Chapter Four: Preparations
Dawn now was near enough not to startle the guards, and so Melosa decided to go for a run with Xena. Solari, the captain of the royal guard, gave her a hard time when she first included the slave in this part of her drills but finally she gave in. Her captain still was limping from the sword thrust in her left thigh she'd received during the battle, so she wasn't able to follow them herself, but she at least tried to monitor their steps by making sure to have members of the royal guard posted throughout the trail on a more or less regular basis. Melosa changed into her running leathers and opened the door to Xena's room.
Two candlemarks later before going off to her own duties Melosa revoked the order not to interact with the other women and assigned Xena to sort through all the stuff Najara left in the hut and to bundle up the personal belongings of Thania.
As every morning Xena brought a breakfast tray to the healer's hut and set about to exercise Gabrielle's limbs. She didn't want the muscles to wane away from lack of use, so she made her to contract them as far as possible, even the right leg which reduced the blonde woman to tears every time but it had to be done.
"You're doing fine, Gab. Just one more time, yeah, that's it. Good, now go back to sleep. You look tired. Didn't you take the sleeping tea Anara prepared for you?"
"It's all right, Xena. I drank the tea but Thania was having nightmares. Perhaps you should give her some of this stuff too."
"Sorry, baby, but I can't. The nightmares are one of the ways her mind is dealing with what happened to her. If we stop them now she never will be able to live a normal life again. It will help if you try to talk to her or better get her to talk."
The sudden undeniable fear crossing Gabrielle's eyes made her to turn her head away. Xena's hand gently steadied her chin. "Talk to me, love."
"I can't get my mind off what happened to her, Xe. She's just a kid. No one should hurt a child like this; no one should ever hurt a child. What does one gain by doing such things, by abusing and ill-treating and humiliating." There now were tears in the beautiful sea green eyes, and Xena lovingly held her tight. "It hurts to think about it, Xe, and I…."
"I know love, you can't help remembering. Whatever one can say to try to explain why this woman and others of her kind did what she did, their reasons or explanations aren't important. What's important is that it's wrong, and that they have to be stopped. I'm sorry you had to live through this nightmare, love, and I know it hurts badly and it will for a long time to come. But I also know that you're strong, love. I know you can do it. Try to think of something nice when the memories get too much for you. I know you'll be fine, Gabrielle. I just wish you wouldn't have to go through all of this without me. I wish I could spend my days talking to you and looking in your enticing eyes. I wish I could spend my nights easing your pain. I'm sorry that I can't be there for you all the time."
"I love you, Xena. You know, Queen Melosa and I, we talk, a lot. I can ask her to let you stay in here. I'm sure…."
A long finger immediately was on her lips. "Please don't, Gab. The Queen's already more than bending the rules on my behalf, by letting me be here with you at all, giving me the freedom to come and go. When the trial begins she will have to answer the jury about my behaviour. I don't want to make this any harder on her than it already is. I'll be all right, love."
Xena was about to leave the infirmary when she heard the faint sound of a blanket being slowly pulled away and in her peripheral vision she saw Thania trying to get out of bed. She turned around and cast her an inquisitive glance.
"Thania, do you need something? Can I help you?"
The girl looked at her and then sighed. "I don't want to be a burden. Your mate is suffering because of me. I'm not worth suffering for. I'll go back to my mistress."
"You're wrong, Thania." The blonde woman answered. "What you're trying to do right now proves that you would be worth suffering for. But you didn't cause my pain. My heart is bleeding for what was done to you and this is reawakening some really bad memories. It's not your fault. It's nobodies fault, really."
The young Amazon tentatively smiled at her while Xena once again tucked her in. "Najara left the village, Thania, didn't the Queen tell you? She won't hurt you ever again. She's gone."
"So, it's really true?"
"Yes, it's true, little one."
"And it's true that I will be the Queen's apprentice?"
"Yes, it's true."
"And that I will be allowed to wear the Queen's collar?"
"Yes, Thania, it's all true. All you have to do is to get well soon, then the Queen will teach you how to be a true Amazon warrior. Don't you worry!"
The face of the girl held a look of utter wonder that quickly disappeared when she heard Anara's voice obviously trying to calm down another woman drifting through the open windows.
"Xena, please wait. The healer said she would check on me when she comes back. I'd rather you do it."
"Anara is a very good healer, but if it makes you feel better, I'll do it, little one."
"There you go, Thania. You won't have to stay in here very long. The younger one is the faster their bodies are healing. You'll be up in less than eight days. Gabrielle has some scrolls from the library to pass the day, I'm pretty sure we can find something nice to read for you too."
"I'm not very good at reading, Mis… she always told me that fighting was more important and reading only means wasting precious time. She caned my back when she caught me reading the last time."
"So she didn't tell you that a good warrior not only uses her body when fighting but also her brains. Sometimes, when your opponents are much stronger or you're outnumbered you simply have to be smarter than they are. And the brain, your mind is a weapon that has to be well maintained and trained to be on top. I know the Queen never will punish you for reading or for asking questions."
"Did she punish you? I asked her not to."
"Yes, she did. She had to, little one. I know she didn't like it. Try to see it this way: As an apprentice, it is your duty to learn, and as long as I'm a slave it's my duty to obey, and the Queen being my mistress has the obligation to punish me if I don't. Punishment isn't meant to subdue people selfishly. It's a sign that you did something wrong and that you're ready to take responsibility for what you've done. Do you remember the stories they told you about Artemis' childhood?" The girl nodded. "Do you remember the story when she and Apollo played some nasty tricks on mortal children, some very nasty tricks?"
"Yes, they were living with her grandmother Gaia and she spanked them and they were forced to live as mortals for a whole season. It is said, that Apollo didn't like it one bit but Artemis came to live with the Amazons and that's one of the reasons why she now is protecting us. One of the pictures in the temple tells this story. So, sometimes there are good things coming from punishment."
"Yes, little one. So, you see, the Queen had no other choice. It hardly hurt, I swear. I have to go now but I'll be back with some lunch for you too."
When Xena finally arrived at Najara's former hut, she found the weapons' master in the main room trashing the table with the remnants of a chair. Chains and whips and canes, a leather harness, several dildos, and lots of similar stuff were scattered on the floor. Eponin's eyes were red rimmed with unshed tears and she was breathing heavily.
"We should go for a walk, weapons' master. There's a small clearing about half a candlemark south. Queen Melosa told me it's rarely frequented. How about a sparring session? I'm not allowed to weapons but we could do some wrestling or hand to hand. You need to spend all this pent-up anger and energy."
To Xena's surprise the Amazon warrior didn't argue, she shrugged her shoulders and followed the taller woman. Eponin had lots of energy to spend, and both women soon were covered with sweat. Xena was late for lunch.
It took her the rest of the day to restore the hut to a semblance of order. She burnt the canes, whips and other toys along with the destroyed furniture, two blood stained mattresses, a worn out blanket, and some linen shifts. The belongings of Thania consisted basically of two partially torn sets of leathers and three sleeping shifts. She scrubbed the floor and the walls, and finally placed a brazier in the middle of the room scented with spices and herbs. All the other blankets and sheets were bundled together, and re-transferred to the village's storage hut.
She found the scroll in the bedroom, and what it said was more than enough to unsettle her completely. Until then, she had been able to keep her temper at bay, together with her memories, but now… Now she could use a good workout, a hard workout, or better a really good fight. The scroll was squeezed between the bed and the wall, and it detailed every punishment inflicted upon the girl during the last two moons, every whipping, every thrust with the leather phallus, everything.
Xena was boiling with white-hot fury, and it took all of her will power not to wreck the whole place completely but she had to do something. The last time she did feel so angrily helpless was when she'd found Gabrielle. She had literally reduced the whole barn to ruins and not even Palemon had dared to come near her during this bout of frenzy. Her hands were shaking, her head was spinning, and all she could think about was the pain and anguish the young Amazon had had to endure, and now she understood Gabrielle's feelings.
Her feet found the way to the barn, after dropping the scroll on Melosa's desk; brushing down Argo probably would help to calm her down because a slave running rampant around the village really wouldn't do. But when she breathed in the scent of hay she knew it was a futile attempt. It was all too familiar. Xena snapped.
A rock pillar about two feet thick held the main structure of the barn. She attacked it with her bare hands, pounding against it until her fists were thick with blood, and then she knelt on the floor silent tears running down her cheeks. Xena wept - for the third time in more than fourteen years.
When she finally regained some self control it was well after dark but instead of paying her daily visit to the temple or saying good-night to Gabrielle she now began in earnest to brush down her golden mare, after having wrapped her bleeding knuckles with a make-shift bandage. The moon was already half ways through its journey when she opened the door to the Queen's hut. It was empty but on the desk was a piece of parchment, it said:
I will spend the night with a friend.
You will find the keys for your night restraints on top of the chest in your room. Suit yourself.
We'll talk tomorrow.
Xena was unable to sleep not only because her hands were badly hurting, every time she closed her eyes she saw the battered body of the young Amazon and the fear in her hazel eyes; she saw the words on the scroll offering more details than she could ever have bargained for, the painful memory of the first look at Gabrielle, and all of the rage and anger and fury these slavers had sent her in resurfaced. She saw the piercing coldness of Najara's eyes. And she saw all the horrible and heartless things she had done herself over the years. The baby boy crying in the arms of his dead mother, murdered by her fault. The look of sadness and disappointment in.. No, she couldn't stand it, but this time her sense of guilt and responsibility were far stronger than the urge to beat someone up.
She undid the chain confining her to her room and slipped through the window. Avoiding the guards proved barely challenging and she soon arrived at the temple. It was empty. The greater part of the Amazons had their own statues to worship their patron goddess; there even was a small one in Melosa's hut near the fireplace. So the temple only was frequented during festivals and other celebrations.
Every Amazon village had its own Artemis' temple, of course. The goddess of the hunt and the moon long ago had made the Amazons 'her' people, it was she that kept them strong, gave them their laws and customs, taught them how to live from the land, and blessed their joinings. This particular temple was larger than average, its marble structure shining through the forest trees, disguised only by the tree matching green of the roof. A row of columns protected the entrance, large windows near the ceiling afforded constant illumination and the walls were adorned with picture stories about Artemis' life and youth. Xena bowed shortly in front of the marble statue of the huntress, and circled to the back. There she lowered herself on her right knee, she opened the double door of a small compartment in the lower half of the statue and lit two small candles.
There was a small statue made of polished wood. It was the statue of a woman with broad hips and an ample chest, her face missed the clear lines of the Greek gods but as always Xena was utterly convinced that it must be the most beautiful face she'd ever seen. The tall warrior placed her hands on her upraised left knee and began her prayer. It was a long prayer, much longer than usual, and for the first time since she had left the palace of Corinth she allowed herself to get lost in prayer. Letting her guard down this far was something she didn't feel comfortable with, this night however she just couldn't help it.
About two candlemarks later she was back in the village. She knew sleep still wasn't an option and so she sat down in front of the fireplace to manufacture an apprentice's collar for Thania. Nowadays the collars usually were used at festivals of sorts only but she had a feeling the young Amazon would wear it daily, and with pride.
There was a small basket of leather straps and thongs, many-coloured guts and needles she could use. Xena cut out a strap of deerskin that would serve as a base and lined it in with even softer leather. Every movement of her fingers sending a short stab of pain from her abused knuckles to her brain, and she found herself unexplainably grounded by the sensation. She even found a buckle to close it in the back of the neck because in contrast to a slave collar the apprentice collars could be opened every time thus indicating that the apprenticeship was voluntary. The adornments would be more difficult. Tradition demanded a four-tailed braid and the personal symbol of the mistress as well as tribe markings. With every step of the training the mistress would add a bead. But first things first.
She decided on two braids on either side of the throat, every tail another colour, every colour symbolising one of the qualities any Amazon should possess: courage, faith, loyalty, and prudence. The braid on the right side was meant to be rather flat, clearly presenting the different colours, while the thongs on the left one were designed to give a rope-like impression thus showing off the strength one gained by combing all these qualities. The tribal markings in this case were easy: the outlines of a shield and a sword. One was sewed next to the flat braid with gut of a gleaming dark brown, and another next to the rope braid with a fine silvery gut. The night was at its darkest when Xena was ready to put on the Queen's symbol. Instead of turning to the official seal Melosa used for treaties, she chose her personal seal: a staff and an arrow intertwined crowned by the drawing of a squirrel. To emphasise its owner she used the royal green to stitch it on which was a shade darker than the green in the braids. By the time she was finished the first hints of dawn appeared but she found herself unwilling to move.
"No, don't, don't touch her, you promised…"
A slap on the left cheek broke her nightmare. Xena still was sitting on the bear rug in Melosa's hut, her back against the fire place, a blanket tucked around her and her front covered in sweat. She slowly took in her surroundings, the sun already was high, and the Queen was kneeling in front of her.
"You're all right now? Must have been a Hades of a dream, not like the others. If you're ready to talk about it, you're welcome."
"Thank you, Queen Melosa, but it's in the past, there's nothing to talk about. I'm sorry for causing such inconvenience."
"You didn't, now go to bed. Try to catch up on some sleep."
"Thank you, but the stone wall isn't finished yet, I'd rather go to work, - after the punishment I'm about to receive. I didn't spend the night chained to my bed as it should have been, mistress."
"No, you didn't but my orders were deliberately unclear. 'Suit yourself' is not really an order. So, this time there will be no punishment. - I just had a meeting with the council and Anara…"
"Gabrielle's not able to walk around yet, not even with crutches but she's well enough to follow an all-day court session. She's healing faster than I ever would have thought possible and it's no longer dangerous to move her around. I suppose it will take about a quarter moon to get the dignitaries of the other villages here, it's the time for summer solstice. So it would be best to begin the trial right after the festival."
"That's the schedule the council agreed upon, Xena. They also agreed to cut the festival short a day. The elders see it as a sign of respect for your help with these soldiers."
Melosa wanted to tell her that she didn't want her to go through with the trial. She wanted her to grab Gabrielle and leave the village for good. The woman in her hut, the woman caring for others and obviously adoring the blonde was not her enemy, she was not the Conqueror, she didn't want her to die. But she didn't tell her; Xena never would act on it.
"Please pass by the healer's hut before going to work. Gabrielle is concerned about your absence this morning, and Thania still doesn't like to be touched by Anara."
Xena nodded and already had reached the door when she remembered the collar.
"It's beautiful, Xena. I never would have been able to make it myself. Thank you. You really have many skills. Thania will just love it. I'll give it to her after dinner, and I want you to be there when I do." The tall warrior turned and rapidly left the hut, and Melosa was sure that there was faint blush on her cheeks.
"No, my Queen, no. I would be more than honoured to take her defence but I won't be the procurator."
"I could make it an order, Ephiny."
"Please, Queen Melosa, don't do it. I don't want to be forced to disobey my Queen. After the battle, Xena saved my second mother's life, if not for her Solari would have died out of blood loss. I owe her, though she doesn't want to hear about it. It's hard to stand aside but I will not willingly contribute to her death. Please."
"Your request is granted, Ephiny. Try and save her life but Xena certainly won't make your job any easier."
"Thank you, my Queen. I don't think she will but perhaps her determination to get herself killed will be the best defence."
The young woman definitively knew the law, she was cunning and able to captivate and influence her audience. Melosa was glad Ephiny had volunteered for defence. But now she had to find a replacement. When dinnertime was nearing she still was empty-handed. Even the few survivors of the Northern Amazons simply refused to take this singular opportunity for revenge. So all she could do was sending a request to the neighbouring villages and hoping for the best.
Usually new apprentices were taken in at the harvest festival during fall solstice but the circumstances didn't allow waiting as long as this. There had been a heated debate in the council because in the past Queen Melosa as most of her predecessors shied away from the additional burden of having an apprentice. But finally, they had to concede to her wishes, and sent two representatives to witness the act of adoption. Eponin, Solari, and Akyra served as additional witnesses.
The Queen fastened the collar around Thania's neck and asked her if she was ready to accept her tutelage. A simple confirmation would have been enough but the young Amazon instead choose a form of commitment much older. She kissed the Queen's hands and cradled her face in the palms. Melosa kissed the top of her head and the council witnesses left the healer's hut.
"You know, you'll only have to wear the collar at festivals?"
"Yes, I know. Do I have to wait for your permission to wear it, mistress?"
"Please use my name or my title, Thania, I'm not really comfortable with being called mistress. First of all I'm your teacher and when we get to know each other better I'll be happy to be your confident, your friend. And no, you don't need my permission; it's entirely up to you. But now I want you to take it off and tell me what you see."
The girl did as she was told. "It's smooth and soft and yet firm. It would be impossible to tear it apart easily. Is this how it is supposed to be, Queen Melosa?"
"Yes, Thania. The collar is meant to be solid to symbolise the connection between tutor and pupil and to symbolise the connection between an Amazon and her tribe. If it would be easy to tear it apart, its purpose would be invalidated. Why?"
There was a long candledrop of silence, and when Thania finally spoke her voice barely was audible. "Mis… She tore it apart every time she punished me. She said that I'm not worth wearing the collar as long as I didn't learn how to obey."
The Queen again was baffled but Xena somehow sensed the girl's need to be reassured. "No one, not even the gods can promise that Queen Melosa will never have to punish you. But if she has to, she will do it with care and love, not out of anger and frustration. The collar is a badge of honour, wear it with pride, and you can be sure the Queen also will be proud of you, little one. Soon you will be like this, a real Amazon."
Xena's fingers touched the rope like braid. "Yes, I'll work hard to be proud and independent, fierce and cruel."
"Amazons can be fierce warriors if need be, Thania, most of us would do anything to protect the nation, and in order to do this sometimes we also have to have the courage to be cruel but it's nothing you should strife to be." Eponin quietly said. "The colours stand for courage, faith, prudence, and loyalty."
"Courage is symbolised by the black tail to keep in mind that there's a difference between courage and foolishness." The Queen continued. "Green is the colour of the forest offering to us all we need to live. It stands for faith, and as much for faith in your own abilities as in the Goddess. The red one signifies prudence to remind every one that you probably will have to pay with your life's blood if you don't use your brain as well as your muscles. And the last one, the blue one, is the symbol of loyalty to your tribe, to your nation and to your own heart. What else do you see?"
"The one in the middle is your personal symbol, my Queen. I know that staff and bow are your weapons. The ones on the left and the right are the tribe markings but I don't understand why they are of different colours?"
"We'll just have to ask Xena, she designed the collar."
"Brown is the colour of the earth and silver stands for the moon. Both colours symbolise the nation's relation to its gods."
The Queen shot her slave an inquisitive look, as always amazed at the extent and depth of Xena's knowledge about Amazon customs and traditions. The tall warrior choose to ignore the unspoken question but Akyra who lingered against the wall found not only one of her suspicions confirmed by her words but also her resolve strengthened to take part in this trial in her own way. Her preparations were made; all she had to do now was to wait.
The stone wall bordering the training ground on three sides was more sturdy than ever when Xena finished her work at noon two days later, and Queen Melosa ordered her to take the rest of the day off. So, the lunch with Gabrielle and Thania was drawn out much longer than usual. When Solari came in and tried to bring Xena to speak with Ephiny about possible charges and a defence strategy the former Conqueror decided to make herself unavailable and go for a swim in the nearby river. She knew two members of the Royal guard followed her but it didn't bother her.
Xena chose a usually quiet spot she already had frequented more than once preferring the river to the communal bathing area in the village. She found it occupied by four Amazons handling fishing gear on either side of the river. They were so intensely wrapped in their task, Xena couldn't resist the temptation to try and stir them up a bit.
She backtracked about fifty paces where the river's bed was bending slightly and slid soundlessly in the water. She ducked under the surface and swam over. Hooking the lines together was almost too easy. Now she only had to get out of the water, take a front seat and wait. It didn't take long.
One of the women on the right riverbank felt a light tucking at her line, she cautiously pulled and found a lot of resistance. She increased her effort and was met with more resistance. Soon she was jerked into the water, taking her unsuspecting companions with her. At the other side, all of a sudden four women were thrown to the hard ground when their prey stopped its struggle and simply vanished. Xena couldn't help but laugh aloud at the sight of their faces reflecting anger, astonishment, disbelief, and amusement. The unfortunate four in the river decided they wouldn't be the only ones getting wet and attacked their colleagues now rubbing their sore buttocks. The anticipation of what without any doubt soon would follow made Xena laugh even harder.
Too soon, she heard the familiar footsteps of Queen Melosa nearing her vantage point. She knew one of her guards had taken off to get their sovereign when the tall warrior executed her little stunt. The steps were hurried at first but when the Amazon Queen came in full view of the riverbanks and her fishing expedition, they immediately relaxed. She sent the guards to stop the two groups of tearing one into the other, and not even trying to hide her amusement, she asked.
"You don't happen to have anything to do with this mess, Xena?"
"Their lines must have become tangled, Queen Melosa, somehow." Xena answered with a flourishing smile.
"I was told there was a big, big fish in the river not too long ago."
"They definitively failed to catch this fish, not even when it was practically breathing in their ears."
"No, they didn't catch it - but I did."
"Yes, Queen Melosa, you did; and I know about the consequences of my little prank. Some of your warriors could be offended being duped by a slave, some of them even could feel humiliated, and my punishment has to take their reactions in account, mistress."
"You never cease to amaze me, Xena. However, this time there's not only the two of us involved, so the council has to take part in any decision concerning your punishment. The fishing detail was important to get enough supplies for the summer solstice. No one will go hungry because of this but the village of the Queen has to maintain a certain standard, meet certain expectations. I'm not sure I can dissuade them from a public punishment. But what you did also showed that we are too careless within our borders. You shouldn't have been able to come as close to them as you did without them noticing your presence. You caught them totally unaware. This also will be held in account."
"I'm sure your fishing party could use a rest. Why don't you let me try and catch some of the fish you need while the council decides about me, mistress?"
"So it shall be. We'll leave a pole and the baskets, and I will send the guards as soon as the sentence is pronounced. Whatever the outcome, Xena, I really would have enjoyed seeing them tumble into the water."
"I'll try and arrange something, next time, Queen Melosa."
About three candlemarks later Xena was standing in the slowly flowing river tossing a big trout into one of the big baskets when six Amazon warriors were approaching. They were walking in pairs and appeared at the sandy riverbank when Xena was catching another smaller trout. She regarded it thoughtfully and threw it back when one of the guards called her name.
Eponin was leading the escort. "Xena of Amphipolis, slave held by guilt to the Amazon nation, personal slave of Queen Melosa, you were found guilty of public nuisance, disrespect, and abuse of public property. Your sentence will be pronounced in the council's hut after dropping your catch at the dining hall. Take the basket and follow our lead."
"I can carry two of them but I could use some help with the other four, weapons' master."
Eponin just nodded to her fellow warriors, well aware of the fact that Xena had obviously managed to catch more fish in a few candlemarks than the whole fishing detail would have been able to haul in in two or three days. So, instead of delivering the catch to the cook she made the escort presenting it at the council's hall. Disciplinarian matters only were decided upon by the Queen and the council of elders, so the weapons' master wasn't privy to their decision - but an escort of six seasoned warriors in her eyes didn't bode too well.
The verdicts of Amazon justice weren't revocable, the sentences were. When the elders saw the baskets and were assured that the slave really did make the catch without any help they reconsidered their previous decision. So, Xena and her guards spent another half candlemark waiting in the village square.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you were found guilty of public nuisance, disrespect, and abuse of public property." The Queen was standing in the centre of the round council's hall, the elders four paces behind her in a close knitted row with enough room for the missing members of the crafts, guard and army. Xena knelt in front of her mistress as if they were alone in the Queen's hut. "Do you have anything to say to your defence?"
Xena just shook her head 'no'.
"Stand up and hear the sentence of the council of the elders." The former Conqueror did as she was told but refused to raise her eyes from the floor thus still signalling her submission to the law.
"Now hear your sentence: for abuse of public property you will do two times the deed you interfered with, which you already did - so justice is satisfied. The disrespect you showed the voluntary fishers would be balanced with five strokes of a cane, accounting for the fact that your actions also pointed out a major security leek. But public nuisance earns you ten more strokes with the cane. Elder Akyra will bear witness of your punishment and it will be executed by the weapons' master."
Elders and guards quietly left the hut. "Xena, please remove your leathers. There's a table near the back wall. I want you to place your upper body on top of it. Do you want to be restrained for the punishment?"
"No, mistress. It won't be necessary."
"I know you probably are aware of the consequences but I have to make sure."
"Yes, I know what will happen if I move while not being restrained, mistress."
Gabrielle's whole body was shaking with laughter when Xena described her little joke to her and Thania. She kept asking about details long after Thania's initial laughter was replaced by a worried frown.
"What is it, little one? Do the ribs still bother you much?"
"Anara said they're doing well. It's healing pain she said. Our village is famous for its fish dishes at festivals. The Queen couldn't have been pleased about your interference."
For a heartbeat, Xena contemplated to ignore the implications of Thania's remark.
"She said she would have loved to see them tumbling in with her own eyes, but you're right, Thania. I didn't know how important the fishing detail was, else I probably wouldn't have done it."
The former Conqueror took a deep breath and avoided studiously to look in Gabrielle's direction.
"While the Council of Elders decided upon my punishment I managed to catch enough fish to make up for the loss, so there was no real harm done. The weapons' master caned me. The marks will be gone the day after tomorrow."
"So, all is well."
"Yes, little one, all is as it should be."
Xena felt the tension building in the blond woman's body, and when she turned an apologetic look towards her, the outburst of anger was inevitable.
"All is well, no, nothing is well. This stupid trial obviously isn't enough for you, Xena, isn't it? It isn't enough that they probably will kill you soon, no, you go and do your damned best to let them also degrade and hurt you. Why? Were some candledrops of laughter worth the pain? Why, Xena?"
The first wave of anger expelled, there now were tears glittering in the beautiful green eyes. Xena's hand of its own accord moved forwards to brush them away. She should justify her actions, she thought, instead she simply said.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't want to upset you. I love you too much; please don't be angry with me. I try not to let anything like this ever happen again. I'll try my very best but please try to understand that no one in the village will share your concern. The punishment reflected what I did and not what I am. The Commander of the Royal Guards would have met the same fate. It's one of the most important rules here that one has to face the consequences of one's decisions. I knew this. I followed my heart and I don't regret it. Please don't make me regret it."
"I love you, Xena. It's just … sometimes I wish we never would have come here. In Corinth I never had to worry about your safety and your well-being."
"Oh, Gab, in Corinth I was worried about your safety all the time. The guards intercepted two assassins and someone tried to get the cook to poison your meals. I suppose a council member was afraid of your influence on my decisions. With the Amazons you always will be safe."
"Why didn't you tell me then, Xena?"
"You had enough to deal with as it was, your memories, the assault, your father, teaching the palace's children… I know, it was wrong. I once again valued my judgement more than yours. I wanted to protect you - - and I was afraid you would leave me if you ever felt threatened in the palace." The last words were spoken calmly but Xena refused to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
The injured woman's left hand found and steadied Xena's chin, making sure to look into the eyes of her lover. "After the first night we spent together in bed I knew I was in love with you, and after our first time making love I knew I would follow you to Tartarus and beyond. Why didn't you trust me?"
The woman who was said to get rid single-handedly of ten enemy soldiers without even breaking a sweat found herself as usual at a total loss when compelled to deal with her feelings for Gabrielle.
"I'm sorry," she stuttered, "I never loved before, there never was someone to care about what I did. Please forgive me, I love you so much."
"Love you too, my big dumb warrior. Please don't do it again. You conquered my heart when I first lost myself in the deep, blue pools of your eyes. But still…"
Pointing to her slave collar Xena asked. "You're still unnerved about this, aren't you?" Gabrielle nodded and Xena sighed.
"Perhaps I should have explained it better from the beginning but in the Amazon Nation things that have the same name as in the rest of Greece don't necessarily also have the same meaning. In big cities as in Athens or Corinth being, an apprentice means that you work with a craftsman and learn his trade by doing so. On rare occasions, there exists a bond on a more personal level but most times; it's just a working relationship.
"For an Amazon," she continued after a quick smile to Thania, "it should be an honour to have an apprentice. An Amazon mistress is not only to teach a craft, be it weaving, or warfare, or hunting. More important than skills and knowledge is to help the apprentice to build up her self-esteem, to teach her the virtues of a true Amazon. That's why there are always two apprentice ships for every young Amazon. One to learn how to defend herself and her tribe, and one to learn a craft. Apprentice and mistress not only share the work, they share each others lives, and sometimes a mistress can even become a 'second mother'."
"So, what Najara did, wasn't right, it was against the law and against custom."
"Yes, little one. It wasn't right. The Queen will be good for you."
There was a long moment of silence.
"Xena, before you continue, please tell me, what's a 'second mother'?" Gabrielle asked.
"Do you like to explain it, Thania?" The girl's face lit with a smile as bright as a torch at the request.
"Many Amazons are warriors, fighting is part of what they are deep down in their hearts. They risk their lives on a regular basis and so the blood mothers do not always have the time to be with their children, to care for them or to teach them. That's why the communal huts exist and apprentice ships. A second mother however is more than just a mistress or a teacher. She offers friendship and understanding and love, a shoulder to cry on or a firm hand to spank with if need be. It's common procedure for the bond mate of the mother to become the second mother of a child, but sometimes it's the other way round, sometimes a woman finds herself enchanted by a child and asks the mother for the privilege to be named second mother. There are even stories about the two mothers subsequently becoming joined."
"You told me that you don't know your mother, but do you have a second mother, Thania?"
"No more, she died of a fever three winters ago. She was a weaver, sweet, and kind, and while she worked, she always told stories about Amazon history and great fighters and lovers and adventures. I'll always miss her but when I last was allowed to see her she told me that she will always be with me. She told me that the dead can hear our thoughts and she told me that one day when I'll need her most my blood mother would come to be at my side."
The girl's voice was a strange mixture of genuine grief and un-abatable hope. She quickly closed her eyes and then tried to look at Gabrielle and Xena at the same time.
"I know it never is the child's to choose but both of you have become very important to me. After the trial would you and Gabrielle consider to become my second mothers, Xena?"
The question found Xena totally unprepared and she really didn't know how to phrase her answer when Gabrielle gave her some time. "We would be honoured, Thania, but Xena and I aren't no Amazons, and so it hardly will be possible. I'm sorry."
"Gabrielle is right she and I would love to be second mother to you, Thania, and as soon as Gabrielle is well enough to ask, I'm sure Queen Melosa will grant her request. But as long as I'm a slave, I won't be even allowed to ask. I'm sorry. There's only one thing I can promise, I will always be there to protect you, to guide you and to love you as long as you want me to - and if I'll ever loose this collar and you still want me to, I'll make the pledge to the Queen, little one, that's a promise."
Thania was smiling but Gabrielle still seemed puzzled. "So outsiders can become second mothers?"
"It doesn't happen very often, Gab, but it's possible. It even isn't unheard of that an Amazon becomes second mother to an outsider's child."
"Really? How do you know?"
"I'll tell you but it's a secret and you have to promise not to mention it to anyone else, especially the Queen isn't to know, not yet. You also have to promise, Gabrielle…"
Xena was just finishing her story when Akyra entered the healer's hut to tell her that the Queen requested the presence of her slave. The tall warrior decided to risk another punishment and answered she would come as soon as possible. Akyra only nodded, her mind still contemplating the story she had overheard and now more sure than ever that her plan would work. Telling her lover at least part of the truth was an important step for the usually silent raven head.
"Let's get back to our starting point, an Amazon slave. The differences between an apprentice and an Amazon apprentice are small compared to the differences between a slave to the Amazon nation and an outsider's slave. With the Amazons, there are a lot of rules and traditions involved, and some of them serve to protect the slave. It's true that a slave isn't allowed to do what she wants. She has only to do what her mistress orders her to do and will be punished if she fails to do it or acts on her own accord.
"Being a slave means loosing personal freedom and privacy but, Gabrielle, you were wrong when you said earlier that I wanted the Amazons to humiliate and degrade me. This never can happen. Slavery here is about authority and obedience not about dominance and submission.
"Don't get me wrong, there's always the possibility of a mistress to abuse of the power given to her but it's the slave's decision either to go with it or to take her case to Queen or council. The laws do not take ill treatment lightly, be it by corporal punishment or else because it means treating a woman the way women usually are treated by men. To an Amazon every woman is a sister of fate.
"The more so with sexual matters, sexual violence has to be consensual, if not its considered a rape - and rape, murder and treason are the only charges to warrant a death sentence. There's one other difference. At the Amazon nation, no one ever was a slave for her whole life. It's always limited to a certain amount of moons, seasons or years. The time completed the Amazon will return to her former life and position in the nation. Today I acted without permission. I was defying the Queen's authority and the punishment was the only way to officially reassure my obedience, Gabrielle."
"I think I understand now, Xena, but I still don't have to like it. Perhaps it would be better for you to leave now. The Queen's patience probably isn't without limits."
Xena took her leave from both of them and turned to the door. "Xena."
"What Najara did to me was rape."
"Yes, little one."
"I understand. Good night, Xena."
"Good night, little one."
Xena was too edgy by the conversation to face the Queen right now, so she took another detour - to the temple. Once again, she opened the compartment in the back of Artemis' statue and lowered herself to her right knee. The evening had brought back many memories she wasn't ready to deal with yet, and she also was concerned about the deductions and conclusions the two others would be led to by her revelations. Once again she lost herself in prayer and when she arrived at the Queen's hut most of the village was already asleep.
The central room was deserted. The fire was banked for the night and a single torch illuminated the large desk at the other side of the room. On it was a small jar and a piece of parchment. It said.
I requested your presence to put some ointment on the cane marks. I hope you'll manage for yourself. Akyra told me that the conversation you just had was very important to the three of you. While I'm writing this my guards, tell me that you're on your way to the temple, so I decided to check on the night shift at the outlooks.
However, your punishment for not answering my summon will be a night and a day of fasting. You're allowed to water but not allowed to eat. I hope this satisfies your exaggerated sense of discipline and order.
Don't forget to close in your restraints when you go to bed.
Xena left the jar at the table, took the torch, and passed to her room, slightly nervous about what Akyra possibly had overheard, or even worse already told the Queen. It would only complicate matters further. Despite these worries, she soon fell asleep after having linked the chain dangling from the backrest of her bed to her slave collar.
The next morning shortly after dawn the Queen returned, unlocked the chain, and sent Xena to an already waiting group of Amazons composed of about half the members of yesterday's fishing detail, some royal guards, some hunters, and the weapons' master. She was to teach them how to catch fish with their bare hands. The combination of keen senses and fast moments required to do so made sure that at least some of them would be utterly frustrated by the end of the day and she was surprised to find that only four of them really didn't get it.
So foremost the day was great fun. When they took their midday-break in the first candlemarks of the afternoon, a splashing feast started that quickly turned in an all-out water fight leaving them all completely soaked and efficiently chasing away the fish. So, they decided to lie down on the sunny beach and relax. When two candlemarks later three of the kitchen helpers came to take away their catch they still were pleasantly soaking in the summer sun, stark naked. One of them full of reproach looked at their meagre two and a half baskets of fish but Eponin just shrugged her shoulders, not even bothering to get up and said that they had been send out to learn not to empty the river of its content. She added with a glint in her eyes that she didn't want to be disturbed in her serious and exhausting business of drying their leathers. Another one of the kitchen staff mumbled that they had expected at least another four baskets but didn't dare to confront the weapons' master directly.
Half a candlemark later Xena whispered in Eponin's ear and the Amazon warrior sent her sisters back to the village. Xena stood and walked in the water not bothering with her still damp leather dress. She began to toss fish after fish to the weapons' master. Soon two more baskets were filled and Eponin insisted that now it was her turn. She caught the content of one basket before Xena once again took over. Their leathers now were dry enough not to be too uncomfortable, they delivered the four baskets to a flabbergasted cook, and Xena made a visit to Gabrielle before returning to the Queen's hut.
"Tell me again why we have to make this detour to Amphipolis, Cyrene."
"It may be more than two years ago but I had a stock of dried healing herbs hidden that still will be of use and also some plantations in the forest where we can harvest fresh ones. We may need them on our way, and it only will take us a few days."
The tall warrior couldn't help but think that a few days may just make the difference between life and death for his general but Xena had been more than adamant about Cyrene not getting to know the conditions of her stay with the Amazons or about the forthcoming trial. His silence began to catch her attention so he said.
"I should have known the General learned her healing skills at a young age. She'd always told us that the battles she was in taught her all she had to know but she's just too good to be nothing but a battle field surgeon."
"Xena's a healer? You're kidding, Palemon."
"The General is a woman of many skills, Cyrene. Most of the men here could tell you a lot of stories about the General saving their lives with her healing skills and her determination, sometimes against all odds. After a full day of fighting more often than not, she spent the night trying to save our lives. She trained the army healers and when dealing with severe injuries it's her everyone looks for. She went for days without sleep to save her soldiers, and every death was a lost battle in her eyes. She fought as hard in the healer's tent as she did on the battlefield."
Palemon saw the look of disbelief the gray haired woman gave him but he knew that slowly his words were taking root in her heart and that she began to at least contemplate the possibility her daughter could be more than just a heartless killer.
"I can tell by the frown on your face that you don't believe him, Cyrene," one of the older soldiers suddenly said, "so I will tell you a story, a true story because I happen to have lived through it. My name is Meleager, I'm fighting with the General for more than nine years now. I began as a soldier and became her supply master after being injured in the war against the Persians. One of their spears cut open my guts and I was sure to die when my insides began to spill out. All I could do was trying to press them back inside while I was lying on the ground and staring at the blue sky. I knew I soon would have to pay Charon but suddenly there was a shadow shielding me from the sun and a voice ordered me to continue and take one breath after the other.
"She said. 'You're not allowed to die, Mel. It will get worse before it can get better but I need you.' The next thing I know it that I was looking into these incredible blue eyes of hers, still filled with worry and the voice said. 'Don't you dare to die on me, Meleager.' I sank back into oblivion and when I regained consciousness, the blue orbs where still watching over me. She could have patched me up and leave my to the Fates but the General not only tended to my wounds she also cared about me.
"I felt safe in her care and that's what gave me the strength to get well again. Later on, when I was well enough to move around a bit, I was told that she not only spent several candlemarks to tend to my wound but that she also fed and bathed me more than once while I was recovering. And that's not the only time I owed my life to her."
"So she cared for an experienced fighter who certainly was an asset to her army. What's so special about that?"
"Well, that's what she always wanted us to believe but she couldn't fool us and you obviously don't want to understand, Cyrene. The General had the Persian wounded found on the battlefield in the same tent and she tended to them with the same dodged determination. To her it didn't count if one was an enemy or a friend, a seasoned fighter or a young lass on his first campaign. She tried to give all of us a second chance. It wasn't a question of a sword more or less to her army.
"There's more to her than she herself wants to acknowledge. I know you probably still don't want to believe me but there's a way to convince you once we're in Amphipolis. One of the Persians she saved back then is now running the inn. His name is Tarik and he was nothing short of a boy when we fought them. We became friends while recovering from the Persian campaign. He took an arrow through his right shoulder and shattered his leg from a fall. I'm sure once he knows what happened he will be with us for the trip to the Amazons."
"Meleager, I really hope that you are right about your general but for the last decade or so, all my daughter showed to me was a heartless murderer and warlord, only interested in her own good, so please try to understand that I'm still reluctant to share your view."
"Tarik and Shirin will convince you, Cyrene, you'll see."
All in all Xena had had a most pleasant day - and she really was looking forward to dinner. In the central room a fire was blazing, Queen Melosa was sitting in front of it, wearing a white, sleeveless gown going down to her ankles, delicate leather sandals and a leather headband adorned with Artemis' moon. Tonight she wasn't the Queen, she was Artemis' Priestess, and Xena bowed to her befitting her social standing.
"Sit down, Xena. I'm sure you know that the festival of summer solstice only really begins with the offering to the Great Huntress, at moonrise on the first evening. There's partying before and lots of after but this ceremony is what it is really all about. It celebrates the time Artemis chose the Amazons as 'her' people. To mentally prepare for this celebration the priestess is required to spend the fourth night before the festival at the temple in prayer and silent vigil. In the past I always did this on my own but tonight I want you to go with me." Registering the expression of shock on Xena's face she relented. "This isn't an order, Xena, I just would appreciate your company."
"I'm honoured, Queen Melosa," the warrior answered choosing her words carefully, "it would be a pleasure to be at your side tonight. I'll willingly share the vigil and wait for you here or at my room but my presence at the temple only would insult the Goddess. My actions in the past certainly have, and more than once. I'm surprised she hasn't struck me down yet, she has ample opportunity when I'm at her house praying."
"I disagree, Xena. Two nights ago, I had a dream. I don't remember all the details but Artemis knows that you're on your path to redemption. She knows that you try to right at least part of the wrongs you did in your life. I'm sure she won't be insulted by your presence as she isn't insulted by the fact that your prayers are not directed to her. - There's something to eat on the dresser in your room, serve yourself if you choose to stay here. On your bed, you'll find something to wear when you're coming with me. You have half a candlemark to make your choice."
Xena silently stood, bowed once again, and closed the door to her room. She heavily leaned against it and released the breath she unconsciously had been holding.
On the bed there was as white tunic, a braided leather thong to put around the waist, leather sandals, and a two inches broad leather band to fasten around the left biceps. One had to look very closely to see that it wasn't plain but had on it a moon outlined with small holes pierced through it. It was the official outfit of a priestess' assistant. She closed her eyes and made her decision.
The next morning they left the temple at the first rays of dawn and Melosa asked. "You're up for a run? The long way around the ravine?"
They returned to the village in silence. The Queen and Priestess knew that the moon Goddess had visited Xena in a forceful vision and she was pretty sure that the dark haired woman now had a lot to think about.
After the run and a large morning meal the tall warrior asked to be allowed to do some repairs at the detention hut she would have to spend the nights and spare time in during the trial. At first, the Queen reclined the offer, the thought of someone repairing one's own prison was plainly odd, but Xena insisted. In the end, Queen Melosa sent the two craftswomen who just were preparing their tools to another assignment Akyra recently had talked her into.
The walls of the rarely used detention hut were still sturdy but some of the bars at the window were missing and the interior was in dire need of restoration, the two bolts closing the door also had to be replaced. In the afternoon while searching the supplies of the blacksmith for replacement material Xena came upon an oddly looking cart standing in the far corner of the backyard and an idea began to form. Later she asked the Queen for a quill and some pieces of parchment and started to sketch.
Soon the detention hut was as good as new and the neglected cart had been transformed into something resembling a chair but with wheels instead of legs. Around midday, Xena came into the infirmary. She didn't carry a lunch tray as she usually did but simply picked up her lover, carried her outside and gently lowered her onto the chair. At the back were handles to push it around but as Xena had hoped for Gabrielle quickly was able to move it around on her own. By aligning some small wheels and chains in a rather complicated looking pattern the tall woman had made it possible to handle the wheelchair one-handed, Gabrielle's right arm not being strong enough yet to be strained and her wrist still in a splint. It was strenuous but she now no longer was confined to the healer's hut all the time and she would be able to take part in the festival.
Together they went to the dining hut, Gabrielle was at her side when she put the last finishing touches to the detention hut and also stayed with her when she met with Ephiny. The day after the vigil she reluctantly had agreed to answer her lawyer's questions.
Chapter Five: The Festival
"Damn, damn, damn."
"What's wrong, Ep?", the Queen asked when the cursing warrior entered her own hut.
Eponin froze in mid-motion. It seemed weeks since Melosa last entered her hut. In fact, only a few days ago the Queen did spend the night with her but only to calm her down and keep her from killing Najara. But this wasn't exactly what she longed for. When the whole story with the former Conqueror began they both agreed consuming their sexual relationship would only lead to more conflicts and complications. So, they decided upon a period of chastity, but here she was, casually leaning against the backrest of the warrior's bed, and looking every inch the predator Eponin desired with all her heart.
"What's wrong, Ep?" The Queen repeated her question. "No, don't tell me now. Now there are more serious matters to attend to. Come here, and pleasure your Queen."
Within less than a heartbeat, one of the finest warriors of Amazon history was on the bed, on her knees between the widespread legs of the other woman. She pushed the leather skirt aside, and began to trace the muscular legs right and left of her with tender fingertips as if she soon wanted to sculpture them by the force of her passion.
"No, clasp your hands behind your back, you're only to use your mouth. Feed of me."
When the last wave of Melosa's climax finally subsided, she found herself in the warm embrace of her lover.
"Thank you for serving me."
"You're welcome. I missed you, my love." Eponin's voice was only a hint above a whisper, still raging with her own pent-up desire.
She tried to regain some self-control and finally said. "You better hurry back to your hut, Melosa. Your dinner and your slave are wait…" She fell silent in mid-sentence. "I'm sorry, I know there's nothing to be jealous of. Tell me what to do to atone, my love."
Melosa's head rested in the lap of the Amazon warrior, and so she had to stretch to reach the woman's cheek with the palm of her hand in a reassuring gesture.
"There's no need, Ep. It isn't easy for me either. I told Xena to spend the night in the healer's hut. I told her she should see it as a gift for the good work she did with the detention hut and I tried to convince myself that she simply should have the opportunity to spend some quality time with Gabrielle. Thania was moved the Anara's quarters. With the summer, festival and the trial this will be their last chance of being together. But while I was sitting here, waiting, I realised that I also did it for me. I couldn't stand being without you any longer. I longed for your voice whispering in my ear, your touch dancing on my skin. I couldn't stand waking up without your arms holding me tight, your scent in my nostrils. Yes, I know, even without Xena, this will always be a dream but tonight I need to forget all about the Queen, tonight I need to be your woman. Please."
Eponin's head bent down placing the most tender of kisses on Melosa's forehead. She stood up and slowly took off her leathers making sure to put on a show for her lover. She knelt next to the Queen on the bed, with the tip of her tongue brushing the outlines of Melosa's lips without actually kissing her. Her tongue descended to the chin following the jaw line to the neck. The almost imperceptible touches gradually were getting stronger near the pulse point. Eponin continued her teasing journey to the right shoulder where she unbuckled the straps of Melosa's leather top. Meanwhile the hands of the Queen tried to get a hold on Eponin's firm breasts but were stopped short mid-way.
"No, don't. I spent many sleepless nights dreaming about this, dreaming about playing with your beautiful body. Keep still, grab your right wrist with your left hand, and lower them just over your head. Don't straighten your arms; make yourself comfortable. Don't move. I will do all the work." The warrior's voice was gentle and low but there was no doubt who was in charge.
Melosa's whole body was tense with anticipation and desire when the dark haired woman began her teasing all over again, this time sliding down towards the left shoulder. Her tongue now retraced the outlines of the top, with her teeth unlacing the strap in the middle holding the two parts together. The leather triangles fell apart, revealing two round breasts erect with arousal. Eponin marvelled at the sight, and felt her own nipples harden even further. Her body craved for release but she resumed the gentle touches circling the right breast slowly narrowing the circles but never touching the nipples.
She withdrew, restarting her task on the left side, and when she once again withdrew Melosa moaned with need arching her back up from the mattress to prompt her lover to action. Eponin kept her distance not moving a single muscle until the Queen had repositioned herself on the bed. She bent forward lowering her upper body with her nipples touching the breasts of the other woman.
Once again, her tongue teased Melosa's lips and a moan escaped. After what to both of them seemed like a lifetime, Eponin for the second time completed her breast circling and then sucked vigorously on the left bud. Her own body now began to ache with need but she valiantly stuck to her plan. She concentrated her ministrations on the right side, gently scraping the sensitive skin with her teeth.
Melosa's breathing went ragged, her body once again tensed, and she whispered. "Take me now, take me hard, I need to…"
Her mouth efficiently was sealed with a demanding kiss, Eponin's breasts once again brushing against her taut nipples. Melosa looked at her lover with the eyes of a pleading puppy dog when she abruptly broke the kiss.
"You're so beautiful, my love, breath-taking, unique. You're worth waiting for, two-quarter moons, a year, a lifetime but you really need to learn patience. Tonight you're mine - mine alone. Don't move, don't speak, don't try to take over." The gentle voice gradually was getting colder and more commanding. "If you do so, only once, this game is over, then there will be no release for me, and you will be in my bed all alone." An expression of undisguised horror crossed Melosa's face. "I don't want you to come, not yet. You will wait for my order. Are you able to do this for me?"
The Queen swallowed hard, and formed an almost voiceless 'yes' as only answer.
"It will be easier for you when your hands and feet are restrained. Do you want to be immobilised?"
"No," Melosa answered, her voice still barely above a whisper, "I don't want to belittle your gift, 'cause now I know what you're trying to do tonight, my love. From now on, I will have a better grip on my reactions. I will humbly take all you are willing to give to me. You are the owner of my heart, my soul, my body. I'm yours, all yours."
Eponin closed her eyes to regain her composure, when she spoke her voice was husky with emotion. "I proudly accept your submission, Melosa. Please close your eyes, there's much left to explore, and now we have to start all over again."
Melosa, by her promise, was now more tightly bound than by leather straps or heavy chains but she had a hard time not to cry or beg when Eponin true to her words journeyed from her lips to her neck to her chest and finally resumed the careful nibbling on her swollen nipple, the right hand fondling the left breast. The warrior then proceeded downwards to the further exploration of Melosa's body with the tip of her powerful muscle while her fingers continued to play with the aching breasts.
An eternity later, she withdrew one of her hands to get rid of Melosa's skirt. She positioned her own body between the wide-spread legs of the woman she loved, her tongue teasingly sliding on the outside of the right leg, circling around the kneecap, continuing down to the toes and painstakingly sucking and licking all of them. To re-ascent on the inside of the limb she took even more time, stopping short of Melosa's pubic zone, carefully avoiding the very area the Queen's soul silently begged to be touched at. Starting with the belly button, she repeated the delicious torture with the left leg and thigh, spending some quality time with the royalty branding. Each of her thumbs almost casually, randomly flicking against a proudly pointed nipple.
Only then, Eponin began to explore the folds of Melosa's visibly throbbing centre. She used her right hand to part the nether lips, and hungrily attacked the clit - and for a fraction of a heartbeat lost her, self-control. The blood pulsating through this bundle of nerves heightened her desire, and two of her fingers found their way in the dripping wetness of the Queen's sex. A third was added thrusting to and thro' carefully avoiding to create any kind of rhythm.
The muscles around her fingers tightened, Melosa definitively was on the edge. Eponin pulled them out, and felt the shudders coursing through Melosa's whole body. She posed her pubic bone on top of Melosa's, clitoris touching clitoris, her own wetness drenching her lover. Her upper body carefully was lowered over the Queen's torso, breast touching breast, and her hips began a slow rhythmic grinding movement. Her mouth found Melosa's who now was tasting herself on the other woman's lips. When they finally broke the kiss to catch their breaths, the Amazon warrior whispered.
"Now, come for me, come with me."
Melosa's arms flew away from the pillow and grabbed Eponin's shoulders, her fingers clutching into the soft skin below, her own back arching high while waves of pleasure run through every part of her body, only candledrops later beginning to ease off. When her senses slowly reaffirmed themselves, she once again found herself lovingly surrounded by Eponin's strong arms, her head resting against the chest of the warrior. Peace and contentment filled Melosa's heart when she slowly drifted in Morpheus' realm.
The weapons' master didn't sleep; she draped a blanket over the sleeping body and relished the moment. She eagerly drank in the features of her lover, astonished and delighted at the change sleep always brought, the strained lines in the corner of her eyes relaxed almost into invisibility and a genuine smile slowly reshaped her lips. Soon the woman in her arms again would be her Queen, burdened with the duties of leadership; and a Queen - Eponin was convinced - has to be independent. The tribe, the nation had to take precedent over personal feelings and emotional longings. A Queen simply couldn't afford being distracted.
Lost in her aimless musings the weapons' master missed the slight change in Melosa's breathing, and nearly jumped at the sudden question. "What were you cursing about, Ep?"
"It was nothing, love. Just miffed at myself, rather silly, really. No need to make a big fuss about it."
"Spill it, Ep."
"I had to cut short the sparring sessions because of the festival preparations. There was nothing to do for me, so I took a long bath, and then decided to work on my whipping techniques. A strap, birches or even a cane are okay but with this single tailed monster I always feel sort of self-conscious."
Melosa realised how difficult it must have been for the proud warrior to admit to these insecurities, even to her lover. "You did a good job on Xena, the welts were gone after less than two days."
Eponin smiled. "I know, Xena told me so, but I also know that they hurt a great deal. And I'll have to do it again at the beginning of the trial; it's only three days 'til then. I tried to find a move or a twist that leaves marks but inflicts less pain."
"Did you come up with something?" Melosa asked, silently pleased with the friendly bond the two warriors were developing.
"Not really. I used the dead tree trunk north of the training grounds as target when Xena passed by. She can handle a whip probably better than anyone else. Never before, I saw such proficiency, and she taught me a great deal. I now know how to skin one's back with just a few strokes, how to break the skin with every blow, how to curl the tail around a target, making an impact on the whole body and still only leaving a tiny mark in the middle of the back. It all depends upon angle, speed, and wrist flexibility. But I really hope that I don't have to put any of this to use. There's this stroke she demonstrated, it doesn't leave a straight mark like all the others but something resembling a half-circle. It looked easy enough when she did it but I just didn't get it right. When she left to tend to Gabrielle two candlemarks later, I kept on trying but it wasn't any good. That's what I was cursing about."
"I'm sure next time you will get it right, love." Melosa answered and continued with mock severity. "And so the weapons' master of the Amazon nation let a slave get away with using a whip, a whip still is considered a weapon, isn't it?"
The slight banter in the Queen's voice was completely lost on Eponin. "It wasn't used as a weapon, my Queen, and we didn't have an audience either. I'm probably guilty of irresponsibility but please don't punish Xena."
"I was joking, Ep. But knowing Xena, she by now certainly has prepared a report about this little session. She always tries to hide the gentle and selfless things that seem to come so natural to her but she is more than severe regarding her occasional shortcomings or transgressions. I don't have to do it on a regular basis but when I really have to met out a punishment, it's always amazing to watch."
"I remember. At the ceremony, when she refused to be tied up, I thought she was arrogantly overestimating her willpower. I was wrong. Her whole body seemed to relax just before the impact of the stroke; she didn't even flinch though it certainly aggravated the throbbing of her cracked rib. Her pain barrier must be extremely high."
"I never saw a back that scarred. She must have been through a lot. I asked her how she got them after the collaring ceremony but she didn't answer."
"The day we were fishing, I asked her about them, when the others were gone and she was catching fish with these fluid movements of hers, one can see the muscles moving underneath her skin. I asked her what she did to deserve such a punishment. She said that every time she misjudged someone she'd paid for it with her blood. I didn't understand, so she told me that about five years ago her second in command had decided that he would be better suited to run her army and most of the men agreed. They made her run the gauntlet, Melosa."
"She survived a gauntlet? That's more than astonishing but I shouldn't be surprised. Sometimes I think that if she really wanted to there'd be nothing that she couldn't accomplish. She's hard to read; I really don't know what fuels her actions now. Four years ago when we met to sign, the peace treaty at the Centaur village there was a relentless energy surrounding her, a jumpiness. It was as if she were always on the edge, always on the run. This Xena is different. It may sound crazy but I think the slave collar makes her feeling free and contend. There still is a great deal of dark energy ready to come to life every moment. It was almost tangible when she told me about this whole mess with Najara."
A sudden wave of white-hot fury washed through Eponin's body hearing this name but it quickly subsided when the Queen protectively put her hands on top of her tightly closed fists.
"When I see her in the village, interacting with the others, from time to time she is really hard pressed holding her temper and it must be awfully difficult for her but when she kneels in front of me, there is a confidence around her as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It must be difficult to follow orders instead of giving them but she does it with grace. I don't want to condemn her to death, Ep."
The Amazon warrior hugged Melosa closer and kissed her on the forehead. "I know, love, and I don't want to be her executioner but we will do it if the jury so decides. I don't say that I really understand why she submits to this trial but I know for sure that we have to respect the path she has chosen. She saved Thania and without her fighting skills and the men of the First Order, there would have been a lot more casualties on the battlefield. But perhaps in due time we will find another solution. As long as there is life there is hope."
"Warrior philosophy. No, I will have to find a very good reason for not killing her. It will be relatively easy to deal with the infringements of the peace treaty. Helping us out against her army and tending to our wounded should scale these balances. But today, coming from another village, multiple murder and profanation of holy ground was added to the list of charges. There weren't any details but even Ephiny will need nothing short of a god given inspiration to get her out of this alive. I have to find a way. I can't understand why she wants to die."
"Xena loves Gabrielle, body and soul, she doesn't want to die, but she has to go through with the trial out of self-esteem. She has every reason to live but she also knows that she cannot start anew without dealing with her past first. To conquer one's self is to know the way, I heard her saying to Thania the other day. I think that's what she's trying to do at the moment. And all we can do about it, is to hope and to wait."
Eponin easily could feel the grim determination of the Queen to somehow save her former enemy, and to lighten the mood of her lover after some candledrops of shared silence she asked while nibbling her left earlobe. "Are you still mine, Melosa? Are your ready to play, love?"
A smile crossed the face of the Queen, a callused finger slid up and down her left biceps leaving goose bumps at its passage. "Is there something special you have in mind, my warrior?"
"The nights were rather long and boring without you, my love, so: yes, I do. The question is: Are you up to it, beloved? It probably will be more demanding than last time."
"Stop being condescending, Ep. Not so long ago I had the impression it was you who lost control and began to rush things up. So yes, I'm up to it."
When she saw the feral grin of her lover, she knew she was busted, stumbling open-eyed in her trap. "You asked for it, you'll get it, love. - Turn around, stretch your arms above your head, grab the bars of the headboard, and don't let go. Spread your legs, wider, that's it, close your eyes."
The surface of the bed shifted when Eponin stood up and went to her dresser, there was the scraping sound of wood on wood as drawers were opened and closed. Bare footsteps returned to the bed whose surface once again shifted.
"Please don't regard it as a matter of distrust, I know you can keep your eyes shut," Eponin whispered in her ear when she blindfolded her with a piece of soft fabric, "but you will need all your other senses and all the considerable power of concentration I know you possess. You can't afford being distracted, love." Trepidation and anticipation likewise showed their heads in Melosa's mind. "We will begin nice and slow with a simple back rub."
The mattress once again shifted, and Melosa knew that Eponin now would settle herself between her legs, the knees tightly pressing in her thighs. She tried to open them wider, only to find herself straddled, Eponin's weight partly resting on her own knees, partly on the buttocks of her lover. A cold liquid was now dropping on her back along the spine. She waited for powerful hands kneading her muscles but nothing happened. The oil slowly seemed to heat up creating a tingling sensation not wholly agreeable. A second line was added crossing from shoulder blade to shoulder blade, intensifying the odd sensation. Eponin's words obviously were no idle threats.
When the hands of her lover finally touched her, it was with the delicate, yet firm pressure the crafts women use to create the Amazon masks. The thumbs slid from her lower back towards the neck, where the two lines crossed they began a mirrored circling motion. A set of fingers on either side of her body meanwhile flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed matching her breathing. The circles slowly grew bigger and soon Melosa lost track of what exactly her lover was doing. She only knew that her whole back was consumed by a sensuous flame sending a line of fire to her sex. Fingertips brushed the sensitive skin under her armpits and a voice whispered. "Come for me, now!"
Melosa released the breath she unconsciously had been holding and the flames rushed from her back right to her centre letting it explode with a powerful thrust of her hips still blocked under Eponin's weight. She slowly relaxed and her muscles went limb when the hands adopted a more soothing pattern.
"This was the first course if your dinner, my beloved. What do you want me to do now?"
"May I have the second course, mistress?"
"So be it, now you may spread your legs a little wider, as wide as you can and still be comfy."
Eponin knelt between the thighs of her lover. Her knees two fingers away from Melosa's skin. Once again, she felt oil dripping on her skin, coating both of her buttocks. She waited for the warmth and the odd tingling but it didn't come. Instead, the cool liquid grew even colder, and inadvertently the whole set of her gluteal muscles cramped. A firm hand landed on her behind, leaving it stinging, and she let loose.
"That's my girl, relax; take your time."
Eponin's hands now traded feather-like touches with firm kneading, the rhythm once again matching her breathing. Imperceptibly coldness changed to warmth, and then turned to heat, her breathing quickened. Another sharp slap landed on her cheeks.
"Relax, love, stay in line. This isn't a race, it's a journey."
The hands resumed their ministrations never changing neither the rhythm nor the movement but instead of lulling her to sleep, her already hard nipples became stone and her blood once again rushed to her centre. She suddenly felt empty. Her inner muscles clenched, and the effort to relax them only made her tighten her back cheeks. Three stinging blows were the only answer, inducing her to relax. Eponin's hands returned to her task, and when the tension became too strong, Melosa lost her composure.
"Please, mistress, may I come? It's unbearable; I can't stand it any longer. Please, let me come."
"Not yet, love, you're doing fine. It won't take much longer, trust me."
The weapons' master continued her game of firm kneading and teasing touches. After what seemed to Melosa like a lifetime the touches stopped and the kneading was increased in intensity and pace. Her bottom was on fire but her centre was blazing and all her rational thoughts were gone. She was bursting with need. The hands abruptly came to a stop, she felt the blow of a strap, and at the same time, the one word she desperately, endlessly had waited for. "Now!"
The first wave of release hit her with unique force; a second stroke with the strap brought forth a new wave before the first one had had even the chance to subside. She arched her backside literally in the third blow and another forceful outburst of juices drenched the blankets. Two more made her cry with pleasure and pain, tears soaking the blindfold. She felt Eponin's wet mound on the now over sensitive skin of her bottom, her weight on her back and taut nipples pressing against her shoulder blades, and there was a low, soothing voice slowly penetrating the fog of her consciousness.
"I'm proud of you, so proud, my love. You took all I had to give. I'm so proud, my beautiful, calm down now, calm down while I wash away the sweat, and put some aloe on the strap marks. I love you."
"Love you, too." Melosa managed to whisper. Eponin returned with a cloth soaked in warmed water, ran it all over Melosa's body, and dried her up with an extremely soft towel. She gently and cautiously coated her backside with aloe salve to reduce the stinging and speed up the healing process.
"Turn around now, love. Grab the headboard. I will wash your front side."
And so she did, the slight touches of the towel hardened her nipples all over again. When Eponin finally had finished her task, she felt the renewed wetness between her thighs and was more than ready to ask for more but her voice betrayed her. The weapons' master offered a water skin to her and supported her shoulders when she insisted on keeping her hands on the backrest.
"Thank you, mistress. May I also have the third course?"
"Third course for you, sweets for me. I want to break your soft skin with my teeth, I want to mark you as mine and mine alone. I need your permission to do this."
"Yes, mistress. I'll wear your mark with pride. Please do it when I'm at the peek of a climax, so my pleasure will be heightened as it was before."
"That's what I had in mind, love. And now I will touch you with my voice."
Eponin's voice dropped lower, by this alone adding an undercurrent of sensuality. The usually silent and stoic warrior expertly described in loving detail what had happened earlier this night, painting Melosa's aroused body with adoration: the way the muscles under her soft skin shivered with need, her eyelashes flattered, her nipples trembled, and her clitoris pulsated. Soon it was more than a memory, it was what she had before her eyes.
While further arousing her lover she made the final adjustments to the leather harness she wore and strapped a phallus on. She coated the leather-clad wooden stick with some lubricant and in a smooth movement filled Melosa's sex, slowly gliding in and out. She maintained the pace until Melosa's throat escaped a sound halfway between moan and purr. She could feel Melosa's body trying to arch into every thrust but she just continued her controlled movements. Her right arm steadied the hips of her lover while her left hand was teasing the Queen's breasts. Eponin felt the tension building in the trim, evenly muscled body beneath her. Both of her hands now guided Melosa's hips, her own body barely moving, and all the time she described to the still blindfolded woman what she was doing and seeing.
Melosa meanwhile was far beyond rational thought and more than ready to let go. The low, sensual voice of the weapons' master suddenly stopped, the movements of her hips were halted with incredible strength, the phallus slowly removed almost to the tip, and the whispered order "Come!" finally brought her over the edge. When the aftershocks of her first climax began to subside the phallus resumed its grinding movements and she was swallowed by a second wave. Her whole body now was covered with the body of her lover, a tongue demanded and was granted entrance in her mouth, a forceful kiss followed and once again she heard the command: "Come!"
And so the Queen did. Eponin continued pumping in and out, immediately building up anther climax. The moment it hit the mouth found a proudly protruding breast and bit hard, bringing her over the edge in a powerful explosion of sensations, a hair's breath away from sensual overload. She barely managed to pull the phallus out and quit the harness before collapsing next to her lover.
Melosa rolled over and planted a tender kiss on Eponin's lips. "Thank you, mistress. Thank you, my love. I like you being in charge, we'd better try this more often." Then they snuggled together, legs and arms intertwined, and mere heart beats later they were fast asleep.
Eponin and Melosa awoke to the sound of a village bustling with activity, the sun already well up in the sky. Everybody from the elders to the children was busy to lay a last hand to the festival preparations. Gabrielle was sitting in her wheelchair with Thania nearby and helped the younger children to make flower chains for the evening's ceremony. Xena and half of Melosa's royal guard were stacking logs near the fire pits for the celebration afterwards and were arranging the tables and benches for dinner.
When the scouts announced the imminent arrival of the first guests Melosa took Xena to her hut to change. The tall warrior assisted her in putting on her royal leathers and helped fastening all the beads and feathers mandatory to Amazon regalia, the mask, and staff were waiting on the desk. While Melosa was fussing with her hair Xena took off her leather dress and changed into plain Amazon leathers, a skirt ending mid-thigh and a top leaving very little to the imagination, matching dark brown wrist bands and braided thongs for the upper arms completed the outfit. Instead of boots or sandals Xena, choose to go barefooted. The leathers displayed her muscles and when they went to the council's hut, she got more than one admiring glance.
They entered only candledrops before the first guests. The council of elders and the military leaders were present as well as the representatives of the crafts. The Queen took her seat on the dais erected in the middle of the hut. As tradition commanded Xena knelt at the left side of the Queen, eyes fixed to the ground.
With the first group all passed as it should have. Xena played her part and seemed completely oblivious of her surroundings while the leader of the delegation exchanged formal greetings with the Queen before being escorted to the guest quarters.
"What do you think about them, Xena?"
"A mountain tribe, hunters, horse breeders, they're as tough as their little horses. The leader is very young for her position. I suppose she was named weapons' master no longer than three moons ago, nevertheless I'm sure she has earned it. She's self-confident but lacks the arrogance of the untested. She was nervous and didn't know what to expect of a Queen who holds the Conqueror of Greece and Rome as a slave without restraining this enemy with heavy chains. The two guards are older and more experienced than the weapons' master but they respect their commanding officer. They try not to judge any of us without having more information but are somewhat intrigued as are the two elders. I suppose they don't know what happened here. Perhaps it would be a good idea to call a meeting as soon as all the guests have arrived and give them the details."
The Queen nodded and the next group entered the room consisting of four warriors and an elder. The guests bowed and went down on their right knees.
"Greetings and obedience to you, Melosa, Queen of the Amazon nation, venerable leader of the Greek Amazons and Priestess to Artemis, the Great. I, Novalia, leader of the eastern coastal village, humbly demand your hospitality."
"Greetings and protection to you, Novalia, leader of the eastern coastal village, honoured for her courage and perseverance. I, Melosa, Queen of the Amazon nation, willingly grant hospitality to you and your warriors." Melosa left the dais, pushed back her mask, and pulled the older woman in a heartfelt hug. "I'm happy to see you again, aunt, it's been too long. I know you don't like to leave your village during the winter season but you also missed the spring solstice. I was worried."
"I'm well aware of your concern, Melosa, but my messages should have reassured you. We had some trouble with pirates. They sported the Conqueror's colours but I know her obsession with quality and she never would have someone this stupid and sloppy pilot one of her ships. There were about twenty ships but only three of them showed decent sailsmanship, however it took some time to hunt them down."
Meanwhile one of the warriors had slowly made her way towards Xena who still seemed to ignore her surroundings. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement; the warrior fell on her back and a dagger clattered to the ground. The Amazon scrambled to her feet and had her hand at her sword while Xena had assumed a defensive stance.
"Stop it, Silea, immediately."
"But, Novalia, it's my right to take her life. Two years ago she offended my honour, it's my right to get satisfaction."
"Tell me, Silea, did you ever record your claim? Was it ever confirmed by an Amazon jury?"
"No, my Queen, she isn't an Amazon, so it wasn't necessary."
"She's a woman, so it would have been necessary. When she offended your honour, did she draw your blood?"
"No, Novalia, she didn't."
"No. - Well in this case no jury would have granted your claim. Your actions have offended our hosts and you will apologise to Queen Melosa."
The young woman nodded and knelt in front of the Queen. "Queen Melosa, I apologise for my behaviour and will gratefully accept every punishment you see fit."
Melosa turned to Xena who reassumed her earlier position. "Xena do you think that I have to be offended by her actions towards my slave?"
"No, mistress, no harm was done."
"The Queen accepts your apologies though I don't believe them to be sincere. Disciplinarian authority goes back to Novalia."
"Silea, your actions embarrassed me in front of our tribe leader, so all shall know your punishment. You're assigned to maintenance duty of our quarters for our whole time here. You may go now."
"Thank you, Novalia, I humbly accept the punishment." The warrior gathered her dagger and left in the company of her three colleagues.
"Xena, tell me about this incident. What did you do to offend this Amazon's honour?"
Xena exchanged a quick glance with Melosa and answered the older woman's question. "Venerable Novalia, I honestly doubt that Silea would appreciate my telling of this story. It's something that didn't occur within the boundaries of Amazon territory and it only regards her and me. So, I'd rather not answer your question."
"Considering your knowledge of Amazon pride and honour, did you do anything to offend her?"
"I'd really prefer not to answer this question either, Queen Melosa."
"So, I have no choice. Novalia please tell the warrior Silea that she is free to present her case as a charge in Xena of Amphipolis' impending trial."
"I will, my Queen."
The next group was expected in about one and a half candlemarks and so they decided to get something to eat. Xena went in search of Gabrielle who had yet to see her new attire; Melosa and her aunt retired to the Queen's hut. They ate in silence.
"The Conqueror has changed."
"Yes, she has. She isn't the Conqueror any more. I forgot that you know each other. You joint forces to fight the Persian navy some years ago, isn't it?"
"That's what the Conqueror told her army leaders when we got back but it isn't the truth. The truth is she saved our hides with one of the most amazing sailing manoeuvres I've ever seen or will ever see. We were outnumbered and on the run when she attacked and turned our flight in a full-out attack. She saved the day and our lives."
"What makes you think, she has changed?"
"Five years ago Silea would have died from her own dagger in her heart. And I'm sure Xena knows that she has the law on her side. Even a slave has the right to defend herself. I could see that she had some difficulties to stay calm but the dark energy permeating from the Conqueror has gone."
"What do you think happened between her and Silea, Nova?"
"I don't know for sure but it certainly had to do with the Conqueror's campaign against Rome. At the time, we had a lot of problems with Roman slavers, and when the Conqueror needed archers for her ships, many of the younger warriors volunteered. The ones who came back did so with lots of Roman gold and many stories. Silea was one of them but she never talked about her time with the army. She definitively has a problem to keep her temper. What ever happened I sincerely doubt that she will press charges."
There was a knock at the door and one of the guards let them know that the next group was bound to arrive.
The last group arrived three and a half candlemarks before sunset. When the older of the two women began to speak unnoticed by the others the Queen saw Xena's body tensing. After the formal greetings, the younger woman spoke up.
"Queen Melosa, my name is Chandala. I was a warrior's apprentice to the weapons' master of Queen Cyane's tribe. I humbly ask to be named prosecutor in the trial against Xena of Amphipolis. I want to see her die for the things she did to my sisters and I will do everything in the law to achieve this goal."
"Look at me, young warrior." Melosa studied her face closely whose expression hardened whenever her eyes found Xena. "I am grateful for your offer, Chandala. To you this is obviously a personal issue thus; the law demands that one has to be an experienced lawyer. Do you have any juridical experience?"
"No, Queen Melosa, I don't but Theano does. She has been a lawyer for more than 30 summers. She offered to act as my adviser and partner during the trial should you grant my wish. She said she would try and balance the hate I have for the Conqueror."
"Theano, do you also think that Xena has to die?"
"I don't know yet, my Queen. The trial will shed light on her actions and she will rightfully die if found guilty of rape, murder or treason. I don't have any personal ties to the Conqueror but you have to know that I'm a friend of Xena's mother Cyrene. I've known Xena since she was a little girl and I don't want to see her die."
"Can you sincerely say that your personal feelings won't influence your perception of the facts, Theano?"
"I will be as objective as humanly possible. Chandala and I will balance each other and together we should be able to do the job."
"So be it. Chandala, I grant your wish but Theano has the seniority and you will act as her assistant."
"May I have a word in private with your slave, my Queen?"
"Yes, I won't need her for the next two candlemarks at least. You may retire to my hut."
Xena stood, bowed to the Queen, and left the council's hut without meeting the older woman's eyes. They entered the Queen's quarters and the tall warrior led her to her room where she made her taking a seat on the bed. "Talk to me, little one. Let me see your eyes."
Twenty-five years older than the former Conqueror, Theano stood about five foot seven tall, the different shades of gray the only sign of her age while her slender but muscular body bore witness to the fact that she still could hold her own in a fight.
Xena shut the door, knelt in front of the Amazon lawyer, and buried her face in the older woman's hands. Her eyes were closed when she many heartbeats later raised her head. She opened them slowly to see tears glistening in Theano's eyes. "I missed you, Xena."
"The child you loved is not back yet, perhaps it never will be. What I did merits death a thousand times over, and I'm ready to pay this prize though now I have every reason to live. You always told me that one day I would find the one person my heart belongs to. Now I want you to meet the woman whose spirit illuminates my soul and whose love gives me the strength to go through with all of this. This trial is basically for her. I want her to know what kind of woman I am, what I am capable of. I want her to know that I don't deserve her love."
"You never take the easy way out, don't you?"
"This is the easy way out. It's the coward's way out because in all probability I won't have to live with my guilt any longer, Theano."
"I'll make sure that you get the punishment you crave, little one, but I'll also do everything I can, not to see you die. Whatever you did, you're no murderer. I know you better than this and I'll get the jury to see it too. Do you remember the last time we met?"
"Two summers ago. You were visiting with mother, I had to replace half of the palace guards after you were able to sneak into my private rooms."
"I wasn't able to sneak up to you, however. But that's not what I'm talking about. I was afraid that your desire for revenge would not only endanger the campaign but also your life. I was ready to kill you to save your soul. I'm glad I was wrong."
"You weren't wrong and it was your duty to try and stop me. When Caesar challenged me to single combat, the army already had occupied the city, the war was over, the senate had surrendered. A complete victory. It would have been easy to get him arrested and to put him on a cross just like I said I would all these years ago. But when I faced him I suddenly knew that the whole campaign wasn't about him and me but about the security of Greece. Rome was a threat just as the Persians were, a threat that had to be eliminated. There was no hate left in my heart."
"A single combat? I heard Caesar was killed by his fellow senators."
"I answered the challenge but his skills were more in commanding than fighting. He overbalanced a side sweep and stumbled into the ranks of his peers. I'm not sure why they did it but when he tried to get up to resume the fight, they stabbed him. So, I didn't murder Caesar but I'm still responsible for a lot of deaths and a lot of pain, Theano. I don't deserve your concern but I appreciate it. Please let me introduce you to Gabrielle. She will need a friend after the trial."
After sundown most of the adult members of the tribe went to the temple while Gabrielle, Xena and some others stayed in the village with the children and apprentices. The children who over the last quarter moons had become accustomed to her stories soon surrounded Gabrielle. While she lanced herself in the first story, Xena's mind drifted back to the day she learned that the blonde scribe in reality was a very skilled storyteller.
Some days after they became lovers Gabrielle was late for lunch and Xena went in search of her. The servants directed her to the communal kitchens. The young woman was sitting on a bench, seven children at her feet and all the adults eavesdropping.
She told a story of a boy who saved the children of a dragon and subsequently also saved his village. Xena listened to the story from behind a thick pillar and couldn't resist the enticing voice shaping words into living images. The Conqueror loved to listen to these stories that taught the children about honesty and friendship and loyalty and love.
One day, about half a moon later, she decided to open up her library to the palace's children, and Gabrielle was thrilled to teach them how to read and write. In the afternoons, Xena sometimes sneaked up on them and contentedly observed the flush of concentration on the young faces and the inner glow coming from Gabrielle.
A voice brought her back to the here and now. "I'm sorry, Theano, I was thinking, no, daydreaming. What did you say?"
"Gabrielle just asked why the celebration of summer solstice is so very important to the Amazon nation and I told her that it commemorates the time Artemis decided to become the patron goddess of the Amazons. I want you to tell this story to her and to the rest of us."
"This story should best be told by an Amazon. And I'm not sure I remember all the details. Why don't you do it, my se… Theano?"
"Don't think, just do it, little one. We both know that there's nothing wrong with your recollection. You know the story can only be told tonight."
Xena nodded, not quite sure why the older woman was this insistent. "I'm not as good at telling stories as Gabrielle is but I'll try my very best. It's a rather long story so you all better get comfortable.
"Many, many generations ago, when the Amazon nation still was young, they prayed to Gaia, the mother of the earth and the sky, mother of humans and gods alike. Artemis also was still young and Zeus just had named her the Goddess of the Hunt because that's what she loved doing. She spent her days hunting and her nights waiting for her lover but more often than not she was waiting in vain. Artemis was very much in love with Athena, her older sister, and Athena loved Artemis with all her heart but the Goddess of Wisdom and the Arts of War had a strong sense of responsibility and thus was very scrupulous in fulfilling her duties. So, the two lovers couldn't spend as much time with each other as both of them desired. They were gods but they weren't free to do as they liked and their time together was measured in candlemarks.
"Artemis had a hard time to accept Athena's commitment to duty and sometimes their quality time was wasted with endless arguments and tears instead of love and joy. One night they had a very heated discussion and the young Huntress ran away, shouting that she never wanted to see Athena again. She raced through the forest blinded by her own tears. At the break of dawn, she stumbled with exhaustion and finally collapsed under an old oak tree.
"A female voice roused her from her sleep. It said. ›Hello, my name is Pallas. Do you need any help?‹ Artemis looked into her eyes but she didn't know what to say. No, that's not right, she wanted to answer that she longed to go home and that she was wrong to argue with her lover and that she wanted to feel her in her arms again - but she had no voice. Her lips moved but there was no sound and she began to get very frightened.
"The strange woman took her by the hand. A simple leather thong held her long brightly red hair; she was almost as tall as Artemis herself, she carried bow and quiver, a hunting knife tucked in her belt. Her eyes were of a warm dark brown and she was smiling. The smile reassured the goddess and she followed her. It was early in the morning when they began their journey and the sun was setting when they reached the village.
"Pallas knelt in front of her Queen and was granted permission to offer hospitality to the strange silent woman who looked at her surroundings with a mixture of awe, curiosity and something bordering to fear. When Artemis was sleeping in Pallas' bed next to her hostess, she had a dream with her lover and her grandmother standing side by side, telling her that she now was a mortal and that she had to live a mortal's life and love in order to learn her lesson.
"The next morning, Pallas prompted her to write down her name and she was more than tempted to give her the real name but when the quill touched the parchment the word 'Temi' appeared instead.
"Artemis wasn't a goddess any longer but she still was a very skilled hunter. Almost unbeatable at reading tracks and finding her prey. Her arrows always found their target, they died fast, and no animal had to suffer unnecessarily from an ill-placed shot. In the past, she'd always hunted alone but Pallas taught her the sign language the Amazon hunting parties had developed. Thus, she soon was able to do at least some talking with the other women.
"The former Goddess of the Hunt rather easily settled into her new life and the dream about the lesson to learn soon was forgotten. Temi and Pallas shared their days and nights, they became the best friends. The until then restless Amazon hunter found herself looking forward to their quiet evenings in front of the fire place when soft touches and gentle kisses became their language of choice.
"At first Artemis tried to resist the physical attraction she felt for her beautiful friend but as days turned into half moons she had to admit to herself that she not only reacted to her perfect body but also to her soul, and she remembered the dream telling her that she had to live a mortal life and mortal love. She still was deeply in love with Athena however; her sister filled a part of her soul and probably always would. Her body ached for the knowing touch of the raven-haired goddess but at the same time she was completely satisfied by the attentions, she received from her Amazon lover. It took her a whole season to come to term with these emotions but finally she accepted that her feelings for Athena were in no way harmed or diminished by what she now was experiencing with Pallas and vice versa.
"One day her marksmanship brought Temi to the attention of the Amazon Queen. The Queen insisted that she changed posts from the hunters to the army; she was to improve the archery skills of the warriors and to teach them how to fight from the tops of the trees. Pallas unsuccessfully tried to be transferred to the warriors also. From now on the two lovers had to cope with totally different schedules and weren't able to spend as much time with each other as both of them desired. Artemis painfully was reminded of her arguments with Athena.
"This time it somehow never occurred to her that she simply could sneak away from her duties to spend some quality time with her lover as she had suggested to her sister many times. This time she also was to blame for ruined dinners and missed dates, and sometimes both of them were too exhausted to do more than snuggle together and enjoy each other's nearness.
"Temi accepted her new responsibility as did Pallas though neither of them knew that the Queen was reacting to a real threat to the nation in intensifying the hunting and the drills. They had to prepare for a war against an army that outnumbered them more than two to one. This army was well trained and well led by a man named Cantor who could call himself Ares' Chosen.
"The night before the battle Artemis once again had a dream but this time it was only Gaia talking to her. She said. 'My child, you've learned that love and duty can go together even if the time with your love is cut short. You've learned your lesson, why do you still stay amongst these mortals?' Artemis answered. 'Grandmother, I've learned the lesson, that's true, and I miss Athena badly but I am bound by love to this mortal realm. I was selfish not to feel the depths of Athena's love and I was selfish to feel threatened by her dedication to duty. Someday I will regain her trust but if I leave now, I would act towards Pallas as I did towards Athena. I'm sorry.' Gaia asked if there wasn't something else bothering her. And Artemis answered. 'You were always able to see right in my heart, grandmother. This warlord, he is said to be Ares' chosen, I'm worried about my Amazon sisters and I would gladly challenge Hades himself to keep them all safe. Would it change the end of this war if I reclaimed my godhood now? If not I'd rather fight at their side as a mortal among mortals.'
"Gaia's voice was sad when she told her that nothing could stop this war and that some of her friends and sisters would die the next day, no matter what. She said. 'Though the fates weave the threads of life even they have to obey the pattern of life itself when cutting, creating or intertwining them. Whatever you choose to do, remember, if this mortal body dies before you decide to go back the goddess also dies. Choose well, my child.' The voice of Gaia gone, Artemis found herself back in the arms of her mortal lover and her decision was made.
"It was the longest day of the year and Temi readied herself for battle, the third day in a row, leaving the precarious shelter of her tree top bivouac. The day before they'd managed to put the enemy's assault forces to a halt, Queen Hippolyta's hit and run strategy finally paying off. Cantor's men began to retreat to a big clearing just outside of Amazon territory and began to hole themselves in. The Queen tried to challenge Cantor to single combat but he backed off. The archers kept firing and the Amazon sword fighters were slowly advancing when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by Cantor's reinforcements, realising too late that they had walked into a well-prepared trap. Pallas alerted the royal guards with a birdcall but the Queen already was attacked from three sides. The two lovers were in the middle of the fight, having discarded their bows in favour of swords, fighting back to back with the Queen. Cantor pushed his advantage and tried to isolate Queen Hippolyta from the rest of the Amazon fighters.
"Suddenly Temi's senses picked up the distinct hissing of a crossbow-fired arrow and reacted on pure instinct. Her blade reflected the first bolt and she caught the second with her left hand. A third found its way in her right shoulder causing her to drop the sword. Something knocked her to the ground when a fourth was only inches away from her heart. She hit the ground with her injured shoulder and a wave of pain washed through her body. There was blood everywhere and a familiar weight was pinning her to the ground. It was then that she realised where the blood was coming from.
"Pallas had shielded her from the forth arrow with her own body. Her breathing was shallow but there was a smile on her face when she looked into her eyes. Temi held her lover tightly while the arrows continued without finding their target. With her last strength, Pallas whispered. 'Love you so much, protect them.' Temi placed a gentle kiss on the cooling lips of her mortal lover determined to do all in her power to keep the warrior women save, and when she looked up she saw Ares himself a crossbow in his hands. A wave of white-hot fury washed over her and she began to cut her way through the enemy soldiers towards her brother, oblivious of the hits she received herself.
"A voice all of a sudden was next to her, it said. 'Grandmother is waiting for you, my love. You have to live to protect them, Ares is mine to deal with.' Artemis' mortal body collapsed and she found herself at the edge of the clearing, protectively wrapped in Gaia's arms. The Amazons who now were easily dispatching the remnants of Cantor's army saw their Queen finally facing the warlord himself. They didn't know at the time that this wasn't a battle mortal against mortal. Ares now was fighting in Cantor's body and Athena in Hippolyta's.
"Sister was fighting brother and for the first time in history a god was fighting a god in earnest. Ares soon had to admit that he was largely outclassed. Every single one of his thrusts and strokes was deftly redirected against him and though he used a mortal's body, he certainly could feel the blows. The God of War was no match to Athena's speed and superior swordplay. He was swept from his feet, a sword pierced his heart, and he felt the anguish of dying. When Ares regained consciousness, his sister was looking down at him. She said. 'Dear brother, if you ever interfere like this again, I'll use your own sword to gut you. What you did was without honour and the act of a coward, not of a god. Get out of my eyes before I forget the promise I made to father and kill you right now.'
"Ares disappeared in a blue flash and Athena turned to Gaia and Artemis. The Goddess of the Hunt made a tentative step towards her and quickly was enfolded in strong arms. The voice that only moments before had been icy and filled with contempt now was deep and soft, loving and caressing. Though Pallas' death had left a blank space in Artemis' heart with her immortal lover, she once again felt whole and safe.
"The funeral ceremony for the fallen warriors took place the next day. Both goddesses were there when Pallas' pyre was lit. Athena chose this instant to give a present to her lover that reaffirmed the unbreakable bond between them. She told her that from now on her name no longer would be Athena but Pallas Athena to commemorate the love and the courage of Artemis' mortal love. Artemis then appeared in front of the mourning Amazon nation and vowed to always guide them and protect them against mortals and gods alike, and since this day she watches out for the nation and every single Amazon."
When Xena ended, her public took some time to regain their composure. Finally, Theano said with a smile Gabrielle later on would describe as proud.
"Thank you, Xena, the story was well told, and you finished just in time for the party to begin."
"Thank you, it always was one of my favourites."
Chapter Six: Family Reunion
Xena sat cross-legged on the floor in her room facing the door. She was dressed in a thin white tunic, designed to be opened at her shoulders, and additionally belted at her waist. So, it could be easily put down without her being completely exposed. There were sturdy leather cuffs at her wrists that soon would be fastened together during the court session. Her eyes were closed and she rather unsuccessfully tried to meditate. Her thoughts constantly kept drifting back to things past, things she really wasn't eager to think about now. So instead she concentrated on last night when Melosa once again had sent her to the healer's hut instead of restraining her to her bed or the detention hut as some of the guests had demanded.
She'd spent the night holding Gabrielle's body in her arms, studying every detail in her beloved's peaceful face, painfully aware of the fact that this could easily be the last night they ever would spend together. Her mind kept on wandering to other nights she lay wide awake while Gabrielle was sleeping peacefully, especially to one night - a night following the day the Conqueror had opened her library to the children of the palace.
Xena dropped in the comfortable chair behind her desk where more than two scores of scrolls were awaiting her attention. Having spent all afternoon and the better part of the evening listening to the numerous complaints brought before her, she wasn't in the mood to read the tax reports and supply lists in front of her. And though she had missed Gabrielle's calming presence, she couldn't really blame her for preferring the company of the palace's children to boring court sessions.
Especially after the incident with the blonde-haired woman's father who really could count his blessings for leaving the palace unharmed. Xena would have killed him for what he had done to her young lover, for what she had had to live through because of him but Gabrielle had stilled her hand, and he left Corinth with all limbs still attached. At first, the green-eyed woman didn't speak about it but Xena knew that she was deeply shaken and more vulnerable than ever.
Xena surrounded her with care and tenderness and love to make her beloved forget the hateful words, and slowly the smile returned to her face and her eyes once again were sparkling with life.
Half a candlemark earlier the Conqueror had excused herself from dinner with the members of her council telling them that that she had a lot of paperwork to attend to. Presumably, Gabrielle still was at the servant's quarters telling a goodnight's story to the children. So, there was no rational excuse for Xena not to at least begin to make a dent in the piles of scrolls littering her desk.
She mentally readied herself for some candlemarks of boring work when her eyes were drawn to the centre of the desk. There should have been a square piece of parchment giving details about her schedule for the next three days, instead there was a small scroll sealed with her personal crest.
Only one living being was bold enough to use it without her knowledge. So, she wasn't surprised to find Gabrielle's clear handwriting inside. There were no rhymes and no rhythm but it undeniably was a poem.
Falling asleep in misery and pain
I opened my eyes to a sea of blue
Living in darkness and fear
I found myself bathed in sparkling light.
I vowed never to love
So my heart would be save
Encased in ice.
Blue fire melted the icy prison.
Your eyes warmed my heart.
Your arms carried my safely through the night.
Your soul quietened my fears.
But I never said: Thank you.
Never told how much I love you
More than words can say.
I'd like to show you instead
Suddenly the night was full of possibilities, and Xena had a hard time not to hurry her steps towards the bedroom too visibly.
When Xena opened the door Gabrielle immediately was in her arms, greeting her with a passionate kiss. She was led to the bed where the young woman quickly shed her sleeping shirt and began to slowly undress her taller companion. Xena didn't try to help her or to return the kisses. She knew from experience that Gabrielle had to go at her own pace to feel really save. She gently was pushed back on the mattress and the blonde retraced her abdominal muscles with hot kisses.
Gabrielle definitively knew her lover's body and she played it well. Desire rushed trough Xena, heat accumulating between her thighs. Her breathing became ragged but still she didn't move.
The kissing stopped and green orbs seemed to burn a hole in her eyes. Gabrielle only whispered but what she said made the tall woman tremble with arousal, announcing a dream come true.
"Don't hold back any longer, my love. I want to feel your hands on my skin when I touch you. I want to make love with you - not only you making love to me and I making love to you. - All these nights I saw you fighting to control your desire. I want you to let go of this control. I'm sorry for ignoring your needs."
The only answer Xena could think of was to silence her lover with a kiss. Their tongues began an intricate dance, for the first time not only exploring but also playing with each other. When they finally came up for air Gabrielle's eyes were dark with arousal, the golden speckles within glinting with a light of their own.
Gabrielle was lying on top of Xena, her wet centre pleasantly coating the taller woman's lower abdomen. She shifted slightly and gently introduced her left thigh between the other woman's legs. Her hands resting on Gabrielle's hips she slowly sat up until the blond was riding her thigh. Her eyes never left Gabrielle's, waiting for he smallest sign of discomfort. One of her hands found its way to the young woman's breasts and began to play with her already hard nipples.
Gabrielle understood the invitation and kneaded Xena's globes with both hands, every squeeze and stroke sending another wave of heat to the taller woman's sex. She finally broke eye contact and descended on Xena's breasts like a hawk attacking its prey.
Xena's hips began to establish a rocking rhythm. The hand at the younger woman's hip inched its way downwards to further stimulate Gabrielle's clitoris while her left thigh was copying the syncope of Xena's hips and was robbing over her centre. Both women were in a sensuous haze when their bodies one after one succumbed to orgasm.
Gabrielle's eyes found Xena's and the touch of their tongues brought forth another mind-shattering climax.
They held onto each other, their breathing gradually slowing. The blonde comfortably was nested in her arms and Xena whispered.
"Thank you, my love."
Gabrielle's answer was all it took to rekindle the flames of desire. "We're not finished yet, my warrior."
Soon they were lying side by side. Xena facing Gabrielle's centre and Gabrielle next to Xena's. At first, there was an almost awkward distance between them. Then Gabrielle planted tiny kisses on the other woman's thighs, and Xena mirrored her movements.
The blond woman's tongue flicked over Xena's clitoris, circling it, making contact for the fraction of a heartbeat, and retreating immediately. When she finally began to suck more thoroughly the taller woman already was lingering at the edge of another climax. Somehow, she managed to focus at least a part of her attention on lavishing her young lover.
They once again were in sync, driving each other to new heights of desire, and bonding in a way none of them would have thought possible. They came at the same time, and they came hard.
After the spasm had died away, both of them still were wrapped in a feeling of bliss and wholesomeness that stayed with them not only throughout the night but for moons to come.
Xena gathered the former slave in her arms, held her tight and revelled in the feeling. Now, she not only knew for sure that she loved the young woman but she also knew that they belonged to each other. There now was an unquestionable bond between them, so strong it was almost tangible, something she always had believed only being possible in dreams or fairy tales,
Xena had to shake herself out of these memories. They had taken her mind away from the trial but also had awakened her body in a way not suited to stand in front of a crowd. To calm down she began to think of the beginning of this day.
The trial was scheduled to start three candlemarks after dawn, to give everyone the chance to sober up after yesterday's celebration. Shortly before dawn, she reluctantly got up to mentally prepare herself for the things ahead and ran into Anara when leaving the infirmary.
'I already told her yesterday but please remind Gabrielle that I need some time alone before the trial starts.'
'I'll tell her as soon as she wakes up. I suppose you want to resume this warrior's mask of yours.'
'I don't know what you're talking about, Anara.'
The healer smiled and answered. 'I'm talking about this inscrutable face that slips away every time you look at Gabrielle and every time you talk to Thania, that face you hide your feelings behind, your heart and your soul, that face that no longer can fool me.'
Xena tried to look stern and disapproving, rather unsuccessfully. 'Go ahead. We'll take care of Gabrielle. Eponin and Solari volunteered to put her in the chair later on, and Thania will make sure that they're very careful, so don't you worry.'
The tall warrior gave Anara a heartfelt hug, to her own utter surprise, and quickly fled the room.
Tunic, cuffs, and sandals were waiting for her when she entered her room after a short visit to the empty temple and the equally deserted bathing area.
Recalling Anara's words, she knew that the healer was right. Her demeanour was a mask but it also was part of whom she was, it was a part of her as was her sword, her battle cry, or her chakram. She could try and deny it as she successfully had done with the more caring parts of her personality all these years long even to herself. Yes, it had become increasingly difficult to do so, even before the final victory over Caesar or the peace treaty between Amazons and Centaurs but it was Gabrielle who really taught her to accept every part of herself, the many dark plains and caves and ravines as well as the few and small light spots.
Her musings were abruptly stopped by Queen Melosa rushing trough the door almost two candlemarks early.
"Remove the cuffs, Xena. The trial will have to be postponed. The northeastern outpost reported an enemy army headed towards our village. At first, they thought that they were only passing through but now there's no more doubt. We'll have to face about two hundred men, and they're using some civilians as a shield. I'll gather all the warriors I can rouse to fight them. I want you to take care of Gabrielle and the children and get the infirmary ready."
"I will do as you wish, mistress, but please consider taking me along as your body guard. I know, it's against the law, and I know I haven't earned this privilege but you'll probably need every sword you can get. Please, Queen Melosa."
"The Amazon nation will be honoured, Xena. Open the chest, it holds your armour and weapons."
There weren't as many warriors as Xena had hoped for, even though the festival and the impending trial had brought more Amazons to the village than ever before. Last nights celebrations really had put a lot of them out of commission, basically as a consequence of the drinking games they all were so fond of playing. So half a candlemark later short of five score heavily armed Amazons were ready to go, and if one of them was surprised to see the former Conqueror fully armed in their midst, they didn't give voice to their objections. Leaving another one and a half score of seasoned fighters to protect the elders and the children and get them to safety if need be, they took to the trees to speed up their journey and shortly after mid-morning they reached the tree line near the enemy encampment.
The front line was formed by close to fifteen kneeling hostages, tied together by bids of rough rope. Behind them was a tall dark haired man, hands bound in front of him but standing. 'Damn, what by Ares' boots was he doing in Greece?' The soldiers were lined up in a basic battle formation obviously expecting a frontal assault. Xena's trained and experienced eyes didn't miss out on the ill-kept armour and weapons, the difficulty they had to hold their lines or the crest floating in front of them.
"Darphus," Xena's voice was barely audible with repressed anger and Melosa shot her an inquisitive look. "Some years ago he was one of my lieutenants. We still have some personal issues to settle. He's over-confident, impatient and he hates me more than everything. We will need Hades of a distraction to keep him from killing the hostages, and we will need time."
The brass armoured warrior once again did what came natural to her, standing at the edge of the forest, in full view of the enemy army, she took control of the situation. Soon the greater part of the Amazons was on their way and the five soldiers of the First Order able to fight also had their orders. All Melosa and half of the royal guard could do now was to wait for their enemy to take action.
The last time Xena felt as anxious as this about waiting was right before the battle against Caesar. Finally, a child, about six or seven years old, began to make its way towards the line of trees carrying a crumbled piece of parchment. It was a boy with dark blond hair and blue eyes. He stood about ten paces away from the forest line where the Queen was waiting, so Xena left Melosa's side and knelt in front of the boy.
"Hello, Ly. Come with me, I will lead you to safety."
"No, the evil one will kill my dad, he said so. He said: 'Answer before noon or else…' He said: 'Bring back the answer or our father will die.' Only dad calls me Ly, how come?"
"Long ago your dad and I were very close, so I know this name is dear to his heart. Stay here, I'll be back shortly and escort you back to your dad." Xena added having read Darphus' message. She handed it to Queen Melosa and began to take off her armour.
"What the Hades do you think you're doing? This is not only stupid and foolish, it's outright suicidal, and it won't work."
"It's the only way to buy our warriors the time they'll need. There's no doubt Darphus will try to kill the hostages, and there's no doubt he will attack the Amazons. He obviously knew about the festival but he didn't know that it had been cut short because of the trial. If it hadn't he really would have got to us. I'm sure he counts on using the Amazon's territory as vantage point to conquer his own part of Greece, now that I'm out of the picture, so to say.
"He knows of my abdication, knows that I'm all but dead. I'm sure, that he ordered the soldiers in the frontier fort killed, and the ones we fought off some time ago certainly were part of his army. He always was screwed. He wanted me to take the blame for the Amazon's death. But I hope that his hatred for me is still stronger than his ambition and hopefully stronger than his rational self. The knowledge that I'm close by and the chance to get his hands on me once again without a fight certainly has speeded up his plan.
"I need the best scouts of the royal guard to follow me out there. To fight them we'll have to get the civilians out of the way, that's what they will have to do. The grass is high enough to offer a decent cover. As soon as I hear the signal of your warriors I'll try to get Darphus away from the hostages and give the signal to attack."
"Sounds like a plan though I don't like it. May the goddess protect you."
"Thank you, Queen Melosa." When Xena reappeared at the tree line, she wore nothing but her leathers, boots, and a light cloak draped around her broad shoulders. She knelt on one knee in front of the boy. "It's time to go back, sprout. Whatever happens, I want you to stay away from Darphus. I know, you're afraid for your dad. I will do everything I can to protect him but there's one thing, you always have to remember: to him, your life is far more important than his own. So you better take care of yourself."
"I'm so afraid. Boys are never afraid, I'm a coward."
There was a sad expression in Xena's eyes, and before she spoke, she took the boy's chin in her right hand. "Look at me, Lyceus. When you have to fight, fear is as good a weapon as a sword. It keeps you on your toes and you don't get reckless. Without fear, we tend to overestimate ourselves, and then we will be killed. It would be really, really stupid not to be afraid, and I know you ain't a stupid guy. And know this, a coward never would have had the courage to bring this message. It takes an awful lot of courage to do things you're afraid of. Your dad is a very brave man also, and I know now he's very proud of you. Understand?"
A tentative smile crept in the boy's face while he nodded.
Xena loosened the strap holding her cloak and let it fall to the ground shortly before reaching Darphus who now was standing in front of the hostages. He was half a foot shorter than the former Conqueror, heavily built and more than twice her weight with fat softening the silhouette of his body. He carried a sword on his right and two daggers on his left hip. Behind him was Najara, holding Lyceus' father at sword's point.
"Tell me, Toris, how many times Mother told you not to go and play with strangers?"
"Couldn't help it, Conqueror. Irresistible candies." The tall man answered who except for his dark brown eyes looked exactly like a male version of Xena.
"I really hate to disturb this lovely family reunion." A high-pitched, vaguely male voice said.
"So you're still singing in the boy's choir. Good to hear. It always pays to do a thorough job, Darphus. Now, let's do some business. I'm here, no armour, no weapons. Set them free, now!"
The last words were said with a threatening growl. Darphus' left hand backhanded her but she didn't even try to stop him and she didn't flinch when it made contact.
"The voice of a child and the punch of its great-grandmother, some things never change." Now a brass covered gauntlet hit her stomach but all she did was smile. "Set them free, you spineless bastard."
"You always had a soft spot for the weak and useless. It never did you any good. This time you will pay with your life. This time I won't have any pity. This time you will not get away."
"Promises, promises. The trouble is, you never stand for your word, don't you!" Xena easily sidestepped his next hit. "And pity? Bite me. Your own men turned against you when you tried to kill me off. They stripped you of your armour and your dignity and you fled your camp under the cover of the night." She blocked his fist aimed at her nose with her left arm, seemingly unimpressed by his mounting fury.
"You left the encampment in the middle of the night, soldier boy." She continued taunting him, with every punch that found its target drawing him further away from the hostages and nearer to her discarded cloak. "You ran with your tail between your legs, and still justice dug you out of your hiding hole."
Darphus now was well beyond rational thought, blows were raining on her torso and arms, and she knew she would get some ugly bruises out of this but she continued to smile at him. The smile didn't reach her eyes but it still gave the impression of a mother indulgently observing the harmless antics of her toddler.
"Stop playing, Darphus, and get this over with. We have a battle to fight and a village to destroy. The Amazons are far greater a threat than this over-confident slave."
"I don't care for your damned Amazons, slut. I spent a lot of time planning her death, and I intend to savour every moment. She's mine, and she will cry out my name be it in pain or in lust before she dies."
"Lust? The loss of your balls must have damaged your brain, Darphus. You never were man enough, not even in my worst nightmares, neither for me nor any other woman with self-esteem. So, your choice of partner really shouldn't be a great surprise. Two of a kind, a perfect match: a petty excuse for a warlord without guts and brains and an ex-Amazon, a bloody rapist and too much of a coward to take responsibility for her actions. I guess it's true: two birds of a feather flock toge…"
Unsurprisingly Najara lost her temper. She let go of Xena's brother and attacked the former Conqueror who blocked the momentum of her sword arm with her hands, dodged a roundhouse punch from Darphus and suddenly felt the sharp but all too familiar pain of a knife sticking deep in her thigh. This time she allowed her body to react to the threat, sending the ex-Amazon into oblivion with a fisted blow to her chin. The sound of a dislocated jaw gave her at least some sort of satisfaction but it was by far not enough to quench her rising anger. So, she quickly refocused on the enemy leader.
"It's time getting serious, Darphus. You really made a mistake attacking the Amazons. What do you know about them? Did you get nothing of the lessons I taught you years ago? You have to know your enemy better than he knows himself. Do you know Amazons don't take kindly on men crossing their borders uninvited? Do you know they don't care about outsiders being killed? Your hostages are more of an obstacle than a shield, they won't protect you, they'll slow you down, considerably. Perhaps you will win the battle but you certainly will loose the war. You really should use your brain, not your… oh sorry!"
The last words brought Darphus finally over the edge; he unsheathed his sword and attacked her. Xena hastily stepped back. The birdcall signalled the Amazon army in attack position. She avoided his second thrust and fell on the ground. When she immediately reached for her cloak half an arm's length away, he knew it was a trap.
In one fluid movement she retrieved her chakram from the cloak and let it fly before the enemy leader was able to completely regain his balance, at the same time she fastened a leather thong around her leg to slow down the blood flow. The chakram unerringly found its way and embedded itself in his chest. And then, all Tartarus was breaking loose. Less than two body length behind her five scouts rose from the ground and herded the hostages away. The enemy soldiers found themselves attacked from three sides but they still outnumbered the Amazon forces largely. Xena took Darphus' sword and sliced through the bindings of the dark haired prisoner. She gutted an attacker on her left and flipped his sword over to her brother.
"Here take it, Toris, get the boy and the others out of here, and hurry. Take care of him."
"Come with me, Xena. You're bleeding, it's too dangerous."
As only answer, she yanked her chakram free from Darphus' chest and used it to keep the enemy at bay while her peripheral vision took in the slow retreat of the scouts still struggling with the frightened civilians. The sword in her hand was a weird feeling, not because of her recent lack of drilling time but it simply was far too ornate to be functional. She thought about exchanging it for something more appropriate while taking on four of the soldiers having banded together against her.
Her leg was throbbing but to get them all she just had to jump. So, she put the pain out of her conscious mind as she was used to do and executed a thorough spin beheading three of them. The fourth wisely decided to back off and ran. She somehow managed to replace the leather thong with an improvised bandaged before the next group attacked.
It was then that she realised that there were far more than two hundred of them. The odds were closer to three than two to one against the Amazons. 'Not good, not good at all', but only when she heard the scream of pain of a familiar voice all the fighting skills that had contributed to make her some sort of legend finally kicked in, a voice belonging to someone who by all means should be in the safety of the village.
When chakram and sword sliced a big gaping hole in the enemy ranks, she could feel a very familiar sensation slowly rising from the centre of her body, heating up her veins, and chilling the conscious part of her mind literally to the bone. She could feel what her men always had called 'Ares' gift' rushing through her, the urge to kill and fight she'd revelled in year after year, expanding itself in a feral grin that changed her whole outer appearance. Her focus totally narrowed down to the weapons pointed in her direction, and she took them out one by one with deadly precision. Her movements were smooth and easy, more a vision of dance than of death, a dark fire in her eyes glowing with every thrust and stroke. To her, time didn't have any meaning but less than two candlemarks later there were dead bodies scattered all around her.
Xena needed the better part of a quarter candlemark to finally realise that there were no opponents left. The dark rage slowly began to subside, returning to its hiding place, and once again, her rational mind took charge. The unfamiliar sword fell to the ground, her hands, her arms, and her leathers were covered with blood and grime, and when the battle field resounded with the Amazon's victory cry her injured leg gave way and she tumbled to the ground.
Still acting more on instinct than on anything else, she rummaged through her healer's punch and quickly proceeded to stitch the wound on her thigh that now was liberally bleeding. She didn't even bother to first clean it, time being of great importance. She knew there were a lot of injured Amazons to tend to and bodies to burn. The outpost had to be secured and scouts send to find out about possible reinforcements or other signs of more danger.
The time being, she dismissed all these necessities. Xena turned just in time to see Anara collapsing over a small, slender body. The soldier who with the last bit of energy he could muster had thrown his sword at her was dead even before the chakram hit him right between the eyes. Fortunately, his aim was off. The weapon protruded Anara's right arm just below the shoulder not her back, and so it was relatively easy to stop the bleeding.
The healer's patient was bigger a problem. It was her voice Xena had heard earlier. An arrow was embedded in her lower stomach. The wound already was packed with painkilling herbs; the girl's breathing was shallow at best. She didn't speak but her eyes were widened with pain and fear.
In her mind, Xena saw visions of all the gut wounds she had had to deal with during her years as a warlord, and she knew that less than one out of twenty ever survived the first night. Anara also had known, that's why she only had tried to ease her pain and nothing else.
And it really would be best to put the young Amazon's suffering to an end - but when she once again looked into Thania's eyes she saw trust and hope there.
Unfortunately, she knew no pressure points for numbing stomach wounds, so, she simply knocked her unconscious by pressing two points in the back of her neck. Xena shed her blood-encrusted leathers to reveal an only slightly stained linen shift and rinsed her hands and arms with water from Anara's supply who still was out of commission. As she had done earlier with her physical pain, she now forced her fears in the background of her mind and began her task. The arrow had to be removed, damaged veins and nerves and muscles cleaned and sewn, the wound closed. She worked for over a candlemark, and still Thania's life signs miraculously were solid and stable. Now all she could do was to hope.
Meanwhile Toris and some of the hostages had a fire going, all the able bodied warriors were sorting out the wounded and dead, and Melosa and the royal guard were already in the midst of deposing of the enemy corpses. The extend of teamwork and professionalism the Amazons presented was more than amazing and encouraging, so Xena allowed herself solely to concentrate on the injured.
Once again, it was well after dark when the last of the litters with the more seriously injured arrived at the village; and against all odds this time, there were fewer fatalities and fewer casualties. With her right arm bandaged and safely tucked away in a sling, Anara was to her own dismay forced to rely mostly on giving verbal advice. So, she insisted on reopening the stitches at Xena's thigh when the limping became increasingly obvious.
The warrior knew, she was right. The wound had to be thoroughly cleaned to prevent an infection, that is, if it wasn't too late yet, but many other things also had to be done; so she hesitated.
"Just do it, Xena, that's an order. Anara's apprentice is dead and I can't afford all of my healers incapacitated. If you're not able to walk, you'll not be able to help. The volunteers can only do so much."
"I will comply, Queen Melosa. I can remove the stitches myself but someone else will have to clean the gash. It has to be cleaned with herbed water but this won't be enough. It's too deep and it's been too long. To be on the safe side a heated up dagger has to be thrusted in in its whole length. I'll probably pass out in the process, so it would be better to get some warriors to hold me down, just in case."
The Queen winced inwardly at the thought but quickly summoned three of her more heavily built warriors. Toris also lent a hand and they followed her instructions. Xena didn't cry out when the white hot iron of her own breast dagger was slowly introduced in the gaping hole, and she didn't pass out either but the whole strength of the Amazon warriors and the big man was needed to keep her still. The Queen did a thorough job, re-stitching it with shaking hands and bandaging it. Anara also insisted in her taking a break to regain some strength and stamina herself, and once again, Xena had to listen to the voice of reason.
The dark haired warrior soon was asleep. About three candlemarks later, a hesitant touch on her left shoulder brought her back to reality. She could not hinder her body to go in defensive mode and grab a small hand by the wrist but as soon as her mind registered whose hand it was, she stopped herself from twisting it painfully.
"Lyceus, you gotta be more careful. My body doesn't know that you're a friend. It tries to defend itself. You really could have been hurt." She let go of the boy's arm and smiled reassuringly to take the sting out of her words. "Turn your head, Ly. That's a nasty bump you got on your temple. What happened?"
"Bumped my head on a stone when the young Amazon pushed me out of the way of this arrow. You have to help her, you did it out there, I saw you, and you have to help her once again. The blonde in the funny chair on wheels says that she will die, that she has an in… infiction at her stomach and that the healers can't help her anymore. I don't want her to die, she saved me, and she smiled at me and she didn't cry."
"Infection. Thania really is very badly injured. I don't know if I can help but I will do all I can, Lyceus. Where's your dad?"
"He's with the others burning the nasty men. Please help her."
"I'll try, sprout, I'll try." Xena hoisted herself out of bed. At first she only tentatively put weight on her injured leg but the kind of throbbing she could feel, regular and slow, soon reassured her that the cleaning was done just in time.
Anara and the Queen were sitting on the left side of the girl's bed and Gabrielle was on the right, holding her hand. The hopeless expression in Anara's face told her more than enough, but she had to see it with her own eyes: Thania still was unconscious, her breathing was flat, fever raking her body. The area around the arrow entry was inflamed. For several heartbeats Xena lost herself in the peaceful expression on her young face, knowing all too well that soon it would be contorted with pain, unbearable pain.
She closed her eyes in defeat, and when she reopened them, she knew she had at least to try. "Queen Melosa, do you have an empty hut that can be transformed in a sweating hut?"
"We have a sweating hut near the hot springs. Nobody used it, so it wasn't maintained but after what you did for Gabrielle Akyra insisted on putting it back in working order. It could be heated up in less than three candlemarks."
"Do it, Queen Melosa!"
"What do you have in mind, Xena? You said this shaman stuff only worked because Gabrielle is the other half of your soul."
"I know, it will be more difficult with Thania but it also isn't the same problem, Anara. To help Gabrielle I had to reunite her soul with her body. Thania here hasn't lost touch with her body but she simply isn't strong enough to fight blood loss, infection, fever, and shock at the same time. All she needs is an additional source of strength. It will be difficult to establish the contact because she's not of my blood and I'm not really trained in doing such things but I will try to give her some of my strength. I have to try."
"What exactly will you do?"
"We will take her to the sweating hut. The heat is one of the things I'll need to open a way to the land of her soul, the land of her dreams. Then I will have to keep open the path to our reality and at the same time lending her my strength to help her heal."
"It will be difficult enough to guard the retreat, so it's better to have another source of strength to tap in, Xena. I will go with you."
"We still all could die, and she will know if we survive, Eponin."
"I can't let her die," the Amazon warrior answered who until then had been silently standing in the back of the hut, "and I'm tired of hiding in the shadows anyway."
"Xena, I don't want to loose you. Tell me that you won't die."
"I'll try my best, Gabrielle, but it's very dangerous. I don't want to loose you either but for Thania, it's the only chance there is. It's just one of these things I have to do, no matter what."
"I love you, Xena."
"Love you too, Gabrielle."
When dawn was breaking, the sweating hut was ready and Melosa, Eponin, Toris, Lyceus, and Gabrielle were waiting in front of it, aside Thania's litter. Xena was somewhere in the forest to get some 'stuff' as she called it which the Queen supposed to be some herbs and roots just like the last time. She could clearly feel the anxiety coming from the weapons' master and longed to take her in her arms and hold her tight 'til all of this was over but she also was painfully aware of the fact that her lover for more than one reason didn't like public displays of affection. The boy, Xena's nephew, was kneeling next to the litter, holding the unconscious girl's hand, while his father was pacing at his side looking helpless, tired and somewhat irritated.
Xena arrived in time with the first rays of sun. She carried a bundle of black cloth and was wearing but a leather thong around the hips barely covering her private parts. Her chest was bare but adorned with an intricate pattern of red lines emphasising her muscles as well as her womanly built. Her attire effectively took Gabrielle's breath away and managed to freeze Toris in mid-step. Forehead and cheeks also had red markings; in her eyes was a faraway look, a look that to Melosa didn't bode too well. She was about to speak to her when Akyra who had walked two paces behind her stopped the Queen with a stern look and a shake of her head.
The tall warrior opened the bundle and unfolded the freshly skinned hide of a deer buck on the ground next to the litter. She stripped the girl of all but the bandages, wrapped her in the skin, and carried her in the hut. Akyra told Eponin to strip also before both of them followed her. She also advised the Queen to have some archers ready, just in case.
For the next candlemarks all the others could do was to wait, at a safety distance of about fifty paces. Gabrielle was sitting in the wheelchair nervously drumming her fingers on her left thigh and envying Toris, Lyceus and Melosa who at least could express their anxiety and uneasiness by pacing to and thro'. The sun already was high in the sky when the blonde woman couldn't stand it any longer, neither the waiting, nor the uncomfortable silence.
"Tell me about your sister, Toris, about her childhood. In all our moons together, she never willingly spoke about her home. And when she did there always was so much sadness and loss in her voice. Tell me about her."
"It's no good to dwell in the past, there are too many dark corners, and ghosts who'd better stay hidden. I haven't seen her in years, and the last time we didn't part on friendly terms. You all know more about her than I do. This slime, Darphus, he wanted me to believe that she ran away from Corinth and her throne and her power and all the things she lost her soul to gain. And when this woman told me she lives as a slave with the Amazons I was sure that they were lying."
Melosa and Gabrielle tried to fill him in on all the things that had happened the last moons and quarter moons. He really had a hard time even hearing it. What they told him just didn't fit with the picture he long ago had forged about his sister, about the Conqueror.
It was way after noon when the small door to the sweating hut was opened. Akyra was visibly exhausted but there also was a smile on her face. She shielded her eyes against the sudden assault of daylight, but before she could say anything Melosa burst inside the hut. It took some time to get two more stretchers from the village but soon they all were back in the healer's hut.
Xena and Eponin were asleep but the girl was conscious, feeble, but conscious. She even asked for water and something to eat. There was no more fever, the inflammation was gone, her breathing was regular, and there was a smile on her face whenever she looked at one of the two women.
Instead of regaining the healer's hut with the others Akyra insisted on taking care of the fire in the sweating hut first but this wasn't the reason for her lingering behind. She sat down in front of the hut and waited for the other woman to join her.
"Xena - she knows, doesn't she?"
"She knows the fact but not the reason. Tonight when she asked for my help she did it as an apprentice would beg her mistress, and despite my resolve to stay away from this stuff I couldn't ignore her plea. She would have done it without me, though she knows that her skills don't extend this far. She willingly risked her life and her soul to safe the girl. There's a connection between her and the girl. Did you know that she calls her 'little one'? And Thania asked her and Gabrielle to be her second mothers."
"Time will tell, my friend. I'd really like to get to know Gabrielle better, she holds Xena's soul, but she doesn't know it. When Xena introduced us the day I arrived, she seemed genuinely pleased to make my acquaintance but she's openly hostile since she knows of my role in the trial. Do you really think it was a good idea?"
"Perhaps not, but it was the best plan I could come up with, and if all goes as it should my granddaughter and Xena can begin to finally heal from the past. There's only one thing we should be really careful about. It's Xena, if she finds out too soon; she could easily ruin all our plans. The moment I saw her at the village square I could feel it, she could be one of the mightiest ever if she really wanted to. I'd really like to know who taught her."
"Do you think we should ask her about it during the trial?"
"No, Theano. The jury will have more than enough to deal with as it is. They don't have to know about her spiritual powers, not yet anyway, not as long as she doesn't embrace them herself."
"I'm worried about her. She has lost a lot of the anger and hatred driving her to conquer Greece and Rome but it hasn't been replaced with something else yet. All she has now are her love for Gabrielle and her self-hatred. I really hope all of this will work out."
"It will, one way or the other. This isn't about saving her body but her soul. Xena prays to the Goddess, let's hope she's begging for the right things."
Eponin woke some time before sunset but when Anara tried to wake Xena, she found her unconscious. With Melosa's help, she checked on the dagger wound and found it inflamed, two of the five stitches torn and the flesh hot to the touch. To prevent a fever they had to redo the cleaning and cauterising. This time sturdy leather thongs were used to keep the warrior from moving should she regain her senses in the process. She did and managed to tear apart the wrist restraints but Toris, who spent most of the time reviewing what he recently had learned about her, was able to pin her back to the mattress.
"You can get back up now, Toris. They've finished. Thank you for your help."
"I really hope it won't have to be done a third time. But you're welcome, sis."
"I'm afraid it will have to be repeated at least twice to be really effective. I never thought I would live the day you'd once again call me your sister. The dagger only did minor damage, I won't die, so you don't have to be nice or anything."
"My sister died the day Lyceus was killed. - I know what I said, and only the day before yesterday I was sure that it was still true. I can't really understand it, I don't understand how it happened, but the person I see now is my sister. The way you were buying time by allowing this Darphus person to hit you, how you got this Amazon away from me, the healer tending to all others but forgetting about herself, yes, this was the sister I remember, the child I never was able to forget, the child I never hated. This sister never died, Xena."
Silent tears were running down her cheeks, the soft fingers of a child were quickly brushing them away and a small voice asked. "Are you okay? Is your leg hurting this bad? You didn't cry before. Mother cried before she died. Don't die!"
"I won't die, Lyceus, I'm okay. The leg will heal just fine, don't you worry. I'm crying because your father said something very, very nice that made me very happy." Xena smiled at the frown on his face. "You know, sprout, grown-ups sometimes are a bit goofy. I'll be back on my two feet very soon. Big promise. And if you give me a big hug I will heal even faster."
So the boy did and Xena turned her head back to his father. "You know, Toris, you were right then, your sister died this day. But somehow at least a part of her was reborn and over the years, she bid by bid was able to control the monster I had become. Now, tell me," she continued in a desperate need to lighten the mood, "why are you in Greece? The orders of the Conqueror were unambiguous, as far as I remember."
"Albion was far too cold in winter, and I didn't get along too well with their leader."
When Xena saw the expression of uneasiness on his face, she couldn't help a hearty laughter being rather well aware of Boadicea's voracious sexual appetite. "Well, I would have loved to see you at the head of her clan, Toris. She seemed rather taken with the looks running in our family." Uneasiness quickly changed to discomfort, so Xena choose to change the subject. "I suppose you're on your way to mother?!"
"Yeah, and I can't wait to tell her the good news. She will be happy to get her little girl back."
"Don't give yourself to illusions, Toris. I'm still a killer, I'm still dangerous, and what I did in the past won't be undone only by changing my way of life regardless of how … Two of my soldiers will soon be arriving at Corinth to get mother to safety. They will explain everything to her. No one associated with me is safe there as soon as the council gets my letter of resignation. I left her the choice to go to Albion or to Chin. Tomorrow I will send another of my men to find them and tell her about you. With Boadicea out of the picture, you will have to move to Chin to be safe. The empress is a friend and she also will be a great teacher for Lyceus."
Before Toris could say anything against Xena taking charge once again and deciding about his life, Anara held a steaming mug in front of Xena that she sniffed suspiciously. "I don't need any painkillers, Anara. Safe them for the others, and the sleeping herbs also could find a better use."
"Don't argue, just drink. Your body needs rest. I need you back to operational mode as soon as possible, with only one arm I can't do all the work by myself."
"All right, you win. Next time wake me before you start on my leg again. I won't tear the restraints when I'm conscious." The healer simply nodded and took the mug away.
Toris stayed at Xena's bedside long after she'd closed her eyes. He once again tried to reconcile the picture of so many years with the sister he now could see, remembering the last time she'd talked to him.
Three moons after his wife died while giving birth to a stillborn baby girl, some two and a half years ago, he found a detachment of the First Order clustered around the inn when returning from his morning hunt. He entered the kitchen unhindered from the back door, and heard the voice of his mother and sister coming from the main room.
"I will not leave my home, Conqueror. Never!"
"Oh yes, you will. I don't care what you think about it but you will move to Corinth. You will live in the house I choose for you, and that's all there is to say."
"You may rule all of Greece but you will not tell me what to do or not to do, Conqueror."
"The Conqueror doesn't care if she has to burn the house or personally destroy the whole village to get what she wants. The Conqueror doesn't care if her soldiers have to drag you behind a horse all the way. You will move to Corinth, today. Toris, come join us. You also should get your things together. You also will move. You will be my Ambassador in Albion."
"No, I won't leave mother. She already has lost one son to you, Conqueror. She will not loose the rest of her family. I never will leave her at your mercy."
"You all are at my mercy, and you both will do as I say. We will leave in two candlemarks whether you're ready or not. The Conqueror don't has a problem with putting you in chains in front of your son, if need be."
There was no emotion in her voice or her face, and soon his gaze dropped confronted with the chilling expression in her eyes. On the long trek to Corinth, he could feel her watchful eyes surrounding the group of soldiers but she kept her distance.
The difference between the commanding woman of his memories and the peacefully sleeping one in front of him was striking -, more than striking, it was incredible. Where once he only saw heartless determination, there now was tenderness and caring. The Conqueror never would have risked her life to save the Amazon girl, the Conqueror never would have cared for the safety of his son or the well-being of the hostages, or wouldn't she?
Toris remembered his arrival at Albion, and his first conversation with the tribe leader. Boadicea was a very impressive woman, almost as tall as his sister, full of will power, fighting skills and a great leadership presence. She was the only woman leading a tribe on her own, the only one the other tribe leaders listened to. She was the one who turned a small regional rebellion in an all-out war against the Roman occupational forces, finally and with a little help from the Conqueror forcing them back to the beaches of Gaul.
She had greeted him as one warrior greets another. 'You and your son will now be safe. No one will be audacious enough to venture in one of our villages or camps. It would be suicide. There will be no more threats to your life.'
At the time, it didn't occur to him that she could have been speaking about anyone other than the Conqueror threatening his security. But now he began to wonder. Perhaps even then she tried to keep her family safe. Perhaps she always cared for them but wasn't able to show it to people who had disowned her. Perhaps the loving and caring kid she once had been never really was dead.
His musings abruptly were interrupted by a soft voice calling his name. "Toris, I'm sorry but the sun is going down. Last night was an exception but usually men are not allowed to stay in the village during the night. A tent has been prepared at the clearing where Xena's soldiers are staying. Solari, the leader of the royal guard, will show you the way. Your son is already asleep. Queen Melosa agreed to let him stay. He'll be safe in the healer's hut."
"Thank you, Gabrielle, but I'll take him with me. I don't want him to wake up and not knowing where I am. He won't even stir when I pick him up. One night in Albion a whole bunch of sheep panicked during a storm and stampeded through our camp. Our tent was destroyed and I barely managed to get us out alive but he never even blinked."
He stood and stretched. With a last look at his sister, he said. "Can you tell me more about her tomorrow, Gabrielle? Perhaps you can help me to get to know her better."
"I'll try but it certainly would be easier to talk to her yourself. She surely won't answer all of your questions but she will try."
"I'll think about it, Gabrielle, take good care of her."
The blond woman studied Xena's sleeping face before reluctantly waking her up. A shadow of a smile crossed her own features when she remembered the first time she had tried to rouse the tall warrior from sleep. The boy really had been lucky the day before because back then she was unceremoniously thrown out of bed. They shared a bed for about a quarter moon having soon learned thus to keep their respective nightmares at bay but they weren't lovers yet. The following night, Xena even was afraid to let sleep claim her for fear of hurting her again, and her smile broadened at the thought while she asked herself how she could have been this blind this long.
Now, there was no longer any danger for her in doing this though she rarely had the opportunity to do it with Xena always being up and about well before dawn. Her left hand slightly touched the right biceps, and blue eyes slowly opened. What she saw brought a smile to the warriors face.
Torches stuck in every corner of the room and a candle stood at every bedside, but Xena only was interested in the sparkling eyes in front of her, eyes the colour of the high sea bathed in sunlight, the colour of a summer forest just after a light rain.
Even when the young woman was smiling as she did now, there always was a certain amount of sadness to be found. It hurt the warrior's heart that now it not only was directed to the past but also her doing with the fighting and the trial and all. She knew it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do but there was also a part of Xena's mind convinced that whatever the jury might decide upon, it would never be enough to pay for all the atrocities she'd committed, for all the deaths she'd caused, all the families she'd destroyed. And there also was a third part only striving to live a long and happy life with her lover.
"I'm sorry, love. I'm so sorry to cause you pain."
"I love you, Xena. Nothing will ever be able to change my heart. You're a part of me, and you always will be, regardless of the jury's verdict. Ephiny will find a way. I trust her."
"I'm sure she will do her very best but don't blame her if it doesn't work out. - I suppose, it's time for another treatment?"
"Yes, Anara said to fight the inflammation effectively it has to be done two more times, now and tomorrow morning. But I really don't … It was all right after the first cleaning the Queen did, or so you said."
"Yes, it was doing fine then. I don't know for sure what happened, Gab. I knew what I did in the sweating hut was dangerous and we all were very lucky that it worked out. It was very exhausting; the inflammation may be my body's reaction to the strain. I will heal fast as I always do. I'm certain Anara will insist on putting me to sleep once again 'til the next treatment, and tomorrow morning my leg can by re-stitched for good."
The last treatment was shortly before dawn. Xena decided to stay up and tend to the few more seriously wounded to give Anara a break. The healer only complied with her when she promised to keep off her leg and rely on a crutch, and because there was not one long enough for her tall frame, she accepted Gabrielle's offer to use the blond woman's fighting staff to get around more easily.
"Good morning, little one. You must be hungry, so we'll try with some soup. No, don't try to sit up." Xena eased herself behind the girl whose head now was resting against her chest. "Here, take the bowl yourself. It's only lukewarm but that's better for you now. Eat slowly. Your body needs all the strength it can get to heal."
"You're not angry with me?"
"Well, you deliberately disobeyed an order but the boy certainly would be dead without you there. No, I'm not angry; I'm rather proud of you. Don't get me wrong: I'm pretty sure you left the village for the wrong reasons, and you will have to answer the Queen for doing so, but you did the right thing when you had to act. Only a true Amazon would risk her life to safe someone she doesn't know. The Queen will keep this in mind also, and I'm sure she also is very proud of her apprentice."
Some candledrops later, the bowl was finished off. "Try to sleep some more now." Xena lowered the girl's upper body back to the mattress and gently tucked her in.
"Xena, why didn't she ever tell me? I always wanted to be like her."
Eponin had spent the whole night sitting at the girl's bedside. She left only to fulfil her duties as weapons' master by attending the council meeting.
"I don't know, Thania. You'll have to ask her yourself as soon as you're better. I'm sure she only wanted what she thought was best for you. She loves you very much, you know. The Queen really had a hard time to keep her from following Najara and killing her. She thinks she's responsible for what happened to you. I'm sure she will tell you all you want to know. Give her some time."
"I will, Xena. Please tell her, it's not her fault. Najara and the others are just mean."
The girl's eyes were fixated to her hands and she nervously was biting her lower lip. "Please, little one, talk to me. Are there other apprentices treated as you were?"
To Be Concluded in Part III