Favorite. If our fight against the Romans should by some chance spill over into a war with Octavian's forces, we would be sacrificed. Octavian does have the Blessing of Athena. He is fated to prevail and fated to rule the empire. Our generation is only fated to survive. In a war between two nations, each having the Blessing of a war god, it would be the resources of those nations and one leader's status of Favorite that would decide the day."
The others nodded in understanding after Hope's clarification, but Yakut seemed deep in thought. The queen noted her distant stare and her absolute stillness. She watched the shamaness out of the corner of her eye. The spirit world had always given her chills. After a few moments Yakut finally blinked and looked around to get her bearings. Hope met her glance with an eyebrow raised in question.
"A messenger approaches, my Queen," the shamaness declared. "Someone we have not seen in a long time."
"That could be a lot of people, Yakut," Hope said, trying to pry more information out of the shamaness. "Are they living or dead?" She grinned.
Yakut smiled. Hope's question was often the opening query when they played the 'guessing game', a childhood pastime they still used as a tension breaker. Rather than answer, the shamaness cast her eyes to the entrance just as a sentry rapped on the door. The queen smiled as she shook her head in amazement. She couldn't count the number of times her friend had done that?and always it was a surprise.
"Enter!" Hope commanded, and the door swung open.
"A messenger from Amphipolis, my Queen," the sentry announced as a figure in a hooded cloak strode into the room. The gait held self assurance and the bearing was upright, as of a confident veteran warrior. She was tall as well, rivaling the Queen's Champion in height. The rest of the Amazons stiffened, for the figure was armed with a sword slung at her back and black woven armor was visible on her forearms. She moved to the center of the room and stopped there, then reached up to remove her hood.
At the sight of her several of the Amazons gasped. Now 36 years of age, Eve was a renowned warrior, but her memory to the tribe was mixed at best. She had been raised by Xena and Gabrielle for the first nine years of her life, often residing in the Amazon village with her parents. But Eve had never become a sister of the tribe. Instead, in 58 BC, she had been kidnapped by Brutus acting on Caesar's orders, while in the same attack Queen Ephiny had been slain. The act had touched off a bloodbath. For the first time in memory, a non-Amazon had led the nation's army into battle. The force of Xena's will as Ares' Favorite had been irresistible, and the warriors had followed her to war, slaughtering the army of Pompey the Magnus and paving the way for Caesar's power. And in that battle, the Army of the Amazon Nation had become the followers of the Destroyer of Nations.
Under the control of Julius Caesar, Eve had been wholly corrupted, taught to be little more than a sociopathic warlord sanctioned by Rome. Turned loose with a legion of her own, she had wrought terror across a wide swath of land including the country in which the Amazon homeland was located. Hope's predecessor, Queen Varia, had sworn the nation to vengeance against her with an Oath of Blood. But the hatred of the whole nation had paled when compared to the wrath exercised by the Destroyer of Nations.
After swearing a sacramentum bellicus, an Oath of War, before Ephiny's successor Queen Marga, Xena and Gabrielle had left to wage war on the Roman Empire. That rampage hadn't ceased until the soulmates rescued Xena's daughter in 46 BC, and in those 12 years, they had caused the deaths of 86,000 Roman soldiers. Whole legions had been obliterated, outposts burnt to ash, armadas sunk, and ports emptied by plagues. The results shouldn't have been so unexpected; at the age of 19, Xena had nearly taken the city of Corinth with an army of 800 thugs and misfits.
Even though the Amazons had been astonished at the carnage, their awe hadn't stopped them from wanting to avenge Eve's crimes against them while she'd been Livia. When Hope had finally challenged and defeated Queen Varia in 40 BC at the age of 19, she had countermanded Varia's Oath of Blood in honor of the relationship between her own mother and Eve's. Politically, the move had helped narrow the rift between the Amazon Nation and the Destroyer of Nations.
Now Eve stood before the synedrion. It was only the second time she had visited the Amazon village. Though the Oath of Blood had been nullified by royal decree, Xena's daughter knew how her presence affected the sisterhood and she had kept her distance.
Without waiting to be asked her business Eve spoke, showing the same assurance that her mother had always seemed to posses. It had rubbed off on her over the last 15 years.
"Queen Hope, I bring you word from our mothers and I seek to give their counsel to you and your champion." Like her mother, Eve met the queen's eyes directly and never bowed her head, for like her mother, she was no Amazon. If any status befitted her, it was that of an estranged older sister.
Hope nodded to her once and then rose from her seat.
"My sisters, since we have finished our meal, let us adjourn for the night. I will meet with you here in the morning at the second candlemark after dawn."
The others hesitated but finally rose, saluted their queen, and took their leave. At Hope's request, only Secunda remained. When they were alone, Hope beckoned Eve to a vacant seat and offered her a cup of wine and a plate, then gestured for her to select food from the platters. Eve took her chair with a sigh and gave the queen a thankful smile for the refreshment. For the next few moments she was engaged in filling her plate. Finally Xena's daughter settled, took a sip of wine, and addressed the Amazon Queen and her champion.
"Our mothers send their greetings and their prayers for your safety and victory," Eve began. "They feel secure in the defense of Amphipolis since they are not Antony's target. The city is well prepared to withstand a siege, but they are convinced it will not come to that. They merely need to show resolve and offer token resistance."
The analysis was good as expected of the Warrior Princess and her soulmate and Hope nodded her head in agreement. She continued to look Eve in the eyes and raised an eyebrow to bid her continue.
"They have dispatched me to offer you my aid in battle in token of the evil and suffering I brought to your people in the past, but also to offer advice on the coming battles," Eve said. She then turned to carefully regard Secunda. The Queen's Champion was identical to her mother in appearance. Xena's daughter sighed. "Secunda, the Strategos reminds you of your mission and orders that I ask, 'where is your uniform?'"
"I have it with my gear," Secunda reported. "I am committed to my mission, but I have not worn the uniform of the Conqueror's army since becoming an Amazon. As always, the Strategos is correct. When the enemy comes in full force, I will need to use every tactical advantage to defeat them."
Hope looked at her champion, a question in her eyes. She had not been queen when Secunda had first arrived, but she dimly recalled the black woven bodysuit she had worn. It had been a strange and menacing kataphractes, a full body armor like nothing she had ever seen. Secunda had not worn it during her challenge, nor had she worn it since. Hope had almost forgotten it existed.
Shortly before Secunda's arrival Xena and Gabrielle had been reported dead, crucified in Rome on the same day that Caesar was assassinated in the Senate. Before the shock had fully set in, Ares had come to Hope with an offer of training and the 15 year old prodigy had accepted. Then, only a week after the news of their deaths, word had come from Amphipolis that Xena and Gabrielle had returned! They were not only alive, but they were younger than they'd been when they'd left. But that hadn't been the final shock. Barely one moon after the news of the soulmates' survival, a lone warrior had arrived from Rome. She was identical in appearance to a younger Xena, but called herself Secunda. She had claimed to be fulfilling a mission for her strategos, whom the Amazons had soon discerned was the Warrior Princess, and that her primary duty was to train and guard Gabrielle's daughter.
This news was greeted with astonishment. The council had demanded that Secunda become an Amazon. Rather than spend the required two moons for the full rites and ceremonies, Secunda had challenged for the honor. She had defeated a score of the nation's best warriors in combat with the tribe's full range of weapons, and she had done so in an afternoon. Normally such a challenge was fought over a fortnight or more.
Secunda had settled into Amazon life as though it was an old habit. Her prowess at arms was astonishing. She fought like the Destroyer of Nations, but at inhuman speed, and she had bled when cut during her initiation ceremony. Secunda was no goddess. Beyond that, she knew more survival tricks than the tribe as a whole. If anything, she was the consummate Amazon. Within a moon she was Master Trainer for the army.
"When the battle comes, I will join you on the front line," Eve said. With that she stood and drew off her cloak, revealing that she was clad in exactly the same kind of black woven armor that Hope dimly remembered. At her waist was the Combined Chakram.
Secunda raked Eve's form with eyes that registered information faster than any human ever born. She processed that information far faster as well. She noted the emblems the armor bore; Lion of Amphipolis in gold upon the right shoulder, the blood red Sigil of War upon the left collar, and upon the right collar, the Chakram of Day in silver. In a subconscious movement Secunda bowed her head a fraction. This was the personal kataphractes of the Strategos Hypatos, the mortal warrior who had defeated a goddess, stripped her of her sphere of governance, and compelled her to do her captor's bidding. It had last been worn in battle in a far distant time when the future world had fallen before the army of the Conqueror.
"Do you know the full potential of that uniform?" Secunda asked. Eve nodded, 'yes'. "Then I suggest that at dawn we conduct an offensive action against the invaders."
Hope looked at her Champion with disbelief, but Eve smiled.
"That too was the suggestion of the Strategos."
"My Queen," Secunda said, turning to a confused Hope, "I ask that we summon the Tribal Shamaness and lay a plan. It may come to pass that the nation will not have to fight the invaders."
As Helios rose above the Amazon homeland on 13 July, 31 BC, a contingent came to the border and crossed at the river. In that group were Hope, Secunda, Eve, Yakut, and a company of twenty warriors under the command of Medea. They made their way to a low hill a mile from the encampment of the nearest Roman legion, in clear sight of their advance scouts and forward sentries, and there they built a fire.
The warriors stripped to their most minimal dance attire, scarce more than a thong and bra. Medea began beating out a complex rhythm on a drum. The dancing and chanting started in earnest, and with Hope presiding, Yakut began what appeared to be a ritual, gesturing and posturing, and calling out phrases of nonsense in a bastardized variant of the archaic dialect of Themiscyra. She flung sulfur and saltpeter and powdered antlers onto the fire to create billowing clouds of foul smoke. And while the Roman scouts stared from a distance, she proceeded to sacrifice two human victims whose bodies appeared to have been painted with soot.
All this conjuring was regarded with a nervous derision by the watching Romans, until the two sacrificial offerings disappeared! The blackened bodies vanished, completely and in an instant, right before their eyes. Astonished, two scouts fled back to their encampment to report to the legatus legionis, the officer commanding their legion. The Amazons were practicing barbaric sorcery! Shortly later the remaining scouts were slain by invisible foes, quickly cut down where they stood. They had never even drawn their weapons.
The forward sentries saw this, and with the returning scouts, they sent an alarm to the encampment within its temporary stockade. The response to the attack was swift. A detail of 40 milites, or regular infantrymen, were dispatched to hold the land beyond the camp's porta praetoria, the gate facing the enemy, as reinforcements for the forward sentries. When they marched out of the camp at a double-time jog, they were just in time to see the last of the sentries falling to unseen foes. This action was in full view of the camp, and their commanding optio immediately marshaled the men into a double row formation, with lapped shields and bristling pili, the Roman javelins.
After the last sentry fell dead a tense silence grew. Expectation gave way to fear and some in the ranks trembled in apprehension, eyes darting about in a search for foes. They saw nothing and no one.
Then the slaughter started afresh at both ends of their lines. It was as if a deadly breeze blew across a row of wheat, withering the upstanding stalks with just a touch of its pestilential breath. Men screamed and fell, hewn down by invisible blades sharp as a harvester's scythe. The carnage continued unabated until the last soldier standing at the center of the line died, wildly slashing at the air around him and screaming about the attack of ghosts. When it was done, silence reigned again.
Scores of soldiers had clustered in the gateway and more had pressed to the walls. An audience of hundreds had watched the slaying of their comrades and horror grew. A buzz of rumors filled the air. 'The Amazons had sacrificed two victims, two of their own warriors, in a horrible rite to some dark god, and now the angry spirits of those dead had come upon them, compelled by an unholy power to do the bidding of their killers.' Men prayed to Mars, their God of War, for deliverance, but against the two who wore his own ancient sigil he would not lift a hand.
Finally after a space of horrified moments the camp came back to life. Orders were called out, troops were marshaled, and the braying of trumpets was heard. The primus pilus, or commanding centurion, barked orders, and the first centuria formed up within the gate. The remaining centuria of the first cohort drew up more slowly behind them. Soon nearly a thousand men stood ready for battle, facing the porta praetoria. Then for a time there was no further attack.
When the violence resumed, it came not from the porta praetoria, but rather from the porta decumana, the gate furthest from the enemy. There the unseen foes wrought havoc amongst the two centuriae of the 10th and last manipuli, or division. Soldiers fell at a fast and horrifying rate, dropping like flies before a winter's frost. Some drew their gladii, the standard short swords of legionnaires. Others tried to flee the center of the carnage. All were swiftly cut down by their merciless and invisible enemies. In the space of half a candlemark, while the chain of command failed to muster an effective response, the killing continued tirelessly, and this supported the belief that it was no living hands that wrought the destruction. The possessed spirits of the sacrificed dead knew no fatigue, and driven by the Amazons' dark magick, they would kill until none remained living.
When the 10th manipuli had been decimated, the killing again abated for a pace. A few hopeful soldiers dared to breathe with relief that perhaps the visitation had ended. But before any celebration could begin, an even more horrific drama took place. At the center of the encampment, screaming broke out. Some raced to discover its cause. Many others turned tail and fled.
The new disturbance was centered on the tents of the legatus legionis, and his subordinate legati and tribuni. One by one these highest ranking officers were dragged from their tents, kicking, pleading, and screaming. They were beheaded, executed in full view of the horrified soldiers under their command. In the fountaining sprays of their blood, fleeting and insubstantial figures were momentarily visible; black, deadly, and definitely female. The existence of the killing ghosts of the Amazons was confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt.
The surviving ranking officer, the primus pilus, finally ordered his remaining soldiers to abandon the camp and flee to the closest legionary encampment a mile to the east. In the resulting flood of soldiers, the ghosts struck down men at random, in far separated locations throughout the camp. It was a horrifying reign of terror.
When all was tallied up and the dead counted, slightly less than 400 Romans had been slain. But whereas the loss of 3,800 in the battle the day before had only hardened the Romans' resolve to overrun their Amazon foes the next day, the loss of 400 to ghosts caused the remaining legions to withdraw a league from the Amazon lands. The legatus legionis of the V Sythica legion sent word to Marc Antony himself, reporting the loss of 4,200 men and the state of confusion that had stricken two of their legions. In response, Marc Antony, eager to reach Actium and take the most advantageous positions before his battle with Octavian, ordered his surviving troops to follow another route, bypassing the Amazon lands entirely. He would settle scores with them after his victory.
In the hearts of many eastern Roman veterans, men who survived the defeat at Actium and were absorbed into Octavian's legions afterwards, there was great fear, and many tales of the horror of their battle with the Ghost Warriors of the Amazons were told. To these, the soldiers of the western legions added their own stories of the terror of the Destroyer of Nations. She had slain tens of thousands, avenged her own death in Rome back in 44 BC, and had regained her youth. She was still the Favorite of the Greek God of War?or maybe something more deadly still. It would be many long years before the Roman army again assailed the tribe's homelands.
Now while this history explains the origins of the Roman legends about the Ghost Warriors of the Amazon Tribe, it does not explain the special place that warrior holds among the Amazons. For that tale we must look to the times both before and after the Battle of Actium. Over the course of a lifetime, feelings were forged, and these were feelings that could not be consummated, for fate and the designs of the gods forbade it.
Hope, daughter of Gabrielle, had still been 15 years of age when her mother and her mother's soulmate were crucified in Rome in 44 BC. A week after the news of their deaths, word had come from Amphipolis claiming that they were alive again. And before Hope could fully sort out her feelings of loss and sudden relief, the warrior Secunda had arrived from Rome.
Now during her early years, Hope had been tutored by both her mother and the Warrior Princess, and she had proved herself a prodigy. Her training continued sporadically even during the years that Xena and Gabrielle fought against Rome to rescue Eve, and during that time, the soulmates became a legend to the Amazons. Being trained as a warrior by living legends, Hope was the envy of her age mates and many who were older as well. But when Secunda arrived, being even more like Xena than Xena, and living full time in the village with the expressed purpose of training and guarding Hope, three things happened. First, Hope became the object of renewed jealousy. Second, along with most of her peers, she developed a huge crush on the dark and beautiful warrior. After all, what Amazon teen wouldn't want a Xena of her own? And third, the sheer volume of erotic daydreaming by junior warriors exploded into perpetual dazed looks, desperate fingers rustling under the sheets, and stifled, pillow-biting whimpers in the dormitories at night. In her fantasies, Hope had an even better version of her mother's soulmate than her mother did, and this one was, from the very start, all her own.
Yet Secunda clove to her purpose, and her duty was paramount to her. When other warriors sought to become romantically involved with her, she declined with firm resolve. Many desired to be the first to win her affections, but she frustrated them all. Secunda seemed to live only to carry out her mission. This single-minded purpose, her unnatural prowess, her insistence on referring to the Warrior Princess as 'Strategos', and her use of twin uncombined Chakrams set her apart as an object of curiosity and desire.
Three years passed and Hope, already precocious in many areas of expertise, attained the grade of Master Warrior at the age of 18 years, having amassed the required 25 kills in battle. She was therefore the peer of warriors twice her age. Still, Hope kept drilling under Secunda's tutelage. She had long before learned the basics of weaponry from Xena and Gabrielle, and upon this foundation Secunda taught her The Annihilation of the Line, and The Smashing of the Wheel. These signature fighting exercises of her strategos were thereby transferred to the Amazon Nation and the next generation of its warriors.
Now at that time the tribe was ruled in matters of war by the beautiful and hotheaded Queen Varia. Varia was a proud woman who was both a gifted warrior and a skilled tactician. Strong, quick, and agile, she had risen to her rank in 57 BC at the age of 22, young for a War Queen, yet not unheard of. Many centuries before, Antiope, the legendary War Queen of Themiscyra in the time of the Achaean's war against Ilios, had won that office at the age of 17. She too had enjoyed the favor of a special tutor, an enigmatic Thracian warrior named Prima.
When Queen Varia learned of the rescue of Eve in 46 BC, she had immediately begun to agitate for vengeance. The queen had fought against Livia's troops and her pride had been stung by several defeats in which she had lost many able warriors and many good friends. She pled her case before the nation's council, and after several months her arguments were accepted and an Oath of Blood was issued, charging all Amazons to seek to avenge their dead by working for the death of Livia. Varia hated Livia no matter what name she claimed, and by extension, she was hostile to her mothers, Xena and Gabrielle. Hope was the couple's second daughter, and she was no favorite of Varia's for several additional reasons.
In 41 BC Varia was 38 years of age and had been War Queen for 16 years. The queen had reached, and some whispered passed, her peak as a fighter. She could be ruthless and spiteful and had become long accustomed to the exercise of her will. Seldom did a prize she'd set her sights on elude her, yet just such a prize had come to the tribe in the person of Secunda. Being identical in appearance to the Warrior Princess, whom Varia had never liked, yet whose achievements she had ever envied, the thought of subjugating the tall, dark-haired newcomer was irresistibly attractive. Varia wanted her, both as her Champion and as a bedtoy, but Secunda was dedicated to Hope, and so out of all the members of her tribe, Varia had kept a wary eye on the young warrior who commanded Secunda's focus, the rising prodigy and her potential challenger, Hope.
In 41 BC Hope became a Master Warrior, one of the last qualifications lacking before she would be able to demand a legitimate challenge for Varia's own office. And so, with the habituated reasoning of a dominating personality, Varia decided it was time to force Hope into a submissive position by demonstrating her preeminence; she would show the young upstart that she could take what she wanted. To do this, Varia decided to separate Hope from Secunda and claim the peerless warrior as her own. She began right at the ceremony in which Hope was awarded her new status.
"Hope, you're now a Master Warrior and you shall have duties befitting your status," the queen said with the hint of a grin on her face. "I've selected you to command a detail a border guards. This'll be your first chance to perform as a commander of warriors. I have faith that you'll keep our northern border secure."
"I shall do my best, my Queen," Hope replied, though internally she had groaned in disappointment. The northern border faced a range of mountains and it was the last place an invader would choose to enter the Amazon lands. They usually came across the rolling hills to the west or across the shallow river to the east. Still, it was a command of her own, and Hope could understand the queen's intention to test her with a less pressured assignment. As she had said, she intended to do her best.
"I'll have my second in command draw up the roster and you'll lead your detail out at first light," the queen told her. "Watch the lateness of your celebration tonight and spend some time readying your gear?and beware of how much you drink." Hope never drank.
A candlemark later, Hope returned to her hut and began packing gear for a fortnight's duty. She had done it all many times before and knew just what she would need for the season. When she was done, she looked out the door of her hut and searched the village center to see if she could find Secunda and tell her of her new command. When she finally spied the warrior, she was seated at the outermost table in a private discussion with the queen. Indeed, Varia was pressed to Secunda's side, thigh to thigh, one hand on her back, while leaning close to whisper in her ear. It could have been an innocent gesture, with Varia just trying to make her words heard over the drumming, but to Hope it looked intimate as well, especially the way the queen's hand was moving in a lazy circle just above Secunda's waist. Hope found herself upset and unhappy?all right, she admitted to herself, angry and jealous. She slammed the hut's door closed.
At dawn the next day, Hope led a dozen junior warriors out of the village and struck the trail leading north. She had been dismayed when handed the roster. It contained the names of every sullen and substandard performer in their class. Still, Hope could understand why they would draw duty on the northern border detail; they were being warehoused, out of the way and under a green commander. Gabrielle's daughter was being set up to fail. She sighed in resignation. Somehow she would make it work.
For the first ten days Hope matched wills with the uninspired junior warriors under her command. She cajoled, threatened, and browbeat them into fulfilling their duties. On the eleventh day one of them actually noted a movement in the brush higher up in the pass that led to their border. After taking three others with her and scouting the area, she determined that there actually were intruders, and that these were a trio of robbers hiding out after waylaying the wagon of a merchant on his way to a remote farming hamlet on the other side of the mountains. Hope deployed her troops to intercept them. When the trio found themselves surrounded by thirteen archers, they surrendered without a fight.
Apprehending the robbers had been the easy part of the action. Deciding what to do with them was more perplexing. The robbers hadn't had any intention of endangering Amazons or invading their lands. They hadn't engaged in fighting or caused any injuries. During their robbery, they hadn't harmed anyone, only threatened to. They were a problem for the outside world more than for the Amazons, but the nearest hamlet lay four leagues beyond the pass that marked the northern border of the Amazon lands. If Hope released them they would immediately return to robbing. If she brought them before the queen, Varia would almost certainly execute them on principle. Hope determined that they deserved neither freedom nor death.
"Medea, Valara, and Hipperia, you will accompany me to the hamlet beyond the pass where we will hand over the prisoners to the local authorities," Hope ordered. "The rest of you will maintain your watch on the border." She eyed the remaining nine warriors. "When we return, we'll try to take you like real invaders would. Personally, I wouldn't give you one chance in four of discovering us before we're upon you," Hope said to them with a glint of challenge in her eyes, "and I should march you back to the village as prisoners if we do."
The three who were to go packed up their gear, barely able to contain their excitement at the opportunity to venture beyond their homeland. The nine warriors remaining behind groaned in disappointment, but they also bristled at Hope's challenge. Anara, a popular and rebellious teen was already plotting how to frustrate their condescending new commander. It had been her personal crusade since day one anyway. When the four left with the prisoners, the nine left behind began deciding amongst themselves just how to prove their derisive leader wrong.
Two days were spent on the roundtrip to the hamlet, and the magistrate there was happy to take custody of the robbers. They were local men gone bad, but they'd only caused mischief thus far and a stay in the village stocks would satisfy their victims. After that they'd be put to work in the fields for the remainder of the growing season.
When the four returned they came to the point in the pass just shy of the crest and Hope stopped the other three.
"If you were them, what would you be doing right now?" She asked. They stopped and thought about it a moment. Hope waited.
"I'd set an ambush and take you to the queen as a prisoner," Hipperia suggested. Hope smiled.
"That's exactly what I'd do," she told them, "and what do you think we should do about it?"
"We should circle their position and come up behind them," Medea offered.
"And march them to the village as prisoners," Valara added. Again Hope smiled.
"Okay then, here's what we'll do," she said, and the four huddled together to make a plan.
On the 14th day of their tour of duty, when they were to march home to the village, the relief detail arrived at noon as expected. They found no one at the sentry camp and no one visible on the pass. In fact there were no signs of any Amazons that they could see. The new commander sent a party of four warriors to reconnoiter the trail up to its crest at the border. Anara and her eight fellow warriors leapt out to ambush them, expecting that Hope had somehow circled around behind them, but then they stared at their quarry in shock. They were the wrong four Amazons, but they'd still taken them by surprise.
Further down the trail, Hope and her three warriors appeared out of the bush and then leapt into the newly set up camp, taking the rest of their replacements utterly by surprise. When the two groups came together at last, they had a good laugh over the whole chain of events. It led to a continuing rivalry in which each detail tried to ambush their replacements while the replacements tried to counter them, and this became a traditional training exercise that persisted for many generations.
The warriors on Hope's detail came back to the village much more enthusiastic about being warriors. In the future they took their training and duties far more seriously and soon they began to distinguish themselves, much to their instructors' surprise. Their first-time commander had succeeded in raising the morale of the worst junior warriors in the village. When Hope came back feeling the flush of success, she was greeted with a situation that made her blood boil.
While Hope had been ordered away, Varia had been busy. Her campaign to monopolize Secunda had begun with assigning the warrior to her Queen's Guards. As a personal bodyguard, the warrior was required to spend a significant portion of her days attending her queen. In Hope's absence, Secunda found her days completely occupied with her duties training the army and guarding the queen. The schedule left her no time during daylight to resume Hope's personal tutoring.
Among the less welcome aspects of her new duties, the Royal Guards kept their queen safe during her rest and during her baths. Varia somehow managed to drag Secunda to the bath house more frequently than she'd ever expected possible. Indeed it seemed that the War Queen reveled in appearing naked before the warrior as often and for as long as possible. These displays were accompanied by prolonged eye contact, smoldering looks, requests for soap and towels, and endless flirtatious innuendos. The warrior's most difficult task became controlling the rolling of her eyes.
When Hope returned from her fortnight on guard duty, she was greeted with the sight of her tutor in the gauntlets and greaves of a Royal Guard, attending Varia to her bath. She sat outside her hut, jabbed a dagger into the dirt and watched its shadow move with a growing anger. Hope actually calculated that the queen was spending almost a full candlemark washing, and this was wholly without precedent. The young Master Warrior steamed as the sun began passing through the time she would normally have been training with her mentor. When Varia finally emerged with Secunda trailing behind her, she made sure to cast a glance at Hope, accompanying it with a smirk. The two then disappeared into the queen's hut and didn't reappear until the evening meal. At that point Secunda was relieved by the night guards and she came immediately to find Hope.
"Were it not for Amazon law forbidding it, I would not hesitate a moment to bitch slap that overbearing excuse for a queen," the warrior began without preamble. Hope grinned. Secunda was gritting her teeth and sounded exactly like Xena.
"I'm really pissed that she's granted you the honor of serving her as a Royal Guard," Hope said sarcastically, "No doubt you're flush with the status bestowed upon you by her highness; and you a fairly recent addition to the tribe at that. Some warriors petition from their teens for such a position and the pleasure of seeing the queen at her bath."
"Varia is neither as desirable nor as irresistible as she would judge herself," Secunda said. "I have noted an unnecessary six pounds overall and the lessened definition of her abs just in the three years since I arrived," she stated with clinical accuracy, adding that, "She is still quite toned in the thighs and shoulders and has a strong grip."
Hope rolled her eyes and sighed. They fell silent, Secunda shaking her head.
"How will we continue my training when you're spending the mornings training the army and the afternoons at voyeurism?" Hope asked a few moments later.
"Either I slay her quietly while off duty, or we conduct your practice at night," Secunda answered. "Night practice might be the better option; you'll be forced to rely less on sight." Hope had been watching her mentor and noted that she'd been completely serious.
Suddenly there was a rap on the door of Hope's hut and she reluctantly rose to open it. She found a Royal Guard there bearing a message for Secunda.
"At our queen's pleasure, your presence is required at the royal hut at once, Secunda. The queen has details for you concerning the training of the warriors." With a smirk the guard nodded to Secunda, ignored Hope, and left.
"I'm going to kill her," Hope muttered under her breath. Secunda's keen ears heard every word.
"If you challenged Varia today you would fail," the warrior said. "In a year you will be ready to defeat her. If I don't see you before then, I'll meet you at the training ground at midnight." With that she got up and walked out of the hut, leaving Hope thinking that a year was a very long time.
Hope slept for three candlemarks and then gathered her weapons and made her way to the training ground. As expected, Secunda was already there. For a few minutes, Hope watched in complete awe as the warrior went through a training exercise at her own full speed. In the darkness, she was a blur. Her sword moved so swiftly that it was completely invisible. The individual movements were impossible to follow. The drill lasted three minutes and then resolved into stillness.
Before Hope could announce herself, Secunda softly said, "I have been reviewing your next lesson. It has been some time since I performed Katalepsis, and there are some variations I use that are not faithful to the composition of the Strategos. I will teach you the authentic movements. Now draw your sword and come here."
That night, Hope learned the basics of the culmination of what Xena had learned about handling the sword during her lifetime at war. Gabrielle's daughter moved haltingly through the parries and strikes, the flips and the turns, concentrating on the sequences, not on their perfection. Having seen Secunda's performance, she already understood that this was an exercise that could take a lifetime to perfect, but would bear fruit with even a reasonable level of proficiency. Every movement was direct. There were no flourishes, no embellishments. It was raw and violent, merciless and devastatingly effective. It was just the kind of fighting that had made Xena the Destroyer of Nations. It was the swordsmanship of a Favorite of Ares.
After a candlemark, Secunda dismissed Hope to her hut.
"Rest tonight and practice in your spare time tomorrow," she said.
Hope didn't sleep a wink. For her, a new constellation of weapons skills was like discovering a new lover. She stayed up all night, her hut pitch black, going again and again through the movements of Katalepsis. Secunda had given her the key to winning her challenge against Varia, and she was resolved not to wait a year. It was traditional to make such challenges at the Festival of the Solstice of the Sun, and midsummer was nine months away.
By her 19th birthday a month later, Hope could finally work through the Katalepsis without missing any movements. She had come to understand what each move meant, and she had learned which moves conferred each of the 100 deaths the exercise encompassed. She couldn't yet do the sequence at combat speed; far from it, but she could complete the exercise without mistakes.
Secunda watched and nodded with satisfaction. Her pupil was learning the last formal sword exercise she could teach. It was the last exercise her Strategos had taught her, or more rightly, had taught her twin "sister", while performing it on a cliff above Amphipolis on a night when Xena had thought she was alone. Secunda expected that it would probably take Hope another two or three months to perform the exercise with confidence. She would then spend the rest of her life making it second nature. When she could execute the techniques from somatic memory, when pure instinct ruled her every action, then she would know the true lesson of Katalepsis; to fight with in a controlled blind rage, to vent an uncontrollable wrath with unconscious precision, and to slay without thought or remorse, this was the final lesson of the Strategos. It was not technique; it was spirit.
Autumn led to winter and then winter to spring, and Hope continued to practice as the year 40 BC opened. Varia continued to exert her wiles upon Secunda, and though she didn't succeed in persuading the warrior to her bed, she flaunted the exercise of her prerogatives in grasping her time. She never missed a chance to demonstrate her authority over Secunda while Hope was present. And at every opportunity, Varia ordered Hope out of the village. There were sentry details, security details for trading missions outside the homelands, diplomatic missions, scouting missions, and guard duty. While gaining much practical experience, the young Master Warrior grudgingly became an inspiring and efficient leader whose service was ever more frequently requested by the senior commanders. Through it all Hope chaffed and Secunda endured, and Varia became ever more frustrated.
As her frustration grew, Varia's temper began to show. The queen snapped at her field commanders, disregarded her advisors, and browbeat the junior warriors. In the bath she made Secunda watch as she blatantly pleasured herself in the water and often again as she dried herself afterwards. At any time in which she could arrange to be alone with the warrior, she subjected her to a barrage of exhibitionism. The queen exercised her seductiveness with pathological obsession, acting more and more compulsively as time passed. She finally took to assigning the warrior to guard duty in her bed chamber, where she entertained the many willing younger warriors hoping to curry the favor of their queen. Secunda was present, 'lest some ambitious young thing plotted to harm her queen while in the throes of passion'. The reasoning was so contrived as to become the main subject of village gossip for weeks.
All this ground upon Hope nerves, and each time she returned from some foray, she was bombarded with tales of, 'Varia is said to have done ___', or 'Secunda was present for the defloration of ___ for her queen's pleasure', or worse, 'it's only a matter of time before Secunda succumbs to the sheer volume of hormones directed at her'.
The young Master Warrior was seething by the Festival of the Spring Equinox. That night, when a very drunk Varia draped herself over her favorite bodyguard, rubbing herself full length against Secunda's tall form, Hope very nearly challenged her right then and there. The sloppy kisses the queen plastered her mentor with made Hope's blood boil, but with a stern look and a barely perceptible shake of her head, the dark warrior belayed Hope's intentions. Instead, Secunda hoisted the besotted queen over her shoulder and carried her back to her hut in an undignified and disgraceful display. The entire village chattered and snickered about it for weeks.
Thereafter, Hope practiced every moment she could. Her increasing maturity had transmuted her teenage crush into an aching desire for her mentor, for now she was feeling the longing for a soulmate of her own. No one she had ever met encompassed anything remotely close to the wisdom, selflessness, and prowess of her warrior. Now her own frustrated longing for Secunda's affections drove her like a slave master's goad, equaling her wrath at the queen. She was stretched tight as a bow string. And so finally the young warrior achieved that state of controlled rage necessary to understand the disciplined fury and the beauty contained in Katalepsis. She would never have Secunda's speed, or the Destroyer of Nations' depth of personal experience, but she had attained the unacknowledged status of '2nd most deadly Amazon warrior'.
On June 17th at two candlemarks past midnight, Secunda watched her protégé complete the exercise for what seemed the thousandth time. At last the moves flowed with deadly intent. At last Secunda could see the killer inside waiting to be unleashed.
"Demand the challenge tomorrow and set the date for the Summer Solstice," Secunda told Hope without preamble, "you are ready."
Hope stared at her teacher, her words fresh in her ears, and then in an uncharacteristic outburst of emotion, she grabbed the tall warrior in a hug and burst into tears.
June 18th dawned rainy and windy, but Hope stood in the village center and proclaimed her challenge for all to hear. Heads poked out of huts and when they understood what was happening, many voices rose to pass on the news. There was to be a formal challenge for the Queen's Mask; a proper challenge steeped in tradition, not borne of a moment's passion or anger. The last time such a challenge had been made, it had been announced by a youthful Melosa nearly forty years before.
Thereafter, the young Master Warrior marched directly to the queen's hut and sought entrance from the Royal Guard on duty. She was announced to the queen and the queen came to her door. She could do no less; honor and tradition demanded it and the whole village was watching. Varia acknowledged Hope's challenge with a grimace, agreed to meet it at the Solstice Festival with her sword, and then slammed her door in the young warrior's face. Standing in the runoff from the hut's roof and soaked to the skin, Hope grinned.
The rain continued on the 19th and during the morning of the 20th before abating with an incoming front of high pressure during the mid-afternoon. Artemis graced the festival day with fair weather, clear, hot, and dry. The practice field had been groomed by dozens of junior warriors, anxious to give any increased chance they could to the one they still thought of as their own. For her part, Hope had continued to practice, performing her exercises in the rain and mud, wholly oblivious to the conditions. During her drills she'd felt little more than the pounding of the blood in her veins and the dark desire for vengeance on her queen. Secunda wondered if Hope would slay Varia as she herself would have, or if she would be tempered at the last moment by her humanity, a trait she'd inherited from her birth mother.
By tradition the challenge began at noon so that the sun shone down equally on both combatants. It would be fought using the primary weapons only, and it would be fought until one party either yielded to acknowledge the dominance of the other, or was slain. The defeated party would then be subject to the mercy of the victor. The tradition behind it was traced to the original challenge of the first Cyane, the semi-mythical leader who had given the Amazons their identity in that ancient time before the knowledge of metals.
Such challenges were rare. Every Amazon in the village was in attendance. Varia had neither defended against a challenge nor fought a challenge to attain her position in 57 BC. Rather she had been the designated successor of Queen Marga, who had been slain in battle by Prince Morloch. Queen Marga too had taken the throne without fighting a challenge. She had been the designated successor of Queen Ephiny, who had been slain in combat with Roman legionnaires under the command of Brutus in 58 BC. Queen Ephiny in turn had been the successor of Queen Terreis, and she the successor of Queen Melosa. For most of the gathered Amazons, a formal Challenge of Succession was a page from their history, not a reality of their lives.
Queen Varia was now 39 years of age and had been War Queen of the Amazon Nation for 17 years. She was regarded as a great warrior, and more importantly, great with a sword. Before Secunda had appeared, Varia had been preeminent on the practice field, sparring with the wooden training swords, taking on all comers, and fighting off multiple opponents for the instruction of the junior warriors. Four years ago, all that had changed. First to be defeated in Secunda's challenge for admission to the tribe, Varia had never really gotten over her humiliation at the stranger's hand. She had thereafter shunned the practice field.
Even so, Varia was still formidable. She had fought many battles and had led the nation's war against Helicon. There she had slain all who had faced her. In fact the only enemy who had ever really defeated her was Livia. The queen was still strong and quick, and if not as flexible or tireless as in her youth, she was still more than a match for all but the best fighters in the tribe. And she was a canny and experienced opponent. If she had a major flaw, it was a lack of finesse; she had always been one to overpower her foes with brute strength and ferocity, intimidating them with flurries of stinging blows and the application of unrelenting pressure. In light of the fact that she held an advantage over her challenger in height and weight, strength and experience, she intended to force the fight from the start and hoped for a quick, decisive win.
For her part, Hope had studied her opponent closely. She knew Varia's strengths and weaknesses, right down to the slight arthritis that affected her right ankle, the result of an arrow wound in her youth. Perhaps the queen would be less agile when turning abruptly to her right. She would certainly be confident, and maybe overly so. And she had not maintained her training regime in the last few years.
As tradition dictated, the queen preceded her challenger onto the practice field. Her name and title were announced and she stood receiving the accolades of her tribe. In her royal leathers, studded with war beads and talismans, Varia cut an impressive figure. Many cheered for her, for she had long been a brave leader and a powerful queen. After her introduction, Varia waited in the ring set aside for the combat, swinging her sword to loosen her shoulders. Her features reflected confidence, but there was a hint of grimness there too. She would have preferred Hope intimidated, subservient, and obedient to her will, whereas now there was a good chance that she would have to kill her.
Hope entered the combat ring after being announced by Varia's Second. She carried her sword without a sheath, laid at rest over her right shoulder. No warm up was necessary for her; she had been up since dawn doing her usual practice. Now as she made her way to the ring's center, her fellow Amazons noticed how solidly built she actually was. Though short like her mother, Hope was outstandingly fit and toned, even among a tribe of warriors. Muscles rippled under her tanned skin and showed with a definition that reported on an almost total absence of body fat. Her blonde hair was cropped short and bleached almost white by the sun. But most disturbingly she bore to the challenge, not her own Amazon sword, with its 26", leaf-shaped, double-edged blade. Rather she carried into the ring Secunda's war sword, a 32", double-edged weapon whose sides tapered nearly straight to a bitter point. It gave her almost a hand's length advantage over her queen, and though no one else knew it, the tri-tempered Mitsubishi Hi-Core steel blade was actually lighter than the Amazon forgings. Like Secunda, it too had come from a time and place beyond the understanding of the Amazon Nation.
Varia eyed her opponent carefully. She noted the level of conditioning apparent in her body and the weapon she had seen slay hundreds of foes in the hands of the Royal Guard who had refused her advances for three-quarters of a year. The symbolism was obvious to her and to all those watching. Secunda cared more for her youthful charge than for her queen. The gift of a personal weapon for such an important occasion was a gesture of love between warriors; the acceptance of it an equal declaration.
The queen's gaze finally strayed to Hope's eyes. No better gauge of an opponent was there than that most intimate of 'windows into the soul'. Varia hoped to see fear or uncertainty there. Instead she read an overwhelming hatred in Hope's emerald glare, and then in the next instant it faded to the frigid and impersonal look of a soulless killer, the look of a serpent or a daemon. It came as a complete shock. When had the young warrior become so utterly cold?
Varia had only seen that look a handful of times before; on Secunda's face in battle and on the face of the Destroyer of Nations as she'd declared her sacramentum bellicus. Suddenly the challenge took on a new and fateful gravity. On this day the queen would either kill or be killed; she was no longer fighting a challenge to keep the Queen's Mask, she was fighting to keep her life. While Varia doubted if Hope even cared about ruling the tribe, she was absolutely sure that Hope wanted her dead.
Moments ran together as the rules of the challenge were announced. Neither combatant heard a word. Both were focused only on each other. When the signal to begin came, Varia moved to open with her trademark combination of overhead strike-backhand slash-forehand slash. Her blade met only air. Then Hope counterattacked.
As Varia's blade passed her body on the final slash, Hope flicked a short, backhand, cutting motion upwards, slicing the underside of the queen's sword arm and drawing first blood. She saw the queen recoil from the wound by reflex, and as she had learned in Katalepsis, she followed her set up and completed the attack. Secunda's sword whistled softly with the breath of death. With a turn of her wrist the upward motion of the blade was converted into a backhand slice, powered by the straightening of Hope's forearm from the elbow. It was purely a finesse move. Hope's body and shoulder remained still while her strong forearm and the sword's lightness did the work. The distal handspan of the weapon cut through Varia's throat, severing her neck almost to her spine. Hope withdrew two paces and waited.
What Varia had felt seemed almost like a swift slap across her neck and a slight stinging sensation. She moved forward again, but when she took a breath, the sensation became like one of inhaling water. Her lungs reacted to the fluid and went into spasms. Varia choked and coughed, desperate to clear her airways and continue before Hope went on the offensive, but the hacking and gagging only became worse. Other than the wound to the underside of her upper arm, she didn't even realize that she had been hurt. The realization only struck her when she saw blood; a lot of blood, suddenly filling her mouth and pumping down over her chest.
As the Amazons watched in horror, the queen dropped her weapon and reached up to clasp her neck. She was still choking, and the wet gurgling noises coming from her signified a bleeding injury to her airway. Hope was standing still, watching her die with an eerie calm, as if she were waiting for the expiration of a hog or sheep at slaughter. Varia grasped her neck and in doing so, parted the sides of her wound. Then a fountain of bright arterial red sprayed up under a fast pulsing pressure, raining down over the queen and painting her in her own life blood. She stood thus, unable to scream, unable to move, petrified in horror and still not wholly cognizant of her fate.
A deathly silence settled on the audience as the macabre tableau continued, drawn out unnaturally it seemed. Then in that act of mercy which Secunda had half-expected to see, Hope moved forward and without hesitation hewed off Varia's head in one clean stroke. The defeated queen's head fell to the ground with a sickening and clearly audible thud, and then her body toppled, crumpling first to its knees, and then keeling over sideways.
Now after wining her challenge, Hope became War Queen of the Amazon Nation. Four moons still stood between her and her 20th birthday. It was the first time in centuries that a queen had taken her mask before celebrating her second decade. Still, the still shocked council confirmed Hope's position and a subdued nation ratified it with their fealty. The challenge had been so much swifter and one sided than they'd ever imagined it would be. Most hadn't even clearly seen the two winning blows for their abruptness and speed.
Hope immediately named Secunda Queen's Champion and relieved her of her duties as Royal Guard and Master Trainer of the army. Her next act, and also her first Royal Decree, was to rescind Varia's Oath of Blood against Eve. Then she sent messengers to Amphipolis to tell her mothers what had come to pass.
Over the following years, the young queen opened closer relations with the surrounding hamlets and villages, signed a treaty of mutual support with Amphipolis, the nearest real city, and on many occasions, offered her services as a mediator in local disputes. Gradually Hope became known as a reformer, and as the old guard of the Amazon leadership passed or retired, she filled those positions with younger Amazons sympathetic to her. By 31 BC, only Espurgia the Master Healer, and Baselia the Tribal Lore Keeper remained from the days of Varia's reign. Hope would replace neither until death took them. Both had supported her faithfully during her rule and both were preeminent in their fields.
But Hope seemed to lack one thing; a mate. She had always looked to Secunda as the focus of the love she felt. Her teenage crush had matured into a deep-abiding affection that also made her blood boil with desire; no one else came close in her heart to the strange dark warrior. All those feelings had been focused to a point on a winter's night as 40 BC have way to a new year.
Hope and Secunda were ensconced in the royal hut quietly talking about the changes Hope desired to make, and as always, Secunda's advice was of paramount importance to the new queen. But on this particular night there was something even dearer to the queen's heart that she needed to discuss. It was a testimony to her personal courage that she gave her feelings voice so candidly. The youngest War Queen in over a thousand years laid her heart at her Champion's feet.
"I know you came here to fulfill a mission for Xena, and there is no possible way for me to thank you," Hope told Secunda. They were seated on a couch before the hearth and had turned to stare eye to eye.
"I don't seek your thanks, though I'm happy to be appreciated," Secunda replied. She could already tell where this conversation was headed. In fact, she'd expected it for some time.
"Wait?let me finish," Hope said softly. "When you first arrived, I was smitten with you like every other junior warrior. Your presence was like having Xena in the village, but as one of us, not as the Warrior Princess. And you were here for me?Xena was always there for my mother. Compared to everyone else, even her, you were stronger, faster, wiser, and always so very beautiful. My heart throbbed when I thought of you and I did everything, listened to every word, and tried my hardest, just hoping to impress you and win your heart. I still do, Secunda?I still try to make you proud of me?and I still hope more than ever to win your heart. You already have mine, you know. You've had it a long time."
She would have continued but Secunda was shaking her head 'no', and though the motions were small their meaning was clear. Hope held her breath and waited for her to speak.
"If I really was a part of this world and free to seek love, I would join my heart to yours forever," the warrior said, "but there are reasons why that should never be. You've been told of my origins; your mothers have told you our story. Read between the lines, Hope. You're smarter than anyone else here. You'll understand those reasons if you just still your heart long enough to think about them."
Hope indeed sat thinking about the story her mothers had told her when they'd first visited after their return. The shock of seeing them alive?and only half the ages they'd been was soon eclipsed by their unbelievable tale. They claimed to have been recreated in a future so distant as to be incomprehensible. They were not the same individuals as her original mothers, but they were identical to them and knew everything that had happened in the past. And like Secunda, neither of them had a birth mother. They were what they had called 'clones', a meaningless word for an unacceptable concept. Magicians or gods had created them?maybe.
"For there to be a future, both you and Eve have to bear children to ensure the continuation of your bloodlines," Secunda said softly. "I can in no way hinder that. The mission my Strategos charged me with was to Protect the Nation, protect our soulmate's daughter, but the reason behind that order was to insure that your bloodline endures. I can never complete my mission if my company keeps you from finding a mate and having children. And yes, I know about the Amazon ways, but if we join as soulmates, how much interest will you ever have in becoming a mother?
Look at Xena and Gabrielle," Secunda continued, "there was scant room left in their hearts for you and Eve. Their lives centered on their adventures and on each other. I know the idea of another person touching Gabrielle ignites a rage in the Strategos, and I believe the same fire burns in your birth mother. Would you ever be able to bear the touch of a man to become with child while being committed heart and soul to me?"
Hope closed her eyes and tried to imagine it. It wasn't easy, and what made it worse was that she was already less than interested in raising a child. Maybe that would change as she got older, but maybe not. And yes, she acknowledged, Gabrielle had left her to follow Xena into battle, and for a dozen years Hope had remained in the village while the soulmates had tried to rescue Eve. They had followed their thirst for vengeance through the Bloody Years, parenting neither of their children as they sought to retake the one who had been kidnapped. Between the ages of two and fourteen, Hope had seen her parents only sporadically. And yet when she had seen them, they had showered her with love and taught her the foundation of what she had learned since. Despite everything though, she knew that Xena loved her mother more than anything in the world. That would never change. One other thing would never change even as Hope grew older; she would forever be in love with Secunda.
"Whether I join with you or not, I will always love you," Hope said with brutal honesty, "and whether or not I bear a child, I will never cease in that love. You're right; in being joined I'd have even less desire to find a mate even for a night. I would want only you just as I do now, but I would know you as I do not."
Secunda closed her eyes and sighed. She herself was torn. Being originally a clone of Xena, her soul resonated with Gabrielle's, but Gabrielle was the soulmate of the Warrior Princess. There was no cloned soulmate for Secunda in this time. And yet?Hope was so close to Gabrielle, so much like her in spirit, perhaps even more like Gabrielle than Gabrielle. In that way Hope was a perfect match for Secunda, each of them a distillation of their forerunners. The clone had felt the attraction and the possibility hidden within it from their first meeting four years before. She had struggled with it ever since. But Secunda was a clone from a far distant future and her actions could bring ruin if she caused a fundamental change in this present. In no way could she contribute to Hope's failure to reproduce. Compared to this imperative all else paled, even the needs and desires of her own heart.
"My Queen, I will love you until the day I die, and if I have a soul and if it endures beyond this life, then I will love you until the end of days. But I have no place in this world except to insure the future, and though I was created for a very different future than the one I work for now, I cannot act while knowing that I might bring that future to ruin. If I were truly human I would give you my heart, but I fear there is no strand upon the Moiré's loom to weave my life's fate."
Hope knew then that she had Secunda's heart and soul, and yet she would never truly have either. Unlike the cloned warrior, the queen believed that Secunda had both a soul and a fate. How could she not? The situation seemed impossible to resolve and her love would go unsatisfied until the end of her days. Never would she bask in the warmth she knew the joining of their hearts and souls could bring. In anguish the young queen wrapped her arms around her mentor and broke down in an uncontrollable flood of tears. Hope was truly human and she had a heart and a soul, and both were breaking. Fate was cruel.
Secunda wrapped her arms protectively around her young queen and held her. Almost she came to believe that she too had a heart, for she felt it breaking. The queen never knew that as she sobbed with her face pressed against Secunda's chest, a slow and silent trickle of tears ran down the clone's face and into the pale corn silk of her hair.
In September 31 BC Octavian won his war with Marc Antony at Actium but Antony escaped the field. In 30 BC he defeated him a final time in Alexandria, and in the aftermath both Antony and Cleopatra took their own lives. Thereafter, no one truly stood in his way.
In January 27 BC Octavian became Imperium proconsulare with power over the western provinces. In those days he pardoned Eve and reconciled the empire with the Warrior Princess and Gabrielle. In July 23 BC, when he became Imperium proconsulare maius and tribunicia potestas with power over the entire empire and influence within the city of Rome, the soulmates became his envoys from the Imperial Province of Macedonia to the Amazon Nation. And in the next year, when the great emperor began his tour of the eastern portion of his empire, he spent a week encamped outside the Amazon homeland, meeting with their queen and forging a lasting peace.
In mid-22 BC Queen Hope, then 37 years of age and the Favorite of Ares, took counsel with Octavian, then known as Caesar Augustus. For the first time, she met the Favorite of Athena. In a case of the greatest irony, she felt herself attracted to him and him to her. For that week they were virtually inseparable, and for three of those nights they shared dinner, entertainments, and the sleeping couch in his tent.
After he left, Hope wondered just what had happened. The time they'd spent together had been productive, yielding a treaty and twin girls, but to the end of her days, she never understood the temporary attraction she'd felt on those nights. Her love for Secunda was undiminished. She felt nothing for Augustus. For her part, Secunda understood exactly what had happened. The hands of the Moiré spun more than cloth on their loom. Fate was devious.
Contrary to her prior beliefs, Hope was a good mother, attentive and loving, and strict when necessary. Her daughters, born in early 21 BC, became warriors and co-rulers of the nation in their time. In their youth they'd enjoyed the favor of a special tutor. But the love of Hope and Secunda, while always simmering beneath the surface, never burst into the flames of passion that they knew they could have kindled. And so the years passed.
In 4 BC when the cloned warrior was 66 years of age, she donned her uniform one last time and went from the village by night. She was never seen again. Hope was then 56 years of age, but absent her soulmate, she passed away from grief less than a year later.
From that time forth it has been the legend among the Amazons that the soul of Secunda comes forth from the land of the dead to seek her soulmate, and this happens most often near the time of her death, on the last night of the 10th month of the year?only a few days after what had been Queen Hope's birthday. But it is also the legend amongst the Amazons that the spirit of Queen Hope is reborn from time to time, for having sacrificed her love once for the tribe she will not sacrifice it again, and so she remains alone, waiting for the reappearance of her soulmate. So ends the Legend of the Ghost Warrior.
Shareen's voice fell silent and the stillness of the auditorium was complete. For many moments no one moved, and as before she had begun speaking, the ghostly rushing of air against the eardrums was the only sound.
"My Queen, the Columbia School of Martial Science was opened in September of this year by Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington. They are the grandnieces of Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington. It's said that they closely resemble the actresses who portrayed Xena and Gabrielle in the TV show," Marieve reported.
Pappas and Covington?again?Queen Renée groaned and asked, "Do we know what they teach in their school?" Long before the TV show, Melinda and Janice had closely resembled Xena and Gabrielle.
"That is the problem, my Queen. They are passing on Amazon fighting techniques from the scrolls that were lost. During all those years while we did nothing but observe them, those old professors were translating, and they somehow managed to teach what they'd learned to their descendants. This is a disaster."
The queen tended to agree. The Amazon techniques were a system of fighting that derived from what Secunda had taught Hope long before. It was a deadly system and it had long been the edge that had kept the nation safe. If those techniques became widely known, the knowledge could fall into the hands of anyone with the time and desire to learn, and given the condition of the modern world, at least some of those who learned would cause great evil. At the start it would depend on the teachers and who they accepted as students, but with each generation of students and teachers the pool of possible miscreants would widen until odds dictated that some of them would abuse their knowledge. It had happened with every system of fighting ever taught. Even the Amazons had been forced to hunt down a renegade more than once.
"Sherice, you and Darla will go to this school and observe it," Renée ordered, "and be prepared to test its teachers." The Queen's Champion and the Queen's Second nodded. "Take the small jet and leave at first light. Report your findings to me when you understand the situation."
The small gathering that had followed Shareen's performance broke up. It was already late. Dawn would follow in only six hours and it was two hours by car on Route 2 to the airport near Alliance.
Left alone in her study the queen stifled a yawn. It seemed as though she was doing that all too often these last few years. Another Pappas and Covington pair?they were the last thing she needed now. There was always so much to do and behind everything else, the nation waited for her to produce an heiress. The pressures of ruling the modern nation left no time to even contemplate raising a child. The next time Renée felt a yawn coming she closed her eyes and indulged it. Pappas and Covington again?huh, at least her chair was comfortable. The queen let her head loll sideways and before she knew it, she was asleep at her desk. Fate was exhausting.
Daybreak found two women waiting on the tarmac at the local airport. One was notably tall, with dark, tightly curled hair, her eyes shielded by black Gargoyles, the other was of average height with fair hair. They had the disciplined bearing and upright posture of military officers, but both were dressed casually in comfortable civilian clothes. Each had two pieces of luggage, a rolling carry-on and a thin hardshell case about three and a half feet long. Because of those cases, they would not be flying by commercial airlines.
From a nearby private hanger a Gulfstream III taxied out onto the runway and moved toward the waiting passengers. It was a comfortable, long-range, corporate jet with a cabin that seated 10. Today it would carry only the two flight crew members and two passengers. Their destination was Columbia Owens Field. In a few minutes the women were aboard and getting settled for the flight, while in the cockpit, the captain radioed the tower for runway clearance. Unlike a commercial flight with the congestion of a large international hub, there was only a five minute delay before they were airborne.
"Flight time will be three hours and five minutes," the pilot reported. "Enjoy the view; it's a beautiful day for flying."
"That's Denise," Darla remarked, "It can be the middle of a hurricane and she claims it's a beautiful day for flying."
"She flew support and mission aircraft off a carrier during her stint in the Navy," Sherice said, "just pray you never fly when she's piloting a 'copter."
"You rode with her back then, didn't you?"
"More than once," the Queen's Champion admitted. "In the Gulf she had a bet going with the other pilots as to how many meals she could make her passengers launch." The big ex-Marine actually chuckled. "Once she inclined a chopper so hard that a corporal lost his balance and shot out a window. We'd just been extracted following an op and had still been returning fire from hostile ground forces as we took off. Our weapons were loaded and the safeties were off."
Darla shook her head. Sherice had a vast collection of tales from her days in the military, but she rarely shared them, and sometimes she would fall silent in the middle of a story when the trail of memories led to a dark place. Her tour had encompassed Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and some missions in Iraq that were still classified.
"I wonder what we'll find," Sherice mused, "Amazon wannabes playing warrior?"
"Marieve downloaded the articles she found and I've got 'em on my laptop. Want to take a real look at the situation?" Darla offered.
"Once an officer always an officer," Sherice remarked, "always prepared for a briefing."
At Darla's pained expression the champion chuckled and said, "I was an NCO not a commissioned officer, remember, and at heart I'll always be a grunt."
Darla gave her self-deprecating Amazon sister a warm smile. "You're so much more than that, my friend. You always have been."
For a of couple hours the two reviewed what the Tribal Shamaness had found on the internet. It amounted to a handful of articles, some current, some background on the two teachers, and a few about the two professors. It painted a picture of outsiders obsessed with one aspect of Amazon history, specifically where it had intersected with the Destroyer of Nations and her soulmate. For Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas it had all started with authenticating Xena's existence. The connection to the Amazons had been incidental. But the year before they had discovered the contents of 'Ares' Tomb', Janice Covington had excavated the site of the contemporary Amazon village, and there she had found scrolls that the professors had first attributed to Gabrielle, and later to Secunda and Hope. It was these which were the most troubling to the modern Amazons.
Among the scrolls containing lore and mundane records were a set that contained the teaching manuals for warfare, wilderness survival, the ceremonial calendar, philosophy, the law, healing, agriculture, animal husbandry, and construction. In short, when taken together, the scrolls contained an original primer on Amazon life.
The modern tribe was a shadow nation, a forgotten civilization coexisting within a mainstream society, and the last thing they desired was publicity. It was the legacy of centuries of survival through invisibility. Their queen's nightmare was that someday a group of extremists would arise, associating themselves with the ancient Amazons, perhaps even using their name while partaking of a twisted and perverted variation on their beliefs, and skewing society's perception against the real nation. In the following witch-hunt, they would again be forced to disperse. Their modern cultural renaissance would come to an end.
Darla raised her head from reviewing the files and closed the laptop. She looked over and noticed that Sherice was sound asleep. Thereafter the two sat silently, the Queen's Champion napping, the Queen's Second stewing in her own thoughts. The last hour of the flight passed by quickly and when the pilot announced the landing, Darla shook herself awake. She found that she'd dozed off.
"1140 hours?time to rise and shine for lunch," Sherice chided as she stood up and reached for her luggage. The plane was still in motion but that made no difference to her.
With the flight time and the change in time zones, five hours had officially passed since takeoff. Darla hastily reset her watch but remained seated until the plane came to a stop. By then, Sherice was waiting at the cockpit with her bags, speaking to Denise.
Columbia, South Carolina was a moderate sized city, a college town, both warmer and far more populous than the plains where the tribe had been settled for the last century and a half. The two women made their way to a Hertz counter and picked up the car that had been reserved in their names. On the road, they made their way to the Marriott by Capitol City Park and claimed their room. The tribe maintained an open corporate account with the hospitality chain and members stayed in their hotels wherever possible.
"We're less than a mile from the school?walking distance," Darla said after they'd dumped their bags in their room. "I feel like walking after sitting in that plane all morning. Let's go have a look around."
Sherice just nodded and began pulling on a pair of low rise Air-Tac shoes. Darla slipped a Sony T-7 digital camera into her shirt pocket. In a few minutes they were out of the hotel and wandering up Assembly St., heading towards the campus of the University of South Carolina. They walked at a leisurely pace, attracting little attention, and memorizing landmarks. All around them students moved lazily, relaxing on a Sunday. After about twenty minutes they came to a charming diner from a bygone era, and finally a couple blocks further on, the very school they'd come to see. It was a standard storefront premises with a souped up black Z-28 Camaro parked out front. Sherice looked it over with hungry appreciation. Darla snapped pictures.
Though it was lunch hour, the school was open. The two Amazons peered through the large front window and into the space inside. It looked like a thousand other martial arts schools they'd seen over the years; polished wood floor, equipment racks, a mirrored wall, and a dressing room in the back. There were only two figures visible, but their appearance made the two Amazons catch their breath. Marieve had said that the teachers resembled the actresses who had portrayed Xena and Gabrielle on the TV series. 'Resembled' didn't do them justice; they were identical. But these were no actresses.
Serena and Gabriella were engaged in training, and as the Amazons watched from outside, the movements they made were easily recognizable; broadsword against paired short swords, they were performing the two-person routine that had been developed from the exercise The Annihilation of the Line. It was a shock to see. Not only were they using secret Amazon techniques, but they were performing them at combat speed and with every bit of the confidence and power that only the best warriors of the tribe could muster. Then in the midst of the exercise, both women abruptly stopped and turned to look at their guests on the other side of the glass. Sherice and Darla held their eyes.
Serena had felt the chill on the back of her neck and with a look had signaled Gabriella, but the blonde was already edging around to get a better view out the window. By mutual consent they ceased their practice and looked. There were two women standing on the sidewalk, a tall dark one with the look of a hardened warrior, the other of average height but exuding an air of authority. Perhaps they were military personnel, or serious competing martial artists. They definitely weren't the usual after-hours gym nymphs or aerobic class girls from the university. After a prolonged mutual perusal, a look passed between the soulmates and they moved towards the door. At the same time, Sherice and Darla made up their minds to confront them.
The four met just inside the school's entrance. Serena Pappas noted that the taller stranger topped her own 5'11" by a good three inches, an unusual situation for the tall brunette. Gabriella Covington noted a small tattoo of an inverted chevron above the shorter woman's left eyebrow and she nudged her partner to direct her attention to it. The Amazons noted that the two teachers were barely winded and only the slightest sheen of sweat showed on their skin. They were both in excellent physical condition.
"You perform The Annihilation of the Line very well," Darla said, "especially for not having had a teacher."
Her words left Serena and Gabriella speechless. Never in their lives had anyone identified one of their forms or commented on its quality. They looked at the Queen's Second while she visually examined their weapons. The swords were authentic looking reproductions of those used by the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard, but they were modern forgings showing a slight bluish tint from the constituent trace metals of their alloying. The warriors of the tribe had changed the weapons over the centuries since the originals had been used in battle, and the modern Amazon blades had different patterns.
"Whom do you teach at this school?" Darla asked Gabriella.
"So far we have only four students," the blonde said, "two city policemen and two teenage girls. We've only been open about seven weeks."
"How'd ya know the name of the exercise we were practicin'?" Serena asked the two strangers. After noting the tattoo that Gabriella had seen she was intensely curious. The symbol was actually two, short, converging lines, each about a quarter-inch long, and almost connected at the apex of the angle they formed; it was the mark of an Amazon Queen's Second, or it had been two thousand years before. In those times, if a second became queen, two more lines would be added forming what looked like a diamond.
"I think you know that, or at least suspect it," Sherice said, speaking for the first time.
"And I think we have things to discuss," Darla added. "What you've learned?what you're teaching?could be very dangerous to us."
Serena sighed and walked over to the mirrored wall. She pressed briefly on the glass of the front-most panel and a hidden magnetic latch released. The mirror sprang outwards a couple inches and the tall brunette pulled it open wide. From the concealed space behind she brought out two thin hardshell cases, one like those Darla and Sherice had brought from the tribal lands, and the other shorter and wider. She set these on the floor, opening the larger one and stowing her sword inside.
"Let's head over to the diner," she said, "we can talk there."
Gabriella nodded in agreement and moved to store her paired blades in the shorter case.
After closing up the school the soulmates led their guests to the Congressional Diner, the same establishment the two Amazons had noticed earlier on their walk. They found seats at a booth inside and ordered coffee from a bouncy young woman who greeted Serena and Gabriella by name.
"That's Angie," Gabriella told them, "and she's one of our students."
The two Amazons nodded; the girl hardly looked dangerous or inclined to evil.
"So, why don'tcha tell us who ya are an' why we might be a problem to ya?" Serena asked. She'd clasped her hands on the tabletop and was regarding the two women with an open glance. Between them the steam from their mugs rose in scented curls.
Darla exhaled slowly while Sherice remained silent. The second was trying to find the right words to express her tribe's concerns without antagonizing the two teachers. So far they'd gotten off to a cordial start and she didn't want to ruin it.
"For decades we've known about the scrolls your great aunts found in Macedonia," she said, "and we've been very thankful that during all the years since, they only published the ones pertaining to the Warrior Princess and her partner. Now we've learned that some of the most sensitive knowledge contained in the remaining scrolls is being taught as practical combat training. It's a potentially dangerous situation, especially if you have advanced students capable of digesting the more lethal techniques. We don't want that knowledge finding its way into the wrong hands."
"Have you begun teaching them what you were performing?" Sherice asked. "Have you demonstrated The Smashing of the Wheel or Katalepsis?"
Serena and Gabriella stared openly at the women. Except for their great aunts, no one had ever mentioned those names to them before, and now they were almost sure of what the two strangers were. For both of them, but for Serena in particular, this was the realization of a lifelong dream.
"All four students saw us performing Katalepsis as a two person exercise the first day they came," Gabriella finally said, "but they had no idea what they were seeing. In class, we've concentrated on basic conditioning exercises, adding some unarmed techniques with the two advanced students. Weapons training is far in their future. I was thinking to start the policemen with the Euzonos drill."
"Maybe in a few months," Serena added doubtfully. Then she took a deep breath and said, "You two're Amazons aren't ya? No one else would know 'bout the things we've learned or would have any worries about 'em."
"I'll go further," Gabriella said as she looked Darla in the eyes. "You bear the mark of a Queen's Second, and your friend is probably a Praipositos, a senior commander of some kind, maybe a Chiliarchos, or a Queen's Champion. I can infer from this that there is also a queen and an army to defend her, and therefore a nation for her to rule."
The blonde teacher's analysis was good and there was little cause for dissembling.
"All that you say is true. I'm Darla, Queen's Second and 2nd Lt., US Army retired. This is Sherice, Queen's Champion and SSgt, US Marine Corps retired. We serve Queen Renée, the seventh of her line, and are members of the Southern Tribe of the North American Amazon Nation."
Serena Pappas let out a long slow breath and shook her head. What she'd always suspected was true. The nation had not passed out of existence with the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 AD. It had persisted invisibly during all the long years since. She had argued this point for years with a skeptical Janice Covington and had never fully convinced her partner, but she had lived with her daydream and the hope of someday meeting women who were steeped in the culture she'd spent her life studying. For that reason she had immersed herself in the scrolls. Both she and Gabriella, whom Serena had first met in elementary school, had undertaken the training, but without an existing cultural framework they had always been adrift. They knew what an ancient Amazon would've known, but not what the present Amazons knew; two millennia of history and all the adaptations those centuries had demanded. In the face of the confirmation of what she'd always suspected, Serena blinked back the sudden wetness threatening to spill from her eyes. Gabriella, so attuned to her emotions, gave her thigh a comforting squeeze under the table.
At the uncomfortable looks from the two Amazons, the blonde said, "I don't think you understand what you mean to my partner. Your existence has validated Serena's lifelong beliefs. She's always had faith that you existed and always hoped to meet your people one day. She has prayed that what our grandaunts spent their lifetimes studying as history would come to life for her."
Darla and Sherice nodded their understanding.
Serena whispered, "How many?"
"Roughly 80,000 worldwide with almost 14,000 in the US and Canada," Sherice reported, "and about 6,700 of them live on our tribal lands with the queen, including the army which numbers 3,000. There is another compound in Ontario, home of the Northern Tribe, and roughly 2,800 dispersed throughout society at large."
"Someday I must see it," Serena muttered in amazement. What the Queen's Champion had claimed was far beyond anything she had ever hoped for. The nation was much larger than it had been in ancient times, and apparently much more organized. Now Serena desperately wanted to see the reality of her dreams. Being less affected emotionally at the moment, Gabriella was more practical.
"You said you've known about the scrolls for a long time. So why have you come here now?" She asked Darla. "What have you finally been ordered to do here?"
"Our queen has ordered us to observe you to discover just how much of a threat you are. Whatever action she decides to take will be based on our report. While the knowledge in the scrolls was being kept quiet, we were content to bide our time and observe. It's only because you've begun teaching that we've finally come. Our people have been watching with concern for decades."
"Ya know, durin' all the years when I'd only hoped that the Amazons'd survived, I thought it would be worthwhile to learn their ways an' eventually teach it to women who might one day actually choose to live by it," Serena said with a distant look in her eyes as she thought back over the motives that had driven her. "In a way, I 'spose I was seekin' to reinstitute the Amazon way of life an' maybe even recreate a tribe. I'd found a nobility an' empowerment in the lifestyle the scrolls described that touched my desire for an alternative to modern society. Call it a dream if ya will, but in a small way, I was tryin' to recreate what ya already have."
"I don't know how much you learned about our grandaunts," Gabriella said, "but there are probably some facts that you never uncovered?things they seldom spoke about. What do you know about how they discovered the scrolls in the tomb?"
The two Amazons thought about the question for several moments. History was not really their forte. Shareen would have been a better person to answer the blonde's question, but of the two present, Darla had more knowledge of the overall situation.
"We know that they were in competition with a Nazi treasure hunter named Smyth, that they managed to trap him in the tomb, and that they escaped with the scrolls before it collapsed. There were supposedly many traps and fail safes built into the structure. We assumed they were either very careful, or very lucky."
"They were both careful and lucky," Gabriella agreed.
"They met somethin' there far more deadly than all the traps," Serena said, "but from that experience, they gained great knowledge. They learned who they really were an' it changed their lives forever."
Sherice and Darla heard the tone in Serena's voice and it sent a shiver up their spines. When Shareen recounted the legends of the tomb as they'd periodically reviewed the situation in Columbia, she'd always alluded to a rumor that she refused to elaborate on. Now they felt the tingle of the supernatural impinging on the real world in the sound of the tall teacher's voice, and in the same season when the Ghost Warrior rode again, it was all the more immediate. Rather than speak, they regarded Serena with expectant eyes.
"Our grandaunts claimed that they met the God of War himself in that tomb," Gabriella said, "and that they fought him there to keep him from escaping into the modern world."
"Hell, they claimed Mel'd been possessed by the spirit of the Warrior Princess when she fought with Ares," Serena told them. At the shocked disbelief on the Amazons' faces, she added, "At that time, Melinda was the last livin' descendant of Xena, an' Janice was the last livin' descendant of Gabrielle. Whether or not it's true, they believed it completely. I was never sure myself, never saw any ghosts, but Mel claimed she'd learned things from Xena that weren't in the scrolls."
Darla and Sherice tried to digest what they'd heard. It wasn't easy. Nowhere in their historical database was there any reference to the entrapment of Ares in the tomb, or to living descendants of Xena and Gabrielle, but they knew some things the archeologists hadn't back in 1940.
The tomb had been sealed in 411 AD. Rome had fallen to the Visigoths the year before and the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were being overrun, therefore the timing was right. Ares, then known as Mars, had ceased to be worshipped when the empire fell. He had vanished for all practical purposes at the same time the tomb was sealed, and into that tomb had been placed the scrolls of the warrior bard Gabrielle. Then the village had been abandoned and the nation had become invisible, its members blending into the society at large, and its ancient knowledge preserved only by word of mouth and a cache of scrolls buried in what the later Amazons came to consider sacred ground; the site of the Macedonian village.
As for the claim of distant kinship between the archeologists and the Warrior Princess and her soulmate, there was simply no way to be sure. Prudence demanded skepticism, and yet where the spirit world was concerned, almost anything was possible. Perhaps Marieve would be able to divine the truth.
Amazon history did acknowledge the offspring of both ancient warriors for six more generations, for Hope's descendants had been royalty and Eve's had been allies. But one thing held immense gravity; if Melinda and Janice had been the true descendants of Xena and Gabrielle in their generation, then Serena and Gabriella were their counterparts in the present. And if this were true, then Darla and Sherice sat in the company of the heiress of the Destroyer of Nations and her soulmate, a descendant of queens. The potential danger or benefit to the nation was far greater than they could have imagined.
"Excuse me for a moment," Darla said, rising from the booth and quickly making her way outside. She pulled a cell phone from her belt on the way and pressed the keys for memory dialing. A train of numbers connected her with the Amazon Nation and the Office of the Queen. After a short pause, a worried Renée came on the line.
"My Queen, I have an update on the situation in Columbia," Darla reported. "The danger may be lesser or greater than suspected. The teachers are proficient with swords; we saw them practicing The Annihilation of the Line. They are not yet teaching sensitive material to their students. However, they have told us that their grandaunts were the last descendants of the Warrior Princess and her Bard, and therefore they too hold that distinction. Furthermore, when the scrolls were discovered in the tomb, Melinda Pappas was possessed by Xena's spirit, and under her influence, engaged in combat with the God of War. The archeologists collapsed the tomb to trap him. If this is true, then Serena Pappas might be subject to possession at any time. Could she not also be possessed by the Destroyer of Nations?"
The Queen's Second remained silent while she was given some brief instructions.
"Yes, my Queen, by your command," she said and then closed the phone.
After reattaching it to her belt, the Queen's Second took a deep breath. Her orders were simple but with so many unknown factors there could be great danger in their execution. For the first time in a long time, she felt a thrill of fear as she looked down the quiet Columbia street. A few students walked the sidewalks, maybe going to lunch or to study, while a few cars moved by them at a careful pace. Overhead the sun shone down past a few clouds. A gentle chill breeze ruffled her hair. It was all so ordinary and so unthreatening, as if society at large slept like a contented dog. Darla wished that for once they could let a sleeping dog lie. With a sigh, she went back inside the diner and took her seat with the others. Sherice looked at her expectantly. She gave the Queen's Champion a small, grim smile, her lips unevenly curled past clenched teeth; they had new orders.
"Do you have a class tonight?" The Queen's Second asked the two teachers.
"No, we don't teach on Sunday," Gabriella answered.
"Then we need to determine how much you've learned and what to tell our queen," the second said. "We would like to meet you tonight for sparring."
The soulmates looked at the Amazons and then at each other. Silently they weighed the pros and cons, but both were intrigued with the idea of testing their knowledge against women who had learned within the tradition they'd studied all their lives. In the end their answer was almost preordained.
"We could meet ya at the school at 7pm," Serena answered, "will that work for ya?"
"That will be fine," Darla said, "1900 hours it is."
That afternoon, Serena and Gabriella ate energy bars at 4:30, napped until 6:00, and then went to the school to warm up before meeting the Amazons. Darla and Sherice had gone back to their hotel room, made one call to update their queen, and then rested. At 6:30 they dressed in black cotton/lycra gym shorts and tees, sweat socks and Air-Tac shoes. Over these they wore sweat suits. They picked up their weapons cases and left for the short drive to the school. Much as they would have hated to admit it, both were pumped with adrenalin from the anticipation of facing armed opponents of known quality and unknown capabilities with traditional weapons. It was a rare situation.
Serena and Gabriella had spent most of an hour warming up. They were completing a set of cooling down exercises when the door buzzer sounded and the two Amazons walked in. It was precisely 1900 hours.
The two pairs of women came together in the center of the school. Greetings were exchanged and the Amazons stripped off their sweat suits. The four were dressed remarkably alike, save that Serena and Gabriella wore more revealing sports bras rather than tees, and their shoes had been made by Converse. The real surprise was that in addition to her broadsword, Serena bore a Combined Chakram in her left hand, while Gabriella was wielding a pair of blackened and ventilated blades.
"We could use a few minutes to warm up," Sherice said, "it's chilly out and cold muscles are a handicap. This is to be a sparring session, not a battle."
The soulmates nodded in agreement. Coming into a fight cold could result in unnecessary injuries from tight muscles. It would be a much more telling contest if all the parties were properly prepared for rigorous physical exertion.
"Do whatever ya need," Serena said, "I could never perform well cold either."
With that the four women split into pairs, the Amazons engaging in a fast drill to heat and stretch their muscles, the teachers indulging in some light free sparring.
After ten minutes the Amazons ceased their exercising and opened their weapons cases. Their own swords were of the modern Amazon pattern, with double-edged blades evenly tapering to points, the cutting edges straight rather than curved, and with finger-width fullers to lighten the weapons on both sides of the blades. These were cut and thrust swords for use against foes who wore neither mail nor plate armor. The lengths were tailored to the warriors' statures; Sherice's measuring 40" overall and Darla's 36". Each of them also drew an 18" long parrying dagger to wield in their left hands. The four met in the center of the room.
"Our orders are explicit. We have been instructed to engage you in sparring as a team, in the manner in which Xena and Gabrielle fought together against opponents in ancient times, rather than holding team-based, round-robin, single combats. It will probably be faster to have one contest rather than four anyway," Sherice told the teachers. "Will this be acceptable to you?"
"It'll be fine with us," Serena answered, the trace of a glint in her eyes.
"In that case, warriors to your marks," Darla said as she and Sherice moved to stand side by side, four paces away from the teachers. "We begin when the coin falls."
The Queen's Second produced a large Eisenhower dollar and set it on her bent index finger. At a nod from Gabriella she launched the coin high into the air over her right shoulder with a flick of her thumb. It flew up behind her in an arc, traveling back towards the doors, as Darla quickly gripped her sword. After a three second flight it dropped to the floor with an easily audible ping and the contest was on.
Like Serena and Gabriella, Darla and Sherice had trained together, but not nearly so intensely or for nearly as long as the two teachers who'd had no one else to practice with. Not only this, but over the years, Serena and Gabriella had studied every fight chronicled by the Bard of Poteidaia that had involved the soulmates. They had relived Xena and Gabrielle's battles, practiced the warriors' applications of techniques, and emulated them in their practical fighting. As much as Secunda's scrolls, these exercises had formed their personal styles. The wonder of it was that the two modern students could apply the methods of the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard. Having had no other sparring partners, they didn't even realize what an achievement this was, but the two Amazons realized it immediately.
From the first clash, Darla and Sherice were on the defensive. They ramped up their efforts and it did them no good. Each had won tournaments within their tribe and both were considered excellent with the sword. In particular, the Queen's Champion was acknowledged as a master. But though they managed to defend against the soulmates, they couldn't anticipate them, couldn't break their combined guard, and couldn't move to an effective attack. For three minutes they tried countering methods that the tribe had developed during their 3,800 years of combat, and all of it was for naught. They were unable to apply winning techniques and they realized that their defeat would be only a matter of time. Sherice was about to call it off when she noted the glances passing between the two teachers and saw a flash in Serena's eyes much like the glint she'd noted earlier. Sensing something important pending, she held her peace.
Serena and Gabriella had been matching the Amazons blow for blow, fending them off and pressuring them in increasing increments as the contest continued. Now, at what they sensed was the three minute mark where a formal round would end, they traded a glance and stopped holding back.
The whole philosophy of Serena and Gabriella's fighting style shifted. With startling suddenness the Amazons' blows were no longer being met and parried; defense and counterattack ceased as separate techniques and became a single response. The two teachers, who had learned only from scrolls and had taught themselves the fighting arts, showed that they had eclipsed all the training that the nation could provide to its warriors. Now they sidestepped lunges and slashes while their own attacks increased in both speed and directness. They checked their thrusts and swings rather than inflict wounds, but they fought with the same controlled savagery that Hope had once learned in preparation for her challenge. They fought like the Warrior Princess and her Bard.
During the next thirty seconds, before the soulmates withdrew, Darla and Sherice each saw their deaths a half-dozen times. Never in all their lives had they been so obviously outclassed, and in her final move, Gabriella caught Darla's sword and dagger in the windows of her ventilated swords, and with twisting motions of her forearms, wrenched them from the Amazon's hands.
In the stillness after the sparring match ended there was only the sound of breathing, fast and shallow in the Amazons, slower and more regular in the teachers. There was an unavoidable effect from adrenalin when you saw a sword stopping again and again only a fraction of an inch from slitting an artery or impaling your body, while despite your best efforts, you had no chance of warding it off. It was that very same desperation and hopelessness that thousands had felt in the ancient world as they'd lost their lives in their failed confrontations with the original Xena and Gabrielle.
Darla and Sherice wiped sweat from their brows and caught their breaths. It was some minutes before anyone spoke. The results of the sparring were a shocking revelation to all parties. In their expectations, the best the soulmates had anticipated was a draw. In their expectations, the worst the Amazons had anticipated was a draw. To be so clearly shown the dominance of their hosts was a complete surprise. Finally Darla went to retrieve her weapons from where they'd landed a short distance away. She knew that the queen would be very disturbed by her next report.
After slipping back into her sweats and returning her sword to its case, Sherice spoke to Serena and Gabriella. In the meantime, Darla had retreated to a corner and was speaking on her cell phone.
"I think we can agree that your training regime has been effective and that you've digested the teachings of Secunda," the Queen's Champion said, "and you have my sincerest regards for your achievements. But there is something more that I sensed as we matched swords. You have inherited the spirit of battle that once lived in your distant ancestors. I, for one, believe that you are the descendants of Xena and Gabrielle. I will also tell you that your abilities are beyond ours; there is no one in the tribe that can match you. I'd expect the same results if you were to fight singly."
Serena and Gabriella found themselves speechless. Darla walked over to them.
"Gabriella, the queen would like to speak with you and your partner," she said, holding out her phone.
The blonde was petrified and squeaked out, "what do I say?"
The Amazons couldn't help but laugh as Gabriella tucked her swords under one arm and hesitantly took the phone. At first she held it at arm's length like a snake. The blonde could hear a voice on the other end calling out a greeting, and as if in a daze, she raised the device to her ear.
"H-hello?" She choked out.
"Hello, Gabriella? I'm Renée, Queen of the Southern Tribe of the North American Amazon Nation. My Second tells me that you and your partner have defeated them in pairs sword sparring. Congratulations. I would like to invite you both to meet with me and my advisors on the tribal lands. Can you two arrange to be away from home for a week?" The queen sounded remarkably normal, with the calm confidence of a powerful businesswoman or a successful professional. For some reason, Gabriella was surprised that she didn't speak archaic Greek.
The wide-eyed blonde turned to her soulmate and mouthed, she's invited us for a visit!
Serena pumped a fist in the air in an unabashed display of elation and then did a series of silly dance steps before whooping, "Yes!"
"I take it you've decided to accept my invitation," the queen said from the phone. There was obvious humor in her voice and this had an immediate calming effect on Gabriella.
"Yes, Queen Renée, Serena and I would be honored to meet you and your council at your convenience."
"In that case, accompany my Second and Champion on their flight. They will be returning to the homeland in the morning. Rest well tonight and I'll look forward to meeting you tomorrow."
"Th-thank you, your majesty," Gabriella managed to say before the phone clicked off. After handing it back to Darla she turned to Serena and said, "I guess we're flying to the Amazon lands with Darla and Sherice tomorrow morning."
"Do we need to book flights on the plane?" Serena asked.
"No, we brought our own," Darla told her, smiling, then offered, "would you like to join us for dinner? It's about the right time and personally, surviving my death always gives me an appetite."
The Gulfstream III came down at Alliance Airport and a Hummer was waiting for the four women who deplaned. For the next two hours they rode through the empty countryside of western Nebraska. Finally, after driving north for eighteen miles down an unpaved road, they came to the entrance of the tribal compound, passing the totem and the sentries' trenches.
"Is all this land owned by the tribe?" Gabriella asked as she pressed her face to the rear passenger side window.
"Everything since we left the paved road," Darla told her, "but the compound is on the western side of the property. The nation owns title to about 200 square miles, roughly 50 miles east-west by 40 miles north-south. It's been deeded as the 'Bucking A Ranch' since 1852 when the nation offered the federal government 25 cents an acre and President Fillmore accepted. Ten years later the government was charging settlers $1.25 an acre under the Homestead Act of 1862."
"It's also known that the nation has left most of the land undeveloped," Sherice added. "In fact, during the first decades the remaining Pawnee outnumbered us. Both their tribe and ours were hunters, riders, and loved open lands, so eventually we co-existed in peace. The Amazons were also anti-slavery and very glad to be north of the partition of the 1853 Kansas-Nebraska Act. They had wars over slavery in the Kansas Territory south of us, and the Indian Wars were still raging then too, but there we were hosting Native Americans and escaped slaves?we still do." She chuckled.
Being African-American, the status of Nebraska as a free state was more than a proud bit of history for Sherice. Her own ancestors had been accepted into the tribe at that time, finding a sanctuary with the Amazons after generations of forced servitude.
When the ride ended, Serena and Gabriella were ushered into the compound and taken to a comfortable room. They were shown the cafeteria, the auditorium, the gym, the library, the archery range, and the computer café. Eventually, after a late lunch, they were brought to the queen's study.
Queen Renée was seated at her table awaiting them, with Marieve and Shareen to her left, and Darla and Sherice on her right. The teachers were greeted cordially and offered seats facing the Amazons.
"The greetings and welcome of the Amazon Nation is extended to you both," the queen said, "and I'm glad you've come. You already know Darla, my second in command, and Sherice, my champion. Here are Shareen, Master Lore Keeper of the Tribe, and Marieve, our Tribal Shamaness. Oh yes, and I should also wish you a happy Halloween."
The shamaness greeted them with a warm smile, the lore keeper with a look of curiosity. The two teachers smiled at them all, but their attention was focused on the queen. It seemed she was only fractionally taller than Gabriella, with much longer hair of the same pale blonde, and bright green eyes rather than Gabriella's somewhat bluer-green. She was calm and confident, at ease with the strangers, and openly friendly.
"It's been a very long time since the descendants of the Warrior Princess and her bard sat among us. Hope's line was lost to us after the 6th generation, when no daughter was born to the last queen of her blood, and of Xena's line, only those who were allied warriors were known to us. From what our histories tell us, the separation has lasted for about 1,750 years."
"Our grandaunts spent years searching for evidence of Hope and Eve's children, but they never even found the stories that told of the ends of their lives," Gabriella said. "They would've been fascinated to learn what happened to Eve and Hope and their families."
"I'm sure they would have," the queen said, "but at the time, we were too worried about what they'd already discovered and what they might learn from it. We had no idea that they were actually descendants of Xena and Gabrielle. At least they kept most of their discoveries secret." She sighed and shook her head; the nation had missed an opportunity in not contacting the two professors years before.
"Melinda once told me she'd been 'advised' not to say anythin' that might get her in trouble," Serena commented, "an' now I suspect I know just who told her that." At the questioning look from the queen, she added, "Xena's spirit, still protectin' her soulmate's people after all the centuries that had passed."
"And now you two are this generation's descendants of Xena and Gabrielle's bloodlines," the queen said with a contemplative look in her eyes. She fell silent for some moments, obviously thinking, and when she resumed, she startled all those present. "You know that as a descendant of Gabrielle, and therefore of Queen Hope, you are probably due the status of a princess of this tribe, Gabriella."
The blonde teacher's mouth hung open in shock while the other Amazons began muttering and commenting to each other.
"I know, I know," Queen Renée said, raising her hands to silence the others. "She wouldn't be of the direct matrilineal line from Hope, but she is still almost certainly of her bloodline. It wouldn't be the first time that a claim of royalty had jumped a generation with a father in between."
"There's more to your belief, isn't there, my Queen," Marieve said, holding her sovereign's eye, "you have no children, no daughter as yet, and there is no one else living who can lay a claim by blood."
"Well, you can seek the truth of that and confirm or deny it, can't you, my Shamaness," the queen replied with a slight smile.
The shamaness bowed her head to acknowledge her queen's point. "I shall do so if that is your wish, my Queen."
"It is," Renée said. "And it should be done soon, this afternoon, if possible."
"By your command, my Queen," the shamaness said. She then turned her attention to Gabriella and asked, "Can you give me about a half-hour of your time following this meeting?"
The blonde looked to her soulmate who gave her an almost imperceptible nod, and then she answered 'yes'. Things were moving so fast that she was well beyond her center.
"Next," the queen said, looking at Serena, "you have said that you've never seen any ghosts?would you like to?"
"Ya got ghosts here too?" The tall teacher blurted out in surprise.
"We have been visited by one for the last couple nights," the queen told her, "and she may prove to be familiar to you. It would be an interesting experience for you to greet her. Would you accompany me tonight for a viewing? I doubt you'll be disappointed."
"But of course, Queen Renée," Serena said lightly, "wouldn't miss it for the world."
"I'm not kidding," the queen said with sudden intensity. "You may find yourself confronting and communing with your ancestor and understanding your grandaunt at last. I, for one, am looking forward to it."
Serena nodded, sobered by the queen's conviction. The initial meeting ended shortly thereafter and Gabriella accompanied Marieve to a room as strange as any she had ever seen. Esoteric tribal symbols had been smeared on the walls with dark clotted pigments. Totems and weavings dangled from the ceiling or stood on poles driven into the floor. There were a prodigious number of skulls and other bones, as well as decorated hides and pelts. The shamaness had filled the space with the paraphernalia of her office and a vast collection of historical bric-a-brac from earlier tribal spiritualists. Gabriella noted a fair number of Native American artifacts mixed in. Her grandaunt would have had a field day with it.
"Have a seat right here," Marieve told her, gesturing to a bison skin with the head still attached, "and I'll be with you in a moment." As she strode off across the room she added, "And please don't touch anything." She sounded like a dentist or a family doctor.
Gabriella shrugged and sat down. The rug, as she thought of it, seemed warm beneath her, and when she ran her fingers through the fur it felt surprisingly soft.
After a few minutes of rummaging around in a wardrobe, the shamaness returned in a tunic and leggings of buckskin, with a rattling pectoral of miscellaneous bones, and a baggy headdress featuring deer antlers. She had also painted dark circles under her eyes and thunderhead spirals on her cheeks. Gabriella sucked in her breath when she first beheld Marieve's appearance and the shamaness chuckled.
"It's traditional to dress for the rituals," she said, as she lit several candles and ignited a bundle of sage. She waved the pungent smoke over the two of them and then crushed it out in a dish chipped from a stone. "Ahhh, that's better," she said, before commanding Gabriella to, "close your eyes and relax."
The blonde closed her eyes as requested and began a meditation, clearing her mind and concentrating on her breathing. In short order her surroundings faded and she centered her consciousness in tranquility.
Almost immediately she was presented with the image of Marieve, in a much more elaborate costume, chanting and dancing in a disjointed manner to the rhythm of a drum. The drummer was invisible and the surroundings blended into an all-encompassing darkness. She regarded the proceedings with curiosity. The shamaness was clutching a gourd rattle, topped with a dried bird's head, and embellished with the fowl's desiccated wings and feet dangling on the ends of thongs.
She shook the rattle at Gabriella and asked, "Who are you?"
From the darkness all around, voices whispered, but she couldn't make out the words.
"Whooo are you?"
The whispering became louder but no more distinct. The blonde thought it was like being in a crowd of foreigners with a cacophony of voices making no sense. It caused a throbbing to start in her head.
"Whoooooo are you?"
Geeeze, she thought, haven't they given her an answer by now? The throbbing was graduating into a full fledged headache, with every pulse of her heart transformed into a throbbing behind her eyes. She found the drum annoying and the scent of sage oppressive in her nostrils.
"Whooooooooo are you?"
Oh for cryin' out loud! I'm Gabriella, same as I've always been, now g'wan and leave me alone. This headache's killing me. Arrrrgh! The voices were no longer whispering; some spoke urgently and others actually cried out. The pounding in her head brought flashes of light to the backs of the blonde's eyes with each heartbeat. The motions of Marieve's body as she did her hurdy-gurdy dance were beginning to make her sick.
"Whooooooooooo are you?"
And that's it! I am so out of here! In her mind's eye she started to rise to her feet, but she was unsteady, as if the rising voices around her were washing against her like ocean waves rushing against a shore. Partway up she lost her balance and found herself sprawled back on the bison skin, but with her vision wavering as if distorted by heat waves, undulating in synch with the rise and fall of the disembodied voices. Her head was pounding so hard she thought it would knock loose any earwax still in her skull. She felt nauseous. Oh my god, I've got to get out of here?somebody make it stop!
In response to her plea two figures shimmered into existence, standing protectively in front of her. Each was about her own height, blonde and solid. One bore paired short swords with black, ventilated blades and wore an Amazon warrior's leathers. The other wore the leathers of a queen and bore a single broadsword. They stood confronting the darkness and the voices fell silent before their glares. Only the figure of Marieve remained. She stilled her dance, then dropped to one knee before the two women and lowered her head.
"Who is she, spirit warriors?" The shamaness asked in a normal tone of voice.
"Across all the years she is our daughter. We claim her in blood," the two said clearly.
"You shall do her a queen's honor," the spirit queen said.
Then their figures began to waver and vanish. The darkness faded and the room came back into view. Gabriella found herself sprawled on the bison skin and struggled to sit upright again. Her head was clearing with her vision and the headache abated. She took a deep breath and looked around.
"Your pardon, my Princess," Marieve said, capturing Gabriella's attention. She was still on one knee, just as she had been in the vision.
"Uhhh, of course," the blonde said, still a little disoriented, "that was?um, wow."
The shamaness chuckled as she rose to her feet.
"Let me just get out of this stuff and we'll go find your soulmate and the queen. It seems her highness was right. I guess we've got some news to give them, huh?"
At the evening meal in the cafeteria, Serena and Gabriella joined the officers of the tribe at the head table, and before the meal began, Sherice rang the gong and Queen Renée rose to make an announcement.
"Sisters?fellow members of the tribe; this Halloween we have a great cause for celebration. The complete story will be told to you very soon, but it has not yet reached its conclusion. Therefore for now, I will only tell you that a new princess has been discovered. With us tonight are Gabriella Covington and Serena Pappas, the living descendants of Gabrielle, mother of Queen Hope, and her soulmate, Xena, the Warrior Princess and Destroyer of Nations. After decades of uncertainty, providence has led us to Princess Gabriella. Welcome her and her soulmate." Renée gestured the two to their feet and they stood up, feeling incredibly self-conscious.
The queen's announcement was first greeted with shocked silence, but this quickly gave way to cheers and shouts of excitement. Every eye in the cavernous room trained on the strangers standing at the queen's table. The gasps didn't stop there either, for the two newcomers looked identical to the actresses who had played Xena and Gabrielle on the popular TV show. It was a multiple shock and an unexpected treat for the holiday.
When the noise had settled to a dull roar of excited voices, Serena and Gabriella reclaimed their seats and the queen leaned over to speak with the soulmates.
"I don't know about you, but I believe I'll dine privately tonight rather than throw myself on the gossip lines," she indicated the serving lines with a nod. The two teachers agreed wholeheartedly. If they set foot beyond the protection of the queen's table they would be mobbed. Of course it would happen sooner or later, but if a little time passed after the surprise of the initial announcement it might be somewhat tamer.
"What do you suggest, Queen Renée?" Gabriella asked. She was, as ever, hungry when assailed by the scents of food and the sight of people eating.
"I would like us to take a half-hour or so for a viewing and then retire to dine in my chambers," she answered. "Perhaps Marieve and Shareen will accompany us."
The shamaness and the lore keeper nodded; the shamaness with regret to be missing a meal, the lore keeper with relief to be escaping the crowd. Besides, the queen's suggestion was not really a request.
"I would like to join this 'viewing' if I may, my Queen," Darla requested.
"As would I, my Queen," Sherice added. It was the same as in many of the past years.
Renée looked at them a moment and then acquiesced with a shrug. "May as well have a couple more witnesses; I would hate to think of a dispute arising in our tribe if something should happen tonight."
"My Queen, if the import of tonight's viewing is to be as great as I suspect, then no count of witnesses will suffice to dispel all possible doubts. Still, you are our queen," Marieve said cryptically. The others stared at her a moment but Renée only chuckled.
The early Halloween night was dark and chilly, but at least it wasn't raining. The royal party made its way from the compound and quietly walked down a path to the forward sentry trench, finding two familiar young warriors on guard duty there. Trista stared back and forth between Gabriella and Queen Renée as if not believing her eyes. Kalica stared mostly at Serena and gulped as she felt her pulse speed up.
"This is not an inspection," the queen reassured the two nervous guards. "Has there been a sighting yet tonight?"
"No, my Queen, not yet," Kalica answered crisply. She returned to viewing the road through her bow sight, trying hard to keep her concentration on her duty and not on her guests.
"We shall wait a while," the queen declared. She turned to Serena and said, "I hope you have patience and that we will have some luck." She sat on the edge of the trench and gave her attention to the road.
Soon the others lapsed into silence, all watching the packed dirt track 100 feet away. Time seemed to fade, its import lost in the dark of night lit only by the watching moon and the constant and ancient stars. How like the skies so many others had sat beneath and wondered at through all the ages of mankind, the view similar to that seen from the walls of cities long ground to dust, or from seats around campfires in lands lost to history. With the fading of place and self they felt a communion with souls who had lived long before and the souls of those yet unborn. Absent the concerns of daylight, a person became only a person, more like to those of any other nation or era than not. Overhead the stars followed their wheeling path as the world spun beneath them and inched towards the coming dawn. In the darkness the spirits of those who waited were timeless, alone, and yet connected to the continuum of the whole of humanity.
Queen Renée sighed softly. For her this was a rare moment of peace. How might it have been in ancient times, she wondered, as she so often did; how different was the condition of the tribe? Being unhampered with the concerns imposed by modern society, did the sisters back then have more time to enjoy the natural world of which they were more closely a part? Were they more comfortable with themselves and their place in that world? Did they more highly value and more jealously guard their hearts?did they feel more strongly their loves? Blessed with nights such as this, with the beauty of the sky and the land, how could it not?
"On the road, one advancing on horseback at 10 o'clock," Trista whispered as she sighted the apparition through her bow sight.
Every eye swung in that direction. The guards held fast, none bothering to reach for an arrow. In silence they watched as the ghostly rider moved forward toward the totem.
"Come with me," Queen Renée said to Serena. At the protests forming on the lips of her second and her champion, she ordered, "the rest of you stay here."
Though they looked like they wanted to protest, the two remained grudgingly silent. With a quick glance to reassure Gabriella, Serena rose and followed the queen down the trench. They came to its end and rose to ground level, moving in plain view towards the road. Ahead of them, they could see the Ghost Warrior riding at her slow walking pace towards them. Neither of them spoke.
When Renée and Serena reached the road they stopped and stood waiting for the rider. The Ghost Warrior swept her head around to look at them, meeting each of their eyes and nodding to the queen. They heard the dull clip-clop of the horse's hooves on the packed earth of the road, and the creaking of the saddle as the rider shifted her weight. This time she did not disappear upon reaching the totem, but nodded briefly to acknowledge it and then continued past. Closer and closer she came and the queen greeted her with a smile.
Moments later she stopped her horse in front of the two figures with a soft, Whoa, Argo. Then from the saddle she looked down, greeting Serena with a quick bowing of her head and returning the queen's smile with a nod.
My Queen, it has been a very long time, the Ghost Warrior said as she swung her leg over the saddle and dismounted. Her boots made a dull thud and raised a small puff of dust.
She stood before Renée, seemingly as solid and real as Serena herself. Serena watched her carefully, not sure what to expect. The whole situation was too incredible. Then the ghost turned to face her and came to attention.
Strategos, I request your leave, for I have completed my mission. She bowed her head and waited for an answer.
For her part, Serena Pappas had no idea how to respond. She only knew that it was very important. Then, as she stood silent and unsure, she felt a soft voice in her head requesting that she let go. That voice resonated inside her being, as familiar as any she had ever heard, and heralding a warmth of heart closer than any save her soulmate. She willingly renounced her place in time and welcomed the voice into her soul.
In the next moment, Serena felt as if she could do anything; not only what she'd studied and practiced, but things no one had ever tried to do before. She was confident, more so than any living woman, for she felt the certainty of a god's Favorite. A detached part of her wondered if this was how her grandaunt had once felt. It was exhilarating! And then she heard her ancestor's voice speak through her own mouth.
Secunda, you are free to follow your heart from this day forth. I release you from future service, for your past service and dedication deserve the highest commendation. Your sacrifice long ago has achieved this future; you have conquered, warrior. You are free to find your soulmate at last.
The dark head came up, its bearing proud as she stared eye to eye with one of only two other beings she had considered 'near self'. Her Strategos Hypatos, her very creator, had released her from service. For the first time in the Destroyer of Nation's presence, the cloned 'special' allowed herself to show an emotion other than calm focus or battle fury. A single tear overflowed and made its way down her sculpted cheek. A look passed between them that acknowledged their new status; peers; equals at last. Then Secunda turned to the Amazon Queen and offered her hand.
100 feet away in the trench, Sherice and Darla surged up over the wall and made for the road at a dead run. They could cover that distance in seconds, but somehow tonight it wasn't fast enough. To Serena Pappas it seemed as if the world slowed its pace; the charging warriors edged forward in the increments of a slow motion movie. Before her a timeless tableau unfolded in its own time, and it would not be disturbed by the living. It was the culmination of fates too long denied.
Queen Renée reached up and laid her hand in that of the Ghost Warrior. She smiled.
"I have returned many times in many lives, my Champion, but never before has there been one to release you and never have we been free to join."
"I have sought you in every year since your passing, my Queen, yet never before have I been able to offer you my hand and my heart forever."
"Forever?you see, you do have a soul and a heart and a fate."
"And none were more surprised than me when the world faded away after death and my consciousness remained," Secunda said.
"I have waited for you."
"And at last I have found you. Ride with me now?"
"That has been my dream during so many lifetimes, just as it was when we first met. At last we shall be together forever."
Secunda swung up into the saddle and reached down, offering her hand again to the queen. Renée took it and let herself be pulled up behind her beloved champion. She settled and wrapped her arms tightly around her soulmate. At last, fate was sweet.
Secunda met Serena's eyes and nodded her farewell, a smile on her face. She wheeled the warhorse and nudged her flanks. As Argo gathered herself to charge away, Serena noted that the figures had taken on a translucent quality and that no sound came from the palomino's hooves as they struck the dirt. Within a stride the horse and riders completely disappeared. Inside Serena Pappas, the presence of Xena's spirit lingered in the world yet a little while longer.
In the next moment a furious Darla and Sherice lunged into the space where the Ghost Warrior and the queen had been. Sherice grasped Serena's shoulder and spun her around.
"What have you done!" She yelled. "Where's the Queen?"
In the teacher's eyes an ancient darkness flared. It blossomed in the feral sneer that shaped her lips. She wrenched herself free of Sherice's grasp and caught the champion's hand, twisting her wrist and immobilizing her. Then she applied pressure and forced the larger woman to her knees.
"She is gone as she had meant to go this night; as she was meant to go for the last 20 centuries," the icy voice coming from Serena Pappas' mouth grated out. It was filled with steel and remorse, and grim self-loathing. "It has been my failing, my deficiency as strategos that has forced a noble and steadfast warrior to suffer for all that time alone." Her eyes bored into those of the Queen's Champion with an inhuman intensity that chilled the other woman's blood; War God's ancient Favorite?Destroyer of Nations! "I owed her more and I should have known it a long, long time ago."
"Our queen has found her soulmate at last, Sherice," Marieve said as she hastened to join them on the road. She canted her head to Serena and requested, "Release the Queen's Champion, Destroyer of Nations; she is not at fault here."
After a moment Sherice's hand was abruptly released and she massaged the joint to diminish the pain as she warily rose to her feet.
"All is finally as it should be, Destroyer of Nations, and if it took longer than many would desire, still it is right and it is done at last. You have done what was necessary," the shamaness said. Her words seemed to sooth the rigid figure of the Hellene's Bane and bit by bit Serena's body relaxed. Soon it was the teacher who stood breathing heavily, there on the dirt road leading to the tribal lands. "Go back to the spirit world, Destroyer of Nations," Marieve said softly, "your war too is won."
November 1st dawned clear and frigid; a cold front had moved in overnight dropping temperatures into the low 30s. After a series of announcements the previous night, the nation had been informed of the investiture of the new princess and the abdication of the queen. In a swift move, the local council approved an order of succession and the princess became queen designate. Upon ratification of an Oath of Fealty by the full membership of the nation, Gabriella would take the Queen's Mask in an official ceremony. Among the papers found late that night which made the whole process smoother was a note from Queen Renée, passing on her Right of Caste to Gabriella Covington. Even were she not accepted as a princess, she would be accepted as the queen's chosen successor.
It would be strange at first, an outsider as queen of the nation, but at least this stranger was steeped in the ancient Amazon ways. Perhaps her rule would inaugurate a return to some of the more traditional aspects of their society. Perhaps the next phase of the Amazon cultural renaissance was at hand. Though who would serve her as Queen's Second was undecided, one thing seemed certain. No doubt the new queen would name her soulmate Serena Pappas as her Queen's Champion. After all, what Amazon queen wouldn't want a Xena of her own? In one respect Gabriella was already proving herself different from the previous leader. Unlike Queen Renée who had always risen alone and with the dawn, it was now already 1340 hours and Gabriella and her soulmate were still asleep.
"Many wondered why a woman as attractive as Queen Renée never bound her heart to anyone," Marieve said to the gathering in the queen's study that same afternoon. "She had said many times that she was married to her office, but I know that deep down, she always longed for someone with whom her soul sang in harmony. She said as much more than once." The others, Sherice and Darla in particular, nodded in agreement.
"We also recall her trips to the road on Halloween," Darla said. "It had been going on for years, every time a sighting of the Ghost Warrior was reported?almost like a crush."
"As a girl she used to ask me for that story," Shareen said, "and it was always her favorite. I suppose she'd found a connection in it even then; something deep that spoke to her heart."
"Do you think you'll be able to speak with her again," Sherice asked the shamaness, "do you think you'll be able to meet her in the spirit realm?"
Marieve looked over at the Queen's Champion in surprise, knowing how uncomfortable the tall warrior was with the supernatural. Then again, perhaps with her impending release from the duties of Queen's Champion, the ex-Marine was already longing for the "good old days".
"Perhaps I shall try," the shamaness said with the hint of a grin, "after her honeymoon."
"Oh yes, and then we shall all get to have the chance to kid her," Darla said, a smile breaking out on her face, "and I shall certainly relish the opportunity. Yes indeed, the paybacks shall be many."
"Indeed they shall," Sherice said, "indeed they shall at last." Sometimes, fate was just.
Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, NY
Appendix 1 (Titles of TV episodes in Italics) From "Clonefic Pts 1-3" © 2003, 2004 by Phantom Bard
100 BC Gaius Julius Caesar is born in Rome.
97 BC Xena is born in Amphipolis, on the border of Thrace and Macedonia.
90 BC Callisto is born in Cirra, on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth, near Delphi, in Phocis.
89 BC Gabrielle is born in Poteidaia, at the narrows of the neck of Pallene, the western-most peninsula of Chalcidice.
80 BC The warlord Cortese's army attacks Amphipolis. After their defeat, Xena is driven from her home, estranged from her mother, and blamed for the death of her brother. She begins a two-year apprenticeship under Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus.
78 BC Xena takes command of an outlaw army, having deposed their leader, and transforms them into a pirate force. She sacks Cirra and many other coastal towns on her way towards Corinth, where she is forced to withdraw after a protracted stalemate.
77-73 BC Xena encounters Caesar for the first time, holding him hostage during the sack of Thasos. The Roman navy rescues him and Xena rues the decision to stay her hand and not execute him when she had the chance. Caesar defeats Xena's pirates. They become enemies for life. With her forces in shambles, she accepts patronage from the God of War, becoming known as the Favorite of Ares. She travels through the eastern steppes, as far as Chin, regrouping and forging a new army. During this period, Xena is first called the Destroyer of Nations. For another three years she leads her growing forces in mayhem, eventually becoming such a threat that she is finally defeated by an uneasy coalition of Athenians, Corinthians, and Greek and Roman mercenaries.
"Sins of the Past" (72 BC) The meeting of soulmates, Xena is 25 and had already been a warrior for over 7 years, the last 5 as a warlord commander. It had been about a month since she'd left her defeated army when she rescued Gabrielle, who had barely turned 17. She was ignorant, idealistic, but also loyal, feisty, and most surprisingly, literate. Within a year, Xena teaches her the nerve pinch and basic staff fighting techniques. (Note that the word "Sins" in the title reflects the Christian ethos of the modern translators. Gabrielle's clone stressed that the ancient Greek word she'd used could be more accurately translated as "Dark Deeds". It was a vernacular expression, where "dark" was synonymous with "bloody" or "violent", and didn't carry the implied moral judgment or condemnation of the word "sins". This relates to the bard's presentation of Xena's past history as a warrior, from the attack of Cortese to their meeting outside Poteidaia.)
"Chariots of War" (72 BC) Xena and Gabrielle assist a Thracian settlement in repelling a warlord's army. To break the siege of the settlement, Xena resorts to coating hogs and cattle with pitch and bundled straw, and then stampeding the livestock into the enemy lines after setting them afire. These flaming "chariots" introduced the bard to the horrific necessities of war, and the understanding that her soulmate would do whatever was required to save the settlers. It was her first real introduction to being forced to choose the lesser of two evils, a demand they jokingly came to refer to as the "Greater Good". Gabrielle notes that the battle was followed by a victory feast of BBQ'd pork and beef.
"The Greater Good" (72 BC) The soulmates deprive the warlord Talmadeus' army of supplies with a plan to demonstrate a farming village's resolve with a controlled crop burn. The army was threatening the city of Abdera, but without food, the army would fall apart. Somehow the burn got out of control and destroyed all the crops. The army disbanded, the city was saved, and the farmers starved. The Greater Good was served. The episode, "The Greater Good", made from this scroll was almost unrecognizable.
"Callisto's Predations" (71 BC) This scroll became two episodes, "Callisto" and "Return of Callisto". It should be noted that Perdicus was Gabrielle's cousin, NOT her husband, and that at Gabrielle's urging, Xena spared Callisto's life an unprecedented second time. Callisto was tried and imprisoned for 20 years on Shark Island.
"Is There A Physician in the Stockade?" This scroll was originally a manual of Xena's battlefield medical techniques, and was written during the Mitoan-Thessalian Conflict. Sections detail first aid, triage, surgery, bone setting, and herbology. In addition to giving rise to the episode, "Is There A Doctor In The House?", this scroll includes an anecdotal story that became the core of the episode, "In Sickness and In Hell". Note that there was no word for "doctor" in ancient Greek. Healer, physician, and butcher were the applicable contemporary terms.
"Hooves and Harlots" (70 BC) Note that the actual scroll was as much a history of the Amazon and Centaur cultures as a chronicle of a dispute with a neighboring warlord. It was during this dispute that Xena's son, Solon, (age 5), was actually killed. We are given a rare account of the rage of the Destroyer of Nations. Elements of this history appear as background in several TV episodes, including, "Hooves and Harlots", "Adventures in the Sin Trade 1 & 2", "Lifeblood", and "Orphan of War". For her defense of a wounded Princess Terreis, Gabrielle is made an honorary friend of the Amazons.
"When In Rome" This scroll tells of the origins of the struggle between Julius Caesar and the Warrior Princess. Julius Caesar's ransom and defeat of Xena's pirate army is included as background, while her revenge, achieved by freeing Vercinix and arranging the execution of Crassus, is presented as current. It gave rise to the episodes, "Destiny", "The Quest", and "When In Rome". (Note that some scholars believe Xena's actions were aimed at avenging the death of the rebellious gladiatorial slave, Spartacus, a fellow Thracian, who died at Crassus' hand in 71 BC. This goal is as valid as that of freeing Vercinix or destabilizing the Roman leadership by breaking the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.)
"The Kingdom of Lao" (70-69 BC) This scroll became the episodes, "The Debt 1 & 2". Xena assassinates Ming Tsu to honor an old alliance, securing the rule of the House of Lao. Gabrielle first uses the Sai in battle and they become one of her favorite weapons.
"Bad Rye" (69 BC) This scroll was greatly dramatized and became "The Furies". Xena and Gabrielle had been back in Greece for barely 2 moons, and Xena was still suffering debilitation from ergotism, when they were recalled to Chin. (Ergot poisoning, caused by a fungus growing on rye because of wet weather, was relatively common in their time).
"The Dragon and the Phoenix" (68 BC) This scroll gave rise to the episodes, "Purity", and "Back in the Bottle". Recalled to Chin, Xena captures Ming Tsu's son, Ming Tien, the "Green Dragon", (age 22), and turns him over to the Laos, who execute him for breaking the peace with his black powder army. The restored peace of Chin is the reborn "Phoenix".
"Giant Killer" (68 BC) Written on the road, this scroll begins with a short history of giants, during which Gabrielle recounts a legend that became the episode, "Giant Killer", and continues with an adventure that became "A Day in the Life". It probably also inspired the anecdotal scene with Gabrielle and the blind cyclops that was inserted into the episode, "Sins of the Past".
"The Blood Shamaness" (late 68 BC) Immediately follows the soulmates' return from Chin. This scroll tells of Alti's reappearance after 8 years, again threatening the Amazon Nation. Still obsessed with forcing Xena to assist in her plans for destroying the Amazons, she attempted to steal Eve's soul during Xena's pregnancy. The episode, "Them Bones, Them Bones" was based on this scroll. It was left to Gabrielle to actually defeat Alti, after Queen Melosa was mortally poisoned by the renegade, Valesca. At this time, Gabrielle was named a full sister and Amazon Warrior, by the newly crowned Queen Terreis.
"The Dirty Half Dozen" (67 BC)
"In Sickness and In Hell" (66 BC) Gabrielle writes of the plagues and diseases the soulmates had encountered during their travels. Among these we can recognize malaria, yellow fever, small pox, dysentery, leprosy, influenza, bubonic plague, tin and lead poisoning, acromegaly, chrondistrophic dwarfism, Siamese and parasite twinning, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, typhus, cholera, and several types of food poisoning. Note that the title of this scroll was borrowed for the title of an episode based on content from the scroll, "Is There A Physician In The Stockade?"
"Past Imperfect" (66 BC)
"Paradise Found" (65 BC) Gabrielle and Xena learn yoga techniques and a new system of pressure point attacks from the Tibetan mystic and holy man, Ai-den. The techniques compliment the famous "nerve pinch" that Xena had learned years before in Chin. It is believed that these methods predate and predict the later Chinese system of fighting called the "Poison Hand".
"Karma" (64 BC) The events of this scroll, actually a travelogue of the journey to Indus and a record of the philosophies they encountered, became, after great embellishment, the episodes "Devi", and "Between the Lines". Xena and Gabrielle meet Eli and again defeat Alti, this time in spirit form.
"The Way" (64-63 BC) Xena is purified by her acceptance of the Way of the Warrior, under the guidance of a spiritual teacher in Indus. It is during their return to Greece that she is able to take possession of the Chakram of Light and combine it with the Chakram of Darkness. This material, much modified, is the basis for the episodes, "The Way", and "Chakram".
"The Best Day" (Summer Solstice, 63 BC) This scroll includes the material that became both "A Good Day" and "Amphipolis Under Siege". Xena engineers the destruction of Caesar and Pompey's eastern armies outside of Amphipolis. The combined Roman casualties are estimated at over 40,000. Xena had returned home with Gabrielle and 4 ½ year old Eve, hoping for a semi-retirement in which to raise her daughter.
"The Play's the Thing" A self-deprecatory piece by Gabrielle, telling of the fiasco arising from her attempt at theater production.
"Crusader" (61-60 BC ?) This scroll tells of the warrior, Najara, seducer of the Roman Governor of Pergamum. She had so bewitched the weak willed governor with her ambition and delusions of supernatural invincibility, that he had begun the secession of Pergamum from the Roman Empire. Her crusade was to supplant the Roman pantheon through forced conversion, and create an empire dedicated to an ancient and bloodthirsty monotheistic faith, the worship of Ba'al. It was her use of captured Greek sailors, (fishermen and traders from Thracian coastal villages in particular), as human sacrifices, which prompted the soulmates to become involved. Staying ahead of soldiers dispatched by Pompey the Magnus to depose the governor, Xena and Gabrielle track down and battle Najara. After finally dealing Najara an incapacitating wound, the soulmates left her in local custody for the arriving legions. Charged with sedition, piracy, and heresy, Najara was executed for her crimes following her trial and conviction by a Roman court in early 59 BC.
"Lifeblood" (60 BC) Xena and Gabrielle return to the Amazon Village for the birth and christening of Gabrielle's daughter, Hope, who receives her Right of Caste. They find that Queen Ephiny had succeeded Queen Terreis in 62 BC.
"Succession" (59 BC) Xena and Gabrielle confront and kill Mavican, Callisto's would-be successor, sparring partner, and disciple, who had escaped from Shark Island in 60 BC after studying there under the "Warrior Queen" for 10 years. It should be noted that for several years, Gabrielle had been as deadly a fighter as Xena, and inflicted Mavican's fatal wound with her sai.
"Endgame" (Vernal Equinox, 58 BC) This scroll tells of Caesar's revenge. On his orders, Brutus attacks the Amazons, knowing Pompey is nearby. Queen Ephiny is killed, and Eve, (age 9), is kidnapped. In the power gulf, Xena takes temporary command of the Amazon army, slaughters Pompey's legions, and personally beheads him, believing that he, not Caesar, was responsible for Eve's abduction. At the same time, Gabrielle leads a war party to recover Ephiny's body and rescue Amazons taken prisoner by Brutus. She was almost successful in killing Brutus as well, a lost opportunity the soulmates would be thankful for years later on the Ides of March. Only weeks later, Caesar sends a gloating message explaining how Brutus' troops had dressed in Pompey's uniforms for the kidnapping, and that Xena's rage had removed his greatest rival for power in Rome.
It is during this time that Gabrielle trades her sais for a pair of Amazon short swords, the blades of which she has lightened by "ventilation", removing windows of metal to leave the blades "skeletonized". The resulting whistle when slicing through the air becomes a fearsome trademark of the "Amazon Bard".
"One Against an Army" (58-47 BC) Xena declares war on the Roman Empire with the objective of recovering her daughter from Caesar. Although this scroll contains the story of Xena's defense of a high pass, that battle was only one of many, fought over a dozen years, against the Roman army, not the Persians. Over the years, Xena was credited with causing destruction equivalent to over five Roman legions in Greece, two in Italia, one in Gallia, and one in Germania; including auxiliaries and mercenaries, a total of over 86,000 soldiers. This includes the Roman casualties of "Endgame", but not those of "The Best Day". (The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC, over 400 years before Xena's time).
"Queen Marga" (58 BC) Documents the short reign of the Amazon Queen Marga, and provided material that became "Coming Home" and "Dangerous Prey". Note that Prince Morloch was the leader of the hostile army, while Ares and the Erinyes never appear.
"Queen Varia" (57-54 BC and 46 BC) Documents the beginning of the reign of the hotheaded Amazon Queen Varia, and the 3-year war against Helicon. It provides material that became, "To Helicon and Back", as well as relating Varia's later "Oath of Blood", the Amazon Nation's vendetta against Livia, that served as the background for the episode, "Path of Vengeance", which occurred after the rescue of Eve.
*Note 1: (52 BC) Callisto escapes from Shark Island Penal Colony and temporarily disappears. At some point after this time, it is suspected that Callisto made her way to Asia Minor and took possession of the Chakram of Night, which she used in her attack on Xena in Rome. This weapon turned up millennia later in Ares' tomb and was seen there by Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas. It was the rumor of Callisto in Rome that had brought Xena and Gabrielle out of semi-retirement for their last adventure).
"The Abyss" (48 BC) The events of this scroll were probably also dramatized to become "The Price" and "Daughter of Pomira", as well as the episode, "The Abyss".
"The Eternal City" (46 BC) Regarded by scholars as the continuation and culmination of the scroll, "One Against An Army", it contains the story of the rescue of Eve, now known as Livia. To free her, the soulmates infiltrated Caesar's Palace in Rome and arranged the decimation of three cohorts of Praetorians within the city. Xena and Gabrielle spent almost all of their remaining lives on the run, undoing Caesar's influence on Xena's daughter. By this time, Xena had been named First Enemy of the Imperium, with the price on her head growing to 6 million denarii.
"The Ides of March" (44 BC) Begun by Gabrielle in a Roman prison, and completed by an unknown author after the crucifixion. Xena was 53, Gabrielle was 45, Callisto was 46, and Caesar was 56, on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Xena and Gabrielle were executed on the same day as the assassination of their archenemy Gaius Julius Caesar. The unknown author attempts to claim that they all died within moments of each other, in different parts of the city of Rome. Only Callisto survived, and her fate is not recorded.
*Note 2: Eve and Hope both survived their mothers' deaths. Eve lived in Amphipolis while not on the road continuing Xena and Gabrielle's work. In 39 BC she was able to avenge herself by killing Brutus. She became a well-known warrior and hero, hunted by Rome, until she was granted amnesty and banished from Italia by Augustus Caesar, in 27 BC. In return, she foreswore carrying on her mother's war against the Empire. The agreement was one of mutual convenience, as she was 40 and had two children by that time, and Augustus was in the process of securing his rule. Unlike Xena, Eve lived to retire and raise her family at her grandmother's inn. Eve and Hope were never more than acquaintances, as Hope was only 2 when Eve was kidnapped, and 14 when she was freed. By that time, Livia/Eve was regarded as an enemy of the Amazon Nation. Hope exceeded Gabrielle's status as an Amazon Warrior, while living fulltime with her tribe. At the age of 18, she earned the grade of Master Warrior, upon achieving her 25th kill in battle. At the age of 19, Hope became War Queen of the Greek Amazons, following her challenge and defeat of Queen Varia on the summer solstice in 40 BC. Using that position to honor the relationship between her own mother and Eve's, she declined to prosecute Varia's "Oath of Blood", and the Nation's vendetta against Livia/Eve was laid to rest. Almost nothing further is known about her.
*Note 3: Deadly Xena and Gabrielle were both hunted by Rome, but because of the personal enmity between Xena and Caesar, it was always the Warrior Princess for whom the Empire reserved its greatest hatred. Over the years, (with Gabrielle's help), Xena was involved in the deaths of something in the neighborhood of 156,000 enemy troops, 40,000 in "The Best Day", 86,000 during "One Against an Army", and 30,000 in Chin, primarily in "The Dragon and the Phoenix". Figures on deaths during her years as a warlord are sketchy, however best estimates place the total at something in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000. A conservative total would count 170,000 dead over the course of her career. For purposes of comparison, Hannibal Barca is credited with the destruction of about 85,000 legionnaires and allies in three major battles, (Trebbia River, Lake Trasimeno, and the Plain of Cannae), within three years. In the American Civil War, about 185,000 men were killed in action or died of wounds. Another 186,000 died of diseases associated with the war. Civilian casualties are unrecorded.
April 27, 2000 (AD) Cloned Xena and Gabrielle escape from the clandestine lab of Alexis Los Alamos, (Alti), in City of Industry, California.
September 21, 2000 (AD) Dr. Janice Covington, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Archeology at the University of S.C. passes away after a third stroke. Ray Fell, her colleague and one-time graduate teaching assistant had introduced the soulmates to her on June 2. She had used her old contacts in the underworld to provide personal identities for the clones, who settle down with her in Columbia S.C., in the old Pappas family house. Janice makes Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington her heirs, and the inheritors of the Pappas estate. The clones learn the truth of their origin.
April 30, 2001 (AD) The cloned soulmates travel to New Zealand and confront Lucy, Renée, and Rob on the set of the final episode of the TV show, Xena Warrior Princess. They learn the secret of how the show was conceived and confirm their suspicions that an old influence is again active in the modern world. (End of Part 1)
June 1, 2001 (AD) The clones open the Columbia School of Martial Science. Their first students are the Columbia, S.C. police officers, Marcus Lewis and Alexander Williams.
September 13, 2001 (AD) Gabrielle wins the Women's Division of the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships, to honor the soulmates' fallen student, Marcus Lewis, who was killed in a hijacked plane on Sept. 11, in Stony Creek Township, PA. On the same day, Xena foils a bio-terrorist hostage situation in Quantico, Va., which initiates the clones' contact with the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team.
September 16 to October 14, 2001 (AD) The soulmates serve as guest instructors in unarmed combat to the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, at the FBI compound in the Quantico Marine Base, Quantico, Virginia. They have also drawn the interest of a covert government agency, the shadow organization, Omega Sector. A team led by agent Harry Tasker investigates them, while at the same time forestalling investigation by other government intelligence agencies.
November 2, 2001 (AD) The Columbia School of Martial Science is attacked by clones of Callisto and her disciple, Mavican. Those clones are defeated by Xena and Gabrielle and then tracked when they flee by agents of Omega Sector, who subsequently contact the soulmates about a covert mission.
November 7, 2001 (AD) The clones are recruited by Harry Tasker to join in a mission to neutralize a secret DOE cloning facility near Atlanta, Georgia. During that mission the Destroyer of Nations is reborn. (End of Part 2)
November 8, 2001 (AD) The clone of Elainis of Mycenae attacks the Columbia School of Martial Science. Because of that battle's outcome, the Destroyer of Nations accepts the Blessing of the God of War and embraces her ancient heritage. Serena Pappas disappears and the Pappas estate is taken over by Artiphys International, a subsidiary of the DON GROUP, Inc., an investment consortium ultimately headed by Kori Polemos.
November 10, 2001 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations claims the Chakram of Day.
March 28, 2002 (AD) Mass cloning of Xena's army begins in two locations. The initial work had already been completed over the previous three months.
June 1, 2002 (AD) During the first successful flight test of a scramjet engine in Woomera, S. Australia, a speed of Mach 8.6 is achieved.
September 11, 2002 (AD) Athena opens her war by proxy. The United States attacks Iraq and Afghanistan with air strikes, which include the use of nuclear weapons. Days earlier, a covert war had begun using engineered bioweapons to cause epidemics in North Korea and the Sudan. The combined death toll eventually tops 3.5 million.
September 12, 2002 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations is successful in enlisting the leading theoretical researcher in nanotechnology, and isolates him with a support team at her lab in Yokohama. The DON GROUP has invested extensively in Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, providing the Destroyer with a manufacturing base and technological assets in Japan.
December 2003 (AD) Athena's forces release an engineered plague in Beijing. The death toll eventually climbs to 27.5 million.
April 1, 2004 (AD) Two genetically enhanced clones mature to the point that they are able to escape the primary lab site and join the Destroyer of Nations. These are Prima and Secunda, the "specials".
January 5, 2005 (AD) As expected, Athena destroys Xena's primary cloning site.
March 2, 2005 (AD) The refitted Miss Artiphys puts to sea.
July 6, 2005 (AD) The chiliarchoi mature and join the Destroyer of Nations.
October 14, 2005 (AD) The Argo puts to sea.
December 2005 (AD) Athena's forces release an engineered plague in Europe.
December 6, 2005 (AD) The strategos opens her war with the release of plagues on the eastern seaboard of the USA.
December 18, 2005 (AD) Neutralization of the US and Russian North Atlantic Fleets.
December 30, 2005 (AD) Destruction of USAMRIID and the Hanford, WA. site with Mach 8 cruise missiles.
January 1, 2006 (AD) New Years Day attacks destroy the Mediterranean cities of Athens, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Alexandria.
January 2, 2006 (AD) Destruction of London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin with Mach 8 cruise missiles.
January 17, 2006 (AD) The Persian Gulf oil reserves are struck and neutralized.
January 18, 2006 (AD) The "Second Phase" is complete and a migration begins.
March 2, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations' army emerges from the mirror site.
April 12, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations lands her army at Kavala in Macedonia.
April 22, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations successfully defeats Athena's armies in a three pronged preemptive counterattack.
May 5-7, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer drives Athena's army from their camp in Macedonia.
May 15, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations draws Athena's army into battle at her selected location in the Strymon Vale. She defeats them decisively but refuses their surrender, preferring to leave them demoralized.
May 22, 2006 (AD) The Destroyer of Nations annihilates Athena's army in a final battle and captures the Goddess of Wisdom. Xena becomes the Conqueror, but circumstances cause her to postpone completing her subjugation of the modern world.
June 6, 2006 (AD) The Conqueror abdicates her position and leaves the modern world.
March 17, 44 BC The clones of Xena, Gabriella, and Secunda return to Thrace after correcting the timeline at Aulis. (End of Part 3)
Addendum On June 6th, 2006 in the altered timeline, Xena the Conqueror, accompanied by two "special" clones, her soulmate, and her prisoner, Athena, traveled back in time to correct the problem with fate that had begun with the events at the Sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis. Afterwards, one "special" clone (Prima) remained behind to insure the fall of Ilios (Troy) and the training of Antiope, while the other accompanied the Conqueror, her soulmate, and the prisoner back to Xena and Gabrielle's original time period. The "special" clone (Secunda) went to Rome to avenge the soulmates by slaying Callisto and recovering the Chakram of Night, and then took up her mission in the Amazon village. After releasing Athena, cloned Xena and Gabrielle made their way to Amphipolis, returning there two days after their crucifixion in Rome at the hands of Julius Caesar. They resumed the goals of original soulmates' lives, the reform and retraining of Eve.
In the corrected timeline, Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington lived the lives they had originally been fated to live, as the grandnieces of Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington, not as clones created by Alti. In the corrected modern world there would be no plot for world domination by Athena, no resulting rise of the Destroyer of Nations, no cloned armies, and no worldwide destruction. Fate returned to its intended course, allowing two teachers, descendants of the warrior and the bard, to free the last souls who had been caught up in the altered timeline of Athena, Ares, and the Conqueror.