Chapter Seven: All my trials and tribulations
Queen Melosa was in mid-sentence when the double-winged door to the council's hut burst open and two Amazons stumbled in forced forward by the end of a fighting staff. Their legs were swept away and they found themselves in a heap in front of a gray haired but still well muscled elder. Xena towered over them, blood coloured the bandage at her thigh but her whole body oozed power and barely contained anger. Her eyes were almost black, and the surprised guards didn't dare touching her.
It was as if time suddenly stood still in the hut, the council members all but pinned to their seats, the Queen with her mouth still half open and the two Amazons frozen on the ground.
Eponin was the first one to regain her composure. She ordered the guards to back up and return to their posts and slowly approached Xena from her right. Having witnessed the taller woman's fighting skills some days ago, she knew better than to near her from behind or to try and overpower her. When she was already well in striking range of the staff she stopped.
"Xena, you don't need the staff any longer. Let me hold it for you."
Xena meanwhile had locked eyes with the Amazon elder in front of her and negligently handed Gabrielle's staff to the weapons' master. The emotions heating up her veins were clearly discernible in her voice.
"Najara wasn't the only one," was all she said, and all she had to say. The council members knew about the real reasons for the Queen adopting an apprentice, and Najara's obvious treason during battle was all even the most reluctant among them needed to believe it.
Amazon values had been twisted beyond recognition, and suddenly all were talking at once. The two women on the floor tried to get back on their feet, and Eponin unceremoniously knocked them out.
Melosa now was standing next to the older Amazon. "Xena, I need evidence."
Xena still held the gaze of the gray haired Amazon, her voice now seething with anger and hatred. "Go to the healer's hut, Queen Melosa, there are three girls whose bodies carry all the evidence you'll need."
"I refuse to answer the pointless accusation of an unruly slave, my Queen." The older Amazon snarled without being verbally accused.
"You'll soon have to answer my questions, Yolica. Solari, I want six guards in here, immediately, no one is to leave the hut. Akyra, Novalia, come with me - and everybody else, just shut up, and sit down. I'll be back."
Despite the Queen's order there was a lot of whispering going on, the council members filling in their guests about the extend of Najara's crimes. The two women on the floor regained consciousness but were not stupid enough to try and get up a second time. Xena still held the eyes of the older woman.
About a candlemark later, the door once again burst open and in stormed Queen Melosa. Disgust and anger clearly written all over her face but her voice was calm and devoid of any emotion.
"Yolica, Umbra, Canara, evidence has been brought before my eyes that you are guilty of rape and child abuse. Your trial will be held tomorrow after dawn, and the jury will decide upon your punishment. Until then, you will be secured in the detention hut. - The council session is adjourned."
No one said a word when the three women were led away, and slowly one after one, elders and guests, left the hut. When only Eponin and the Queen were left, Xena knelt in front of Melosa and lowered her eyes to the ground.
"The law says that you have to be isolated until the elders decide upon your punishment but Anara needs your help in the healer's hut. So you will not leave it without my personal consent."
Xena nodded and limped away, squaring her shoulders when she left the hut, appearing as emotionless as everyone expected her to be. Melosa's eyes followed her with concern, and another set of eyes that observed her entering the infirmary not only knew that she was really shaken up but that also another of her numerous emotional barriers had broken down.
Melosa meanwhile let herself sink in Eponin's arms, she was reluctant to go and do what now had to be done. The physical condition of the girls was more than enough evidence, and probably the testimony of Anara and the two other witnesses would be enough to satisfy the jury. She didn't want the girls to have to appear at the trial, they already had experienced enough hurt and humiliation. Still, the huts had to be searched, and it had to be done now.
When Queen and weapons' master left the council chamber news of the arrests and its reason had already spread and Solari had to deal with many very angry Amazons who were more than eager to take justice in their own hands. The guards actually had to protect the women in the detention hut, and they only quieted down after the Queen reminded her subjects that revenge wasn't the Amazons' way, and that justice would be satisfied, according to the laws. Eponin stayed with Melosa but the Queen could feel the body of her lover getting increasingly tense almost every candledrop. Nonetheless, every time they found one of these horrid scrolls detailing the so-called punishments the weapons' masters arm was firmly tucked around her waist and she was pulled into a comforting hug - regardless of the three elders and four guards they had as witnesses.
Candlemarks later Melosa knew that tomorrow two of her subjects would die by an arrow to their hearts, the tip coated with a very potent poison designed to end their lives immediately and without much pain. To judge Yolica would be more difficult. The scrolls showed her as a very strict mistress and some of her punishments were unreasonably severe but there wasn't any evidence for rape or sexual violence.
This day the Queen did what she hadn't done for a long time. She went to Artemis' temple without any ceremonial issues in mind. When she left it a long, calming prayer later the craftswomen were preparing the funeral pyres for the five fallen Amazons, and she went to the healer's hut to ask Xena to sing the funeral dirge together with Ephiny.
But the former Conqueror wasn't were she was supposed to be. She had changed the bandage and re-stitched her wound. After some prodding from Thania and Gabrielle, she reluctantly had agreed to tend to the other girls. Anara told the Queen that she was rather stiff before but when she was sitting at one of the girl's beds something seemed to change in her demeanour. It lasted only for a heartbeat then she straightened up and told the healer that she would take her horse Argo and 'check the perimeter'. Two candlemarks ago Ephiny had sent a scouting party to track her down, they weren't back yet.
After the funeral ceremony, the scouts told her that Argo was back in the barn, still sweaty and with her saddle on but that there was no sign of Xena. The scouts were sure that she had returned with her horse, so now the village was searched. They didn't find her in Melosa's hut nor in the dining hall nor in the sweating hut nor in the infirmary.
Finally, Theano took a closer look at the barn, and there she was, in a dark corner behind two large bales of hay, tightly rolled in a ball. She didn't react when her name was called, she didn't react when Melosa touched her shoulder. Theano and Eponin recruited Gabrielle's help and lowered her to the ground next to the tall warrior, and slowly the soothing voice of her lover coaxed Xena out of her paralysis. Blue eyes filled with hurt and despair looked into loving green eyes, and led by Theano the Amazons left them alone.
"How did you know that she was still at the barn, Theano?"
"That's where she always took refuge when she was a child, my Queen." The older woman answered while taking the saddle off the warhorse's back and beginning to rub her down. "The Conqueror simply would have gone and killed, and that's what I feared she would do when I heard she took Argo and left. It's a good sign that she came back without injuring someone else or herself."
"One of the mightiest warriors ever lying helplessly and almost catatonic in the barn, and that's a good sign?" Eponin asked in disbelief.
"Yes, she no longer is able to completely hide behind anger and violence, perhaps now she will accept my help. All these years I could do noting but watch and pray but now I begin to stand a chance. - I can see the questions in your eyes, my Queen, but I really would be grateful if you didn't ask them now. As soon as the trial is over, I will give you all the answers you crave. But I'll stand by my word, my concern and love for Xena won't impair my court performance."
Melosa spent the night with Eponin; they sat in front of the fireplace in the Queen's main room and held each other. Melosa couldn't help blaming herself and her lack of control for what had happened to the girls and the weapons' master had a hard time to make her belief that it wasn't her fault.
Since the beginning the Amazon nation had been built on trust and respect, respect for each other, respect for the law, and respect for the Goddess. Eponin told her that it wasn't the first time in history that members of the nation had betrayed these virtues as well as the other highly esteemed values. It wasn't the first time in history that personal pride and lust for power dominated and blinded some individuals. She reminded the Queen of Velasca who more than four years ago killed one of her Amazon sisters to stop the peace negotiations with the Centaurs. Eponin told her lover that now it was her turn to trust her subjects and sisters, and that they would find a way to make things right, together.
The weapons' master as a rule wasn't one for words, she favoured a more physical approach to problems, but Melosa's body language clearly had told her that she was in great turmoil and needed to be reassured. That's what gave her the power to put aside her own helpless anger. Her voice was low but without sensual undertones, a soothing balm gently applied to a beloved soul - and slowly, while the fire was burning low, the clenched muscles in Melosa's shoulders and back began to relax, and she drifted in a dreamless sleep.
Unfortunately, this wasn't a night for comfort and rest. Less than two candlemarks later there was harsh knocking at the door, the door opened almost instantly, and Solari rushed to the Queen's bedroom door and once again knocked.
"Queen Melosa, there's been an incident at the detention hut. Open up, your presence is required."
"I'm over here, Solari. Tell me what happened." Melosa stood in front of the mantelpiece while Eponin was busy with rekindling the fire and lighting a torch.
Solari went down on her right knee and bowed her head. "My Queen, I apologise for the intrusion. I don't know how to say this, and I take full responsibility for what happened but two of the prisoners are dead and Yolica is severely wounded. She won't to let Anara take care of her wounds. She wants to speak with you first, and Anara says that she will die if the bleeding isn't stopped soon."
"Eponin, go and get Xena from the barn, Anara will probably need her help. Hurry!"
When Queen Melosa entered the newly repaired hut, there was a lot of blood all over the place. The two bodies already had been removed, and the gray haired Amazon was sitting on the ground, leaning against the far wall, bleeding from a chest wound. Her right hand held a dagger, the tip breaking the skin at the pulse point - only a slight turn of the wrist and a little more pressure would be enough to end her life.
Anara was kneeling in front of her, she tried to reason with the woman she still regarded as a friend. When the Queen knelt next to the healer, the older woman tried to rise but didn't have enough energy left to do so. Her voice however still held enough force to carry outside.
"Queen Melosa, I'm no longer worthy to call you 'my Queen' because I failed you and I failed the nation. I want you to hear my confession. I am guilty of rape and child abuse. The punishments my apprentice had to endure were severe and more than once, they were without mercy but that's not why I'm guilty.
"Since Najara left the village I knew what my former apprentices were doing. I knew and I menaced them to change their ways but I did nothing to stop them.
"Most of all I'm guilty because my belief in corporal punishments made them what they became, women without a heart, selfish and filled with misguided ambition. I have long outlived the stories told about me. The only honourable thing left for me to do is to end this life now."
Yolica increased the pressure of the dagger against her throat, a small body rushed towards her, pushing the Queen against Anara's injured arm, a voice yelled "No!" and determined hands yanked the dagger back, creating a profusely bleeding gash a fraction of an inch in front of the jugular artery. The Queen was lying on top of Anara who had passed out from the sudden pain in her arm, and young pleading eyes were looking at the door.
"Please help her, Xena. You saved Thania, please save her."
The former Conqueror stood nailed to the spot. She knew the woman soon would die and then no one would ever be hurt by her again. A deep voice reached her ear. "Help her, little one. It wasn't her, I give you my word of honour."
Xena worked in silence. She really had lost a lot of blood but the chest wound in itself wasn't life threatening, with time and good care she would live. When she told the girl, her eyes were lightning up with relief and joy.
"She will be very weak for the days to come, Piri. She will sleep a lot and whenever she's awake someone has to be at her side."
"I will care for her, I promise."
"Are you really sure that you want to do this? You don't do this just because you're afraid or something?"
"Please, Queen Melosa, I don't want to loose her. She's strict but she also is my best friend. I love her."
"You can stay with her as long as you want, Piri, but you don't have to do everything by yourself. You will have plenty of help in the healer's hut."
"Queen Melosa, it would be better not to move her this far yet, not for two or three days anyway. The stitches I put on her chest, there are a lot of old scars and the skin is very thin, it wouldn't be good if they were pulled. There may not be enough unmarred skin left to redo them properly."
"When will she be well enough to answer some questions? I still have to find out what happened with the others."
"As soon as she is settled on the cot I'll give her some painkillers and sleeping herbs. I think it will be tomorrow around noon before she re-awakes. Could you find someone to help me with the cleaning of the hut?"
"I will see that the blood and gore are washed away, that's not your job. Instead I want you to check Anara's arm, make sure that the other patients are still settled and then come back with the healing tea."
Xena nodded and guided a slightly dizzy healer to her quarters. The sudden pressure had caused some bleeding but there weren't any stitches pulled, so the tall woman simply changed the bandage and put her to bed, with surprisingly little resistance.
The only way to calm down the other occupants of the hut was to tell them the truth about the night's commotion. The girls seemed relieved and one of them asked her if Piri's mistress really would get well again.
"That's good! How? She wasn't much better than the others." Eponin's voice came from the back door.
Thania unsuccessfully tried to sit up in her bed and answered. "That's not true, Najara and the two others only were mean when she wasn't with them. They told us that she was too old to understand the wisdom of their methods."
Xena knelt next to Thania bed. "I understand, little one. It will take some time but Yolica will get well again. She feels responsible for what happened to all of you but the Queen will find a way to make things right again. Piri will stay with her mistress, so stop worrying and sleep now. - Akyra could you please keep an eye on them while I return to the detention hut."
The black eyed woman nodded and Eponin followed Xena who was well aware of the tension and anger emanating from the weapons' master. "The moon is still high, Eponin, are you up for some sparring?"
"I can't understand you. I saw your eyes in the council's hut and yet in there you practically turned Yolica into some kind of victim, why?"
"I am still angry with her. We'll talk after the sparring. We'll meet at the training grounds. I'm probably not up to hand-to-hand. You better chose some staves. Don't worry about the law, I already went against it once this morning."
The scent of blood was still discernible to Xena's sensitive nostrils but the obvious reminders of whatever had happened in the detention hut were gone. Melosa and Piri were sitting side-by-side opposite of the cot. Yolica's eyes were closed but the breathing rhythm told Xena that she was wide-awake.
"Yolica, here drink this."
The older woman opened her eyes. "I know you dressed my wounds, why? Only five candledrops more and I would have gone with honour."
"I have an Amazon's word of honour that you didn't harm the girls, and I'll never doubt her. I heard a lot of stories about you when I was still a child; stories I now know were true. You don't deserve to die - and now drink this and sleep."
Xena joined Eponin at the training grounds where big torches were set in a circle to chase the night away. Gabrielle was sitting in her wheelchair just inside of this circle of light.
The candlemarks in the barn with her love had done a lot for Xena to acknowledge and accept her memories and the emotional turmoil they still held. Now, she needed to vent her anger and helplessness as desperately as Eponin did. This Gabrielle knew for certain, but she wasn't too happy with the choice of weapon or Xena's injury. She knew Eponin was one of the best staff fighters in Amazon history.
The two warriors began to circle each other. Their movements were slow, thrust and parry almost tentative.
Eponin attacked first, a downward sweep aimed at Xena's knees was easily blocked. She used the momentum of the rebound to go for the taller woman's ribs but the staff only met thin air.
Xena's first attack consisted in a rapid succession of right and left thrusts aimed at Eponin's midsection, forcing her two steps backwards. The weapons' master finally ducked one of them, rolled out of the way and the dance began anew.
Many Amazons weren't able to go back to sleep quietly, so the circle of light soon was lined with spectators, Melosa and Solari at Gabrielle's side. The two of them went on and on for over two candlemarks, their bodies glistening with sweat, muscles trembling in the torchlight. Gabrielle and the Queen flinched every time when one or the other of their respective lovers was hit; but they also didn't miss that the grim and frozen expression on their faces slowly made place for an almost relaxed grin. They really began to enjoy themselves.
When their movements began to slow down the Queen sent them to the bathing area and ordered the rest of her subjects to get some shuteye. Xena and Eponin had a lot to talk about and the dawn was breaking when they finally returned to the Queen's hut where Melosa and Gabrielle were waiting in front of the fireplace.
The fire was burning low and their lovers were fast asleep. Xena carried the blond storyteller to her bed and gently tucked her in. She banked the fire, locked the chain to her slave collar, and snuggled next to Gabrielle. She was sure sleep would elude her but when she opened her eyes the sun was high in the sky, and Gabrielle regardless of her splints was comfortably draped on top of her.
The door opened and Eponin undid the chain. She told her that Anara didn't need her help at the moment and that she should stay in bed until Gabrielle came back to the land of the living. She also told her that the Queen at this very moment was in a meeting with the elders to decide upon her punishment.
"It's a rather long list of things I wasn't allowed to do. Perhaps it would be easier to just add them to the list of charges and deal with it during the trial. Are there any news yet about what possibly happened in the detention hut?"
"Nothing definitive. Solari has some ideas but she's not sure yet. Your prosecutor has offered her help. She seems to have experience with this kind of death. They're currently looking at the bodies."
"Theano is very good as a lawyer, and she also works a lot outside the Amazon borders. Please, tell Solari to take her advice seriously."
"I will, Xena."
"Open your eyes, Gabrielle. I can hear that you're not sleeping any more. Please don't be angry with Theano, my love!"
"Don't you dare taking her side! What she does is wrong. She will get you killed. She's a traitor."
"Gabrielle, please, don't talk about her like this. She's a friend; she's much more than a friend. She will do everything she can to save my life but she also knows that justice has to be satisfied. That's the first thing she ever taught me and it took me long enough to remember this lesson. Take some time and talk to her, please."
"I'll try - but I'm hungry first."
Xena knew that sudden changes of subject always meant that Gabrielle wasn't ready to talk yet, and over the moons, she had learned to accept these reluctancies. Talking was very important to the younger woman but she tended to always work things out for herself first.
"According to the monster growling in your stomach, you're starving, love. Let's go and feed the monster."
Before they could completely finish their morning meal two members of the royal guard escorted Xena to the council's hut. Melosa was standing in the middle of the room, the elders forming a half-circle behind her and like last time Xena knelt in front of the Queen.
"No, Xena, you will not be judged as a slave but as an Amazon warrior, please get up." The tall woman changed her position and now was kneeling on her right knee only. "Xena, you were accused of disrespectful interruption of a council meeting, using inappropriate violence against Amazons, usage of a weapon without permission, and disobedience.
"The council found you not guilty of the first two charges but you're guilty of disobedience by leaving the healer's hut. The usage of the staff in the morning was considered self-defence but the sparring match with Eponin can't be interpreted as such. Do you deny any of these charges?"
"Queen Melosa, venerable elders," Xena answered, her eyes locked with the Queen's, "I don't deny the charges and will accept any punishment."
"For disobedience you will receive ten strokes with a strap on your back and ten on your buttocks. For using a weapon without permission and life-threatening need you will spend the rest of the day in the barn, grooming and brushing the horses."
Around midday, the doors of the barn opened and Toris entered carrying a tray with bread, cheese, and a pitcher of plain cider. Never one for idle small talk her brother came straight to the point. "Gabrielle told me what happened yesterday, with the girls and all. Are you all right?"
Xena considered her options and voted for honesty. "Yes, Toris, I am now. - Yesterday it was pretty tough but Gab took care of me, and the sparring with Eponin also helped. It was the first time I couldn't deny what happened, I don't feel the need to hide it any longer but I'm also not really ready to talk about it."
"Gabrielle was pretty shaken by what you told her, but obviously you didn't tell her all of it."
"No, I didn't. It may have contributed to who I am now but it wasn't necessary to explain why I reacted the way I did. I killed a man twice your actual size when I was eleven. How do you explain this? There are times I don't believe it myself."
"You did what you had to do, sis. - I also talked to Theano, she said you'll need more time to deal with it, and she said …." He fell silent when he saw the guarded expression on his sister's face. He swallowed hard and then continued. How do you feel with her at the other side of the fence? Gabrielle really is pissed off at her, and though I don't feel any compassion for the things, you did as a warlord I really don't want to see you dead. I don't understand her either but I never did. Perhaps I should talk to Queen Melosa about it. Theano certainly is prejudiced, so perhaps Queen Melosa will name a prosecutor not as good as she is."
"The Queen knows that there is a very personal connection between us. She probably doesn't know to which extend but she trusts Theano to keep both sides separated in this case. I already told Gabrielle, Theano will do everything legally possible to keep me alive. But Toris, you, and Gabrielle, you both have to understand that some of the most horrible things I did in my life I did to the Amazons. I betrayed them and the values they live by. I'm responsible for the death of the warriors of a whole tribe - and I'm ready to pay for my crimes. Year after year hatred and anger fuelled my actions but even then they couldn't completely silence the guilt I feel."
The dark haired woman knew Toris still didn't understand, so she added. "When I opened my heart to Gabrielle a lot of other feelings came back, and since I once again live with Amazons every day I understand better what I really destroyed all those years ago."
"You really aren't the Conqueror any more, sis."
"Oh, Toris, alas, it isn't this easy. I may no longer be the Conqueror of Greece and Rome but I'm still capable of killing in cold blood. You saw me on the battlefield. No one would have been able to stop me, neither friend nor foe, not even the God of War himself."
"So, it's true that you are Ares' Chosen?"
They were sitting on a bale of hay, the tray between them. She didn't answer and avoided his eyes.
"It's all right, Xena, I don't want you to feel uncomfortable with my questions. Gabrielle warned me that you probably wouldn't answer all of them."
Blue eyes looked into blue eyes. "No, Toris, you deserve an answer but I don't want you to talk about it to anyone else. Sometimes, I don't understand it myself. No, I'm not Ares' Chosen. I never swore allegiance to him. Yes, I am Ares' Chosen because he always showed great interest in what I was doing. He tried to influence my decisions and gave me lessons in warfare."
"Lessons, the God of War?"
"Yeah, told you it isn't easy to understand. It began after Cortese, well about two moons later. At first, I thought it was nothing but a dream. I had this odd feeling in the pit of my stomach, my skin was crawling, and there he was, telling me that one day I would rule the world and that war was the only way to save the future of mortal life. He told me that he would give me an army composed of the best and most ruthless fighters ever. At the time I loved the power ruling my man gave me but I didn't think twice about the future. At the time I didn't want to rule the world, I only wanted to keep Amphipolis save."
"You talked to the God of War? What does he look like? Why didn't you accept his help?"
"He's tall, about a half foot taller than we are, broad shoulders, black hair and beard, black leather clothing. Handsome for a man. He loves to hear himself talk, his stories taught me a lot about errors other warlords had made, sometimes fatal errors and for the most part, I avoided to repeat them. One of the lessons I learned was that it doesn't pay to rely on his help. There was this siege of a fortified village, he told me about, and it didn't go too well, so the warlord asked for Ares' help. The God he prayed to didn't help him. Ares told me that everyone who needed his help could ask for it but that the one's who actually did weren't worth his attention.
"I learned as much as I could from our little talks but as long as he was near me the feeling in my stomach didn't go away. I didn't trust him and tried to keep my distance. At least, until he stopped coming himself and sent the cloaked woman warrior instead. She always wore black leather and a black mask, she didn't tell me her name but the better part of my fighting skills I learned from her. She taught me how to defeat someone twice my size, gave me lessons in hand-to-hand combat, wrestling, archery and swordplay. And we talked about campaign strategy and how to lead an army.
"She was different, she didn't tell me what to do but taught me how to use my brain. Some of the things she said to me I didn't understand for years to come and there are a lot that I still don't truly understand. - I had a few sparring lessons with Ares but I'm convinced that she could have bested him easily. After Caesar she didn't come back but Ares reappeared when I took Corinth."
"Why do you speak so frankly about these things, Xena? Don't you fear his wrath?"
"That's one of the reasons I don't want you to talk about it, Toris. It's fairly safe to do so in Amazon territory. It's said that generations and generations ago Zeus granted a favour to Artemis. No other God is allowed to cross the Amazon borders except in Artemis' company or with her consent. Only Artemis knows what happens in the confines of this village and the forest beyond - and Ares never would be allowed to enter Amazon territory."
"I never thought of the Conqueror as one who really believes in the Gods."
"For a long time I didn't, Toris, and I still believe that we mortals forge our own destinies but somehow they keep dropping in and out of my life. So, I know they exist, and I know they can rely upon powers far greater than we mortals do but they also are far from perfect being ruled by their feelings just as much as we are."
"I definitively have to think about what you just told me, sis. There's another question I don't get out of my mind…." Before Toris could finish his phrase the barn doors burst open and Piri requested Xena's help, Yolica obviously had pulled the stitches in her chest.
When Xena ran over the Queen already had put an end to it. "Good timing, Xena. I came to speak with Yolica but first the bandages have to be re-done. I'll wait outside."
"Piri would you go to healer's hut and bring over some healing tea." Xena shifted her attention to the older woman. "It probably will hurt to take the old bandages off, Yolica, but I'll try to be as gentle as possible. Can you prop your upper body up on your elbows for better access?"
The Amazon elder did as she was told. The soft touches surprised her and the equally soft voice commenting on everything Xena did. Two of the stitches were slightly pulled and easily redone. There was no sign of an infection or inflammation.
While her upper torso was re-wrapped, the older woman asked. "Yesterday your eyes were filled with hate. Where did it go?"
"Yesterday I looked at you, Yolica, but I didn't see you. I saw what I thought you did, I hated the woman capable of doing these things. Now I know better. Piri loves you and the other girls are really worried about you. Please don't try to harm yourself any further." The old woman just nodded. "I'll check on you again after dinner. Drink the tea when Queen Melosa is through with her questions."
Xena took Piri back to the barn after the Queen had promised to notify the girl as soon as her presence was required at the detention hut. Toris had left a note that he was off finding his son and would be back later. The tray still was sitting on the bale and so they settled down for a late lunch. The girl insisted on helping Xena with the horses, and when Gabrielle about two candlemarks later rolled through the still opened doors the tall warrior was brushing Argo's coat while Piri was perched on her back combing the mane.
Argo was the last horse to be done and so they soon took a comfortable spot in the hay to listen to one of Gabrielle's stories, the younger woman having largely profited of the Amazon's history and story scrolls since her recovery from the poison induced fever more than a moon ago. She already had a whole set of scrolls of her own filled with favourite stories and notes. Trying to write with her left hand at first was awkward and barely legible but Xena had frequently encouraged her lover and now she managed fairly well.
Meanwhile Chandala was in the council's hut nervously waiting to speak with Queen Melosa.
"My Queen, I know you don't have much time with the council meeting about to begin. It's the trial… The charge of deliberate murder against Xena of Amphipolis. I filed it. I'm no longer sure if it really was murder. I'd like to withdraw the charge, my Queen."
Melosa was surprised, only days ago the body language and also the eyes of the young warrior spoke clearly of her hatred and lust for revenge, now she seemed to be confused and rather insecure. Unfortunately now wasn't the time to dig deeper, and though Melosa more than approved of her request, the regulations didn't leave her any choice in the matter.
"Did you speak with Theano before you decided to speak with me, Chandala?"
"No, my Queen, I… I didn't want to disappoint her."
"You should have. She would have told you that it's far too late to change any of the charges. The trial was scheduled for a distinct date; changes only can be made a day and a night before this day. Xena's trial only was postponed; it's too late to change the preferral of charges. I'm sorry."
Upon registering the crestfallen expression on Chandala's face Melosa continued. "There's one thing you should keep in mind though you probably won't like it. The foremost duty of the defence lawyer is to prove the innocence of the client; they have to be biased. The prosecutor's duty however is not to prove the guilt of the defendant, her main goal is to find the truth. It's her duty to see that justice is satisfied. Think about it, and now send in the elders."
"Thank you, Queen Melosa."
At the barn Gabrielle was just finishing her second story when Toris and Lyceus joined them. The boy reminded Gabrielle that she had promised to tell a story to him.
"Yes, I did but I'll need something to drink first or I'll get a sore throat. What about you, Piri? You could check on Yolica on our way to the dining hall."
The girl cast a questioning look at Xena, received an encouraging smile, and left the barn.
"I'm sorry, we were interrupted earlier. Let's take a walk, I'm about finished in here and Yolica or the Queen won't need me until shortly before sundown."
Half a candlemark later they arrived in a small glen with a bubbling spring bathed in afternoon sunlight. They sat down and Xena asked. "Now, tell me what's the other thing that's intriguing you, Toris?"
Long heartbeats passed before the blue-eyed man removed his eyes from the yellow wild flowers next to his boots.
"The other day… I saw your back."
Silence, followed by a sigh. "Are you sure, you wanna know about it, bro?"
"I can accept what Gabrielle and Queen Melosa told me about the past moons. So, I can make sense of the things this other Amazon told me. Darphus was different. One would suppose that a man with his voice shouldn't speak all the time but he did. He babbled incessantly, about the things he would do in the future; and he gloated about all his past accomplishments. I didn't believe him then but since I saw your back I began to … well, doubt, sort of..."
"I can easily imagine what he told you. He was one of my commanders and along the way; it became personal, very personal. You sort of were part of the final chapter of this story. I never really talked about it, so I'm not sure where or when to begin."
Xena focused on the swirling water of the spring but her voice testified of the fact that she was about to relate some rather hurtful memories.
"After I conquered Greece all I had to worry about was the security of our borders which was granted by numerous treaties and alliances. Five years ago Egypt rallied forces with Persia. My spies told me in time to make ample preparations and I… we were able to destroy the Persian army before they even had a chance to set foot on the Grecian soil. Left on their own the Egyptians backed off. When we returned to Greece we had to deal with a lot of wounded, slowing down the mayor part of the army considerably…"
It had been a rough campaign; some of Xena's most trusted commanders and lieutenants were dead or wounded due to the ruthlessness and cruelty displayed by the Persian army. More than once she had to deal with advance parties sent to destroy the crop, burn the villages and even kill their inhabitants, their own fellow countrymen just to spread hunger and disease along the path of her advancing army.
The journey back was even more tedious. Every day's progress had to be properly prepared, provisions had to be procured in advance, small bands of raiders and slavers taken care of, groups of Persian soldiers who didn't agree with their king's surrender and just continued harassing them to be dispatched.
For safety measures the dark haired warlord divided her army, the mayor part staying with the wounded and the heavy wagons under Palemon's command while Xena stayed with the smaller advance party of about five score with Darphus as her second. The better part of her time was spent with intimidating village elders to procure the supplies they needed. After everything the villagers just had lived through most of them considered that giving up a part of their provisions was a small prize to pay for their lives and limbs, even if some of them probably would go hungry in the upcoming winter. The little resistance they faced from time to time was quickly subdued.
They were at about a day's riding distance to the Grecian border when the brewing hostility between Xena and her second in command finally boiled over.
It had been raining four days in a row; everything was damp, the bedrolls, the blankets, and the tents, even the spare clothes. The provisions spoiled or tasteless, and the small fires Xena against all odds had managed to get going weren't all that helpful. Though this fourth day the weather began to clear around midday and the sun broke through the still clouded sky, her men were evil spirited and ready to tear into each other. Having made camp for the evening, the three scouts she had sent ahead in the morning came back with news about a middle-sized village situated in a sheltered clearing behind a ridge three candlemarks west from their encampment. There weren't any defences to worry about and the inhabitants mainly were composed of elders, women, and children.
Kafourka was one of these self-relying villages not interested in the problems of the outside world. It was founded by Grecian farmers some fifty years ago and still didn't show any of the signs so typical for Persian settlings. They lived from farming, sheep, and horses; in fact, they were beginning to get rather famous for their pure breeds. On the way in, Xena had spent two or three relaxing candlemarks speaking horses with their reeve when they requested to be incorporated in the Grecian realm after the end of the campaign. She had promised to at least think about it, already contemplating the advantages to gain from the horsemanship of the villagers and the possibility of being able to rely on a continuous supply of trained horses.
She hadn't made up her mind yet but when the scouts had finished their report, she made a mental note to talk to the council of elders once again while they were waiting for the rest of the army to catch up.
"Sounds like a good opportunity to have some fun for the guys," commented Darphus, "those women would be good to release the tension, have a decent meal, a warm bed and some fun. What do you think, Xena? We'll find you a good-looking pal as well."
"The village soon will be a part of Greece, the inhabitants are not to be harmed. However, beginning tomorrow the men will be allowed to take some time off, not more than 10 or 15 men at a time and they'll better be on their best behaviour."
"It was a long campaign, Xena. Just once, show some sense. The men need to spend some of their pent-up energy. A good fuck or a good fight will do a world of good to them. Down there, they even could get both. You just keep too tight a reign. I don't care why they fight as long as they follow our orders. However, experience taught me that it pays to let them have some fun, once in a while. Helps to keep them in line. Hell, I need to fuck someone, myself."
The back of Xena's right hand landed on the right cheek of the sturdy soldier propelling him to the other end of the tent.
"Never doubt my orders, never again. You know the regulations about pillaging and rape. In the long run, it doesn't pay to kill the civilians. There's no leeway in this, and no discussion. We're soldiers no barbarians. I don't like soldiers only acting out of greed or lust; I demand loyalty. I won't tolerate uppity, Darphus, not from the kitchen help and certainly not from my second in command. Consider yourself on probation - next time you'll end up as a common soldier. Well, if you're very lucky, that is. Understood?"
"Yes, General." The man was still on the ground, his eyes refusing to meet Xena's.
"Smart boy, I'll go for a ride, I won't be back until tomorrow morning. Then we all will do some sparring if you really think that the men have too much energy. I'll begin with a sword fight against you, just to set the mood for my men."
The Conqueror spent the better part of the night on the back of her dark gray mare, her hair flying freely in the night wind. From time to time, she needed the freedom of being all for herself to keep her temper. Most of the time, her outings ended with a long bath in a spring or stream, and she was more than ready to face another moon of sweating men, blood and gore, of worrying about strategy, supplies or all the civilian followers involved in a campaign like this.
Xena was lying in the middle of a small lake, and tried to find patterns in the night sky, bears and archers and balances and virgins, and Chasing Wolves or Pointed Arrows. Innumerable heartbeats later a red and yellow glow at the eastern sky diverted her attention. Dawn was at least three candlemarks away. So, there was only one possible explanation: a fire. Xena hastily regained the shore and donned her leathers. The mare snorted impatiently, obviously sensing the uneasiness of her mistress. On top of her steed she now could smell the raging fire, and only then realised where it came from.
The red glow of dawn mingled with the dying flames of the fire when the hooves of her mare thundered towards what once had been Kafourka. Without even bothering to stop, she jumped down and the chakram sliced through the throat of one of her men crouched over the inert body of a woman, his trousers at knee level. Another one was impaled by her sword, and most of the others had enough sense to jump out of her line of sight when she began to make her way to one of the few buildings still standing, following a grunting noise she recognised as belonging to Darphus.
Once again, her second in command found himself on the ground, struggling to rearrange his clothing in a semblance of decency. Xena knew at first sight the woman was dead but nonetheless checked her injuries.
"Darphus, you sick bastard, my sword will not be tainted with your blood." Xena picked up a kitchen knife the woman obviously had tried to defend herself with. "I'll gut you like the stinking pig you are."
Xena's arm was high over her head, ready to throw the knife when her attention was diverted; there was a sound, something between wailing and sobbing, coming from the neighbouring room. She sheathed the knife on the inside of her right boot, opened the door and found herself face to face with about two score of children, differing in age from babies and toddlers to teens.
They stared at each other; Xena could smell their fear. Candledrops stretched to eternity while she decided what to do. "Stay here, I'll be back to get you all to safety."
When she closed the door and turned, Darphus was gone but there were more pressing matters to attend to first. The bodies had to be gathered and burned, the last of the flames extinguished, the injured tended to, and she had to find the surviving relatives of the children. So, she took a deep breath, left the small house, and began to bark orders.
A quick count told her that about two thirds of her advance party hat joined in the raid. She wrote a message to the remaining third to break camp, and come to the village immediately. One of the older village boys delivered the parchment for her because she wasn't sure that she could trust her men this far. At the moment, they followed her orders but she didn't miss the covert glances they cast at each other nor the weary and hateful looks directed her way. So, Xena stayed on her guard.
The following candlemarks were spent mostly with tending to the few survivors, about ten women, half of them heavy with child and the better part of the council of elders, trapped in the cellar of the inn in the course of testing last years vintage when the raid began. Darphus obviously had made them believe that he was only following her orders, and she had a hard time to convince them otherwise.
Xena was in the midst of checking on the wounded in the makeshift infirmary that had been set up at the inn, the healer's hut having burned to the ground. Shortly after midday, the sound of thundering hooves filled the air and a small band of about fifteen riders entered the village, her messenger among them. Their leader was a dark skinned young man with shining eyes. During her stay in the Persian capital, he had been part of her personal guards and had proved himself being a skilled fighter with fast and gracefully fluid movements. His name was Marcos.
He told her that Darphus had incited all of them to descend upon the villagers in order to, as he called it, 'finally get some fun out of this Gods be damned campaign' and that they now would get what they deserved, what they had earned by their blood. Marcos and his men tried to make the others see reason but to no avail. Darphus had them bound and gagged. As soon as they were able to free themselves they sent a party of ten riders back to the main army, three scouts were following the hoof prints of Xena's mare and three more were trying to find the village's men.
Before Xena could make up her mind what to do with this small but loyal group shouting and crying called her to the other end of the village. She jumped on the back of her mare. When she turned the last corner she saw a sword ready to be pierced through a small crying bundle lying on the ground next to the inert body of a young woman. Her chakram stopped the attack. The momentum of the weapon propelled the middle-aged man to the ground without hurting him. Xena landed in front of him, picked up the now loudly wailing child, and at the same time drew her sword.
"Even think of killing the child and you'll be next to greet Hades. You're supposed to be soldiers but you act like a band of common thugs. You not only have disgraced yourself, Greece will be judged by the way you behave, and as soon as we're back at Corinth you will be dealt with accordingly."
Xena made a swift turn; well aware of the murderous glances the men sent her way. She returned to Marcos and his group. Now she knew what she had to do. She ordered the newcomers to escort the women, children, and elders out of the village. They were to escort them to a small valley a half day's ride to the southeast where according to the elders the able bodied men were chasing and branding this year's foals and fillies. The stretchers and wagons were quickly readied and Xena accompanied them to the edge of the village and followed them with her eyes as long as possible.
The raven-haired warrior turned her steed and sighed. She slowly regained the village square, equally determined to get her men back in line and to punish Darphus and his cronies.
"In the past I more than once had to deal with over-ambitious high-ranking soldiers. Darphus was just one more. He would challenge me, I would kill him, and everything soon would return to working order. Unfortunately Darphus was more cunning than most of them. - When I reached the central market place of the village the better part of the raiders were listening to his low, vibrating voice."
"Xena betrayed us all. Her coffers are full of Persian gold and jewellery but we will never see a single coin of it. On our way back, we could have laid waste to every single village along our way. We wouldn't have been forced to live on travelling bars and water. The cellar we just found is full of the finest wine, another one has meat and fruits that will last us a full moon, probably more. But Xena ordered us to leave them alone. We no longer will suffer the whims of a mere woman."
The already heavily drunk soldiers broke in a round of cheers and howling.
"We will hunt down the women and children, we will kill their men, and then we will return and celebrate the victory of the only true disciples of Ares."
Xena listened to his ramblings sitting astride her tall gray mare, and when his last phrase was finished, she broke in a full-throated laugh before the men could once again cheer their new leader.
"Ares never was known to champion wanna-be leaders and cowards, Darphus. Leadership is something that has to be earned, and you will have to fight for it."
"Oh no. Xena, I won't walk open-eyed into your trap. I won't fight you. My men won't allow it - yes, Gen'rl, my men. They don't follow your orders any longer."
Xena heard the distinctive whiz of at least three crossbow bolts heading towards her but not one of them penetrated her personal space. Instead, her trusty mare collapsed and she found herself lying on the ground next to her dying horse, more than a dozen swords pointed at her throat and chest.
Darphus jumped down the wagon from which he had delivered his speech. He looked down at her, his voice filled with malice and triumph.
"You will be the party entertainment, Xena. When we're finished you will be begging to serve me, and I'm not talking about your overestimated warrior skills. You will be my personal body slave and you will love it."
Once again, Xena laughed and the surrounding crowd fell silent. She seemed relaxed but her laughter held no warmth. Her mind was racing. First of all, she had to keep them from hunting down the villagers. She could try and fight them and she even had a chance to win. She also knew that fighting them she wouldn't be able to control all of her opponents. A score or so of them easily could get away and kill the women and children. She had to find a way to keep them all occupied, to keep their attention fixed on her and on her only.
Finally, Xena said. "There's only one way to get rid of me, Darphus. If you don't accept the challenge, you will have to accept a vote, a two third's majority. Or could it be that you're not too sure about the loyalty of 'your' men?!"
A cruel smile appeared on his face. "A vote is fine with me but we'll do it the old fashioned way. If the vote decides against you, you will leave my army the way every real warrior did for hundreds of years. You just signed your death sentence, o mighty warrior woman."
The men around her were murmuring, some of them shaking their heads, some of them obviously shocked. Running the gauntlet as a disciplinarian measure had been abandoned generations ago. It was considered too cruel and thus inefficient.
"We'll see who's going to die in the end." Xena was shaking inside, she knew as good as any of her men that her chances of survival were rather slim but it would have been totally against her nature to back out of this challenge. "Let's take this vote now."
Three of the older soldiers supervised the vote. It took them over a candlemark to find a small trunk with black and white beads in the still smoldering remnants of the council's hall. Every soldier would receive one of each; drop one of them in a big amphora and then the counting would begin. In the end, there were 23 white beans and 49 black ones. It was a rather narrow majority but all Darphus needed.
"Take her weapons and armour, don't forget the leather dress."
Since she had send off the wagon train more than two candlemarks had passed, not enough time to get out of the range of Darphus' men. She still needed to bind their attention as long as possible, so she didn't resist when two of the more adventurous men demanded her weapons. "I'll take them off myself."
Another half candlemark went by with the men taking their positions, evenly spaced across the whole length of the village square. The men were armed with thick branches ripped from nearby trees, leather belts, whips, riding crops, there were even some swords meticulously wrapped with thick layers of cloth. A big drum was brought to the finish line and one of the older men took his place behind it. Xena stared unblinking in the afternoon sun, knowing that she probably wouldn't see another sunrise, while her hands were tightly bound behind her back. The men weren't allowed to leave their assigned positions but as long as she was within the reach of their whips and other implements, they were free to strike as often as they liked.
Xena's face didn't show the fear she felt slowly sinking its claws in her heart but she also didn't wear the impassable warrior's mask the men were used to. Her eyes were shining with hatred and her whole posture signalled disdain and revenge.
Darphus was on the other side and drew a line on the dirty ground. "This is your last chance to live, Xena. Surrender and swear loyalty to me and you may live as befitting a woman, at the feet of a real man. Choose now!"
This time Xena's laughter sent waves of chill and shudder through most of the men. "Do you really think I will do something to you I denied to the God of War himself? Besides, have you recently had a look in a mirror, I never would take you in my bed, not even if we were the last living beings in the world. No, Darphus, I will live as a free woman, and I will return to make you pay for what you did to this village. And now, let the drums begin."
Without awaiting Darphus' command, the drumstick fell on the taut deerskin and Xena took her first step forward. The sun disappeared behind a black cloud, tinting the whole scene with an aura of dark foreboding. A tree limb almost as thick as a battle mace hit her in the stomach and she tumbled back. She started again ducked the first blow only to be hit by the same weapon square in the back throwing her to the ground. The tip of a whip hitting her again and again while she tried to get back to her feet had something sharp tied in it, Xena could hear her shift tearing and felt her skin breaking. She was half way up when someone sliced through her bindings and pushed her forward.
Her arms were free and she was able to fight back. She never knew which one of her former soldiers freed her but it was the edge she needed to survive the ordeal. Wrestling with one of the whip-holders, Xena didn't see the sword coming. It hit her in the back and she once again fell to the ground. The weapon hit her with such force that it sliced through the wrappings around the blade and cowered her back with blood. Riding crops and sticks continued to rain blows on her and she was one breath away from passing out. Then her eyes found Darphus' face, his triumphant smile gave her all the motivation she needed. Fuelled by pain and hatred she continued on.
There were only ten or twelve feet left to master; Xena was on her knees. She didn't have enough strength left to fight her aggressors. She was way beyond pain, her whole energy fixed at the line on the ground. She didn't feel the blows any longer, her vision was blurring. Her legs gave way and she was drawing herself forward with the strength of her fingers and arms only. Her right hand reached over the line, the drumming stopped, the last two of the men stopped in mid-motion.
Xena slowly realised that it was over; she had crossed the line and she was still breathing. She reached deep inside herself, activating energy she usually only could tap into during a battle. She got on her knees and feet, sweat and blood pouring down her body, her eyes were dark, and the men next to her easily could feel the equally dark energy emanating from her. All around the square voices were heard calling what just happened 'a miracle', 'unheard of' or 'utterly unbelievable'.
Darphus voice drowned them all. "Kill her!"
The old man at the drums blocked his way. "No! Xena followed the rules, fair and square. She crossed the line and has earned her freedom. She is free to go, it would dishonour us all to kill her now."
Darphus knew that this soldier was speaking the others' hearts and he backed off. "Go and never ever return."
As only answer, she spat him right between the eyes and left the village casting a last regretful glance at her dead horse. The sun hasn't returned but her inner sense of time told her that it was about sunset. Marcos and the wagons any time now must be arriving at the valley.
Xena stumbled through the growing darkness, not exactly knowing where she was headed, nor caring about the clear trail of blood she was leaving. After what seemed like an eternity but only was about three or three and a half candlemarks, she reached the entrance to a small cave. She could hear water dripping inside and collapsed on the ground after having quenched her thirst.
When Xena finally regained consciousness daylight was filtering through the cave entrance. Her tattered shift was gone, and she was lying face down on a soft fur-lined bedroll. There was a wet piece of cloth draped all over her back and she could feel the controlled breathing of another human being, just out of her reach and observing her every move.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Terreis, General."
"You're the Amazon scout, the one without a tribe but with a lot of sisters."
"That's me, General. I was with the scouts following the footprints of your horse. She was beautiful, I'm sorry, she had to die."
"Me too. Help me up, I have an army to find and traitors to execute."
"No, General, not now. Your body needs rest, lots of rest. I managed to stop the bleeding for now but even the slightest amount of strain or pressure will it get it going again. I'll need your help if I'm going to sew you up. The permission to call a good healer would even be better. I'm not very good with herbs and all this stuff. Palemon will take care of Darphus and his men. I sent one of my companions to find him. I wrote a scroll telling him what happened. It doesn't go into details about the extend of your injuries but states that you're alive and will be joining with him as soon as possible."
"How did you know?"
"One of the older soldiers in the village gave me a resume. He also had your sword and your armour but I couldn't find the chakram. Darphus won't stay their leader for very long. He tried to send some scouts to kill you for good but the men insisted that you are to be left alone. They said that you have earned your freedom. The men also don't like that he insists on going after the villagers. Your trail was easy to follow; even a blind scout would have been able to find it. I erased your footprints and the blood."
"Do you always talk this much, Terreis?"
"Only when I'm nervous, General. I don't want you to hurt yourself by getting up too early, and what's more, I'm not really good with needle and thread and I never had to suture up gashes this deep and numerous."
"I'll tell you what to do, step by step. Did you also 'find' my saddlebags?"
"No, I didn't but the old soldier also gave your healer's pack to me. He said it probably would come in handy."
"Yeah, it does. At first, we will have to clean the wounds. The cold water was a good idea but it won't be enough." Xena tried to sit up but the sharp pain hitting her whole body like a tidal wave quickly brought her back to her prone position.
"We stayed another three days in the cave. Meanwhile Palemon and the main part of the army had fought and killed what was left of Darphus' men, the more intelligent of them ran off when it finally sank in that the main army undoubtedly soon would be after them. The bruises on my front were healing nicely but at the end of the first day riding and walking some of the stitches broke. Terreis had a hard time getting them cleaned and closed. I hurt for more than a moon. She was probably the only person that stayed totally unimpressed by my continuous bad mood. Afterwards I asked her how she could possibly stand my bitching. She answered that a lifetime spent with the very nation the words cranky and bitchy and moody were created for was a good school for dealings with niggling generals." Xena ended her long report in an attempt to lighten the mood.
"What happened to Darphus?" Toris asked.
"He fled his own army only candledrops before they were attacked by Palemon. It took almost a moon to track him down. He was brought to Corinth and sentenced to death for rape and murder. The day of his trial also was the anniversary of my reign in Corinth. That's why I spared his life but I also made sure that he never would be able to commit another rape. I personally cut his balls off and made sure that he stayed alive. - I should have killed him. Terreis was right. It would have saved a lot of lives, those of the men at the frontier fort, and all the Amazons and First Order soldiers who died during the last two battles."
"Sister, you're full of bullshit. Don't blame yourself. Darphus is the one to blame. No one forced him to attack your soldiers or the Amazons. It was his responsibility, not yours, and as far as I could see a lot of lives were saved because you fought on their side. - Do you think one day the scars will fade?" The tall man was clumsily trying to redirect Xena's thoughts.
"I don't know, Toris, but I also don't mind them anymore. At first, they were a daily reminder of my over-confidence and a severe lapse in judgement. There are moments I still feel this way. For the most part, however, I now see them as a reminder of the first time in years my actions were not fuelled by hatred and anger, the first time my actions actually were for the benefit of others even though they endangered my primary goal."
"Primary goal?" Toris voice held a whole range of questions.
"Yeah, you know: keeping Greece save, destroying nations, conquering the world, stuff like this."
The raven-haired woman's tone was deliberately light but her body was tense, and Toris was able to detect sadness and regret in her eyes. So he did what he never had the courage to do when they still were kids, he put one arm around her shoulders and pulled her in a big hug. He could feel the tension slowly ebbing out of her body and finally whispered in her ear. "I'm proud of you, sis."
Chapter Eight: Amazon Justice
When the first rays of dawn slowly crept over the windowsill Xena found herself in her room in Queen Melosa's hut, securely wrapped in the arms of her young lover. Cautious not to disturb her peaceful sleep she got up and hurried to the healer's hut where she originally was supposed to spend the night. The evening's conversation with her brother had taken more out of Xena than she would have thought possible, so it was fortunate that her presence at the healer's hut hadn't been necessary.
When Xena opened the door, it was very calm with the girls and the other occupants of the infirmary still asleep. Anara took the opportunity to check on Xena's thigh. To the Amazon healer's great surprise, it was almost completely healed. The skin around the sutures was healthy without any sign of it having recently sported the angry red and pale white of inflammation. Anara cast the dark haired warrior an inquisitive look but Xena only shrugged her shoulders and gave her a lopsided grin.
"Don't search for an explanation, Anara. It has always been this way, I can't explain it either but it comes in handy when one's a warrior."
The Amazon healer obviously wanted to question her further but then thought better of it. "There's no doubt about this. I think we safely can take out the stitches but you should keep the bandage on for another day or two."
Xena nodded and even let Chulapa work on her thigh. The young woman eagerly had accepted the Queen's proposal that she should begin with her apprenticeship as a healer now, without waiting for the harvest festival. She not only showed great eagerness but also had a real talent for the healing arts. Her kindness and sensitivity had a calming and reassuring effect on her fellow Amazons.
When Xena left the infirmary to help Gabrielle with the wheelchair the Amazon council met once again, having spent almost all of yesterday with intense and controversial discussions. This day Queen Melosa was far better prepared, she already had decided what she wanted done and had passed the better part of the night away with preliminary talks with most of the council members. At midday, Solari, in her function as captain of the royal guards, was ordered to call all adult members of the tribe to the central square by blowing the great horn.
Generations ago the ram's horn had been used to announce the Queen's arrival at the battlefield and to proclaim great victories. It was said to be a gift to Penthesilea, the most brave and powerful warrior in Amazon history, unequalled in strategist's skills, feared enemy and trusty friend, a gift from Artemis herself.
Less than half a candlemark later, warriors and craftswomen, elders, apprentices and children were gathered in and around the central square, Xena and Gabrielle among them. Queen Melosa stepped onto the dais in front of the council's hut, wearing her mask and the rest of her royal attire. Eponin and Solari were on her right and on her left, both of them also wearing all the insignia of their ranks. It had been years since the nation had been summoned by the great horn; consequently, the assembly didn't take long to fall silent. They went to their knees in greeting.
Melosa's voice powerfully rang out over their bent heads. "Amazon sisters! I called upon you to celebrate a great victory in battle - and that's what we will do tonight. Our fallen sisters now are dwelling in the golden forest of Artemis; their courage never will be forgotten. Their spirit will stay in our hearts thus it will stay alive. We all have every reason to be proud of what we have accomplished."
Women sprang to their feet, cheers rose to the sky, and once again, Solari blew the great horn. Silence settled quickly on the square.
"Alas, Amazon sisters! I also called upon you because this time of joy and triumph also is a time of shame, to our village as well as to our tribe. You all know that the enemy army and their leader were largely helped by one of our own, by Najara, from now on known as Najara, the traitor. As we learned by surviving members of his army, Najara told him about the festival and she also convinced him to attack the day he did. Not only did she betray the very Nation she was born to, she cowardly also tried to kill an innocent child while escaping from the battlefield. From this day on she will be an outlaw, the council unanimously condemned her to death."
Melosa closed her eyes and fell silent while the tension among her audience grew considerably. She took a deep breath and continued.
"Najara was sent to another village because she was found guilty of rape and child abuse. I believed to act in the best interest of the girl as well as the village at the time by keeping her crimes out of the records. I also wanted to give Najara a chance to redeem herself out of respect for her fighting skills and the battles over the years she had to fight for the nation. The recent past showed that I was wrong. We have to thank Xena of Amphipolis that my misjudgement didn't have more serious consequences than it had. We have to thank her prowess as a warrior as well as her skills as a healer."
Melosa took a sip from the water skin held to her by the weapons' master. "Xena did more. She drew our attention towards two other cases of child abuse and rape. The evidence found in the huts of the warriors Umbra and Canara was overwhelmingly convincing. Both were found guilty and justice already has been satisfied. Two nights ago elder Yolica witnessed the culprits killing each other in the detention hut. Yolica was injured while trying to get them off of each other. The Amazon or Amazons responsible for tossing the daggers in the detention hut are to report to me privately to be punished for interfering in the true course of Amazon justice.
"At the time Yolica also had been a suspect. The evidence found in her hut as well as the testimony of her apprentice cleared her of all charges. Nonetheless, she holds herself responsible for the wrong doings of Canara and Umbra because both once counted among her warrior's apprentices. Her services to the nation are well known, not only as a warrior but also as a most estimated member of the elder's council. As the Queen, I don't see any responsibility on her part but out of respect, I granted her request. As soon as her health is completely restored, she wants to step down from her position as an elder. She then will resume responsibility not only for her own apprentice but also for Diona and Ryenna, the former apprentices of Canara and Umbra. The council will miss her wisdom and experience." The Queen took another deep breath.
"Before the preparations for the evening's festivities will begin, there's one more announcement to make: The trial of Xena of Amphipolis will begin tomorrow morning, one candlemark after the break of dawn. The Queen has spoken."
The women returned to their respective tasks, which had most of them, already involved in some kind of preparation for the upcoming festivity. Xena and Eponin were about to join two of the hunters for fishing when Silea blocked their way.
"Xena of Amphipolis, I challenge you to an archery competition."
"I accept the challenge, young warrior. We will follow the rules of two years ago, I presume?"
Before the young Amazon was able to answer, Eponin took a step forwards. "As weapons' master I object to the challenge. You should reconsider and eventually reissue the challenge when Xena can answer it appropriately. You should know that a slave is not allowed to use weapons of any kind. You should go back to your superior and think about what is honourable to do and dishonourable."
"Eponin, please don't interfere. I don't need a weapon for this kind of fight; none of us will get hurt. Silea has every right to issue this challenge; it's a question of honour to her. Don't worry."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, weapons' master, I am sure. We can go fishing in no more than half a candlemark."
"So be it. I will officially witness the challenge."
The three of them went to the training grounds. At the beginning of the long range area of the archery ground Silea stood and began to prepare her bow while Xena continued on to the target area. She turned around and faced the young Amazon. Her posture seemed relaxed and she wore a bored and somewhat sleepy expression on her face.
The young warrior took an arrow out of her quiver, drew back as far as possible, closed her eyes for half of a heartbeat and let her arrow fly. Eponin unintentionally held her breath but Xena still seemed largely unconcerned. To the weapons' master it was as if time stood still. One moment Xena stood motionless, the next she held the arrow in her almost fully outstretched hand. Eponin stared unbelievingly but this only was the beginning.
The rapidly following two arrows were as easily discarded as the first one. When the quiver was empty, Silea advanced to the markings for short range shooting and Xena handed her the arrows. The game started anew. The arrows now were much nearer to her face and chest when Xena caught them but none of them got through. Silea was down to the second to last arrow. This time her aim seemed to be completely off but suddenly the arrow began to righten itself and also seemed to gather speed thus coming in from a very unusual angle. At the same time, Xena saw the last arrow coming straight at her. She managed to catch the first but then had to jump out of the way and the steel tip of Silea's last arrow embedded itself in the bull's eye of the hay target. Obviously, this was the end of the challenge.
"You did good, Silea. You've learned a lot since the last time. If I still had an army to lead, I would be proud to count you among my top archers. You won the challenge fair and square." Xena offered her arm for a warrior's handshake but the young woman wordlessly turned and left the training grounds.
The tall raven-haired warrior now gave her attention to the weapons' master. "I owe an explanation to you. We can talk on the way to the river."
Eponin was still too dumb folded from Xena's performance to speak and only nodded. "When I began to prepare the campaign against Rome and Caesar I tried to recruit the best warriors I could lay my hands on. The Amazon village and their neighbours at the seacoast all had suffered from raids of Roman soldiers and Roman slavers. They all had a very good reason to fight them, so I was able to add some of the best sailors and navigators to my army. I had opted for a combined attack by sea and by land, and it really gave me the edge I needed to outsmart Caesar. He was too arrogant to believe that any army would stand a fighting chance against Roman legions, so he concentrated his attention on the sea battle. My ships had to engage the Romans and break up their battle formation. This necessitated a combination of long-range fighting and hand-to-hand combat. There were a lot more qualified candidates than I was willing to risk. I organised an archery contest to determine who would go and who would stay with the main army. I only allowed battle-hardened warriors on board of my ships.
"Silea breezed through the preliminary contests, technically she was one of the best. What you just saw was the final test. The task was to hit the target behind me, regardless how. Silea didn't have the stomach to try and hurt me in the process. This time she did, she even managed to trick me."
"Then why didn't she accept your surrender?"
"I'm not sure. I think that she didn't believe that she could win and I suppose she still feels robbed of her dreams. She desperately wanted to serve on my flagship but ended as a scout. She did a really good job at it; she saved one of my advance parties from running in an ambush. She would have been a good asset to the army, especially after the war. She just needs more time."
"You kept her in your line of sight by making her a scout and at the same time made sure that she made use of all of her Amazon training. Why did you try and protect her?"
"When the campaign began she still had her blood innocence. On a ship, there wouldn't have been time to deal with it but the leader of the scouts was also an Amazon. She wasn't alone when it happened and she had to deal with the aftermath of a battle for the first time."
"It may take some time but one day she will understand. Young warriors may have the skills but they don't know what it means to fight and to kill. Most of them have heard a lot about battle lust but they don't foresee that it would be dampened by emotional and physical pain and grief. There are always loved-ones or friends injured or dead. The young ones always have a hard time when they loose their blood innocence."
"Only when they're lucky. Having someone to talk to or to make love with is a lot of help. It's one of the better ways to spend this residual energy."
"Yes, darkness can be very tempting."
The two warriors fell silent, neither of them ready to give voice to their respective dark memories.
Just like the last time the fishing trip ended with an all out water fight and once again, they relaxed on the riverbank. While their two companions took the four baskets with their catch to the kitchen area Eponin and Xena engaged in a friendly wrestling match. When they finally returned to the village, they immediately were recruited for last minute preparations.
Amazons just loved a good party and they rarely ran out of excuses to have one at least twice a moon. As always there were lots of food, dancing, and singing. Akyra and Gabrielle each told a story, and children and adults alike were avidly listening. In contrast to most of the other parties, however, the strong Amazon wine and Centaur beer wasn't as much requested as usual. Apparently, no one wanted to risk having a hangover the next day.
When the party came to an end Queen Melosa presented Xena and Gabrielle with Najara's now unoccupied hut that had been newly furnished with a table and chairs, cushions and a fire place fur. There also was a new bed stand, mattress, and blankets, some cups and mugs, plates, knifes and spoons. The hut was on ground level, so it would be easy for Gabrielle to manoeuvre in and out of it with the wheel chair.
Xena was about to voice her protest when she was silenced by one stern look from Theano.
"I know what you're thinking, Xena. We owe you, and we know it. The council's vote was unanimous. Regardless of what will happen during and after the trial, this hut from now on will be yours and Gabrielle's. Regardless of the collar you're wearing as long as you are inside the hut you are free. You'll be an Amazon warrior in your own right and you'll be able to act accordingly. We will honour the choices you make as we would any other free and adult Amazon's decisions. It may be for one night only or it may be for the rest of your life but this hut will be your sanctuary. We always will be in your debt. This is only a token of our gratitude as a village as well as a nation."
"Queen Melosa, please let he council know that I humbly accept your gift. But I also want you to know and to record that all in all it is me who always will be in the debt of the Amazon nation." Xena cast an almost imperceptible glance towards Theano. "Thus far my life was marked by a lot of twists and turns but whenever I made a step in the right direction it was an Amazon, by birth or by spirit, who was there to help or trigger my decision. Thank you very much, Queen Melosa."
About a candlemark later, Xena and Gabrielle were sitting quietly in front of the fireplace. Finally, the young woman couldn't stand the silence any longer. "I don't understand you. Xena, I really don't. Why didn't you accept Queen Melosa's offer, why?"
A sad smile flickered through Xena's face but her gaze stayed fixed in the flames. She slowly turned around, now with an expression of earnest and grief showing. "They didn't know what they were talking about, Gabrielle. What I did to Queen Cyane and the Northern Amazons can't be balanced by what I recently did. It wouldn't be right. Please don't look at me this way. This isn't a question of pride but of justice. Begging for mercy is something I'd willingly do for your sake but I'm not worthy of mercy. No, please don't… The Amazons have every right to ask for my life, my heart, and my soul. My heart and my soul belong to you, my love, I can only give them my life - and I gladly will, should they ask it of me."
Gabrielle couldn't help the feeling that Xena's clear blue eyes were directly piercing her very soul. She found herself lost in their sincere, unblinking attentiveness, and resignedly closed her own. Candledrops stretched to eternity while she gathered the strength to speak.
"How can you stay this calm, Xena?" She finally asked.
"Gabrielle, do you really know what this hut, Melosa's gift, is meant to say?"
Continuing on her negative vein the young woman answered. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You studied Amazon history and law, their nursery songs and legends, you should know."
The blonde only shrugged her shoulders.
"Whatever the jury will decide upon, Gab, they won't kill me."
"How can you be so sure?"
"This hut is situated in the centre of the village. Najara only had the privilege to life here because it was the hut of her birth mother. Traditionally the huts here only are assigned to warriors or craftswomen who have made proof of exceptional loyalty to the tribe and the nation. The council's decision was based upon the things I recently did but they never will refrain from it. The trial still may end with a death sentence but after tonight no one will even attempt to carry it out. It will be postponed 'til the day I commit another capital crime or die in battle or of old age. Our future depends only upon you, Gab, if you're able to share your life with someone wearing a slave's collar or even with someone sentenced to death."
Xena once again had her eyes on the flickering flames. She hadn't expected an answer but the answer she got not only gave her hope for the future but also the strength to finally begin to face the demons of her past.
Gabrielle's right leg was still encased in splinters but she didn't hesitate to turn to her left and enfold Xena in a hug as fierce as she could manage. Though Xena had had the opportunity to carry Gabrielle to the bedroom, they made love in front of the fireplace, slowly and tenderly.
Xena returned to consciousness with the feeling of the younger woman solidly draped and anchored around her body. The tall warrior relished the feeling. Dawn was just about to creep over the edge of the horizon when Xena slowly attempted to also wake her companion. There was a part of her that craved to fight whatever enemy would present himself but there also was a part patiently waiting for the Queen's orders - and the beginning of the court session.
There were two distinctive knocks and a voice calling out loud. "Sun's up, another half candlemark to go, Xena."
"On my way, Queen Melosa. Give me a few candledrops."
Xena kissed Gabrielle on the forehead to rouse her to consciousness. It didn't work. She kissed her on both eyes and the tip of the nose, still no response. Her tongue spent some time lingering on the cheeks and cheekbones. Her lips finally found Gabrielle's, doing the best teasing job she could come up with. Slowly her tongue began to play with Gabrielle's lips and when she was sure of the other woman's attention, she penetrated further. She broke the kiss and whispered in the younger woman's ear.
"I have to go now, my love. Toris and Solari will see that you're settled in a front row seat. Don't worry about me. Queen Melosa, Ephiny, and Theano will do the best they can to avoid a death sentence. Please don't doubt their judgement, whatever they will find necessary to do to get to the truth. I will return to your loving arms. I love you - more than I loved or desired everything or everyone else before. You're not only the other half of my soul, you're the part of my soul that's worth living and fighting for."
Ten candledrops later Xena left the hut. She held her arms out, close to each other, and Eponin reluctantly fastened the cuffs at her wrists. The weapons' master took the place usually assigned to the captain of the Royal guard. Xena stepped between the two rows of her escort and they slowly proceeded to the end of the central square, in front of the council's hut. None of Xena's guards bore any arms, thus more resembling an escort of honour than guards to a prisoner. The village square already was packed with Amazons of every rank and age. There was a life at stake, so they all knew they only would be able to witness the first part of the trial; trials like this usually being closed to the public.
The Queen's dais had been considerably enlarged to accommodate the whole jury consisting of the Queen, the weapons' master, and the captain of the Royal guards. Another three representatives were recruited among the full time warriors. There also was Akyra and two other elders, one of the older apprentices. The scouts, hunters, and different crafts also each had a seat. Two additional seats were granted to Melosa's aunt and the young weapons' master of the mountain village - twenty people, all in all.
On either side of the dais, a table was set up for prosecution and defence, facing the dais as well as each other. When silence settled all around the village square, Ephiny was standing to Xena's right, her eyes flickering once and again to her opponents at the other side, the main part of her attention concentrated on Queen Melosa and the jury. She was an experienced lawyer and had rarely lost a case but never before, she had had to deal with a capital crime and a possible death sentence.
Xena's answers to the younger woman's questions had never been very forthcoming, not even after she began to willingly talk with her lawyer. But her profession had made Ephiny an expert in reading between the lines, so the things Xena didn't say taught her a lot about her client. After the summer solstice, she already was pretty sure what it was that the tall warrior was hiding behind her tougher-than-leather-attitude.
The battle against Darphus and his men more than confirmed her suspicions. What she witnessed was more than astonishing: Even in the midst of the fray, surrounded by Amazons and enemy soldiers alike Xena's strokes never strayed. Her sword unerringly found her goal, and though the blue-eyed woman would have denied it, she actively avoided harming the Amazons with her weapons. Sword and chakram always were where they were needed most, and more than just one or two Amazons, this day owed their lives to her relentless energy.
Ephiny suddenly snapped out of her musings when Queen Melosa finally lowered the royal mask over her face to officially get started with the trial.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you are standing in front of the jury under the scrutinising eyes of the whole nation to be judged according to Amazon law. Hear now the charges brought against you: First. You are accused being directly responsible of the deliberate breaking of the peace treaty signed between yourself, the Centaur and the Amazon Nation. You are further accused of having thus endangered the lives of the Amazons on guard duty. Third. You are under the accusation of multiple murder by ruthlessly killing the military and spiritual leaders of the Northern Amazons ten summers ago. Fourth. The Amazon leaders died at the funeral ground near the temple, on holy ground. Therefore, you are also under the charge of repeated sacrilegious behaviour. Every one of these charges will be dealt with individually. Xena of Amphipolis, do you understand the charges levelled against you?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I do."
"Do you of your own free will accept the authority of the jury and will you abide with whatever we may decide on you?"
"I do and I will, Queen Melosa."
"As a symbol of your submission you now will accept ten strokes with a single tail whip. Do you wish to be restrained, Xena?"
"It won't be necessary, thank you, Queen Melosa."
Eponin, her face an expressionless mask, left the dais and led Xena to a wooden structure on the right side of the central place about twelve paces away. It stood about nine feet high and consisted of two square posts with carefully smoothed surfaces. They stood about five feet apart and were joined one to the other by three horizontal steel bars, two feet apart each and descending from the top.
The weapons' master took a key from her waistband and disconnected Xena's cuffs. She opened the shoulder clasps holding the slightly taller woman's tunic. The material slipped down to the waist exposing Xena's scarred back to the audience. Xena's hands reached up and she wrapped her fingers firmly around the middle one of the steel bars.
The other woman took a few steps backwards, uncoiled the whip, and did her duty. Five strokes from the right and five from the left, not touching and not criss-crossing each other. The whipping was supposed to leave marks but not to break the skin. The tall warrior never made the slightest sound and soon the ordeal was over. Xena lowered her arms back to her sides; Eponin refastened the tunic and once again hooked the cuffs together. The both returned to their respective seats.
"Xena of Amphipolis, according to Amazon law it is your privilege to decide if the court sessions will be held here where the whole nation will bear witness or if they shall be held in the privacy of the council's hut away from prying eyes. In the past capital crimes usually were dealt with in private. Please keep in mind that there is the very real possibility of a forced interrogation."
"I don't request privacy, Queen Melosa. My crimes had consequences for the nation as a whole, the court sessions also should be held in front of the whole nation."
Melosa only nodded in acceptance. She hadn't expected any other decision though she wasn't able to determine if Xena's words were based on feelings of guilt, pride, or honour. The major part of the Amazons, however, was surprised and showed it with a round of whispers and gasps. The Queen's voice once again resounded throughout the central square.
"The charges have been made known. We now will begin to examine each of them thoroughly. Regarding the first charge, the breaking of the peace treaty, does the defence plead guilty or not guilty?"
Before Xena was on her feet to answer, Ephiny stood tall and said. "Queen Melosa, venerable members of the jury, my client insists on pleading guilty. In her best interest, I intend on making use of the defender's prerogative. Thus I overrule the declaration of guilt and plead a case of partial responsibility by neglect."
Xena's eyes were shooting daggers at Ephiny but she knew that there was nothing at all she could do against it.
"The prosecutor's answer, please."
Now, it was Theano's turn. "The prosecutor accepts the declaration of the defending lawyer at face value but we must insist that the exact extent of responsibility has to be agreed upon. My first question is for Xena of Amphipolis. When was your attention first called upon the problems pertaining the Amazon Nation, Xena?"
"About two and a half moons ago." The tall warrior answered.
"I'm sure the jury would appreciate more details."
For two long heartbeats, Xena's eyes locked with Theano's. With an almost imperceptible nod, she turned her attention to the jury and began to relate the story of the Council's meeting and her decision to take a look at the situation herself. She also told them that she found the frontier fort abandoned and that there were no signs of Amazon interference. Tracks led her to the equally abandoned encampment of a small army and further towards Amazon country. Xena saw no need to also recall the battle she interfered in but to her utter surprise, Theano's assistant pointed it out.
It was Ephiny's turn to ask the next question. "Queen Melosa, could you please give a short report on the time table of the intrusions on our land, the danger they presented to the nation as well as to individual warriors, and could you please tell the jury what you did to put an end to it."
The Queen answered that the first intrusion took place more than two seasons ago. She told them that starting with the second incident she did send a report and an official protest towards Corinth but that she never received an answer. She also made clear that guard duty at the border never was without danger, and that none of the intrusions had posed a real threat to the nation or to the village.
When she ended there, was a lot of murmuring among the audience and when they finally fell silent Theano once again spoke up.
"I think there now is only one question left. Xena, as the Conqueror of Greece and Rome did you ever receive one of Queen Melosa's letters of reports?"
"No I didn't. I didn't pay enough attention to what was happening in the confines of my realm. The deaths of my men as well as the deaths of the Amazon warriors could easily have been avoided if I had done my duty. That's why I am guilty, venerable members of the jury."
"The jury will take your declaration in account, Xena. Are there any more questions pertaining to this charge? No? Good! Prosecutor, may we now hear your final statement."
Chandala stood, trying to hide her nervousness by clasping her hands behind her back. "The prosecutor agrees with the plea of the defendant's lawyer. To us there is no doubt that Xena of Amphipolis cannot be held responsible for everything going wrong in her jurisdiction. She may have been wrong to trust her advisors but that's a danger every ruler has to live with. This jury only has to judge her personal responsibility, nothing more and nothing less. We don't agree with the defendant's self-evaluation and therefore join with the defender's request."
"The jury now will retire to the council's hut to discuss the pleas and depositions just made. The great horn will let you know as soon as we have come to a decision."
Xena was escorted to the detention hut where Eponin once again unlocked the manacles. "Thank you, Eponin."
"I only did what I had to do, Xena. There's no need to thank me."
"Yes, there is. You know as good as I do that within the letter of the law you did the minimum. You could have inflicted much more pain. These marks will be gone this time tomorrow. - Please try and keep Gabrielle occupied while the jury is debating."
Xena was about to slip in a light meditation when the horn sounded about two and a half candlemarks later. The jury members re-emerged from the council's hut and took their seats. When Queen Melosa remained standing and put on her mask the audience also got to their feet and fell in expectant silence. Melosa nodded and Xena knelt in front of the dais.
"Xena of Amphipolis, hear the jury's verdict on the first charge." Xena lowered he eyes to the ground. "The jury found you not guilty of deliberately breaking the peace treaty. Although we are not sure that the deaths of our sisters as well as your soldiers could have been avoided had you acted otherwise, we unanimously agreed that after the trial you will do three seasons of personal service to the nation. You will be made a part of the village's teaching staff, with all the other duties for an Amazon warrior as taking part in guard duty and other communal services. You will be directly accountable to the weapons' master. Do you of your own free will submit to this sentence?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I will." Xena made a move to get back to her place next to Ephiny.
"Stay where you are. We're not finished yet." Melosa straightened her shoulders. "The jury also has agreed to drop the charge accusing you, Xena of Amphipolis, of having carelessly endangered members of the Amazon nation. Not being found guilty of the first charge entails that you also cannot be found responsible of the second one. If there are any objections you may voice your protest now."
The Queen's eyes seemed to check on every single one of her subjects daring them to speak up. "So be it. - Do the prosecutors wish to proceed with the next charge?"
"Queen Melosa, venerable jury," Theano replied, "we are well aware that it was agreed upon in advance to treat the charges independently but as the first and second charge were intertwined, so are the third and the fourth. Both are dealing with capital crimes, we should treat them when we all are well rested and alert. We ask the jury to postpone the session to tomorrow instead of starting something that we won't be able to finish today. Are there any objections from the defending party?"
"No, the defence joins the prosecutor's request."
"The jury also agrees. We will meet again tomorrow morning one candlemark after sunrise."
Once again, Xena was escorted to the detention hut. The manacles were unhooked but she insisted on keeping them fastened around her wrists. The trial didn't at all go as she had anticipated; thus far, defence and prosecution seemed equally determined to keep her unharmed. Despite herself, she felt a great deal of relieve but she also was deeply intrigued.
The look of pure hatred Chandala had given her shortly before the summer festival still burned in her soul but it had all but vanished from the younger woman's eyes by now. She spent the remainder of the day speculating about possible reasons. When the sun was about to set Xena also began to long for Gabrielle's comforting touch to keep the memories of ten years ago at bay but before the end of the trial, there was no chance of this happening.
The only window of her prison showed eastwards, and when the first twilight of dawn was breaking Xena found herself lost in one of the most breath-taking sunrises she ever had the chance to witness. The few slightly red tinted clouds quickly dissolved and promised an exceptionally sunny day. There also was a slight breeze that would keep the temperature rather pleasing. A perfect day to take the midday-meal beneath the apple tree. 'No, don't go there,' Xena scolded herself, 'this never will happen again. You can't afford to get lost in memories.' There also was another voice telling her: 'Why not? Just trust Theano, you dump warrior.'
This day's court session began as yesterday's had ended, with the audience in expectant silence and Melosa wearing her Queen's mask, and she began without preamble.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you are accused of having murdered the spiritual and military leaders of the Northern Amazons. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?"
"I am personally responsible for the deaths of Queen Cyane and her council, Queen Melosa."
"Answer the Queen's question," Theano growled, "guilty or not guilty?"
"I am responsible for their deaths and I am the only one responsible."
Theano now was standing in front of Xena, and though the prosecutor had to look up to meet the tall woman's eyes, Xena began to squirm under her gaze. "Answer the question, Xena. Did you murder them?"
"I'm responsible, that's all there is to say." With the last word, Xena's eyes found her manacled wrists and didn't budge from there.
"Queen Melosa, venerable jury, the defendants reluctance to answer appropriately doesn't leave us any choice, prosecution requests a forced interrogation."
"Xena of Amphipolis, look at me. Answer my question. Did you cold-bloodedly murder Queen Cyane and her entourage?"
"I am respon…" The words died on Xena's lips and her gaze once again dropped to her hands.
"The prosecutor's request is granted. Are there any volunteers to carry out the physical part?" Murmuring and whispering spread through the rows of the audience but no one spoke up.
"Queen Melosa, knowing the defendant as good as I do I anticipated that this step would become necessary. With your permission I will take over the physical encouragement part and my assistant, Chandala, will pose the questions. That is if there are no objections from the defendant or defender." Xena just nodded, leaving Ephiny no choice than to agree as well.
Once again, Xena was led to the wooden structure. Eponin unfastened the wrist cuffs and opened the tunic. The tall woman now was facing the jury and the major part of the public; Xena's arms now were shackled to the steel bar in the middle. The young woman behind the prosecutor's table nervously fidgeted with a piece of parchment while Theano took position behind Xena's back.
"Are you ready, Theano?" The older woman answered with a nod.
"Traditionally the first question goes to the defender." The Queen announced.
"Xena of Amphipolis, did you murder Queen Cyane and the members of her council?"
Xena didn't answer, internally counting to ten and preparing for what she knew would come. She closed her eyes in anticipation when Theano's right arm drew back. The bound woman's upper body jerked forwards with the impact and immediately was propelled in the other direction because of the wrist restraints. It sounded as if the skin had been sliced to the bones but all even the most meticulous observer would have been able to detect was a small welt adorning Xena's right shoulder blade.
"Queen Melosa, may I reformulate the question?" The woman nodded. "Xena, did you kill Queen Cyane and the others?"
This time the ebony haired warrior didn't hesitate to answer. "Yes, I did."
Chandala continued the questioning. "You killed them and that's why you are responsible for their deaths?"
"The jury still needs an answer to the initial question, Xena. Did you commit murder when you killed them?" The Queen insisted.
No answer, and shortly after the mark on her right side had a twin on the left.
"The question will be repeated for as long as necessary. For your own sake, answer now. Don't make this harder than it already is." Ephiny pleaded.
Once again, the tip of the whip found its goal and this time Xena was hard pressed to avoid an audible reaction. There now was a rapidly swelling horizontal line at the small of her back but still not a single drop of blood had been spilled. Three strokes later Xena finally said.
"No, I didn't commit murder. I fought them and I killed them."
"We have to know more than this. Tell us the whole story! I not only order you to do so as the head of the jury but also as the Queen and priestess of this tribe."
The tall woman kept her mouth shut. Theano's blows now were steadily raining on her back and soon sent her in some sort of meditative haze. Suddenly the whip wrapped herself around her upper body and her left breast, just on top of the nipple sported a small gash resembling a half circle. This brought her back to reality. Another stroke found its way to the other side and she haltingly began to speak.
"At the time I was on my way back from the far east. I not only wanted to rule Greece but the whole world, Xena, Destroyer of Nations. The Northern Amazons were the first opponents to pick my ambitious mind. Queen Cyane was a formidable warrior, far better than I ever would have thought possible. I tried to kill her but was easily defeated. Borias, my partner, wanted to form an alliance with them, he wanted them to join with our army. Queen Cyane only agreed to some sort of none-aggression pact but she also agreed to become my teacher - and I was eager to learn all the incredible things I had seen her doing.
"About two moons later I decided that I now knew all she would ever be able to teach. I was wrong but I had learned enough to turn their fighting skills against them. At first, I thought about taking them out individually.
"One day they all came together to prepare the funeral fire for a young warrior. I had seen her playing with some of the others in the trees when she fell and broke her neck. Killing the council on holy ground to me was the best way to demoralise the whole tribe. I told them that I had caused her death thus provoking a fight. I killed them one after the other. Queen Cyane the whole time tried to reason with me, to get me to see some sense. I didn't stab them from behind but I wanted to see them dead, and I got what I wanted."
Xena's voice was audibly strained and though she tried to keep her facial expression impassable everyone listening to her knew for sure that there still were many things left unsaid. Silence reigned among the audience and the jury alike, finally Ephiny got to her feet and waited for Melosa's consent to ask the next question.
"Xena, we all know that you're probably the best fighter we ever will have living among us. What we are talking about now was ten years ago; I can't believe that you were already this good way back then. Would you please elaborate!"
A sad half-smile flickered over Xena's face. She wasn't ready to answer this question and began to regret her insistence on a public trial. She waited for the sting of the whip on her body but it didn't come. Instead, the older woman was directly behind her and whispered in her ear.
"Follow the voice of your heart, little one, and you will get what you really crave."
Xena swallowed hard, her eyes found Ephiny's and she answered. "Technically speaking I wasn't as good a fighter as I am now. But at the same time, I was better. I was convinced that being a good warrior was dependent on the number of adversaries killed. Killing was all I lived for. The fear in my opponent's eyes a heartbeat before I sent them to the river Styx sent surges of energy through my body and kept me from feeling exhaustion and pain."
She now turned her head to the jury. "The battle haze most of you saw me in some days ago is only a weak reminder of how I fought then. There were simply no holds bared. Nonetheless I still wouldn't have had the slightest chance to win but for two things. The council members never made an attempt at a joint attack. I easily could have been overpowered but there were only one on one or one on two combats. I still don't know if they acted out of a sense of honour or if they foll…"
Xena fell silent. She heard the crack of the whip and this time she cried out in pain. Gasping she slowly continued. "The healing arts were something I always was interested in. I knew a lot about herbs and roots and how to use them. At the time I was convinced that one can't be a warrior and a healer all in one, so I didn't use my skills as I should have.
"In the east, in Chin I experienced the mind altering power of certain plants. I wanted to use them to control my own men as well as my enemies…. Anyway, before searching the confrontation with Queen Cyane I took a combination of herbs that sharpened my senses, sped up my reflexes and at the same time slowed down the flow of my blood. Together with my innate ruthlessness, this gave me the edge I needed to stand a chance. I didn't commit murder but the way I killed them wasn't much better."
"Weapons' master, please escort Xena back to the detention hut. We will take a break, its close to midday anyway. The jury has a lot to think about and undoubtedly will have some more question for the defendant."
The tall warrior was sitting on her cot, feeling completely drained. There still were a lot of things about her stay with the Northern Amazons she wasn't ready to talk about yet; she even didn't want to think about it - but she also knew that soon she would have to reveal at least some of them.
The door was opened and Anara entered. "I'm here to see to it that your back stays clean. I can't give you a painkiller yet but I'm also not ready to risk another inflammation."
"Don't worry, Anara. All is as it should be with my back. It hurts now but the marks will be gone in no longer than three days, five, or six if I didn't have the ability to heal as fast as I do. The skin was irritated but not broken."
"Theano is really this good with the whip?"
"Yes, she is. The whip is her weapon of choice, together with the staff. She taught me how to use a staff when I still was a little girl but even after all these years she easily would be able to knock me on my ass in a sparring match. - How's Gabrielle? I hate that she has to see me like this."
"Gabrielle's why it took me so long before looking after you. She tried to attack the prosecutor and fell out of the wheel chair."
Xena was on her feet and at the door in the blink of an eye. "Calm down, Xena, there was no harm done. The splints encasing her leg stayed in place. The ones on her wrist broke but they could have gone off anyway. She bruised her good shoulder, that's all. Nothing to worry about. Queen Melosa threatened to confine her to her hut for the remainder of the trial, so she promised to behave from now on. This young woman has a protective streak a wide as Mount Olympus is high when it comes to you."
"Please tell her that I love her, and tell her that I'm sorry. Tell her that I'm as stubborn as a mule and that Theano only did what was necessary. Theano is a friend, she shouldn't be pissed at her."
"Pissed?, oh gal, you don't know half of it. Gabrielle threw a full-fledged temper tantrum when Theano tried to tell her that everything would be all right soon. She even accused her of enjoying what she's doing."
There was a sad smile on Xena's face. "To Theano doing what she's doing today is as difficult as observing it is to Gabrielle, Anara. But Theano also knows me and that's why she knows there is no way out of it. It has to be done. Please, try and make Gabrielle understand,"
"You can talk to her yourself, Xena, tonight. Gabrielle was sentenced to a night spend in detention for attacking the prosecutor."
"Let me guess: Theano's idea?"
"Yes. It's almost time to continue, now. Please, don't be stubborn and answer the questions honestly."
Less than five candle drops later Xena once again was bound to the whipping post.
"The jury members have some questions regarding your testimony. First of all: We want you to describe your fight with Queen Cyane." The Queen announced from behind her mask.
Xena having expected this particular question didn't need an incentive to answer. She told them in detail how she fought and killed the better part of Queen Cyane's council in the treetops surrounding the funeral area. When only two of the guards were left, she knocked Cyane unconscious by jumping unexpectedly out of a tree. The two royal Guards were worthy opponents but fuelled by ambition and battle haze she finally managed to overcome their defences. She even had the time to put some provisional bandages on the worst of the numerous cuts scattered all over her body while she waited for Cyane to regain consciousness.
Xena's testimony having trailed off too often was once and again encouraged by Theano's whip. "Having eliminated all the others I felt rather cocky but even then I knew that I didn't stand a chance when I gave the Queen a chance to take the fight to the trees. I was good then and I'm good now but I still wouldn't stand a chance against her skills. Queen Cyane continued to reason with me but I was way beyond reasonable. When I fought her, I wasn't aware of the injuries I already had sustained. We fought and in my mind, we were evenly matched. Well, that's what I wanted to believe at the time.
"The more my own fighting skills were honed over the following years, the more I began to understand that this wasn't true. I used all the skills and all the energy I had to kill the Queen but she only tried to wear me out. - She wanted me to face Amazon justice for my crimes and she promised that my soul would be freed from the evil spirits haunting it, and that I would find peace. I didn't listen, I didn't want to listen.
"We exchanged parry and thrust, strike and jab.
"Suddenly she stumbled, backwards over one of the branches cut for the funeral pyre. I saw an opening and my sword pierced through her chest. I never will forget the expression of utter surprise on her face when she took her last breath."
The audience was silent, as if an intangible and invisible force held down their tongues. Even the Queen needed some candledrops to regain her spirits and pose the next question.
"Was the chakram already in your possession when you fought the Northern Amazons?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa."
"Then, tell us, why didn't you use it against the council."
Two strokes with the whip later, the first only making light contact with the skin between Xena's shoulder blades, the second adding another horizontal welt at the small of her back, the tall woman answered.
"I killed them all. I was a better fighter and warrior, in my mind at least. I wanted to proof to myself that I was better than all of them combined."
Xena again fell silent. She heard the crack of the whip just beneath her right ear. She felt it circling around the back of her head and another cracking sound on her left but there was no pain. "It just wouldn't have felt right. With the chakram it would have been murder."
There was a long moment of silence before the Queen raised her voice. "When you were experiencing with herbs, were you on your own or did you have some kind of teacher?"
"Her name was Perat, she was the Northern Amazon's shamaness. She was four or three years my senior but despite her youth her wisdom extended more than a lifetime or even two."
"Was Perat the only one?" Ephiny asked.
No answer. Once again, it took more than one incentive to get her to speak. The original ten lashes from the day before now barely were visible anymore; instead, there was a pattern of welts criss-crossing her back.
"No, she wasn't the only one."
The former Conqueror's body once again involuntarily jerked with the momentum.
"There was another one. Queen Cyane years earlier had her banished from the village. This woman - she only was interested in the dark side of the spiritual powers. She wanted to control them, to get them to do her biding. She was thriving for power, power over the very souls of everything living. She spoke to the dark side of my soul and I was more than eager to listen. Her name was Alti. She told me that one day I would be able to conquer the whole world. She told me that I would become the Destroyer of Nations, the ultimate power in this world and that destroying the Northern Amazons was the first step. I wanted to believe her. She told me about the Northern tribe and Queen Cyane in the first place. And when I first set out to kill the Queen it were her directions that guided me securely into the village."
"What happened to her?"
"I'm not sure." Xena replied after the half circles on her breasts were completed to full circles. "When Cyane was dead Alti entered the clearing. She examined the dead body. Suddenly she turned around and slapped me hard across the face. She said 'I told you to leave her heart unharmed, it's useless to me now, you stupid fool.' She continued raving about how I had ruined her plans and continued insulting me. I didn't take kindly to insults, so I picked up Cyane's sword, ran her through, yanked the weapon free, and took her head off. The momentum made me turn around once and where her body should have been, there only was an almost faded column of smoke. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. I don't know if I killed her for good or if it was an illusion I beheaded."
"What happened afterwards?"
"I dropped the blade and left the funeral ground. I stumbled aimlessly through the forest only wanting to get away from the clearing as far as possible. I didn't even think of tending to my wounds.
"Killing always was intoxicating for me, it elicited a feeling of invincibility, superiority, and joy. I had expected these feelings to be multiplied tenfold after Queen Cyane's death. But I only felt numb, as if something had died inside of me. Four days later, the scouts found me unconscious at the edge of the forest and it took three more days 'til I came to my senses. More than half of the men had been killed in battle and the Northern Amazons were destroyed."
"The jury has no more questions. What about defence?" The Queen quietly asked, breaking the silence that had settled among the avidly listening Amazons.
"No, Queen Melosa."
"Yes, my Queen. There's still something to clarify. Xena of Amphipolis, what would you do if a god gave you the power to go back in time and stop your younger self? Would you accept the offer?"
"Ten years ago there existed no power in the world that would have been able to stop me. I didn't listen to reason but to brute strength only. The only way to stop me was by killing me but I would do it in a heartbeat to save Queen Cyane and the council."
"That's all for now. Eponin, please unfasten Xena's restraints and lead her back to her chair. We're ready to hear the defending party's summation now."
"Venerable jury, the defendant's testimony made clear that there only can be one decision for you. Xena of Amphipolis is to be declared not guilty of the charge of multiple murder. She also freely admitted being guilty of sacrilegious behaviour in three cases. Xena's testimony also showed that there are extenuating circumstances, the defendant not only was under the influence of drugs, she also stood under the spell of a shamaness using black magic. Please take this into consideration when you decide upon the sentence." Ephiny sat down ignoring Xena's angry stare.
"Queen Melosa, venerable jury," Chandala began, "I stand before you not only as the prosecutor's assistant but also as an eye witness of sorts. It was me who filed the last two charges. - Ten years ago, I was the warrior's apprentice to the weapons' master of the Northern Amazons. When Xena was living with us, she spent most of her time with Queen Cyane. To me Xena and the Queen were the most beautiful women in the world, they were gorgeous, but side by side they were breathtaking. I followed them around as often as I could. I didn't even dare to look the Queen in her eyes, Xena was more accessible, and she even gave me some lessons in stealth and tracking. I had a big crush on her.
"One day I found her footsteps in the forest and decided to follow her trail. It wasn't easy but finally I stood at the edge of the funeral ground. I almost stumbled over the dead body of my mistress. I saw the two guards in the middle of the clearing and Queen Cyane with Xena's sword protruding her chest. The shock was too much for me. I fainted. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying next to the Queen on the ground. I knew that Xena had murdered them all and I vowed to Artemis that one day she would pay for her crimes.
"The other day when I saw how Xena risked her own life over and over again to fight our enemies I knew that she had the skill to kill the best fighters of the Amazon nation in fair combat. It was already too late to withdraw the charge. All I can do now is to join the plea of Xena's defender. Xena of Amphipolis is responsible for the death of Queen Cyane and the ten members of her council and the two guards but she didn't murder them. They died in a honourable fight, a death befitting an Amazon warrior."
"I didn't commit murder but the sacrilege I committed is also a capital crime. There are no extenuating circumstances, venerable jury."
"The jury now will retire to the council's hut. You all will be summoned by the great horn as soon as we've come to a verdict. Anara, please see that Xena's back is tended to before you join us."
The Queen turned and left the dais, immediately followed by the others. The audience, however, only slowly dissipated. The day had brought a lot to think and to talk about.
The sun was about to set when Anara left the detention hut. Two Amazons placed a second cot directly beside Xena's, and Ephiny pushed Gabrielle's wheel chair through the door. Both women instantly were lost in each other's eyes and completely oblivious to the door being closed shut.
The weather had dramatically changed throughout the day. When Xena had been bound to the wooden structure, the first clouds began to hide the sun. The sky gradually seemed to darken with every stroke of the whip and now the first ramblings of thunder were heard. Throughout the night thunder, lightning, and cascade-like rain were fighting for supremacy but that wasn't all that kept the two women awake for the better part of the night.
"Don't be angry with Theano, my love. The forced interrogation was necessary. It always was the easiest way to find out the truth when there are no other eyewitnesses left. And I never would have told them the truth otherwise. I needed the pain." Xena quietly explained to the stubborn and still very angry young woman.
"Why, Xena? What you did wasn't this horrible in my eyes. One against thirteen sounds more than fair to me."
"I will be judged for the fight but you know as well as the jury that this isn't about the fight. Queen Cyane trusted me. She was my friend. I betrayed her friendship. The trial brought back a lot of memories and emotions, Gabrielle. Theano's whip and the pain it caused helped me not to drown in my memories and my guilt. This day at the clearing, I ended thirteen lives. I killed women who had shared their meals and their laughter with me. They shared their dreams and their traditions, their skills and their wisdom, and I repaid their kindness by killing them.
"I didn't know it then but when Queen Cyane's heart stopped beating I lost a big part of my humanity. You're the reason why I have the courage to face my past, Gab. Without your love, I never would have willingly entered Amazon territory. I now have the chance to pay for what I did."
There was a long period of silence. "I still won't forgive her. She hurt you. I could see her face; she smiled. She enjoyed hurting you. I won't forgive her."
"Please try to understand, Gabrielle. I'm glad that Theano had the strength of mind to do what she did. Every other person yielding the whip would have inflicted much more pain. Please, believe me, she didn't enjoy what she had to do."
"She smiled." The younger woman stubbornly insisted.
"She smiled because it worked. Every stroke was a sign of her love for me and as soon as I get the chance, I will thank her. If you really need someone to be angry with, be angry with me. I deserve it much more than she does. Your love was the spark that started the fire but Theano's whip kept the fire blazing. She never would do me any harm. She was my friend and protector when I was a child and she still is, Gabrielle.
"I owe her much more than my life. All these years through Theano was the one person who always got past my defences, the only person who could occasionally make me change my mind. She always was there to remind me of all the things that really count, even when my soul was all but lost to the darkness. Give her a chance, love, and I'm sure the two of you will become friends soon enough."
"I don't want to talk about her anymore, Xena. I want you to hold me tight, I want to feel your breath on my skin."
The tall woman turned half ways around, bent forwards and tenderly brushed smooth lips with her own. Gabrielle obviously needed more time to cope with this day's events. Her long arms gently slid under Gabrielle's back and limbs and she posed her on the small bed. Kneeling beside the low surface, she opened the knots holding the tunic in place with her teeth and slowly kissed her way downwards to the younger woman's waistband. Gabrielle's breath already had picked up and though Xena meanwhile didn't need any further invitation, she still questioningly looked up, asking for permission.
The waistband was loosened and Gabrielle's breeches inched down, agonisingly slow because Xena took special care to leave the still encased right leg as far as possible untouched. She was anxious to put any kind of strain on the healing limb. The young woman was healing incredibly fast, according to Anara due to the joining with Xena's soul in the dreamscape. Still Xena insisted on being more than careful, this night she even had to slow her lover down.
They gently made love, exploring every pore of the other woman's body, licking every square inch of skin, enjoying the familiar scent and taste of the other's sex. Xena's calm confidence slowly filled the blond woman's soul, sweeping away her anxiousness about the outcome of the trial.
When dawn was breaking, Gabrielle was wrapped securely around long limbs, her head deeply snuggled in Xena's chest. She was sleeping soundly. Xena consciously took in the scent of blond hair and finally fell asleep herself.
The great horn sounded shortly before midday, blue and green eyes opened simultaneously, mirroring a strange mixture of fear, anticipation and relieve. Xena just had settled Gabrielle in the wheelchair when the door was opened. Eponin stepped in and once again fastened the cuffs around Xena's wrists. Her face was set in a warrior's mask belying the tension the rest of her body showed. To Xena it was obvious that the weapons' master wasn't at all happy about the jury's decision.
Ten candledrops later the women filling the central square got to their feet while the jury stepped on the dais. They already were wearing their ceremonial masks making it impossible to read their facial expressions. The silence became oppressive when Queen Melosa slowly rounded the jury's table and stood in front of it.
"Xena of Amphipolis, hear the jury's verdict." Xena left Ephiny's side and knelt in front of the dais. "The jury found you not guilty of murder but there also can be no doubt that you are responsible for the deaths of Queen Cyane and the members of her council. However, this responsibility does not concern Amazon law and justice. It's something you will have to live with."
The tall woman kept her eyes firmly on the ground while the familiar feeling of guilt rushed through her veins, colouring her cheeks despite her best intention to keep her emotions in check.
"The jury found you guilty of sacrilegious behaviour in three cases. You set out to kill on holy ground, so there are no extenuating circumstances. A crime such as this was unheard of until now. Neither the laws nor the history scrolls gave any indication what kind of punishment would be adequate. I went to the temple to pray for an answer but none was forthcoming.
"When I returned to the council's hut I remembered a story my grandmother once told me. A story about Queen Penthesilea and how she accidentally killed the Priestess in front of Artemis' altar with a misplaced arrow. With Queen Penthesilea being the mightiest warrior in Amazon history, later generations considered the story incredible and improbable. So, it never was entered in the history scrolls but it still lives in our legends. Are you familiar with this particular story, Xena?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I am." Xena's eyes made contact with Melosa's, the rest of the Queen's face still hidden behind the mask. The Queen nodded and the kneeling woman continued to speak.
"Queen Penthesilea was said to be Artemis' Chosen. The remorse and guilt she felt at the death of the priestess who also had been a childhood friend of hers began to slowly burn out her soul. She was lost in grief and self-depreciation, and stopped paying attention to what was going on in the nation. It was a time of danger and insecurities, and the council grew worried. They urged the Queen to appoint a Regent who would take care of the day to day business. Queen Penthesilea complied but she also decided that she would do penance for the death of her friend and priestess. It is said that she retreated in a sweating hut for three days and four nights. She found that she had the choice of abandoning her sisters and trying to redeem herself in the outer world or let her body pay the price."
"Considering that your sacrilege was threefold and had been committed with premeditation the punishment Queen Penthesilea imposed upon herself was modified but it will not endanger your life. Do you accept the punishment the jury found befitting your crime without exactly knowing what will happen to you or do you prefer to be banished from Amazon territory for a period of three times five years instead, after your servitude of three seasons, that is?"
"Queen Melosa, venerable jury, I'm more than honoured but I don't deserve to have a choice like that. Killing Queen Cyane and the council was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. I'm no Amazon and I'm not of noble birth. I don't deserve to be treated as such. However, from the beginning, I was ready to pay the prize this jury would find appropriate and I am weary of running from my responsibilities. I trust the wisdom of the jury and will humbly submit to its verdict." Xena had her eyes once again on the ground.
Chapter nine: All my sins and fears to bear
"I really don't understand you. First you reject the Queen's offer to grant you an amnesty and now you miss out on the chance to leave your past behind and start a new life."
Xena smiled, she knew the question would come eventually but she wouldn't have thought possible that it really would be the first thing to cross her lover's mind.
"Seems stupid, doesn't it? Please believe me, it isn't this easy." The tall warrior visibly was searching for the right words. "Remember the day your father demanded that you once again be put in his custody. You had the chance to let me deal with him. You wouldn't have had to face him but you insisted on doing so tough we both knew in advance you would be badly shaken up by the encounter. Why?"
"It was the right thing to do, Xena. It was the only way to get rid of my past. I had to look him in the eyes. I had to know why he sold me like I was one of his sheep. I had to know why he never loved me. It was the first time I had the chance to face what had happened. I knew I was finally free the day you first brought me to the apple tree but I only began to feel free when I faced him. However, the situations are not comparable."
"Are you sure?" The younger woman didn't answer, her eyes fixed on her hands. "Please, look at me. There's something I didn't tell the jury, about what happened after Queen Cyane's death.
"I really can't recall in which direction I stumbled but at a point I found myself once again at the funeral clearing. I don't know if it was one or two days later but the bodies still were lying as they were killed. Artemis' temple was right next to the funeral ground but it was further away from the village than it is here. Thunder was rolling not too far off. I decided to seek shelter in the temple.
"Immediately afterwards I tried to convince myself that it had been a hallucination, a fever induced dream but deep in my heart I knew that it was true.
"The doors were open and I was foolish and arrogant enough to enter. I passed the threshold and suddenly found myself in front of the altar. There was the weight of a whole mountain resting on my shoulders and I was forced to my knees. I desperately tried to get back to my feet but it didn't work. I reached for the altar stone to pull me up. My hand touched the shimmering surface and the weight on my shoulders descended deep in my heart. For the first time in years, I had a name for these feelings, feelings that since the death of my brother every once in while threatened to suffocate me.
"I always managed to ignore them, I put them away in dark corner of my mind and closed the door. This day I knew the feeling was guilt, and I felt as helpless as never before. My lips didn't move but my mind cried out, loud, 'Why don't you kill me, Artemis, patron goddess of the Amazon nation? Kill me to end the cycle of hatred.'
"I fell back to my knees, the tips of my fingers still touching the altar. My whole body was shaking with sobs but there was not a single tear in my eyes. Suddenly the hair at the nape of my neck stood at attention but the feeling subsided as quick as it came. There was something like a pillar of light at my left. I tried to see it more clearly and soon was sure that it was a woman. With all the light surrounding her, I wasn't able to discern her features but I'm sure that it was the Goddess of the Hunt herself.
"I felt comfortable in her presence and then there was a voice in my head. It was unfamiliar; unlike everything I ever had heard before but at the same time, it was as if it always had been a part of me. I still can't explain it.
"The voice said. 'You now owe a debt of life, young warrior. This isn't the way your life was supposed to be. You still have a chance. One day you will return to your roots, you will return to what should have been from the beginning and then you will get the chance to redeem yourself. Don't waste the opportunity. You will be punished for what you did to my sisters, and the punishment will be welcomed. You will loose the life you now long for but the ice that encases your heart will melt and you will…''
"…find the other half of your soul." The young woman sitting next to Xena put an arm around the tall warrior trying to pull her as close as possible. "The ice that now encases your heart will melt and you will find the other half of your soul. You will find a love so fulfilling and perfect it will sweep away all your fears and memories of darkness. That's what the voice in Athena's temple said when I begged her to take my life before once again being sold. Do you think that they already knew about us?"
"I don't know, my love. I still can't make any sense of what I experienced this day. Part of me has a great deal of doubt that the gods really have in mind the best for humankind whenever they interfere with mortal lives. I also know that I didn't feel threatened by the voice and what it said. I rather felt comforted. It is said that Artemis and Athena never stopped being lovers but I don't see why any of them should be interested in you and me. However, I knew that you are the other side of my soul since I first looked in your eyes though I don't know why someone as pure and kind as you are should find its completion in someone as tainted and dark as me. When I found you everything became possible, and this punishment, though it may sound cruel, is my chance to take some of the weight off my heart."
Gabrielle didn't answer immediately, she turned her head towards the blue orbs of her companion and studied them for almost a quarter of a candlemark. Part of Xena was squirming under the scrutiny, the bigger part, however, was feeling secure, loved, and cherished.
During their voyage to her hometown, Cyrene's escort that had started out with eight men had almost doubled in size. All of them were veterans from one or the other of Xena's campaigns. All of them seemed to care deeply for her daughter; they talked about her kindness when caring for the injured, her bravery in the midst of a battle, and her sense of justice. They told her that she never asked of her men what she wasn't ready to do herself, that she not only was a brilliant strategist and a great warrior in her own right but that she was leading the army with her personality, her passion for life. They told her that she always cared about her men first before seeing to her own needs.
The stories these men told reminded her of someone she thought had died together with her younger brother. Reflections of the past appeared unbidden before her mind's eye.
It had been during the coldest winter she ever had lived through. The village had pooled their resources - and in contrast to other settlements, no one had perished by cold or famine, yet. One moon before spring solstice the weather changed but it only was a short respite, and one that spoiled a considerable part of their provisions by thawing meat and vegetables alike. The frost returned and the elders had to cut short the daily rations for each member of the community.
Having acted like a caged animal for the better part of a half moon, one day Xena simply disappeared. Cyrene was out of her mind with worry. The short note her stubborn daughter had left behind couldn't really reassure her, and on top of it all, her sons insisted on leaving the village to follow their sister's trail. Three days later, she stumbled into the inn, totally exhausted with a great buck draped around her shoulders. She collapsed on the floor but managed to tell her brothers that there were three more about two candlemarks walk away to the north. Enough to sustain the village for a long time.
She never knew what exactly Xena had to do to hunt her game down and get them this close to the village. With her fourteen summers her daughter had done what the seasoned hunters of the village hadn't dared to even try; she had risked her life, alone in the cold, to contribute to the well-fare of her village but she never saw it as something special…
Cyrene tried to shake herself out of the realm of her memories. All she had had to experience lately was just too confusing. Despising her daughter for becoming the Conqueror simply was easier but it wasn't as easy as it had been all these years long. She began to find a kernel of truth in the exuberant stories the men were telling.
It had been decided that she would enter the village only with Theodorus, Palemon, and Meleager as an escort. The others would be waiting nearby. The town seemed unchanged; it was well kept and peaceful. Everything seemed as it had been two and a half years ago, it was an eerie and unsettling feeling. Had she been honest with herself she would have recognised these feelings as disappointment. In Corinth, her daily routine had been a far cry from the active life of an innkeeper. Though she quickly had found herself something to do by helping in the central kitchen set up to feed the poor and homeless, it still was nothing compared to the challenge of organising supplies, cooking and keeping the often drunken crowd in hand. A small voice in the back of her heart kept nagging that a change as significant as her forced move to Corinth should have left at least some sort of scar visible in the community she had spend the better part of her life in.
They dismounted in front of the inn, her inn, which also seemed to be utterly unchanged. The voices and laughter of the midday crowd wafted through the open windows and Cyrene recognised the distinct smell of heavily spiced venison stew, very close to the recipe she used to use but not quite the same. She hesitated in front of the main entrance, and then turned her steps to the rear door that led directly into her kitchen and to the storing rooms. She entered without knocking, surprised to see a young, rather dark skinned woman labouring behind her stove in the middle of the spacious room. She was about her own height with eyes like coal casting her an irritated glance. Her facial expression suddenly changed when she spotted the large man stepping over the threshold.
"Meleager, what are you doing here. We didn't expect you for at least another two moons. I'm so happy you could make it earlier. Reena will be out of her mind seeing her favourite uncle." The young woman said, her voice clear, with a very uncommon but pleasant melody to it. She rushed past the older woman and wrapped her arms securely around the tall man's waist squeezing him tight.
"Shirin, I'm happy to see you so well but unfortunately, I'm not here for a vacation. A lot of things are about to change at the moment but before we talk business let me introduce you to my companion. - Shirin, this is Cyrene, the owner of this inn. - Cyrene, this is Shirin, she and her husband, Tarik, are the ones I told you about not too long ago. They look after your inn as long as you live in Corinth."
There was a shadow quickly crossing the young woman's face but then she smiled at Cyrene and shook her outstretched hand. "Cyrene, the village will be happy to have you back. The last two and a half years we've heard at lot about you and your family. I hope you give my husband and me some time to adjust to the transition with the inn."
"What are you talking about? Though it feels really strange, it's no longer my inn."
"I should have told you in advance, Cyrene," Meleager interfered. "The inn is still yours and will always be. Tarik and Shirin are here to run it in your absence, they never would take it from you."
"Your rooms at the first floor are waiting for you. But I'm afraid it will take some time for us to accommodate to the fact that it's not longer us who is in charge - that is if you intend in keeping us on your payroll."
"Xe…, the General insisted that they should be kept ready for you. She told us that she would send a warning before your return, to smooth things down."
"Shirin, I won't drive you out of your home, and I don't intend to come back, not yet. We're here to gather some supplies, herbs and stuff, that's all. Perhaps it would be better if Meleager filled you in on all the things that have happened the last moon or two. If you don't mind I'll take care of the kitchen and the midday meal as long as the two of your are talking - and meanwhile I'll have something to eat for myself, Palemon and Theodorus."
"They're both here?" Meleager nodded. "And the General is not?" The warrior shook his head to confirm. "Than there must really be something important going on.
"I would be grateful if you could take over Cyrene. I'll be back as soon as possible. You'll find that I altered some of your recipes slightly by using herbs from my ho… the country I was born. I hope you don't mind too much."
After the midday guests had gone, Tarik closed the inn for the day. There simply was too much to discuss to also worry about the customers and their needs. The news of Cyrene's return had spread through the village like a wildfire and they had no choice than to inform the elder of the things that had happened at Corinth.
The gray haired woman had found all of the personal belongings she had left behind all these years back untouched, and had spent the afternoon candlemarks not occupied with conversations with her former neighbours sorting through the herb stock. She had learned that Xena had ordered to leave everything as she was used to. Part of this arrangement was that the new innkeepers didn't live-in but had their own cabin nearby. Her daughter also had instructed Shirin in taking care of the herb plantation in the forest, so she didn't have to deal with over-aged supplies. The evening found her in the main room of the inn in front of a mug of mulled cider listening to a story she never would have given any credence to, were it not for the people telling it.
Her question should have been easy to answer but what the young couple sitting in front of her had to say was everything but a simple tale. Tarik was almost half a head shorter than Palemon who quietly was sitting at her side. He had an irresistible smile that lit up his eyes giving everyone around the impression that he never had known any hardship or pain of any kind.
"The first time I saw the General was in the healer's tent just outside of the Persian capital, and as I learned later a full day after the all-decisive battle. I could see a slender hand descending upon the arm holding the saw to cut off my right leg. A deep but definitively female voice told him to stop, and then there were the most intense eyes I ever saw looking straight into my soul. At the time I didn't know how to speak your language and none of the other healers and attendants even tried to make me understand what was about to happen. There was the hint of a smile in her eyes but her expression was serious. Weighing every word carefully and from time to time searching for the right expression she talked to me - in my native tongue. She told me that my left leg was shattered beneath the knee. She told me that to save my life the best thing to do would be to cut it off right now. She also told me that if I were ready to endure a lot of pain and have a lot of patience that she could try to keep the leg whole. There would be a limp and she couldn't guarantee that I survived the healing but I took the chance. She saved my leg and by now, I'm only limping after a very long day. But my leg and my life aren't the only things I owe to the General."
"Without her we never would have found each other again, without her we wouldn't have a daughter to love and to cherish." Shirin continued the tale. "The General's army stayed at the capital for more than a moon and Tarik slowly began to regain his strength. He never wanted to join the army but my father had him recruited against his will. Tarik only was a carpenter and woodcarver still trying to establish his own shop. My father never accepted him and wanted to marry me off to a man more to his liking, a rich merchant, more than forty years my senior. The marriage was arranged as soon as my beloved was out of the picture. About ten days before the bride prize should be paid my parents discovered that I was with child, Tarik's child. The marriage was cancelled and my father disowned me."
She fell silent, an expression halfway between sadness and contempt crossing her dark eyes. Shirin took a deep breath sensing the comforting hand of her husband on her knee under the table.
"By law he could have tossed me out on the street with nothing but my clothes on - but he didn't. He told me that I was nothing but a whore and that this was how I should live from now on. He told me that he lost a lot of money because of me and that I would spend the rest of my life to repay him. He bound my hands and one of his servants almost dragged me to another part of the town, a quarter I only had heard about before. From this day on, I spend my days in a room barely big enough for a bed. Food and drink reached me through a hole in the wall. There was a small window next to the ceiling. I could see the days pass by but it was too far up to allow a look outside. All night through I could hear the noises coming from the outside, and I knew that I really was in a whorehouse. And though I never saw a living soul, I also knew that they would come and take my child when it was time and then would force me to do their biding. There was nothing to hope for and no chance for escape. But still, the life growing inside of me wouldn't hear of defeat. So, I continued hoping.
"As soon as Tarik was better he talked one of his new Greek comrades to come looking for me at my father's house. He was lucky and ran into my former maid. She told him what had happened but she didn't know exactly were I was, and if I was still alive. What happened next is better be told by Meleager or Palemon."
"My gut wound was healing rather fast and I could get up soon. When I returned with my news to Tarik's bedside, the lass nearly cracked. Had he told me what Shirin really meant to him, I never would have told him the whole truth. As it turned out it was a good thing, I did. The whole day he tried to get up and when dusk was near he finally got to his feet when the healer's weren't paying attention and ran straight into the General."
"Yeah, I thought I collided with a solid tree trunk when I crashed into her. She grabbed me by my shirt, lifted me in her arms, and brought me back to bad as if I were nothing but a half-grown boy. I could see the anger in her eyes, and I thought she would kill me for trying to escape. So, all I could think of doing was to whisper that I would have come back. She answered that this wasn't true. Her voice was cold with rage. She said that I would have died because the splints weren't made to support my body's weight but to hold the bones in place. Whatever my face told her then it softened her up. She told me that I never would have been able to leave the camp undetected and that I was risking my life senselessly. It still took some prodding but I told her the whole story. She ordered me to stay put and said that she would take care of everything."
"She signalled for me to follow her outside where she first scolded me for irresponsibly running around alone in the city and that I wasn't strong enough yet to ward off an attacker." Meleager continued the story. "Then she called for Palemon, Marcos and the rest of her personal guard she surrounded herself with when venturing to the palace and told me to lead her to Shirin's house. She had to break all of the father's fingers to get the information she wanted. We took off towards a cheap whorehouse at the east of the capital. The General didn't even bother to ask for Shirin's whereabouts but had us searching the whole building stirring up the clients. When I found her she was in labour, and to me it didn't look too good."
"Every time I felt a contraction I thought I would die, I didn't but the overall pain consuming my body was far worse. I think it was early in the evening, usually the house was rather quiet at this time of the day but now through the pain I could hear cries and doors crashing against the walls and deep voices barking orders. When the door to my cell was kicked open, there was a tall man filling almost the entire frame but I was too weak to worry. Only a few heartbeats later, I felt a cool hand on my forehead and I heard someone whisper that everything would be all right and that Tarik was alive. Then the same voice began to shout orders and out of nowhere there was hot water and clean towels. It took me some time to see that the stranger with the two swords strapped around the waist was a woman and that she knew better than I did what was happening and what was wrong. She continued to bark orders all the while exploring my swollen belly and cramped nether region carefully with her hands. There were calluses at her fingers but her touch was soft, barely discernible and my fears began to ebb away.
"She ordered the men to guard the door and turned around. When the next contraction hit she held my hand and helped me to breathe. She told me, the baby hadn't turned around yet - and what she would have to do about it. She held my hand and talked to me the whole night through. Without her, my daughter never would have been born and I would have died also. She took us back to her camp on a litter. There was a tent set aside the healer's hut and after we had settled another litter was brought in."
"When the General began to prepare for the trip back to Greece she asked us what we would like to do." The dark skinned man at Shirin's left said. "I knew that it would be impossible to stay in a town where her father still held too much power. We talked about it and asked to go with the General to Corinth. Shirin was helping in the kitchen a few candlemarks a day and I was assigned to deal with the Persian emissaries and correspondence aside from working as a woodcarver. When the General began to prepare for the campaign against the Romans, she sent my family to Amphipolis. She said it wasn't safe in the capital any longer."
"If you don't mind our company we will come with you to the Amazons. She is beginning a new life there, a life with peace and love she more than deserves to lead. The people who care about her should be part of this."
Cyrene was confused, to say the least. There were more and more questions accumulating in her mind the longer this journey took, questions only her daughter would be able to answer. "Are you really sure that you want to leave your home without knowing what the next day will bring for you and your child?"
"Yes, Cyrene, we are sure. We love the inn and the people in the village. They never showed us the contempt some of the nobles in Corinth had for us, especially when Xena invited us to her table for official dinners. But both of us hoped that one day she would call us back to the palace. So, yes, it is worth the risk. Reena can't wait to see her again."
"How comes that you are one of the few people to call Xena by her name?"
"When she birthed my child she told my it would be easier this way, and when we were back in Greece she told me to keep it up. She said that she needed the company of at least a few people handling her like a human being and not listening to her reputation."
Three days later Cyrene's party once again set out. The packing mules had been replaced by three wagons with supplies, and to Palemon's dismay they were slowed down, not much but he also didn't know what timetable he had to race against. To be sincere he also didn't know what Cyrene possibly could do to dissuade the Amazons should they decide to execute the General.
Gabrielle was securely nestled in the circle of Xena's long arms, her right leg with the new, much lighter and smaller splints was pinning the taller woman to the soft mattress. She wasn't yet allowed to leave the wheelchair but now she at least was able to bend her knee and start on really exercising her muscles. Her eyes were closed tight and she was wide-awake. She just wasn't ready to face reality.
It was the day after the jury's judgement. The two of them had spent the day as they had finished the last, with lots of talking and making love. The new splints Anara had insisted on putting on this morning enabled her to take a more active role in their play. During the long nights alone in the healer's hut she not only had missed Xena's embrace to keep the nightmares at bay, she also longed for the unique feeling of Xena's wet centre under her tongue, the blissful expression on the older woman's face when coaxing her to multiple orgasms. The day before she wasn't able to stop the feeling of having to learn about her lover's body all over again. It wasn't at all true but when they went to the dining hall to get their midday meal, she suddenly understood why she was feeling this way.
There was a playfulness emanating from the tall warrior Gabrielle only knew from rare private moments with her. This wasn't the woman able to face down an assembly of grown battle-hardened men by raising an eyebrow. This wasn't the woman whose smile could freeze an entire army in horror. This wasn't the ruthless murderer who first killed, and asked questions later. Though she didn't let her guard down completely Xena was relaxed. What she had said the day before was true; it was as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Some candledrops ago, the tall woman fell asleep but Gabrielle was too anxious to follow her example despite her newfound insight in her lover's feelings. It was already late afternoon and soon Xena would be escorted to the temple of Artemis. The young woman's stomach clenched at the thought of what would happen the next morning and she couldn't help the goose bumps crawling over her skin. She instinctively snuggled closer, holding tight.
She felt Xena's lips on the top of her head, her voice whispering. "Everything will be all right, love."
"I'm so afraid for you, Xe. I don't want it to happen, I don't want you to hurt."
"I know, my love, but it's the right thing to do." There was a long moment of silence before Xena continued. "I know you're not comfortable with my decision but if you really think you can't life with it, I'll go back on my word. You know that I want to scale the balances with the Amazons but you're far more important."
"You really would do this for me?"
Xena slowly nodded but there also was a great sadness in her eyes.
"I love you, Xe, but you have to follow your heart and your conscience. I may not like it, and I really don't but as long as you are sure that this has to be done I'll be by your side."
"So, I guess you won't consider staying in the village tomorrow. You don't have to watch."
"Don't, Xena! I'll be by your side, no matter what. I won't let you face them alone… And they better don't even attempt to make any weird remarks or else I'll… I'll..."
"You have my permission to roll them over with your wheelchair. But be assured, they won't, Gabrielle," Both women turned their heads to see Queen Melosa casually leaning on the windowsill. "Some of my sisters may only come out of curiosity but the better part will be there out of respect for someone who has the courage not to take the easier way out. The trial and the way Xena held her own in the forced interrogation have effectively silenced the few critics left after the fight. I'm sorry to intrude, Gabrielle, but it's time for the ritual bath."
"I have to be at the temple at sunset. Queen Melosa is right. Please try to get some sleep, Gab. Tomorrow Solari and Ephiny will help you to get to the temple in time. I love you."
Xena stood, put on her sandals, and placed tender kisses on the blond woman's forehead, her eyes, and her mouth. She jumped out of the window and was gone.
"I love you too, Xe." Gabrielle said to the empty room. She snuggled deeper under the blanket, hugging the pillow, and inhaled the scent and warmth of the others woman's body still lingering there. She closed her eyes, picturing in her mind what now was happening some hundred paces away. Only this morning while Anara was changing her splints and tending to Xena's back the Queen had thoroughly explained the proceedings.
The bathing area now was empty except for Xena and Queen Melosa. Usually at this time of the day, before the evening meal, there was a large crowd using the facilities. This day Xena would not simply take a bath, Melosa in her role as the priestess of Artemis would conduct a purification ritual: beginning with cold ablutions, the main part consisted in a massage with a slightly rough textured cream peeling away the outermost layer of Xena's skin. After residual cream had been washed away with more cold water the tall woman would put on a set of plain Amazon leathers, the one's she had been wearing during the summer festival. She would follow the Queen to the temple where she had to spend the night. Queen Melosa had told her that this would give her lover the chance to meditate and pray - to put her in the right frame of mind.
Gabrielle tried to stop her mind from anticipating further, from what would happen some time after sunrise - without great success. The soft mattress became increasingly uncomfortable, and the young woman grew increasingly restless. Meanwhile it was dark outside, she was well aware that Xena wanted her not to get out of bed on her own. She all but had made the promise to wait for Ephiny and Solari to help her. Gabrielle also knew that she never would be able to sleep.
It took her almost one and a half candlemark to get ready and lift her body into the chair, and another half candlemark to open the door and roll out of the hut. She was lucky, there already were enough stars in the sky to let her easily find the way to the temple. This way at least she would be as close to her lover as possible. She stayed at the edge of the clearing, longingly looking towards the steps to Artemis' temple. There was enough light to clearly see the outlines of the big statue inside, and she was sure to also be able to discern Xena's lean body in front of the altar.
Alas! she wasn't able to make out if Xena was praying or meditating. One day when the tall woman gave her a lesson in meditation, she had told her that these techniques were not only useful to clear one's mind. She had told her the story of a master of meditation who was able to escape captivity by reducing his heartbeats and making his guards believe that he already was dead. They also could be used to reduce the sensibility to pain or to increase the body's ability to heal. Xena could use them to make her ordeal more bearable.
"She won't do it, Gabrielle."
The young woman turned around as fast as possible and found herself facing Xena's prosecutor. She still was angry with the woman but she couldn't help asking. "What are you talking about?"
"She won't use her spiritual powers to make this easier but she also won't use them to make it more difficult or more painful."
"The meditation techniques, how can you be so sure? How did you know what I was thinking about?"
"You love her, you're in love with her. Your face was easy to read, little one. Her sense of integrity and honour wouldn't allow either."
"Don't call me 'little one'. She told me what it means, and you don't have the right to call me thus'. If it were up to me you even wouldn't be allowed to use it for her." The blonde angrily retorted. "She loves you, and you hurt her."
"So, you're still mad at me. She told me you would be - and I really do understand your feelings. I probably would feel the same if our roles were reversed.
"There's rain in the air, we should go back to the village. Queen Melosa is with her; she will keep an eye on Xena all through the night. There's nothing we can do right now. Let's go back to your hut and have a talk."
The young woman didn't answer immediately; the older one let her take her time. "She told me that for a long time you were her light, that you gave voice to her heart while her soul was captured by darkness. She told me that since defeating Cortese you carried the voice of reason and humanity.
"She also said that the forced interrogation was necessary to break through the barriers she keeps her memories and emotions under. So, I guess, somehow, I owe you this talk."
Meanwhile Xena was on her knees in front of the altar. Her sandals were just outside the entrance, and her weight was resting on her heels. She resisted the urge to pray or meditate and concentrated instead on reviewing the last night she had spent in Artemis' temple. Then she had been kneeling on the left side of the altar as befitted an uninitiated assistant, and the Queen who this night was sitting on the right side had been in front of it.
She had tried to act as if on night watch in the forest with all her senses concentrated on external stimuli but it hadn't worked. Instead, she helplessly watched as wave after wave of images rolled through her mind. At first, there had been the far too familiar images of dead bodies, burning houses, and deadly wounded crying out in pain and fear. She had seen all the things she had done over the years and regretted at one point or the other: Queen Cyane's death, the battles against the Centaurs, Borias' lifeless body, the unconcealed hatred in Kaleipus' eyes. Just remembering theses things she could feel her grip on her emotions lessening.
The images she consciously had recalled now came seemingly of their own accord. Like the last time they brought back memories of happier times: Her younger self trying to jump a ravine. The first time she mastered riding the big black stallion even the most skilled of her fellow villagers wasn't able to approach. Lying in the grass with Lyceus while searching pictures in the clouds or the stars. The first buck she hunted down on her own, field dressed, and brought back to the inn. Many happy memories even from the time of darkness.
The last sequel of images she had seen the first night had been centred entirely on Gabrielle. It was then that she knew for certain that there was something to live for and that she had to survive the trial. That's why she agreed to answer Ephiny's questions, and she really had tried her best but sometimes it was just too hard and too shameful to open the doors to certain memories.
The last time the images had stopped there, not this night though. This night she saw a tall girl with jet-black hair, a summer dress ripped to pieces at the front showing a collection of bruises, both old and new ones, and bite marks. In her hand, she had a red-hot iron bar but she didn't feel the heat. Her almost lifeless eyes were fixed to a body in front of her, the body of a bearded men about seven feet tall with broad shoulders and very well muscled lying in a pool of blood on the ground.
Xena heard herself thinking. 'No, I don't want to see this.' But the image in her head didn't go away. When finally the adults found the girl, the iron bar had already cooled down and attached itself to her hand. The reeve tried to take it from her but the skin tore from the flesh and the pain let her snap back to reality. The marks on her body told the elders enough to close the case as self-defence, and in a way, it was. Her body healed but it took moons for her eyes to once again reflect life and joy.
The tall warrior physically was shaking when she thought about the moon and a half before and the moons after his death. She knew that she had to get back some semblance of control and began to take deep calming breaths.
Finally, these memories faded away - but only to be replaced by another dead body: The tear stained face of a very young woman was looking in open but unseeing eyes, trying to wrap her mind around the unbelievable, the one thing she never had taken into consideration when organising the defence of their home town.
Cortese and his men were on the run, all of them except for the wounded and the dead, the village was save. She had turned around to share their triumph with her younger brother when he suddenly dropped to his knees, an arrowhead protruding his chest. Acting on instinct alone she threw her sword at his already injured attacker and caught Lyceus collapsing body in her arms. On his face was no pain, not even surprise. It still reflected youthful joy, the glory of having defended his home at the age of thirteen, of finally having proven himself as a man.
The images shifted, and Xena now was looking at her own body, at her younger self. Silent tears were running down her cheeks, she made no sound at all, no sobs, no wailing, no cursing, just a seemingly never-ending flow of salty water. When the rest of her improvised militia returned from their pursuit of the enemy, they tried to take care of his body.
One of the older men knelt down and closed his eyes. The young woman slowly looked up. Her sky blue eyes were dark and cold. She cradled the corpse in her arms, his light brown hair resting at her shoulder. She slowly stood holding onto him like a mother would to her sleeping child. She raised her voice and the victory drunken crowd in front of her fell silent. She told them that they had done a great job at defending Amphipolis. But she also told them that their job wasn't finished yet, that it was their duty to keep the village save not only now but for years to come. She told them that they not only had to do this for the sake of their families but also for the memory of the purest and the most brave of them all. 'His death shall not be in vain.'
The tall youngster carried her brother the two hundred paces to her mother's inn and gently lowered him on her bed. She reappeared and went to retrieve her sword from the body of his murderer. She yanked it free, disregarding his faint breathing. All her strength was put in a single blow, severing his head. She impaled the head on a spear and planted the spear in front of the inn.
Xena knew exactly what she had been feeling then. She knew of the anger and hatred bit by bit swallowing her guilt and grief, leading her from protector to warlord to conqueror, form village girl to soldier to murderer. But now it was as if she were observing a complete stranger. She tried to find these feelings in her heart now but they were simply not there. Yes, there was grief and regret that her kind-hearted, beautiful brother didn't have the chance to grow into a strong, caring man but there was no hatred, no self-loathing, and no numbness. She continued to examine her emotions and finally had to concede that it wasn't something new she was feeling, until now she simply hadn't been able to acknowledge it.
For the first time since her vigil had begun, she raised her eyes to the statue of Artemis dominating the hall. She closed her eyes for a long heartbeat and let her mind speak.
'Artemis! Goddess of the hunt and the moon, Protector of the Amazon nation! You know I don't speak kindly of most of the Gods and I usually speak to only one, the One who was before Zeus and Cronos, the One who always will be. My prayers go to her because she isn't known for her interference in the life of mortals.
'When my brother died I was weak and I embraced the darkness that always has been a part of me. It dominated everything I did, everything I thought. I didn't want to accept it's hold on me, my pride wouldn't allow it. Now I know that it is a part of what, of who I am. I am a fighter, a warrior; whenever I kill, the darkness grows.
'The darkness probably never will go away completely but without my fighting abilities I also won't succumb to it a second time. Please take the….'
There was a noise as if thunder was exploding directly in front of her, a blue light wrapped itself around the statue and lent her a semblance of life. The green gems her eyes were made of seemed to sparkle and a familiar voice echoed in her heart.
'No, Xena, it took you long enough to finally choose the way that was meant to be yours from the beginning. Today and the moons to come you will atone for the crimes committed against the Amazon nation but this only is the beginning. Assuring the safety of Greece is your destiny but until now, you only guarded your home land, your heritage against external evil. It is time for you to fight the internal enemy. You are a fighter and you always will be. You will need your weapons and all of your fighting skills in the years to come, not only in physical battles. The strength of your mind and your heart will be as important as the power of your sword arm or the sureness of your aim. Remember what the masked warrior taught to you.'
'I don't deserve that you speak to me, Goddess.'
'No, you don't - not yet. Some day in the future you will understand. I won't do anything that might endanger your destiny but I will grant you a wish, to you personally, Gabrielle and Thania must heal in their own time.'
'You know my thoughts well.' Xena had the impression that the statue was smiling. 'I'm healing faster than any other mortal I ever saw. The punishment won't be as hard on me as it should be. Could you take this away and give it back when I've redeemed myself in your eyes, Artemis?'
'Your ability to heal fast is as much a part of you as your fighting skills. Gods only can heal or condemn with the blessings of Athena or Apollo. I can't make any promises but I'll try.'
'Thank you, Artemis.' Xena's mind answered and while she closed her eyes, the light in the temple returned to its usual nightly shade.
The tall woman heard and sensed the forest surrounding the temple slowly awakening to a new day though dawn was still another half candlemark away. She knew she should be worried about the conversation her young lover and her oldest friend were probably still engaged in. She should worry if the goddess would grant her wish and about how Gabrielle would react to the news. She should be worried about the moons to come and her unique position amongst the Amazon nation. She should worry about the future of Greece, about what the Goddess meant when she told her about the internal enemy. Instead, she felt calm and surprisingly well rested.
Xena could hear the steady rhythm of Queen Melosa's breathing, indicating that she still was deep in prayer. She could feel the sun rising behind her back and without moving a muscle she dedicated a prayer of her own to Artemis and to the one who was first and always will be. She still was kneeling in front of the altar when the first Amazons were arriving at the temple clearing. She recognised the voices of some of the royal guards, obviously sent in advance to keep the other spectators some paces away from the temple steps to make sure that there was enough space to accommodate the jury as the official witnesses of Xena's punishment. There were more and more people coming near but only when her ears recognised the distinct scratching of wheels on the hard ground she slowly opened her eyes.
When Queen Melosa squeezed her shoulder, she stood, fastened the thongs keeping the sandals in place, and left the temple. Every single Amazon not on guard duty was standing in expectant silence with the jury, Ephiny, Gabrielle, Theano, and Chandala in the front row. Xena descended the seven stairs to ground level, turned around and knelt on her right knee. Melosa was still at the top, an unrolled scroll in her hands. The whole assembly bowed their heads when she raised her voice.
"I am Melosa, priestess of Artemis, I am Melosa, Queen of the Amazon nation by right of birth and mutual consent. I greet all of you my sisters, you who have come here to witness justice satisfied.
"Xena of Amphipolis, you were found guilty of sacrilegious behaviour in three cases. Every case will be punished separately. You will receive three sets of fifty strokes with a single tail whip on your back, and twenty more for one of the Amazons you killed on sacred ground was a Queen. Only strokes that break the skin will be counted. There will be a period of recuperation of a full moon between each set, and you will stay a slave to the Amazon nation until the last stroke lands on your skin. Are you ready to submit to Amazon justice?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa. I choose Theano as my assistant."
This was a surprise not only for the audiences but also to the Queen. "I'm sorry, Xena, I'm not able to approve of your choice. The assistant has to be a relative or a bond mate. In your case only the third option is left, the priestess herself."
The kneeling woman turned her head to Theano who took three steps forward, smiled and nodded. "Queen Melosa, Theano is part of my family. She is my second mother."
The astonishment on Melosa's face now was clearly visible but at the same time, many things suddenly began to make sense. "Do you accept the culprit's choice, Theano?"
"Yes, Queen Melosa, I do."
Melosa nodded her agreement and told Eponin to begin. The weapons' master gave a pair of fur-lined cuffs to the older Amazon that fitted around Xena's wrists without even a tenth of an inch give. The raven-haired woman climbed the stairs and knelt on the stony ground between two pillars in front of the temple entrance. Sturdy leather thongs were fastened at the cuffs and wrought tightly around each pillar stretching Xena's arms as far as possible. The leather straps holding her top were unlaced and a great white towel tied around her waist. Theano would count the strokes and make sure that she didn't pass out in the process.
Eponin was still standing in front of the stairs but instead of uncoiling the whip she laid it down on the first step went up to Xena and knelt in front of her. "Xena, I see you as a friend but the law doesn't leave me any choice in the matter. Please forgive me what I have the duty to do."
"There's nothing to forgive, weapons' master. You are a friend to me, too, now more than ever. I would be honoured if you could see your duty also as a personal favour for me."
"Thank you, my friend."
The Amazon returned to her assigned place and put to use what she only recently had learned from the woman now under her lash.
Theano requested a break. Drops of blood were colouring the towel around Xena's hips. The lash not only had drawn blood every time but also opened up some of the welts from the forced interrogation. Beads of sweat already were covering the rest of the bound woman's skin and the older Amazon gently wiped them away from her face. She whispered in her ear.
"There's no shame in screaming, little one. It won't change their respect for you and it won't change Gabrielle's love."
Xena managed a small smile and answered. "Not yet, Theano. I have to do this my way."
The whipping continued.
At the thirty-third stroke, the lawyer called another time-out. To the untrained eye, Xena's back already was a bloody mess but she yet had to utter a single scream or moan. There were tears silently running down her cheeks, and Theano had to force the tip of a water skin between her clenched teeth.
"Drink, Xena. Only seventeen more to go. I know you can do it, little one." She made sure that Xena's long black hair didn't accidentally touch her back, gave her a kiss on the forehead and signalled to Eponin to continue. She stayed in front of the younger warrior, holding Xena's pain-filled blue eyes with her own.
The bound woman screamed, an earth-shattering scream, part pain, and part anger but when the last stroke hit its target, she abruptly fell silent. When her wrists were simultaneously uncuffed by the Queen and the weapons' master she collapsed against Theano's chest who helped her to her feet as gently as possible. Xena took a couple of deep breaths trying to tone out the pain radiating from her back and through her body to the very end of her hair. She slowly steadied herself and made small steps to the altar where she bent her knee and whispered 'Thank you, Artemis.'
Xena descended the stairs in slow motion and went directly to Gabrielle. The young woman was very pale and she visibly had trouble to keep her tears in check. Once again, she went down on her right knee, painfully leaned forward, and kissed her.
"I love you, Gabrielle. All the time, I could feel your eyes on me, and the power of your love gave me strength. You are the light in my darkness; you hold my soul. Being with me makes your life dangerous; being with me may even threaten your soul. I don't know what the future will bring but I know that I can't imagine living my life without you. It would be more appropriate to wait but I simply have to ask now. Will you become my wife, will you join your life with mine 'til death will part us as soon as I am a free woman once again?"
The blond woman was speechless, never before Xena had given voice to her feelings in public, and now this!! She kissed her back, looked deep in her lover's eyes, and answered. "Yes, Xe, I will. - But now we should go back to the village where Anara can see to your back."
Xena smiled and took the first two steps towards the edge of the clearing when a dizzy spell hit her. Immediately Theano was at her side. "You have nothing to prove, Xena."
"Thank you for looking out for me, my second mother."
"Any time, little one."
"Eponin, my friend, I could use another helping hand to get back to the village."
The weapons' master smiled a relieved smile, draped Xena's arm around her shoulders, and the threesome slowly navigated through the easily parting crowd with Gabrielle, Ephiny, Melosa and the rest of the jury following close behind.
Yes, there's a sequel brewing in my mind, there simply are too many questions left unanswered: Will the governing council in Corinth persevere and will they be able to hold Greece together without Xena at the helm? When will Najara be back to cause more trouble, and will the djinn this time be at her side? What will become of Xena's soldiers? What will happen when Cyrene finally arrives at the Amazon village? Will Thania ever get to know why Eponin didn't tell her the truth from the beginning and will the weapons' master officially accept the Queen's love? What is the secret surrounding Gabrielle's birth and heritage or the mystery about Akyra's past? Will Alti be back soon? What has become of Terreis? I'm sure you can think of a lot more things you'd like to know. Feel free to let me know.
Now I have answers to some of these questions and other loose ends but I don't know if I ever will put them to words. So, let me know what you thought of the story so far. I'm open for praise and criticism alike. I don't shoot flaming arrows at constructive criticism but purely homophobic remarks may receive a good portion of verbal Greek fire.
I'm expecting your comments under firstname.lastname@example.org