Time’s Fell Hand part 4 by LJ Maas

Chapter 34: I Hereby Swear To Uphold Your House…

We both felt considerably more human after a bath and some rest. I had a bite to eat and attempted to entertain Amira while Gabrielle met with the Amazon seamstresses. I suspected we’d need about three hired women just to keep up with Amira in a place as big as the palace in Corinth. She never seemed to tire.

I wore my official garb in honor of my wife’s special night. The tunic I would put on at the last moment, however, since the thing was about the most damned uncomfortable piece of clothing I’d ever owned. My mother and Selene were in the other room with Gabrielle, and I had begun to wonder what they could be dressing her in that could have possibly taken so long.

Amira and I had been trying to throw olives in each other’s mouths. The girl had good aim, but even when we missed, we just laughed and tried again. Actually, I could see having a little fun around the castle with Amira around. I hadn’t stopped to think, at the time, how odd that feeling should have been.

In between olive tosses, I polished my sword. Amira reached out to touch the weapon and I threw her a cautioning gaze.

“Don’t touch, Amira. It’s sharp and it will cut you. Understand?”

She nodded her head. Not having much experience with children I, perhaps foolishly, considered my warning enough and the matter finished. After all, I had given orders to men twice my size on a daily basis. Very few ever disobeyed. I soon discovered that a soldier made a career out of following orders and to a girl of five, rules were something to sneak through or work around.

Too quickly for me to stop, Amira reached out for the blade once more.

“Amira!”

I believe the sharp edge to my voice alarmed her. Unfortunately, in her fright, she jumped back and her finger slid across the blade. The girl let out a scream that could have awakened a hibernating bear. Everyone came running and I saw Gabrielle rush into the room, absolute dread in her eyes. I froze. In my panic, I could see myself trying to explain to Gabrielle how I had cut her daughter’s hand off the very first time she had put me in charge of watching her.

Gabrielle scooped up the child. Amira clutched her hand to her chest and large tears rolled down her cheeks. Looking over at me, Gabrielle silently asked for an explanation. I finally propelled my body into the fray.

“She grabbed my sword,” I said. I had to practically shout in order to make myself heard over the girl’s screams. “I told her not to touch it!” I added quickly in my own defense.

“Let me see, sweetheart,” Gabrielle said, attempting to pull Amira’s hand open.

I figured there should have been a lot more blood, but was thankful for small miracles. Finally, Amira stopped screaming. She sniffed and eventually held out her hand for Gabrielle to see.

“Is it bad?” I asked trying to get a look. “Do I need to call the healer? Is there a lot of blood? It—it—” I reached out and grabbed the tiny fingers that Gabrielle wiggled back and forth.

“Wait a—it’s not bleeding,” I said, looking closer. “It’s not even scratched.”

“Thank the Gods,” Gabrielle sighed.

Amira held out her hand and I thought she was pointing her finger at me. I looked back at her uncomfortably, as though it had been my fault.

“What?” I asked. I wondered if I sounded as guilty to everyone else as I did to myself.

Gabrielle smiled and Amira continued to point her finger at me.

“I didn’t do anything.”

I noticed that my mother now smiled, as well.

“If you kiss her finger, the hurt will go away, my dear,” Cyrene said.

I looked at Amira and Gabrielle in disbelief. “Are you kidding?”

Gabrielle gave me one of those looks and of course, I caved. I self-consciously looked around me. They stared elsewhere when I glared at them. I reached over and placed a quick kiss on the tip of Amira’s small finger. She immediately smiled and sniffed back her tears. I was amazed at the healing properties of such an act. Why hadn’t I been told of this before? Were these secrets written down somewhere?

Gabrielle used her hand to wipe away the tears on Amira’s face. “Amira, did Xena tell you not to touch her sword?”

The youngster hung her head and nodded.

“You could have been hurt very badly, my child,” Cyrene added, laying a comforting hand on Amira’s back.

“Good girls do what their Mama tells them, Amira,” Gabrielle said. “Do you want to be a good girl?”

“Uh huh,” Amira replied. “Sometimes it’s hard, though.”

Gabrielle tried hard not to laugh at the girl’s response. “I understand, but I want you to try very hard for me. Okay?”

Amira nodded.

“Do you think you should say something to Xena?”

Amira looked up at me. “Sorry, Xena.”

The expression she wore sliced right through to my heart. We had so recently met, yet I knew that this girl would always be a princess in my heart. Green eyes, Gabrielle’s eyes, stared repentantly back at me. As usual, however, I couldn’t find the words to express such emotions.

“Come on you,” I took her from Gabrielle and tossed her over my shoulder until she laughed and screamed in delight.

I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we would experience such dramatic trauma, but I hoped that it would always end so innocently.

hhhhhh{ggggg
” Are you insane?” I heard Gabrielle shout from the other room.

Gabrielle rushed into the room followed by the rest of the women. I almost choked on an olive at the sight. Gabrielle wore about as little as one could and still be considered dressed. It didn’t even look as though she wore a top. I believe the Amazons thought the many lengths of beaded necklaces that lay across her chest were covering enough. The leather skirt had a slit along each leg, nearly to her waist. Part of me wanted to do more than look until I noticed the indignant look in Gabrielle’s eye.

“Do you see what they want me to wear?”

“I do indeed. I don’t think it’s even enough to cover Amira,” I replied.

“I thought I made it clear the last time they dressed me in Corinth that I can’t go there,” Gabrielle explained more to them than me.

“Gabrielle, you look great,” Selene said.

“That’s sort of the problem. Too much of me can be seen.”

From the very start of our relationship, Gabrielle had surprised me by her modesty. I never thought that a woman so trained in the art of pleasure, who had been a body slave to so many different masters over such a great space of time, could have such a chaste attitude toward revealing her own body. She did, though, and she had changed little in the past season. Even after coming to know the Amazons, and the rather relaxed outlook they held toward clothing, she refused to change, and I liked it that way. The less anyone saw of Gabrielle’s body, the fewer jaws I would have to break.

“Teema,” Gabrielle attempted to explain to the seamstress. This is simply too revealing for me to wear.”

It’s not exactly…her,” Anya added.

Teema truly had no idea what Gabrielle meant. “I—I—but it’s what every Queen has worn since—”

“I’m afraid some traditions are going to have to change.”

“But, it looks beautiful on you.”

“Don’t you have something more…” Gabrielle searched for a word that would get her point across. By the look on her face, it was apparent the Amazon had simply never run into a Queen who had taken such a stance.

“More…modest?” Gabrielle finally finished.

Teema stared blankly in answer and Gabrielle looked ready to blow. I stepped in, not worrying this time if it looked as though I was pulling rank. I figured I could put it in some way that Teema would be able to understand if I did intimidate a little.

“Teema, I want you to look at Gabrielle,” I said.

She looked in Gabrielle’s direction in a slightly tentative fashion, unsure of where I was going.

“Actually look at her.” I paused a moment more before continuing. “Now, what do you see?”

“Lord Conqueror?”

“See…when you look at Gabrielle dressed that way.”

“Oh. Well, she is quite beautiful.”

“Very attractive,” I added.

“Yes…very.” She let her eyes linger longer on Gabrielle’s body. “An extremely handsome woman,” she said, trying to remember Gabrielle was also her Queen.

“Now, stop and think about this a moment. If any of the women at this evening’s ceremony look at Gabrielle in the same manner that you are now, since you’ve realized just how beautiful my wife is, I’ll have to kill them.”

I let my words sink in, folding my arms across my chest, and towering over the woman. My height worked for me in such situations and I purposefully used it to intimidate the much smaller woman.

“I suspect that might put a damper on the evening’s festivities, don’t you agree?” I continued. “So, now—are you beginning to understand what Gabrielle means by modest?”

“Suddenly, it’s crystal clear. My apologies, Your Highness.”

“Don’t give it a second thought, Teema,” Gabrielle replied.

“Perhaps I could—”

“You know what, my friend? I’m going to wear my own clothes.”

“Your own?”

“Yes. I promise you, I’ll look like a Queen and I won’t let the Amazons down.”

“If you insist. You’ll call if you need anything at all?”

“You’ll be the first one I contact. Go on now. I’ll see you later.”

Gabrielle turned and walked back to her dressing room.

“What will you wear, dear?” Cyrene asked Gabrielle’s exiting figure.

“I have no idea,” she replied and closed the door behind her.

hhhhhh{ggggg

When Gabrielle appeared, a short time later, she surprised us all. I knew that she wouldn’t dress as she had for the coronation in Corinth, but I was indeed curious as to what she would choose. As was the girl’s habit, she surprised us all.

Gabrielle wore tight leather pants, dyed black as my own were. She had chosen to wear the Amazon leather boots and a belt adorned with clay beads and feathers from a reddish brown hawk. For a top, she sported her golden-coined armor. I believe that surprised me the most. She looked rather elegant, but very much like an Amazon with the manner in which she decided to wear her armor. Instead of the traveling, long-sleeved blouse customarily worn beneath the armor, Gabrielle had decided to wear only a sleeveless slip. It protected her body from the uncomfortable armor, but still made it look as though she had nothing on underneath. What a smart woman.

It took me a moment’s musing to figure out exactly why Gabrielle looked so different—good, but different. She appeared taller, but she wasn’t really. Her body posture no longer appeared ready to bolt at the first loud noise. She stood ready and prepared for anything that might happen.

The change in her didn’t stop with manner. It included her appearance. I quickly realized that it had to do with her daily workouts. Days on end this summer of sitting a horse and working out everyday with her Amazon escort had caused Gabrielle’s body to go from frail to fit. Her shoulders had some definition to them and her bare arms looked tan and muscular. As my eyes roamed her body, I found the same to be true of her legs, the muscles noticeable through the tight leather of her pants.

I could imagine many a lover disliking such an appearance change in their spouse, but I couldn’t have been happier. Gabrielle had changed inside as well as out. She would never again have to cower in fear or subject herself to the whim of another. She might not see it in herself just yet, but it was there. I saw it and it only made me love her more. This was a first for me, as well. For the first time in my life, love and respect went hand in hand.

“Well?” she asked us all. She looked a little nervous.

“Superb,” I said with a smile.

“Definitely Queen material,” Selene added.

“Mama!” Amira ran up to Gabrielle and my wife surprised me by easily lifting the girl into her arms. “I told you ta wear this one.” She tugged on Gabrielle’s armor. “You look like a real Queen now.”

“That’s the best compliment I’ve ever heard,” Gabrielle answered.

The two of them were naturals together. I looked over and saw my mother with the same thought, tears lightly misting her eyes. Gabrielle’s face suddenly turned peaceful, actually appearing quite confident. It wasn’t only Amira. I knew that. For the first time in her life, Gabrielle found herself surrounded by family and friends who loved her, trusted her, and respected her for who she was. How could anyone feel anything other than extreme confidence around such a thing?

“All right, Amira, let’s get you dressed now, shall we?”

The youngster pouted as Gabrielle set her to the floor.

“What’s the matter, sweetie?” Cyrene asked. “Don’t you like the new dress we put together for you?”

“Why come I have to wear a dress?”

The conversation caused me to smile. How many times had I asked my mother the same question as a youngster?

“You have to look like a real princess tonight, love,” Gabrielle explained. “People will expect the Queen’s daughter to look especially nice.”

“Can’t I look nice in these?” She wore an Amazon child’s customary leathers, a short little skirt and top.

“How about at least trying the dress that Cyrene made, all right?” Gabrielle asked. “She went to a lot of trouble to make one of Selene’s dresses fit you.”

“Okay, Mama.” Amira took mother’s hand and they went off into the bedroom. Amira wore a defeated and unhappy expression.

The soft knock on the door startled all of us, so wrapped up in the moment were we. Ephiny poked her head inside.

“It’s nearly time. Are you ready, Gabrielle?”

“I believe we’re almost there,” she said.

I put on my tunic and strapped my sword belt on over it. Anya helped me on with the jacket. She had taken to creating my clothes as well as Gabrielle’s apparel. She had recently taken the jacket in, since I had lost a stone or two in weight. The material, tight fit, length, everything about the tunic felt awful. It always had, but my advisors had told me repeatedly that I needed to look official on certain occasions.

“What’s wrong, Xena…is it too tight?” Anya asked.

I tugged at the collar and squirmed. “Why does it itch so much?”

“It’s too tight?”

“No, it just…” I squirmed around some more. “It always itches so.”

As if on cue, Cyrene came out of the bedroom. Following in her shadow was a fidgety, uncomfortable looking Amira. At that very moment, every woman in the room knew that some girls just weren’t meant to wear dresses. Amira was a beautiful child, but she looked a lot like Ephiny had when I met up with her in Athens. Sort of like a guy wearing a dress. That’s not very complimentary, but it’s the only way I know how to describe the sight. Amira wiggled and scratched in a most unladylike manner and in some very unladylike places.

”Amira,” Selene said with a laugh. “Princesses don’t scratch their butt in public.”

“But it itches!” Amira retorted. “Why do good clothes have to be so itchy?”

Every eye in the room turned toward me. “What?” I asked about as defensively as one person could.

“You sure she’s your daughter?” Selene said to Gabrielle out of the side of her mouth.

Gabrielle laughed heartily. “All right, this has gotten out of hand. Ephiny, tell them we just need a few more minutes, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Amira. “How about if Cyrene and Selene get you dressed in some proper Amazon clothes?”

“Yeah!” Amira clapped her hands and spun around the room, nearly tripping on the dress she wore. Can’t I look like you, Mama?” she stopped to ask.

“Tell you what…” Gabrielle took one of the short necklaces off and put it over the child’s head. “Everyone will know you’re my little girl now.”

“Wow!” she exclaimed.

She sent the three once more to the bedroom. “And you…” she crooked a finger at me. “You do look pretty cute all officially dressed and all.”

I chuckled. “Hey, what did I say about calling me cute? I’m a warrior. I can tough it out.”

“Yes, but wouldn’t you be more comfortable in that black leather outfit you wore that night in Athens?”

“You want me to wear that?” I looked around rather self-consciously at the gleam in Gabrielle’s eye. The others still in the room wisely acted as though they had more pressing words to have with one another.

“I thought you looked extremely sexy that night.”

“Really?” I began to feel a bit pleased.

“Indeed. Besides, tonight I want you looking your sexiest.”

“In a village full of Amazon women?”

“Absolutely, I want them all to want you and then to realize that you belong to me.”

Her words stunned me into silence. Had it truly only been a season or two since Gabrielle had been that timid and fearful slave girl? Before me now stood a woman, a Queen, She was confident in herself and our love. Gods above! Athena, bless you. I had hoped that the girl would become a woman such as this, but on many occasions, I feared it only a dream.

I leaned in and placed a fervent kiss upon her lips, which she returned with an equal ardor. “I have eyes for no other, my little one. You truly own my heart.”

“And, mine is yours, as well. There will never be another for me, Xena.”

The moment would have turned into tears or lovemaking if we had been alone. Of that, I was certain. Realizing we weren’t alone tended to have an embarrassing affect on me.

“Right…um, give me a few moments, then.”

Moments had been all that it took. Amira and I were so ecstatic at being allowed to wear our regular apparel that we were ready in no time. She wore a slightly longer skirt than usual and a short leather top that showed her tummy, baby fat and all. As for me, I felt at home in the leather outfit that Anya had designed. It caused me to realize that I would chuck the official tunic out the window when we returned to Corinth. I would have Anya create a fashionable, official, yet comfortable, article of clothing.

“Do you approve, Your Highness?” I asked Gabrielle when she came into our private room to check on me.

“Very much so. I would add a few things, however. Trust me?”

“Implicitly.”

She opened the baskets we traveled with, containing our clothes and personal possessions. I already wore the black leather pants that laced up the front of the legs. Such a thing wasn’t practical, but it did make for a damn good decoration. I sported the sleeveless leather armor that matched the pants and black boots. Created as a sort of leather jerkin, its decoration consisted of riveted leather straps crisscrossing my chest, along with gold medallions.

Gabrielle handed me a pair of leather and gold gauntlets that went from my wrist to the middle of my forearm. She then held up the heavy, but extremely impressive gold belt that had the same coins fashioned onto it as my armor.

“Your sword fits onto this belt, right?” she asked.

“Perfectly,” I answered as I fixed the scabbard to the metal as proof.

“Now that’s sexy,” Gabrielle said once she took a step back.

“As long as I don’t have to go swimming, I’ll be fine. You have a perfect eye for accessories, my love.”

“Thank you. Hhmm, no swimming, eh? That may cancel some plans I had for us for later.” She winked at me and saucily strolled from the room.

As usual, Gabrielle’s suggestive reply left me thinking of only one thing for the rest of the evening. The Conqueror was going to get lucky tonight.

hhhhhh{ggggg

Amira watched the gleaming metal of my sword from a safe distance, a new respect for the weapon evident in her eyes. I had no worries that her slight experience with my sword would put her off the blade. She still had a sort of gleam in her eye when she gazed at the lion’s head.

Once our group neared the center of the village, Adara and the other leaders of the twelve clans met us. Ephiny had explained earlier to Gabrielle how things would go during the evening’s ceremony, but the Amazon had agreed to act as a sort of translator for our group, whispering occasional explanations. As Gabrielle’s family and close friends, we were to sit directly in front of the stage they had erected in the center of the village.

Mother and Selene took charge of Amira, who oohed and ahhed at every sight. I admit; the forest became quite the spectacle. Every torch, candle, and oil lamp had been lit and the lights flickered off every leaf, on every tree, surrounding us. It was as if bits of glowing copper and brass hung from every branch. Encircling the arc of the stage, banners from each clan waved in the slight breeze of the evening.

A great number of chairs and benches had been set up next to the stage. We would sit there. The only people directly on the stage would be Gabrielle, Satena, and the clan elders. A couple of nameless Amazons directed us to the front, leaving Gabrielle and the elders behind for what I expected would be a formal entrance. Before leaving her side, I kissed her and whispered into her ear, offering a few words of love and encouragement. She smiled and returned the affection, appearing surprisingly confident. I had thought she would be more nervous, but upon reflection of the moment, perhaps she felt comfortable at finally coming into her own. I know I would have been a wreck.

Amira sat beside me, Mother and Selene on the other side of the youngster. On my left sat Ephiny, Yu Pan, and Solan. My son looked back nervously, no doubt at his centaur friends. Kaliepus and the centaur delegation stood at the very rear of the staging area. I had no worries on that front. Adara had given her word that no Amazon would start any sort of trouble during the evening. The tone of her voice assured me that the woman who crossed that line would be a sorry Amazon, indeed. Scylla, Kuros, Atrius, Anya, and their children sat in the row behind us.

We had left one chair directly behind me empty. Athena said that she preferred to watch the event with us. Personally, I believed she simply wanted to make Artemis more uncomfortable than ever. Not given to small talk with mortals, the Goddesses appeared mere moments before the ceremony began. Athena’s sister sat beside Gabrielle, looking more regal than when dressed in her hunting gear earlier. Artemis also looked considerably nervous, but given her uneasiness around humans, it wasn’t unexpected.

The center of the village was awash in light, conversation, and activity. When Adara stood and stepped to the front of the stage, hundreds of Amazons and their guests immediately fell silent. It had been many seasons since a Queen had accepted the mask. Most of the women in the village had never seen such an event. The older women could probably remember the day Melosa accepted, but that had been so long ago. Still, no one had ever witnessed what was to happen on this evening. Tonight, the Goddess Artemis herself would place the Queen’s mask in Gabrielle’s hands. The drums began and we watched as Artemis and Gabrielle led the way to the stage, followed by the Elders.

“Fellow Amazons and most appreciated guests,” Adara began. “I am Adara of the Panther clan. I welcome all of you to a most glorious and momentous event. Our lives are about to change in a most positive way. The Elder Council agreed unanimously to offer the right of royalty to Gabrielle of Potidaea. Not only has Gabrielle accepted, but also our patron, the Goddess Artemis, has personally blessed her. The Goddess sent Gabrielle to us, so it should assure all of us that the right woman holds the highest position of power within our tribe.”

Every warrior who held a sword rapped the flat of the blade against the sides of their seats, shields, and trees, anything that would echo the sound. Others simply cheered and shouted their approval. The sudden rush of sound caused a few babies in the audience to begin crying.

Had I noticed an angry twitch to Lexa’s eye? It was apparent that Adara’s last words had been meant to add a certain finality to the issue. How could any Amazon now declare Gabrielle unfit to lead when Artemis herself had selected her for the job? Even Lexa wouldn’t have nerve enough to declare that her patron had made an error.

There was a great deal of talking, music, and dance productions, but they eventually came around to the reason we were all there. Satena bid Gabrielle rise and the Priestess tied a leather band around Gabrielle’s right wrist.

“The royal crest is painted on the leather,” Ephiny whispered. “She only has to wear it until she receives her permanent mark.”

The permanent mark Ephiny spoke of would be a tattoo placed on the inside of Gabrielle’s wrist. All Amazons received one at a certain age. Once a girl had chosen a clan, she received the emblem of the clan in the form of a small tattoo on the inside of her wrist.

Gabrielle would take the emblem of royalty, a blue feather lying atop a sword. She hadn’t flinched when they told her. Of course, she wouldn’t. She already had the large tattoo of the Order of the Rose along her neck and scalp, mostly hidden by her hair. As for me, I grew slightly sick at my stomach at the sound of the word tattoo. Now, I have willed my body to do many things in my life, to ignore most forms of pain, but the very thought of sharp points of bamboo and metal being stuck into my skin turned me into an overgrown baby.

“She’s absolutely beautiful.” Athena leaned forward and whispered in my ear.

I smiled with pride, as well as in appreciation. “She is indeed. Thanks.”

“For what?”

“You know…all of it.”

She patted my shoulder. “I hear you every time you think it, Xena, and your thankfulness gladdens my heart.”

She reached out and squeezed Amira’s shoulder. The youngster had been listening intently to our whispered conversation.

“And how are you, my little tadpole?”

“Okay,” Amira whispered slightly louder. She wore a large grin and held up the necklace Gabrielle had given her to wear. “See what Mama gave me?”

“How beautiful. And, are you and your mother doing all right together?” Athena asked.

“Uh huh. She’s perfect!”

We returned our attention back to the stage. Mostly Gabrielle just stood there while Satena lit candles, burned incense, and waved the smoke around with the feather from a large bird. Gabrielle repeated the words Satena said to her, and then the Queen’s mask was uncovered.

It was a combination of carved wood and dried reeds woven around the outside. The wood was extraordinarily light. Amazon warriors wore their masks into battle, mostly to scare the Tartarus out of the enemy. The faces fashioned onto the front were frightening and sometimes grotesque. The bright paint made it even more so.

Again, Ephiny whispered an explanation for most of us to hear. “Every Amazon creates her own mask once her chosen clan has accepted her. Actually, work begins on the mask at a young age. It’s a very personal thing, part of a girl’s ritual from child to woman. It happens for most at puberty, but that’s not written in stone. For some girls it’s younger, for some older. It’s even considered good luck for a pregnant woman to fashion her child a mask before birth. A Queen, however, hands her mask down to her heir. That mask Satena is holding has been used by the royalty of our tribe all the way back to Queen Nyalda.”

Amira snuggled closer to me. When I looked down, she explained with one word. “Scary,” she said.

“They’re supposed to be, princess. When the Amazons go to war and fight, they wear their masks to scare the enemy. You don’t have to be afraid, though.”

Gabrielle’s mask showed some wear, but that was to be expected since it had been passed down to so many generations of Queens. Satena lifted the mask up as if it was some sacred object, holding it delicately by its edges. Artemis stood and walked toward Satena. The priestess kneeled before the Goddess and Satena held out the mask. Taking it into her hands, Artemis then turned to Gabrielle.

Had Gabrielle grown taller at some point? It must have been my eyes playing tricks on me. Perhaps I was seeing her with my heart instead of my eyes. She appeared confident and strong, standing toe to toe with the Goddess Artemis. It was no trickery of the light, however. No longer was Gabrielle the small and timid slave who had helped to redefine my life. Others might always see her as such, but I gazed at my wife through different eyes, the eyes of love and adoration. She looked like a glorious Titan to me. Hadn’t I always seen something of inordinate value behind those emerald eyes?

“For all to see and hear, within the mortal realm as well as the heights of Olympus, I claim Gabrielle as my chosen,” Artemis began. “I ask that she and her heirs lead my people for the rest of their days. I command of my people to follow her words as though they be my own. What say you, Gabrielle? Will you accept or turn away from the mask of royalty?”

I could almost hear the heartbeats of those around me; such a silence had fallen upon those present. They waited anxiously, leaning forward in their seats slightly to hear Artemis’s words. It was no secret to the village that Gabrielle had considered herself an unworthy candidate for the mask. I am certain they wondered whether she would turn down the right.

Artemis held the mask out to Gabrielle. It was all up to her now. She could accept or decline. This situation hadn’t been of her choosing. Rather it had been thrust upon her. Given her choice, I suspected that Gabrielle would have desired nothing more than life on some quiet farm with a loving spouse, loads of children, and a quill with which to write. As with everything that had happened in her life, however, I was certain she would accept her destiny without question, along with the grace and dignity of which she always seemed capable. That was why it came as no surprise when Gabrielle reached out and accepted the gift of the mask.

Still, the crowd had scarcely yet taken a breath. Gabrielle turned to the people looking back at her and lifted the mask into the air with both hands, uttering the words that generations of Amazon Queens before her had spoken.

“I hereby swear to uphold your house!” Then, she placed the mask over her face.

” Behold, Gabrielle, the Queen of the Amazons!” Satena called out.

The Amazons dropped to one knee in a display of respect. Then, the entire village erupted into a raucous combination of shouts, cheers, and cries so loud that I was certain neighboring lands could hear the commotion. There would have been no way of continuing the ceremony, even if that hadn’t been the end. Those on the stage rushed to bow and congratulate Gabrielle. I noticed that Artemis had quickly disappeared, probably frightened out of her immortality by the noise. Athena’s seat was suddenly empty and there she stood on the stage, placing a blessing upon Gabrielle.

Gabrielle made her way from the stage and I allowed the others in our group to congratulate her first. I watched as our family curtsied and bowed respectfully as Gabrielle stood before each of them. Even Amira appeared in awe of her mother until she lifted the face covering of her mask. The whole evening, and late hour, caught up with the youngster rather quickly as she yawned loudly in her mother’s arms. Cyrene took the girl and Amira went off to bed, but not before the promise of a story and a sweet treat from my mother. Gods, the girl was so like me that she could have been my flesh and blood daughter.

Gabrielle came to me and although I hadn’t planned it, I believed it was the right thing to do. Before all our friends and family, and perhaps a thousand strangers, I bent to one knee before my beautiful Queen. Did she think I would never be able to do that? It wouldn’t have surprised me. I had done many things in my lifetime, in earnest and for political gain, but kneeling before anyone else had not been among them.

Gabrielle had tears in her eyes as she reached out and touched my cheek. She extended her other hand and I took it in my own, rising to stand beside her.

“I’ll not have you bowing to me, My Conqueror.”

I believed she chose her words with great care. With that one statement, Gabrielle told everyone present there would be little anyone could do to break apart our alliance. We would stand together, the Amazons and the Empire, equals, much as Gabrielle and I had become. I kissed her soundly, laying claim to her before her people. She had become Queen to me long before Amazonia received that entitlement.
Chapter 35: When Push Comes To Shove…
Gabrielle sat down heavily on the bench beside Selene and I. “If I have to kiss or hug one more woman I think I’m going to scream,” she said. “What are you two up to? Having fun, Selene?”

Selene looked as though she had just bitten into an unripe fig.

“What?” Gabrielle asked.

To her credit, my sister refused to speak until Gabrielle threatened her.

“Every time someone talks to me Xena glares at them until I think they’re afraid she’s going to just lop their head off.”

“I have no idea what she means,” I said.

“I’m sure you don’t,” Gabrielle replied with that knowing expression of hers.

I felt guilty because I knew what I had been doing had been purposeful.

“Selene, be a dear and fill my cup up with cold water, will you?” Gabrielle asked. “Not from one of the pitchers on the table, but the barrel of spring water that’s at the end of the food tables.”

Selene looked as though Gabrielle had turned her into slave labor. Suddenly, though, her eyes grew large and she snatched the mug from Gabrielle’s hand. “Sure thing! Do you want something to eat?”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful, but wait around by the table till cook brings out the fresh lamb skewers. Those are just wonderful.”

“Anything you say, Gabrielle!” Selene responded and ran off.

Gabrielle had sent Selene over to the spot where at least two-dozen young women, all around Selene’s age, lingered.

“You don’t really think you’re fooling me, do you?” I asked.

“No love,” Gabrielle chuckled in reply. “But, she deserves a little fun tonight and she really is a smart girl. I don’t picture Selene letting anyone take advantage of her.”

“You’re right, I suppose, as usual. Hey, you look a little flushed. Need a break?”

“I think two cups of wine is my limit. I can feel my brain swimming around inside my head. How is it you can drink so much and still look clear as ice?”

“Sleight of hand,” I responded. “I pour half a mug of water before adding any drink. It works with wine and ale, but it makes port taste terrible. I’ve found that mead tastes the best watered down. An old trick I learned when drinking with my men. It comes in handy when I need to keep my wits about me.”

“Very clever.”

“Why don’t you take a few moments for yourself, love?” I suggested.

“I think I will. I’m going to go over to the community hall. Maybe splash my face with some cold water and sit in the quiet for a few moments”

“Want some company?”

“You mean aside from the twenty or so Empire and Amazon Royal guard that follow me everywhere?”

“Does seem like you can’t throw a stick without hitting one of them lately.” I laughed, but knew that the protection gave me a sort of peace of mind.

“Besides,” she added as she rose. “If you leave, who will guard Selene from all the fierce predators about.” Her laughter as she walked away caused me to smile at my own infantile behavior where Selene was concerned.

“If I’m not back shortly it just means I fell asleep,” she called back.

hhhhhh{gggg

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I truly did feel as though I could have fallen asleep had I let myself relax enough. After rinsing my face and accepting an invigorating cup of berry tea from one of the cooks, I made myself scarce and rested in one of the chairs in the large community hall. Most of the hall was empty due to the celebration outside, but Ephiny told me that the community area was usually awash in activity in the evenings. It became a way for the women to live independently within their homes, but still enjoy a communal atmosphere.

The darkened building held a large hall and numerous smaller, cozy rooms. I chose a chair facing an outside window, the warm breeze gently blowing in. The chair had been fashioned so that its deep cushions nearly swallowed me whole. I would have to finish my tea and make my way back to the party. Otherwise, they would find me curled up and asleep there in the comfortable seat.

A sudden rush of voices, laughing and talking, entered the room I sat in. Because I had tucked my legs underneath me, and I faced the wall, I was quite certain I remained unseen. My initial desire to remain unnoticed had been selfish, I know. I had met so many people, and I had finally begun to come down from the excitement of the evening. I think I just wanted to hide for a bit longer.

I could tell by the sounds of their voices that they were young women, still at the giggling stage, yet not childishly so. A few sounded as though they might be warriors-in-training, the objects of the more feminine girls’ affections. There seemed to be the same sort of posturing going on that groups of young males performed when around girls. The warriors sounded like the ones trying to top one another, to sound tough. I suppose that was attractive at a certain age. Hopefully, however, they would learn that sort of behavior could very quickly become unattractive.

I suppose eavesdropping wasn’t what the new Queen should have been doing, but old habits are so hard to break. I’d spent so much of my life as a piece of furniture, having less attention paid to me than the hounds at the master’s feet. Actually, I had hoped the young women would take a moment’s rest from the party and return the way they had come. If I had made my presence known things would have turned out so differently. I would have spared someone a great deal of pain, but alas, the Fates had already set her feet on another path.

“So, you were actually a part of their team? The Weapon’s Master picked you two?”

“Sure, we took turns at them. It wasn’t anything much. ”

“How can you say that? I would have been terrified.”

“That’s why you’re in the sparrow clan, Tia.” They all laughed. “They had to pick Prax, of course, she’s as big as a centaur.”

“Watch your mouth, Rhea.” I suspected that the speaker had been Prax. “They say that Conqueror bitch is a tough broad, but that must have been when she was young. I took care of her easy enough,” followed by more laughter.

“Bullshit!”

“Hey, you saw the black eye she had tonight, didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t much of a shiner.”

“I didn’t see you with enough backbone to call her out, big mouth.”

“You called the Conqueror out? You’re full of it, Prax. More likely you cold cocked her and then she kicked your butt.”

“No, really. I saw it all,” a new voice added. “Prax didn’t sucker punch her at all. It was after the round of fighting was done. Prax stood right up to the Conqueror and punched her.”

“And the Conqueror did nothing?” someone asked.

“She hauled back like she was gonna waste Prax, but she must have got scared or something because she just turned and walked away.”

I didn’t have to be Hypatia or Socrates to realize what they were talking about or who. I had noticed the bruise under Xena’s eye as soon as she had returned from the sparring field with Ephiny. For a mere youth to have blindsided Xena was unthinkable. For one to have stood toe-to-toe with my wife and punched her without Xena so much as raising a hand…I thought that impossible.

“Bet Eponin dressed you down good.”

“Not her so much as Ephiny. Man, I didn’t know she could yell that loud.”

Prax laughed and the sound caused my blood to turn into ice. It certainly felt that way, anyway. There was more going on there than good-natured teasing. This sort of talk was vicious and meant to belittle and hurt. What little Ephiny had taught me of Amazon culture didn’t include this. Why had Xena walked away from a fight? More importantly, why had she hid it from me?

I had no idea what I was going to say or do, but in my anger I was only completely cognizant of two things. I wanted these young women to know that they were out of their league in picking a fight with me and mine. Even more, I wanted them to know I had heard every word. Unlike me, true, but it must have been some sort of instinct.

I chose the moment when their laughter was at it’s loudest to rise from my chair. I turned and stood facing them until there was only the sound of their own panicked breathing. Had it been wrong of me to enjoy the way the blood drained from their faces? The anger I felt and the satisfaction at their fear, it wasn’t like me. I wondered if it had been the way Xena felt when her darkness took control.

I noticed that at least one of them glanced at the door out of the corner of her eye. Just a flinch really, but I read her mind. “Don’t even think about it,” I commanded.

Every one of them immediately dropped to one knee, hanging their heads low. All but one.

“Please, Your Highness—we didn’t mean—” The girl’s words stopped abruptly when she saw the look in my eye.

“No, I believe you did mean it,” I responded.

I never broke eye contact with her, the one they called Prax. I knew her as soon as I had turned around even though I had never met any of these girls before. She stood there with her arms crossed, a belligerent, almost smug expression staring back at me. She was extremely large for a young woman. I believed her to be as tall as Xena and even more muscular. Metallic gray eyes glared at me without attempting to camouflage their contempt. She had short blonde hair with one long braided lock at her temple that fell past her shoulder. She looked strangely familiar, but I had no idea why. Where had I seen those eyes before?

I wanted to force the smile from her face. Again, the feelings weren’t a part of my customary realm of emotions, and so they took me by surprise. I attributed the feeling to it having been the first time I had been forced into a position to protect my own. Whatever the driving force behind my feelings of anger and rage, they startled me, but I couldn’t seem to put them aside.

I didn’t like experiencing such a loss of control, which only served to anger me more. In my mind, and at that time, I felt my wrath and indignation justified. As I sit here now, some moons later, and write of the entire sequence of events, I wonder if I truly was or if I had been reacting to nothing more than hurt feelings. I am only human after all and far from perfect. I accept my mistakes and hope that as a ruler, I will not make too many.

Her expression had been bad enough, but when the kneeling girl beside Prax hit the tall girl in the thigh with her fist, as if to remind her that they were in enough trouble already, Prax’s comment hit me like a slap to the face.

“It’s not like she can actually do anything to us,” Prax said.

Her kneeling friend blanched. “Prax! You go too far.”

She should have listened to her friend. She had indeed pushed me beyond what my emotions could possibly tolerate. I did the only thing I could do short of walking up to the girl and striking her.

“Guards! Help!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.

Never had I seen so many soldiers rush to my defense. My Amazon escort looked slightly confused at seeing their own, but understood that I had been involved in some sort of confrontation and, swords drawn, they took a protective stance around me. Being strangers there, my Empire Guard appeared slightly less tentative. Noticing me in a standoff of sorts with the largest Amazon in the room, they quickly drew blades. Two of them literally pressed their sword points to Prax’s neck, and finally, I saw some sort of emotion from the girl. Her face drained of color, but her expression of contempt for me remained.

Xena burst through the growing crowd of onlookers only moments later. Her lion’s head blade held dangerously ready. Ephiny appeared mere heartbeats later.

“Gabrielle?” Xena asked breathlessly. The stricken look on her face made me sorry that I had made such a dramatic outburst.

“I’m all right, I think.”

“What are you—” Xena turned to look at my captives and the words froze on her tongue when she saw Prax there, surrounded by my armed guards.

“What did she do to you?” Xena asked in a voice that dripped venom. I still hadn’t known the circumstances, but it was obvious that Xena had indeed had dealings with Prax.

“Nothing, Xena, really. It was more of a—” I looked around and realized how foolish my explanation might sound. “Ephiny, can we see about clearing some of these people out of here?”

“Absolutely.”

She didn’t question. Ephiny gave a quick nod to Adara and the older woman barked a few orders to the soldiers in her command. It took only moments for the crowd to disperse. The group of young women I had caught gossiping still kneeled upon the floor. Most of their parents, at least I took them to be so from the worried expressions on their faces, stood nearby.

Lexa burst through the doors in her usual fashion. “What in Hades’ name is going on here? Someone said—”

As soon as Lexa spoke, I realized where I had seen Prax’s eyes. The cold gray color stared back at me from Lexa’s face. That one long lock of braided hair held the same design of feather and bead hair clip at the end, too much a coincidence.

“Your daughter has been involved in a confrontation with the Queen,” Adara explained.

No one questioned the circumstances. I was unaccustomed to such absolute belief in my word from anyone aside from Xena.

Lexa just stood there, speechless for the first time since we had met. She turned her head to glare at her daughter. “What have you done?” Lexa looked as though she didn’t really expect an answer, which was just as well considering Prax’s behavior.

“Adara, do we have a place where we I can meet with these girls and their parents?” I asked.

“Of course. We can use the staging area of the community hall. It’s where all court matters are held.”

“Very good. I want these young women to remain in their homes until tomorrow morning when I can meet with them and their parents. I’d like to meet with the Elder Council sometime before that.”

“Aye, Your Highness,” Adara replied. “I’ll alert the other members of the—” She paused as her eyes fell upon Lexa. I could see that Adara didn’t know what to do. Lexa was a member of the council, but the mother of the accused. Evidently, they had never run into such a situation.

“I believe Lexa has a conflict of interest where the council will be concerned. Please accept my apologies for finding it necessary to ask you to step down from the council on this occasion,” I said.

Lexa inclined her head slightly. What more could she do other than accept my request? She acquiesced in silent embarrassment, that much had been plain.

My head had begun to ache something fierce. I rubbed my temples, closing my eyes as the young women and their families left the building. I quickly explained to Adara and Ephiny what had happened as we walked back to our home. The village had quickly gone quiet and with so little information available, the rumors must have been flying.

We invited Adara and Ephiny inside and we all sat at the table.

“I feel a fool now,” I said.

“Whatever for, love?” Xena asked. “You acted in a more restrained manner than I ever could have.” She covered my hand with her own.

“Or I,” Adara added. “Gabrielle, what those girls did was deplorable. You know they don’t speak for the majority of our tribe.”

“It was that little bitch, Prax again,” Ephiny said between clenched teeth.

“She did that to you, didn’t she?” I indicated the darkened bruise under Xena’s eye.

“You heard their version already,” Xena replied.

“But it actually happened a little differently,” Ephiny added.

Xena shrugged.

“So, what did happen?” I asked, looking between them.

“Prax acted like a little snot that’s what,” Ephiny explained. “She’s always had an attitude, well, who wouldn’t with Lexa as a mother, but ever since—”

I watched as Ephiny and Adara exchanged a brief glance. As I said, it was quick. Nearly too quick to notice, but I merely happened to look across the table at the right moment. Ephiny had paused, but only slightly. She quickly recovered and continued.

“I mean, lately Prax has been rough to live with. Lexa doesn’t help, filling her head with all sorts of notions. Anyway, we chose teams for steal the flag, just a team sparring exercise. Our team won, but I noticed Prax had taken a number of cheap shots at Xena, which she fended off easily. I think Prax got a little frustrated at just how good Xena really is. Next thing I know Prax is picking herself up off the ground. She said something to Xena that I couldn’t hear. Xena shrugged and turned to walk away, and that’s when Prax reached out and popped her in the side of the face. Xena grabbed the girl by the throat and damn near lifted her off the ground. She drew her arm back to hit Prax, but all of a sudden pushed the girl away and walked back over to where I stood.”

“So? What happened, Xena?” I asked.

It was obvious that she didn’t want to speak of the incident, but I truly needed the information. She looked at me and sighed in resignation.

“She was being an ass, but I run into a lot of new recruits like that on the training field. The all want to knock the Conqueror on her ass. Like Eph said, at the end of the teams game, Prax was on the ground and I offered her a hand up. I didn’t even say anything smart-ass, which is what I usually do.”

“What did she say to you?” I asked.

Xena looked uncomfortable and it didn’t take me long to realize that I had been the subject of Prax’s comment.

“She asked me if I taught you all my moves,” she replied.

“That’s it? That’s why you walked away and she hit you?”

“I guess it was the words she used.”

“What were her words…exactly?”

Xena sighed once more. “She said, ‘Did you teach your slave—er, Queen all those moves, too?'”

“I am going to beat the crap out of that kid!” Ephiny said with more vigor than I would have anticipated ever hearing.

I chuckled slightly. Yes, the situation was serious, but the manner in which my friends were willing to defend me amused me. “I don’t think we have to go that far, Ephiny.”

“She has indeed crossed a line, Gabrielle and—” Adara started.

“Addie, if you apologize one more time,” I warned in good humor.

“So, what did you say back?” I asked.

“What makes you think I said anything?”

“Because I know you, My Conqueror.”

“Actually, it was a pretty tame reply by my standards. I figured her being just a kid and all. I started to walk away and then I sort of tossed the comment over my shoulder. I told her to keep dreaming…that it was the closest she would ever get to having an Amazon Queen for a wife. Two heartbeats later, she acted like she had a death wish by hitting me. I saw it coming, but I think I was just plain amazed she had the nerve to do it.”

There it was again. A brief glance shared between Adara and Ephiny. Once could have been my imagination, but could my eyes have played tricks on me a second time?

“I think it sounds like Prax has some sort of a grudge against me. It would make sense if Lexa spread her whatever you want to call it at home, but she looked as surprised as everyone else tonight by her daughter’s behavior,” I said. “Am I right in assuming that Lexa is a bit perturbed at my coming into the tribe?”

Adara smiled. “You could say that. Lexa’s always been more interested in attaining power within the tribe. I believe she thought that her family had a chance.”

“For people here to dislike me for such reasons or so much…it makes me wonder if I did right accepting the mask. I’m not an Amazon and yet I expect people to accept me as such.”

“Don’t talk like that, love,” Xena squeezed my hand. “Artemis chose you. She could have selected from Greek Amazons in Macedonia and Thrace or from the tribes in lands in Dalmatia, Moesia, Lycia, and Mesopotamia.” Xena counted off the lands on her fingers. “But, she chose you. If the Gods see the greatness in you, who are we to argue?”

She winked at me and I couldn’t help but smile. “When I think about it like that, it helps.”

“Please, Gabrielle. Don’t allow anyone here to sway you from your belief that Artemis chose rightly. Prax speaks only from her own arrogance and hurt. You reflect the true heart of an Amazon, and the fact that you weren’t born in this village means nothing. There are many here who don’t stand nearly as tall as you.”

“Theoretically speaking, of course,” Ephiny added with a smile.

“Gee, with encouragement like this…” I responded and we all laughed. A great deal of the tension over the situation had disappeared.

“So,” Xena began, cracking her knuckles for effect. “Which one of us gets to pound the kid?”

“Get in line,” Ephiny replied.

“I do hate to dampen your warrior spirit, but there will be no pounding,” I said. “They are just girls, after all.”

“Old enough to fight in battle and marry, though,” Adara added. “I don’t suppose to make your decision for you, Gabrielle, and even though they are young, they will very soon be considered adults within the community. Will these be the sort of women we want our future Amazons to be?”

“I understand, and I agree, Addie. I don’t want my first official act to be punishment, but I can’t very well back down for only that reason. I’ll think on it and we can talk more with the other Elders in the morning. I’ll be more than happy to listen to their suggestions.”

Both Ephiny and Adara took my words as a dismissal. I hadn’t meant them that way, but it was late and we all looked a little worn. I thanked them both for their help and loyalty, and Xena and I walked them to the door. We stood in an embrace for long moments after we had closed the door. I reached up and lightly touched my fingertips to the bruise on Xena’s face.

“Xena, why did you try to hide it from me…that she did this? Were you embarrassed?”

“To tell the truth, I hadn’t really looked at it that way. I just didn’t want to repeat what Prax said about you. I can’t stand to see you hurt.”

“Those kinds of words only hurt if I let them, my love. They anger me more than anything else. Tonight I got so incredibly angry at those girls’ gossiping. I’d never really experienced anything like that before. It was nearly difficult to control.”

“Righteous indignation.”

“If that’s what that is, I don’t think I like it.”

“It’s a difficult beast to contain. It can become anger laced with fanaticism.”

“Speaking of containing our emotions, I’m rather proud of you.”

“Me? Why?” she asked.

“You could have pummeled that girl senseless, especially after she hit you. The old Xena would have. It’s good to see that she doesn’t live here anymore.” I placed the palm of my hand on her chest.

“Oh, she still lives here. She’s just on an extended holiday. I never know when she’ll be back. I could have hit her, I certainly wanted to. In all honesty, it’s probably what they expected of me…from the Conqueror.”

“Then what held you back?”

“You. I know, that sounds so pathetic, doesn’t it?”

“I think it sounds romantic, very loving.”

“Oh, please,” she said, but I could tell that my pride in her had touched something inside.

“I suppose I didn’t want to cause trouble, and not because I thought you’d be unhappy or anything like that, but because I thought it was important…what these people think of you. I knew anything I did would reflect on you, and you don’t need the Conqueror bashing people’s heads in your first day in the village.”

“Have I told you recently how much I love and adore you?” I asked.

“I bet you Amazons say that to all the girls,” she responded.

We cleaned up and prepared for bed slowly and rather quietly. When we entered the bedroom, Xena immediately spied the tray on the bed.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Oh,” I quickly grabbed the small tray I had covered with a piece of cloth and set upon the bed earlier. “I forgot…I had…oh, Hades! I had plans for tonight, all right?” I finished in exasperation.

“Really?” Xena brightened. “May I see?”

“No you may not,” I replied with a sly smile, as I placed the tray into the cabinet beside the bed. “It would ruin the surprise.”

“Xena, did you notice Ephiny giving Addie any kind of a look tonight?”

“I thought I was just being my usual paranoid self. You saw it, too?”

“Yes,” I slowly drawled in response. “Do you think it had anything to do with what we discussed or might it have just been random?”

“I don’t know. Those two seem to share a lot of secrets. I wonder if they’re lovers?”

I laughed, thinking she was joking. Her glare told me otherwise. “You’re serious?”

“Yes, why are you laughing?”

“Honestly, love, I thought you were joking. I thought you knew.”

“Knew what?”

“Xena, Ephiny and Addie are sisters.”

“What? I mean, I thought they were related at first, but…why would they hide it?”

“I don’t know. Besides, it’s not as though they hide it. They just don’t advertise it.”

“Oh, and there’s a difference?” she asked rather sarcastically.

I pulled back the sheet and slipped into bed beside Xena. My body suddenly felt so tired. “Do you mind postponing our private party, love?” I murmured against the skin of her neck as she pulled me close, our usual position for sleep. “That’s a stupid question. I mean, do you mind too much?”

We both laughed and Xena kissed my forehead followed by a gentle and lingering kiss on the lips. “Will my wait be worth it?”

“Need you ask, My Conqueror?”

While I was certain I would toss and turn most of the night, at least Xena fell asleep with a smile on her face.

hhhhhh{ggggg

We broke our fast the following morning with our entire family. Our entire extended family. It was a unique event. Actually, the first time we had ever accomplished such a feat. It was loud and animated, and quite wonderful. It was something I had dreamed of for so long.

The chatter around the table at least allowed me to hide within myself for a while. Surprisingly, I had fallen asleep immediately and felt solidly refreshed. I was still no closer to a decision about our gossiping young women, however.

“It seems as though I missed all the excitement last night by going to bed early,” Cyrene said.

“To say the least.” I smiled and that surprised me. I was still undecided as to what I would do with the girls, but the anger of the previous evening had melted away. Now, I was simply more concerned with how to handle the whole affair.

“I could have told you that Prax was bad news right off,” Selene said. “She goes around as though she’s the Queen.”

“Yep,” Amira answered around mouthfuls of her breakfast.

“Amira, do you know Prax?”

“Uh huh. She’s a butt.”

Xena and Selene both laughed loudly. I cut their merriment short with a raised eyebrow. “Amira, sweetheart, don’t say butt. It’s not polite.”

“But, Xena said it. She said if I touched her sword again, she’d kick my butt from here to Cormith.”

Xena shrugged and gave me an embarrassed smile. “What I meant to say, princess, was backside.”

“Oh,” Amira answered.

I tried to hide my smile. “Why don’t you like Prax, Amira?” I asked, curious as to what sort of run-in Amira could have had with Prax.

The youngster stood up on her chair and folded her arms across her chest, widening her stance until she just reminded me of the way Prax had stood defiantly against me.

Amira tried to deepen her voice, obviously imitating Prax. “You guys can’t swim here, this is our pond. You guys can’t play ball here cuz you’re too little. Go back home and play with your dollies little babies.”

“So our Prax has a reputation for being a little bit of a bully,” I said in a low voice, so only Xena and Cyrene, who sat on each side of me, could hear.

“Am I out of place in asking what you intend to do with these girls, Gabrielle?” Cyrene asked.

“Of course not, Cyrene, and if I knew, I’d tell you. I was a great deal angrier last night than I am now, but Adara reminded me that these girls are young women and will soon be contributing to the tribe as adults. I don’t think this is the sort of behavior we want to condone.”

“That’s true. Chances are the fear of being caught will be enough to cure a few of them.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. I’m thinking that some sort of community work and an apology should be sufficient.”

“Very wise, my child. You’re making a very good Queen.”

“I don’t know about that, but thanks. I wish I didn’t have to do this on my first day, though.”

“If it was easy, everyone would want to do it.” Xena grinned over at me and then winked. “Okay, she said loudly, clapping. Why don’t we all take a walk down to the lake and give Gabrielle a chance to compose herself.”

They quickly made themselves scarce. The better part of me wished I could have gone with them, but alas, rulers cannot go and play anytime they feel. I dressed for the day in one of the Amazon-style dresses Teema had created for me and sat down for another cup of hot tea. It felt as though only moments had passed when Ephiny came for me.

“The Elders are waiting for you in the Community Hall. Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be, I suppose. Any helpful suggestions?” I asked her as we walked through the village.

“I’m glad I’m not in your shoes.”

“Thanks.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I think that no matter what you decide, it will be the right thing.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I know you. I had my doubts about you at first, Gabrielle, but you’ve proved yourself through deed and not just words. That goes a long way with someone like me. No matter what you decide, I’ll have your back.”

“Thank you, Eph. You’re quite a stand up woman, and that goes a long way with someone like me.”

It appeared as though my outburst the previous evening had little effect on my reputation. If anything, those who had wondered about me now looked at me with slightly more respect. I received many friendly greetings, which made my upcoming task a little more bearable.

The Elders greeted me most respectfully upon entering the Community Hall. Adara showed me to a seat at the head of a long wooden table. Everyone rose until I seated myself then they followed suit. Some of those present had been absent last night, but I assumed that, by now, they had heard. I quickly brought them up to speed on how I had been present upon hearing my spouse and myself the subject of their conversation.

“I agree that it was most inconsiderate of them, if not actually ugly,” one of the women said.

“No offense meant to our new Queen, but they were just being children.”

“Closer to adults than children,” Adara pointed out. “I told Gabrielle last evening that they were young women and soon to be active participants in our village.”

“A point well taken,” Venora said. “Is this a character trait that is prevalent in our young women? If they are our future, then what sort of tribe do we become?”

“So, Your Highness, what do you propose? Certainly there should be some sort of punishment?”

“Punishing them all, though? Is that fair when it was only a few doing the talking?”

“They’re not five-season-olds,” Adara spoke up. “Encouraging them all to say who the culprits were won’t be easy, if not impossible. Oh, I’m sure a few are so afraid they’ll talk. I’m not sure how you feel about this, Gabrielle, but I’m not sure I feel entirely comfortable encouraging the girls to…I don’t know how else to say it, to tattle or snitch on one another. I see it causing more problems than we realize.”

“I agree with you, Addie,” I said. “These girls have to co-exist together for the rest of their lives in this village. Also, I lean more toward a punishment for all simply because no one spoke up to say that what they did was wrong. They could have, but didn’t. I understand that peer pressure probably made that difficult, but they did what they did and they should suffer the consequences of those actions.”

“Agreed,” Adara said.

One by one, the women went around the table. Some added their own opinions and voice, but in the end, all agreed that punishment, of some fashion, should me apportioned. I explained to the Elders what I had in mind and once again, they all agreed.

“Are the young women and their families present, Ephiny?”

I believe that those present thought I had appointed Ephiny as a personal bodyguard of a sort. She remained at my side during the entire morning, even when the Queen’s meetings with her advisors was supposed to be private. I didn’t say anything since her presence did provide me with some little comfort. It was rather like the feeling of security I felt when in Xena’s company.

“Aye, Your Highness. They are seated in one of the common rooms.”

“Well, let’s make this a little less intimidating and meet with them there, shall we?” I said, rising. “What’s the climate like?” I whispered to Ephiny.

“Most of the parents are embarrassed and mad at their kids. A couple feel like their child would never have done it if it hadn’t been for Prax. Most agree she’s trouble.”

“And is Lexa there?”

“With bells on. Especially quiet, in fact. I think she’s actually embarrassed this time.”

Everyone rose and bowed as I entered the room. One of the women rose and offered me a comfortable seat, which I gratefully accepted.

“Ladies, and when I say that, I refer not only to the adults in the room, but to you young women, as well. I don’t much like being in this circumstance my first day as your new Queen anymore than you do. Because of the versions of what happened last night that I’ve heard floating around the village, let me explain from my perspective.”

I told all present what had happened, without adding any emotion or personal reflection to the narrative. Once I’d finished, every single parent glared at their child.

“Would anyone like to add or contest any of the details?” I asked the young women.

They slowly shook their heads, most too embarrassed to raise their eyes to mine. I looked over at Prax and she sat their, her eyes boring into me. A small, rather superior smile fixed on her face. Lexa didn’t look pleased with me, but her next words nearly left me speechless.

“Your Highness…Gabrielle… I think I speak for every parent here when I offer you a most heartfelt apology and to tell you how humiliated we feel over our children’s actions. As adults, we may not always get along; believe in the same things, or even like one another.” She looked around the room and I could see that Adara wasn’t the only one Lexa didn’t get along with.

“However, we are all Amazons. We have our disagreements out in the open. We stand up for one another against outsiders and always fight beside each other. There is no place for sniping comments made behind a sister’s back.”

“Well said,” a number of women said.

“Thank you, Lexa. I know we haven’t seen eye to eye on everything since I’ve been here, but to hear you say that helps immensely. Having said that, I’ll put it to all of you. What I wish for is for an honest apology from each of the young women. I also think that a form of punishment is in order. As the parents, do you think I’m out of line in demanding such?”

Nearly every woman shook her head. “Not at all, the others answered.”

“Very well. I’ll leave it up to each girl, then. If you feel you can honestly apologize to me and mean it, then we’ll forget the matter ever happened. For the most part, perhaps you spoke unkindly because you don’t really know my family or me. For your punishment, each one of you will spend time with me, by my side, assisting me in learning more about the Amazon culture and your tribe.”

Some of the parents smiled and nodded approvingly at my choice of punishment. I had actually thought it up while sitting quietly by myself earlier that morning. I realized that the reason most people believed in gossip was that they didn’t truly know the person the gossip was about.

“So, what do you girls say?” I asked.

One by one, they offered me apologies along with a few tears. I could see that none of them had actually meant to hurt me. I felt that way until the last young women rose, or rather, had her mother pull her from her seat.

“You must be Prax,” I said.

“Praxithea of the Panther Clan,” the girl said. Again, that defiant stare and familiar stance, arms folded across her chest and legs wide apart.

I waited patiently until it looked as though she had no intention of continuing.

“Do you have anything to say?” I inquired.

“Prax!” Lexa said sharply.

“I’m sorry, I was under the impression that she said she would leave it up to us. If that’s the case, I don’t feel it necessary to apologize.”

“Forgive her Your Highness, she—” Lexa began.

“I know exactly what I’m saying, mother! I don’t care what she’s pulled over on Artemis; I don’t owe her my allegiance.”

“You go too far, Prax! Do you want to be banished?” Lexa demanded.

I sighed deeply and leaned back in my chair. As I listened to the mother and daughter’s exchange, I knew that I had no more control over the girl than her mother had. For some reason Prax thought me a fraud. This was obviously personal, but I was at a severe loss. Had I met this young woman before? Where had she developed such a hate for me when those around her felt differently?

As I said, I was at a loss and I told them all so. “Prax…I honestly don’t know what to do with you.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to do nothing at all,” she replied.

Ephiny stepped forward, one hand tightening upon the hilt of her short sword. “Here’s an idea. Why don’t I beat some sense into you?”

“This is still my daughter we’re talking about,” Lexa said. “Prax, what is wrong with you?”

“There will be no beatings,” I said loudly.

“Oh, please mother,” Prax said. “You don’t believe she deserves to be Queen any more than I do.”

“She earned the right,” Lexa responded.

“Earned? She’s not even an Amazon!”

“She was given the right of royalty, you know that.”

“And what proof is there of that? Did any of us hear it? Was Melosa in her right mind at the time or stricken with grief?”

“I was there,” Ephiny said through clenched teeth. It appeared as though she tried hard to keep a hold on the reins of her temper.

“And we’re to believe the woman who won’t even stand up to the challenge of her Clan?”

That remark sliced the restraint that Ephiny had upon her temper. She lunged at Prax and it took three women to stop her.

“Stop!” I ordered, rising from my seat.

Ephiny took one look at me and immediately backed down. Obviously, Ephiny had a little more history here than I knew of. A Clan challenge happened when one member challenged another for the role of leadership. Usually the position of Clan leader, or Elder, came with age and experience and most accepted that fact. I had learned that occasionally, younger members would challenge their Clan leader in fair combat. It was rare, but it happened.

Prax now looked at Ephiny with the same gaze filled with contempt that she had earlier leveled at me. How could I deal with a young woman so passionate, yet misinformed?

“Prax, I do understand your reservations. Even I questioned my ability to hold this position, but Artemis has assured me that I am her chosen, therefore the correct person for the title.”

“Then perhaps Artemis doesn’t realize what her people need.”

I thought I heard a few gasps from those around me. Even Lexa silently looked on. It was obvious to me that the woman hadn’t a clue about how to deal with her daughter’s sudden behavior. The problem with Prax was that she was a trained warrior, and good from what I had heard. She was a big girl with an even larger chip on her shoulder. I worried that this argument might escalate into something physical. My guards weren’t about to let anyone harm me, which meant that it wouldn’t end well for Prax.

“And you would know better?” I asked. My own temper rose slightly, and I wondered if the others heard it in the new edge my voice took on.

“I know that a strong warrior should lead the Amazons.”

I grinned, but my smile wasn’t a mirthful one. “So, you believe that you’re strong and I’m weak, is that it?” I asked.

She laughed, not a very nice sound. “I think that’s easily apparent.” She looked down at me as if to enforce her opinion.

“Don’t be so easily deceived, Prax. With age will come maturity and wisdom. You’ll learn that size doesn’t always equal strength.

“Then prove it. Prove that you deserve to rule, that you’re as strong as I am.”

“Strength doesn’t have to be physical. I have no desire to fight you, Prax.”

“I figured as much.”

“Please, Your Highness,” Ephiny interrupted. “Allow me to be your champion and kick this child’s ass.”

Prax practically snorted in contempt.

“I have no need of a champion, Ephiny.”

“Especially if she’s as gutless on the battlefield as the Conqueror.” Prax laughed, perhaps unaware of the dangerous ground upon which she now tread.

That was when I did something so insanely stupid that I will never understand it. Frankly, if Xena had done it, I would have been mad at her for at least a fortnight. What prompted me to throw all reason out the door is something I wonder about to this day.

“Then perhaps I should meet you on the training field myself and we’ll decide this once and for all,” I responded.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
Chapter 36: What Rabid Emotion Is This?…
“You’re doing what?”

I’m certain they heard me in the centaur village. Now, Gabrielle was truly the last person on this earth who I wanted to scream at, but this was just too much.

“I’m not sure they heard you in Corinth, Xena,” Selene said in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Gabrielle had returned to find nearly our entire family relaxing in our quarters. We had all tried to pretend that we had no more on our minds than the weather, but in truth, we wondered how she fared over in the Community Hall. I couldn’t believe my ears when she told me that she would be meeting Prax on the training field that afternoon.

“Everyone, please. Gabrielle and I need some privacy. Can you give us some time alone?”

I never saw people bolt from a room so fast. Oddly, Gabrielle seemed about to slip out the door behind the last of them.

“Where are you going?”

“Well, I’m not going to stay here if all you’re going to do is yell.” She gave me a weak smile in an attempt at humor.

“Very amusing. Okay, tell me again,” I said, once she’d closed the door.

Gabrielle skirted the issue, which made me believe that she knew how I’d take this news. What I couldn’t understand was why Gabrielle would have agreed to such a thing.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I just can’t believe how incredibly suicidal it was for you to agree to this! Did you fall and hit your head recently?” The volume of my voice had increased with each word until I was indeed yelling again.

A knock at the door gave Gabrielle a temporary reprieve. I was sure it must have been the neighbors to complain of the noise.

“Enter!” I yelled out.

Ephiny came into the room matching my red-faced expression.

“Ah, perfect. You who follow her around like you’re attached at the hip; tell me that you did something to stop her. Tell me that you didn’t encourage this.”

“I most certainly did not encourage this,” Ephiny responded. Thank the Gods. She looked as upset at Gabrielle as I was.

“You are my Queen, Gabrielle, and I always try to respect your wishes…”

“But?” Gabrielle began to look a little upset herself.

“What in the world were you thinking? That girl is going to kill you if she gets half a chance!”

“All right, enough! I’m tired of getting screamed at here.”

Ephiny held her tongue, but it looked to be at some great effort. She lowered her head in silent deference for her Queen, hands resting on her hips.

I admit that I had been going about it wrong, but shouting had always been my first response. Lucky for me, Gabrielle understood that, but it seemed that even her patience had a cutoff point.

I took a deep breath as I covered my face with both hands, slowly feeling them slide down. “Gabrielle…little one…I’m sorry for screaming at you, but do you understand what’s at stake here?”

“My reputation and self esteem within the tribe.”

“Okay, there might be that, but Gabrielle, you could really get hurt here. You could die.”

“Thank you for the vote of confidence.”

“I have a great amount of confidence in you, but this girl is a trained warrior. She’s big and strong, and for some reason she wants your head. Those attributes make for a rather deadly combination.”

“I’m not without training.”

“I agree, but—who challenged who? What did you agree to fight with?”

“Oh, you’re gonna love this,” Ephiny muttered, followed by Gabrielle’s glare at her Captain.

“She challenged, so she chose. Staves,” Gabrielle replied.

Silence hung between all of us for a few long moments.

“Gabrielle…and I’m not yelling, you can hear how calm I am, right?”

“I can hear your teeth crushing together.”

I took another very deep breath. “You do realize that Lexa, Prax’s mother, fashions staves for a living. She’s probably an expert in wielding the thing, and Prax has most probably learned everything Lexa knows, which is why she chose that weapon.”

“It did occur to me, yes.”

“Yes, it did occur to you. Okay. Now, can you tell me, do you know how to use a staff?”

“I’ve been working with a few of the girls nearly everyday for almost two moons.”

“Two moons,” I repeated, still trying to keep my voice composed and even.

“What? Even you said I’m better than any Amazon you’ve ever seen with my short sticks.”

“But, you’re not fighting with short sticks,” Ephiny finally ended her silence. She tried to keep her voice as quiet as mine.

“Well, no, but it’s not a big deal. I mean, a staff is just a big stick, right?”

Ephiny and I just looked at one another. If this hadn’t been Gabrielle, if the situation had not been so grave, I would have fallen to the floor laughing.

For all her newfound maturity and strength, I had forgotten how utterly naïve and innocent Gabrielle could be about certain things. She had grown into her position as my partner and co-ruler so well and so quickly that I honestly didn’t remember that there were subjects about which she was simply not as knowledgeable as she could, or should, be.

“Isn’t it?” Gabrielle looked between the two of us, realizing what our silence meant. “Well, this isn’t good news, is it?” she added, sounding more like the young woman I knew.

“I think you need to call this off,” I said.

“That’s not an option.”

“Gabrielle.”

“Xena! I’d look like an idiot, for one.”

“But a live idiot, and speaking of feeling the fool, how do you think this makes me look?”

“You? Xena, I would never do anything to make you look foolish, you know that.”

“It was unwittingly, but you have nonetheless.”

“I don’t—”

“Last night you took offense at Prax because you heard her bragging about beating me up, or at least I’m sure that’s how she made it sound to her friends. Now, today you choose to meet her in combat. Don’t you think that looks suspiciously as though you’re fighting my battles for me? Every Amazon here is going to look at me that way, like some coward who ran from a fight. The Conqueror has to have her new wife beat her enemies up for her. ”

“I honestly didn’t think about that, Xena. I’m so sorry.”

“I know you are, love, which is why I’m trying to be big about it.” I tried to help the situation by offering her a smile.

“The Conqueror wouldn’t be so forgiving.”

“I know.” It was all I could say. I could no more explain it than she could and I’d given up trying. I had truly become a different woman since Gabrielle had come into my life. Oh, I’m sure I could tell people that until I no longer had breath, but they were only words, weren’t they? The truth had been in how I currently lived my life. I still felt angry and terribly paranoid that anyone should think me a coward, but unlike the Conqueror, Xena had the ability to see past the circumstantial and understand the reasons beyond the actions.

“I honestly didn’t mean to step into anything here, Xena, but if I pull out now, I’ll lose any credibility I’ve built up with these women. Backing down would make me look like some petulant child who agreed to this because I had a temper tantrum, as though I’d made my decision frivolously. Who will follow a leader with that sort of reputation? Gods! Am I just being selfish here?”

“It pains me to say it, Xena, but she’s right. You’re both right, but with you, it’s mostly about pride. No offense intended. This could very well set the tempo for Gabrielle’s entire reign. It wouldn’t look good for her to back down at this point.”

“I don’t give a good gods damn what it looks like! My pride aside, I won’t see you get hurt,” I said to Gabrielle.

“Xena, we talked about this. I don’t relish the idea of getting punched either, but you know I have to be a leader here. Being mentally strong isn’t enough for a people who have been raised as warriors.”

I knew she was right. Besides, if it had been me, I would probably be doing the same thing. I think that’s what tore at me so; the fact that I knew this was the course of action she had to take. Rulers enjoy many compensations and pleasures, but most people will never know of the agony and pain that often goes along with such a life.

I walked over and stood before Gabrielle, taking her face in my hands. “I would never ask you to be less than you are, my love, and that includes you being an Amazon Queen, but can you honestly tell me that you see no other way?”

Her hands reached up to cover my own. “Xena, I give you my word that if there was another way, I would take it. You know how I feel about combat. I don’t look forward to this.”

I kissed her forehead. “Then pride-be-damned. I’ll stand right beside you, my love. I won’t like it and I swear, if she hurts you outside the ring, she won’t have a safe enough spot to hide from me, but you are the ruler here, and I’ll not turn away from you when you need me most.”

“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle took me in a fierce embrace, unable to say anything more.

I looked over at Ephiny. She stood with her head bowed, affording us what little privacy she could. “Go find the best person with a staff that you can. We need to give her a few more lessons before this afternoon.”

hhhhhh{gggg
We walked over to the training field, all of us looking as though we were on our way to a funeral, I’m sure. Eponin continued to give Gabrielle tips and last minute instructions. As Weapons master of the tribe, Eponin was expertly proficient in hand-to-hand combat as well as at least a dozed different weapons. She taught and delegated all new recruits and she had been giving Gabrielle lessons for some time now. In exchange, Gabrielle had enlightened the Amazon on many of Yu Pan’s fighting techniques, in which Gabrielle was expert.

“Remember, always be on watch for the leg hook…” I could still hear Eponin talking.

“Right,” Gabrielle answered, looking up at the huge crowd on the field.

“If you fall to the ground, roll immediately…”

“Right.”

“When Prax puts her weight behind a right-sided blow, she drops her shoulder…”

“Ep, my brain’s full,” Gabrielle stopped to say. “It’s going to explode if you say one more word.”

“Oh…right.”

Gabrielle sighed. “I don’t suppose it would do any good in asking spectators to clear the field?” she asked of Ephiny.

“You could, but I’d advise against it. It might be a lot better for people to see what really happens here today as opposed to the rumors that could be tossed about.”

“I had a feeling you were going to say that,” Gabrielle answered.

“Lexa.” Gabrielle suddenly said in greeting. She had turned around and there the woman stood. I could see that Gabrielle’s jaws clenched in an attempt at civility.

“Your Highness…Gabrielle.” Lexa looked at all of us before continuing. Perhaps she didn’t know what to say, but it was apparent that she suffered from some little discomfort. “I—I—” She held out the staff in her hand, pushing it toward Gabrielle.

“I don’t understand.”

“I—I’d like you to have this. I made it myself.”

“What’s it going to do?” Ephiny muttered. “Break in half when she goes to use it?”

“I suppose I deserve that. No, it’s one of my own, my best, in fact. I just thought…remember when you said that I should give one away in order to be heard by the Goddess?”

“I do.”

“Well, I thought I’d try it. This is one of my finest staves, and I hope it hold true for you.”

“I—I admit to being a little surprised by this.”

“I know you are. I believe what Prax is doing is wrong, Gabrielle, but she feels justified in her actions. I’m sure Ephiny told you of the rumors. As I said, she’s wrong in doing this, but I do have to go stand in her corner. She’s my daughter, after all. I wanted you to know how I feel.”

“I see,” Gabrielle answered slowly.

I could see that this made it even harder for Gabrielle to begin fighting Prax. In another circumstance, I could see this as a ploy by the other side, but I didn’t believe Lexa was that good of an actor. I could easily tell that she was in pain. My mind pondered over what those rumors were. I wondered why Gabrielle hadn’t told me about that.

“Thank-you, Lexa. I know this must be incredibly hard for you. I had hoped that it wouldn’t come to this, but I pray that Prax and I can resolve this before either one of us gets hurt.”

Lexa nodded in agreement and held out her hand. Gabrielle graciously took her arm. The woman abruptly turned and walked away, moving towards Prax’s spot outside the sparring area. We watched as she approached her daughter. Prax gave our side a dirty look and said something to her mother. Lexa merely shrugged and Prax looked none too happy about her mother’s response. Prax held her hands out and a friend wrapped long strips of cloth around Prax’s hands and fingers.

“Why are they wrapping her hands up like that?” Gabrielle asked.

“So she won’t hurt her delicate hands when she knocks you senseless,” I muttered, followed by a raised eyebrow from Gabrielle.

“Sorry,” I said.

“I have your wraps,” Ephiny said.

Gabrielle held out her hands just as she had seen Prax do. This sort of fighting certainly wasn’t new to Gabrielle, but she was admittedly more accustomed to a finesse type of fighting. Once she had started sparring with me, her style had taken on many of my own fighting techniques. When it came to hand-to-hand combat that meant punching, a man’s type of fighting, rather than the openhanded strikes Gabrielle had learned from Yu Pan.

“All the while, Ephiny continued to give Gabrielle staff combat advice. I stood silent, glaring over at Prax. If the girl was actually dull-witted enough to think that she could actually beat me in the ring, then I wanted my expression to say that she should think twice about it.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said, pulling my attention away from Prax. “You promised.”

“I promised to have your back, my love. That means I stand in your corner and don’t kill anyone, but if that girl takes one step beyond the rules, I’ll make her sorry.”

“Your Highness?” Eponin called from the center of the ring. The Weapons Master owned the training facility, thus Eponin would preside over the contest.

“That’s me,” Gabrielle said to me.

“You will come out on top, love. I’m confident of that.”

“And if I get my butt kicked?”

I smiled and tried to infuse some of the confidence I didn’t really feel into her. “Even then. You’ll accept victory or defeat with the grace that I’ve come to know in you. That makes you a winner to me, no matter what. Just remember, love, that you can’t always measure victory by who’s left standing after the battle. That’s a much too superficial way of looking at it.”

She squeezed my hand, and I wondered if I’d really done any good at all, given her any hope. When she turned and walked away, I realized that I had never felt so afraid for her. In our time together, even through all that we had been, this was the closest I had yet come to a feeling of dread, as if I knew this would end badly.

The Amazons had a well-maintained field for team matches and squad practice. We now stood in the spot meant only for single matches. Clearing all the grass from the area, leaving only dirt and sand, had created the sparring ring. Stakes had then been driven into the ground and ropes connected them. The resulting ring was wide and long, perhaps the height of my body four times over if laid end to end.

We listened as Eponin explained the rules of fair and friendly combat. What a contradiction of terms in this case. There wasn’t a thing friendly about this match, and knowing what little I did of Prax, I had my doubts as to how fair it would be. I believe the only amusing moment had been when Ephiny handed Gabrielle her staff. Prax looked at the weapon and then back at her mother. Again, Lexa shrugged.

It was so much harder on my nerves having Gabrielle on the other side of those ropes. Time went speeding by, yet I barely recall the blows thrown in those first few moments. They took their first break between steps and I remember feeling relief. Gabrielle had held her own, and her initial rush of adrenalin remained with her. She looked almost excited.

Numerous steps made up a match. The ring manager, in this case Eponin, took care to have the steps measured. A young woman outside the ropes carefully watched a water device meant to measure out time. When the prescribed time neared, she motioned to the ring manager and Eponin declared a step complete. The two combatants took a short break and were back at it again in hardly any time at all.

Once more, they met within the confines of the ropes. Gabrielle had begun to slip in a shot or two, but Prax’s blows carried a great deal more weight behind them. It was easy to see that they had both begun to tire. By the next break, Gabrielle had begun to breath harder through her open mouth, never a good sign. I touched my fingertips to the reddened area on her right shoulder, and she winced.

“You’re taking a beating there,” I said.

“I know. She’s so strong that my speed doesn’t seem to count.”

“She’s getting as tired as you, so don’t lose heart. Now is the time to start thinking about disarming her.”

Gabrielle nodded her head at my advice, unable to spare the breath on a reply. She took one more swig from the waterskin, and slid between the ropes again.

It was nearly all I could do to keep myself under control. I found it painful to watch Gabrielle in a true battle. It took nearly all my energy to keep the beast within from waking. I had little desire to fool myself, however. I had to admit that the darkness had already wakened, and each time Prax struck Gabrielle, the beast tugged a little harder on its restraints. I could feel it, pacing, growling. I prayed to Athena for the strength to hold it back just a little longer. I could not bear to leave Gabrielle’s side, yet I greatly feared what I might do should the beast overtake me.

Pride crept into my senses as the two women in the ring continued on, step after step. Gabrielle had not only held her own against a stronger opponent, but she actually won many of the steps outright. With every rest period they each looked a little worse for the wear. Fatigue had taken them, but I could see that my Gabrielle had become as stubborn as the young Prax. Neither woman would yield to the other when in a vulnerable position, nor would either quit of her own will. I wondered what Gabrielle was trying to prove.

At the end of each step, Eponin declared a winner of that step alone. At the end of a full candlemark of fighting, I could tell that Eponin dearly wished to end the match, but she would have had to proclaim it a draw. By my count, Prax and Gabrielle had each won an equal number of steps. Although Eponin was careful not to show any bias, I already knew that she would have loved to give the match to Gabrielle.

Prax slashed at Gabrielle’s staff and caught her across the knuckles of one hand. In response to the biting sting, Gabrielle did just about the worst thing possible. She dropped her staff. Prax pressed her advantage and closed in for the kill, but Gabrielle wasn’t about to give up that easily. She used her forearms to block the vicious strikes. For most people it might have broken a bone or two, but Gabrielle was trained for such hits.

I had spent many a morning watching as Gabrielle and Yu Pan worked out using the techniques the Tiger of Shaolin himself had created. They would take turns against wood poles, trees; whatever was solid and stood upright. They would strike the object over and over using their arms or legs. I was always amazed that Gabrielle had been able to keep her skin so silky smooth. Her arms had developed muscles that I indeed noticed, especially when she gave me a back rub.

Prax grew frustrated by Gabrielle’s repeated blocks, but I knew Gabrielle couldn’t keep that up for long. She was an expert in hand-to-hand combat, however, and she learned quickly by watching Prax. Using her feet, Gabrielle went after Prax’s hands. It took a few attempts, but on the third or fourth try, Gabrielle made contact and Prax’s staff fell from her numb fingers. She hadn’t the time to retrieve the weapon before Gabrielle confronted her.

They each took a combat stance. Gabrielle held her hands up close to her face, her elbows kept close to her ribs. It was interesting to see that she had finally developed her own unique fighting style. It appeared to be a mixture of my boxing skills with Yu Pan’s more elegant techniques. Prax acted first. She jabbed into the empty air with her left hand and kicked out sideways with her left leg. The action bent her torso backwards. Gabrielle easily blocked the blow to her face with her hands, but the force of the blow threw her back. She hit the ropes, bouncing her back against them and propelling her body forward in Prax’s direction. Kicking out with her right leg, Gabrielle hit Prax in the stomach, causing her to move back a few steps.

They met in the center of the ring once more. Prax kicked out with her left leg and spun her upper body around to the right. She raised her arm in an attempt to hit Gabrielle with a backhand. Gabrielle ducked and the arm went sailing over her head, leaving Prax in a most vulnerable position. Bringing her right arm forward, Gabrielle punched Prax hard in the stomach. She put her entire weight into the punch, but didn’t waste time. She quickly struck again with a left-handed punch. Prax had recovered, however, and Gabrielle’s next right connected with nothing but air as Prax ducked. Quickly bobbing back up, Prax landed a punch to Gabrielle’s kidneys. Gabrielle countered by flinging her right arm backward, but Prax blocked it. Bringing her knee up, she drove it into Gabrielle’s midsection. Then, stepping back, Prax’s left hand shot out and struck Gabrielle across the jaw.

I clutched the ropes, remembering my promise to Gabrielle. Whether it had been pride, stubbornness, or just plain foolishness, I had given her my word not to step in. It was apparent that Prax’s blow had hurt Gabrielle. Even so, she kicked bravely kicked out with her right leg to push Prax away, giving Gabrielle a few heartbeats to catch her breath.

They stood off in the middle of the ring once more. With amazing speed and accuracy, Gabrielle struck out with her left leg, following the movement with a right cross. Unfortunately, Prax not only blocked the blow to her head, but once again, her fist connected with Gabrielle’s jaw. Seeing Gabrielle was too fast in the open, Prax adjusted and grabbed Gabrielle’s right arm while she still felt the sting from Prax’s last punch. Holding Gabrielle’s right arm immobile, Prax repeatedly drove her knee into Gabrielle’s stomach. She connected with at least three blows before Gabrielle could push herself back by punching with her free hand at Prax’s ribs. Prax completed another spinning kick that landed on Gabrielle’s upper arm. The arm was already bruised and sore from numerous staff strikes, and Gabrielle cried out in pain.

Prax tried to backhand Gabrielle’s face with her left hand, but Gabrielle caught and held Prax’s arm while spinning to place her own backhanded blow to Prax’s stomach. Gabrielle then used that same hand and punched upward, striking Prax’s face. Using her entire body, Gabrielle made it look uncommonly easy as she flipped Prax over her body.

Instead of landing hard on her back, Prax did a cartwheel, landing upright and ready for Gabrielle’s next leg kick. The blow glanced across Prax’s cheek, but Gabrielle’s momentum carried her too far and she momentarily had her back to Prax.

Grabbing both of Gabrielle’s arms from behind, Prax pulled Gabrielle to her and slipped her arm around Gabrielle’s neck in a chokehold. Gabrielle’s hands immediately went to the arm tightening around her throat. She did the only thing that she could do at that moment. She dug her heels into the dirt and shoved her body backwards.

Prax hit the ropes, Gabrielle still in her grasp. Prax wasn’t quite so close behind her now, however, and Gabrielle took the opportunity to drive both her arms backward and to the left side of her body. Her elbow connected sharply with Prax’s midsection. Prax bent forward slightly and cried out in pain or merely surprise. Gabrielle repeated the maneuver on the right side of her body and then upward, catching Prax just under the chin with her fists.

Prax had no other choice but to let go. She leaned back against the ropes and Gabrielle spun around to face her opponent. Grabbing Prax’s right arm and shoulder, Gabrielle tossed the girl to the ground. Prax hit hard and grimaced in pain, but Gabrielle was right there on one knee, pulling Prax’s right arm backward and pinning it there.

Being compassionate had perhaps been my wife’s mistake. Not wishing to hurt Prax any more than necessary, Gabrielle cried out, “Yield?”

Prax’s answer had been to shoot out her right hand, striking Gabrielle in the face. She then grabbed Gabrielle, clutching a fistful of blonde hair and pulled her down. Gabrielle’s body rolled over Prax and suddenly Gabrielle was the one flat on her back. Prax had rolled right along with Gabrielle and now sat astride her small form.

She punched Gabrielle twice, and I felt the beast pulling at my mind, fighting me for control. I won, but only barely, since it was the beast and not me wrapping my fingers around the hilt of my sword. The beast had gone from a low growl to a shriek. Prax struck Gabrielle once more with the back of her hand and I wished I could simply set my darkness free, but I could no more control the beast than I could master the incoming tide.

So suddenly that most present nearly missed the maneuver, Gabrielle captured Prax’s left arm as it came down for another blow. Using the strength in her legs, she rolled Prax forward and off her. They rose quickly and although fatigue clearly showed in both their postures, Gabrielle looked as though she had borne the worst of it. Her movements were slower and I wondered how much longer she could go on.

Circling one another in the center of the ring yet again, they each kicked out with opposite legs at nearly the exact moment. When it came to the open ring, Gabrielle had the advantage. Her speed and her size gave her the ability to right herself quicker. Gabrielle had already struck out and connected with another leg hack by the time Prax could recover her stance.

Prax looked angry or frustrated, perhaps both. She lashed out hard with a left leg kick and followed it up with a right kick that turned her body around. Gabrielle astutely caught Prax’s foot and flipped her over, but Prax landed easily on her feet again, spinning around and landing a leg kick to Gabrielle’s face. She followed up by using her left leg to kick both of Gabrielle’s legs right out from under her.

Gabrielle fell heavily to the ground with an audible grunt as the ground caused her to expel the air from her lungs. Instead of taking advantage of the situation and following up with a hold or move to demand a yield from Gabrielle, Prax did the unthinkable. She deftly scooped up one of the abandoned staves, holding it within both hands menacingly over Gabrielle.

Prax spoke, but so softly that even my astute hearing couldn’t make out the words. Gabrielle looked up from her knees and I saw surprise in her eyes. Get up Gabrielle, I silently pleaded. I could tell that Prax planned to use the staff on the defenseless Gabrielle at any moment. All of this happened in a matter of heartbeats, even though it all goes much slower as I retell it now.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened as Prax spoke, and I saw something that I couldn’t remember ever having seen before. Gabrielle’s brow furrowed together and her eyes narrowed. Her lips drew into a tight line, the bulge in her jaw indicating that she clenched her teeth together.

Prax stood there with a smile on her face, obviously enjoying the reaction her words had brought about. Eponin shouted something about foul or fair play. I can’t remember which. A number of Amazons, Ephiny included, looked at one another, waiting for someone to be the first to react. I clutched the air at my sides with my clenched fists, unable to hear a sound around me, so deafening were the beasts cries inside my head.

I nearly missed what happened next. A low throaty growl seemed to be coming from the ring, actually, from Gabrielle. So fast that a blink of the eye would have missed it, Gabrielle jumped to her feet. As she rose, her hand shot forward, the palm facing Prax. It came at Prax, but she had no time to react. The force of the blow hit the staff Prax held before her, breaking through the hardwood and straight into her chest. The power of the blow lifted Prax clean off her feet. She landed like so much dead weight on her back, the ends of the staff in each hand rolling away from her barely conscious grasp.

Gabrielle continued to stand in the same position, her arm extended, rigid, and her entire body shaking. I vaulted the ropes and came up beside her. It took a few moments for her to recognize me. Her eyes had grown dark, as though a storm brewed inside. They cleared at last and the haze disappeared. Finally, Gabrielle appeared to recognize my gentle touch, but I believe what brought her around were Lexa’s panicked cries.

“She can’t breathe. Gods! She can’t breathe.”

Gabrielle knelt beside the girl, held in her mother’s arms. “Lay her flat,” Gabrielle ordered. “Give us some room.”

Ephiny and Eponin pushed the onlookers back behind the ring’s ropes. When Gabrielle laid a hand on Prax’s chest, the girl tried to strike out with her hand. The pain that move caused had Prax screaming, but her constricted throat trapped the sound.

“I can fix this, Prax, but you have to let me touch you. If you don’t, you’ll die. It’s as simple as that.”

Prax’s hand fell to her side and she made an attempt to nod, all the while gasping for breath.

“I wish Yu Pan was here,” Gabrielle said, turning her head upward to face me.

“You have the skill, love. You can do it,” I answered.

I had no idea what she was about to do or if she had ever done it before, but I knew she possessed a wealth of skills that even she did not yet realize. Yu Pan had entrusted Gabrielle with the wisdom of his many lifetimes, yet since most of them had been taught to her while in a hypnotic sort of state, she had no memory of them. Oddly enough, when she most needed them, she discovered that the knowledge returned to her.

Gabrielle gingerly rested her hand upon Prax’s chest, feeling her way rather than seeing. She tenderly, yet quickly slid her hand upward, stopping when she neared the hollow at Prax’s throat. With a sharp stabbing motion, Gabrielle struck the side of Prax’s neck.

A large intake of breath indicated Gabrielle’s success. Prax coughed and rolled to her side, clutching her chest in pain from the movement.

“I believe the bone there is broken. I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said.

“Your Highness…Gabrielle, thank you so much,” Lexa replied.

Prax said nothing. Instead of the thankful expression I had expected, she merely glared at Gabrielle. Rising to her feet, Gabrielle turned and Eponin moved to stand beside her.

“Winner of the match…Queen Gabrielle!” Eponin shouted.

A thunderous sound arose in appreciation of Gabrielle’s victory. These women were, by nature, warriors. They measured strength in terms of the physical. Gabrielle’s victory solidified her position among a people who valued battle skills above all. She had made a name for herself. It would be some time later before these women discovered that Gabrielle’s mind and spirit were every bit as strong as her body.

Gabrielle accepted praise from all those around, even though it looked to me like she could barely stand. She didn’t smile, but I think that had more to do with why they were congratulating her. Gabrielle had developed a warrior’s body, but I doubted that she would ever have a warrior’s mind. She fought today, and she would again someday, but she had done so under protest. In Gabrielle’s mind, fighting would always be the last and least favorable resolution.

I let Gabrielle lean against me without making it appear so. I jumped over the ropes and reached back to push them down in order for Gabrielle to easily step over them. From that position, I couldn’t see past Gabrielle. I had no idea anything had happened until I heard Ephiny scream Gabrielle’s name.

I straightened up in time to see Adara lunge at empty air as Prax jumped past her. The girl held one of the broken halves of the staff in her upraised hand, and she rushed toward Gabrielle’s back. In one sudden flash, the beast was there, freed from its bonds and ready for a taste of blood.

There was no conscious thought on my part to either release or restrain. It was simply there. The beast was me, and I was the beast. Just as any real animal, my senses were ten times that of a human with skills to match. I pushed Gabrielle and two others, knocking them all to the ground. It was easy to vault over their fallen bodies, easy for the beast.

Landing deftly before the crazed girl. I caught the wrist of her upraised hand in my strong grasp, pausing just long enough to tilt my head and sniff the air around us. There it was; I could smell it on her. Fear and anger; a rabid, crazed anger. There was something else there, too, buried so deep that it I only felt it as though it was a far away memory. It was pain.

While Xena felt a certain compassion for the girl, the beast suffered none of that, and the beast was in control. I pulled her to me and heard the popping sound her shoulder joint made as it loosed itself from the socket. With my other hand, I made a fist and as the girl came forward, I rammed it into her face. There was that satisfying crack the jaw makes as the bone splinters. The sound thrilled the beast just as a passionate kiss would affect a lover.

She lost her legs and began to slump to the ground. I gave her credit. A lesser warrior would have collapsed unconscious from the blow, but she fought it, struggling to remain alert even though everything in her wanted to give up and go silent. I caught her by the throat, tightening my grip, determined to end…what was this again? Why was I doing this? Battle…challenge…why was I here?

I felt a pain in my arm and turned to find out what the annoyance was. What a fool this small woman was, to hit me. Couldn’t she see what I could do to people who stood in my way…hurt me? Hurt…that’s why I was here, taking the life from the girl in my grasp. She tried to hurt me. No…she tried to hurt…Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle,” I managed to gasp aloud.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said and I watched as she hit me again hard. “Let go of her, Xena.”

Gabrielle’s voice filtered through the haze in my brain, and I could feel the beast retreating.

“She’s just a girl,” Gabrielle said, pulling on my arm.

The beast shrank away, disappearing into the recesses of my psyche once more. I released my grip on Prax’s throat, feeling myself again. The girl fell to the ground and I realized I had been holding her up by the throat. She drew in a ragged, painful breath and I thanked Athena that I hadn’t killed her.

“Take her to the Healer’s,” Gabrielle ordered.

Everyone had stood frozen in place, but all at once, they scurried about.

“Xena?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“Yes,” I nodded and placed an arm around her. “It’s me. Is she hurt too bad, do you think?” I responded, watching them carry the injured girl away.

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.”

Our words sounded stinted and forced to my ears. As if neither of us knew what to say. I pulled her closer and she slipped her arm around my waist and squeezed gently. It was the same each time I returned from the clutches of the darkness inside me. We would have few words to say, but we craved the physical contact. In a short while everything would return to normal, but for a few moments, at least, we only wanted to revel in the fact that we were together even though circumstances had just tried to tear us apart.

“Gabrielle, are you all right?” Ephiny asked.

“I’ve felt better, but I’m okay, Eph.”

“And this was security?” Ephiny angrily turned back toward her sister.

“You’re right, of course. Forgive me, Gabrielle. Conqueror, if you hadn’t acted with such speed…that was amazing. I should have—”

“I detest that phrase, Addie,” I replied with an amiable expression. “Should have…none of us expected such a thing to happen and you did your best to protect Gabrielle.”

“Thank you,” she responded. “How are you feeling, Gabrielle?”

“Like I spent the better part of the day being pummeled by a woman twice my size.”

“You were spectacular. Ephiny told me of your skills, but I am most impressed.”

“I think I got lucky today,” Gabrielle answered.

Suddenly her face took on an odd expression. I suppose the others attributed it to her physical state and the fact that she wanted nothing more than to fall into bed. I knew her best, however, and although I couldn’t put my finger on it, I suspected that Gabrielle’s expression had more to do with Adara’s praise for Gabrielle’s fighting ability. What was it about the victory that pained Gabrielle?

“Let’s go, eh?” Gabrielle tugged me in the direction of our home in the village.

“Good idea. It’s been a rather long day, hasn’t it?”

“Ephiny, can you make sure the healer sends word to me as soon as she knows the extent of Prax’s injuries?”

“I’ll make it so,” she replied and went off herself in the direction of the healer’s shelter.

Selene caught up with us about halfway there. “That was amazing, Gabrielle,” she said in a sort of breathless excitement. “I’ve seen you practice and all, but…wow.”

Gabrielle smiled tiredly in reply.

She continued to walk along with us in silence. All at once, she slipped her arm around my waist. “And you, big sister. Are you okay?”

“Sure. You know me. My head’s too hard to actually suffer any real damage.”

“You looked…I know it sounds foolish,” she said rather quietly. “But, you looked like you weren’t aware of exactly what you were doing. Know what I mean?”

I gave her a wink and put my free arm around her shoulder. “I’ll explain it later.”

“I don’t know about you two, but there isn’t a bone in my body that isn’t begging to lie down and soak in a hot tub,” Gabrielle said.

“No, no bath,” I replied. “That would be a bad thing.”

“The way I smell, I think it would be a good thing.”

I chuckled. “I didn’t mean it that way, like you couldn’t bathe at all, but a hot soak is the worst thing for your muscles. They’ll feel good while you’re in the bath, but the minute you cool off, you’ll be sorry. They’ll tighten up and hurt twice as much.”

“Okay, how about a sponge bath and bed, then?”

“Better.”

We dropped Selene off at the door to the quarters she shared with Cyrene. Mother had offered to sit with Amira for the afternoon. She admitted that she had little desire to see two women beat themselves senseless.

“Ask mom to keep Amira for the night, okay?” I asked Selene.

She nodded and gave us both a kiss before disappearing inside. We continued in silence and besides our declarations of love before lying down to sleep, Gabrielle uttered only one word.

“Wow,” she said before falling into a deep sleep.

I supposed the day was rightly summed up in such a way.
Chapter 37: Within Heaven’s Circle I Had Not Guessed At This…
“Good morning, sunshine,” I said, brushing mussed blonde hair from Gabrielle’s eyes.

“Ohhh,” she groaned as she tried to rise. She gave up and lay back down. “By the Gods. I don’t remember even having muscles in this many parts of my body.”

“Here, sit up a bit and drink this.”

“What is it? Something magical, I hope.”

“Nothing mysterious. Mostly willow bark for your headache.”

“How did you know I had a headache?” Gabrielle asked as she sipped the hot brew.

“Any warrior worth their salt would know.” I smiled and lightly touched the bruised area along her jaw. “Getting hit in the head a few dozen times will do it.”

“Mmm, it tastes good…feels good, too.”

“Feels good?”

“On my throat. Hope I’m not coming down with a chill. I feel all right otherwise.”

“It’s not the chill and it’s not uncommon. The dust and dirt you breathe in while fighting makes your throat pretty raw the following day. How do you feel besides sore? Any spots hurt unusually bad?”

“You sound like a mother hen.”

“Perhaps.” I smiled and sat down beside her as she sipped her tea. “I’ll never be able to impress upon you what it was like seeing you in there and not being able to interfere.”

“I think I know what that’s like, at least in part. You did very well, love, and thank you for stepping in when I needed you the most.”

“My pleasure.”

“It meant a lot to me, Xena…that you let me do what I had to do.”

“And what was that?”

“Well, stand up for myself, I suppose. Be a leader. What? You look like you want to say something else.”

“Nothing.”

“Xena, are you telling me the truth?”

She looked at me and I knew I couldn’t keep my thoughts from her. Gods, I was so much better at lying before I let her into my heart. I took a deep breath and looked at my hands, turning them over to buy time.

“Xena…have I done something wrong?”

“No!” I answered quickly. “It’s…I should probably just keep it to myself—”

“Xena, if I’ve done something you question or—”

“I don’t want to judge you, love, and that may be how you see it.”

“Well, I’ll certainly try not to do that.”

I looked at my hands again, stalling once more. How could I be anything but honest with her? After all, if I was wrong, then we could just laugh at my paranoia.

“It’s just that—well, when you said there was no other way to handle the situation with Prax…I was wondering if—not that you would purposely lie, mind you. I just wondered…”

“You think there was another way?” she asked in confusion.

“I guess I’ve been wondering whether, deep down, you didn’t want there to be another way.” I cringed inside once the words were out. I waited for her wrath or at least some condescending tone. What I did see surprised me.

Gabrielle sat there contemplating my words. I imagine she was letting them sink in. The funny thing was that she didn’t immediately deny my accusation, for it could be called little else. That caused me to wonder even more. I remembered the strange look on her face after they had carried Prax away to the healer’s residence.

“I should be angry, you know, or even indignant,” she replied.

“I know, and you would be within your rights, but I—”

“I said I should be, Xena, not that I was.”

“I—um, I don’t understand.”

“Actually, neither do I.”

“Okay, I’m thoroughly confused.” I had been so sure that Gabrielle would yell or laugh that I hadn’t thought of any other scenario, least of all, her being agreeable about the whole thing.

“I—I don’t know how to explain it, but you could be right…oh, Gods, Xena! I could have killed that girl yesterday. I nearly did.” Real tears filled her eyes and I could see not only concern, but also confusion.

“What I don’t understand is why, Gabrielle? It isn’t like you. Hades, it’s more like me.”

“I think it has something to do with what I’ve been feeling ever since meeting Prax. It started the night of the coronation, but I can’t explain it.”

I furrowed my brow, as I watched Gabrielle rise and uneasily pace the room. She stopped before an open window. Folding her hands together, she brought them up and pressed the knuckles to her lips.

“Gabrielle, tell me what you mean. What kinds of feelings have you been experiencing?”

” I don’t know what it is. It feels so…so out of control. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s as if I’m not in charge of my own thoughts and emotions.” She covered her face with her hands and I felt rather helpless. I hadn’t anticipated this reaction.

I rose and came up behind her just as she lifted her face. There were tears running down her cheeks.

“Oh, Xena, when I hit Prax so hard that I broke that staff, it wasn’t just a random blow. It was deliberate.”

“I would expect as much,” I said to soothe her. “It was a fight, after all.” Neither my words nor my arms wrapped around her shoulders seemed to offer her any comfort. Her tears continued.

“What did she say to you, love? What did Prax say before you hit her?”

Gabrielle’s shoulders stiffened. I couldn’t tell if she held back from me or if the truth of her action was unknown even to her own mind.

“She told me that I was never meant to be a Queen…that I could never outrun my past. It was in my blood. She said I was a slave…and that’s all I would ever be.”

I bit the inside of my cheek in an attempt to hold my anger down. She didn’t need to deal with my behavior just now. I wrapped my arms around her even tighter. I held her that way in silence for a few moments trying to understand how Gabrielle’s rabid emotions and her behavior in the sparring arena tied together.

“You don’t understand,” she said, suddenly shattering the stillness between us. “I hated that girl, Xena. I wanted to hurt her, to—to even…kill her.”

She broke down in tears and at that moment, I understood. How blind I had been. I don’t know why I hadn’t yet realized what Gabrielle was going through. It would have been so easy to reassure her, to allay her fears.

“I don’t really feel that way now, but I did, and it scares me, Xena.”

“Ssh, love. Gabrielle, you know what’s been going on with you—I mean, your head knows, but I don’t think you’ve ever let your heart truly accept it on all levels.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” she said softly, turning in my arms to look at me with such an earnest expression, tears streaking her cheeks.

It was easy to see that she honestly had no idea what the feelings were all about that she had experienced of late. Of all people, however, I should have anticipated that she might experience something like this.

“I’m saying that you are not a slave any longer, my little one. It’s all right to feel anger, Gabrielle.”

“Ang—”

She pulled away from me, pausing in mid-word. Not so much pulled away as took a step backward. I’m not sure if it was out of surprise, indignation, or merely in order to see me more clearly. Whatever the reason, I could tell by the expression on her face that she stood there in the process of examining herself and her motives. If she was anything like me, she was most probably reliving each moment since she met Prax that had previously made little sense to her. Exploring her previously unfamiliar emotions didn’t lead to enlightenment, however. The look in her eye turned to one of confusion.

“I don’t—that can’t be it,” she said.

“It’s my best guess, love, and I happen to think that it’s straight on.”

“Can it be that easy?”

“Well,” I began, wearing a smile. “If you call the agony you’ve gone through easy. This feeling…your behavior appears almost typical of such an emotion. You said yourself that you felt almost hopeless against the strange need to hurt, Prax. I believe your exact words were ‘Out of control.’ There’s also the fact that you said you don’t feel that way right now.”

“I don’t. But, Xena, I’ve been angry before.”

“Have you really? Since being free?” I asked. I hoped I wasn’t pushing her too far, too fast. She didn’t appear as though she was going to break down, though. Actually, she stood there rather silent, deep in thought. She had the uncanny ability to do that, to examine her own psyche while in the midst of it all. Me, I always thought about that stuff after the fact, when I had some quiet time alone.

Suddenly she turned and went over to stand before the window. I looked on as she gazed through the branches of the trees.

“It wasn’t a luxury afforded a slave…anger.” She spoke in a distracted fashion, still looking at the activity in the village below our window.

I waited patiently as she collected her thoughts. She spoke as though reminiscing, and I knew that a million scenes must have been passing quickly by her mind’s eye. Perhaps all the times she would have liked to be able to feel anger, to express it.

“I thought I’d been angry, you know, since I’ve been with you. I know I’ve written the words, thought to myself that was how I’d felt. I really thought—I mean, I just didn’t know…I didn’t know it was hanging over me; that it could affect me like this without me realizing.”

“There was nothing you could have done, little one. Unfortunately, I think you had to go through this to realize it. Maybe it would have all come to you in a less violent way, but I doubt it.”

She turned around and rushed into my arms. “I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here for me.”

“I pray we’ll never have to find out, little one.

I kissed her forehead and crossed the room to stand before a tall, waist-high chest of drawers. I grasped the pitcher of water resting beside a wooden basin and lightly wet a clean towel. I moved to stand beside Gabrielle once more and tenderly wiped the tears from her face with the damp cloth.

“What do I do about this, Xena? How do I handle such a thing?” She asked.

“I think there’s only one thing you can do, love. Give yourself permission to experience your anger instead of swallowing that emotion.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“I suppose I do, but I believe you’re strong enough to do it. It’s a matter of training yourself to do something a new way. Knowing you, I have every confidence that you’ll be able to do that more easily than even you realize. It may take thought at first, but I imagine that someday soon it will come as easily as breathing to you.”

” You make it sound like anger is a good thing.” She took the cloth from me and pressed it against her closed eyes.

” In a way, I think it can be. Look at those around us. I think I did much of what I had in the past because I was an angry young woman. Solan behaved the way he had because of anger…Selene when we first met her. The list goes on forever. I’m no philosopher, but I think there must be some key between how we let out our anger and what kind of people we are. I think there must be a connection between all these things we feel inside and the way we act on the outside.” I stopped to look up at her nearly open-mouthed stare. “What?” I asked.

” I’m sorry.” She sort of shook her head to clear her mind. “That was such a profound statement coming from a warrior.”

” Hey,” I said with a toss of my hair. “I’m not just another pretty face.” We both laughed and the sound lightened our hearts considerably.

“How do I look?” She asked as she handed the towel back to me. “Too terrible? Are my eyes all puffy?”

“Mmm, to me you look as beautiful as ever.”

She smiled and I received my wish, that she would triumph over this small incident with her customary grace. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be overcome and hadn’t caused any real harm. I truly believed that Prax brought her injuries upon herself. The girl would have pushed, and the outcome would have been the same, even if Gabrielle had been aware of her feelings.

“And to the rest of the world? How will I look to them?”

“Um…” I hedged for a heartbeat too long. After all, she did have a large bruise on her jaw and a blackened eye. She moved somewhat stiffly and underneath her sleeves, her upper arms were a mass of bruises.

“I see. Say no more.”

I pulled her to me a little tighter. “You look like a Queen who has earned her stripes in battle.”

She chuckled in reply. “Very diplomatic reply, my Conqueror. Rather fast, too.”

“Thank you, I am rather proud of myself—” Gabrielle cut my quip short with a poke in the ribs.

“Oh,” I groaned. “You are indeed becoming quite the warrior, my love.”

Gabrielle chuckled and rested her cheek against my chest. It was good to feel her body relaxed once more.

“Know what I feel like doing right now?” she asked

My mind immediately tuned in to my libido. I also remembered the tray Gabrielle had hidden in the cabinet in our bedchamber. I had kept my word and hadn’t taken so much as a peek.

“What do you feel like doing?” I asked.

“Having a great big meal. I’m starving.”

I laughed aloud at my own thoughts and how they ran contradictory to Gabrielle’s own desires of the moment.

“What?” she asked, lifting her head. “Did you have other plans?”

She looked so innocent that it was easy to forget what sort of life she led before. To me, she would never be a seasoned body slave. I would always see her as that young innocent girl who handed me a rose.

“No, little one.” I smiled and kissed her forehead. “That’s exactly what I was thinking, too.”

I paused and watched as she went off to the bathing chamber. She would never cease to amaze me, one moment, shy and reserved, naïve as a child. The very next heartbeat, Gabrielle could turn into a Queen, regal and strong as any warrior. How my life with her had and would continue to change me. For the first time in many a season, I thought about happiness…my own.

hhhhhh{ggg

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I gamely walked along, Xena at my side, as we left our treetop residence. I say gamely because it took everything in me to merely walk and not go back to bed for the day. I took a hot bath and Xena massaged my sore muscles, but with every heartbeat of the early morning that passed, my injuries grew more painful and my muscles a bit stiffer.

“Hail the Conquering Queen,” Selene’s voice rang out. She wore a large grin and her mother gave her a look.

“Very amusing and thank you,” I replied. “Good morning, Cyrene.” I gave her a hug and pretended to ignore Selene. “How was Amira?” I asked and looked around, expecting our bundle of energy to appear at any moment.

“She’s already out with the children. I hope you don’t mind, but they said she’s gone for games and lessons since she’s been here, so…”

“No, of course it’s all right. Thanks so much for watching her. I know she can be a handful.”

Cyrene laughed. “I managed to raise this one,” she squeezed Xena’s arm. “I find it truly amazing how much Amira is like Xena when she was a youngster. All go, all the time.”

“How cute,” I said as a tease, which earned me an arched eyebrow from Xena.

Cyrene and Selene walked alongside us, and suddenly Atrius, Anya, and their children walked out of their quarters. Scylla trailed behind having been invited to stay in their quarters. Along with attending to Xena and me, Scylla helped Anya with the children. In turn, Anya taught Scylla her ways with a needle and thread. I was most envious. I didn’t have the time to learn Anya’s craft, even though I longed to do so. While in Corinth I had discovered I had no real aptitude for working with the needle and Gods, the loom. Anya whisked away at the large wooden contraption. I had always considered myself quite graceful, but twice I got my hair caught in between the threads.

We must have made an interesting group, all deciding to break our fast in the dining hall instead of privately in our quarters as we had since arriving in Amazonia. The village had been up since before sunrise and now it hummed with activity. Everyone we met along the way greeted me politely, some quite enthusiastically. Xena and I had both assumed rightly. My wining in battle had gone a long way with these women and I had risen in their eyes it seemed.

“Your Highness.” A young woman stopped before us and bowed. Her eyes managed to avoid mine.

“Yes?” I questioned.

“Um, I’m Nakia, Your Highness.” She looked at me as though I should have known her, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall her face.

Xena and I exchanged a quick glance and I shrugged.

“I—I’m not sure I—” I had no idea where to begin. Thank Athena the girl saw my confusion and rescued me.

“I’m Nakia,” she repeated. “Ephiny said I was to spend the day the day with you…as my punishment?”

The poor girl must have thought I’d taken one too many blows to the head yesterday. It came to me that she was one of the girls involved in the gossiping incident.

“Nakia! Oh, I’m so sorry. I just didn’t recognize your face.” I quickly explained to Xena and introduced her to the girl. I then, in turn, introduced her to the rest of my family.

They were all quite friendly to her, but I feared that I had suddenly overwhelmed her. I’m sure Nakia believed the numerous rumors about me. I supposed that had been the case with most of the girls, hence the form of punishment. I hoped the girls involved would see Xena and I both for the people we were and not from the wild tales they had heard.

“We were just on our way to the dining hall, Nakia. Perhaps you could show us where we should go and your routine for taking meals there?” I asked.

“Of course,” she answered. “Please follow me.” I was certain that she breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps she had been dreading the horror of spending time alone with me. This way, she earned some small bit of reprieve.

As I anticipated, nearly all activity came to a standstill when we entered the dining hall. I cleared my throat self-consciously and looked at Xena. She shrugged and took my hand, infusing me with a bit of her ever-present self-assurance. Just as suddenly as their actions had ceased, they began again. I took note of a few expressions of discomfort among those present, as though they had been caught prying.

“The Queen’s table is that long one over there, Your Highness,” Nakia said, indicating a large table that was empty save for two individuals. Ephiny and Adara sat together, surprise registered upon their faces when they saw us.

“You’ve caught us unaware,” Ephiny said. She wore a large grin and offered me a chair at the head of the table.

I indicated instead a chair to the right, on the long side of the table. She nodded in understanding. Xena winked at me as a sign that she, too, saw through to my intention. Seated thusly, Xena and I would be beside one another. It was a picture I wished these Amazon women to become accustomed to, one for them to remember.

“It seems you come as a group this morning,” Adara said cheerily as she offered her own seat to Selene.

I thought it most interesting when Ephiny did the same at nearly the exact moment. It was quick, so much so that I nearly missed it, but I thought I saw Ephiny toss her sister a perturbed glance. Even more interesting was the look on my captain’s face when Selene, wearing a rather shy smile, sat down in the chair Ephiny held. I almost laughed aloud when Ephiny gave Adara a wink and quickly slipped into the chair her sister still held in invitation. Adara seemed to chuckle under her breath. Once again, the two sisters reminded me of Xena and Selene and that made me smile.

Xena, also, saw the exchange. I could very nearly tell that the hairs on the back of her neck bristled, and I placed my hand upon her leg, under the table so as not to be noticed by the others. She looked down at me and shrugged, as if to say that she simply couldn’t help her protective behavior, but that she had grudgingly resolved to allow Selene at least a bit of her own life.

This was the first moment I had to look around the massive room. I had only peeked in quickly during my tour of the community hall two days previous. Adara had told me at that time the larger dining hall had only recently been added on to the community building. She indicated, with some little pride, that the size of their tribe had necessitated the project. I smelled the newly cut cedar and olive wood that mingled with the tantalizing odors of freshly cooked food.

The dining hall was longer than it was wide. Long, narrow tables rested in uniform rows. The high walls held numerous windows along its length, and the wooden shutters had been opened to let in the early morning sun. I saw steam and smoke seeping through the slats in the many doors that separated the hall from what I assumed was the kitchen area. Finally, along one wall I spied the longest table I could ever have imagined. In fact, it had actually been built into the wall. The food sat upon it and created a most tempting buffet. A number of women came and went through the kitchen doors bringing fresh steaming bowls of hot food. Meats, cheeses, fruits, all were in great abundance on the table.

“A bright day to you, my Queen.”

I turned and looked up at the large woman standing beside me. She wore a crisp, clean linen apron, so long that it almost touched the floor. She had light brown hair pulled back from her face. Her shoulders were broad and her arms muscular. If she hadn’t worn the apron, I would have taken her for a warrior.

“Good morning,” I replied.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I haven’t had the pleasure yet of meeting you, or the Lord Conqueror.” She nodded in Xena’s direction. “I am Breena of the Snowy Mountain clan and head cook here in the village’s dining hall.”

“You are well met, Breena,” I answered in the fashion that I had heard most of the Amazons greet one another. “May I say that the dining hall is as impressive as the table you’ve laid. If it tastes near as good as it smells you may have to bring out quite a bit more to feed this lot,” I said as I nodded toward our table.

“Many thanks, Your Highness.” She appeared to puff out some at the praise. I’m not sure what these women expected me to be, but nice must not have been on that list of expected traits. Either that, or they simply didn’t compliment one another very often.

“Shall I have some girls bring food to your table?” she asked.

“Is that how everyone else does it?”

“Well, uh, no. We usually just grab a plate and help ourselves at the food table. It’s very informal.

“Then I see no problem with us fitting right in, eh everyone?” Nods and verbal assents came in response.

“I think that Nakia here can help us find everything.”

“Then I’ll leave you to your meal,” Breena said. “Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything at all you need. All the girls who work in food preparation are of the snowy mountain clan. You can tell them easily enough by the blue armbands.” Breena pointed to the leather band that circled her upper arm. It had been dyed the color of a summer sky.

“Thank you, Breena. You’ve been most helpful.”

Nakia proved a useful companion to have, especially in identifying foods with which we were unfamiliar. Ephiny and Adara also joined us in our meal. I had extended an invitation, but I suspected it would have been hard to tear them away from Selene in any case.

I think we all felt a little self-conscious, aware that all eyes looked our way, even if they were only quick glances. I greatly appreciated Ephiny and Adara. They talked and joked in a fashion that I had previously thought uncharacteristic of either of them. Their lighthearted banter was infectious and soon, we all laughed and spoke loudly just as though we enjoyed the meal in the privacy of Cyrene’s inn.

As we made our way back to our table, I touched Ephiny’s elbow and bid her lean in closer. “Can we speak in private after our meal?”

Questions had risen in the last day along with some ominous innuendos. I had not forgotten what Lexa said about being sure Ephiny had told me of the talk about Prax. I had hoped that Ephiny’s not telling me had merely been an oversight on her part, but I couldn’t forget the looks I had seen Ephiny exchange with Adara. The expressions between them held an air of secretiveness and I needed to know exactly where my captain stood. Suddenly, I asked myself if Ephiny was indeed as trustful and loyal as I had previously thought her.

Among the things I wished to speak of with Ephiny was the fact that I had made her Regent when we had been in Corinth. I wondered if that act would stand now that we were in Amazonia, or if Ephiny even wished for such a position. Something had happened to cause her to stand down as Elder of the Panther clan, at least that is how Prax had related the event. There were simply too many questions roaming my head with too few answers.

“Of course, but you have two pressing tasks ahead of me,” Ephiny answered

” I do?”

“You asked me to remind you that you still need to go through Melosa and Timara’s possessions. There’s also Prax.”

“Gods, yes. Two tasks I don’t hold any enthusiasm for.”

“I agree that it’s not going to be cheerful work. Shall we meet in the afternoon then?”

“Perfect.”

We continued with our meal and even Xena appeared relaxed. I tried to ignore the pain my stiffened muscles caused me, which started to come easily once my belly grew full and people began to speak to us. Actually, they weren’t much more than greetings, but it was quite apparent that I had risen somewhat in their eyes. I thought it sad that the reason had been that I pummeled another woman, but that was something I tried to become more understanding about, too. This was their way. Some of their manners I could change, but I could not, nor would I attempt to change their culture.

After our meal, I told Xena of the duties I had to fulfill. She was more understanding than I expected. I suppose I grew more proud of her every day. She still had moments when she struggled, but here in Amazonia she had made a great effort to recognize that I was the ruler and final say. A hard concept for me to become accustomed to myself, so I know it could not have been easy for her to accept.

Ephiny cornered Xena about plans for our upcoming joining ceremony in the village. My captain had explained that there would be things Xena needed to know. Ephiny dragged Xena off, my spouse rolling her eyes at me, as if begging for mercy. I sent her off with a chuckle and a wave, and had Nakia show me the way to the Healer’s lodge.

I thought I would rid myself of the most unpleasant of my tasks first. One of the Healer’s, Danae, had sent me word the previous evening that although Prax had a good number of injuries; she was strong and would eventually heal well enough. She also hinted that they wanted the young girl in the hospice no longer than necessary.

Following Nakia through the maze of forest that actually made up the village, we ventured farther into the woods than I had yet been. I don’t think outsiders would ever believe the technology and creativity that existed high among those trees. As far upward as I could see Amazons made their homes within the twisting branches. Elaborate structures, they caused me to wonder why I had never known of such secrets before. I tell you now only some of what I saw during my time in Amazonia. Many sights remain undisclosed, known only to the Amazons and those fortunate enough to read the historical archives in Amazonia.

“Um, Your Highness?” Nakia’s voice abruptly jolted me into the present.

“Yes?”

“I wonder…do I have to—do you need me to go in…with you?”

She actually looked afraid. I furrowed my brow trying to discern what I had done to frighten the girl so. It took only heartbeats to realize that it was not I, but Prax who upset the girl. It was as I suspected, anyway. Prax had brow beaten most of her peers, practically intimidating them into friendship, if such a thing was possible.

“No, Nakia, you don’t have to go inside with me. I don’t think I’ll be too long. I have to visit Queen Melosa’s home. Would you mind waiting out here for me and showing me where it’s at?”

She heaved a large sigh as if in relief. “No, Your Highness–I mean, yes—I mean—”

“Take another breath,” I said with a smile. “There’s no need to be nervous around me.”

“Thank you. It’s just that you’ve been so nice to me today. After what we said about you I—”

“Don’t worry about that, Nakia. It’s over and forgotten. Now, will you wait for me or should I have left a trail of breadcrumbs to get back?”

She laughed. It was that young girl giggle that they give in to when embarrassed or without words. “I’ll wait under the big Ailanthus tree over there.” She pointed to a massive tree that children played around, the women watching over them sitting on benches that circled a trunk the size of a barracks tent.

“Excellent.” I made a move to go and looked back while she was still turned toward me. “Wish me luck. I think I’m going to need it.”

“Oh no, Your Highness,” she answered earnestly. “I saw you fight Prax. You need no luck. Everyone knows that Artemis smiles on you.”

“Everyone does, eh?” I whispered to myself as I walked the steps to the hospice.

hhhhhh{gggg

“Danae,” I called out quietly.

“Well met, Your Highness. An honor to see you again, even if it is under such trying circumstances.”

“Indeed. Speaking of which, how is she today?”

“Why don’t we go out on the balcony to talk.”

She walked ahead of me and out a set of narrow double doors to a small balcony, an area made only large enough for two chairs and a small table set between them. The hot, late- summer winds seemed so much cooler and refreshing under the greenery of the trees. I had thought more than once that I could sit here and write forever.

“Between us, Your Highness–” Danae started, lowering her voice.

“Please, Danae, call me Gabrielle. I insist.”

“Of course, thank you. Well, I’m the only one here that will care for Prax.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me overly much,” I replied.

“I’ve dealt with troublesome patients before, but this girl…sweet Artemis. There’s not an apprentice or a helper in the Carob Tree clan who hasn’t been berated or had something thrown at them by Prax in the last half day. I noticed that even Lexa’s patience has begun to wear thin. I finally ordered her home for some rest of her own.”

“I wasn’t even aware Prax was in any condition to throw anything.”

“Well, throw might be an embellishment of the truth, but she certainly tries. Gabrielle, if that girl would just put as much energy into healing as she did mistreating those around her, she could walk out of this hospice tomorrow.”

“Can you give me some idea of her injuries?”

“Well, her jaw is broken, right shoulder was dislocated, but we fixed that up easily enough. You must have a hard jaw yourself…she has two broken bones on one hand and three broken on the other. I can’t be certain, but I think she might have a cracked sternum, along with a broken collarbone.”

“That would be my fault then. I hit her in the chest quite hard.”

“Yes,” she answered rather dispassionately, not alleviating my guilt one bit. “I do believe it was from that last blow. There’s really no way for me to be sure it’s broken, but then again, there’s not much a Healer can do for such an injury. We set her collarbone in place and immobilized her arm, but as for the breastbone, if it is broken, it’s just a crack. All we can do is encourage her to tolerate the pain she’ll have as she heals and to take the medicines we’ve mixed to promote bone growth.”

“Gods. She has a long road ahead of her.”

“She’s young, Gabrielle and she has the constitution of a Minotaur. Sorry to say, her attitude will probably pull her through. Of course, it’s that attitude that is driving us wild. If I didn’t think she needed the expert care, I would have already asked Lexa to take Prax home.”

“That bad,” I muttered to myself. “I’m so sorry for putting this on you, Danae. I feel responsible for the whole thing, her being here and all.”

“Oh, pssh,” she made a sound that I’d heard Delia make a hundred times.

Danae waved her hand in the air in the exact manner of my friend, and I suddenly missed Delia and her no-nonsense approach to life. I dearly would have liked her counsel just then.

“I was there, as was most of the village yesterday. I saw what Prax did and neither you nor the Lord Conqueror were to blame. Prax brought it all on herself. I honestly don’t know what has gotten in to her. I mean, she’s always been something of a hothead, but this anger…the rage…this is new.”

“When did all this start?” I asked. I don’t know why, but it interested me, Danae’s observation. She had been the first to hint that Prax hadn’t always been this way.

“In fact, I was just thinking of that this morning after my last go-round with the girl. I remember it started about the time we got word of Queen Melosa and her daughter. Prax had always been an excellent warrior and she looked up to Melosa quite a bit. Probably some such hero-worship that girls get at that age. She took the news of Melosa’s passing quite hard, as I remember.”

“I imagine it was hard on everyone. I know it wasn’t easy on us in Corinth.”

“But,” she smiled and patted the skirt covering her thighs. “We look forward to a prosperous age with our new Queen.”

“You’re very kind, Danae. I only hope I live up to the expectations the tribe has of me.”

“I have every faith that you will. Artemis does not choose unwisely.”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, turning my face into the slight breeze. “Do you think I might see Prax?” I said when I opened my eyes again. “I don’t want to interrupt her rest, and I especially don’t want to get her upset, but I feel it’s my duty.”

“It will do her good, as long as she doesn’t get too upset. You see, since she won’t do anything I tell her to move around, I’m afraid that getting her annoyed is the only way to get her blood pumping, if you know what I mean.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I do indeed.”

On our way to see Prax, Danae gave me a quick tour of the hospice upon my request. I learned that the women who served the tribe as Healers were a part of the Carob Tree clan. They were the only clan to actually have a sort of exchange program with other Amazon tribes across the Greek Empire. Danae said that apprentices often came from tribes some distance away. In turn, our own girls, those who wished to travel, learned the methods of the Healers in other parts of the Empire. In that manner, knowledge of innovating healing techniques spread among all of the Amazon peoples. Once an apprentice became a Healer, she also had the option of traveling to, and residing with, a tribe that had fewer Healers than others.

I peeked into some of the rooms that were actually classrooms full of young women. These young women preparing for their final exams were apprentices. The much younger girls who were too young to apprentice were helpers. They did all the cleaning, laundry, and the tasks too menial or time consuming for the apprentices. Apprenticeship in the healing arts was not one entered into lightly. I was amazed that it took a full eight seasons before an apprentice could take her final exams to become a Healer.

The hospice stood at the base of the tree. The ground floor building was long, but many of the beds remained empty. Danae explained that Amazons, as a rule, were a healthy lot. All youngsters took classes in herbology and first-aid, allowing them to treat themselves with teas and salves most of the time. The Healers worked as midwives a great deal of the time. In times of peace, such as they experienced currently, the worst cases to fill the hospice beds were injuries and broken bones from working accidents, too-enthusiastic sparring sessions, or careless children.

“Shall I go in with you or would you like to speak to her on your own?” Danae whispered outside a room at the end of the building.

“I think I’d sort of like the moral support,” I replied. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. Ready?”

I nodded and followed her into the room. Danae had explained earlier that they didn’t usually place patients in separate rooms, but Prax’s behavior had made it a necessity.

I don’t know why I hadn’t prepared myself better for the way Prax might look. The once proud and arrogant jaw was gone in a mass of swelling and discolored skin. Bandages around her head held her jaw shut tightly with only enough room to speak through her teeth. Danae had explained that Prax would have to eat through a thin reed for some time.

“I know you’re in pain, Prax, and that you can’t talk well, so please don’t feel the need to speak. I wanted to come by and check on you.”

“Get…out,” she hissed from between her teeth. With her free hand, she knocked over a cup in my direction. Even such a small movement caused her some obvious pain.

I wasn’t sure how to treat her. I could have been loving, ignoring her intolerable behavior. On the other hand, I could have given in to the feelings that took me whenever I was in her supercilious presence. I though fleetingly of the conversation that Xena and I had earlier that morning and how I would handle my anger.

“I didn’t really expect much of a reception, so you’re not really hurting anyone but yourself with this behavior,” I said.

“Come to…gloat?” she asked.

“Would you believe me if I said no?”

She made a sort of snorting noise in reply.

“Actually, I felt rather badly about the injuries you suffered.”

“You should. Ought to keep…” she swallowed painfully. “Keep that animal…on a…chain.”

My patience came to an abrupt halt at the mention of Xena in such a way. The girl knew exactly where to dig in her daggers, I’ll give her that. I felt the now familiar emotions rise up as bile into my throat. I looked down at my hands to see them clenched into fists. I would have been justified for any scathing and hurtful remark I wished to utter, but I knew more now than I had yesterday. I may not have had much experience in handling these new emotions, but at least I now recognized them.

I took in her bandaged and splinted hands, and the sight reminded me of one from a time not so long ago. I remembered how Solon had lay in that bed after Xena had nearly beaten him to death. In an instant, my rage dissipated into pity. I had unwittingly given Prax the satisfaction she desired with my anger. As my facial expression eased into one of compassion, her eyes narrowed. I felt only enmity coming from her and that caused my heart to grow even softer.

“If you need anything at all, Prax, just ask Danae to contact me, and I’ll try to make it so.” I turned to leave, but her hissing voice drew my attention back.

“Could you…possibly…drop dead?”

“I’ll think about it,” I answered. “But, don’t hold your breath.”

I felt lighthearted, even though heartbeats ago I had felt an uncontrollable anger. So quickly had I learned one thing about this unreasonable and unmanageable emotion. When faced with it, I had a choice. Of course, it would always be easier to give in to the anger. Harder it would be to face it full on and strike it down. I smiled upon realizing that I rarely did anything the easy way. After all, if something was worth having, wouldn’t I feel I had accomplished so much more by working for it rather than having it simply come to me?

Danae smiled and nodded at me as I passed her by. I turned back to face Prax once more.

“Remember, no going out dancing tonight,” I said. I smiled and left the room followed by a sound that must have been half cry, half growl. It was not a happy sound.

hhhhhh{gggg

“What are you reading?” I asked Nakia. I had walked all around the large tree she had indicated would be our meeting place earlier, but my young escort had seemingly disappeared. Finally, I discovered the girl tucked in among the giant roots at the base of the tree. She appeared engrossed in whatever writings the scroll in her hand contained.

“Your Highness!” She jumped up awkwardly, and the scroll dropped to the ground as soon as she caught me watching her.

“Easy, there’s no fire.” I picked up the scroll and handed it back to her. “It must be interesting at least.”

“Oh, it is. I love reading the histories of the tribe. We have the largest archive of all the Empire’s Amazon tribes.”

“A library here in Amazonia?”

“Yes, Your Highness. The Sparrow clan is in charge of the library.”

“I admit I love a good library. I find it easy to get lost when I’m reading and writing. I’d forget to stop for a meal if I was left alone.”

“Me, too,” she responded with a smile and a surprising amount of enthusiasm. She went on and on about the areas of the library she most preferred, her own precious scrolls, and her favorite stories. She became so animated and we laughed and talked for a while so pleasantly that it was difficult to remember why she was with me in the first place.

“I know you’re busy today, but I could take you there tomorrow if you’d like,” she eventually added.

“That would be wonderful. Wait a heartbeat. Your punishment is only to spend one day with me.”

“Oh, that’s right. Well, I could just come by…sort of on my own…if you still wanted me to, of course.”

Her expression was easily readable. The excitement for the parchment gleamed in her eye, much as it did in my own. Perhaps that was why it was so simple for me to recognize. All in all, I found Nakia quite enjoyable to be around, and her words told me that I would have a hard time finding anyone who knew more about the tribe’s archives.

“Well, if you wouldn’t mind…I do rather like having you around,” I replied.

She lit up at the compliment. It made me happy in more than one way. Nakia reminded me a bit of myself. She walked with her eyes cast down most of the time. She was a pretty girl, but acted as if she was unaware of the fact. Watching her greet others showed me that she was painfully shy. That, of course, could explain how she had become one of Prax’s followers. Acceptance among peers was a difficult thing. For adolescent girls it could be pure torture. I wondered if compliments were something uncommon for her to receive.

I suppose what also drew me to her was that she wore no clan marking, unusual for one her age. By the teen seasons, most girls had some idea of which clan they wanted to be affiliated with. With such a passion for the written word, why didn’t Nakia wear the mark of the keepers of the archives, the Sparrow clan?

“Why don’t you come by our quarters sometime in the morning and you can show me the splendor that is the library.”

She laughed at my tease and nodded her head quickly.

“As for now,” I said, rising from my spot on the warm grass. “I’m afraid I must deal with my most unpleasant task yet. Can you show me where Queen Melosa lived?”

“Of course, Your Highness. Follow me.”

hhhhhh{gggg

I walked up the wide staircase attached to the outside of the tree, somewhat envious of the small girls who could hop from branch to branch within the trees that grew so large and close as to block out most of the bright midday sun. Balance and wending my way across the interlocking branches had a place high on my list of things I wanted Ephiny to teach me. It was just then that I realized Ephiny probably wouldn’t be with me once we returned to Corinth. That fact saddened me immensely, but she was a warrior and even though we had become friends, babysitting me would probably be her last choice for a career. However, the Amazons had made it clear that even though my home was in Corinth, the Royal Amazon Guard would remain with me. We had also arranged to house a small garrison of Amazon warriors within the city walls. That decision made the Elders, while not entirely comfortable, somewhat at ease.

I would not have known that this place, highest among all its neighbors, had belonged to the Queen of the tribe. Melosa had evidently been the woman I had given her credit for being. She believed in a simple life and put on no airs because of her position. From the outside, it looked as though someone still occupied the quarters. At the very least, someone still kept up the place. Boxes of plants and flowers, such that would grow in the low light of the forest, hung under the windows. I had never seen such a thing before, these wooden boxes. Throughout most of Greece, our outdoor plants grew in large marble planters beside the portico.

I lifted the latch on the door and it swung open without a sound. There were only two rooms; undersized compared to the expansive quarters that Xena and I shared here. One of the rooms looked to be a study of sorts, but it also held a long bed. I easily guessed this to be Melosa’s room, a combination of office and bedroom. The small house stood empty save for the basic household furniture and two wooden chests.

Two crossed short swords lay atop each chest, and a woodworker had carved the royal insignia into the lids. All of Melosa and Timara’s personal possessions had been carefully packed away, waiting for me, as the next ruler, to dispense them according to Amazon tradition. Ephiny had informed me that every Amazon old enough to decide upon a clan made a will and housed it within the village archives. Changes and codicils were often made, but the Sparrow clan took efficient care of such work. It was the Queen’s duty to see that an Amazon’s will was meted out.

Dragging a medium-sized wooden table near the chests, I pulled up a chair and pulled two scrolls from the cloth bag that Ephiny had given me the previous day. Each had been sealed with a reddish-brown wax, the shape of a small sparrow pressed into the wax when it had still been warm. With a sigh, I sat down, spreading the parchment of Melosa’s scroll out on the table. I used two silver scroll-weights, laying one down at the top and one at the bottom, I had found in the bag to keep the parchment from rolling together again.

The chests had also been sealed, but I did not recognize the impression of the stamp. It was the head of a panther over a clenched fist. The cat’s head hinted that it might have been Adara’s mark as Elder of the Panther clan. It was with a heavy heart that I opened the chest marked as holding Melosa’s possessions. A small number of baskets had been carefully sealed and arranged within. I lifted them out of the container and began my task.

The job took no time at all, but that didn’t mean it was easy. Perhaps the Fates had been responsible in declaring that I should perform this chore. I thought how much more difficult the task would have been had I really known or been closer to the two women. The lists were rather straightforward. I wrapped each item in parchment, enclosing a simple note to the recipient. I tried to think of a few of the happy times I had spent with each woman and that did make the time go by faster.

I had finished with Melosa’s belongings, completing her list first since she had much more to go through than Timara. The princess only had a few personal possessions; in fact, she had only recently made a change to her will. I noted the date added at the bottom of the parchment. There was nothing odd about the fact that Timara had changed her wishes just before she left on the trip to Corinth. Travel was never completely safe, even in the Greek Empire. Anything could happen on the road from sickness to accident, and it looked to me as though the young woman had simply planned ahead.

I smiled at some of Timara’s requests. They were simple items that probably meant more to her, and perhaps friends her age, than to anyone else. The final item lay at the bottom of a small basket. A small wooden box, smelling of aromatic cedar, with a lid fastened around with cord.

Now, as I write this, I recall the moment and think that if I had but glanced at the scroll, to see the name written there before grabbing the item, I might have decided against opening it. Funny how life happens, or how the Fates arrange it. My job was to see that each person in Melosa and Timara’s wills receive what had been allotted to them, however, and so I unfastened the cord and lifted the lid.

I could do no more than stare at the contents. I knew what it was from my studies with Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons. A few of the women who traveled with us had even worn them. The markings were frighteningly familiar, and as the breath caught in my throat, it reminded me to swallow and keep breathing. I turned it over and saw what I was rather afraid I would. I leaned over and looked for the last name on the scroll that Timara had written. There it was and it all came together.

I opened the small note tucked underneath the object. Perhaps it had been wrong to read the words Timara had written, but I needed the confirmation. I sighed as I replaced everything and slowly retied the cord around the box. It all made so much sense, in a distorted sort of way. My heart broke, but what saddened me the most was thinking that Ephiny had known about this and had hidden the truth from me.

hhhhhh{gggg

“It doesn’t make sense,” Xena said for perhaps the tenth time. “Why would Ephiny deliberately try to deceive you?”

I had been sitting alone in our quarters for a good two candlemarks before Xena found me. She listened to my story and, as was her way, she immediately wanted to beat the truth out of Ephiny. Once I calmed her down, we sat to think of a reason. Much of what had happened in the last two days suddenly made sense, at least seen through the eyes of a girl who had seen only sixteen summers.

“Too many times I saw Ephiny and Adara exchange looks, as though keeping something from us,” I said. “It began to make me feel strange. Now I wonder if this wasn’t the secret they kept.”

“I thought I was being overly cautious or even a touch paranoid, but I noticed those same exchanges between them,” Xena replied.

A knock on the door silenced us.

“Ephiny is supposed to meet with me this afternoon,” I said before Xena opened the door.

An Amazon that neither of us recognized stood there waiting to speak.

“Yes?” Xena asked, looking past her suspiciously. It must have made the woman uneasy because she, too, looked behind where she stood.

“I, uh, forgive me, Lord Conqueror. My Captain, Ephiny, sent me. She asks if the Queen would like to gather with her in the Community Hall for their meeting.”

I could see the stranger from where I still sat. She looked from Xena to me, seemingly undecided as to whom she should address.

“No, go tell Ephiny that the Queen wishes to meet here,” Xena said.

The Amazon looked unsure. She looked back to me, but before I could agree, Xena shook her from her idle stance.

“Don’t stand there looking as though I’ve two heads on my shoulders!” Xena snapped.

“Aye, yes, Lord Conqueror…of course.” She rushed off in a hurry.

“You don’t really think Ephiny is the enemy?” I asked once Xena had closed the door. I was worried and disheartened all at once. I had come to think of her as a close friend. Now, I didn’t know what to think.

“I don’t know anymore, but I’m certainly not taking any chances. Don’t look at me that way. I don’t plan on standing next to you while you two meet, but I’m not going far.”

I smiled at her overprotective nature, of which I had become rather accustomed. “I would expect nothing less, my Conqueror.”

It seemed only moments before Ephiny appeared in the doorway. She stepped inside wearing a pleasant look, but her brows furrowed together as she looked between Xena and me.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as she continued to glance between the two of us.

“I think I’ll wait outside while the two of you talk,” Xena said. She walked over to where I sat and leaned down, kissing me on the cheek.

She saw that I had placed my short fighting sticks on the seat beside me, hidden from view. I don’t know what I’d been thinking when I placed them there. Did I honestly fear betrayal from Ephiny? My heart refused to believe it, but my head told me to prepare myself anyway.

“That’s my girl,” Xena whispered into my ear. “I’ll be right outside,” she repeated, as if for Ephiny’s benefit.

I noticed that Xena refused to even look at my Captain. Ephiny, also, noted the slight.

“Have I done something I shouldn’t?” She asked with an uneasy laugh.

I was in the mood for neither smiles nor jokes. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Have you?”

She was not a stupid woman. My expression told her more than my words. Shoulders slumping a bit, Ephiny placed her hands on her hips and looked at the floor. She sighed heavily and looked back up at me.

“So, someone’s told you.”

I leaned forward in my seat as though I hadn’t quite heard her correctly. “It’s true then. You knew about this?” I was dumbfounded. She didn’t even try to lie.

“You have proof that it’s true?” Ephiny took a step closer and I believed that the look of concern, or perhaps it was disbelief, on her face was genuine.

“I saw the betrothal necklace.”

“Sweet Artemis! I can’t believe it. Gabrielle, you have to believe me when I say that Addie and I were the only ones who ever believed there to be even the slightest bit of truth to the stories. I swear by my sword that we eventually believed it to be rumor.”

“I can see the truth of what you say in your eyes, Eph, but…” I looked out the window, searching for the right words. “That you didn’t make me aware. If I had known it might have changed everything. I never would have let Prax push me into that fight.”

Her eyes jumped back and forth and her brow drew together once more. “I—I can’t see where that would have changed anything, Gabrielle.”

“You don’t see—Perhaps that is why I should have known!”

“I didn’t like keeping silent, truly, but what you say confirms what Addie and I felt. You would have treated her differently had you known. Perhaps you would even have refused the mask of the Queen.”

“Of course I would have treated her differently. Prax deserved better than what I helped to put her through!”

There was a silence between us for a few heartbeats. An expression of sheer puzzlement took control of Ephiny’s features.

You mean Lexa,” she said at last.

“What? No, I mean Prax.”

“Okay I—I think I’m confused.” She looked and sounded just as Xena always did each and every time I bested her in a game of King’s men. “Why do you keep saying Prax? What does this have to do with her?”

“Because that’s who I’m talking about! Wait—who are you talking about?”

“Lexa and Melosa.”

“Lexa was betrothed to Melosa?” My mouth hung open at this unexpected remark.

“Isn’t that what you just told me?” Ephiny asked. “Isn’t that why you’re upset?”

“Okay, now I’m confused. I can’t even remember why I was upset. What in Hades is going on in this village?”

“All right, let’s start over. You found out that Lexa and—”

“No, no, no! I found out about Prax and Timara.”

Ephiny sunk into the nearest chair. Her expression had gone completely blank. “Prax and—I had no idea.”

“But you just said—Gods! Ephiny, we are both talking about two different things, aren’t we?”

“Damn right we are. Sorry,” she looked up, realizing whose presence she was in. “Gabrielle, the rumor that Addie and I kept to ourselves was that we suspected Lexa and Melosa were having an affair. We thought they might have wed if Melosa had returned.”

“Gods above! Is there any truth to that?”

“Rumors were all. Lexa and Melosa spent quite a bit of the last few months, before the trip to Corinth, together. They were always talking and spending the evenings together. If what you say about Prax and Timara is true, then that makes sense.”

“They were discussing their daughters?”

“It’s understandable. A royal betrothal is something that takes some planning. I’m sure Lexa spent every one of those candlemarks talking Melosa into thinking it was a great idea. It’s no secret that Lexa has always wanted a part of the throne.”

“I can’t imagine Timara falling in love with someone like Prax let alone that Melosa would approve of the match,” I commented.

“Well, Prax has always been a bit much, but in her defense she was never this bad. When I came back, Adara told me what it’s been like, since Melosa died. We both figured that Prax was throwing a tantrum, acting hideous because her mother wouldn’t be royalty.”

“I’m afraid it goes much deeper than that.”

“It does make sense now that I look back at it all. Timara was younger than Prax, but they hung around with the same friends. I suppose we just didn’t see anything out of the ordinary there. Melosa did like Prax’s warrior skills, but I can see why she took her time about announcing the betrothal. Prax was…well, Prax. Perhaps Melosa held off, even hoping the trip to Corinth would mature Timara.”

“Or make her forget about Prax,” I replied. “I think Prax and Timara felt a lot more for one another than those around them knew.” In Timara’s chest, I found a betrothal necklace. It was a polished piece of wood containing Prax’s family mark along with the royal crest. Their names had been etched onto the back.”

” That’s a betrothal necklace all right.”

” There was also a letter from Timara to Prax. It left no doubt in my mind that Timara would have been promised to Prax upon her return from Corinth. Their feelings, at least on Timara’s part, were quite real.”

“I had no idea about any of this, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said.

“I can see that now. I guess what disappoints me the most is that you did try to keep something from me.”

“But it was only a rumor—”

“That doesn’t really matter. Eph, if I had heard that rumor, I might have discovered the truth before now.”

“I know. I’m sorry, Gabrielle, not only because you’re my Queen, but because of our friendship. Like I said, Addie and I thought that you being such a compassionate woman, if you’d known about the rumor you might have wanted to see Lexa take Melosa’s place as Queen. I was wrong to hide anything from you, but I was afraid of what you would do, how you would react.”

Her words echoed within my mind, and I was certain I’d heard them somewhere before, been in this exact situation before. It came to me after a moment and I realized that I’d once committed the same offense as Ephiny had. I recalled hiding the truth of Solan’s attack from Xena. Atrius, Xena’s trusted captain, even assisted me in my lie. I had done it all because I was afraid of how Xena would react… afraid of what she would do. Xena not only forgave me, but she gave me sound advice about being a ruler.

“Ephiny, do you want to be Queen?” I asked.

“Wha—? What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you want to rule the Amazons in my place?”

“No! Gods, no. I don’t—”

I held up one hand and she abruptly stopped. “Are you sure you don’t want to be Queen?”

“Gabrielle, I’m a warrior, not a ruler. I could never do what you do.”

“Then you’re going to have to let me rule.” I chose the same words Xena had leveled at me that day. Just now, it seemed an eternity ago.

“Right or wrong, Ephiny, for good or ill, I will be the one to decide what happens when and to whom. I understand the reasoning behind your actions, you and Adara, but as ruler, I must be kept aware of all things. There can only be one commander, one ruler, and whether by fate or fortune, I am that one. Only one can rule, but I can’t be in all places all the time. Most importantly, I need to know that I can trust those closest to me. I need to know that I can count on those friends who I hold dearest.”

Ephiny truly looked distressed at my words. I could tell that she understood my meaning. I not only still considered her my closest advisor, but also a friend. How could I have tendered less compassion to her than Xena the Conqueror had offered to me?”

Ephiny rose and crossed the room, suddenly kneeling before me. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle…forgive me, my Queen.”

Her bowed head and supplicant posture reminded me that I would always have to balance myself upon that fragile line separating ruler from friend. I hoped that Athena and Artemis would both forgive me for always choosing friendship over the other.

“You don’t have to kneel to me, Eph. Friendship is the only oath of loyalty we ever need between us.”

When she looked up, she had tears in her eyes. It was the first time I believe I had ever seen her openly display such emotion. Xena knocked and walked into the room. Ephiny quickly rose, sweeping her feelings away and back into place, but not before Xena had at least seen her on one knee.

“Have you settled things then?” she asked of no one in particular.

“It was a miscommunication of sorts. I’ll tell you all about it over our evening meal,” I answered.

Xena closed the distance between herself and Ephiny. I almost thought they would embrace, but I should have known better. They grasped forearms in a comradely sort of way.

“Good,” Xena replied in an offhanded manner. “I’ve…well, become sort of…accustomed to having you as a sparring partner.”

They were the only words the two women said about the incident. I shook my head as I watched them. If I lived to be a thousand, I would never understand warriors.
Chapter 38: Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines…
“It was my fault,” Adara said from where she sat at the end of the table. “I feel as though I’ve shamed my sister’s reputation by talking her into keeping silent.”
“We don’t place blame in this family, Addie,” I replied as I popped another olive into my mouth.

“I don’t know, Xena still blames me for falling on her that time we climbed out the window,” Selene added, nudging her sister with an elbow.

“Well, these two are an exception,” I said, winking at Adara.

I felt like having my family around me. I asked Breena if an impromptu dinner party would be an imposition for the kitchen and she simply chuckled. She hustled me out of her kitchen and told me that the Snowy Mountain clan was always prepared. I began to wonder if my old friend Delia had some Amazon blood in her, so like hers were these Amazons’ traits.

By the time everyone arrived for dinner, a most sumptuous feast had been laid out on a large table Breena had sent over for the occasion. I felt as a Queen in her palace rather than entertaining my own family high up in a tree. The walls all around us glowed a warm, burnt copper color as the lamplight danced against the smoothly hewn wood. I had thrown all the shutters open to let in the end of summer breezes, noticing earlier in the day that the leaves on many of the trees had already begun to turn with color. The summer had seemed to pass all too quickly.

The casual banter and close-knit atmosphere even drew in Ephiny and Adara. I could tell that they had both begun the evening feeling uncomfortable, but I was determined to make them feel better about themselves. I could only accuse them of thinking of their tribe, and I refused to think too harshly on them for that. Besides, I was having too good of a time watching Ephiny and Selene, and the sly looks they gave one another.

My daughter sat beside me in a chair specially designed for children of her age. It’s long legs allowed her to sit at our height, and it eased my hurt soul to see her healthy and happy. Anya and Atrius’s daughters, I learned, had spent the day in classes and play with Amira. They were now fast friends, and that also made me feel better. At least Amira would have friends her own age around her in Corinth.

“Can I have some more?” Amira asked, holding her plate out to me.

“May I have some more,” I said.

“Yer hungry too, huh.”

Xena laughed aloud, but quickly covered it up after I glared over her way. Then Selene laughed at Xena’s reprimand, and I felt as though I was dealing with more than just one child.

“I’m going to make both of you give the girls a class in etiquette,” I said. They both looked properly chagrined and I turned back to Amira. “Now, what do you say?”

“I…uh…” She looked over at Xena. “I forget, Mama, but I’m still real hungry.”

Xena roared with laughter and I have to admit that most of the table smiled this time. Xena tried to make up by speaking to Amira. “She meant that you were supposed to say, may I have some more.”

“Oh, yea, that’s it. May I have some more…please?” She smiled in a way that showed all her perfect little baby teeth.

How could I reprimand such an attempt at good behavior? I chuckled myself. “Come here you.” I kissed her lightly and filled her plate once more. She was nothing if not her mother’s child.

Once everyone had eaten their fill, one of the girls from Breena’s kitchen brought in two platters full of sweet treats and fruits. There was a marvelous honey cake that even Cyrene declared she would beg Breena until the Amazon gave up her recipe.

Darkness set in fully and we tucked all three girls into the large bed in one of our rooms. Petra felt quite important, being allowed to sit with the adults. Atrius explained to the youngster that being a man meant keeping a closed mouth about things heard within adult discussions. Petra looked so serious about being included that I knew he would never repeat our conversations. Perhaps that was why I felt rather free to comment about Prax’s situation.

“She still needed her butt kicked,” Xena said after I made her aware of what I had discovered.

“Here, here,” Atrius and Ephiny’s voices added in unison.

“Consider her situation, though,” Cyrene said. “Prax was in love enough to wish to marry a girl, then the young girl dies tragically. The child’s never grieved, or been allowed to grieve. It’s been a secret. Has she had anyone to tell how she’s felt?”

Everyone looked somewhat guilty, and we remained silent for a few moments.

“It must be sort of hard to go through something like that all alone,” Selene said.

“At least she had her mother,” Xena replied.

“Oh, yea,” Selene quickly answered. “Every teenage girl wants to bare her feelings to her mom. Sorry, mom, you know what I mean,” she apologized to Cyrene and the older woman nodded.

“When all’s said and done, I suspect she does deserve a certain amount of sympathy,” Xena said thoughtfully. “It would have been hard on anyone, but she’s still more child than woman.”

“Not just sympathy, but forgiveness and kindness,” I added.

“And I suppose you’ll be the one to show her all this?” Xena asked. When I looked over at her she wore that knowing sort of expression she has. Whenever she looked at me that way it usually meant that she already had an idea of what I was going to do. In this case, I wasn’t all that certain she was correct.

“I’m not really sure I’m the one she needs it from. Let’s face it; we don’t have the sort of history that’s conducive to beginning a life-long friendship.”

“I think, of all people, you have the ability to be Queen as well as friend,” Ephiny said.

“Thanks, Eph. I’m not really positive, but I have the notion that Prax needs a clean parchment, so to speak. It might help if it was someone who could be a friend, who doesn’t really know her, or at least how she’s been since Timara’s death.”

“That’s a tall order,” Adara said.

“Indeed,” Xena agreed. “You’re basically asking for someone who was just plopped into the middle of the tribe from outside.”

Adara smiled at Xena. “Someone who wants to do their part for the tribe…to help a sister…”

“Especially someone Gabrielle already knows and trusts, someone who won’t lead Prax into more trouble.” Xena’s grin grew larger.

At first, I was unaware of what Xena and Adara were doing. I knew they were up to something, but it wasn’t until nearly every eye moved in Selene’s direction that I fully understood their plot.

“What?” Selene said, having suddenly looked up from playing with a loose thread on her skirt. She saw the stares and the smile on her sister’s face. “Oh, no you don’t! Not me.”

I smiled myself. “You would be perfect, Selene.”

“Oh, Gabrielle, don’t say that.”

“Why?”

“Because you know I can’t say no to you.”

“I know no such thing.” I admit that it was a feigned look of miscomprehension I gave her. I knew that Selene liked me and felt an odd sort of indebtedness for the way I had helped the relationship between she and her mother.

“I don’t think I’m the right choice,” Selene said. “Besides, Gabrielle, you know Xena just brought this up to set me up.” She glared at her sister.

“Now, Selene, give your sister a little more credit than that—”

“Ow,” Xena cried out.

Yes, I did kick Xena under the table in order to get the massive, gloating grin off her face. As usual, however, she made much more of it than there actually was.

“I have to agree,” Ephiny added. “I don’t think Selene is the right person for this.”

I wondered how long it would take Ephiny to play the overprotective suitor. There was nothing official between she and Selene, but it did appear to me that it was only a matter of time. The way Ephiny and Selene felt about one another might come as a surprise only to the two of them. It looked rather obvious to everyone else. I was certain that I didn’t stand alone in that thinking.

“And why is that?” Adara questioned her sister. “She’s right around Prax’s age.” Those two were as bad as Xena and Selene. Adara was just egging her sister on.

“I just—I uh…” She looked around the table, then at Selene. What could she say without revealing her feelings? “Well it could be dangerous!” she blurted out.

I winced inwardly. Gods, were Xena and I that bad when we fell in love? My Xena, being as thoughtful and full of tact as any warrior could be, burst into laughter.

“Prax is lying there with half her bones broke. As unskilled as Selene is in the art of combat, I should think even she could hold her own should Prax be able to muster the strength for an attack.” She continued to laugh. “Ow!”

She shot me a look, which I pretended not to see.

“I’m gonna get a bruise there,” she muttered, so that only I could hear.

“I wouldn’t be so unskilled, you know, if someone would teach me to use a weapon,” Selene said to Xena.

“I’m not sure that over dinner is the appropriate time for that conversation,” Cyrene said, glancing between her two daughters.

“You’re right, Mother. Sorry, Gabrielle,” Selene said.

“Don’t worry about it,” I answered. “Just tell me what you honestly think, Selene. Do you think you might meet with Prax?”

“And do what?”

“I’m not sure, talk to her, maybe read to her?”

“I suppose,” she answered slowly. “I don’t know what good I can do, if any at all, but I’ll give it a shot.”

“I can’t ask anymore than that. Thanks, Selene,” I said and gave her a wink.

“You don’t look too confident in this scheme,” Xena whispered in my ear.

“Oh, sorry,” I answered in a distracted fashion. “I guess I’m just not looking forward to my next meeting with Prax. I have to give her the necklace she made for Timara…their betrothal necklace.”

hhhhhh{ggg

So long have I written here in these journals meant for the Conqueror’s tales. Xena is fond of saying that without me, she would have no life of which to tell. I’m not certain how much I agree with her on that point. I will say, with a touch of humor, that without me, Xena would indeed have steered clear of many an embarrassing or even foolhardy situation. Never has she reminded me, however, of my foibles or bad judgment. I truly believe that with age, Athena granted me wisdom. It was a bit in short supply when I first became Queen of the Empire, as some of my writings stand as proof to.

I do not know how much of these words, what happened to me personally in Amazonia, will eventually end up in the official archives, but I write it all down so that at least one copy will exist for the library in Corinth, or even Xena’s private library. You, the reader of this original copy can see that this scroll is much stained as though from water. In fact, the marks are from my own tears. I suppose I could have merely selected fresh parchment, but, not only do I abhor the waste of a good scroll, I thought that perhaps the tear-stained parchment would show more than my words ever could.

I woke the morning after our impromptu dinner party to even stiffer muscles than the day before. My right arm and ribs had paid the dearest during my fight with Prax. Being unused to battle, I wondered how long it would take for these aches and pains to ease.

I mixed myself a medicinal tea from what few of the herbs I had with me. It reminded me to ask Yu Pan for some of his ever-plentiful supplies. He never traveled without a full compliment of herbs and powders, always seemingly prepared for anything. I sipped on my tea and remembered the loving kiss I had received from Xena earlier in the morning.?

Full of secretiveness, she and Ephiny had appeared when they left me quite drowsy, my body beckoning for more sleep. They said it was for sparring practice, but I knew that look in their eye. To put it in the crudest terms possible; they were up to something. The day before I had asked one of my guard where the two had gone off to at midday. The young woman had simply said that the Conqueror had to learn the requirements necessary to carry out to completion the marriage ceremony to an Amazon Queen. An odd answer, but I could learn no more.

I began to feel better, the tea reducing some of the pain and swelling. I didn’t look forward to my task of returning Prax’s necklace. I had no idea as to how to approach Prax or even how to help her handle such emotions of pain and grief. There was only one person I could call on for assistance, only one person who Prax might allow to comfort her. I sat down and scribed a quick note, calling on the closest guard outside our quarters.

“Find the elder, Lexa, and give her this,” I said.

After all, I thought to myself. There are many people to call on during a crisis, and even though I had never known what it was like, most might agree that a child’s mother can help to assuage any hurt. I certainly hoped that opinion held some truth.

hhhhhh{gggg

I set out to meet Lexa at the place I’d appointed in the message to her. Halfway to the hospice, I ran into her walking down the path to meet me.

“Well met, Your Highness.”

“It’s Gabrielle to you, Lexa, and good morning.”

She smiled and I realized I looked at a much-changed woman than the one I had met when I first arrived in the village. Her shoulders slumped a bit and her smile looked tired, defeated, or perhaps a combination of both. I know she had spent long hours with Prax and the dark circles under her eyes indicated that she could have used a good night’s sleep herself.

“I’m glad you came, thank you,” I said, as we walked down the path side by side.

“How could I not? I’m her mother.”

I nodded, but held my tongue. I knew nothing of these people, certainly not enough to judge them, even if I felt inclined to, which I didn’t.

Lexa lightly grabbed my elbow and as we stopped, I turned to face her.

“I’m not a bad mother, Gabrielle.”

“I know you’re not,” I answered. Come on over here, let’s sit for a moment,” I said, leading us off the path.

We sat down on a grassy knoll that looked down upon the center of the village. It would be a hot day again today, the air around us already felt warm against my skin. If I strained my ears, I could hear the faint sound of water as it thundered over the great falls near the edge of Amazon land.

“You don’t even know me, Gabrielle, not well enough anyway. How can you know if I’m a good mother or not?”

“Because I don’t think you’d be here if you weren’t.”

“Don’t kid me, Gabrielle, because I’m not the sort to fool myself. I know what kind of a woman I am, at least what kind I’ve been. I’m arrogant and proud. I suppose I’ve always wanted more out of life than I was given. I won’t say that I don’t enjoy position and power. Now, how can a woman like that be a good mother?”

I don’t know what it was that made me want to encourage her. Perhaps it was the thoroughly defeated expression on her face. I think most of all it was the fact that I knew she loved her daughter. Maybe she had made mistakes, but what parent hasn’t? I heard the love for Prax in her voice along with a hint of failure. Any woman who questioned her competency as a parent as vehemently as Lexa did must have felt badly about the past and wanted to do better in the future.

“Well, first of all, you talk about yourself in a manner I don’t understand. You talk about vanity and arrogance, but I don’t see that now, not in the woman before me.”

“The circumstances of the last couple of days has taken a lot out of me.” She smiled wryly.

“Seems like a changed woman to me.”

She barked out a laugh with a sardonic ring. “People can’t change how they’ve been for so long, not like that.”

I smiled to myself, knowing how wrong she was. “If I believed that I never would have fallen in love with one of the most wonderful women in the world. Although biased I might be.”

She gave me a genuine smile that time and I saw something in her eye. “This isn’t the first time you’ve thought of changing, is it?” I asked.

“Are you sure you’re not a seer, Gabrielle?”

I started for a brief moment, wondering what she knew of me. It took only another heartbeat to realize that she meant that as an agreement of sorts. She went on and I breathed a sigh of relief that she hadn’t noticed anything odd about my demeanor.

“I didn’t think it possible to lose that arrogance, but all of a sudden I woke up the other day and it was gone, but as though it had been ripped from me leaving nothing else in it’s place. Now I only feel shamed and inept. I never thought I was being a bad mother, Gabrielle,” she said, covering her face with her hands.

I had no idea how to show compassion in this instance, knew no words to make it right. What could I say? Didn’t I agree that she had raised Prax poorly? But, wait. Had she? Really? Pride, while not an altogether attractive attribute in too large a quantity was not that great a transgression. Granted, Lexa had taught Prax to think herself better than those around her, but I remembered that Ephiny said Prax’s behavior hadn’t actually changed until Timara’s death. So, didn’t that mean that Lexa’s guilt was mostly in her own mind?

“I don’t think you were a bad mother,” I told her.

I reached out and placed my hand on her back and I was jolted from the shock of it. Only rarely had I seen visions in my waking moments. Lately, I had dreamed of none at all. It seemed so much more than a dream. I looked around, knowing this wasn’t happening, but partly feeling as though I was in the moment.

I stood in this very village, but it was an area of the forest of which I was not familiar. Xena stood beside me, surrounded by many of our family and friends. It seemed as if the entire village stood around us, even people I did not know. It was evening and all about us glittered, as the lamps in the trees reflected the golden leaves from a tree that I did not think could have existed in real life, so beautiful it was.

I looked down and at my feet knelt Prax, her sword lying atop her outstretched palms. Her face still bore some discoloration, but her hands looked quite mended. I looked around me, but I appeared to be the only one who had no idea of what was happening.

“With my body and sword, I swear fealty to my Queen. I vow to protect her with all my powers, trading my life for hers if the need should arise. I swear this before all my people, to place my life in the Queen’s service until my death or should she release me from my bond.”

“…abrielle? Gabrielle? Are you all right?” Lexa’s voice brought me back to where I had been sitting all along.

“I’m sorry. I thought I…heard someone calling. What did you say?”

“That I’d take it all back if I could. I should never have told Prax to keep her betrothal to Timara secret.”

“I wanted to ask you that, but thought it too much. Why did you?”

“I think at first, I just didn’t want Prax to have to answer anyone’s questions. I think back on it and it would have been so much better if she had had people to share her grief with. And okay, I didn’t really want to have to go through what I knew would come. I just imagined that the tribe would think it was all a lie; that I’d come up with the whole thing because there weren’t any witnesses to deny it. If only I could have seen ahead. If only I’d thought of someone besides myself.”

“If only…words that carry a heavy burden with them. You seem like you’re taking a step in the right direction. Don’t allow your guilt, and wondering what might have been, to push you backward. I know that’s a lot easier to say than to do…”

“Yes, but it’s sound advice you offer. I only hope I’m strong enough to carry through.”

“Lexa, my friend, I don’t think determination will ever be a problem for you, and you can take that as a compliment because I mean it in a good way.”

We both smiled at that.

“I feel rather lighter since talking to you. Thank you, Gabrielle. After the way I treated you, I have no right to expect kindness.”

“On the contrary, everyone has such a right.”

We sat in silence for a few more moments, and I wondered if she was dreading moving on as much as I was. I believe I used the peaceful scenery as an excuse not to move on. I glanced over at Lexa to find her already staring at me with a sort of understanding expression.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she finally said. “And I agree. I’m not looking forward to this much myself.”

I nodded without speaking. Finally, when I could not talk myself into delaying any further I took in a deep breath and stood up. “I know how painful it must be to see Prax like this and this meeting won’t be an easy one,” I looked down at her to say. “If you’d rather not come with, I won’t think badly of you.”

She stood and brushed grass from the breeches and leggings she customarily wore. She graced me with a smile, and I admit that it did a great deal more for her than the scowl she had sported in days past. “How very like you to make me such an offer, but no, I’ll go with and do what I can. I owe that much to my daughter.”

We continued in an agreeable silence, but our hearts grew heavy with every footstep.

hhhhhh{gggg

“Mother.”

Prax’s expression changed to an almost enthusiastic one when she saw her mother. I walked in behind Lexa just in time to see Prax’s features tighten and her mouth turn downward in a scowl.

“You again. Gods…can’t you…give me a…moment’s peace?” Prax had to pause after speaking two or three words in order to take a breath. She spit out the words from between her clenched teeth.

I knew that a broken jaw caused considerable pain upon opening the mouth too wide, but Prax looked as though she suffered much more than I thought was normal. Even her breaths were short and rapid, as one will breathe when injured.

“I know you don’t want to see me Prax, but—”

“You’re right…get out.”

“Stop that talk, Prax,” Lexa said upon settling herself in a chair beside her daughter’s bed. “I won’t have you talking that way to Gabrielle, not any longer.”

“So…she has you…fooled, too.”

“You ought to be familiar enough with me to know that few people fool me. I’ve seen some things in myself, child, some things that I didn’t like and I’m trying to change. I’d like to think that I’ve become a big enough person to admit when I’ve misjudged someone. I was wrong, Prax. Wrong about a number of things, one of them being Gabrielle.”

“She’s done…something to you! She’s some…kind of…witch.”

“That’s enough, Prax! I’m serious. You not only hurt yourself with such words, but you shame your family name. You shame me.”

Prax gave some indication that at one time, she had been a dutiful daughter. She appeared embarrassed by her mother’s remarks and hung her head in silent submission. I wondered how long that behavior would last.

Danae startled us, but she appeared just as surprised to see us. “Well met to you all, Your Highness.”

We exchanged greetings and a few pleasantries.

“I won’t stay in your way, but I came to give Prax something for that pain.”

“It doesn’t do…any good. What’s…the point?” Prax added.

“I thought maybe she wasn’t taking anything,” I said. “She seems to still be in a great deal of pain.

“I know, but she’s taking a dose that I made myself for a girl of her size. It’s as much as I dare give her.”

“Willow bark and alianthus leaves?” I asked.

“You know a bit of the healing arts?” Danae asked.

“Just a bit. Over the seasons, I picked it up from a friend. I remember being told that such a painkiller isn’t effective on everyone, however. Is there truth to that?”

“True, but that would be a rare case indeed. I suppose I could try something different if it’s really not helping the girl.”

I could understand Danae’s unwillingness to believe entirely in Prax’s word. The young woman hadn’t exactly been an agreeable patient for Danae.

I frowned in thought. “How about trying to boil the willow extract with a combination of bloodroot and peony?”

“You do know your plants. I’m not sure about—”

I took Danae’s arm, pushing her toward the door. “Let me describe exactly what I mean…outside.”

We walked a small way from the room and stopped. Danae looked at me, fully grasping my intention to converse in private.

“You do know that combination will make her quite drowsy rather quickly,” Danae said.

“I was sort of hoping for that effect. Not only does she look as though she could desperately use some pain-free sleep, but I have some news that Prax probably isn’t going to take well. It might be easier on her if she can’t hurt herself or anyone else.”

Danae agreed, thankfully without any further explanation from me, and rushed off to fix the elixir. When I returned to the room, Lexa had been explaining some of the local happenings to Prax. I let the two of them talk, with Prax doing most of the listening. True to her word, Danae returned more quickly than I would have thought possible. She gave the new medicine to Prax, and the young woman sipped it from a shallow bowl with a reed.

“It’s sweet,” Prax said.

“That’s the peony in it,” I replied.

“I hope it does the trick. I want to ease her pain, especially so we can assure those bones in her wrist are set properly. I’ll admit right off, Lexa, no one here is as skilled with broken bones as Castra was.”

Castra?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Lexa said. “Castra was a very skilled Healer. She’s traveled south with two of the new apprentices, though, to help a growing tribe who had no Healers at all.”

I didn’t want to offend or overstep my area of expertise, but I could think of no one better. I saw an image in my mind of Solan, lying in a bed with his hands similarly bandaged.

“Danae, would it offend you if I asked a Healer who is traveling with me to visit with Prax? Of course, as long as everyone else agrees.”

Lexa nodded, proving her newfound trust in me, Prax simply lay there with her eyes closed, but Danae’s reaction surprised me the most.

“The Master Yu Pan?”

“Why…yes. You know him?”

“Only of him. His reputation as a Healer is without equal. I would be honored to learn anything that he would be willing to teach.”

“I’ll contact him today, then.”

Danae stayed just long enough to see that Prax didn’t suffer any unfavorable reaction to the new medicine. She eventually took her leave, and Lexa and I made small talk for some time. Prax seemed content to listen, but at last, I saw her yawn as best she could without opening her mouth too wide.

I nodded to Lexa and pulled my chair beside Prax’s bed, on the opposite side from Lexa. “Prax, I’m glad the new medicine is helping you. Your body should begin to feel much better as the days wear on. I’m not here for merely a social visit, though.”

I reached into my leather bag and withdrew the small box. I held it in my lap for a moment and watched as Prax stared with tired eyes at the object. She hadn’t yet spied Timara’s mark on the lid. It took only moments for her to recognize it, however, and she sat up a little straighter. She didn’t move as I opened the box and placed it on the blanket covering her lap. I removed the necklace and laid it as lovingly as I could over the open box, then I gave her the letter.

She took it awkwardly in the two fingers of her left hand that the splint and bandages hadn’t covered. Her chin quivered and I was certain she wasn’t even reading the words. She knew what it said, more or less.

“I’m so sorry, Prax…for all of this. I wish I’d known about you and Timara, wish I’d known before it had to come to this—between you and me.

She continued to look at the letter with tears in her eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she even heard me or not, so I went on.

“If I’d known about you—about the two of you, I would never have read the letter. I was only doing my duty, though, and I had no way of knowing that—“

“You read it?” Prax said.

“It was my job, Prax. I couldn’t tell—“

“You read my letter?” She didn’t have to shout for me to react as though she’d slapped me. There was nothing but hatred in that voice.

It was obvious, at that point, she could no longer hear me. Caught up in her personal pain and anger, Prax ignored the splint on her left hand and crushed the parchment into her fist. Either the medicine had made it tolerable, or she simply ignored the pain that bending her broken bones must have caused.

“Get out!” She did shout this time. Using her splinted hand, she swiped the box and necklace from her lap. “I hate you!”

I stood up, unsure of how fast Prax might be able to move in her condition.

“I told you that she was a witch!”

I took a step backward. I had honestly never felt such abhorrence directed at me, and certainly not from a young woman.

“Prax,” Lexa said. She looked at me helplessly.

“I told you she was mother. It was…all her fault!”

Lexa looked back at me and appeared every bit as confused as I was by Prax’s remark.

“I don’t understand. What did—“

“It’s all your fault!”

“Prax, what are you talking about,” Lexa asked. “What’s her—“

“All of it! It all happened because of her. I hate her. It was because of her they went. If Timara hadn’t gone, this never would have happened. All because of her and—“

She couldn’t go on. That’s when Prax’s shouts turned into tortured cries. Lexa sat on the bed and gathered the crying girl into her arms. She wept along with her daughter, and I cried for the both of them. I just stood there with tears rolling down my cheeks, unable to move, Prax’s wails echoing through the room. I tried to hold on to the idea that at last, she could grieve, but that was little comfort to me.

I was actually quite astounded that the reason behind all of Prax’s hate and anger had been that she had blamed me for it all. I had been some nameless, faceless entity on which she could place all her blame. She had probably included Xena into the mix, but Xena hadn’t suddenly shown up as her Queen. I had become real to her, and it finally gave her the opportunity to let loose everything she had kept inside.

Finally willing my body to move, I walked over and picked up the box and necklace that Prax had knocked to the floor. I wanted to do so much more, but I knew there was nothing I could say or do to help the situation, not now. I placed the forsaken objects on Prax’s bedside stand and silently left the room.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
Chapter 39: In A Valley Of This Restless Mind…
“Aren’t we done yet?” I called out to Ephiny.
She stood about twenty paces away, a melon in her right hand, preparing to toss it into the air. “How many times have you hit it?” she called out.

“I’ve nailed the damn thing about four out of every five times.”

“Well, when you hit it five out of five times, then we can quit.”

“I’m getting hungry,” I replied.

“You just ate.”

“Then I’m getting thirsty or tired, take your pick.” I should have been ashamed for the whining tone my voice had taken on, but the real shame was that I felt none at all.

She dropped the melon to the ground, looking a little peeved and walked my way. “How on earth did you manage to conquer the known world with that attitude?”

“I was a lot younger back then. Plus, they gave me longer breaks and fed me more frequently than you do.”

Ephiny tossed me a wineskin. I drank deeply, leaning my back upon a tree. We both slid to the ground, enjoying the shade the large tree offered.

“Don’t worry so much,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say to help the situation. She continued to look as though she had just lost her best friend. I wondered if she was still brooding about Selene going off to see Prax.

“I have to worry. I’m sorry to be such a—a…I don’t know what, but this is my responsibility, Xena, and it’s a big one. If you don’t make it the first time, cleanly, the tribe won’t look on your marriage as a true one. They’ll think Artemis hasn’t truly approved of your union. If that happens, it will look as though I failed my clan…my entire tribe. Artemis only knows that I don’t need to go through that again.”

“Again?” I asked. “Sounds suspiciously like there’s a story there somewhere. Care to elaborate?”

“Nope.”

“Aw, come on.”

“No.”

I heaved an audible sigh in exasperation. Gods, getting her to open up was like tunneling through marble. I smiled to myself. Gabrielle must have thought that very thing over a thousand times in dealing with me. I was no good at touchy-feely sort of chats, especially with other warriors. Family was one thing, but Ephiny would probably look at me as if I had nine heads if I started getting sensitive. No, the only way to deal with another warrior was with humor.

“I’ll let you toss melons at me again, and this time I’ll actually concentrate.”

“Does that mean you weren’t concentrating before?”

“Um…I don’t think I want to answer that. Oh, come on and tell me.”

“I said, no.”

I sidled over to Ephiny, much closer than was appropriate. I settled in slightly more until our shoulders pressed together. She looked at me and I plastered a huge grin on my face.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

She looked down at our shoulders. “Then quit touching me.”

“Why? Does it bother you?”

“Yes.”

I didn’t move away, though. In fact, when she moved over a tad, I moved right along with her.

“Look, why are you doing this?”

I put my chin on her shoulder. “‘Cause I like you,” I answered in a singsong voice.

She sighed and closed her eyes. “This is your way of saying that you’re not going to leave me alone and that you’re going to humiliate me every chance you get until I tell you the story. Right?”

“Uh huh,” I answered, nodding my head.

“Gods above. Are you sure Amira isn’t your child? Okay, okay, but there’s not much to tell.”

I laughed at her comment and put a comfortable distance between our bodies again. She took a large gulp of wine before she began, which caused me to wonder. If she thought the whole tale so trivial, why did she need a drink to begin?

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard it already what with the way this village spreads gossip. Maybe Gabrielle has, I don’t know. It’s not a big deal.”

“Yea, you keep saying that. So, if it’s not a big deal how come you’re keeping it such a secret?”

“It’s just one of those ‘going against convention’ sort of tales. An Elder of a clan is traditionally the oldest of the group. It always made sense seeing that with age comes experience, skill, you know.”

“Makes sense to me,” I interjected.

“Well, at one time I was the Elder of the Panther clan.”

“I didn’t know that.” I didn’t ask the question that I truly wished to. I figured she would get to why she was no longer an Elder in her own time. I silently waited for her to begin again.

“In some cases, rare occasions actually, a younger woman felt she had the skill to best the Elder of her clan. Of course, the Panther clan had young Elders, but that was the way of that particular clan. You can be the best basket weaver at eighty, but it takes a much younger woman to hold off the youngsters who think a big head and a few muscles qualify as experience.

It happened about twelve seasons ago. It doesn’t mean a lot to some of the clans, but with warriors—well, you know how we are. I suppose we always want to show off what we know. Anyway, I was Elder of the Panther clan. Addie and I were pretty well matched when we were younger. I guess she took it into her head that she ought to make a run at my spot. Frankly, I think it had a lot to do with the crowd she ran with. Sort of like Prax’s group.”

“So, she won?” I asked.

I waited patiently, knowing this wouldn’t be a simple yes or no answer.

“We never fought. I stepped down and she took over. End of story.”

She started to rise, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. “Whoa, whoa. That’s all there is to it?”

“Yea,” she replied while avoiding eye contact.

“What a pile of centaur dung. Okay, now why don’t you tell me the truth.”

“That was the truth.”

“All right, let me put it a different way. Why don’t you go back to the part where she challenged you, and tell me the expanded version of the truth.”

She looked over at me and then lowered her eyes. She seemed to find something fascinating about her fingernails, turning her hands over to examine them. I didn’t prod anymore. I knew she would tell me the full story, if not, she would never have brought it up. Perhaps Amazon warriors had old demons to exorcise, too.

“I don’t want this…you know, bandied about.”

I looked at her and arched one eyebrow. “Just who in Hades do you think I’ll be gossiping over tea with here?”

“Well, you never know. It’s not that big of a deal, but it took a lot of seasons for Addie and I to get over the bad feelings. The truth is that I never showed up for the challenge. I resigned my position as Elder and let Addie take it.”

“So, that didn’t go over too well with her?”

“You know women and talk. Half the tribe thought I resigned because I didn’t want to suffer the humiliation of my younger sister beating me while the other half thought I did it because I knew I’d best Addie and I wouldn’t shame my sister that way. It didn’t matter much what they thought, though. Addie had already made up her mind.”

“Why did she think you did it?”

“She thought I did it to throw a cloud over her leadership. I could see her point. Until she won her first challenge, people questioned whether she had actually earned the right to be Elder.”

“And?”

“And what?” she asked.

“And what were you really thinking. Why did you do it?”

She shrugged and drew random lines in the dirt with a twig. “She’s my sister,” she answered as if that explained everything. “I couldn’t see what beating the stuffing out of my best friend was going to accomplish.”

“Apparently she felt differently.”

“Two summers make a big difference when you’re that age. I don’t think she was old enough to see beyond herself and her own desires. She’s changed a lot since then.”

“It appears so. She acts like she’s learned a great deal over the seasons.”

“You should have seen her back then, though. We didn’t speak for about half a dozen seasons. Between our feud and the talking behind my back, I chose to leave the village. Not permanently, but every time Melosa needed a courier or emissary, I volunteered.”

“Why didn’t you two just have it out and be done with it?” I asked.

“It seemed easier, I suppose. To just let it lie.” She drew lines through the dirt, as if erasing what she’d drawn. “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…well, even though I’m sure I would have beaten her in the challenge, the real reason I just let Addie have the position was because I knew she was the better leader. She was just good that way, still is. I’m a warrior, Xena. I could never sit in some tent during battle and make plans and strategies for others to carry out. That’s just not me. I could never have fought her with all my strength when I didn’t really believe in what I was fighting for, and I couldn’t have thrown the match. An act like that would have been an insult to Artemis, who blessed me with such skills.”

“I can understand that. In fact, any good warrior would. The others can’t figure our way of thinking, though. If you and Adara settled this seasons ago, why do you still seem as though you’re still troubled by it?”

“I guess it comes back to haunt me a little every time I’m in Amazonia. People have long memories and some of them love a good piece of gossip. I hear the whispers, but that’s not the main reason. I feel like it could happen again. Not in the same way, because Addie’s not only a good warrior, but she has a wisdom I’ll never have. No one knows that Gabrielle made me Regent before we left Corinth. I’m to rule Amazonia in her stead when she leaves.”

“I see. I’d actually forgotten that. Gods, that seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”

“More than one. I’m stuck in the same dilemma, though, as I was back then. I’m not meant to lead, not anywhere but on a battlefield. Addie has the skills for the job, but if I give up my claim as Regent, then Addie will always think that she was second choice. I don’t want the tribe to think of my sister as a Regent by default, not when she alone holds the ability to rule in Gabrielle’s absence.”

“Maybe you should talk to Gabrielle and tell her how you’re feeling. You know her. She’ll come up with a way so that no one ends up feeling bad.”

“I guess I better do it before she wants to announce anything to the tribe,” Ephiny replied.

“Just wait ’till after the wedding, okay? I’m not sure she can handle one more problem to solve right now.”

“Agreed. Speaking of weddings…you will keep practicing, won’t you?”

“Look, I’ll say two extra prayers that morning.” I smiled and hit her shoulder when she gave me an exasperated look. Finally, I answered her in a more serious tone. “I know it will reflect on you, Eph. I won’t let you down.”

“Promise?”

“I give you my word.”

We walked down the path that led back to the center of the village. I couldn’t help teasing her for she still had such a serious expression on her face.

“Oh, and did I say that my word isn’t worth a dented obol?”

I laughed heartily at her groan. Yes, it was good to be the Conqueror.

hhhhhh{gggg

“So, that’s it? I mean–that was all?”

“Wasn’t that enough?” Gabrielle asked, half turning in my arms to look at my face.

We sat outside of our quarters on the spacious balcony. High in the trees as we were, we enjoyed the breezes that could not reach the forest floor below. Reclining upon a couch of sorts, I actually half sat with one foot on the floor. Gabrielle rested with her back against my chest. She had done nothing but cry for some time, but afterward, she felt better for having experienced the catharsis her tears brought about.

A small midday meal and some refreshing mango juice helped to brighten her mood, but she was still a tad reflective over the incident with Prax. She had felt powerless to help the young woman and frankly, her description of Prax sobbing her heart out surprised me. I was not only taken aback, but it pulled at my own heart a bit…just a small bit, though.

“Oh, no,” I apologized. “I didn’t mean to trivialize it, I guess I expected more of a story is all. As it is, it turns out that this was something that the girl completely built up in her own mind.”

“True, but in a sense, it was the way she handled her grief. In order to keep her relationship with Timara a secret, she only had a limited amount of options.”

“And you feel responsible,” I said.

“No…and yes. Look, I understand that I didn’t consciously do anything to bring about Timara’s death, but don’t you ever wonder about things like that?”

“What sorts of things?”

“Well, what if you and I hadn’t married for another moon or so? What if I’d guessed Prax’s reasons for such anger before it came to a fight—”

“What if you and I had never met? What if you’d never been born at all? Gabrielle, you of all people know that looking back in that manner can drive you mad, and it never solves anything. What are you really thinking here?”

“You know me too well.”

She sat silently as if thinking about what I’d asked. It was not unlike Gabrielle to examine her motives and see the light about her actions rather quickly, but in this case, I guessed that she’d thought about this before.

“I’ve been wondering what sort of Queen I’ll make, Xena. I don’t—I just don’t know if I’m…well, if I’m doing it right.”

“Doing it right?” I chuckled. “Gods, you’re asking the wrong woman there.”

“But you rule so well. You always seem to make the right decisions.”

“Thank you for the compliment, love, but you should have seen me before you came along. I do believe I’ve gotten better at it, though.”

“I suppose I feel as though I could be making better decisions. I think I’m doing the right thing at the time, but then it all falls apart and I’m not so sure.”

I had been about to say something light, perhaps even a humorous response, but I realized that Gabrielle was quite serious. I thought her decisions had been fine, especially for one so young. Further thought brought me to an interesting conclusion. Gabrielle had never had to make decisions before…ever. Slavery had put her in a position where she had never made even the smallest decisions. She had never even been allowed to think for herself. Considering this, she had done miraculously well.

“There’s no magic formula to making decisions, little one,” I said, followed by a kiss to the back of her head. “Making the right decision is something only the Gods have forethought about.”

“Then what do I do, Xena?” she asked after some time had passed.

“For the most part, exactly what you’ve been doing. You make the best decisions you can with the information you’re given at the time. Most importantly, once you’ve made your choice, you let it go. Don’t look back to where you’ve been, love, look ahead to where you’re going.”

She turned and smiled at me, followed by a gentle kiss. “I’m so glad I’m married to you.”

“Are you love?” I smiled back. “That’s good because I am, too.”

A sudden rustle in the leaves brought me to attention, so much so that I almost dumped Gabrielle to the floor. A young girl hopped down from one of the outer branches and down onto the balcony. She took one look at Gabrielle and I, lying there together, and her mouth fell open to her knees. It was rather obvious that she had not expected to meet with anything but an empty terrace.

“Oh, my…I—I…Gods, I’m so sorry—”

She started backing up to go down the stairs, running into just about every piece of furniture on the way. The amusement I felt temporarily assuaged the anger at our guard. My first thought had been to reprimand them, but the Amazons knew Nakia, and the female Corinthian soldiers we had with us were stationed far below on the ground.

“It’s all right, Nakia,” Gabrielle said as she rose. We both chuckled lightly at the girl’s extreme embarrassment. We hadn’t meant to humiliate her, but I don’t think that even if she’d purposely tried to kick everything in her way, she could have run into it all as successfully as she did on her way to the stairs.

“Nakia, stop,” Gabrielle said loudly in a final attempt to keep the girl from breaking her neck. “It’s really all right. We were just relaxing. Come back here.”

“Oh,” she answered. Her cheeks turned even redder as she walked back toward us.

“Xena, you remember Nakia?” Gabrielle asked. She gave me that look that I interpreted to mean that I should be nice to the girl.

“I do indeed. Lovely to see you again, Nakia.” I rose and even inclined my body forward a small bit in a bow.

“Don’t overdo it,” Gabrielle whispered.

I laughed and sat down again. “Please sit and have some juice with us.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t.” She said, turning to look at me. As she turned, her hand swept a vase from the small round table beside her.

I leaned forward and my hand shot out, neatly catching the vase before it hit the ground. “I think perhaps you better sit down before you hurt yourself,” I told her.

She sat obediently, placing her hands within her lap. “I’m not usually this…”

“Uncoordinated?” I offered to a look from Gabrielle.

Nakia laughed at herself. “I was going to say clumsy. It just gets a little more noticeable when I’m nervous. I guess you two just took me by surprise. I wasn’t spying or anything!”

“We know that, Nakia. Don’t worry,” Gabrielle said.

“I just came by to see if you wanted to still see the archives. Um, of course, you’re welcome to come, too, Lord Conqueror.”

“Ahh, a trip to the archives,” I said. “How exciting.” This earned me another look from Gabrielle.

“I mean, I’d be happy to join you,” I added.

Even though I made it sound like a hideous fate, it was merely one of those things I did to tease Gabrielle. She might have looked upon it as aggravating, but I did consider it only teasing. I was actually interested to see the archive of the Amazons. I had heard that the Amazonia tribe housed the largest library of all the tribes in the Empire.

Gabrielle still felt depressed about the situation with Prax. I could see it in her eyes, but those same eyes brightened when Nakia mentioned the archives. Since nothing could pull Gabrielle from despondency faster than a good scroll, I suggested we make the trip straightaway. I thought it would make her feel better or at least forget her worries for a time.

I don’t really know what I expected to find in the place that housed the history, as well as information about the members of this tribe. What I found surprised me. The archives spread across four separate buildings. There wasn’t one lonely old woman in charge of a bunch of dusty scrolls. Instead, an entire troop of young women went about cataloguing, copying, and organizing the thousands of pieces of parchment.

Your Highness…Lord Conqueror, may I introduce you to Lalia, Elder of the Sparrow clan,” Nakia said with some formality.

“Yes, we’ve met a couple of times already,” Gabrielle said. “We haven’t had much time to speak, though.”

“Your Highness…Lord Conqueror,” the older woman repeated.

I remembered her now as the quiet Elder who always looked at the ground when she walked. I don’t recall her having said one word during Gabrielle’s initial meetings with the Elders.

“I’m so honored. Nakia said you might visit, but I—we—”

“We didn’t believe her,” a girl’s voice emanated from a group near the back of the room.

“Why ever not?” Gabrielle asked.

“Well,” Lalia nervously began. She looked between us and at the girls in the room, as if the answer should have come to us from looking about. “It’s just that…well, no one ever comes here. Women don’t…well, they don’t exactly choose to join the Sparrow clan. Not unless they have to.”

“I can’t understand that,” Gabrielle replied. “Such a splendid profession. I envy anyone who gets to work in such a place everyday.”

My Gabrielle, how lovely she could be. It was no wonder that so many who encountered her walked away with changed hearts. Her innocent reply had been flattering and tactful, but I doubt she had thought of that ahead of time. She spoke from the heart and it made an impression upon the people in the room.

“Well…I—oh my,” came Lalia’s flustered reply. Her face beamed and the expression told me that she rarely received such a compliment.

Now, I do not believe there is such a thing as an ugly woman. I have seen enough summers to know that all women are beautiful in their own way and that the Gods have blessed only a few of us with exceptionable physical beauty. Women like my Gabrielle must have gotten in line twice when the Gods handed out looks to new souls, but those sorts of instances are rare.

Every woman holds a secret beauty inside and there are few of those who learn how to make it show. It’s not always physical, but a thousand different attributes, and no matter what a woman looks like on the outside, there is someone for everyone.

Lalia was not exactly unpleasant of face, perhaps just a bit plain featured. The baggy dresses covering her slim frame and the tight way she pulled back her hair to tie it in the back only accentuated those rather ordinary features. She reminded me of the priestesses who worked in Athena’s temple in Corinth. Many of them had resigned themselves to living either a celibate life or a single one, and so they never spent their wages on pretty clothes and the latest hairstyles. Their own choice, of course, but it depressed me to think of the women who resigned themselves to such fates because they thought they were destined due to their outward appearance.

I had been standing in a corner, thinking to myself as Gabrielle wandered around. She touched everything with an expression of wonder on her face. I watched her and Nakia stop to speak with some younger girls and women sitting at desks, quills in hand. I say young women, even though there were many adults present. However, once I had acquired a certain number of summers, young had become a rather a relative term.

I looked down to find an admirer staring up at me. She looked to be no older than Cor, my younger brother. “Well, hello there,” I said.

“Hello,” she replied softly. “May I touch it?” she asked, pointing her index finger at my belt.

“I beg your pardon?”

Her finger came closer and I realized that she pointed at the hilt of my sword. I pulled my vest to one side so she might fully see the treasured possession.

“Sure,” I answered.

She touched the gleaming silver, running her finger along the open jaws of the lion, lastly, rubbing the glittering blue eyes. “Wow,” she said when she’d finished.

“I still say that when I look at it. It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?”

“I’ve never seen a sword so wonderful. I used to dream about being in the Panther clan and using one of those when I was little.”

“What happened to that dream?” I asked.

“I joined the Sparrow clan,” she answered, wearing a quizzical expression.

She looked at me as if I hadn’t grasped something obvious. When she turned and walked away, I noticed that she limped. One of her boots had been built up as though she walked upon a block of wood on that one foot. I had seen such a thing before. A young man in my service in the castle at Corinth wore such a boot. He, like this youngster, had been born with one leg shorter than the other. I cursed my inability to see the girl’s deformity before I had opened my mouth, completely unaware that my question might have been a reminder of something painful.

As I looked around the room, and dutifully followed my wife on her tour of the other buildings, I noticed that all of the workers in the Sparrow clan seemed…incapacitated in some way. I see no other polite way to put it. The girls and women were either painfully shy, some to the point where I suspected they were slow-witted. Others suffered bodily deformities that perhaps left them suitable only for the most limited of physical tasks. Others merely experienced scarring injuries or had even been born with marks from the Gods on their skin. I do not wish to make it sound as though only girls belonged to the Sparrow clan. I even noticed some older women who had the look of warriors about them. I suspected that battle injuries or accidents had left them in such a way. In any case, these were the sorts of things that, had I myself been afflicted with, I should not have wanted to live and work among many eyes, feeling and knowing that I could not keep up with the pack.

At first that angered me—that the Amazons should hide these young women away like disfigured runts of the litter. Most of them, when I could get them to say a few words, were perfectly delightful young women. I came to finally realize, though, that the tribe had actually done something amazing. Instead of integrating these girls into the many clans where their differences would be shockingly obvious and where many would have only been token workers, the Amazons had created a little sub-community where these girls could excel. These buildings had become a way for them to be productive members of their tribe. It offered them a pride and confidence in themselves that charity never could.

I didn’t know at the time whether Gabrielle had caught on or not. My instincts said that, being as observant as she was, she had noticed. Being the woman that she was, however, she never gave any indication that anything was amiss. She walked around, looking, touching, and reading. She stopped to talk with anyone and everyone, pausing to give them all her undivided attention. Her enthusiasm for the written word was not only infectious, but also evident to those around her. Gabrielle was not only their Queen, but also a sort of celebrity in the village. The ladies all received Gabrielle’s attentions as though they had come from Artemis herself. And, when Gabrielle told all present what envious and noble careers they had chosen, there wasn’t an Amazon there who didn’t feel at least twenty hands high.

I watched my wife with pride and realized that had Gabrielle noticed their differences or not, it wouldn’t have mattered. She would have treated them the same. That was her way and one of the reasons I attributed to her exquisite beauty, for, as the Sparrow clan had discovered on this special day, Gabrielle was just as lovely on the inside.

“What a wonderful job you’re doing here, Lalia,” Gabrielle said.

We stood outside with the Elder, Nakia, and a few of the younger girls. They seemed loath to see Gabrielle depart, and she looked just as disappointed to leave. Gabrielle answered many of their questions, telling them about our home in Corinth and many of the lands that she had visited.

“Oh, but we should be writing all this down,” Nakia said. “For the archives.”

“It’s okay,” one girl answered. “Lalia will remember.”

“That’s a lot to remember,” Gabrielle added.

“Lalia can do it.” The girls all nodded their heads and their Elder looked somewhat embarrassed to have been placed directly under the torchlight.

“She remembers everything,” another young woman added. “All she has to do is hear it or read it and she remembers it forever and ever.

“Amazing,” Gabrielle and I agreed.

“It must be a gift from Artemis. It just goes to show that the best person for the job leads the Sparrow clan,” Gabrielle said.

We took our leave and Gabrielle promised to return. As interesting as I had found the archives, she extracted no similar oath from me. Nakia walked happily between us.

“I really do envy you, Nakia,” Gabrielle said.

“Me?” Nakia sounded surprised. “Why?”

“Growing up with a place like the archives right there so you could read whenever you feel like it. Reading the Amazon history scrolls is a great privilege. There aren’t many people outside the tribe that know much about the Amazons as a people.”

“I guess I never thought about it that way, but I bet you read a lot when you were my age, huh?”

“No, not very much,” Gabrielle said after a slight pause.

“Didn’t you like to back then?”

Nakia had obviously missed the rumors that even I had heard whispered through the village. I didn’t see any malice in her statements. It wasn’t as though she was baiting Gabrielle or trying to hurt her. My heart always ached when Gabrielle had to think about those past seasons.

“I would have liked to, but I grew up as a slave. I didn’t always get to do what I wanted.”

Nakia lowered her head as we continued to walk. I watched out of the corner of my eye, and when she raised her head, she appeared genuinely concerned.

“I didn’t—I didn’t think that was true. I mean I heard it but…”

“It is, or was. It’s okay,” Gabrielle said. She smiled at Nakia, but I could note a certain sadness in her tone.

“So, if you were a slave, how did you two meet?” Nakia asked, looking up at me.

“Gabrielle was given to me,” I answered honestly.

“Oh, how romantic,” Nakia replied.

Gabrielle and I looked over at one another at that same moment and simply smiled.

“It was a little more…involved than that,” I said, giving Gabrielle a wink. She wisely shook her head, which I took to mean that we should let the young girl have her fantasies.

“Oh!” Nakia stopped abruptly. “That would make such a good story. I could write one. I wouldn’t use your names, of course, but it would be like, oh I don’t know…this famous warrior meets a beautiful slave and they fall in love, and stuff like that.”

Gabrielle laughed heartily. “Then I think you should write it. Now, tell us, Nakia. If you love reading and writing so much, why aren’t you in the Sparrow clan?”

“Well, I guess I would be if things were different.”

“What sort of things?” I asked.

“I guess…uhm…well, you were there. You saw what kind of people join the Sparrows.”

“Kind?” I repeated, looking at Gabrielle once more, so she could see that I had intentionally feigned confusion.

“Well, yea. You know…they’re kind of…”

“Different?” Gabrielle answered.

“That’s one way of putting it,” she muttered. “See, nobody actually joins the Sparrow clan. It’s where they put people that can’t really…well, do anything else.”

“Ah, I see,” Gabrielle said. “So, this is written down somewhere…this rule?”

“Not exactly written.”

“It’s just sort of common knowledge,” I added in an agreeable tone.

“Yea, that’s it.” She breathed a sigh of relief, most probably thankful that she didn’t have to elaborate any further.

“Well, then,” Gabrielle began. “It looks as though you only have two choices. You can join another clan, making some other pursuit your life’s work, but that has perils. You could come to enjoy what you do, even excel at it, but if that happens you would be quite lucky.”

“Why lucky?” she asked.

“Because people who give up something they truly love, generally never forget it. Some of them even become rather bitter and more and more unhappy as they grow older, thinking of the choice and the sacrifice they made.”

“What’s my second choice?” Nakia asked. Her voice sounded as though she was none too excited about choice number one.

“You can defy convention. My guess is that it might be hard at first, but you’ll eventually be happier.”

I smiled to myself. That was the second time that day I had heard that phrase.

“I’m not sure I know what that means…defy convention.”

“It means to go against the standard, to be the first to initiate change.”

“I think my mom would call that making waves.”

Gabrielle chuckled aloud. “She might indeed.”

“So, you think I should join the Sparrows?” Nakia asked.

“I think you should do what your heart tells you.”

I listened in relative silence to their exchange. This was Gabrielle’s tribe, her people. It was her time to lead and that included the giving of advice. I was content to merely be by her side.

“I don’t know if I’m ready—if I’m strong enough to do that,” Nakia commented thoughtfully.

“You never really know how strong you are until that strength is tested,” Gabrielle replied. “You may think you can’t do something or that it’s quite impossible, but when you find yourself before the dilemma, you may surprise yourself. What a person has inside of them can be most surprising.”

“I guess having other kids make fun of me isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me, huh?” she said more to herself than either of us. “I promise I’ll think on what you said, Your Highness. Oh, I have to go up this path. Mother is expecting me home for an evening meal.”

“Thank you again, Nakia. You’ve been very kind to take me all over like this,” Gabrielle said.

“It really was a lot of fun for me and not like a chore at all. Actually, you two are very different from the—well, from the things I heard.”

I smiled and offered my hand. “I’m glad you decided to make up your own mind about us instead of listening to the gossip.”

“They were right about one thing, though. The Queen is beautiful and you’re…” Her cheeks turned red as she looked up at me. “Um…they said you were pretty cute.”

Nakia turned and ran up the path before I had a chance to respond. When I looked at Gabrielle, she wore a rather large smile, which she didn’t even try to politely hide. I took her hand and we made for the center of the village.

“Why do some of you women insist on calling warriors cute?” I asked, which made Gabrielle laugh jovially, a sound I treasured.
Chapter 40: When the lamp is shatter’d…

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
As told to Queen Gabrielle by Lady Selene
Gabrielle says that I’m supposed to tell everything that went on today when I met Prax for the first time. I’m just learning how to write well, but Gabrielle says that she needs it for the story of what went on when she was with the Amazons. I told her I’m no writer, but Gabrielle says—now she says I’m writing ‘Gabrielle says’ too much.

Okay, we’ve agreed that Gabrielle will scribe my side of the story. I’ll tell her what happened and she’ll turn it into the kind of flowery language that good scrolls are made of. That’s much easier for me because my tongue moves much faster than I can write. Xena is fond of saying that it moves faster than my brain most days.

I’d promised Gabrielle one evening when we were having dinner that I would see Prax. Of course, Gabrielle didn’t tell me that she was going to tell Prax about her betrothed and all bright and early the next day. So, I waited until the next day and showed up at the hospice. I have to add right now that I was pretty scared. I’m not much of a warrior, or I never learned to be, anyway.

My knees shook as I walked up the stairs along the outside of the tree. I hopped along the last three branches, sort of proud of myself. I was getting good at walking the way the Amazons did, high in the branches. I finally found something that long arms and legs were good for.

Danae expected me, since Gabrielle told her about the plan to give Prax someone to confide in. Anyway, Danae was quite nice and showed me all around the hospice. I’d never had so many women in one place flirt with me. If Xena reads this she’ll scream, but I actually had fun. Now, I’m not too good at the whole dating thing, besides I rather fancy someone already, but that’s sort of private and not really a part of this story.

Danae prepared me for working with Prax and asked if I wanted to actually help in Prax’s room for the day. Danae promised I wouldn’t have to see anyone naked or anything too disgusting so I readily agreed. I had helped mother for seasons working at the inn and even when she took care of the occasional ill person. Mother was about the only really good healer in Amphipolis, so she ended up taking care of a great number of complaints and injuries.

The first thing that Danae wanted was to see if I could get Prax to eat something. I think the exact word she used was anything. Last evening Gabrielle had sat down with me and related how it had gone the previous day when she talked to Prax. I personally think Gabrielle has a soft spot for Prax. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because she thinks that Prax got a raw deal out of life. I figured that’s true, which is the main reason I agreed to do this. I used to go around with a chip on my shoulder the size of Mount Olympus, so I can relate to using anger as a defense.

I took a big breath and steeled myself for anything, then walked into the darkened room. Prax must have been a light sleeper because the minute I tiptoed into the room, she stirred.

“Who is it?” she asked.

I walked to the shutters and opened them, letting in some refreshing cool air. I then lit the closest lamp, turned, and smiled at her.

“Morning! Wow, you’re a light sleeper. I barely made any noise at all.”

“You sounded like a camel charging through.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t cry or anything. I was just kidding.”

“Oh,” I said again, but this time I smiled. I think all warriors are the same. They all have that sarcastic sense of humor.

“I’ve been trained as a warrior,” she said. “We just naturally sleep light, I guess.”

Odd, but she didn’t seem too bad so far, but then again, maybe she was still sleepy. I didn’t really understand. Prax didn’t look like the girl so full of hatred that I had last seen trying to take Gabrielle’s life out on the practice field. Instead, she looked…defeated is the only way I know how to phrase it. Her unexpected behavior put me off balance. Unfortunately, when that happened, I became nervous and ran off at the mouth.

I turned back to the open window. The air felt wonderful and I breathed deeply. “Don’t you just love when the sun comes up? I don’t mean as Apollo’s actually dragging it in, don’t get me wrong, that’s nice too, but I mean right before he lifts off in his chariot, so to speak. When it’s going to be a cloudy day like today’s starting off to be, you can see this bluish, grayish, sort of purple cloud layer. Then, there’s just the tiniest gap between that and the rising sun, so when the sun peeks over the mountains in the east, it’s this fiery orange ball that causes these great big streaks of color. It only lasts for a few heartbeats and it’s gone, and back to being a gray day. Oh, sometimes you see a little orange color behind the clouds for a while, but—”

“Who in Hades are you?” Prax interrupted.

I didn’t usually go on jabbering about nothing, but as I said before, I was nervous. When that happens, instead of slipping into silence, I just go on and on about the most nonsensical things.

“Oh! Sorry—Selene.” I stuck out my hand to shake hers, but not before I realized both her arms were bandaged.

“I, uh…” I looked at my hand and tucked it into my apron pocket. “Oops. Sorry again. I forgot you were sort of temporarily incapacitated.”

She shrugged. “You look familiar, but I don’t know you. You aren’t from the village. You must be visiting from another tribe, huh? How long have you been here?”

“Only a few days.” I breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t press the matter of who I really was. I wanted to see if we could become friends before I told her that the person she hated most in the world was my sister in law. I didn’t want to lie, so I sort of just ignored the first part of her inquiry. I’m sure mother would have disapproved, calling it a lie by omission. She had used those very words on numerous occasions as I grew up. I had to tell myself, however, that this was a special case.

By the look of her, I wondered if Prax had gotten any sleep the night before. She looked completely drained, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. If it had been me, I would probably have spent the entire night crying, too.

“Actually, everyone’s been quite nice and very friendly. I’ve met a lot of new people already, but all in all, I guess people are pretty much the same, eh? I say that because I’ve met so many girls who remind me of the friends I had back home, not to say I had tons of friends, and I don’t mean they look exactly like them. You know, this one time—”

“Hello! Look, I’m sorry to interrupt, but…uh…I have to…um…use the…” She pointed to a bowl-shaped pot with a lid that sat on the floor beside the bed.

“Oh. Ohh,” What she tried to indicate finally hit me. “Sure. Let me help you.”

“No! I mean…no, I can do it myself. Can you give me a hand getting up?”

“Sure, here.”

She was very strong, and even though she was hurt, she got to her feet rather easily.

“Gee, I thought you were hurt a lot worse. You make it look easy. You know, this one time—”

“I thought I was dying yesterday,” she quickly interjected, heading my rambling off before I got started. “Then, they changed the medicine they were giving me. I feel a little like my old self now. At least breathing doesn’t involve excruciating pain.”

“You sure you’re okay?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“I don’t know if I should really leave you alone.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know…”

“Look, just give me a few moments. If anything happens I’ll even let you say I told you so.”

“Okay, I give in. I’ll just close the door to give you a little privacy,” I said as I pulled the door shut. “I’ll be right here outside if you need me,” I called back through the door.

I leaned my back against the wall in the hallway. Prax seemed to be making the usual sounds that someone would. I believed there to be a bit more jostling about, though. I heard something fall, then a chair scraped across the floor, and then another something fell.

“You still okay?” I called out.

There was no answer. I called out again, thinking she just hadn’t heard me. There was only silence to greet me. I started to get worried, and I told her so.

“Okay, Prax, I’m getting a little worried here.”

“I’m okay. Aw, shit!”

One more crash and my mind’s eye took over. Gabrielle had placed a great amount of faith in me, Danae had entrusted me with Prax’s welfare, and on the very first day, I imagined that I had just killed her.

“Goddam, son of a—”

“All right, that’s it. I’m coming in, Prax.”

“No! I’m not—”

“I’m coming in and that’s it,” I said while turning the latch and pushing open the door.

The sight that greeted me flooded me with relief while at the same time, made me want to burst into laughter. It was a good thing I controlled myself, however because Prax was already staring daggers.

“If you laugh, I’ll kill you,” she said.

Prax lay sprawled across the floor, the sheet and blanket had been clawed from the bed as if she’d tried to pull herself upright by her linens. There wasn’t a piece of furniture within an arm’s length of her that she hadn’t overturned in the melee. The worst part about the whole situation was that the contents of her chamber pot covered everything including Prax. I bit my lip so as not to even smile.

“That includes saying I told you so,” she added.

I could have laughed, could even have went ahead and said I told you so. If I didn’t take care, I could easily end up humiliating Prax, and that would ruin everything. I saw the opportunity to form a bond.

“Okay, we can handle this.” I ran back and closed the door. “Are you hurt?” I asked.

“Does my pride count?”

“Not with me. First things first.” I help Prax up to sit on the side of the bed.

“I think I’m offending myself,” she said, pulling at her stained gown. “S—Sorry about this.”

It was obvious that apologizing wasn’t something she did often. I noticed that she hesitated over the words, and I wondered why she even tried. It surprised me.

I went to the fireplace where the coals had been banked for the day. The evenings had just started turning cooler, making heating the rooms necessary. Water had been heating in a metal pot, and I poured some of the still warm liquid into a large clay basin. In a cabinet, I found some clean cloths and a sleeping gown, along with some elm leaves. I rubbed the leathery dried leaves in the water creating a frothing soap.

“It’s not a problem. Let’s clean you, then the room. We’ve got everything we need right here and nobody has to know but us.”

“Okay, good plan,” Prax answered.

Before I had a chance to cover my eyes, offer assistance, or even figure out how we were going to delicately handle the whole thing, Prax, carefully guarding her injuries, stripped the soiled gown from her body. I wasn’t accustomed to such behavior and I was sure my face went completely red. It must have been an Amazon thing because Ephiny acted much the same way, as well as the other Amazons with whom we had traveled. Now, I had no interest in Prax beyond friendship, but it sure was hard not to let the sight of her well-muscled body affect me.

“Are you going to stand there all day and stare?” Prax demanded. I had remained so deeply in my own thoughts that I just stared blankly at her, as she held out one bandaged hand.

“Oh, sorry.” I handed Prax the gown and managed to propel myself forward, helping her put the gown on. I put the chair back into its former place and Prax sat down. I began talking as I stripped the linen from the bed and went about cleaning the rest of the mess.

I don’t think Prax minded my chatter too much at first. She actually reminded me a great deal of Ephiny and Xena, sort of stoic and closed mouthed. I told her about a similar embarrassing moment when I had fallen into a farmer’s pile of manure, good clothes and all. Of course, I was still rather nervous and so my retelling of the incident went on for some time. I think she managed a weak smile, but it very easily could have been a grimace of pain. It was a bit hard to tell considering that she did everything with her teeth clenched together because of her broken jaw.

I continued my stories, even telling her some things about me. I went to fetch some breakfast for her and Danae caught me, asking how things were going. I think I almost knocked her off her feet when I said that it was going well and Prax was hungry for some breakfast. Quickly bringing back the food and setting the tray at the table, which Prax had insisted upon, I helped her to a chair so she could eat sitting up.

“You haven’t really got your legs under you yet,” I commented after she had taken a step and paused, her body weaving slightly.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t get up this time without you around.”

“That would make me feel better, thanks.” I uncovered the bowls that the kitchen had sent over. “It doesn’t look too good, all mashed up like that, but I bet it hits the spot if you haven’t had a hot meal in a while,” I said.

Prax insisted on feeding herself, certain she could handle it. I didn’t give her a fight and let her have her way. She eventually had to give in and ask for my help, realizing that without the full use of at least one of her hands, she would go hungry. I tried not to make her feel completely helpless, knowing that would only offend her and perhaps cause a fit of temper. Overall, the meal went smoothly.

“Damn, that was good,” Prax said, allowing me to wipe her mouth with a napkin.

This girl was rather amiable. Again, I had a hard time linking her to the same person that had tried to kill Gabrielle. “Can I get you some more?” I asked.

“Nah. My jaw’s sort of sore from just that much.”

“How about if I see if Danae has some pain medicine for you?” I said before taking off in search of the Healer.

Danae brought Prax’s medicine in. The healer didn’t try to hide her amazement at her patient’s behavior. Prax may not have been overly pleasant or a sparkling conversationalist in Danae’s presence, but she wasn’t near the violent and sullen person Gabrielle had described.

I don’t pretend it was anything I did. Frankly, I think Prax just woke up that way. I remember once asking Gabrielle how she had changed Xena. Gabrielle said that Xena had changed before they met. Xena needed help, though. She woke up one day and wanted to change and luckily, Gabrielle came into her life soon after. Maybe that’s the way it was with Prax. Maybe she woke up this morning and just the fact that someone walked in who, in her eyes, had no preconceived notions about her made all the difference.

I helped Prax back into bed and left her in peace for a while, going outside to find that it had begun to rain lightly. Under the massive, interlocking boughs of the trees, however, I could barely feel the wetness, but it was in the air. I breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of the humid earth that rose from the ground below.

It was near midday when Prax woke up again. I guessed the combination of a hot meal and the medicine had knocked her out. She still looked sleepy, but more relaxed. She also didn’t appear to be in as much pain. The muscles in her jaw, which she had previously held clenched, looked much less tense. She had moments when I saw intense bursts of fire in her eyes, but for the most part, she appeared as though she had let go of some of her anger.

“I feel like a team of chariot horses trampled me. I guess I’m just not used to being ill,” Prax said after she had a drink of water.

“I know exactly how you feel. I went on a boat trip once, well, it wasn’t really much of a trip since it was only to an island that was within sight of the mainland, but I got sicker than a dog who’d gnawed on old harpy bones. When we finally landed on solid ground, I could hardly walk a straight line. I kept having a feeling as though I was going to fall down. It was a weird sort of feeling, like I was still going up and down on the waves and trying to walk at the same time. You know this one time—”

“Selene!” Prax said loud enough to stop my long-winded story. “Don’t cry or anything, but…well, you’ve been real decent to me, but I need to ask you something.”

“Okay,” I replied warily.

“Do you think you could stop talking for just a little bit? It’s starting to make my head hurt.”

I laughed aloud at myself and earned a genuine smile from Prax. “I apologize. It’s a bad habit I have—going on like that when I’m nervous or meet someone new. Don’t feel bad at all. It drives my sister nutty, too.”

“Thanks, I’m glad you understand. Is your sister here with you?”

“Um, yes she is.”

“Who is she…have I met her?”

I had planned to tell Prax exactly who I was at the end of the day. I figured she could sleep on it and make up her mind if she wanted to remain friends. I’m not sure the Gods, or whoever takes care of this stuff had their timing down right because just when I was going to sit down and explain, someone knocked lightly on the open door to Prax’s room.

Lexa, Prax’s mother, stood there with Gabrielle, Xena, and Master Yu Pan. Lexa smiled and greeted her daughter warmly, obviously happy with how her daughter looked. When I glanced over at Prax, she was looking between Xena and me. She wasn’t stupid. Although Xena and I had different fathers and she was more than twice my age, she and I looked very much alike. My mother had often remarked, since Xena had returned to our lives, how I was a younger looking version of the Conqueror.

“I think you already know her,” I answered Prax. I tried to make light of the fact, as I shrugged and smiled. Prax wasn’t smiling, and I finally saw a hint of the anger that Gabrielle had tried to describe.

“I should have known! So, they sent you in to spy on me?”

“No, Prax, that wasn’t it at all. I mean, well, yes it was…in a way, but not to spy—to give you someone to talk to, someone who didn’t know you already…someone to be your friend.”

“That’s what you think being a friend is?” she shouted back at me. Well, it was as much of a shout as someone with a broken jaw could manage. “You lied to me.”

“Okay, technically, I did not lie.”

“You did so.”

“No, see I remember distinctly. I was standing over here and you said, ‘you must be visiting from another tribe? How long have you been here?’ and I said, ‘Only a few days.’ It’s not really my fault that you didn’t pursue the first question. I even thought about it at the time and I felt bad. It was like this one time—”

“Selene!” Xena shouted out in order to get my attention. I realized I was going on again, but when I start doing that, it’s as if I’m outside myself. I silently screamed at myself to shut up, but it didn’t get through. So, Xena did what any big sister would do, I suppose.

“Just shut up for a heartbeat, okay?”

“Well, you don’t have to talk to her that way,” Prax said in my defense.

I think Prax’s remark surprised everyone but Xena. It must run in the family. See, once Xena gets going, she has a hard time stopping, too.

“I’ll talk to her any way I want, she’s my sister,” Xena shouted back.

“She was just trying to help out,” Prax replied.

Xena suddenly froze. She and Prax glared at one another, but I could see that Xena wasn’t entirely sure about what was going on. When I first met her, my sister would try to cover it up with a bunch of bluster. She was much better now. She would actually admit when she had no idea what she was doing.

“Okay, I’m confused,” Xena admitted, looking back at Gabrielle. “Who’s mad at who here?”

“No one has to be mad at anyone, love,” Gabrielle said as she stepped forward. “Prax, I know what you think of me, but what Selene said was the truth. I asked her to come see you, yes, but not because I wanted her to report back to me. I asked her because she was the only person I knew who didn’t know you or at least who you didn’t know. You’ve been through an awful lot and I thought you deserved the chance to make friends with someone who you’d had no previous history. I chose Selene based on that criteria, not because she’s Xena’s sister, and definitely not for any underhanded reason.”

Gabrielle had such a way of talking. The whole room kept silent, sort of looking at each other. I know I felt reprimanded, and I didn’t even do anything wrong. I remembered how Gabrielle had said Prax reacted to her presence the day before, so I prepared myself for Prax to come out fighting. For at least the hundredth time that day, she completely surprised me.

Prax just shrugged and looked up at me with a guilty expression. “Guess you talk too much to be that good of a liar.”

I smiled. If we were going to be friends, I was going to start right off by letting her know with what she could and couldn’t get by. “Oh, yea. As if you warriors listen to anything I drone on about. I can always leave, you know.”

Prax actually grinned. “Yea, well…you may as well stay now…I mean, since you’re here and all.”

From the corner of my eye I saw Xena with her mouth hanging open. Lexa smiled and you could see that she was sort of relieved. Gabrielle’s expression was happy, but there was something else there, too. It was kind of like she knew this would happen all along. I was determined that one day I would ask her about that expression. Did she really know how things would turn out or did she do that to make people think she knew all along?

I also noticed that Prax still glared intensely at Gabrielle. It seemed that whatever imaginary crime Prax blamed on Gabrielle, it still existed in Prax’s head. Well, at least she acted in a civil manner. To me, that said she was trying. Why did she perform such a turn around, though?

“Well, I suppose since that’s settled I should get about what we came for,” Gabrielle said. “Prax, your mother said that you agreed to see another Healer for your injuries, especially your hands. This is Master Yu Pan, an old friend of mine.”

Yu Pan, who stood nearly hidden behind Xena and Gabrielle, stepped forward and bowed slightly. He carried a basket held together by handles on the top.

“If you are willing, I would like to meet with you,” Yu Pan said.

Again, Prax shrugged. I suppose a shrug was better than the screaming and cursing she’d done before. I know how hard it is to change, more importantly to convince those around you that you’ve changed. Besides, it’s always hard to admit to being wrong. Maybe the noncommittal shrugs were Prax’s way of apologizing. I don’t know.

Xena and Gabrielle left immediately after that. I don’t think Gabrielle wanted to push Prax any more than my new friend could endure. Lexa remained, along with Yu Pan. I had no idea if I should go or stay. They quickly decided for me.

“So, will it hurt?” Prax asked Yu Pan. I won’t say that she sounded scared exactly. Let’s say she sounded like a young girl trying to appear as a warrior.

“The healing process always involves some hurt,” the old Healer replied in his customary casual manner. “It is as much mental as physical. Perhaps it is something you wish to experience alone?” Yu Pan looked at Lexa and I, waiting for Prax’s reply.

“Why is that?” Prax asked just as I started to leave.

“The decision lies completely with you. I have no preference, but the healing process is a journey that you will take by looking inside yourself. We cannot fix your body if your mind remains broken. You also feel a pain in your heart and mind, which you would like healed. Am I correct?”

Prax nodded in silent awe.

Yu Pan was an amazing Healer, as I well knew. I almost believed he was as much Mystic as he was Healer, for he knew things about individuals that no man could possibly know. He said it was common sense, but I knew it was something more. I once asked Xena how old he was. She said she honestly didn’t know, but that his name had been known throughout Chin for hundreds of years. At first, I laughed. Once I realized that she was serious, I wondered how it could be. What magic did he practice that allowed him such longevity?

“We do not often wish for such inner thoughts to become privy to all,” Yu Pan finished speaking to Prax.

“I see.” Prax sat silent for a few moments and Yu Pan waited patiently. “Mother, would you be offended if I asked Selene to stay and you to go? I only—there may be things that—well, things that a mother…”

Lexa nodded, appearing to understand what Prax had tried to say. She kissed her daughter’s cheek and turned to go. She held out her hand to Yu Pan before leaving. “Thank you, Master Yu Pan.”

Yu Pan bowed to the woman and Lexa closed the door behind her. I admit that I felt frightened and a little out of place. I could see why Prax didn’t want her mother around, but I wasn’t sure why she wanted to keep me there. I guessed it to have something to do with the similarity in our age. Maybe it was simply because we didn’t really know each other and Prax felt it easier to bare her soul in front of a stranger than her mother. I know I would have found it easier.

“So, okay…what do I do?” Prax asked.

“I think I should examine the outer injuries first.”

I went and sat in the corner as Yu Pan carefully removed the splints and bandages, first on Prax’s broken left wrist and then on the damaged right hand. His slim fingers slid lightly over the worst of Prax’s hurts. He paused suddenly and looked at Prax until she pulled her eyes away from his intense scrutiny.

“You have recently been touched by a great power,” he said in a near whisper. “I had not been told of your interaction with the Gods.”

Prax’s eyes opened wide. “How did you know that? I haven’t told anyone about that yet.”

He smiled at her. Yu Pan’s face had always held a very amiable, even thoughtful, expression. He generally looked happy, but it was only on a few occasions that I saw him smile so broadly.

“I feel it in you,” he answered. He spoke so softly that I had to strain to hear every word. “I must say, Prax, that I suspected as much. You have changed too much in one day for it to be anything but immortal intervention.”

“I thought it was a dream, you know? It just didn’t seem—I mean, I didn’t think it could be real.”

“Prax,” Yu Pan began. He sighed, knowing that he had once again mispronounced Prax’s name. I had often heard him having some difficulty pronouncing certain Greek names. Although he spoke his own language so well, words that I hopelessly attempted to wrap my tongue around, he simply butchered certain Greek words.

“I have not given your name its proper respect,” he said in way of an apology. He sat, shaking his head, with one hand placed on each knee.

“It doesn’t matter,” Prax answered.

“You could always call her something in your language, Master,” I popped up to say. I don’t know why I jumped in. I suppose I felt sort of sorry for the man that I had so recently come to think of as being able to do anything. I thought I’d made a mistake by interrupting, but Yu Pan bowed slightly in my direction.

“What an excellent and most thoughtful idea,” he said. He seemed to think in silence for a few more moments and nodded to himself. “Yes, I will call you Táifëng. This will not offend you?” he asked of Prax.

“I guess I can’t be sure until I know what it means.”

Yu Pan smiled suspiciously. “Then I will call you that until you learn the meaning and can say for yourself whether it is apt or not.”

“How can I learn its meaning? I don’t know anyone who speaks your language.”

Yu Pan continued his examination of her hands and arms. “You would be surprised how many people you know who speak the language of my countrymen.”

“Hhmm. Okay, it’s a deal,” Prax said.

Again, there was a long stretch of silence as Yu Pan tenderly went on with his examination, Prax occasionally grimacing in pain.

“Very good,” Yu Pan said at last. He pulled a chair up close beside Prax’s bed and sat down.

Yu Pan took his basket and placed it upon his lap, partially opening it, but I couldn’t see inside. He brought out his tea set. I had seen that before. Small cups matched the teapot made of clay. They held a deep brown glaze that made them smooth and shiny. The face of a tiger hidden within a bamboo jungle had been painted on the sides of the pot and of each cup. When we first met, I had asked him why everything he owned, with the exception of his large wagon, possessed the image of a tiger. He had told me that Läohü was a kind of nickname of his, and in his language that meant tiger.

We both looked on as Yu Pan prepared to brew a pot of tea. He left and returned shortly with hot water. I could only assume that he had asked someone to set the water to the heat when he had first entered the hospice with Xena and Gabrielle.

“Do you really think you can fix me?” Prax asked.

“The question should be, do you think I can?” Yu Pan answered.

“I—I guess. I mean, I don’t really know you or what kind of a Healer you are or anything. Everyone else seems to think you’ve some skill. Is it important that I believe in you? ‘Cause I’m not much for trusting strangers.”

“It is important only for you to believe in yourself.”

He prepared the tea, taking a few pinches of herbs, first from one bag then another, and dropping them into the pot. He added the steaming water and the most refreshing scent rose into the air. The smell caused me to close my eyes and think of waterfalls, green forests all covered in morning dew, and the way the air smelled just after a summer storm. How odd that I could smell such visual sights.

Yu Pan used a bamboo stick with a sort of tiny cup attached to the end. He reached into the tea and drew out a small, smooth stone approximately the size of the palm of my hand. He wiped off the stone and bid Prax to lay her left hand upon her blanket, palm facing upward. Placing the stone in her palm, he asked her to grasp it as well as she could, but not too tightly.

“It hurts,” Prax said as her face contorted into an expression of pain.

“Yes, I know,” was Yu Pan’s only reply. “Now, tell me Táifëng. What do you feel?”

“I feel a rock.”

“Incorrect. You see a rock. Your eyes tell you what your head already knows to be true. Forget what you have learned previously, what you believe to be truth. What do you feel in your hand? What do your senses tell you?”

Prax closed her eyes and breathed deeply. I could see that at least she made the attempt and didn’t disregard Yu Pan’s teachings as foolishness.

“I feel…a warm rock.”

“Do not let past history dictate the present to you. Seeing something does not always make it true. It is not that everyone around you knows something to be true; rather, it is what you alone believe to be true. Trust in what you feel and nothing else.”

“Okay, let me try again. I feel…um…warmth, smoothness, something…something hard.”

“A very good start. We will come back to that later, but I want you to continue to hold it in your hand. Do not think of it. Let it become a part of you. Here, will you have some tea?”

“Sure, but I…” Prax looked down at one hand holding the rock, or whatever Yu Pan wanted it known as, and her other hand, the one with the broken fingers, wrapped and bandaged with thin wooden splints.

“I am sure that Lady Selene will join us and assist?” He turned to me and it was finally my turn, my chance to be more than an observer.

I jumped up from my chair in the corner and made myself useful, helping Prax to sip some of the steaming liquid.

“Do I need to call you Lady Selene now?” Prax muttered humorously.

“Please,” I replied.

The tea tasted quite different from the last time I had enjoyed the brew with Yu Pan. “Master, do you use different teas for different occasions?”

“Different occasions, different people, different problems,” he replied. “We may all wish to meet in Thebes, but I may wish to travel by caravan, you by horse, and yet Táifëng may desire to walk.”

“We all get to the same place in the end, but do it in a variety of ways,” I replied, to which Yu Pan nodded.

“Is this tea medicine?” Prax asked after we had all finished our drink.

“Why do you ask?” Yu Pan returned.

“It sort of makes me feel good, makes my body feel good like Danae’s medicine. A lot of my pain is gone, but I’m not sleepy like with Danae’s stuff.”

“Open your hand,” Yu Pan asked, indicating the hand in which Prax continued to hold the rock.

He touched the large pebble as if testing its smoothness, rubbing his thumb along the worn edge. Placing it back into her hands, he gently closed her fingers around the object once more. Prax didn’t even flinch, and I know the action must have disturbed her broken wrist at least somewhat. Yu Pan didn’t look completely pleased. At first, I thought it was just me, but Prax must have noticed, as well.

“What? Am I doing it wrong?” she asked.

“There is no right or wrong, Táifëng. There simply is your way.”

“You look like…I don’t know, like something’s not happening. It’s not going to work for me, is it…this healing style of yours?”

He smiled a wee bit as though he had heard something he expected. I couldn’t figure out what it was, and if her did, Yu Pan wasn’t telling. On the other hand, he did tell, but in that way that I couldn’t understand completely.

“Again, I ask. Do you believe it will work?”

“I was going to say yes, just like that,” Prax replied after a moment’s silence. She lowered her head and stared at the rock held within her fingers’ grasp. “But…things don’t just happen like that…at least not for me. No matter how I’ve wished things could be different lately, they don’t change. Even Artemis said she couldn’t change what happened. Guess life isn’t really like that except for in dreams.”

“But, when you fail at something, do you not try again?”

“I guess after I’ve failed so many times, I just give up.”

“May I tell you a story?” Yu Pan asked.

“Sure,” Prax answered. She appeared somewhat confused at the change in the conversation’s direction, but I knew better. I had learned in my short time of knowing Yu Pan that he used stories as a teaching method. I completely admit that I didn’t know what half of them meant, but it was sure fun trying.

“This story takes place in the land of Chin where I was born. There was an old grandfather, elderly, but not frail or sickly. As here in Greece, we peasants walked everywhere in Chin, except that it was a much farther distance between our villages and the larger towns where the bazaars and markets were. Only noblemen rode horses or could afford oxen to pull a wagon.

The old man had to travel south to make his way to town. Blocking his path, however, were two very large mountains. You would call them the Yellow Mountains in Greek. In my language, they were the Taihang and the Wangwu. It was said that they were four hundred leagues wide and a 100,000 hands high. They originally lay south of Jizhou and north of Heyang.

The old man was known to be rather foolish, but by the time he had seen ninety summers pass over his head, he had grown unhappy with the fact that the mountains blocked his way. Every trip to town meant that he had to travel far out of his way to go around the Yellow Mountains. So, he called a meeting of his entire family.

The old man asked his family if they would agree to help him with a project. He suggested that they level the two mountains and open up a pass south to the Han River. His children agreed to work hard at his plan, but his wife was doubtful and wanted to know more. She asked what he would do with all the rocks and dirt from the mountains.

“I will carry them to the shores of the Bohai Sea and north of Yintu,” he told everyone.

So, the old man, his sons, and grandsons began to break the rocks and dig the earth up. They carried baskets of dirt to the shores of the Bohai Sea. It was no easy task, the journeys they made to dispose of the earth that they dug up. One trip took so long; the old man and his family left in the winter and didn’t return until summer.

One day, a wise man stopped the old man, laughing at him. “What a fool you are,” he taunted. “You will never remove these mountains. Look how old and weak you are. How do you think you can possibly complete this task? There is so much earth to move that you could never hope to move one hair’s worth!”

The old man laughed right back at the wise man. “You understand nothing of faith and determination. Yes, I am old and feeble, but I have strong sons, and after I die, their sons will have sons and grandsons. Then, those grandsons will have sons and grandsons. My family will continue to grow and expand long after I am gone, but the mountain can go in no other direction but down. How arrogant for you to think it impossible to level the mountains, for it will happen in time. Perhaps it will not happen soon, in my lifetime, but it will happen eventually if we keep trying.”

The two men parted, but the Gods had heard the old man’s words. Moved by the old man’s unflappable belief and determination, the Gods commanded the two sons of Kua’ershi to carry the two mountains on their backs. They carried them away, placing one east of Shuo and the other, south of Yong. To this day, there are no mountains between Jizhou and the Han River.”

Yu Pan sat silent once he’d finished. “I often teach through my stories,” he explained. “They are mere words, but often great truths lie hidden in the simple tales. Do you see anything in this story that stands out to you?”

“Um…”

“The meanings I speak of aren’t always apparent in the tale itself, but lie just below the surface. Did you gather any truths from the old man’s tale?”

“Oh! Oh!” I couldn’t help waiving my hand as though in a classroom. “I do. I do.”

Prax arched an eyebrow in my direction. “Who’s getting healed here?”

“Okay, don’t get testy. You’re the one who wanted me to stay you know.”

“I didn’t know you were a know-it-all.”

“Ladies,” Yu Pan interrupted. I think we both felt sufficiently reprimanded.

“Well, I think the guy was pretty stupid in the first place to want to move a mountain,” Prax said.

Yu Pan took a breath that appeared very much like a sigh. “Perhaps we should hear what Selene thinks, after all.”

“Figures I’d get it wrong.”

“There is no right or wrong,” Yu Pan said. “Some people grasp things as though quite obvious while others need to see things from another angle in order to understand. Selene, what can you add to Táifëng’s comprehension of the story?”

“Well, I thought it was sort of like when you asked Prax if she kept trying after she failed at something. The old man didn’t give up, even though it was a pretty strange idea, like Prax said. He knew it probably wouldn’t even be done while he still lived, but that didn’t make him give up. He was determined to see it through.”

“Ahh, determination,” Yu Pan said. “Very good. Yes, that is definitely a principle within this story. Now, Táifëng, do you see what I speak of?”

“I think so.”

“You, however, may see different truths in the tale. Usually, people see what affects them the most. That is why there is no right or wrong answer. When you think about the story, think about its characters and why they acted the way they did, do you see any parallels in your own life?”

Prax thought about it for a few moments, and I wondered what she would say. What principles would she see beneath the surface of the story?

“I do see what you mean about determination, but when I actually think about it, well…this might not be what you’re looking for, but I think about how I’d like to change…to be different than the ass I’ve been since…well, for a while now. I don’t think it will be easy. I’ve pissed a lot of people off, hurt a lot of people lately. I don’t figure the people of this village are going to be in too much of a hurry to believe me, let alone be nice to me. I think, though, that no matter how hard it is, I should keep trying. Eventually what I want will happen if I just keep at it. Is that more like what you mean,” she asked Yu Pan.

The old man’s face lit up. “Very well done. That is exactly what I mean. Learning does not stop with my stories, Táifëng. If you desire to truly grow, to look inside of yourself and examine what you see there, you will look for these principles in all of life. The hardest part is applying them, but one who tries and succeeds develops strength and enlightenment that will change you forever.”

“Wow,” Prax said. She lowered her head and whispered her next question so softly that I barely heard. “Is that how she does it?”

“She?” Yu Pan replied. Something in his face told me that he already knew who Prax meant.

She acted as though she didn’t want to say. As if speaking the name would affect her somehow. I honestly had no idea of whom Prax had been thinking until her next words clarified.

“Her…Gabrielle.”

Yu Pan smiled as he often did when speaking of Gabrielle. “My nüér is my greatest pupil. She has made personal growth and the understanding of her own motivations a life’s work,” he remarked, pride apparent in his tone.

“What did you call her?”

“Ahh, forgive. Nüér…it means daughter in the language of my people.”

“She’s your daughter?” Prax’s eyes went wide.

“The daughter of my heart, although not of my body. Perhaps one day she will tell you the story of how we met. She has far surpassed my skill in the art of storytelling.”

Prax snorted. “I don’t see us sitting down and becoming close to soon. I kind of closed that door in a big way if you know what I mean.”

“That is because you are only looking out from where you sit right now. With enlightenment comes the ability to see further ahead, in many direction from numerous perspectives.”

“You don’t understand. She and I…I’ve done some pretty awful things to her, said some things that I can’t forget. It wasn’t until last night that I saw things…differently. It made me see that I’ve treated her worse than I’ve acted toward any enemy I could ever have and yet, she never gave in to anger. She’s only shown me constant compassion.”

It surprised me to hear Prax even mention Gabrielle’s name, let alone to hear such regret in her voice. I suspected that my sister in law had gained another admirer, even if Prax didn’t really realize it yet. I was dying to know what had happened to her last evening to affect such a change in her.

“As I said, Gabrielle is my greatest student. I have shared much of my knowledge with her and yet that is still only a jot of what she has yet to learn,” Yu Pan said.

“Did you teach her how to fight, too?” Prax gave a small half smile and lifted one bandaged hand.

“That, too.”

“Then you must be damn good ’cause she sure beat the stuffing out of me.”

Yu Pan simply smiled. Xena had told me not to underestimate the old man. She said that he had beaten her in hand-to-hand sparring matches on more than one occasion. I wondered how such a frail looking old man could have managed that, but after seeing the way my tiny sister in law had fought, I took it at face value.

“Speaking of…” Yu Pan said as he rose from his chair and sat on the bed beside Prax. “Let us see what we can accomplish today. We have much to do, and I do not feel as though either of us has the strength to do it in one sitting.” He began by gently pulling open Prax’s fingers from the river rock they grasped.

“I forgot I was still holding it.”

At first, Yu Pan looked like every other Healer I had ever seen work. He touched the injured areas of Prax’s arm. She had some pretty nasty bruises on her upper arm and shoulder, her wrist was broken, and three fingers on that same hand had been broken. Her fingers didn’t look that bad, but her wrist was so swollen that it looked to be about the same thickness as her upper arm, which was pretty big because of the muscles there.

I noticed that Prax never even flinched as Yu Pan’s discerning touch continued. Continuing to watch the examination, I simply tucked myself back into the corner chair and tried to remain silent. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I felt that something…well, something magical was going to take place. I know that probably sounds silly. Maybe you had to be there to understand.

Yu Pan took the rock and held it between both palms. He closed his eyes, and moments later I saw him smile. He nodded his head, opening his eyes.

“Very good. We shall begin,” he said.

I cannot say if Yu Pan touched Prax’s limb in some special way, but it looked as though he rubbed the smooth river pebble along all of the injured areas. Prax looked just as confused as me, so I didn’t feel too bad.

“It feels kind of better,” Prax said after some time had passed. “Can you actually heal broken bones that fast?”

Yu Pan took a few silent moments before answering. It was if he had been in a trance of some kind. I noticed that all of a sudden, he looked slightly more tired than he had before he started. A light sheen of sweat now covered his brow. He took the stone in hand again and concentrated his touch along Prax’s swollen wrist.

“Most people don’t understand the connection that the body has with the mind,” Yu Pan explained as he worked. “They think that if they cut their finger, they must wait and in due time their body will heal itself. People don’t know how much energy, strength, and will exist within them to alter that process.”

“Do I have all that in me?”

“Everyone has the ability, but few use it, even those who do rarely use it to its fullest potential. Woefully, some learn and corrupt their knowledge, but I will not speak of them now. The body is full of energy. This energy is more powerful than any weapon. When one learns to direct their energy, take control over t and concentrate it, the possibilities are limitless.”

“Like healing broken bones fast?”

“Among other things,” he answered.

“Could someone like me learn?”

“It is not difficult to learn the way, but it can be extremely challenging to live it. Everything that has life, including your own body, has negative as well as positive energy. Being human, you have the added capability of mastering and directing your body’s energy toward good or ill. In that way, you keep the negative and positive energy flowing in a harmonious balance.

The way revolves around balance. Those who use the way, live to keep a particular harmony in their lives. It can be a daily struggle for some to temper the evil with compassion. By achieving this balance in their lives, however, they exist as a part of the entire world’s balance.”

“The world has balance?”

“Everything in nature’s cycle does. Look at the great lion that hunts down smaller creatures. If something as miniscule as a parasite should dwell in a water hole, it would destroy those smaller animals. Ultimately, the larger beasts would die out all because of a parasite that could barely be seen. It all happens in a circle…life. We are all of us, humans, animals, even the Gods themselves connected in some manner.”

“You never did say,” Prax questioned. “Do I have that ability, to be able to cure sickness…heal my bones?”

“Perhaps you should tell me,” Yu Pan answered. He sat back and motioned toward Prax’s wrist.

I noticed that the swelling had gone down considerably in only the short time Yu Pan had been speaking. Now I wished I had been watching the entire time. The old Healer’s words had captivated me so much so that I had let my eyes wander. Prax looked just as amazed, as she looked at her hand as though for the first time.

“Go slowly,” Yu Pan said. “There is still healing that needs to be done.”

“It’s amazing,” Prax responded. She flexed her fingers and cautiously rotated her wrist. How did you do it? Is it some sort of magic?”

“It was your energy which healed the bone, not mine.”

“Me, but I never—I mean I don’t—”

“You do not yet have the skills necessary to focus your energy, but I felt the raw talent there within you. Holding the rock as we spoke allowed your positive energy to seep into it. I merely used your energy and directed it to the places inside that needed healing.”

“Unbelievable,” Prax said. She looked up at Yu Pan and grinned. “If I hadn’t experienced it myself that is. I don’t get it yet, but I’m sure not going to complain or question it too much. Can we do more?” Prax asked. She looked rather excited and I couldn’t blame her.

Yu Pan looked tired and I wondered how much it took out of a person to accomplish such a healing.

“Such things are best accomplished in stages. In fact, patience will be what I would like you to focus on until we meet again,” Yu Pan said.

Prax appeared disappointed. “That’s not one of my best features…patience.”

“I know,” he answered with a cryptic smile.

Yu Pan said that he needed to retire for the evening. Prax and I both were surprised that the entire day had passed and the sun had set in the time Yu Pan had been there. I made sure Prax received a large meal before I left. She said she was ready to eat a hydra and Yu Pan said that was a good sign. Danae had mashed plenty of fruit and vegetables; shredding meat into such small pieces, that Prax would barely have to chew.

Checking first to see if Prax needed me to stay any longer, I left with Yu Pan when Prax said she was also ready for some rest. I had offhandedly picked up the stone that Yu Pan dropped to the floor before we left. I held it out to him as we walked along.

“I figure it must be pretty important to do what it did…some special healing stone with magical powers,” I said. “I think you forgot it.”

Yu Pan chucked lightly. He took the rock from my hand and casually tossed it away. “Oh, that. I just picked it up from the stream this morning.”

End Addendum by Lady Selene
Chapter 41: It Lies Not In Our Power To Love Or Hate…
I’m not sure how, or even why, I found myself standing in front of the hospice where Prax still resided. When I took the time to think about it, I supposed there were a number of reasons. Primarily, I was the one that put the girl in there. Oh, Gabrielle had beaten her up rather well, but I was the one who had tried to tear the girl’s life thread in two with my bare hands.
We had heard that Yu Pan had done very well with the girl, healing her broken wrist in one sitting. Even Gabrielle seemed rather impressed by that. I was still a little hazy about how Yu Pan actually used this energy that he and Gabrielle called the way, but I took Gabrielle’s amazement to mean things didn’t usually happen that fast. I did remember that it had taken Solan a bit longer with Yu Pan, but then again my son was very much like me…quite proud and mule-headed. Perhaps Yu Pan’s magic took longer to reach through such thick heads as ran in our family.

Yu Pan had explained that Prax had changed a great deal overnight. It was due to a visit from the Goddess Artemis, he suspected. The girl he described to Gabrielle and I, without betraying any of Prax’s confidences, took us rather by surprise. I humorously asked Yu Pan if he was sure he hadn’t been in the wrong room. He chuckled at my joke, indulging my humor as he always did.

Gabrielle smiled after speaking at length with the old Healer and I heard her mutter thanks to Athena. My silent thanks went to our patron Goddess for another reason entirely. Seeing Gabrielle at peace over Prax’s well being made me feel much relieved. She had been fretting over Prax for the last three days, since Yu Pan had initially met with the girl.

So, now I stood outside Prax’s door, listening to my sister read to the girl. Selene had changed quite a bit herself. Much more confident, she didn’t hold back in telling people about her inability to read. A disability that fast became a problem of the past as she practiced nearly every waking moment. She must have thought me a dolt to believe that was the reason why she spent so much time with Ephiny, but I left her with that fantasy.

Ephiny and I never spoke of that relationship. I suspected that it was more on Selene’s part, perhaps a schoolgirl crush. I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it, and I truly didn’t know what we would do once we left Amazonia. Someone’s heart would be breaking, of that I was sure. Then again, I believe that was part of the reason why the entire situation didn’t bother me as much as it could. I knew that shortly, Selene would be leaving with us and Ephiny would stay with her people. Cold of me, I suppose, but Selene’s welfare had become as important to me as if she had been my daughter and not my sister.

Shaking away that caravan of thought, I wondered once again what I had been doing there. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with my own feelings of sympathy for Prax or if I had simply been responding to Gabrielle’s tender heartedness. I felt as though I owed Prax at least a little something. At least some dialogue between us to show that there were no longer any hard feelings. Maybe it was selfish. Perhaps I had only been thinking of my past. Athena knows I didn’t need more Amazons hating and holding a grudge against me.

“Sounds spellbinding,” I said from the doorway.

“Hi!” Selene jumped up from her chair and met me at the door.

We embraced and she placed a kiss on my cheek.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Spying on you, of course,” I answered.

Selene laughed at my good-natured jest and slapped me in the stomach with the scroll in her hand. I grunted and wondered why all the women in my life loved to hit me there. I started to believe that I should go back to the days when I wore armor across my chest and abdomen.

I looked over at Prax. She just sat in the chair and stared at the two of us, a small bit of wonder or perhaps amusement on her face. Few people saw the Conqueror like this, and it always took them by surprise. I truly believed that most people never considered that the Conqueror might have family, as if I had just sprung from Zeus’s head like many of the other Gods.

I had no idea how to greet Prax or what sort of reception I might receive, so I simply waded right in.

“Hello, Prax.”

Again her look of surprise. I admit that part of me enjoyed placing that look on their faces.

“Um…Well met,” Prax replied.

An uncomfortable silence stretched out until Selene jumped in. “Um, I better get going. I promised…well, I’ve got some things to attend to, so—”

That quickly she said goodbye and was out the door. Prax and I looked at each other, both a little confused.

“I guess that just leaves more for us,” I said, drawing out the small wineskin I had under my vest. Tossing it into the air, Prax caught it neatly with her good hand.

“Nice grab,” I said as I sat down on the chair that Selene had recently vacated.

“Thanks, and thanks for the thought, but I don’t indulge.” Prax politely handed me the wineskin.

“At all?”

“Nope.”

I noticed her eyes never quite met mine. Wondering if she was lying or simply felt as uncomfortable as I did, I asked, “What do you indulge in?”

“Training mostly…drills, you know. At least I hope I’ll still be able to.” She turned her splinted hand over and briefly examined it.

“About that—”

“I didn’t say that for any sort of apology.”

“Good, ’cause you’re not getting one,” I answered. One more look of surprise. I figured I was about three to nothing in that regard.

“What I mean is—look, I never meant to hurt you. Well, actually I did, but not this bad.”

“Funny, it looked a lot like you wanted me dead from where I stood.”

“Point taken.” I smiled at her dry humor in spite of my attempt not to. “I guess I really was, but you have to understand that wasn’t me. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t.”

She just stared at me as though I’d been speaking another language.

“I sort of lose myself when Gabrielle is threatened.”

“The Amazons say you become a monster in battle. Is that what they’re talking about?”

“I believe it is. I suppose you’re one of a very few who are still alive after seeing my dark side directed at them.”

“Then I’ll consider myself lucky.”

“Still and all,” I began. “I’m uh…sorry about…you know.” I indicated her still splinted hand.

“Me, too—I mean being sorry for my part in the whole…you know.”

Both being warriors we apologized the only way we knew how. We each understood, and I believe that was enough.

I took a large swig of wine. “You sure?” I asked, extending the skin in her direction. I knew she was old enough.

“Positive. Can’t take the taste. Why are you drinking so early in the day?”

“I’m getting married soon…again.”

“Yea, but…I mean, you are getting married to Queen Gabrielle.”

“True, and that does make it slightly easier, but—and don’t let anyone tell you different—the marriage ceremony is not one of those things that gets easier every time you do it.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Gabrielle. It’s just the ceremony. You have to be polite and smile all day…”

“Wear uncomfortable clothes…” Prax added.

“Yea! Why is it they make fancy clothes so damned uncomfortable?”

“Guess it’s the only way we know the difference between an every day event and a ceremony,” Prax replied.

She chuckled, and I truly wondered what had happened to the Prax who had so recently tried to end my wife’s life. This certainly wasn’t her. This girl’s personality actually seemed quite agreeable.

We talked for a short while about the things two warriors will speak of; training techniques, weapons, and old battles. We hadn’t been at it long when Yu Pan appeared, basket in hand.

“Master Yu Pan.” I rose to greet the Healer and bowed slightly.

“Tong zhi zhe,” he addressed me in the more formal manner he used when we were in public.

“Tong what?” Prax asked, looking at me.

“It’s sort of a way of saying Conqueror in his language,” I answered in an evasive fashion. There had been a day when I wanted nothing more than to be known as that. With age, experience, and eventually wisdom, I grew embarrassed by the arrogant desire. Yu Pan never used it to demean, however. I truly believe it was his way of paying respect. After all, no matter how I did it, I had achieved something that no other man or woman had ever done.

“As close as your language comes,” Yu Pan explained, “It would mean ruler of the world.”

I was glad then when Yu Pan changed the subject quickly, or rather pulled the light away from me with his next words. “You have learned no Chinese yet, Táifeng?” Yu Pan asked.

“Not yet, but now that I know someone who speaks it…” She looked at me again.

I smiled at the name Yu Pan had bestowed upon Prax. I wondered what she would think once she realized what it meant for it was obvious that Yu Pan hadn’t yet told her. “To be honest, I only know enough to get me by. Gabrielle is quite fluent, however.”

“Oh,” Prax answered.

I could tell from her expression and the tone of her voice that she would have enjoyed confronting snake-haired Medusa slightly more than going face to face with Gabrielle again. Was it shame she felt or fear?

“Well, I better get out of here, so you two can—”

“Do you have to go?” Prax interrupted to ask.

That surprised me, but Yu Pan didn’t blink.

“I—um I—” I had never sounded more confident or eloquent. Why would Prax want me of all people to stay with her during Yu Pan’s treatment? The old Healer couldn’t possibly frighten her. He was as gentle and understanding as anyone alive.

“If you have stuff to do, though, I understand,” Prax said to my confused stammering.

I saw it then in her eye. Yu Pan didn’t actually frighten her; rather it was simply the fear itself. Her expression, childlike and apprehensive, easily explained it. For all Prax’s misdeeds, attitude, and bluster, I had forgotten that underneath it all, she was still more child than adult. Perhaps the expression was so easy to identify because the girl reminded me a great deal of myself at that age, so much anger, and no knowledge of how to manage it.

It was a child’s fear of the unknown that I saw in her face. I certainly didn’t know what help I could lend, but if my mere physical presence was what Prax desired, then it was the least I could do.

“Hey, I’m the Conqueror, right?” I replied. “I can do whatever I want to do.”

“Great!” Prax replied.

Her response sounded relieved, and I hoped Yu Pan didn’t take offense. He welcomed me to sit, however, with his customary smile and good grace. If it had not been for his Far Eastern features, anyone would have believed he truly was Gabrielle’s father, so alike were the two of them. I was certain that if he didn’t want me there, he wouldn’t have hesitated to tell me so.

“Shall we all have some tea first?” Yu Pan asked.

We all agreed and I smiled. The old Healer never did anything without drinking tea beforehand. He seemed to have a never ending supply of herbs and powders, and no two cups of the brew ever tasted the same to me.

Yu Pan went about brewing the tea. I sat by the window, out of the way. He spoke to Prax, telling her some interesting stories about his homeland. Listening to his words caused my mind’s eye to envision the great mountains and open, sweeping plains of Chin once again.

When we were nearly finished with our hot drinks, Yu Pan reached into his basket and pulled out a small bundle. It looked as though the outer wrap consisted of banana leaves. Opening the package, he held it out, offering me the contents. I looked inside and murmured a sound of joy.

Taking one, I nodded. “I can’t remember the last time I had one of these. It must be at least twenty summers.”

“What is it?” Prax asked. She had politely taken one, but then sniffed tentatively at the edible object in her hand.

“Lotus root,” I replied. “When it’s sugared like this it tastes better than any sweet treat Greece has to offer.”

Yu Pan nibbled on his own piece of candy. “The lotus plant grows in the lakes and ponds of Chin. Floating atop the water is its beautiful flower, sometimes pink, sometimes white. The root is shaped like a large bulb, but when it is sliced, as these are…” He held up a slice so that the light shone through the nearly translucent fruit. “We call them candied flowers.”

It was true. The thin, round slices had holes all the way around the edge, with one hole directly in the center. They did appear to be flat flowers. I had previously tasted them raw in salads and even in the occasional cooked dish. The lotus root was a pale cream color, but these candied versions were a dull orange. Very tasty. I would have to remember to convince Delia into purchasing some if they could be found in Corinth.

My mind had wandered with my own thoughts, and I came back to the present when Yu Pan stood before Prax, examining her hand. Prax grimaced. I knew the very act of clenching her teeth in pain must have caused an additional ache in her broken jaw. In fact, once Yu Pan had removed the splints and bandages on Prax’s hand, he ran his fingers along the line of her jaw. He pressed a few spots on her throat, then around her ear.

“This is quite interesting, Táifeng.”

“Interesting good or interesting bad?” Prax asked.

“A very good thing. I believe that we can do something about your jaw very easily. Are you bothered by needles?”

“Needles?” Suddenly Prax looked anxious.

“It will not hurt at all, but it is a way of healing that I realize you are unfamiliar with.”

He went to his basket and removed a roll of something. It turned out to be a split bamboo mat, rolled up tightly. He released the ribbon that held it closed and unrolled it upon the bed where Prax sat. Her eyes went wide at the sight of the many long, thin metal needles.

“You’re gonna stick those in my face?”

“No, I will insert them in spots along your neck and shoulders. Do not fear, oftentimes, it is the fear of the unknown that is more frightening than any battle. I will tell you exactly what I plan to do.”

So, Yu Pan did understand why Prax had asked me to stay. I should have known.

“I don’t know…” Prax said.

“It is, of course, your decision, Táifeng, but let me say, what we conjure in our mind far surpasses reality. In fact, nothing ever hurts quite so much as our imagination tells us it will.”

Prax visibly swallowed, and I felt the need to enter into the conversation. “It really doesn’t hurt at all, Prax. I’ve had insect bites that felt worse.”

“You’ve had this done, then?”

“It’s been a long time, but yes, I have. Believe me when I say, I felt no pain at all during the procedure. Besides, you can trust Master Yu Pan.”

Prax was silent for a moment. I could see that she did not want to appear the coward. That was the warrior in her. She looked up at Yu Pan, who waited patiently beside the bed. How could anyone look into this man’s eyes and not have confidence in him?

Obviously, Prax was not one of them. “I do trust you, Master,” she said sincerely.

Yu Pan lightly placed a deceptively frail looking hand over Prax’s injured one. “I will do nothing to cause you to feel as though your faith in me has been misplaced. May I sit here?” he asked, as he indicated a spot next to her on the bed.

Prax nodded.

“I said that I would tell you everything I planned to do. First, Táifeng, we need to discuss aspects of the way, of which we have not yet spoken. In the last session we experienced together, energy itself was enough to begin to heal your broken body and spirit. The more extensive the body’s hurts, however, the more complex the healing must be. Energy, even a strong and youthful energy such as yours, will not be enough to heal all your physical injuries let alone the hurt that I feel exists in here…” Yu Pan pointed at Prax’s heart. “And here,” he added, pointing to her head.

Prax straightened her posture, indicating a somewhat more confident appearance. “I’m a quick study, Master. Tell me, what must I do?”

Yu Pan looked pleased. “Very Good.” Once more, he opened up his basket and pulled out a large, flat seashell. He quickly set a good amount of herbs to smoking inside the shell. He fanned the wisps of grayish green smoke with one hand, and the entire room soon became filled with a pleasantly clean, lemony odor.

“The energy that you used previously to heal yourself, the energy that I harnessed and directed for you is called Qi to those who understand the way. Everyone’s Qi is subtly different, but to all it exists as your vital energy, your life force. It flows through you at all times.

The herb that I now burn is actually a process that, in your tongue, means moxibustion. That term is used because the herb is called moxa. The Etruscans call it artemisia vulgaris, but I believe that here in Greece, Healers know it as mugwort.”

“You make it sound as though it’s rather special,” Prax commented.

“It is, at least for what we shall attempt first today. The burning moxa can affect the flow of one’s Qi. It is especially effective in combination with the needles I shall use.”

“How will I know if it’s working? I mean…when does it take affect?”

“It is not if. It simply does.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember when we spoke of balance and harmony within our lives?”

“Yes. You said that Gabrielle is so good at living the way because she works so hard to achieve a balance of all things in her life.”

“Quite right. The idea of balance is something we take from nature. Just as mortal beings strive to live their lives in pairs, so too does the concept of pairs exist in nature. The night has the day, the water has fire, and just as the moon and the sun live in perfect harmony, the light and the dark balance one another. We call this harmony among pairs of opposites yin and yang, two halves that combine to make a whole.

Healing your broken wrist was merely teaching you to encourage your body to realize its own ability to heal itself. It makes no sense for a Healer to treat a hurt, however, without also treating the cause of such hurt. The method that I use to heal is fu zheng. It requires supporting the body, giving it the tools it needs, in order for it to treat the cause.”

“So, I’m going to heal myself?”

“In a manner of speaking. Your part will be to work to put your body into a position where it can do this healing.”

“And your needles will help my body do this?”

“Indeed. I cannot do it all, but I will give you a start. It will be very hard work, Táifeng, and you will only go as far as you believe you can.”

“Pretty strong words.”

“It is a very powerful concept.”

“So, where do we start?”

“We will work on the most basic concept first. Your Qi is most important, but I feel as though it has become…for lack of a better word…blocked. The reason I do not yet understand.”

“Can you…un-block it?” Prax asked.

Yu Pan smiled at Prax’s description. “I suppose blocked may have been the wrong term. Right now, we will call it more of a redirection.”

“I’m ready when you are…I guess.”

Yu Pan had Prax remove her top and wrap a sheet around her torso. I assisted her while the old Healer politely stood with his back to us. I grinned, and Prax merely shrugged in his direction, smiling up at me. Yes, she was like me in many regards. She didn’t have any idea why Yu Pan would act in such a noble way.

Prax carefully cradled her broken hand in her lap. I placed a pillow there and it seemed to have helped immensely. She sat in the chair beside her bed, Yu Pan standing behind her. Just as he had promised, he explained everything he did.

He initially wiped her skin with moistened leaves that smelled rather medicinal like eucalyptus. I had seen the procedure, even had it used on me, but my one weakness would forever be having sharp pointy things stuck in my skin. A shiver ran up my spine, and I thanked Athena that Prax couldn’t see my face from where she sat facing the window.

“If you feel any more pain than a momentary pressure, please say so, Táifeng.”

“When will you start?” Prax asked.

“I have already begun,” Yu Pan answered.

Prax turned her head slightly to see three of the slender metal needles sticking out of the top of her shoulder. “Whoa. I never even felt it.”

“Once the dam is broken and we are able to direct the flow of your Qi to the correct parts of your body, you will experience an initial rush of power. It is not something that you will necessarily feel instantly, but your body will reap the benefits. I believe that this preliminary discharge of energy will be enough to accelerate the healing of your injured jawbone.”

“I’m all for that. Does that mean I’ll be able to eat real food again?”

Yu Pan chuckled as he worked. “If all goes well today, I believe that by morning you might eat what you desire. You will be sore for this is no miracle we perform only acceleration.”

“You’re amazing, Master Yu Pan.”

“I thank you, my Táifeng. You should give yourself recognition also. Remember that it is your Qi. I merely act as a intermediary.”

“Can I…Can I ask you a question?” Prax looked almost embarrassed, so I pretended to be concerned with something outside the window.

“Of course,” Yu Pan replied.

A deafening silence echoed through the room for a few tedious moments. Whatever Prax wanted to know, she was having a rather difficult time expressing it.

“It’s about the pain—”

“So sorry, have I injured you?” Yu Pan quickly apologized, evidently thinking that his needles had caused some hurt.

“No, it’s not now. It’s—I mean I…” Prax sighed and decided to start again. “You said before about the pain I had in my…in my heart.” She self-consciously looked down at the hand in her lap. “You said that you could heal the pain there just like here.” Prax indicated her injured hand. “Is that true?”

“Is that what you wish?”

“I guess I want the hurt to go away, but I don’t know how to make it happen. Seems the harder I try to forget about what happened to Timara the angrier I become at the people responsible.” She lowered her head once more. “Or who I thought were responsible.”

“Perhaps I can help you help yourself.” Yu Pan carefully cleaned his needles as he spoke. He replaced them in their rolled bamboo container. “How does your jaw feel?” He asked, probing the line from Prax’s cheekbone down to her chin.

“It actually doesn’t feel bad. In fact, I can’t feel much here at all.” Prax reached up to touch her chin. “Sort of numb. Is something wrong?”

“Not at all. It is not unusual for a sudden burst of energy, Qi, to temporarily deaden the nerve endings in the affected area.”

“Oh, okay. And about the other?” Prax asked.

I wasn’t certain whether Prax spoke of her hand or the inner healing with which Yu Pan had promised to assist her.

“Let me explain the method we shall use next. After the explanation, I shall tell you a story.”

“Okay.”

“I have spoken of Qi, of how it is in everyone as their life force. I have directed your Qi for you in order to heal your body, but I cannot do that for your inner body.”

“But you said—”

Yu Pan held up a hand. “I cannot, but you can. I can teach you to enhance your Qi, to direct it to specific areas. You see, Qi is generated in the mind and produced through breathing. When you learn the secrets to this special breathing, you learn the secrets to harnessing your Qi and using it to your benefit. Manipulating your Qi, modifying its flow in this way is Qigong.”

“I can do all this just by breathing?” Prax asked.

“Some use breathing techniques to manipulate their Qi, others use exercise, and still others access the power through meditation. With any one of these techniques, you can produce much stronger healing effects than by simply directing your Qi to certain areas of your body. So strong, in fact, that you can achieve the healing that you desire.”

“Then that’s what I want to learn.”

“It is not simple. The instruction is easy, but Qigong requires commitment and discipline. It cannot be taught for one instance, rather it is a way of life. It becomes a way of living and thinking, even a way of doing battle. You must be prepared to live the way if you desire to learn. If you are not ready to make such a commitment, then perhaps we should look to another healing method, one that is slower and requires less dedication.”

“I guess I don’t know what to say,” Prax said.

“The choice is yours, and I will be glad to assist however you decide. Even if you do choose to follow the way, it will take many more sessions together in order to teach you the fundamentals. Relax and listen to this story. Allow your decision to wait until morning, after you’ve had time to think about it. Speak with your family and get a night’s rest before you choose. Yes?”

“Sure, I guess so. Yea, okay, maybe that’s best,” Prax answered, uncertain at first, but then suddenly sounding more confident. “I’ll talk to my mom tonight.”

“A very good idea. Listen well to your mother’s words. She very well may have a wisdom that you have previously overlooked.”

“I will, Master Yu Pan. Thank you.”

“Would you mind if I lit my pipe?” Yu Pan asked us.

“Not at all,” we both answered.

“I always tell stories better when I smoke,” he said.

I had often caught the old man sitting alone, puffing on the long stemmed pipe. The tobacco always smelled sweet like fruit.

“I will tell you a true story, Táifeng. One that I feel will have special significance for you. There was a young Greek girl, a very talented, exceptional child. Due to the Fates taking a hand in her life, perhaps rather unfairly, she suffered much adversity. There wasn’t an abuse or an indignity that she hadn’t experienced.

Through it all, however, she kept her faith, faith in her Gods, as well as in herself. For she knew, deep in her heart, that great things were to come her way. It wasn’t something she was always consciously aware of, more like a feeling. It would invade her dreams at night, but she never spoke of it to anyone. She realized that she would have to suffer these indignities to stay alive. If she could simply stay alive long enough, her lot in life would surely change.

Even as an adult, the young woman’s lot in life didn’t change much. She had no family to protect her, so men used her and then tossed her away. There was one particularly damaging event in her life. A group of men raped her so brutally that she was quite near death when I found her. Being that she had such a strong heart, however, she went through the healing process quicker than most and eventually learned the way.

Her desire to live the way changed not only her outer abilities, but it slowly altered her inner self, as well. In time, she began to see a change that she had not anticipated. There still existed that same old feeling that she was meant for something great, but this was different. Soon, she developed a compassion that was greatly beyond what people normally felt. Everyday this compassion grew until she could show no contempt for any man, even those who wronged her.

Then came a day that would change her life, for many reasons. What stood out most was what happened when she once more ran into the men who had raped her. She recognized them, but in their drunken state, they never became aware of her. She had a choice, perhaps the biggest in her young life.

You see, she had come to be an amazing student of the way, her skills perhaps rivaling my own. She most certainly held the ability to send each of these men to the land of death. I do not know her mind, but I can guess that it was an agonizing decision.”

Yu Pan paused in his story and I realized it had grown quite late in the day, so engrossed were we in his tale. He went to the fire grate and tapped his now cold pipe, removing the tobacco. He slowly and deliberately packed away all his belongings.

“Well,” Prax said. “What happened? Did she kill them? They damn well deserved it.”

“No, Táifeng, she chose to live the principles of the way. She left the men as she had found them, never the wiser about her having been in the same room.”

“Surely the Gods owed her a bit of revenge?” Prax asked. I could hear a touch of anger in her voice. There wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t have understood taking revenge for such an act.

“True, but she chose instead to act in such a way where she could live with herself. She adhered to perhaps the greatest principle of the way.”

“Which is?” Prax asked.

“It lies not in our power to love or hate.”

“I’m not sure I get it.”

“On it’s face, it does confuse, but when you look deeper, the meaning is revealed. Mortals are not Gods. We do not see all; know all. It is only for the immortals, who possess great foresight, to have the power to judge. Many people who deserve love receive only ill, and there are many who deserve no more than our contempt, yet they achieve all they desire. Now, my Táifeng, are you wise enough to decide who will receive love and who will not?”

“No, not when you put it that way.”

Yu Pan smiled, his point made. He prepared to leave, but Prax had one last thing to say.

“I know who the girl in the story was and why you told me, Master Yu Pan.”

“Oh?” Yu Pan answered.

“Yea. The girl was me, right? You’re saying that I should learn to forgive the people I think are responsible for Timara’s death, and then I’ll be able to heal inside. Right?”

Yu Pan smiled, but it was a rather sad smile. “I must go now. I am quite tired.” He bowed to me and I rose out of respect. He turned to look back at Prax.

“I thought you knew. The girl in the story was my best student…Gabrielle, your Queen.”

He walked out after that, leaving Prax and I just staring at one another.
Chapter 42: Sweet Chance That Led My Steps Abroad…
I sat down heavily; never even suspecting that Yu Pan spoke of Gabrielle in his tale. Shouldn’t I have guessed it immediately? No, the tale was similar to the unfortunate tales of hundreds of young women I had heard of throughout the Empire, and Yu Pan told his tale in such a way that the girl could have been any of them. Since I had known nothing about Gabrielle’s chance meeting with her attackers, it became even more of a surprise.
I had nearly forgotten that Prax was in the room with me until she spoke. “Was that true, Conqueror…the things he said?”

“Yes,” I answered in a distracted fashion. Why didn’t Gabrielle ever tell me about meeting up with the brigands who had raped her? Was it one of those things that she had no memory of because of one of Yu Pan’s spells?

I looked up to find Prax staring at me with the oddest expression.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I answered her again.

“And all the other stories they tell, are they true as well? You know…the bad things, too?” She spoke softly. I was uncertain if it was because she feared the answer or feared me.

“I expect most of them are. Now maybe you can understand why I’m a little overprotective of her.”

She nodded her head and we sat in the stillness of the room for a long while, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I had no idea what she was thinking, but Prax’s expression grew gloomier as the moments passed.

“I had no idea.” Prax looked down thoughtfully at the hands lying in her lap. ” She truly is an incredible woman, isn’t she?”

“You have no idea,” I replied. “She’s led an inordinately hard life, but you’d never know it to speak with her. I don’t believe that I’ve ever once known her to give in to self-pity.”

“Do you—do you think that’s what I’ve done…pity myself?” she asked with her head still bowed. There was no hint of animosity in her voice, no defensive tone. Actually, I thought I heard a measure of defeat there.

A fortnight ago, I would have easily answered in the affirmative. Just now, I was no longer certain. My own conversion had been gradual, but this girl had encountered some sort of change in a matter of days. There was also a big difference in our ages. I thought on what she had suffered in one so young, trying to remember the tumultuous feelings and innumerable emotions I myself had experienced at a similar age.

Age had a great deal to do with how intensely Prax had felt Timara’s loss. I knew from the limited amount of time that Selene and I had been together that these girls felt everything so deeply, especially love. It was life and death to them, as though they would never find or experience something like they had with their former love. They usually did, though.

I don’t know…would I say that if it were Gabrielle and I? No, life and love had taken on much different meanings, as I had grown older. Had the emotions changed, the world, or merely me? No, I was definitely different. The chance of my ever finding love again, let alone someone such as Gabrielle, dwindled to a mere thread compared to these young girls who would probably fall in love time and again before their soulmate came along.

I became afraid that my silence had depressed Prax even further. I suddenly felt the need to explain. I took a deep breath. “I was just thinking of my own life and how lucky I’ve been to find love at my age. It may not be easy for you to hear right now, Prax, but you will love again. I’m certain of it, but the older you get without opening up your heart again, the slimmer your chances become.”

She looked up at me and I thought I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes.

“And the answer to your question is no, I don’t think you’ve given in to self pity. That’s not to say I condone any of your actions, but…well, I guess I can see how you were led to them. Keep your eyes on where you’re going and not on where you’ve been and you should make it all right. I think the important thing now is that you realize where you went wrong, and you seem like you’re making a pretty good effort to change.”

“Will people see that do you think?”

“The people who matter will. Why don’t you get some rest? I’ll stop by tomorrow if you’d like.”

“Yes, please. Thanks…for everything. I don’t deserve it.”

I winked at her before I left. “Few warriors ever do, so don’t feel too special.” I grinned until she smiled back and then left her.

I met Lexa outside the hospice and we chatted for a moment. I shook my head as I walked away. I had rarely seen two women change so much in so little time. I, of all people, knew that with a little encouragement they would each do well on their new paths.

hhhh{gggg
I walked into the quarters that had become our Amazon home. Gabrielle sat in a large chair, one that made her look as small as the sleeping child she held in her arms. Amira didn’t hear a thing as I slipped in beside the two. Gabrielle nestled her warm body against me and I pulled her close.

“Don’t tell me you and Ephiny have been working out all this time?” she asked.

I chuckled. “I admit I wasn’t in the mood for it today. We stopped much sooner than Ephiny would have liked.”

“And you still won’t tell me what you’re up to?”

“Such a common expression.” I looked at her with an expression of mock disgust on my face.

“Very amusing. I understand.”

“Of course, you could show me your wedding dress and I’ll tell you my secret.”

“You know very well that Satena would have my skin for that. All this Amazon tradition,” she mumbled sleepily as she shook her head against my shoulder. “Six more days and it will all be over.”

“Six? I thought it was three days away?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I could have sworn I did. I’m sorry, love, but I was informed that three days was simply not enough time for certain, politically important, ambassadors to arrive.”

“This sounds vaguely familiar.”

“Do you really listen when I talk?” she asked, nudging me in the ribs.

“Yes, all except for those time when my eyes start to glaze over. Then you’re taking a risk.”

She chuckled and kissed my cheek, settling back against me. “Gods, this wedding is turning into a coliseum event.”

“I agree. Any way we could have a couple look-alikes stand in for us and we run away to Crete or something?”

“Ooh, don’t tempt me.”

“We’ll have to think about leaving for home soon after the ceremony. Harvest is almost here and the rains will start another two moons after that. We don’t want to be traveling in that.”

“As much as I love these people and will miss your mother’s company, I do miss our home.”

I smiled. “I didn’t realize you felt that way about Corinth. You don’t know how that makes me feel.” I couldn’t speak again without first swallowing the lump that had formed in my throat. How I had longed to share my life and the estate in Corinth with my Queen. I never believed it would happen.

“Actually, and this might sound silly to you, but Corinth is really the only home I’ve ever known. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, Xena…a home, family…love.”

“And you have them all, little one, of that I can assure you.” I wished I could say more, but words always seemed to abandon me at such times. I kissed her instead, attempting to give her a hint at the depth of my feelings. As always, she understood what I could not verbalize.

We sat there, snuggled against one another and listening to Amira’s childlike snores. Gabrielle suddenly remembered what she had asked in the first place.

“So, where have you been all this time, or shouldn’t I ask?”

“You’ll never guess,” I replied. I quickly related what had happened with Prax and Yu Pan, omitting Yu Pan’s story of her. I figured that if she had never told me of the event that there was no sense in bringing up the why of it just then. It would keep until we returned home.

“Then I took a small walk before coming here. I needed to think about…things.”

“Oh?” She raised her head, looking worried.

I quickly gave her arm a squeeze. “Nothing like that.”

I kissed her forehead and, once again, wondered in amazement at her complete trust in me. All I had to do was assure her with a few words that my concern lay in matters other than our relationship. As if proving me correct, she relaxed against me once more.

“I was thinking about when we first met. Sort of in awe at the way the Fates finally chose to bring us together. Looking back on it, I can see the Godly intervention.”

“Just because you decided to go to Ambracia?”

“Exactly. We’ve never really had time enough to speak of it, but I was quite unhappy then.”

“I do remember that,” she added. “I remember thinking that I had never met a woman so filled with sadness.”

“You saw that? Gods above, whatever attracted you to that?”

She nodded. “You appeared to be trying so hard to change. How could I not have fallen in love with you?”

I smiled at her reply, staring into the candle on the table before us. The wick sputtered against the melted wax, and the action caused shadows to scamper across the walls of the room.

“I don’t think I even knew that change was what I wanted. Everything bored me. Even the things that I had loved in the past, riding, sailing, sparring brought me no joy at all.”

Gabrielle took my hand in hers and stroked the rough flesh. I looked down at her perfectly manicured hand as compared to mine. Fine white scars crisscrossed the knuckles of my blade hand from season after season of holding a sword. They looked so different lying there together, so completely opposite, a perfect example of Gabrielle and I.

“I don’t even like to think about what would have happened if I hadn’t gone abroad when Ambracia called for the Empire’s assistance. I would have missed our last chance to meet one another.”

“Have you forgotten the perseverance of Athena and Artemis to bring our lives back to our original fate?”

“You have more faith in them than I do.”

“I hardly think it requires a great amount. They’ve proved twice over that they wanted us together all along.”

“Even they couldn’t have bent my will if I hadn’t allowed it,” I answered.

“You sound as if—what are you saying, Xena?” She sounded disconcerted now, perhaps even frightened. That was the last thing I wanted to put her through, but I thought it important that she should know.

“I’ve never told you this before, but when I left for Ambracia, I didn’t intend to return.”

“Where did you plan to go?” she asked. We had never spoken of this. Gabrielle hadn’t any true idea of the depth of my melancholy back then.

“To Tartarus, I suppose. I don’t mean to scare you, love, that’s not my intention, but you should know that I had every intention of dying in battle.”

“Was it a premonition, something like that?”

“No, little one. It was a wish. In fact, I placed myself in every certain death situation I could find, but either those damned pirates were that bad or I was that good. Maybe Hades simply refused to take me that day.”

“I—I ‘m not sure what to say, Xena. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry? For what?”

“Because you had to go through that pain alone. I wish I could have done something to help.”

“My love, you did. That’s what I’m trying to say, and I don’t mean just by offering me pleasure. I know you always look on this as though I saved your life, but really just the opposite is true. You truly did save me.”

“From what?” She looked up at me in disbelief.

“From myself,” I answered. “I wanted…well, I guess I wanted you to know how much you mean to me, how much our love means. Maybe I don’t say it as often as you’d like, and even though the words tend to get jumbled in my brain before they make it to my tongue, I feel them just as strongly as you.”

“If I ever doubted that, I certainly don’t any longer. Xena, for the past few moons, you’ve suffered humiliation, heartache, and pain just to see my wishes fulfilled. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of. It’s not so much that you saved my life as you’ve given me one.”

We kissed. A gentle, slow kiss. Of course, just about the time when I thought about whisking the woman off to bed and taking that kiss a little further, Amira stirred in Gabrielle’s arms, opening up sleepy green eyes.

“I better get you in bed,” Gabrielle said, looking down at the child. Gabrielle reached down and kissed the tip of Amira’s nose, which made the girl smile and giggle.

I sighed inwardly, wishing Gabrielle’s words had been directed toward me. I was trying to be patient, but the quick lovemaking we’d had time for lately left much to be desired in the quantity area. Another reason I longed to be back in Corinth.

I understood that having Amira would change our lives. Even I knew that children would do that. Gabrielle had assured me that once we were back home, in familiar surroundings and without the constant trials we had experienced of late, our spontaneous passion would return. The stress of our most recent situation and scenarios had left the both of us slightly bereft of ardor. Even now, at this very moment, I had the inclination, but not the stamina. Climax sounded wonderful, but sadly enough, so did the thought of a soft bed. The Conqueror had finally become a family woman.

Gabrielle gave me an understanding look before standing and pulling Amira up with her.

“Xena goes, too,” Amira cried out, wiggling the fingers of her outstretched hand in my direction.

“I think she means she wants you to come tuck her in, too,” Gabrielle explained to my confused expression.

“Oh.” I quickly rose. “Here, hand that bundle to me.” I took the child from Gabrielle.

“I think she’s grown an inch in the fortnight we’ve been here,” she said, rubbing the muscles in her forearms.

We tucked Amira into bed. She was nearly asleep again. Gabrielle surprised me by already knowing the way Amira liked her blankets tucked around her feet, the window open a fraction, and her doll, Yu Pan’s present, lying beside her. I wondered if I would ever pick up such details.

We silently walked from the room, but just as I began to close the door, Amira’s eyes popped open.

“Not all the way,” she called out.

“Like this?” I asked, looking back at Gabrielle, then turning toward Amira and leaving the door ajar.

“Little more…little more…nope, too much. Okay, that’s it. Jess right,” she said at last after I had opened and closed the door by small increments for quite some time. She made it all worth it with her next words, however.

“I love you, Mama.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart” Gabrielle returned, tossing a kiss in the air to her daughter.

There was a miniscule pause. “Love you, Xena,” her voice called out at me from the semi-darkened room.

There it was. Small words, yet ones with a massive price attached. Once I said them, I could never take them back. It was the first moment, since all this had begun, that I finally realized I had a daughter, too. And yes, my life would never be the same again.

“I love you, too, Princess,” I replied.

hhhh{gggg

We stood gathered in the large open space of the community hall, everyone that would play a part in our upcoming wedding. The room was a flurry of activity as people rushed in to ask questions, take clothing measurements, and at the same time, a group of women worked to make the room capable of handling the large variety of wedding guests. Their centaur neighbors became a particular concern for the builders considering a centaur’s size.

Most of us still had no idea what we were supposed to do, but I figured I had it rather easy. The clue was to watch Gabrielle, do everything she did, try not to knock over anything important on the stage, and answer yes to every question the priestess, Satena, asked.

“Is there something…um…wrong with her?” Satena finally asked Gabrielle.

I watched as Gabrielle covered her face with one hand, her cheeks turning pink. Her embarrassment was evident, but she couldn’t help the smile that tugged mercilessly at the corners of her mouth. Everyone in the room turned toward the youngest member of the wedding party.

We stood there looking at Amira. They had once more attempted to clothe her like the princess she was. She looked lovely with one exception. She fidgeted and scratched in places I had seen a soldier only touch in private. Indeed, she had begun to look as though she had some sort of itching ailment.

I felt for her. The poor girl looked about as unhappy and uncomfortable as one girl could. Gabrielle had asked Amira to be in the wedding and the girl agreed thinking it would be fun. I think she was still waiting for the fun part. I expect that, as a youngster, her surrogate parents had allowed her to run around in what she cared to wear. Coming to the Amazons, she must have thought she was in heaven. Many of these women wore as little as possible, especially during the sweltering summers.

Gabrielle sighed. She attempted to explain to Satena that Amira hadn’t yet grown accustomed to fine clothing. The priestess looked unconvinced as Amira scratched again.

“Amira, come here, sweetheart,” Gabrielle said. She knelt down beside the girl.

“I’m sorry, Mama.” She apologized before Gabrielle had a chance to say anything. How like me.

“Why are you sorry?” Gabrielle asked, attacking the problem with her customary patience.

“Don’t know, but everyone was looking at me, so I guess I’m in trouble again.”

Yes, very much like me. I felt even more sorry for her.

“Honey, it’s okay.” Gabrielle lifted Amira into her arms and stood. “I know how uncomfortable these clothes make you. Would you rather not be in the wedding?”

“No! I wanna be, but this dress…it itches, Mama.” Amira tried to whisper the last, but as with any child, everyone in the room heard her whisper.

Gabrielle sighed again and looked to me for help. I was afraid that would happen.

“Um, we could let her wear something else I guess,” I suggested.

“Yes, yes!” Amira wiggled around in Gabrielle’s arms.

“I suppose,” Gabrielle answered, looking unsure. “It would still have to be something nice, Amira.”

“Could I have armor like yours, with the coins all sewed together?”

“Well, that would be nice, but I’m afraid we haven’t the time to create something like that. The ceremony is tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Amira answered sadly.

“We’ll make it something nice and comfortable, though. I promise.”

“It won’t be itchy.”

“No,” Gabrielle answered, followed by an amused smile.

“And, I get to pick it out?”

“Well…” Gabrielle looked around for help, but no one seemed very willing to step into the middle of the mother-daughter moment. “Oh, all right. You can choose, but I get final say.”

“Promise?” Amira asked with a most sincere expression. I knew Gabrielle would be a goner with that look. I know I was.

“I promise,” she replied

“Excuse me, Lord Conqueror?”

Anya appeared behind me holding my new tunic. I’d expressed such an interest…well, actually, I complained so loudly the last time I had to wear it that Anya had practically redesigned it entirely. She had me try the jacket on nearly a dozen times already, checking for the perfect fit.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Anya said, holding out my jacket.

“Not at all,” I replied. Shrugging off my vest, I easily slipped into the more-comfortable-than-ever tunic. I stood still while Anya pulled on the jacket in places, smoothing it down with her hands against my back and shoulders.

Gabrielle took the time to speak with her Amazon seamstress and Ephiny, asking for any ideas. Amira, now standing beside her mother and hoping, I’m sure, that we would allow her to wear her every day leathers, hopped from foot to foot impatiently.

“Yes! Mama, that’s it…that’s it!” Amira jumped around, tugging on Gabrielle’s skirt.

“What’s it?”

“That’s what I want to wear.”

Amira pointed in my direction, and I turned to see what she was looking at. When I saw no one, I turned back to find every eye in the room on me. It was a most particularly awkward feeling, and one which I shied away from whenever possible.

“What?” I asked of no one in particular, acute paranoia settling upon me.

“I’m not sure,” Gabrielle answered.

Amira continued to jump up and down. “That’s what I want to wear. It’s nice, Mama.”

“What do you mean? You want to wear what, sweetheart?”

“I wanna wear what Xena’s wearing. Please, please, please?” She drew out the last word for about ten counts.

Gabrielle just stared at me, as my mother arched an eyebrow, making it apparent from where I’d acquired that trait. I felt distinctly uncomfortable under the scrutiny. Now, even as a young girl, I had never cared to dress in girl’s clothes, much preferring my brothers’ trousers to my own skirts. It caused some consternation with my mother, but she eventually gave in, realizing she fought a losing battle.

Early in my career as a warrior, I wore the traditional short leathers that many of the Greek and even Roman soldiers wore. As the years passed, I gave my short leathers up for leather pants and loose fitting, mostly silk, blouses. For tomorrow’s ceremony, I would wear my black leather trousers, black boots, and white blouse. Then, there was the tunic Anya had created. Could Amira actually mean that?

“What Xena is wearing?” Gabrielle finally asked.

“Uh huh,” Amira replied, still looking quite excited. “Please, Xena, please?” She ran toward me and jumped into my arms.

“I—uh—I…”

Gabrielle walked over to where we stood. “Now, sweetheart, Xena is—I mean, she can—” Gabrielle was as tongue tied as I was.

“But you promised, Mama.” Amira put on her most pitiful expression.

The look tugged at Gabrielle’s heart, something I anticipated. Whether intentional or not, Amira had successfully won the game of manipulation. After all, how were we to explain to Amira that I could wear such an outfit, but it wasn’t meant for little girls? Gabrielle looked to me once more, but all I could do was shrug.

“It is nice,” I added, perhaps a tad unconvincingly.

“Yes,” she replied slowly. “I suppose it is. But, we don’t really have enough time to—”

“If I may interrupt, Gabrielle?” Anya said.

“By all means.”

“It wouldn’t take me any time at all to accomplish such an outfit for Amira, provided that is indeed what you want,” she quickly added the last. “It would only require a few candlemarks.”

Gabrielle looked unsure, and so I decided to step up at last.

“I think it will be fine,” I said.

Gabrielle sighed in relief. She appeared simply thankful that she didn’t have to make one more decision. I kept a good grip on Amira, who squirmed with delight.

“She’ll be comfortable and look nice. Anya will see to that,” I added.

“Are you sure?” she asked of me, and I nodded.

“Well, that’s settled then, isn’t it?” Gabrielle twirled and faced the others. “Shall we continue, Satena?”

I’m sure Gabrielle would have enjoyed a little girl who liked dresses as much as she did, but it appeared that was not to be. Instead, and much to her dread, I’m sure, she ended up with a child who acted just like me. I would not have wished that upon any mother. The only consolation I could ever give my wife would be to point out that Cyrene had, somehow, survived the experience.

hhhh{gggg

“Gabrielle, did you hear me?” I asked for the third time.

We sat on our balcony enjoying some morning tea. This was to be the big day, and neither of us was in a very talkative frame of mind. I knew why I had been overcome by a case of nerves, but I couldn’t understand what kept Gabrielle so preoccupied. She usually took everything in stride, and I believed that included this, her wedding day.

“Gabrielle…Sweetheart?”

“Hhmm?” she finally answered.

I still hadn’t caught her full attention yet. I wondered where her mind was. “Oh, nothing. It’s just that I’m running away with Ephiny.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Mother’s even given us her blessing.”

“That’s good…what? You did not just say what I thought I heard.”

“Just testing you, love,” I said, chuckling at the surprised look on her face. “You looked like you were in another land.”

“I’m sorry. I suppose I was. I guess it’s just nerves.”

“We’ve done this before,” I said with a confident tone, one I didn’t actually feel myself.

“I suppose when we did this the first time I was too naïve to realize how important the whole thing was and how many eyes were on us.”

I caught the way she lowered her head to concentrate on her lap. That little move was a Gabrielle giveaway, the sign that told me she hid something from me. She could fool most people, perhaps we both could, but not one another…not now after all we’d been through.

“You’re a terrible liar, little one. What’s really bothering you?”

She looked up quickly then gave me a little half smile. “I should know better by now than to try and hide anything from you.”

“And?”

“It was a silly dream, and I don’t think it was any sort of a premonition. It was too ludicrous. I saw a little flash of something that didn’t really make any sense, but I suppose it’s just got me a little…concerned, for lack of a better word.”

“What did you see, love?” I always took Gabrielle’s dreams seriously. She had been blessed with a foresight that made itself known through dreams. More than once she had foretold events in our lives quite accurately.

“It was the oddest sort of think. All I remember is seeing my Queen’s mask and…I don’t know how to say it…well, your sword, with it’s lion head, was sticking out of my mask.”

I could have told her the truth. I knew instantly what incident she had received a premonition of. Perhaps I should have told her, but this was exactly what Ephiny and the others had been trying to avoid by not telling her. They didn’t want her to have to worry about one more thing.

“I think you’re right, little one. It was just a strange dream. Too many late nights and too much on your mind. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’ll be right beside you during the ceremony.”

“You’re right, of course.” She laughed at herself. “I should have told you right away. You always have the ability to make me feel so much better about things.”

“That’s what I’m here for, love.”

Her expression immediately became more relaxed, as I watched her pour us each another cup of tea. She had inadvertently taken a weight off my mind, however. Knowing that Gabrielle’s dreams were never just dreams, I was able to relax myself because of the scene she described. I felt rather guilty for keeping the truth from her, but it just didn’t make sense for her and Ephiny to be worried sick.
Chapter 43: There Is No Remedy For Love But To Love More…
Thrump…thrump…thrump.

I slammed my hand down over Ephiny’s hand, giving her my most withering gaze. She had been sitting at the table, nervously drumming her fingers against the wooden top.

“If you do that one more time, you lose this limb,” I said.

She managed to look affronted and embarrassed at the same time. Ephiny and I had been waiting in the small room for some time, and my last nerve had finally blown. Satena, the Amazon Priestess, was to alert us when everything outside was ready for us to enter the glade where the ceremony was to take place.

“Rather testy for it being the happiest day of your life.”

“If I wasn’t getting the girl at the end of this thing, I would never have agreed to this coliseum show. There must be a thousand people out there.”

“A marriage ceremony doesn’t really bring out your best side. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”

“Very amusing. You know as well as I do that a marriage ceremony just happens to include just about everything we warriors detest, being the center of attention, having to wear fancy clothes, and being in a crowd when it doesn’t have anything at all to do with battle. And, did I mention being the center of attention? Besides, I noticed that you’ve managed to stay single all these seasons,” I pointed out. “So, until you’ve done it, no judging.”

“Okay, okay, point taken,” she said, followed by light laughter. We looked at one another, but neither of us said another word. As far as I could tell, we were both thinking of Selene.

We each looked up at the sound of the door and rose as my mother entered the room. Cyrene crossed the small room and took my hands in each of her own. She stood there, silently looking up at me.

“You look quite fetching,” she said.

“Thanks.”

We continued to stand there like that. It was apparent that we wanted to say so much more, but neither of us knew exactly where to start. Ephiny finally cut into the silence.

“I think maybe I’ll—uh, go for—maybe I’ll just get some fresh air. See if they’re almost ready for us,” she said before heading out of the door.

Cyrene chuckled and shook her head. “She’s just like you. Not one for emotions or small talk.”

“I guess Ephiny and I are pretty much alike when it comes to that.”

“You’re quite a different woman these days, Xena. I hope you see that in yourself.”

“I have Gabrielle to thank for that.”

“She is a treasure, little one. I best never hear of you mistreating her.”

“Not a chance, Mother,” I answered with a smile. I knew she wasn’t merely teasing. Cyrene loved Gabrielle as her own, and I was certain that if I was ever stupid enough to hurt Gabrielle in any way, my mother would hunt me down.

“Xena, I—”

“You don’t have to say anything, mother. It’s in the past…for us both.”

“But it needs said…the air cleared at last, so to speak.”

I stood there feeling uncomfortable, knowing what my mother was about to bring up.

“Xena, your brothers…what happened to them—it was never your fault…any of it.”

“Mother, I—”

“Please, let me.”

I realized then that her apology was as much for her as it was for me. In a millennium, I never would have thought that my mother and I would be standing there like that. Gods, I never even thought we would meet again. I fought back the tears that threatened and nodded my head.

She licked her lips and took in a deep breath. “I missed so much of your life. I tried to recreate that with Selene. I went overboard protecting her because, deep down, I think it was a way of making up…for my failure with you.” She raised her hand to silence me before I could get any words out.

“And don’t bother saying that it was you and not me. We both know what set you on the path you took. If I could go back to that day, little one, I would. I would do it all so differently. I’ve never really forgiven myself for allowing you to fall prey to Ares’s charms.” Tears fell from her eyes and she found herself unable to continue.

My eyes filled with tears, as well, but I tried my hardest to control them. I didn’t want to go out to my wedding looking as though I’d cried my eyes out. I engulfed her in a tight hug and whispered my own apology. At last, when we could both speak normally again, I told her my greatest secret.

“I blamed you for so many of the ills of my life. Time and again, I told myself that if only we hadn’t fought, that if I had a mother, it would have all been different. I don’t believe that anymore, Mother. I used that as an excuse to justify my actions. I think all along, I knew what I did was wrong. I was insensitive, hurtful, and evil, and I think I acted that way as some sort of…I don’t know.” I couldn’t finish, finding it hard to put my feelings into words.

“I like the daughter you’ve become, Xena. I love you, and I’ve never been more proud of you. Proud of you as a daughter, as a woman, and as a leader.”

How odd, the strength of words. This one uttered phrase possessed the power to cleanse away the hurt of nearly an entire lifetime, instantly washing away the pain of so many seasons. For her, I believe the might of redemption lay in one, single word. “Mother,” I said before embracing her once more.

We eventually separated from one another, and she laughed at herself, drying her tears. “Gods only know why I waited until your wedding to get so emotional.”

“It was perfect timing. Have you seen Gabrielle?” I asked, changing the subject.

“She is a vision, and Amira is adorable. In fact, the girl looks like a tiny version of you with that dark hair, but those eyes…quite apparent that Gabrielle is her mother.”

“I can’t believe Athena has blessed me like this. I’m a lucky woman,” I said, more to myself than her.

A light rap on the door, and Ephiny opened it a small way to peek in. Seeing us laughing and talking, she entered the room.

“Looks like it’s time,” she said.

“I better run and get into place then,” Cyrene said. She kissed me and whispered in my ear before rushing out of the room. I smiled and nodded my head.

“Ready?” Ephiny asked.

“As I’ll ever be, I suppose.”

“And your sword—all…you know…ready?”

I slapped her on the back and laughed. “Gee, I hope so or we’re both gonna look pretty silly today, aren’t we?”

“Oh, I feel much better, thank you.”

“I’m just kidding. I have it on good authority that it will go without a hitch.”

“Really? One of the Gods told you? Athena…Artemis?” Suddenly excited, she had a gleam of hope in her eye.

“Well, no actually, but Gabrielle dreamed it happened perfectly.”

“She—she what?” She groaned, and I slapped her on the back, laughing. Suddenly, I felt much better. It’s funny how making Ephiny crazy can do that for me.

hhhh{gggg
Ephiny and I stepped outside, and Atrius, along with two-dozen of the Empire’s finest, greeted us. The room we had waited in existed within one of the many massive tree trunks surrounding the glade. I hadn’t yet been this far into the Amazon woods. In fact, Ephiny had explained that the actual reason they had me sequestered in the tree’s room was to keep me from wandering. The Amazons hadn’t allowed outsiders into the depths of their woods for nearly eighty seasons, the last time an Amazon Queen was wed. To foreigners, it was simply one more notion that added to the mystery of the Amazon people.

Atrius took his place on my right, Ephiny on my left. The soldiers arranged themselves in front of and behind us. Part of the ceremony entailed my soldiers and my witnesses, Ephiny and Atrius, marching toward the stage at the center of the woods. Meanwhile, Gabrielle and her Amazon Guard were to enter the clearing from the path on the opposite side of the stage. Meeting in front of the stage, Gabrielle and I would then climb the stairs to the dais alone.

The dais, as I referred to it, was in truth what the Amazons called the Sacred Center of their woods. Sketchy stories were all that existed of the Amazon creation, at least to those outside the Amazon nation, myself included. Many tales told of the day Artemis fashioned this very forest, shooting an arrow into the heart of the largest tree on earth. The tree surrendered to the Goddess, promising every one of her future saplings to Artemis’s service should the Goddess allow them to live their days in the peaceful land. It was also told that Artemis created the Amazons for the sole purpose of the forest’s protection. The first Amazons were actually stewards of the land, making their beginnings right here. Many tribes, and thousands of clans, existed throughout the known world, but they all started here.

Little had changed in all these countless seasons. The Amazons still cared for the land, allowing no outsiders free reign. A Queen’s wedding was reason enough to show off, however. Those of us fortunate enough to see the Sacred Center on this day would tell our children of the impressive sight, and their children would pass on the tale until it sounded more like a bard’s tale than reality.

Once they were in place around us, my soldiers snapped to attention, and the sound that action caused, as metal met metal, was so loud it caused Ephiny to jump, very nearly drawing her sword.

“Sweet Artemis, where did that come from?”

I placed a hand on her arm and she looked at me for explanation. “Metal plates on the inside of their boots. Makes a Hades of a racket, but the crowds love it.” I grinned and watched as she craned her neck to examine the closest soldier’s footwear. Their silver armor gleamed and the bits of sunlight that filtered through the trees caused everything metal to sparkle, including the metal plates on the instep portion and the heel of every soldier’s boots.

My lion’s head sword hung on my hip, swaying as I walked. Its head had been lovingly polished the evening before, and the blue sapphire eyes gazed out on an azure world. I wore black leather trousers and the black boots I chose came all the way up to my knees. My new tunic was black with deep purple trim, the royal crest embroidered onto each sleeve. It was much shorter than my more traditional jackets, its length falling to just above my waist and belt. The heavy gold belt hung low on my hips, pulled even lower with the additional weight of my sword on my left and a short sword on my right. The short Amazon sword had been a gift from Ephiny. A wedding gift, she had called it. I was honored to receive such a present not to mention surprised.

We marched slowly, and in synchronized step, down the path into the forest. People along the way bowed, curtsied, and fell to one knee in respect. The guests had come from all across the Empire. Queens from other Amazon tribes and leaders, some of whom I had appointed, from lands outside the Amazon territory sat in seats before the stage. As with any official ceremony, the higher a person’s rank, the closer they sat to the action. So, the lesser guests, or those who decided to attend at the last minute, lined the paths that Gabrielle and I traveled on our way to the stage.

When Gabrielle’s group and mine drew closer, I noticed that the Royal Amazon Guard surrounded her in much the same way that my soldiers encircled us. Anya and Scylla stood with Gabrielle as her witnesses. Gabrielle had actually wanted Ephiny to stand with her, but I had already asked the Amazon. Of all things, Gabrielle and I finally ended up throwing a pair of ivory dice to see who would actually win Ephiny. It worked out in the end, for Anya and Scylla had become good friends to Gabrielle. I was simply thankful that we threw dice as opposed to a game of king’s men.

We slowed, and with a precision they had acquired from repeated practice over the past fortnight, the two groups of soldiers merged into one. Ephiny and Atrius took a step backward, as did Anya and Scylla, leaving me standing beside Gabrielle.

I hadn’t yet had a look at Gabrielle in her wedding attire, giving in to the demands of Amazon custom. She, too, had given in to the Amazon culture, dressing in the more traditional manner of her adopted people. Gabrielle’s seamstress was to be commended. Gabrielle looked regal, and yet somehow primitive at the same time, an extremely alluring combination. She wore a separate blouse and skirt of fawn colored leather, but they had been rubbed or pounded against stone until they appeared as soft as her velvety skin. The blouse was unique in that only one sleeve was long, reaching Gabrielle’s wrist, but the other was missing completely. The top came across her chest at an angle, exposing her left shoulder and arm. The skirt was so long it touched the ground, but a slit on the left side ran all the way to her hip. It offered quite a revealing view.

She wore jewelry and accessories of typical Amazon fashion with a great deal of leather, decorative beads, and feathers. A large pendant hung from her neck. Made of ivory, it was one of a kind and had been passed on from Queen to Queen within this tribe. Ephiny said that legend had it the Queen’s necklace went all the way back to Nyalda, the tribe’s first Queen appointed by Artemis so many generations ago. Quite simply, Gabrielle was breathtaking, and I felt as though there was nothing life had to offer me that could possibly compete with how I felt at that moment.

Satena appeared to be blessing the items on the dais. The entire area had a sort of temple-like appearance. Perhaps it was simply the reverent way the Priestess acted as she moved and spoke. Much to my liking, it reminded me of a temple without all the trappings of such a sanctuary. The dais looked as though at one point in time, it had been a massive tree. I say that as a guess, for it was not easily apparent, To my eyes, it could have been a fallen log, albeit from a tree that must have reached all the way up to Olympus. If it had been a tree, it was only one small section of log.

Most of the wood had been planed flat to resemble a stage, but the entire back wall looked as though it had been carved from the same wood that connected the floor, even the stairs looked to be carved from the one, enormous section of wood. The back wall was an extremely detailed relief carving of particular scenes in Amazon history. Even the altar-like table was carved from the one piece of wood and not added on or attached in any way.

Satena burned incense and began a chant, or perhaps it was a prayer, in Kindari, the Amazon language. In fact, it was a language that few present, beyond the Amazons, had ever heard, let alone understood. I remembered it from days long ago, and Gabrielle was just beginning to learn it. The language of the Amazons was not taught to any but Amazon girls. Even the male children of Amazon women were not instructed in the language. Of course, Amazon mothers who gave birth to boys, and wished to raise their sons themselves, had homes just outside Amazon land. These women were still a part of the tribe, but the rule of no men unescorted in the village had always held fast and also applied to little boys.

All of Satena’s preparation left Gabrielle and I standing there patiently. Well, as patient as either of us could have been at that particular moment. I felt a trickle of sweat roll down the middle of my back. Actually, I felt a strange mixture of emotions. Fear, love, amazement, and an even odder sensation of detachment, as if I stood outside myself watching the proceedings.

All of this waiting did allow me to notice more about the area surrounding us. Up until now, I had only been watching my steps as we walked, careful not to trip or look a fool. For the first time, I looked around and took in the absolute beauty of the place. I can honestly say that I had never seen trees so large before. Even the smallest among them had a girth that was easily twice the size of any ordinary home in Greece. Being the end of summer as it was, the trees were still in full leaf, but their colors had begun to turn spectacular shades of red and gold. The slight breeze carried the smell of pine from the tree covered slopes of the mountains to the north. The air was comfortable with no hint of chill to it as it sometimes had this time of year. The breeze was only strong enough to gently flutter the leaves on the trees, as well as the banners that lined the paths leading to the stage.

Satena had told us that the apex of the ceremony had to take place at exactly midday. Much like the ceremony we had in Corinth, I expected her words meant that some natural phenomenon was to occur at that point in the day. I suppose I should have been more nervous about exactly what was going to happen, but frankly, my mind was simply too preoccupied. All of this waiting had also given my brain time to race franticly from one thought to another. Ephiny had hounded me so much over that stupid toss that now it was all I could focus on. I knew one thing for certain. If I didn’t clear the “I can’t miss–I can’t miss” mantra from my head, I would indeed miss.

I shook my head, bringing myself back to the present just in time to hear Satena’s words. The Priestess of Artemis blessed two wine chalices sitting upon the altar, far back on the dais. Gabrielle and I were to stand where we were until the stroke of midday. After which Satena would bid us climb the four stairs to the top of the dais and drink from the cups. Right about then, I dearly hoped there was a good Ambracian port in those wine cups.

“Your Highnesses,” Satena said. She looked, not at us, but her eyes traveled upward. “Please, step forward.”

Gabrielle and I looked at one another and side-by-side, we took the narrow steps to the top of the dais. We looked at each other again, anticipating something, but uncertain as to what that something would be. Our wondering soon ended, as Satena prepared us for the midday event.

“Behold, the Sacred Center of Amazonia!” She cried out, raising her arms and spreading them wide.

I felt a sudden heat envelope me and when I looked around, I discovered that Gabrielle and I were bathed in a circle of bright light, a brilliance that caused the entire crowd behind us to collectively gasp. Gabrielle and I shaded our eyes from the radiance. As people are prone to do, we couldn’t help but look upward, trying to focus on the source. We discovered our mistake, along with the source, immediately. Momentarily blinded, Gabrielle and I lowered our heads, trying to blink away the spots of floating color that appeared before our eyes.

I don’t know if the forest had grown that way or if it had been the result of hard work. A circle, free of branches and leaves, existed in the canopy of the forest high above us. Each day when Apollo reached the midway point of pulling the sun across the sky, he paused for a number of heartbeats, and that time allowed for the phenomenon we now experienced. The brilliant sunlight flowed through the opening in the trees, making a perfect circle of light around the entire dais.

Now, I cannot be certain of this next part. Either Gabrielle and I had both experienced the same illusion, or our sight had simply been affected by the brilliant sunlight. I question what I did see because no one else we later questioned saw it. Upon the altar, one golden feathered arrow appeared sunk into the wood as if shot by someone with incredible strength. The arrow appeared, shimmered as though an illusion appearing over the hot desert sands, and disappeared. Gabrielle and I looked at one another with astonishment clearly written across our faces.

“Amazing,” Gabrielle said under her breath.

“Did you just see what I saw?” I whispered.

“If what you saw was an arrow, I did.”

“You’re right…absolutely amazing.”

Satena smiled, and the light moved forward at a crawl. She spoke in Kindari, as if reciting a prayer that the Amazons were familiar with. Satena occasionally paused and the Amazons finished her sentence by reciting one word. Gabrielle surprised me by chiming in with the others. She had obviously learned a great deal in the last few moons. The Royal Guard punctuated their part in the recitation by striking their swords against the small shields they carried on one arm. The sound added to nature’s orchestra of singing birds and screeching parrots high up in the trees.

Just as the light neared the altar, Satena blessed the two wine cups. She handed one to me and then to Gabrielle.

“A toast to the Goddess Artemis,” Satena said. We took a drink as we had earlier been instructed. “Queen Gabrielle and Xena the Conqueror, drink to the Goddess in petition that she might show us a sign, proof of her blessing upon this union.”

Again, we drank. Thankfully, the cups had indeed been filled with a very good wine. I downed the remaining in two large gulps. It burned my throat, but the warmth ran through me quickly, easing my nerves somewhat. Satena reached for our cups, and I looked up guiltily as she took mine, drained completely dry. That didn’t stop me, however, from looking longingly at Gabrielle’s cup and wishing I could finish off the large amount that she had left behind.

The ceremony began in earnest once Satena turned back to face us. “Who stands as family for Queen Gabrielle?” she called out.

“Me.” Amira’s voice rang out loudly. It was much easier to hear her than to see her. Amira stood next to Cyrene, and my mother had been right. The youngster looked like a tiny version of me. Anya had done an incredible job creating my outfit in much smaller dimensions, complete with wooden sword belted around Amira’s hips. She seemed to be having the time of her life. I winked at the girl as Gabrielle did the same. To us, protocol took second place to seeing our daughter have a good time. Amira did her best, but I had known all along that asking her to remember the exact words to say would be impossible for her excited, five-summer-old brain. Being Amira, she must have decided that the words she spoke were indeed the ones she had been asked to memorize.

“And who are you?” Satena prompted the youngster for her name and title. The guests loved it and they chuckled.

Amira concentrated for a moment. “Huh?” she asked. Cyrene bent down and whispered into Amira’s ear.

“But, she knows who I am,” Amira said to Cyrene. My mother whispered something back.

“Oh,” Amira said, followed by a sheepish expression. “She’s my mom, and um…it’s me…Amira. That means princess, ya know.”

Most of the guests at least made a good-mannered attempt to cover their laughter. The centaurs stamped their large, front hooves at the humor of the situation. Unbeknownst to most people, the centaurs had a great sense of humor and they were partial to children’s laughter. Perhaps that’s what made them such good parents. I suspect that was why I had left Solan with them all those seasons ago. Amira had become a particular favorite in the centaur camp over the last fortnight.

“Indeed it does,” Satena said, smiling. “And, Amira, do you know who your mother is to marry?”

“Xena.”

I turned around again to get a look at Amira and she grinned at me, waving her fingers and jumping up and down a few times.

“Do you give your blessing to this union, approving of Xena as your mother’s mate?”

Amira had to think about that one. “Um…” My mother bent down to translate once more.

“Oh. Yes, yes, yes.” She punctuated each word by hopping up and down.

More laughter from the guests, but it was all good natured.

“And who stands for Xena the Conqueror?”

“I do,” Cyrene said clearly. “I am Cyrene, mother to Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis.”

I smiled back at my mother. She wore a satisfied expression as she used my title from long ago instead of Conqueror. For the first time in a long while, I enjoyed hearing it, especially coming from her. Even more, I enjoyed seeing the look on her face that I would have thought impossible for me to ever put there again. Love and pride radiated from her features.

“Cyrene, do you know the woman Xena would take as a mate?”

“I do. Queen Gabrielle.”

“Do you give your blessing to this union, approving of Gabrielle as your daughter’s mate?”

“I most certainly do.”

Cyrene took Amira’s hand, and they sat down in the front row, their part in the ceremony complete.

Satena took a long strip of decorated and beaded leather from the altar. “Will you join hands?”

We held hands, lifting them up toward Satena. She lightly wrapped the strip around our hands and wrists, binding them together. I noticed that the sunlight had passed the altar and hit the back of the dais. Another interesting effect was the way the carvings had been imbedded onto the back wall. The pictures were in layers from the bottom to the top of the wooden wall. The light hit each layer and illuminated the story told through the carvings, one layer at a time.

“Queen Gabrielle, do you stand by your decision to take Xena the Conqueror as your mate?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And, has she proved to your satisfaction that she will be a worthy spouse?”

Gabrielle smiled at me and gave my hand a squeeze underneath the leather binding. “In every possible way,” she replied.

“Has she ever given any indication that she would do anything other than revere, love, and protect you, being faithful to you alone?”

I immediately thought of the times when I had discounted Gabrielle’s opinion, perhaps even hurt her feelings. Most prominent in my mind had been when I once struck her in anger. That time felt as though it had been an age ago. Even now, the incident had the ability to haunt my trips to Morpheus’s nighttime realm. What would I have answered had I been Gabrielle?

Proving to be the enigma I had always thought her, Gabrielle never hesitated in her response. “Never once,” she said loudly. She even convinced me.

“Do you know of any reason that you two should not be wed?”

“I can think of no reason.”

“Lord Conqueror,” Satena then called upon me. “Do you stand by your decision to take Queen Gabrielle as your mate?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And, has she proved to your satisfaction that she will be a worthy spouse?”

I looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. So much I would liked to have said, but there was not the private place I would need, even if I could have brought myself to voice such emotion. “She proves it every day in every way,” I responded.

“Has she ever given any indication that she would do anything other than revere, love, and protect you, being faithful to you alone?”

“Never.”

“And do you know of any reason that you two should not be wed?”

“Well, there is one thing…” Gabrielle’s eyes went wide, but I winked at her and she relaxed, wondering what I was up to.

“Yes?” Satena asked. She didn’t look overly thrilled at my impromptu response.

“What if I think she’s just too good for me?” I couldn’t help voicing the unplanned remark. Gabrielle chuckled, as did many of the guests close enough to hear what I said.

Satena surprised me by looking as though she, too, enjoyed the humor.

“Well, Lord Conqueror, I suggest that you either get better or convince the Queen to lower her expectations.”

The guests burst into laughter at Satena’s whimsical reply. I felt properly bested by the Priestess’s quick wit.

“Xena and Gabrielle,” Satena spoke using our given names. “To wed is an easy task. To create a life-long marriage requires hard work. You will cultivate a successful marriage if you let love and understanding be your mentors. Marriage among royalty, those who lead, can be a difficult prospect. Look to one another for esteem and devotion and not to your people. Stay to the path that keeps you beside each other, and your life together will be one of growth and harmony.”

Satena stepped closer and put her hands on top of our bound hands. “Xena and Gabrielle, do you both wish for this marriage to take place?”

“Yes,” we answered in unison.

She removed the binding strip from around our hands, and Gabrielle and I embraced, followed by a quick kiss. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, but I knew it wasn’t quite over. Ephiny stepped forward, climbing the stairs to stand beside me. Satena gave the captain Gabrielle’s Queen’s mask from the altar.

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. “Am I supposed to know what we’re doing?” She asked in a low tone.

“Actually, no, love, but if Artemis owes you any favors, now might be the time to call those markers in.”

She looked from Ephiny to me to Satena, then back at me. Shrugging her shoulders, she answered. “Have at it, ladies.”

I drew my sword. I could hear the audible sound of hundreds of Amazons holding their breath. In fact, it became so quiet that the tinny sound my blade made as I drew it from its scabbard echoed across the open space in the forest.

Ephiny took a few steps away from us and held the mask up over her head in both hands, looking across the small space at Satena.

“The marriage between Queen Gabrielle and Xena the Conqueror is not yet official. We wait for a sign and the blessing of Artemis.” Satena nodded to Ephiny to continue.

“Ready?” Ephiny whispered.

I nodded in response.

The rest of this scenario I debated putting into the official archives. After all, the more information an enemy has, the easier it might be for he or she to defeat me. I thought about it for some time and finally decided to enter the action, along with my thoughts, just as they happened on that day. There is no other record in the history of Greece to account for my abilities, and this one may just answer a few questions.

The moment I nodded, time slowed for me. It wasn’t that it stopped, by any means, but time definitely slowed. It had always been thus for me when fighting. I know that many people have told a story about something traumatic happening to them and relating all about how time stood still during the event. This wasn’t like that, and it only happened when I fought.

I had always assumed it was a gift from the Gods. I actually wondered if all great warriors hadn’t been born with such a gift, but I never asked any of them. If they didn’t have it, I would have ended up looking like a crazy woman. For me, time slowed so much so that for every one motion by those around me, I ended up moving five or six times. It certainly wasn’t that I was without skill and only relied on this subtle trick of time to defeat my enemies. Perhaps this time trick existed only in my head. Perhaps it only felt as though it happened in tsuch a manner. Whatever the answer, it gave me the edge I needed to be the best.

I watched the breath Ephiny took, rather, I heard the breath as she expelled the air. Just as her arm swung into motion, I lifted my sword into the air, tossing it up and catching it by the hilt. I held it much like a spear. The mask left Ephiny’s hand with great speed. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to catch it as it went up. My eyes followed the mask as it sped upward, eventually slowing. That was the moment I had to time exactly right. The object slowed until it reached its peak. Arriving at that point, the mask appeared to float in mid air for a single heartbeat. Then, the mask rolled over and began its return trip to the ground.

There it was. The perfect moment. To me, the mask looked as though it was fluttering softly to the ground. To those around me, I’m sure it appeared to fall to the ground at a much faster speed. I pulled my arm back and took aim. Just as the mask rolled over once more, I threw my sword as though tossing a javelin. Not a sound could be heard beyond the gasps from the guests and my blade, which whistled thinly through the air.

The mask floated over in mid air once more. The front faced toward me for only the tic of an eye, but it was enough time for my blade to meet it there. The metal sliced through the wooden mask right between the eyes. The momentum of the sword carried the mask and the weapon along until my blade sank into a nearby tree some thirty or forty feet in the air. The lion’s head trembled fiercely from the center of the mask. A pause long enough to be called the blink of an eye existed before I heard the thundering applause behind me. I looked at a much relieved Ephiny and winked.

“As Priestess of our patron Goddess, Artemis, and caretaker of her temple, I declare your union official and blessed by Artemis. Let no man, nor any God attempt to tear it asunder. Let your hearts be one forever.”

More shouts, cheers, and applause. I tried to explain to Gabrielle about keeping her in the dark so she wouldn’t worry, but I think she was only able to hear about half of what I said. Guests came forward to congratulate us, but in the meantime, there was a lot of jostling and pushing going on under the tree my sword had impaled.

“I’m going to need that back, you know,” I said to Ephiny as we gazed up at the tree.

“No need to worry about that.”

“What are they doing over there?” Gabrielle asked. She had just finished embracing Yu Pan, who had Amira at his side.

“That’s the rest of the blessing,” Adara said, stepping up to the dais to congratulate us.

“There’s more to it?” I asked. I glared at Ephiny. “Why is it I only ever get half the story from you?”

She shrugged. “This is the fun part for the young ones. It hasn’t been done in my lifetime, we’ve only heard about the tradition. When the Queen’s consort receives Artemis’s blessing by piercing the mask with a sword, it allows Amazons over fifteen summers to take part in the climb.”

“The climb?” Gabrielle repeated. “Are they actually going to climb all the way up there?” She craned her neck to see the spot.

“Not only are there bragging rights at stake, but the first person to reach the mask wins a boon from the Queen. No reasonable request can be refused,” Addie went on to explain.

There were about twenty young women who wished to test their skills in the trees. Everyone had a fair chance, jockeying for position at the base of the tree.

“Guess I better get over there and supervise or there’s liable to be a few black eyes,” Addie said. “All right, all right,” she called out loudly, walking over to the tree. “Is everyone here who wants to take part?”

“Wait! One more, if you please, Elder.”

I turned toward the familiar voice. Gabrielle and I exchanged a glance, and I wondered if my expression was as full of amazement as hers was.

Prax bowed in front the dais before joining the others under the tree. She looked amazing. Her face was still bruised, of course, but she walked without a hint of the stiffness and pain she had initially experienced. I had watched her workout on the training fields for candlemarks every day. I commended her dedication to regaining her former strength and agility.

“Is this safe?” Gabrielle turned and asked Yu Pan.

“Hhmm, it does look very high,” he answered. “I would not try it.”

“Master, I mean for Prax.”

“Ohh,” he answered. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he knew exactly what Gabrielle had meant.

“If you ask me, is she fit for such a task? I would say yes. I believe, physically and mentally, Táifeng has become quite the changed young woman.”

I looked on as some of the Amazons under the tree gave Prax a rather wide berth. Still others looked angered when they saw her, and two women dropped out of the competition altogether.

“Now!” Addie shouted.

The scrambling began. Gabrielle came to stand beside me and we put our arms around one another.

“Thanks for telling me that my dream was nonsense,” she whispered in my ear.

I tried to look properly chastised. “I’m sorry, love, but you were such a mass of nerves that I couldn’t bear giving you one more thing to worry about. The good news is that your dream was quite accurate.”

“Very funny. Good shot, by the way. I could have practiced for a lifetime and never hit that thing. You’ll have to tell me how you did it.”

I chuckled, knowing that someday, when our lives grew somewhat calmer, I would tell Gabrielle all my secrets. “I’ll tell you all about it someday.”

I suppose I should not have doubted who would win the competition. Prax wore a determined expression that differed pleasantly from the scowl we had become accustomed to. She scampered from branch to branch, and even Gabrielle squeezed me tighter when Prax slipped and saved herself quite a fall by catching onto another branch at the last moment. A great deal of applause met her at the base of the tree, sword and mask in hand.

The sun had moved lower in the sky and it almost looked like night in the forest. The lamps had been lit and hung in the trees, so that all about us glittered, as the flickering lamplight in the trees reflected the multicolored leaves of the beautiful and massive trees that surrounded us. Gabrielle and I decided to meet Prax halfway.

Gabrielle and Prax had not suddenly become the best of friends. In fact, they tried to avoid one another, or as much as two individuals could given the size of the main village. When they did occasionally meet, they were each civil, which was something considering Prax’s emotions only a short time ago.

We had received information regarding Prax’s progress from Yu Pan. He had explained that Prax indeed decided to begin her tutelage of the way from Master Yu Pan. He told her that even though he would not be in the village long enough to complete her study, he promised that if she was serious, he would manage it somehow. I had no earthly idea how he intended to do that, but that was his bother and not ours. He often met with Gabrielle and I, telling of Prax’s amazing physical progress. He spoke little of her mental healing, but we knew that was a private matter between Prax and her mentor.

At first, Gabrielle acted strangely when Yu Pan told us that Prax had expressed a wish to follow the way. If Gabrielle had been anyone else, I would have said that she actually bristled. Given to fits of intense self examination, Gabrielle came to me one evening and confessed that she had actually been jealous of the new relationship between Yu Pan and Prax. Once she scolded herself, and moved past that unwanted emotion, she became much more open to Yu Pan’s discussions involving Prax. She was even able to offer her old master some hints at dealing with a female student again.

So, Prax had progressed to the point where the others in her tribe had begun to recognize her willingness to change. Still, she and Gabrielle had not yet spoken, even to offer the most meager of apologies. When I asked Yu Pan in private about that very subject, he told me that Prax was in the process of an extreme change to her mindset, her way of thinking. He could only add that the talk between the two women would indeed happen, but he could not say when. As Gabrielle was fond of saying, it would happen in its own time. That’s what Yu Pan reiterated to me.

Gabrielle and I separated and joined hands. It was as if we needed to continue the physical connection.

“This is it, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said to me, as we watched Prax approach us.

“I guess so. Are you ready for this?”

“I guess that all depends on if she’s going to ask for my head as her one request.”

“I’m right here, love.”

“Thanks,” she said, as she squeezed my hand.

Prax walked directly up to Gabrielle and I, stopping a foot or two away. Most of the guests remained in their seats for this latter event. The Amazons couldn’t have been pried away, wondering what this meeting would bring. Even the guests who hadn’t any idea about the past that existed between Prax and Gabrielle wanted to see what sort of a boon the young Amazon would request from the new Queen.

Prax dropped to one knee before Gabrielle, holding the sword and mask in her outstretched hands. “My Queen,” she said, her eyes focused on the ground.

Gabrielle accepted the mask and sword from Prax. “Guess I’m going to need a new one of these, aren’t I?” she asked of Ephiny, holding the destroyed mask in one hand. Her captain looked guilty and apologetic at the same time.

I slid my blade from the mask and handed it back to Gabrielle. She tossed another jest in Ephiny’s direction. I knew she was nervous. Wisecracks were a sort of defense for her when she felt extremely uncomfortable. I placed a hand on her back and she stopped talking. I could feel her take a deep breath before speaking again.

That was some amazing climbing, Prax. I envy you your ability.”

“Artemis blessed me, my Queen. I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own.”

Even her manner of speaking had changed. The tone of arrogance had all but disappeared. Now, there was an almost meek quality to the way she spoke, even the way she held her body. Prax looked downward; she had yet to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. I could only wonder at the power necessary to invoke such a dramatic change. Surely it was true that Artemis had made a personal visit to the girl.

“I see,” Gabrielle began.

Her own surprise at the young woman kneeling before her was quite evident, even though she hid it well. I knew Gabrielle too well to be deceived by the façade she showed others, however.

“Well…I understand that tradition gives you the right to make a request of me, Prax.

“It’s the reason why I’ve worked so hard to regain my strength, to ask this of you.”

“I once told you that if you needed anything and if it was in my power, I would make it happen. I don’t think either of us ever dreamed it would be in this manner, but here we are. What can I offer you, Prax, as winner of the climb?”

“Before I ask my favor, my Queen, I would like to say something to you, if you approve?”

“Very well,” Gabrielle replied. If she was as astounded by Prax’s polite, almost submissive, behavior as the rest of the Amazon tribe was, she gave no indication.

“I know there’s no apology I can offer that will make what’s come between us as though it never happened, even though that would be my wish. If I had that power, I’d wish that much of the unhappiness I so recently experienced could be reversed. I’ve learned recently that the things I do and say have a pretty strong affect on the people around me, as well as myself. I’ve done things…said things, especially to you that I would take back if I could.”

“I think we both would. Prax, this really isn’t necessary—”

“But it is—to me, anyway. Please, may I continue?” She looked up at Gabrielle with a pleading expression.

Gabrielle hadn’t the heart to refuse the girl. She expelled a tired breath and nodded. “Of course.”

“You were nothing but kind to me and I repaid you with actions that shamed my tribe and my family. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you and your family. I fell into a black pit and couldn’t gain release. I think what caused me even more anger was that when I did try to climb out, I just slipped back in even further. I just couldn’t get free—not alone, anyway. I say all of this, not as an excuse, but in explanation. I don’t want you to feel pressured to forgive me, but perhaps someday, we can come to terms with it all.”

“Prax,” Gabrielle said gently. Gabrielle reached for Prax’s hand, covering their clasped hands with her free hand. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve completely turned your life around in so short a time. That shows me how dedicated you are to changing. I can’t tell you how proud I am of you for that. As to what went on between us…well, let’s just agree to keep the past in its place, eh?”

The smile that appeared on Prax’s face suddenly made her look much younger than her fifteen summers. Relief flowed from her with the brilliance of a dazzling light.

“Thank you so much,” Prax said quietly, breathing a sigh of relief.

They smiled at one another and I saw gratitude in their eyes, each woman for her own reason.

“Now, about that request,” Gabrielle said.

Surprising everyone, myself included, Prax put both knees on the ground. Drawing her sword and laying it across the palms of both hands, she extended her arms toward Gabrielle. “With my body and sword, I swear fealty to my Queen. I vow to protect her with all my powers, willingly trading my life for hers if the need should arise. I swear this before all of my people, to place my life in the Queen’s service as her personal guard until my death or the day she release me from my bond.”

Gabrielle’s face took on the oddest expression. She turned to me, to Ephiny, then to me again. “I—I don’t think I understand.” She looked down at Prax. “You want to be a member of the Royal Guard?”

“No, my Queen, your personal guard. I wish to stand between you and any harm that might come your way.”

“But—Prax, if you’re doing this out of some need to apologize further, it’s misguided.”

“I respectfully disagree, my Queen. It’s not misguided, but necessary…for me. You’ve given me my life back and something in me tells me that this is the best way that I can serve you.”

“Well…I—”

Gabrielle looked at those of us around her, as if seeking some sort of backup. I had no idea what to say. This was completely unexpected. I also didn’t think it was a spur of the moment decision on Prax’s part, not by the look on her face. She held an expression that looked intense, wholly dedicated to her purpose.

“I don’t need a personal guard. I can’t have you doing this, Prax.”

Ephiny reached over and laid her and upon Gabrielle’s arm. “You can’t—well, you can’t really refuse her request, Gabrielle,” Ephiny whispered.

Gabrielle turned to me.

“I don’t think there’s anything I can say. Actually…” I paused.

“Actually, what?”

“Actually, you won’t like what I have to say.”

“Which is?” I could tell that Gabrielle’s temper was about to flare.

“I figured you wouldn’t want to hear that it’s not really an altogether unreasonable request, and that you don’t have much choice than to grant her wish.”

The guests around us began to murmur. They couldn’t hear what we had been saying in low tones, and couldn’t understand what the delay was about.

Gabrielle tried the calm approach. “Prax, I understand that you feel some need to—let’s just call it guilt, okay? You don’t have to do it, though. There are other ways to—”

“I’m aware of that, my Queen. I have thought a great deal about this. I’ve discussed it with my mother. I don’t do this out of misplaced guilt. I do this because I want to, because it’s my way of honoring my tribe.”

“Do you realize what it means, what you want to do? In a few more days, I’ll return to Corinth. You’ll have to leave your home, your family. What does your mother say to this?”

Gabrielle looked up and searched the faces of the Amazons around us until she found the one she sought. “Lexa, what do you say about your daughter’s wish?”

“I can’t exactly say that I am happy, but I won’t say that I’m sad, either, Your Highness. I think that…perhaps…it might do my daughter well to be away from her home for a time.”

“Am I the only one who thinks this is a very, very bad idea?” Gabrielle asked of no one in particular. She looked back at Prax. “I think what you’re doing is a mistake, Prax, but it’s looking as though I can’t fight tradition. Ephiny, as my captain, what do you advise?”

“As much as it pains me to say it, I suppose you can’t really refuse her this request. However, personal guard to the Queen is not an honorary position. I expect it should require the same skills that any member of the Royal Guard must possess.”

“Good point. You’ve suffered some extreme injuries, Prax. Do you think you can meet the physical demands this would require?”

“Absolutely.”

Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and the Amazon nodded.

“All right, Prax,” Gabrielle said. “Tomorrow morning Ephiny will meet you on the training field. If you can pass the tests the Royal Guard are put through, then I’ll keep my part of your request, but I want you to promise me something first.”

“Just ask, my Queen.”

“I want you to talk this over again with your mother this evening, and I want you to think about what you’re doing. Really think about it. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Prax answered, followed by a large smile.

“Then I can do no more than grant your request, pending the qualifications we spoke of. Welcome…uh, to…the Queen’s staff, I suppose.”

Ephiny quickly whispered a few words to Gabrielle, who then nodded and took the sword Prax offered. Gabrielle held the blade up for all to see. She then held it out to Prax once more.

“I return your weapon so that you may use it to defend the throne until your death or the day I release you from my service.”

Seeing that some sort of decision had been made, the guests applauded and began to move on, escorted by the Amazons to the village area of the forest. I heard music begin from that direction of the woods, as a banquet had been planned there. In fact, we had watched them carry all manner of foods to and from the kitchens on a near constant basis for the past 2 days. Many of the Amazons held back, remaining where they were and wearing amazed expressions. Some had only heard of Prax’s change in behavior and were only just witnessing it in person for the first time.

Prax looked happy for the first time since we’d met the young woman. She accepted congratulations, perhaps prematurely, from many of the Royal Guard, most of whom were considerably older than Prax.

And, then there was me, standing there noticeably quiet throughout the entire event. Something that Gabrielle hadn’t overlooked.

“Thanks for all the backup,” she said, followed by a wry smile.

I knew she wasn’t completely serious, but I didn’t know what to say to her, just as I was uncertain as to how to respond to the whole affair. It took me by complete surprise. “I’m sorry love, but I honestly didn’t know what to say,” I admitted.

“Do you agree with this nonsense?”

Did I agree? I certainly couldn’t be angry over Prax’s request. The girl just offered to lay down her life for my wife.

“How can I be cross at such devotion? Does it make me happy? Well, I don’t necessarily feel unhappy,” I answered.

“That seems extraordinarily evasive, my Conqueror.”

She smiled and nudged me in the ribs. She had obviously found a way to deal with the curious incident and rather quickly, I might add. Gabrielle then turned away from me to greet someone. Adara introduced Gabrielle and I to a long list of emissaries who would not be attending the banquet. Shaking hands with a lengthy line of people I barely remembered ever having placed in their position of power, I took the time during the rather mindless task to look into my heart.

Why was it that I said nothing when Prax came forward earlier? It really was a little over the top for her to make such a request. I suppose part of it had been that I hadn’t wanted to overshadow Gabrielle at all. She was the leader in Amazonia, and I was tolerated for no other reason than because I was her spouse.

I actually wondered why Prax’s actions hadn’t caused me any anger or petulance, which would have been my usual response to such a thing. Letting my mind wander as Gabrielle and I walked hand in hand to our wedding banquet, I came to only one conclusion. The course Prax had elected to follow may have been needless, outlandish, even a bit foolhardy, but there was one thing I couldn’t deny. Having such a warrior, albeit a rather young warrior, as personal guard to my wife gave me a certain amount of comfort. I couldn’t lie to myself about that. Knowing that there was at least one other person in the world who would step in front of an oncoming arrow to save Gabrielle’s life was very comforting indeed.

hhhh{gggg
The banquet hadn’t been nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it might. In fact, it had been quite pleasant. The wine and the dance both had been provided in abundance. Even Gabrielle and I danced a few times, although she had to furnish me with an abundance of port to accomplish it.

My mother had taken Amira for the evening and even though I didn’t really feel comfortable leaving the banquet with Selene surrounded by single Amazon women, Gabrielle and I finally took our leave, anyway. The one bright spot had been that Ephiny had stayed with Selene. The Amazon captain’s glares to the others who tried to dance with Selene rivaled my own possessive looks when protecting my sister.

“I want to make love to you in the worst way,” Gabrielle suddenly said.

“I’d prefer it was in the best way, but…”

“You know what I mean.” She nudged me with her elbow.

“I do, love, and I feel the same way.”

How could I tell my wife, especially on her Amazon wedding day, that I would have a hard time gathering the energy for such a feat? We laid there in bed so comfortablyIt was as if the whole day had come crashing in on me. The nerves, drink, music, and dancing had left me quite fatigued.

“It’s just that I’m so exhausted,” Gabrielle said.

I wasn’t sure I heard her right. “What did you say?”

“I know it’s supposed to be our big night and all, but I’m just so tired.”

“Me, too.”

“You don’t have to say that just to be nice, Xena.”

“Trust me, being nice is the last thing on my mind. Oh, you know what I mean,” I said to the arched eyebrow she cast at me.

“I’ve just been wondering how to tell you the same thing.”

We both laughed and Gabrielle snuggled against my chest, her head tucked under my chin.

“I hope it can always be like this for us, Xena.”

“Well, I hope not. We better not be too tired to make love until we’re so old we can hear our bones creak.”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant I hope this will always be the same. That we’ll always be able to laugh at ourselves.”

“I think if we work at it, we have a good chance, little one. I was never able to do that before you.”

“That’s just because you had no sense of humor back then. You’re a changed woman.”

I smiled at the sheer trust and adoration she showed me. “Look who’s talking about being a changed woman.”

“Who? What do you mean? I’m really just the same as I’ve always been.”

“Oh, love, I fear you can’t see the situation because you’re too close. Do you really think you are still that timid young thing that used to hide apples from my table in her pocket?”

She chuckled and the sound gave me some comfort. She had taken the jest as I had meant it.

“Okay, perhaps I have changed a bit, too.” She laughed when she looked up at my skeptical expression. “Okay, changed a lot.”

“The key is that our changes have been for the better. We’ll grow old together, as well as grow together.”

“Well, one of us will grow old, anyway,” she said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’ve been watching something happen to you for the last whole season. Xena, you’ve been getting younger.”

“I wondered if you’d noticed. Actually, for quite some time I wondered if it wasn’t just inside my own head.”

“It’s definitely not just your own thinking. The gray in your hair is nearly completely gone.”

“My hair was never gray,” I added in an affronted tone.

“Right. Well, how do you explain the fact that some of those lines on your face have all but disappeared?”

“I still have lines on my face.”

“Yes, but those are called laugh lines, not age lines. You definitely hadn’t acquired those when you and I first met.”

“Perhaps you just weren’t looking close enough,” I teased.

“Mm Hm, and do you think that I would have overlooked the…let’s call it stamina you’ve developed in the bedroom? Besides, remember that scar you had on your left shoulder?”

“I got that in Chin. Damned barbarian almost took my whole arm clean off. And, what do you mean had?”

“What I mean is that the scar that ran around the back of your entire shoulder is almost gone. It’s nothing more than a faint line.”

“Really?” I questioned, craning my head to see the mark in question.

“Your head’s going to pop off if you try to twist your neck that far. You’re just going to have to take my word for it.”

“I think it was Athena,” I finally admitted.

“Athena? Why…when?”

“I’m not positive because I really haven’t had a chance to question her about it. I think it might have been after I fought with Ares. Remember when Athena told us about what had been meant to be for us?”

“Since then? Amazing. I should have known.”

“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” I asked, my own personal paranoia settling in around me.

“Hhmm, let’s see…does it bother me that my normally beautiful, strong, older spouse has become younger, stronger, and more beautiful? I’m just not sure…” she trailed off and then broke up into a fit of laughter.

“Point taken,” I said.

She settled against me once more, and we relaxed.

“And about not making love tonight,” I started. “It doesn’t really bother you?”

She covered her mouth as she yawned, which I took to be my answer.

“I’ll want a marker from you to make sure you make good on it.”

“Just add it to my tab,” I answered in a sleepy voice.

“I don’t know, your tab is getting awfully full. You’ll have to work rather hard to pay it off.”

“Oh, I intend to, love, tomorrow night.”

Gabrielle made an unintelligible noise that sounded like delight, but then there was only silence, as she had fallen asleep. It would only be moments before I followed her, but something my mother said earlier in the day suddenly popped into my head.

When my mother had stopped in to see me before the wedding, she whispered into my ear just before leaving the room. “There is no remedy for love but to love more,” she had said. Her words made so much sense to me after a day such as today.
Chapter 44: A Mighty Flame Follows A Tiny Spark…
I woke to an empty bed, which put me in a bad humor rather promptly. The sort of day the weather indicated it might become didn’t help to improve my attitude any. A heavy fog hung over the village, leaving me unable to even see the ground. It was early and would probably burn off after the sun had risen higher in the sky, but just then, it felt as though I floated in a house among the clouds.
Gabrielle had left a note for me on the table in the dining area. She had risen early and went off to make a trip to Artemis’s temple. It wasn’t unusual behavior for her, and considering that she did leave me a note, I decided to be forgiving about her absence. Besides, she had a great deal less to drink than I did last night. Going to sleep as early as we did, she must have been wide awake and waiting impatiently in the dark for Apollo’s chariot to take flight. I, on the other hand, had a head the size of all Greece from all the drink I’d imbibed.

After a morning clean up, I dressed and looked out the window again. The mist had already begun to lift. Perhaps the day would turn out clear after all. I heard muffled voices and quiet laughter outside on the balcony. Thinking Gabrielle had decided to visit with someone out there, I headed that way. I’m certain surprise registered on my face when I saw Selene and Prax sitting on my balcony furniture as though they belonged there.

“Hi there, big sister,” Selene said.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked in a not-so-polite fashion.

“You’ve got a hangover, don’t you?” Selene grinned at me, but at least Prax had the decency to jump to her feet t, recognizing my station.

“Forgive us, Lord Conqueror. We only wanted to wait out here until you and the Queen awoke. I wanted to be the first to tell Queen Gabrielle that I passed the physical tests administered by Captain Ephiny this morning.”

“I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear it. How did you two get up here, anyway?” I asked, leaning over the railing to see the ground at least eighty hands below us.

“We climbed,” Prax answered. “Selene’s actually getting quite good.”

Selene beamed at me. I believed there to be a touch of triumph in that expression. Perhaps too much so for my liking.

“See that you don’t break your neck before we get to Corinth.” I know I sounded rather testy, but my head pounded and I desperately wanted a hot cup of strong tea, but I had no idea how much tea Gabrielle put in the pot. The last time I tried to make it myself, the brew came out sort of like muddy water with about the same taste.

“Yes, sister dear,” Selene muttered. At least it sounded a lot like that to me.

“What did you say?” I glared at her.

She must have realized that she had crossed a line. “I uh said…looks like the day’s going to be clear.”

“Uh huh,” I answered, turning back to face Prax. “Sorry to disappoint you, but if you’re looking for Gabrielle you’re in the wrong place. She went off to the temple at first light.”

Prax jumped out of her chair again. “But I thought she was with you!”

“No,” I said slowly. “For her to be with me that would require that she actually be present, which she is not.”

“You mean she’s alone?”

“I’m not really sure, but—”

The oddest thing happened then. The girl fairly jumped over the balcony railing, hopping from branch to branch until she was very quickly gone from our sight. Selene and I simply looked at one another.

“She’s your friend,” I said.

“You think this guard thing between her and Gabrielle is going to work out?” she asked.

“I think Gabrielle will have her thrown in the dungeon inside of 6 moons if the girl doesn’t relax a tad.”

Selene laughed. “I know what you mean, but Gabrielle’s pretty patient. I mean, she puts up with you, after all.”

“You should be on the stage, you know that? Perhaps I should send you off to the Performing Arts Academy in Athens? Stop talking and make me some tea.”

She laughed again, ignoring me in much the same way as Gabrielle usually did. “Aw, did Gabrielle leave the house and not make your morning tea?”

“The tea!” I glared again, rubbing my temples.

“You’re not much of a morning person. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Actually, never,” I replied to her wide eyed expression. “Usually I don’t stop hearing what a sensitive and compassionate woman I am first thing in the morning.”

She just stared at me for a long moment, then she laughed loudly. “Yea, right before you run them through.”

“Pretty much.”

We both laughed this time. We sat down and enjoyed our tea together. I remember thinking that having Selene around would keep me on my toes. She would be a breath of fresh air in Corinth, if not a shock to the system. She had matured in an amazing fashion over the last couple of moons. She may have had my physical build, but she had Gabrielle’s temperament. She had developed the ability to laugh at life. That attitude would take her far, of that I was certain. Whereas our little Amira looked and acted just as I had at her age. Gods above! The only way to tell that the girl was truly Gabrielle’s daughter was by those emerald green eyes. I wondered if the tyke would be able to master King’ Men the way Gabrielle had.

I humorously wondered what my advisors would think about the new family that was soon to descend upon our estate. I had a feeling that life would never again be the same in that large old palace.

hhhh{gggg
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

“Oh, Gods, Prax, don’t do that.” I said to my new guard, stopping short of slapping her in the arm. I turned around and there she was, standing silently beside me. I believe my heart nearly stopped beating.

“But, Captain Ephiny just told me this morning that part of a guard’s job is to be stealthy and silent.”

“To the enemy, Prax. Not to me.”

“Oh. You really shouldn’t go out alone, though, Your Highness.”

I chuckled. “Look around us. I’m never alone. There are at least twenty members of the Royal Guard, Empire and Amazon, around us.”

Prax looked around and I knew that even with her keen eyes, she could probably only glimpse about half the guards. Her cheeks reddened.

“Sorry about that. I guess I was just a little…I don’t know…”

“Over eager?”

She smiled and nodded. It was as though I spoke to a completely different person. She no longer even looked at me with anger smoldering in her eyes as she had done for so many days. Suddenly, I found it easy to like the young woman walking beside me.

“Look, if we’re going to have this work, Prax, we’re going to have to create some guidelines. First off, I will accept that you’re a personal…body guard shall we say. I promise I won’t try to ditch you anywhere…much.”

She laughed appropriately. “Ephiny told me that you’ve eluded your guards on more than one occasion. She appeared rather embarrassed by the notion.”

“Yes, well, I promised Xena I wouldn’t be doing that again, so you’re safe there. It will be your choice, but I think that once we arrive in Corinth, you should live in the palace—”

“On the same floor as you and the Lord Conqueror?”

“I’ll think about that one. Next, when Xena or Ephiny are with me, I may excuse you.” I quickly held up my hand. I could tell that she was about to say something.

“And no argument from you over any of these ground rules. Agreed?”

“I—” She stopped abruptly and nodded her head. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Good. One other thing, Prax. As my personal guard, you’ll be privy to many conversations of a most private nature, things that others should perhaps not know about for one reason or another. Nothing you hear can be repeated…to anyone. Is that understood?”

“You can depend on me to be discreet.”

“Lastly, I reserve the right to add or amend any rules as I see fit. Agreed?”

“But—”

“I stopped walking and looked up at her.

“Yes, Your Highness,” she answered. I felt a little sorry for her. She looked as though she was a child and I’d just stolen her favorite toy.

“How are you with children?”

“You mean little kids?” I almost laughed aloud at the look on her face. It reminded me of the first time I saw one of Anya’s little girls wrap her tiny arms around Xena’s neck.

“Don’t panic. I just don’t want you scaring my daughter, Amira. I intend on having her with me during the day as much as possible.”

“I see.”

“I think all of this can work, Prax. You just need to…relax a little.”

“I know I can be rather…intense, but it’s truly something I’m working on. It’s hard, though.”

“I understand Yu Pan’s been tutoring you. One of the first things he taught me was patience and perseverance.”

“Oh, yea, I’ve learned an awful lot already, but…well, you see…I thought that maybe—I mean, you wouldn’t have to do much—of course, I know how busy you are—then there’s our positions to consider—”

“Okay, stop, you’re making me dizzy and I have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

“Sorry. I’m not usually this—I guess the whole day has been kind of exciting for me. I feel like I’m turning my life around and…well, it’s all new.”

“I understand better than you think. Just take a deep breath and start over.”

She took in the breath, slowly letting it out. “I was hoping, actually Master Yu Pan first suggested the idea, that you might be my mentor for learning Master Yu Pan’s way.”

Her request stunned me into a few long moments of silence. When I finally found my voice, I had no idea what to say. “Oh, Prax, I don’t know…I mean—I’m not a teacher. I’m still a student of the way myself.”

“But Master Yu Pan says that you’re his greatest student.”

“He flatters me, but I still don’t—”

“Could you at least think about it…please? I can’t think of anyone better to teach me these principles that Master Yu Pan talks about. You see, from the first, once I got past all my anger, when I looked at you, I saw…well, I saw the kind of person I wanted to become.”

If her request dumfounded me, this latest revelation did as much to paralyze me. It also dawned on me as to why Prax had wanted to be my personal guard so badly.

“Prax, does this have any tie to why you chose to become my personal guard?”

She hung her head and dug her booted foot into the soft reddish dirt. “I figured it was the best way I could serve you—keep a promise I made to Artemis, but at the same time be as close as possible to you, to learn from you.”

“But why me? I’m not complaining. I’m really awfully flattered, but I’m a little surprised considering what we’ve gone through.”

“My mother once told me that in order for me to be the best at something, I needed to be instructed by the best. When it comes to the way, you are the best—and I don’t mean just because Master Yu Pan says so. I know you’re the best because of the things that I’ve seen you say and do, the way you act and the way you think, the way you treated me. I think you’re the best, and I want to learn from you.”

“I—I truly don’t know what to say, Prax. Thank you for the gracious compliments, but I’m nothing special, and I’m certainly not the best.”

“Don’t you see? That’s what makes you the best. Master Yu Pan said that if you thought you were, you probably wouldn’t be.”

I chuckled. “Oh, he did, did he? Master Yu Pan has taught you a great deal already, whether you know it or not.”

“Does that mean you’ll do it?”

“That means I’ll think about it. Let me speak with Master Yu Pan, and I’ll let you know what I can do. Okay?”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“Okay, I’m starving. Have you eaten anything yet this morning?”

“No. I think I was a little too nervous.”

“Then let’s go to the dining hall. I’m buying.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s just a joke. We really have to work on getting you…relaxed.”

“You’re really just telling me to lighten up, aren’t you?”

“See,” I looked up at her and winked. “We’re developing a sort of intuitive relationship already.”

hhhh{gggg

“The Queen’s retreat?”

Xena and I had been quite busy, having no time for ourselves. First, all my time had been consumed by plans for our marriage ceremony, which had taken place the previous day. Now, it seemed there was an endless number of details to go over in order to prepare for us to return to Corinth. We sat together, taking a few precious private moments together when Ephiny and Selene called on us.

“Queen’s retreat?” Xena repeated after me.

“They should take this act on the road…maybe the Apian Way,” Selene turned to Ephiny and said.

Ephiny tried not to smile. I think she was still trying to hide the fact that she and Selene, while not officially seeing one another, had at least a mutual attraction going. It reminded me of how painful that particular parting might be when it came time to leave the Amazon village.

“It was created by Dexithea, the last Amazon Queen to wed during her reign. It’s just a cottage really, but she built it as a wedding present for her mate. Every Queen since has spent some time there when she needed a spell away from the village.

“Where is it at? Why haven’t we seen it yet?” I asked.

“It’s about a candlemark’s ride away from here, up in the hills. It’s a particularly beautiful area that Artemis deigned a specially sanctified spot in our forest. I think you’ll know why when you see it.”

“When Ephiny told me about this place, I thought it would be absolutely perfect,” Selene added.

“Perfect for what?” Xena asked.

“For you two, of course. You haven’t had a proper night to yourselves since the ceremony, and what with going back to Corinth in two days, I thought you could spend at least a day or so there, some time all your own.”

“Oh, Selene, I don’t know…”

I so wanted to say yes, and I looked at Xena to see what her reaction to the news had been. I shouldn’t have wondered. She held a gleam of excitement in her eye.

I kept thinking of all the things I had yet to do before leaving this village in—in whose capable hands? I had yet to choose a Regent. I had thrust the position upon Ephiny when we had been in Corinth, but now that I had lived in the village and gotten to know its people, I realized that another would probably be the woman I should choose. How would I break that to Ephiny?

I had been stressed lately and perhaps neglecting my spouse and family. I tried to recall Yu Pan’s teachings about stress. He would have told me that stress came from making things more important than they are, or than they should be at any rate. I wondered if that had been my experience. Had I been concentrating too much on all the wrong things? Gods, that was another thing. What to do about mentoring Prax? I needed to speak with Yu Pan about that.

All these thoughts helped me to decide. “I think it sounds wonderful,” I suddenly said, looking at Xena sitting next to me.

“I agree,” she added in a restrained tone.

She couldn’t hide her excitement from me, however. I could tell by her almost relieved smile that she had waited, wanting to see what my answer would be before speaking. I had taken notice of her biting her tongue on more than one occasion here in Amazonia. She was accustomed to making the decisions, but she held back here where I was the ruler. I know I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but she constantly considered how it might look to the people I now ruled. It was a loving and respectful gesture that I would not forget.

“So, when do we go?” I asked.

“As soon as you can ready yourselves. I have a squad already prepared with horses and supplies.”

“Pretty sure about my response, eh Captain?” I asked.

“Pretty sure you needed the time away is all.”

“A very diplomatic answer, my friend.”

It only took a short while for Xena and I to put ourselves together enough for an overnight stay. Of course, convincing Amira that she would have a better time with Cyrene and Selene took some doing. She nearly had me in tears with the forlorn expression on her face.

“Don’t you want me with you no more?” She said followed by a pout.

“Oh, my love, I certainly do. You and I, and Xena, will have lots of time to be together in Corinth, though. Besides, the day will go so quickly that you won’t even notice Xena and I are gone.”

“Will, too.”

“I think you’re going to make your grandma Cyrene sad with this behavior.”

“Why will she be sad?” She straightened up slightly, seemingly interested in this new news.

“You know that Cyrene was looking forward to you and her having a whole day and night together, just the two of you. She’s not coming to Corinth with us, and she’ll miss you terribly when she goes back to her own home. In fact, Cyrene already has permission from Breena to go into the kitchens so you can help her make some special sweet pastries.”

“Really?” She perked up. There was a long silence. “Which kind?” she asked, still not convinced, but I could see that she was her mother’s daughter. Her stomach called louder than her hurt feelings.

“I think she said something about those tiny balls rolled in sugar, the ones with the red syrup inside.”

“Ooh, those are my favorites. Okay, I’ll stay with Grandma Cyrene and Aunt Selene. Just one day…right?”

“Yes, princess, just one day.”

The girl definitely knew the fine art of emotional manipulation, of that I was certain.

hhhh{gggg

“Oh, Xena, it’s breathtaking.” I could think of no adequate words to describe the beauty of the valley we had just entered.

“It must rival Olympus,” Xena replied in a voice filled with awe. She had traveled throughout most of the known world, and yet she still looked as impressed as I was at the sight.

It quickly became apparent why Queen Dexithea chose such a location for the retreat. Its beauty was obvious, but as we entered the lush glade, I noticed that it was protected by sheer cliffs on two sides. The third side led up a mountain covered with a dense overgrowth of trees and thorny shrubs, nearly impossible to navigate on foot or horseback. The Royal Guard’s job would be made much easier, since the only entrance lay through the Amazon village itself. A fact I’m sure would make Prax and Ephiny happy.

We traversed a well worn path on horseback, passing by a stream that ran up the side of the mountain. I heard the crashing sound of a large waterfall and realized that it must lie on the other side of the mountain. When the wind was right, I could actually hear the falls from the village.

Enormous trees, their magnificent boughs blotting out the sky, created a sort of sound proofing. The air was still and humid, a blanket of silence thoroughly wrapped around the area. Long green trails of moss hung down from the branches of the trees, connecting each tree to its neighbor.

“It’s just beautiful,” I told Ephiny as we rode closer to the cottage, which looked more like a small palace to me.

We dismounted in a clearing not too far from the main house. The soldiers kept riding toward what looked to be a stable. Two of the Amazon guard took our horses down in that direction, also.

“They’re not billeted in the stable, are they?” Xena asked.

“No,” Ephiny answered. “Just behind the stable is a small stream, and on the other side is a medium sized barracks and dining hall. It’s pretty comfortable, actually.”

Ephiny led the way to the front doors followed by Xena and I with Prax only a few paces behind us. The pathway up to the home had been paved with flagstone, rough flat pieces of rock embedded into the ground. The trees and bushes grew lush and the entire area smelled wonderfully moist, as a forest just after the rain. When I commented on the fact, Ephiny explained that the massive falls on the other side of the cliffs dropped about five hundred feet, spewing up a great deal of water and mist into the air.

I was even more surprised by the inside of the home. It wasn’t all marble columns and open-aired porticos like our palace in Corinth. This place looked more like the farm homes in the Greek countryside with an Amazon flair.

“The stream runs through the inside of the house!” I said as we strolled from room to room. Indeed, through one corner of the house, the crystal clear stream, along with it’s rocky bed, meandered, ending at a rather large pool complete with its own little waterfall, all inside the spacious home. I had seen the large bathing halls certain Greek and Roman noblemen had built, but I’d never seen anything like this, a pool inside the house.

“Built for relaxation, that’s for sure,” Xena said.

“I think we’re going to have to come back to Amazonia just so we can stay out here a little longer.”

Ephiny chuckled. “I suppose it’s the only really decadent spot in the Amazon Nation, but we tend to think our Queens are worth it.

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I’m eternally grateful, Eph. Thanks so much for bringing us here. And, thank Selene for thinking of it, too.”

“There’s a full compliment of supplies in the kitchen. Breena sent some of her girls ahead this morning and loaded you up with enough food and drink to entertain a small army.”

“Why don’t you and Prax stay and have dinner with us then?” I asked, perhaps without thinking. I caught the fallen expression on Xena’s face.

Ephiny and Prax looked at each other and grinned. I immediately remembered why we were there.

“I think we’ll leave you two alone. You have the rest of the afternoon and evening to yourselves. Besides, Breena filled up our barracks with fresh food, too.”

“Are you sure I shouldn’t be posted somewhere closer to the house, Captain?” Prax asked.

“I’m sure,” Ephiny replied, practically grabbing my serious looking bodyguard by the neck.

“If you two need anything, all you have to do is yell loud,” she called back from the door. “Your personal guard are still stationed around the house. A discreet distance away,” she added.

I found it surprising, the way Prax’s cheeks reddened, apparently in regards to what she thought Xena and I would be doing that evening. What surprised me about myself was that I actually thought more about being with my wife than the fact that there would be others all around us.

There had been a time when I was overly conscious of the guards around me. In my past, there had been occasions when I had been made to perform my sexual duties before many eyes. Those days still had the ability to haunt my dreams. Of late, I had become more and more conscious of those men and women around me during times when Xena and I were intimate. I don’t know why, perhaps merely my own demons come to light. But, just now, I realized that these guards had no wish to laugh at me or humiliate me in any way. In the case of harm to me, any one of them would willingly give their lives up in my place. I suppose maybe it was this thinking, which suddenly put me so much at ease.

How I looked forward to this evening. Too long had it been since Xena and I had been able to enjoy one another at our leisure.

hhhh{gggg

“It feels wonderful,” I exclaimed only to see Xena nod in agreement.

The day had turned quite warm for the end of the summer season, and the water in the pool felt delicious against my skin. Xena and I even gave in to the little girls inside of us and started a rather playful water fight. I fought valiantly, but it was a losing battle, and I wasn’t too proud to say so and beg mercy. This was the side of Xena that few other people would ever see and I thought that a shame. It was, however, something that caused me to feel quite fortunate, even special.

We continued to lounge in the beautifully landscaped pool, listening to the water as it fell down the rocks. I could not even hazard a guess as to how the water was continually recycled from pool to waterfall. We held one another, bathed unhurriedly, and simply relaxed with no particular agenda. Well, perhaps one agenda, but we knew that would come.

It was easy to relax with the sounds coming from outside. At first, it sounded as though musicians played just outside our doors. It turned out to be the most ingenious of devices. Pieces of hollow bamboo, along with metal tubes, hung in groups. When the breeze tossed the pieces against one another, they gave off some truly melodic sounds.

“Mm, know what I feel like doing now?” Xena came up behind me and kissed the top of my ear.

“I bet I can guess.”

“You’re such a mind reader.”

It was a most inopportune moment, but my stomach decided to protest my choice of priorities, or what it assumed was to be my next action.

“Have you eaten today?” Xena asked. Her look of concern touched my heart.

“I swear I had a morning meal. Prax is my witness. Sorry, love,” I said after my stomach rumbled once more.

“Maybe we better eat…food,” she added quickly to my arched eyebrow. “We have all evening,” she reminded me. “Besides, I’m hungry myself.”

“Well, I suppose we should keep up our strength.” I chuckled. “Why don’t I see what Breena’s prepared for us?”

“Excellent idea, love.”

Xena exited the pool first, and as always, I watched her body, feeling that familiar, tingling warmth assail my belly. She was an incredibly beautiful woman, and I took the opportunity to tell her so.

“I bet you say that to all your consorts, my Queen,” she said as she offered me a hand and helped me from the pool.

We wrapped ourselves up in the soft towels I found in a woven basket not far from the pool. We made our way to the rather large kitchen space and dining area. What I found there certainly stunned me into silence. I wasn’t sure if it was from embarrassment or not.

“Surprise!” The familiar lilting voice rang out.

Although I had only met her once before, Aphrodite looked exactly the same as she had at our last meeting. Surrounded by Athena and Artemis, the trio stood around a fully laden dining table. Candles burned to enhance the romantic setting and the smell coming from a bubbling pot hanging over the coals of the fireplace made my mouth water. Athena looked confident, Artemis, as usual uncomfortable around mortals, and then there was Aphrodite. Her smile was infectious, but I did tug at my towel self consciously. Her diaphanous gown did little to conceal her own naked form.

“Oh no! What are you all doing here?” Xena questioned.

I suppose the Goddesses had become used to Xena’s ill-mannered attitude, but I couldn’t bring myself to be anything but in awe. I bowed, as I always did in their presence.

“Gabrielle, they’re in our house, not the other way around.” Xena sounded testy, but I ignored it. She was always that way around the immortals. Even more so when she had our privacy on her mind.

“I call Gabrielle’s behavior respectful,” Artemis said. She looked miffed, as well, while Athena only smiled that mysterious smile of hers.

“Forget it, sister. I gave up on her a long time ago. Getting Xena to act decorously is like trying to teach a child to dislike sweets.”

I winced. Athena’s analogy was sure to get Xena’s temper going.

“Look—” Xena took a step forward, but I intercepted her.

“Calm down, love. This all looks rather innocent.”

“That’s always the way they—” She stopped, sighed, and looked down at me. Leaning forward, she kissed my forehead. “Sorry…don’t know what came over me.”

“I do,” I answered. “We only have one night here,” I turned to Athena to say. “We haven’t had any time to ourselves in so long.”

Xena turned toward the three Goddesses. “Sorry,” she mumbled. She couldn’t seem to meet their gaze.

“It was never our intention to spoil your evening, ladies. In fact, Aphrodite prepared all this food from her very own recipes just to make your evening that much more pleasant. We wanted to wish you both well, since we didn’t come to the ceremony yesterday,” Athena said.

“Well, now I feel like an ass,” Xena said.

“A good start.” Athena grinned over at Xena.

“The three of you will always have a place in our lives,” I said. “I hope you forgive our…surprise at seeing you. You know that Xena meant no real disrespect.”

“Always watching out for me, eh?”

“Oh yes, there was that, but…well, the food does smell awfully tempting.” It seemed my humor was able to diffuse the situation. All four women smiled at me fondly, Xena wearing that special expression that she reserved for me alone. The one that said she appreciated being taken care of, even if it was sometimes humiliating.

“So, now that everybody likes everybody else, dig in, girls,” Aphrodite said.

I looked longingly at the food, glanced up at the Goddesses self consciously and once more tugging at the towel around me, my only dress at the moment. I think Athena understood.

“We’ll leave you two alone. Have a wonderful evening.” Athena winked at us, and I couldn’t help but blush. I don’t know why, since Xena and I were married now. I suppose it was simply because I knew that she knew what we would be doing in a short while. It constantly amazed me when I acted in such a manner; acting like an innocent schoolgirl. I had been used and abused in public so often during my life of slavery that it was always a surprise that my mind even had the inclination to blush, let alone the audacity. It was, however, a most pleasant amazement.

Before we could even say goodbye, the Olympians vanished, leaving behind semi transparent sparkles where they’d been standing. We took our food into the dining area and sat down to enjoy the sumptuous meal, merging the food with conversation about life in general, our futures, and our new family. I found that there existed nothing as romantic as a simple meal, affable conversation, and being alone with the woman I loved.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum

hhhh{gggg

I sat at the small table we shared, gazing into those emerald green eyes across from me. We talked about our lives and how we wanted life to be for Amira and the other members of our new family. As I listened to Gabrielle’s hopes, loves, and fears, I suddenly realized what had been happening to me. I had been falling in love all over again. The sound of her voice, the way her eyes shone, and the golden color of her hair by the light of the candles, it all made me realize that this was not a mere physical attraction. I loved and needed this woman for so much more than simply sex, although I will be honest. Just then, it was rather high up on my to-do list.

“More?” Gabrielle said as she rose and indicated the empty bowl before me. I wasn’t really one to have more than one serving, but I felt myself uncharacteristically famished.

“I think I will. Here, let me.” I stood and grabbed both of our bowls much to my wife’s astonishment. “Hey, I can serve it up as long as someone else does the cooking.”

We both laughed and I headed back to the kitchen. When I walked through the beaded curtain that separated the kitchen from the dining area, I nearly ran into Athena. She stood near the fireplace, bending over the cooking pot.

“Lose something?” I asked.

I always thought the immortals knew everything ahead of time, but Athena actually jumped when she heard my voice.

“What do you mean sneaking up on me?”

“I beg your pardon. Isn’t this our house?”

“Very funny.”

“Well…” I asked. I wouldn’t have pressed her, but she stood directly in front of the cooking pot and the stew I wanted.

“Oh, I…” her eyes darted around the room and I just knew she was going to lie to me. “I, um…forgot something.”

“Really? What exactly did you forget?”

Again, her eyes scanned the room. “This.” She quickly grabbed an object from the mantel over the fireplace.

“That vase is yours?”

“Yes, in fact. It’s…it’s a family heirloom.”

“Right.”

“Look, just eat your dinner.”

“I would if…” I indicated with one hand that she blocked my way.

“Oh. Well…I better go.” Saying that, she disappeared, clutching the vase.

I thought about her strange behavior, but not for long. Suddenly, all I could think of was having more food. I suppose if I had taken the time to think about that unusual desire, I could have avoided a certain amount of pain I was to suffer later.

Gabrielle and I wolfed down a second bowl of stew and I once more returned to the kitchen. We decided that one more serving wouldn’t hurt.

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed upon seeing Artemis in much the same spot Athena had been in. “Let me guess. An old family heirloom?” I reached out and lifted up the closest vase, which appeared surprisingly like the one Athena had made off with.

“Why in Tartarus would I want an old piece of pottery like that? Have you lost your mind?”

“Sorry. Private joke. Can I help you?”

“I just…”

“Forgot something?”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“What exactly did you forget?”

“I…something that…” She turned her head, searching the room.

How could Goddesses lie so badly…and why?

“I thought I forgot it, but…turns out…well, I didn’t.”

“I see.”

“Well then…” She swiped at the air with one hand, looking a little like she was waving goodbye. All at once, I stood there alone.

“Gods!” I muttered, spooning out some more of the delectable stew.

hhhh{gggg
” Does it feel awfully hot in here?” Gabrielle asked.

I had actually been thinking the same thing myself, but I’d already opened the doors out to the garden and a cooling breeze blew into the room. It did nothing, however, to cool my burning skin and I wiped the perspiration from my brow.

“I was thinking the same thing. Maybe just the spices in the stew?” I continued to kiss her neck, ignoring my escalating body temperature, which just happened to match my increasing libido.

We had moved to the living area, pillows and couches set near another fireplace. We had no need for a fire, so we shed our clothes and reclined upon the many pillows spread out on the floor. Neither of us felt any inhibitions, even though our soldiers stood guard somewhere outside of the house. I didn’t think it particularly odd, however, considering that some time had passed since Gabrielle and I had been able to let loose and make love as freely as we had back in Corinth.

“I guess maybe it’s been way too long since we’ve done this then.” She shivered as I hit a particularly sensitive spot behind her ear. “I’m out of shape.”

“Know what you mean,” I mumbled. “My skin feels like it’s on fire.” I took Gabrielle in my arms, pulling her back against me, groaning at the feel of her hot skin against mine. “It has definitely been too long,” I added in a husky voice, as I felt a trickle of wetness from my sex.

I wanted to know if Gabrielle felt the same, so I pulled her hips back, grinding myself against her. Her back pressed against my breasts and I felt my nipples grow hard at the contact. Easily reaching my fingers down between her legs, I groaned once more as if in pain at the exquisite wetness pouring from Gabrielle. How we had become so excited that fast was unexpected, but no surprise. It had indeed been a long while. It had grown almost painful; how much I felt myself wanting Gabrielle.

I didn’t know what to do first. I wanted to do it all, use my lips, fingers, and tongue. I had my hands across Gabrielle’s body, barely giving her time to concentrate on one area of pleasure before I moved on. Quickly, I pulled her backward until she was lying on the bed and I moved over her, placing kisses and running my fingertips across every area of bare skin, pausing at those spots I knew she found pleasurable.

Her body felt like a taut bowstring under my fingertips. It fairly hummed with passion, her body writhing and her hips lifting from the mattress, silently begging for my attention. I gave it gladly. My kisses moved down her body as though the scent of her excitement was a noose around my neck, not that I had to be forced or drawn between her legs involuntarily. Just as I dipped my head, Gabrielle stopped me.

“Turn around,” she whispered in a rather frantic tone.

I turned my body and positioned my sex over Gabrielle’s face. This was no time for gentle and unhurried discovery. We were much too excited for that, beyond any reasonable thought. Using my fingers to part the delicate, pink folds, I lowered my head and reached my tongue out to taste her.

Gabrielle grasped my hips, pulling me down to meet her waiting tongue. Just as when our skin had first touched, we groaned loudly at the lightning bolt feel of the contact. Tongues working in furious unison, I worked to bring her to climax while fighting to prolong my own pleasure. I was fighting a losing battle, though.

Easing my tongue forward, Gabrielle’s sweet taste spurring me on, I slipped my hands underneath her hips to pull her more firmly to me. It was at that moment when my brain slipped from concentrating on pleasuring Gabrielle to feeling the intense satisfaction of my own pleasure.

I felt the warm wetness of Gabrielle’s tongue. First she tasted, swirling her tongue against all those most sensitive spots. Then, she pulled down on my hips, and I felt her tongue enter me. Suddenly my hips began their unconscious dance, swirling and grinding against the tongue pleasuring me. It was too much pleasure too soon, I felt my climax rushing upon me much faster than I would have liked.

“G-Gabrielle…” I paused in my own task, hoping to stave off the rise of intense gratification that had me so close to the edge.

Gabrielle never stopped. Knowing me as she did, I’m sure she knew what my shaking body and tightened muscles signaled. Her teeth pressed down against my swollen clit, her tongue continually pressing inside of me. I gripped the bed clothes as I felt her tongue licking across my clit in more forceful strokes. Closing my eyes, I remembered wishing that I could have continued pleasing Gabrielle, but the waves of delight pounded me to the bottom of the surf and I nearly lost my breath. My body jerked, my muscles tightening and releasing involuntarily.

I must have simply froze in place because I felt Gabrielle gently roll me off of her and to the bed. I couldn’t even speak as I waited for my body to recover from the intense climax.

“Are you all right?” she asked, stroking my forehead.

I nodded, but after a small while speech returned to me. “Gods,” was all I could say at the time.

I noticed that Gabrielle still breathed rather heavily. I cursed my selfishness at taking my pleasure first when all I had really wanted had been to please her. Well, it wasn’t all I wanted, although I did want it a great deal. The odd thing was that although I had just experienced an extremely powerful climax, I felt nowhere near sated. All I could think was how much I still wanted the woman beside me.

“Much better,” I said as I quickly pushed Gabrielle back onto the bed, beginning once more where I had started.

I licked my lips in eager anticipation. I was ready to come again, or to be brought to that point at any rate, but I wanted to do this for Gabrielle, wanted to take my time. Sliding my palms up the insides of her thighs, I allowed my fingers to bring Gabrielle back to her previous level of excitement. Her body had begun to flush with desire, and a light sheen of perspiration covered her skin. There was nothing as sensual as a woman who enjoyed giving pleasure as well as receiving it. Gabrielle had spent her life giving, and I took a particular pleasure in seeing her receive.

“Just a moment,” I said, moving away for a moment.

“Xena,” Gabrielle’s voice held a combination of frustration and anguish.

“Close your eyes,” I commanded, jumping up from the bed.

She immediately did as I requested. It took me a few moment to find what I’d been looking for. “Lift,” I said when I returned, easing her hips up with one hand. I slid a thick pillow underneath her, tilting her hips up at just the right angle.

Gabrielle had not been the only one of us to possess superior skill in lovemaking. Although I’d let her lead in most of our sessions, that was about to end on this evening, albeit temporarily. Tonight I wanted her on my terms and in my way. Besides, I had been told that I possessed some talent at this particular pleasure, and it was always rather stirring to perform it on a woman who didn’t expect or demand it, but found it to be an exhilarating bonus.

My belly tightened with desire. Gabrielle’s scent did more than urge me on, it was actually appetizing. I found myself needing to do this, almost craving her taste once more. “So beautiful,” I whispered as I looked down and examined her sex. Soft curls the color of amber honey were soaked with Gabrielle’s own resplendent moisture.

When I ran the tip of my tongue along the delicate folds, I felt the gathering of moisture from my own body, as well. I licked along the edges first, looking on her sex as one of the rare and precious flowers in my rose garden. Slowly, and with great care, I unveiled her petals, exploring with only the touch of my tongue. I nearly lost myself in the pleasure of this mere act alone, but for Gabrielle’s strained voice.

“Xena…please,” she begged in a voice that shook with restrained passion.

Lifting her hips in a silent plea for more, she moaned with delight when I took one long, languid stroke against the swollen area at the top of her cleft. I wrapped my arms under her hips, sliding my palms upward. My surprise came out as a groan against the lips of her sex when I found her own hands already massaging her breasts. I couldn’t resist gazing up to watch her. I began to time the strong licks from my tongue with the way the tugged and pulled on her nipples.

Legs trembling, she began forcefully thrusting her hips upward while intermittently grinding them against my mouth in a circular rotating motion. I had honestly meant to take more time, but our combined passions simply couldn’t hold out. Suddenly Gabrielle cried out just as loudly as I had earlier. I wasn’t about to let her climax end there, however.

Before she came down from her second climax, I moved on top of her. Her eyes opened wide, suddenly realizing what that long something was that lay atop her thigh and I smiled down at her, waiting for her reaction. She gasped slightly. I wouldn’t have even thought of using such a thing if I hadn’t the idea that Gabrielle would enjoy it. She had often used a phallus on me during our lovemaking, but had never requested that I return the pleasure. Carefully watching her for any sign of fear or resistance, I reached down and kissed her.

Gabrielle didn’t waste time. She wrapped her arms around my neck and when our open mouths met, her tongue searched for mine. Wrapping one leg around my waist, she bucked her hips upward, almost grinding herself against the custom made phallus.

“Yes! Xena, please…” She pleaded without any hint of shame.

It was now obvious that Gabrielle wanted this just as much as I had. I let the phallus slide along the length of her drenched sex. She gasped and then moaned as I pressed into her more fully. I stopped pushing, pulling back ever so slightly.

There was a clear desperation in her voice now, as she used words that she rarely uttered. “By the Gods, Xena…please, Xena, Gods, fuck me!”

Spreading her legs open and lifting them at the same time, it allowed me to easily enter her. She spread her legs wider, thrusting upward and the phallus impaled her. Gabrielle cried out, but it was a sound of relief and pleasure, not pain. Once I was sure of that, I moved my hips, pushing in and pulling out. Repeating those exact movements, my own wetness increased as the phallus pressed up and against my own sex. We both groaned, moaned, and called out to as many Gods as we knew.

We fell into a rhythm punctuated only by Gabrielle’s pleas of harder or deeper. The intensity, especially coming from her, surprised me. If I thought this would be some gentle, loving act, I would have been wrong. It was certainly loving, but it was anything but tender. We pushed and pressed against one another. I gasped in both pain and pleasure when Gabrielle pinched my nipples, pulling at them roughly. I used my teeth and tongue to return the favor. The rhythm picked up, and I finally let Gabrielle control the pace, meeting each of her demands for more.

“Gods you feel so good inside me!” Gabrielle rasped with a ferocious sort of intensity.

Her words, some of them rough and demanding, were all it took for me. I had been holding back my orgasm since nearly the first moment when I had entered Gabrielle. The sound I made as I climaxed could only have been described as a howl. I’m uncertain if it was the noises I made or the hard thrusts of my hips as I came, but it was enough to send Gabrielle off into her own climactic abyss. Her entire body shivered and shook. I believe she would have screamed if her voice hadn’t grown raw from her continual pleadings.

I lay slumped over her still, panting body for some time before I could clear my brain enough to force my own body into the slightest action. I slid the phallus from her, listening as she made a mewling sound at its absence. Rolling onto my back, I pulled Gabrielle into my arms. She settled her head in the crook of my neck and we remained still until our breathing came close to being normal.

“Oh, Gods,” I finally said as I chuckled in amazement.

“What?”

“Want to hear something totally and utterly insane?”

“Hhmm?”

“It’s too embarrassing.”

“Xena, it’s me.” Gabrielle laughed. “What could be that bad?”

“I want to do that again.”

“Good.” She leaned up on one elbow, looking down on me.

“I mean I want to do it again now…right now.”

“Good,” she said again, but this time an almost feral smile spread her lips.

It was to be only the beginning of a very long night. One very long, pleasurable night. Somewhere along the way, the pleasure turned somewhat painful as we grew sore from the prolonged contact, but we still couldn’t seem to get enough of one another. Our bodies, thankfully, knew better than we did. We each passed out around the same time, blessedly before we could hurt ourselves beyond repair. At the time, I didn’t even have the strength to wonder at our odd behavior.
Chapter 45: When I Have Seen By Time’s Fell Hand…
From the other room, I heard Gabrielle let loose with a string of curses. I sympathized with her wholeheartedly. The pleasure we experienced the night before had come back upon us with a vengeance. There wasn’t one spot on my body that wasn’t in pain. It was much more than simply the soreness one experienced after a long night of incredible sex. I could barely move, and walking put me in agony.
“Just for the record, relieving yourself when you’re this raw is a huge mistake,” Gabrielle groaned out as she gingerly sat in a chair she had positioned to overflowing with cushions.

“Told you so.”

“I have no idea how I’m going to walk today, let alone sit a saddle.”

“I’m of the exact same mind, love.”

“How could we have done this to ourselves, Xena? I just don’t understand.”

“It was like we couldn’t stop,” I added.

“More like we under some sort of…” she paused, turning her head to look at me.

We looked hard at one another. “Spell,” we both said at once.

“I’m going to kill them. Didn’t I tell you that—”

“Now, Xena, don’t jump to conclusions. This might not have anything to do with Athena and—”

“I bet it was some sort of joke for them!” Gabrielle’s reasoning voice fell upon deaf ears. I had already played magistrate and executioner against the Goddesses. They were guilty. Gabrielle simply hadn’t enough experience with the Olympians yet to be as suspicious as I was. There was only one thing to do.

“Athena!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

She appeared much faster than I actually expected.

“This had better be good because I—what’s wrong with you two?”

“Oh, you noticed, did you?” I countered.

“I’m the Goddess of healing. It would be rather difficult to ignore the fact that you two are in considerable pain.”

“Well, I hope you’re happy.”

“About what? Oh, no,” she said, pausing to look between us. “Don’t try to blame anything on me. I’ve been on Olympus since I left here.”

“The first or second time you left here?” I asked.

“What does that mean?” Gabrielle asked. I hadn’t bothered to tell her about catching Artemis and Athena in our kitchen, but I gave her a quick run down. My mind had been on other things. More like obsessed with other things, but now I at least knew why.

“Athena, you didn’t—” Gabrielle started, but Athena interrupted her.

“I most certainly did not. I would never do anything to hurt either of you. How did you two get hurt, anyway?”

“I—we—” Gabrielle found it difficult to explain and turned to me.

“We almost killed ourselves because we couldn’t stop—you know…sex,” I finally said to her uncomprehending stare.

“You what? How in the world could—” She stopped so abruptly that it caught our attention. That, along with the extremely guilty look on her face. Of course, her next words helped to convict her.

“Oh no,” Athena said under her breath.

“Tell me you didn’t,” I said.

“Look—I mean…I think. Give me a heartbeat.” She turned her back and seemed to be concentrating. All of a sudden Artemis and Aphrodite materialized.

“What’s the life or death call about?”

Athena gave her sisters the abbreviated version of what had happened. My suspicions were confirmed when Aphrodite spoke.

“Oops.”

“I don’t believe this,” Gabrielle said, nearly in tears. “You actually did this to us?”

“No!” Athena replied. “Well, yes, but we didn’t mean to. Dite!” She turned to her sister. “You said you changed your mind…that you weren’t going to use it.”

“Well…I changed my mind again. I swear I didn’t put enough in to hurt them, though.”

“That’s because when I thought you weren’t going to, I came back and added some. It didn’t seem like that much, though.”

“Um…” Artemis, who had been quiet until then, raised her hand.

“You didn’t,” Athena said.

“Well, neither of you were going to,” she answered in a defensive tone. “How was I to know?”

“You put something in the stew?” I asked.

“The original idea was to just give you a little of my hot & bothered potion,” Aphrodite explained. “To…you know, get you into the mood quicker than usual. We knew you only had one night, so…I—we—well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“You put something in the stew, too, to make sure we ate it all. Didn’t you?” Gabrielle asked.

“It was the only way to guarantee you’d get enough of the hot & bothered potion,” Aphrodite said.

“No wonder we couldn’t get enough of it,” Gabrielle added. “Along with each other.”

“I think putting so much of the hot & bothered potion in the stew sort of affected the small bit of spell that I added in order to give you a rather unquenchable appetite for it. Turns out they blended together and you couldn’t get enough of either one.”

“I do hate to interrupt, but would you mind taking the lesson portion of your apology elsewhere so I can be miserable in peace?” I asked.

“I’m so sorry,” Athena said before reaching out to touch my arm.

There was a surge of energy that flowed through me, followed by a calm, mellow feeling. “Much better,” I sighed in relief.

“And you,” she said, crossing the room to attend to Gabrielle. She knelt down beside Gabrielle’s chair. “Forgive me, Gabrielle. We never meant you harm. The potion was just supposed to help the two of you relax enough to enjoy one another. It’s been a stressful time for you lately, and I suppose we just wanted to help out.”

“I understand,” Gabrielle smiled, obviously feeling a great deal better. “Xena and I have never had any problem in that arena, though.”

I smiled and winked at Gabrielle for standing up to her patron.

“I think we understand that now. Well, we’d better go,” Athena said, rising from her kneeling position. Each of the Goddesses apologized before they left. Aphrodite even pulled a smile from me.

“I know it was a rough morning, but what a way to go, huh, girls?” She giggled and disappeared.

Gabrielle came and crawled into bed beside me. “She did have a point.”

Aphrodite did indeed have a point. For all the pain, I couldn’t help but smile at the extremely pleasant memories from the previous evening. Funny, but I wondered if their potion really had anything to do with our marathon session. Somehow, it just seemed like something we would have done without any help at all.

We promptly fell asleep, free of any pain or potions.

hhhh{gggg

Addendum to the Lord Conqueror’s Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror’s presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea

“Was your little getaway everything you hoped for?” Ephiny asked.

I wasn’t certain whether she spoke to me or Xena. We rode three abreast along the wide path heading back to the village. Xena rode in the middle, beside me, and Ephiny carried the outside opposite Xena. Prax, my newly fashioned shadow, rode perhaps a horse-length behind me. Wishing to be right beside me, Xena explained to Prax that in order to do her job well, it was essential that she watch everything around me and not just me.

Thankfully, Xena gave our friend an answer that satisfied me, as well. “You have no idea,” she answered.

I nodded to Xena and, just as we had discussed doing earlier that morning, she slowed down and let us pull away from her. She rode beside Prax and I could faintly hear them discussing Prax’s techniques. Perhaps Xena would turn out to be a better mentor for the young woman than I would.

“Can I have a moment more of your time, Eph?” I asked.

“Have I done something wrong?”

“No! Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know. I guess maybe it’s the look on your face. You look like you’re about to reprimand me.”

“Gods,” I said before chuckling. “I’d better take my own advice and lighten up some.”

She smiled, as well, but she looked…preoccupied was the only way to describe it. As if I didn’t have her complete attention.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you, too,” she said.

I was glad for her addition to the conversation as it gave me some more time to think. Perhaps stall would have been a more accurate, or at least honest, word. I had finally made a decision regarding my dilemma in assigning a Regent to rule Amazonia once I returned to Corinth. I feared that my decision would not be well-liked by my captain.

I tried to think of a way to say it to her. I had thought about little else since our return trip had begun. I took a deep breath and steeled myself against the reaction I would get. What I didn’t suspect, until the moment I looked over at Ephiny was that she looked just as torn as I did. I didn’t know it for certain until we both spoke at the same time.

“Ephiny… I don’t want you to be Regent.”

“Gabrielle… I don’t want to be Regent.”

“What?” We each said in unison once more.

“You don’t want me to be Regent? Why? What’s wrong with me?”

“Wait a heartbeat. Didn’t you just say that you didn’t want to be Regent?”

“Well, yes,” she drawled out. “But not wanting it and not getting it are two different things.”

“Point taken. Why don’t we start over and you begin this time.”

“Fair enough.” Ephiny smiled at me and I knew things were all right between us. I believe she even looked a bit relieved. “It’s not that I don’t want the position, Gabrielle, but I truly believe there are others better qualified. I understand that you originally decided on me back when I was the only Amazon you knew. Things are different now, and since you’ve met all of us, well, you know that there is someone…better suited, I suppose.”

We rode in silence for some time after she had finished, listening to the sounds of the horses hooves and the others around us.

“Eph, I want you to know one thing right from the start. I still think you would make a wonderful ruler in my place. What made me decide that another might be the best choice is—well actually there are two reasons. Number one, I don’t think presiding over a never-ending string of meetings is something you have the inclination or patience to do. Second, and this is more of a request. I’d like you to come back to Corinth to oversee the Amazons who are to be stationed there.”

“Well…I guess I didn’t see that coming.”

“You don’t have to answer right away, but—”

“I’d be honored. I’ll do it.”

“You sure don’t waste time in deciding, do you?”

Ephiny laughed, the most relaxed I’d heard her in some time. “There’s no sense deliberating over something that feels right in the first place. Can I ask—”

“Who I’ve decided to be Regent?”

“Yes.”

I think you already suspect, but I was going to ask your sister, Adara. I hope that’s not going to be a problem, Eph.”

“I hope not.” She quickly looked up at me. “I don’t mean with me. It’s just that Addie and I have a sort of…history in that regard.”

I listened to her tell me the story of how she had stepped down as Elder of the Panther clan and the difficulty that action had created with Adara. I never told Ephiny that I had already been aware of her past, which is why my decision had been so hard. Xena had related Ephiny and Adara’s troubled past to me, making me aware that she was telling me in the strictest of confidence. I allowed Ephiny to reveal her story as though I never knew, not wishing to destroy the friendship that she and Xena shared. I believe that Xena had only told me out of concern for Ephiny.

“All I can do is to be as honest with Addie as possible,” I said. Hopefully she’ll see what I see in the both of you.”

“Which is?”

“That each of you are quite talented in your own right, that you excel in different areas, and that I’ll need each of those areas of expertise in order to make this long distance ruling work.”

“If anyone can do it, Gabrielle, that would be you.”

We talked for a while longer, mostly about the preparations that would be necessary to house two platoons of Amazons in Corinth.

“I need to speak to Prax for a few moments, Eph. Do you mind?” I asked after we’d ridden for some time.

“Not at all. I’ll send her up.” Ephiny tugged on her horse’s reins and pulled away from me. I waited patiently until Prax came riding up to take her place.

“You sent for me, my Queen?”

“No, Prax, I asked to see you for a moment.” I smiled at her and she grinned back.

“Right,” she replied. “That’s what I meant.” She smiled without looking over at me.

“That’s what I thought,” I answered with good natured cheer. “I wanted to have a moment with you because I fear once we arrive in the village all my time will be taken up with preparations for our return to Corinth.”

“Have you thought anymore about my request?”

“Patience. Prax. It’s one of the first things my mentor taught me.”

“Does that mean—” She stopped abruptly when she saw me look across at her with a raised right eyebrow, an expression I appropriated from Xena.

I almost didn’t have the heart for it, to tease her such a way, but it wasn’t so much a tease as a lesson. One that had taken me quite some time to learn. I suppose this was to be Yu Pan’s revenge upon me, cursing me with a student more impatient than myself. If this was to be a part of my destiny, I would approach it with all the reverence and fortitude that Yu Pan had shown with a novice like me.

“I have decided that I will accept the honor you’ve conferred on me, that of becoming your mentor.”

“Thank you so much, your Highness. Words can’t describe what this means to me.”

“Then you’d better get some. My first question is to ask you what you hope to gain from my teachings.”

“I—um I—well, I guess…I want to be like you.”

“And how am I? What are these qualities that you desire?”

“You’re…I think you’re the warrior I want to be, but you’ve also got the…I don’t know what to call it exactly. The temperament, I suppose. I want to be as compassionate and wise as you, but not give up my strength. Something like that.”

“At least it shows me that you’ve thought this through some. The mentor-student relationship isn’t that of a student and an instructor who teaches them their letters or mathematics. I’m not here to tell you what to do, or that anything you do is right or wrong. A mentor teaches with word and deeds. You can always come to me in order to attain enlightenment or encouragement, but I won’t live your life for you. I’ll always present you with different paths, but it’s ultimately up to you to choose which path you’ll walk down. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“That I have to make my own decisions?”

“Pretty apt. What I’ll expect from you, Prax, will be your best effort. The way isn’t for everyone to live. It requires the power of your mind, as well as the strength of your body. If you ever want to quit, all you have to do is say so. There’ll not be any shame in stopping.”

“So, when will I be through? I mean, how will we know that we’re finished with my teachings?”

I smiled, fondly remembering back to the time when I had asked Yu Pan the very same question. Perhaps Prax and I were more alike than I knew. ” Táifeng, when you can see through my eyes, then you’ll be finished. When that time comes, you won’t be my student any longer.”

“And when will I learn what my name means?”

“When you’ve learned the language, of course. We’ll start with the basic letters.”

I went on to recite all the letters of the dialect which Yu Pan spoke. There were many diaslects in the Chin language. I had learned a great number of them, but not all. Yu Pan’s province spoke the most common, so I began there. I would later give Prax a scroll with this information, but I wished to see what she would remember from our first session. I watched rather proudly as she did double duty. All the while that she listened to me, she conducted her first task, that of my personal guard. Her eyes constantly scanned the ground and the trees, her body relaxed, but poised for action. For one so young, she showed amazing promise. I smiled once more, remembering that was what Yu Pan had once said about me.

hhhh{gggg
“You want me to be your Regent?” Adara asked. She looked from me to Ephiny. “Let me guess. You turned it down.” She stood there staring at her sister.

I honestly thought that the two sisters had grown beyond such pettiness, but I learned from personal experience that old hurts don’t disappear so easily. Not without a great deal of work, anyway. I had invited Adara and Ephiny to our home and the room I had been using as a sort of study. We had returned from the Queen’s retreat only the day before, but in four days time, we would be leaving for Amphipolis, so I had been hard at work tying up loose ends.

Selene hade become a great help to me. She assisted in organizing my meetings and actually scribed notes for me. She said that she was thankful to have a job to do and enjoyed the practice at writing. Cyrene helped me keep track of Amira, but mostly helped me plan the trip home, from a household perspective. Atrius and Ephiny were in charge of the actual trip and their soldiers, but there were a good number of hired servants and family who were to be under my direction. This was a little new to me, but I was anxious to be looked upon as keeping up the Queen’s end of traveling duties.

Cyrene was as helpful to me as Delia when it came to organization, and I was already sad about leaving her in Amphipolis. She had become the mother I had never really known. We had talked only once about her coming to Corinth, at least for a visit, but she was loathe to leave her inn in the hands of the hired help. I couldn’t blame her there, and so I hadn’t broached the subject again. I saw that she and Amira had become fast friends. Anya had told me once that nothing steals the heart quite as thoroughly as a grandchild. perhaps that would play a part in Cyrene’s decision.

But, just now I had a very delicate matter to deal with I had to manage myself. It seemed as though the only person in the room who didn’t realize that she was the most qualified for position of Regent was Adara.

“Look, Gabrielle, I—” Adara started.

I interrupted her by standing up rather abruptly. “Addie, take a walk with me. Won’t you?”

She paused to take a calming breath. “Of course.”

We walked away from the village, back toward the center of the forest. I had enjoyed taking the pleasant walk each morning to make a blessing at Artemis’s temple. I paused to offer a greeting to a group of young girls being led by Lalia, the Elder of the Sparrow clan. She appeared more than her usual flustered self when in public. She actually looked excited.

“I’m taking these young women on a tour of the archives.” She rushed the children past us, but stopped long enough to whisper in my ear. “Ever since Nakia joined, can you believe we actually have girls who want to join the Sparrow clan.”

I chuckled and wished her luck with her new recruits. So, Nakia had made her choice. I hoped it turned out well for her.

“Sorry for the interruption,” I said to Adara. We walked for a few more moments while I composed my thoughts.

“You were about to say something back there?” I said. I tried to make it sound as if I merely asked an innocent question, but I knew she’d been angry.

“In all honesty, Gabrielle, I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think I can handle being second best to my sister, not again, anyway.”

“Ephiny’s told me about the trouble you two experienced. I don’t think she wanted to break a confidence, but she thought it important that I know.”

“And, you still don’t see why I can’t accept this position?”

“In fact, no, I don’t. Addie, I’m going to say something that’s not really my style, at least the way that I’m going to go about this isn’t my usual way, but I find that time has become the enemy, and I don’t have enough of it before I leave to be patient with you and Ephiny over this.”

“All right,” she drawled. “Go ahead.”

“You and your sister are acting like children, and I mean very young children.”

She raised an eyebrow and I saw that her lips had tensed into a fine, hard line.

“Before you sock me in the nose, let me explain. Addie, I was just thinking to myself that the only person in that room back there who didn’t know you were the right one for this job was you. I won’t pretend that I know what it’s like to have an older sister, but I can tell you that I understand what it’s like to exist in someone else’s shadow.”

“But, you just said you don’t have a sister.”

“I do, or at least I did, but we were separated when we were sold into slavery as children. I don’t know what’s become of her, but I understand your dilemma all the same, even though it’s not with my sister.”

“So, who’s your nemesis?”

“Truth be told, it’s Xena. I love her and she’s my whole world, but the woman that most people know as the Conqueror is a rather large figure to stand beside.”

She smiled, nodding her head in apparent sympathy. “The bigger they are, the more they block the light from hitting you.”

“Exactly, but if I hadn’t found a way to accept that fact, and recognize my own abilities and strengths, then I would have become as bitter as you sound now.”

“I see.”

“Addie,” I stopped, placing a hand on her arm. “I know I’m using some harsh words, but that’s what I meant about going against my way. It’s just that I don’t have the time to be delicate and walk on eggshells over this. I need to make this decision now, and that means I need for you and Ephiny to come to terms over this feud. I know for a fact that Ephiny’s made a sort of peace with it, but she fears that you’ll always look at every choice between the two of you as coming in second. And, it seems as if she’s right.”

We walked some more and I allowed her this silent time. After some time, I finally spoke again. “I’ll tell you what I told Ephiny the other day, and if you still don’t see it my way, then I’ll accept your decision.”

“All right,” she answered slowly, and this led me to believe that she was already reflecting on the whole situation.

“I told Ephiny that each of you are quite talented in your own right, that you excel in different areas, and that I need each of those areas of expertise in order to make long distance ruling work.”

“And, you truly believe this? I mean that I’d be better than Ephiny?”

Perhaps she had never heard it before, but I wanted to take the weight that she’d been carrying around and help her to toss it off.

“Yes, my friend, I do believe it. I went to Ephiny to tell her just that, and she was rather relieved. We both saw that while Ephiny is a master warrior, administration is simply not what she shines at. I’m not saying that you’re not a great warrior, but you also possess the skills necessary to manage the trivial aspects of leadership. I believe in you, Addie. I wouldn’t be taking the time to convince you if didn’t have such faith in you.”

After a little time had passed in silence, Adara finally spoke. “No one’s been honest enough to talk to me this way in a long time, Gabrielle. I want you to know that I appreciate it. Actually, this isn’t as sudden as it might seem. I guess I’ve been waiting for some time now to find a way to come to terms with my feelings of inadequacy where Ephiny’s concerned. You sort of put it in perspective.”

“You don’t know how glad I am to hear you say that.”

“I think I need to find Ephiny and have a talk with her. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. Go on.”

“I accept the position, provided you still want me for it.”

“I’ve never changed my mind about that. In fact, I want to announce it tomorrow evening, during our farewell party.”

“Fine. Thanks, Gabrielle,” she turned back to me to say. “I feel like I should say something more, but I don’t know what it would be.”

“For me being nosy and having no tact whatsoever? I think thanks should do it.”

We laughed together and then she left to find her sister. I breathed a grateful sigh of relief. I had successfully overcome the last big obstacle to our leaving Amazonia. It wouldn’t make leaving these people, many who had become good friends, any easier, but it did mean that I would entrust them to good hands. I had truly begun to believe Artemis’s prophecy, that under my family’s reign the Amazons would become a great and powerful nation.

hhhh{gggg
“ I feel like I’m never going to get this finished,” I said to Xena, my voice sounding strange in the confines of our tent.

She stretched out on our large makeshift bed, covered with cushions and furs, beside an already sleeping Amira. “What was that?” she asked before yawing.

“I’m going to start writing every evening on our way home. That way, by the time we get there, I’ll be nearly finished with my addition to the archives.”

“Why not wait ‘till you get home?”

“I’m afraid I won’t remember everything. You will fill in your parts, won’t you?”

“Um, sure. I’ll start as soon as I get back to Corinth. I think I’ll be way too busy on the way home.”

“Oh yes, I can see that.”

She grinned at me and closed her eyes once more.

“Don’t forget that Ephiny wants to speak with us this evening.”

“Oh, I forgot about that. Why couldn’t she just talk to us on the road today?”

“I’m not sure. Her exact words were that it was ‘sort of official.’ She wouldn’t tell me anymore, but that she wanted the whole family here. I told Selene and Cyrene to meet us here for a cup of tea after dinner.”

She grumbled and rubbed a hand across her face, rising to sit on the edge of the bed. “I better not get comfortable, then.” She looked at Amira. “Oh to be a kid again. She’s having the time of her life on this trip.”

“I think she and Anya’s girls have a crush on Cor,” I answered, followed by a laugh. “Can’t say as I blame her. I think he’s grown about 2 hands since we saw him last.”

“Poor kid. They followed him around all day. I sure am glad he and mom decided to come along, though. That palace is going to be one different place.”

“I’m just glad that Cyrene and Delia have become such good friends. I thought Delia might feel like Cyrene was invading her territory. You know, Delia’s been sort of the mother figure around the palace for quite a while now.”

“Kind of nice to have something work out without a battle for a change, huh? So, what do you think Eph wants?” she asked, quickly steering the subject in a different direction. Xena crossed the tent, pouring some water into a basin. She rinsed her face, drying it with a small towel and then turned back to face me.

“I’m sure I don’t know, love.”

I wore a secretive smile, feeling rather smug, I suppose. I remember thinking that my beautiful spouse had such a quick wit, even quicker mind on the battlefield, but when it came to emotions, especially affairs of the heart, she always seemed to lag a step behind. She erased my superior feeling with a rather knowing expression of her own, which took me quite by surprise. Before I could comment, one of the guards announced Cyrene.

“Anyone home?” Cyrene said softly, quickly noting Amira’s sleeping figure. “Are you sure we should take our tea in here? It’s pleasant enough to go outside by one of the fires.”

“Because of Amira?” Xena asked, kissing her mother on the cheek. “If Hannibal ran through our camp with a rabid herd of elephants, Amira would sleep through the entire thing.”

We all laughed aloud at Xena’s analogy, the sound of our laughter proving, of course, that she spoke the truth. It usually took some work on our part to get Amira to go to bed in the first place, but once there, she slept the sleep of the truly innocent.

A few moments later, Ephiny and Selene arrived together. We sat around and talked for a short while, enjoying tea and wine. Delia, in charge of the camp cooks once again, sent us around some bowls of fresh fruits, sweet cream, and cheese.

“So, what’s on your mind?” Xena asked Ephiny once the conversation presented an opening.

She’d been patient for about as long as she possibly could. Xena had never been a particularly patient woman with such matters, but I believed her additional edginess might also have been due to the troubling notion that she’d been right all along. Xena looked as though she had finally come around to the fact that the evening’s conversation might indeed be about Selene. At the time, I couldn’t be sure, but something told me that Xena might have known more than she let on.

I hadn’t yet been able to pin Xena down on her feelings regarding a possible relationship between Ephiny and Selene, at least what her true feelings were. I know that in the beginning, Xena didn’t want anyone looking sideways at her little sister, but eventually she admitted, albeit grudgingly, that Selene was a young adult. Would Ephiny and Xena’s developing friendship impact Xena’s feelings one way or another? And if it did, would it be positively or negatively? There was one certainty. The evening wouldn’t be dull by anyone’s standards.

Ephiny looked around the room. I smiled at her fondly, Making an attempt to appear welcoming and not as if I was a member of a reprimand committee. Selene smiled at Ephiny and nodded her head in what I assumed was a show of encouragement. Ephiny slowly stood and, even more slowly, began to speak.

“I suppose…I guess the easiest way to begin would be to just come right out with it.”

“That would be my preference,” Xena said, stifling a yawn.

“Right. Well, I know we’ve all had a long day, so I’ll keep it short if I can. I think we’ve all come to know each other pretty well and to like each other—at least I hope we do—I mean I do—like all of you that is.”

She wiped the palms of her hands along each side of her leather leggings. I had never seen Ephiny so flustered before, but, in her defense, I don’t suppose she’d ever done such a thing before.

“Before I turn old and gray, huh, Eph,” Xena requested.

“Right. Well, I…guess I need to direct this appeal to Cyrene, Xena, and you Gabrielle. I think it affects all of you—us.”

“It won’t be affecting anyone if we don’t hear it,” Xena said once more.

“Right…right. I think—what I actually mean to say is—I mean I’d like—Oh, Gods be damned.”

She looked terrified upon cursing in front of Cyrene and tried to immediately undo the damage. The way she went about it, however, went badly for her.

“Shit! Oh, I mean—Gods…” Every time she opened her mouth, she compounded the problem. Ephiny hung her head back and looked up at the ceiling, her shoulders slumped downward in a gesture of defeat. “This went so much better when I practiced it by myself,” she said to no one in particular.

Someone decided to take pity on Ephiny, but what surprised me the most was that it was the last person I thought it would be.

“Let me make it easier for you, and you just tell me if I’ve got it right or not,” Xena said. “You want to ask our permission to court Selene, perhaps marry her?”

Most of us just sat there with our mouths open, staring at Xena. Ephiny, obviously speechless, simply nodded her head.

“And to ask our permission,” Xena added.

“I’ve already given my permission.” Selene jumped up and went to stand beside Ephiny, grasping her hand boldly. “What we ask for is your blessing. Mother, I know you’ve bid Xena to decide certain matters regarding my future, but you are my mother, after all. Gabrielle, not only are you family to me, but Ephiny has certain…well, reservations I guess about keeping her professional and personal lives separate.”

We continued to stare silently. I admit, Selene’s eloquence took me by surprise.

“Wow, why couldn’t I say it like that?” Ephiny asked.

Selene chuckled and nudged her shoulder against Ephiny’s. It was perhaps the closest physical contact I had yet seen between them. They were discreet, had always been so in my opinion, and I think that had something to do with what Selene said about Ephiny’s reservations. If they were to be married, I would not only be Ephiny’s Queen, but also family. I suppose that did hold some potential for problems, but nothing I couldn’t see us working out.

“Well, dear, I can’t say as this comes as a complete surprise to me, but I hadn’t realized that you two had talked of marriage already,” Cyrene said.

“Let me assure you, Cyrene, that I’ve treated Selene with honor and nothing else. The way I feel about her, well, I know that she’s quite a bit younger than I am, and I guess there could be problems with that fact, but it didn’t make much sense to either of us to merely see one another casually. For one, I wouldn’t dishonor her name that way, and another, given the way I feel about her, I can’t see this ending in anything but marriage.”

Selene and Ephiny smiled lovingly at one another, and I saw an Ephiny whom I hadn’t really had the opportunity to see before. What was it about warriors and their ability to appear so much more attractive when vulnerable? I found it amusing to think that traits such as indecision, paranoia, and a healthy dose of love sickness could ever be so appealing in a lover, but they certainly were, especially when displayed by a woman who was usually the epitome of discipline and self assurance.

Ephiny had finally found her tongue and she did well in reassuring Cyrene. The older woman smiled and nodded her head approvingly. Their eyes turned to me, and I wished they had simply gone on to Xena. I certainly didn’t want to openly disagree with any decision Xena would make in this regard, hers would be the final word, but suddenly I felt forced to reveal my thoughts before consulting with Xena.

Xena didn’t even look at me. In fact, she sat with her head bowed slightly, arms crossed against her chest. She raised one hand and tugged on her bottom lip, an unconscious habit brought about with deep thought. I knew she was listening, however. This was the Xena who was deceptively keen, the Conqueror who possessed the ability to outwit any opponent on the battlefield.

“Gabrielle?” Ephiny’s voiced brought me back to the moment.

“Yes, well…” I hesitated, but came to the quick conclusion that I could do no more than speak my heart. “Not much of a surprise here either. I’m quite happy for you both.”

“So, we have your blessing?” Selene asked.

“I—uh—” I stammered, looking at Xena for some sort of hint or sign. I was clearly capable of my own thoughts, don’t misunderstand, but I simply didn’t want to end up at odds with Xena over it.

“Gabrielle,” Ephiny began, taking a step forward. “I know that our relationship has become more like two friends rather than that of ruler and subject, but for my own peace of mind, I must know how you feel…how you feel as my Queen.”

“I see. And, if I told you that I thought it a bad idea, what would you do then?”

“I—” She hesitated, perhaps trying to judge whether I was serious or not.

“I pray that’s not your answer because I have no idea what I’d do. I don’t relish the thought of the choice I’d have to make.”

“It would be a life-changing moment, I agree, but don’t worry, my friend. I have no intention of making you choose between your love and your people. I don’t know if I can really say anything more. Knowing you the way I do, Ephiny, I imagine that you’ve already had many a late night considering all the angles, perhaps trials you might have with this relationship. I’d like to think that you wouldn’t have asked for our blessing if you still had reservations.”

“And you’d be right, my Queen. I’ve thought on every conceivable good and ill, and the good won out in my mind. I care for Selene enough to work through any unforeseen problem that might arise.”

“Then all I can say is that you have my blessing, as your Queen that is. Xena and Cyrene are Selene’s guardians, though, and I believe they should be consulted above anyone.” There. I’d done my part without stepping on any toes.

Cyrene stood and confronted the pair. “Selene, I know that you’ve a good head on your shoulders and aren’t prone to extraordinary actions. Ephiny, I can find no fault in you as my daughter’s suitor. You appear to be an honorable woman, but Gabrielle is right, my daughter. You and I have both led a rather sheltered life, which is why I put your future into Xena’s care. She has a wisdom about such things and I haven’t changed my mind about deferring to her in such matters. I hope you understand.”

“I do, mom. It’s okay.” Selene hugged Cyrene, and I saw the beginnings of quite a mature young woman in Selene.

It was Xena’s turn, but still she sat with her head lowered, listening to all we had said. We waited patiently until at last she spoke.

“I’d like to speak to Ephiny alone,” she said softly, finally raising her head.

I knew such a request wouldn’t go over easily with Selene. In a heartbeat, she proved me right.

“I don’t understand—” she began.

“Nor do you need to,” Xena interrupted.

“I’m not leaving until you promise me—well, promise me you’re not going to do anything to hurt Ephiny.”

“You’ll never be able to control this one, you do realize that don’t you?” Xena told Ephiny before looking back at Selene. “My dear sister, you came to us, not the other way around. If you want me to consider your request, you’ll do as I bid.”

Ephiny came close to smiling. I’m sure she realized what she was getting in Selene. Perhaps not completely, but at least in part. “Selene, wait outside for me, all right?” Ephiny requested, taking Selene’s hand in her own. “I’m sure we won’t be long.”

“Come, Selene,” Cyrene extended a hand in her daughter’s direction.

I rose to go, as well, but Xena stopped me.

“Stay, please, Gabrielle.”

I sat again and we watched the two others leave. Once more, it took Xena a few moments before she spoke.

“I, unlike my wife, wonder if you’ve actually thought fully of the implications of this relationship, Eph. It could all end rather badly should you two have a falling out. As Gabrielle’s captain, you’d be forced to live in the same everyday confines as Selene. Would the two of you be able to manage that if the worst scenario happened?”

“You bring up a good point, and it’s one I’ve thought on. As an Amazon officer, my first duty must always be to my Queen. It would be a difficult situation, but not impossible.”

“You know what they’ll say about you, don’t you? You’ll have to hear it from the Empire troops as well as your own people.”

“I’m sure they’ll say that I attained my position and wealth because I married the Conqueror’s sister.” She grinned after she spoke. “The good thing is that I already have wealth and I’ve gone as far as any woman can in rank and station without being Queen of the Amazons. So, their words will fall on unhearing ears.”

I heard it in Xena’s voice. She had already made her decision. Her questioning was neither intense nor brutal. She didn’t attempt to trick Ephiny into revealing some character flaw. I simply saw her actions and words as fulfilling her duty toward her sister.

“I’ll not have anyone speak unkindly about Selene. I’ll have no man question her character. If her honor ever comes into question—”

“That will never come to pass, Xena. I have no intention of—”

“Let me finish, Eph. I didn’t want my mother to hear me speak of this, but you’re an experienced woman and Selene’s full grown. I don’t want to know what goes on behind your bedroom door, but I don’t want you to think that the only way to keep your head off the end of my blade is by practicing celibacy until marriage. I simply want you to use good judgment and to teach Selene the meaning of discretion.”

“Ill words will never reach your ears. I guarantee it.”

“And does she know that she needs to be an Amazon in order for you two to marry?” Xena asked.

I hadn’t known that such a rule existed, since Xena and I had married with no such stipulation. I could only assume that Queens were afforded certain freedoms than those lower in rank were not allowed.

“She does, and she’s fine with it.”

“All right then.” Xena rose and she and Ephiny clasped arms. “Welcome to the family, such as we are.”

Xena and Ephiny took one another’s arm as a warrior’s way of bonding. I, on the other hand, had no qualms about embracing my future sister in law. Ephiny looked uncomfortable, as always when faced with such an outward display of affection. I knew she would change, though. After all, Xena had been much the same way when we had first met, yet she had changed greatly over the past season or so.

Cyrene and Selene re-entered the room and we all sat down once more.

“Selene, I’ve decided to officially give my consent and blessing to your relationship,” Xena said. She stressed both words in order to make it clear to Selene that, even though she was an adult, she was the Conqueror’s sister, and being royalty meant that her life was no longer hers alone. There were always conventions with which to adhere.

“I have only one condition,” Xena continued.

“Condition?” Selene arched an eyebrow back at her sister and I swore that she could have been Xena as a young woman. Having different fathers made the resemblance uncanny.

“Yes. My condition is that should you choose to marry, whether it’s tomorrow or six moons from now, you will wait ’till one season from today before seeing it done.”

“A whole season?” Selene repeated, looking at Ephiny, then her mother. “But that’s…it’s unfair.”

“I think it’s smart.” Xena crossed the room to where Selene and Ephiny sat, side by side.

Xena dropped to one knee before her sister and touched her hand. Perhaps Selene would not recognize that action for its true significance, but I saw it. For any of us, such a thing would mean nothing more than a loving gesture. For the Conqueror, however, to lower herself to any other’s level, was compassionate indeed.

“Selene, believe me when I say that I’m not doing this just to prove that I’m the Conqueror or simply because I can. I’m honestly thinking of you. I know that you’re a grown woman, even if I don’t show it, but this is the first serious relationship that you’ve ever been in. I hope that everything you and Ephiny dream of comes true for you, but there’s still the side of me that is a realist, even a pessimist. Asking you to wait isn’t a way for me to be difficult, it’s my way of ensuring that your youth and emotions don’t get the best of you. Can you understand what I’m talking about?”

Selene was silent, as she appeared to be processing all that Xena had explained. Finally, she squeezed Xena’s hand. “I do understand, Xe, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” She laughed unexpectedly.

“I’d expect nothing less,” Xena replied.

We all began talking and laughing at once. I glanced over at Amira, just to be certain the noise hadn’t upset her. True to form, she lay unmoving, her chest gently rising and falling in sleep. I caught Cyrene’s eye as I turned back to the others, and she smiled. We shared something special now, beyond Xena and family. We were both mothers, both of us having experienced the wonder that is giving life to another. I breathed a sigh of relief to think that Cyrene would be in the palace, there for me to ask for advice and assistance. I tried not to show it, but raising a child was not something I was familiar with. I worried that I would do something wrong where Amira was concerned.

I looked around the spacious tent at the people I had grown to love in so short a time. It was like being a part of a real family, having these people who cared for me here, and even though the parents who gave me life were far away. Even though they had disowned me for circumstances and decisions I had made to live and survive, a mother and father were not unknown to me. Yu Pan was the only father I had ever known, the only man who ever treated me with respect and love, never wanting anything of me in return. Cyrene had quickly become the mother I had never had the privilege of knowing. Showing unconditional love and tenderness, she had easily earned a place in my heart. When I admitted as much to her, she cried, and said that Athena could have given her no better gift than another daughter. That’s when I cried.

We had come so far over the summer and into the late harvest season. Xena and I had both found our families, although we each went about it differently, along with their love and acceptance. More importantly, I believe that somewhere between Corinth and where we stood today, we found some small piece of ourselves that had been missing for so long. Many people, and subsequently our lives, had been changed during our travels across Greece. Time, which can be cruel or forgiving had decided to show the latter to us. As always, I thanked Athena for the gifts she had given me, especially the gift of family.

End Gabrielle’s Addendum
Epilogue: When I Have Seen By Time’s Fell Hand (reprise)…
Three moons have passed since we first returned and happily rode through the gates of Corinth. How different from my returns in seasons previous. Those who used to welcome me and my armies at the gates only did so out of duty or because I had just defeated an enemy on their doorstep. Their cheers were based solely upon their own interests. I made Greece safe for them—that made them happy. They offered no love or loyalty, but it was just as well. Back then, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.
It was certainly a different sight when Gabrielle and I led the rest of our family through the paved stone streets that led up to the palace. Only the words utter pandemonium could have possibly described the scene. The streets had been crowded, or more accurately filled to capacity, with onlookers welcoming us home. Our victory at Marathon had given them cause for celebration. Of course, word had spread of Gabrielle’s deeds in Athens during the battle, especially her calling in the fleet to put the Persians on the run. My Queen had risen considerably in the eyes of the Empire’s citizens, and the people cheered for her and her Amazon soldiers as though they had all been returning heroes.

The noise was enough to scare Amira to tears. She had been sitting in one of the wagons with my mother, and when I slowed Tenorio to get close to the wagon, Amira held her arms out to me. I couldn’t help but be flattered for their was no better word for it. Already, I had become her protector, and the thought made me wish that it would always be thus, even though I knew that as she grew older, Amira would eventually lose that wide-eyed hero worship.

I took her into my arms and rode up next to Gabrielle, thinking that Amira would want the security of her mother’s embrace. By the time we had sidled up beside Gabrielle, however, Amira looked quite content to be riding in front of me. Her tears forgotten, she watched everything and everyone around us from the great height of Tenorio’s back. In fact, she immediately endeared herself to the crowd by waving back at a group who had waved at her. A huge cheer went up from the crowd. I should have known what with the way Gossip travels across Greece that Corinth had already heard of the youngster who was their Queen’s daughter.

Growing considerably bolder, Amira waved again when she saw Gabrielle do the same toward the onlookers. Every time Amira waved, loud cheers and whistles rose above the din.

“Xena, how come they all yell like that when I wave?” Amira asked.

“Because they know you’re the Princess.”

“Does everyone know what my name means?”

I laughed and squeezed her, my left arm wrapped around her middle. “Yes, little one. All of Corinth knows that you’re our little Princess now.”

The chaos we experienced on our return lasted for a full moon until all of the new members of our household had settled into their rooms and we back into the routine of our lives. Gabrielle had taken on the immense task of running the household, becoming more involved than she had ever been before. She currently displayed a confidence that I believed to have come from her experiences during our travels.

She had decided to make the entire third level of the palace for family. Cyrene, Selene, and Cor each had their own bed chambers all connected by one large sitting room to make it seem like more of a family area. Even though we had a formal dining hall on the first level, Gabrielle opened up a particularly large room on the third floor for a family dining room. It would not be possible for all of us to dine together regularly, but it would help to provide a more family-like atmosphere for Amira and the rest.

Cor got along famously right from the start. That’s simply the sort of young man he was. He anxiously began working with the smithies and they welcomed his young talent, especially having learned that he had started his apprenticeship under Altus in Amphipolis.

He received equal amounts grief and admiration as Xena the Conqueror’s brother, but Cor was much different than I was at his age. He let so much roll off his back, pretending as though he simply hadn’t heard. Having hit puberty, the boy continued to grow at an alarming pace until he was nearly as tall as me. In another season or two, I would look up in order to speak to him. He had also begun to develop the muscles of a blacksmith. Between his physical appearance and simply because he was my brother, the taunts never went beyond talk. I’m sure those who poked fun at him thought that I had taught him a thing or two with a sword. Truth be known, Cor had a rather keen dislike for the blade. He loved to create them in the forge, but he had no interest in using them as a weapon.

Mother and Delia had become wonderful friends, and if I ever wanted to find either of them, all I needed to do was to search the kitchens. If they weren’t cooking, talking about cooking, or out marketing for food for cooking, they were playing nanny to Amira and Anya’s girls. They became our resident grandmothers and that made just about everyone in the palace happy.

Mother kept in touch with the hired people from her inn at Amphipolis via Royal messengers. The married couple whom she had left in charge explained that, although they missed her terribly, things had never been better. Perhaps that was why Cyrene approached me one day about settling in Corinth permanently. Cor was ecstatic about the news, having come to love the work he did with the palace smithies. The only reservation Cyrene actually had was her concern that, as the Conqueror, I would not want my mother in my household. I think she thought I would be embarrassed. Cyrene’s comments surprised me somewhat, but once I had the time to really think on the idea, I realized that the prospect pleased me greatly. Yes, there were some embarrassing moments, but the pleasure, the feelings of love that existed in my home now greatly outweighed any awkward moments suffered by me or Cyrene.

There were still a number of details to work out, but it felt good to think that time’s fell hand had not dropped upon me like a fist. It could have, crushing all my hopes at reconciliation with these people I now affectionately call family, and who had been strangers to me not so long ago. I had fully expected to leave my family reunion in Amphipolis with nothing more than a kick to the backside. After all, I felt it was what I had deserved. Instead, the hand that fell had been covered in soft velvet. Even for Gabrielle it had not been overly unkind. Though her blood parents had turned their backs on her, good still came of it. Not only had she found Amira, but the loss of her real parents had given her a chance to see others, such as Yu Pan, who filled their places quite well.

Selene continued, with some determination, to lead me to an early grave. Her latest venture had been to learn swordplay. Unlike our little brother, Selene loved weapons. She wanted to learn all of them at once. At least Ephiny had been able to do what I had not. She convinced Selene to settle on only one weapon at a time. The Empire’s soldiers, young and old alike, whistled and cheered when Selene walked on to the practice fields. It had only taken Ephiny a few icy glares, two black eyes, and one bloody nose to convince them that Selene was already spoken for.

Ephiny and Selene continued to see one another, faithfully adhering to my request for discretion. If my mother ever noted Selene’s occasional empty bed at night, she never made a fuss about it. Although, I spent a rather sleepless night the first time it happened.

Gabrielle’s new bodyguard, Prax, had mellowed slightly…ever so slightly. I gave her some latitude there, knowing that Gabrielle had only recently begun to teach Prax the way. Some days they worked quite well together and on others, I though Gabrielle would simply turn around and gut the poor girl. Prax lived inside the palace having her own room on the same floor as us instead of in the Amazon barracks. She had eventually started to take her meals with us, upon Gabrielle’s request, and slowly started to become one of our extended family. The more Prax learned from Gabrielle, the more the young Amazon mellowed. Perhaps her service to Gabrielle had been a smart thing, after all.

Amira was a handful, to be sure. Those beautiful green eyes and charming smile had quickly made her a favorite of everyone in the palace. It was a genuine affection they bestowed upon her and that lent us some relief, since she had made her way into every room on the estate from the kitchens to the soldiers’ barracks.

Amira captured me as completely as her mother had done. It was not uncommon for one of my advisors to trip over a toy sword or ball when gathered in my private study for a meeting. She had me wrapped around her finger, but the odd thing was that I rather enjoyed it. I still lost my temper on occasion and grew angry or confused enough to go out to the practice field and pummel a few young officers, but that was me. I had changed a great deal, but I was still the Conqueror, after all. The darkness still existed within my heart, but thanks to Athena’s blessings, I believe it buried itself a little deeper every day. Perhaps that was merely my own hope, but even that in itself was unique. A few seasons ago, I relished the evil inside of me, welcoming it as the other half of my soul. Now, however, that position had been taken by another.

The trip home from Amphipolis turned out to be a bit of solitude for Solan and I. We rode and talked of many things, some involving the past and some the future. We finally came to know one another and look at ourselves, as well as each other, in a different slant of light.

I tried to instill in him much of what he would need to know as my emissary in Chin. I felt confident in his abilities, and it helped that Yu Pan was to travel with him. I would worry less. That may sound rather odd considering I had not seen the boy in over fifteen seasons, but in all that time, a day had not gone by that I did not wonder about him.

Solan was nervous about his new position, but he was wildly excited about the traveling. Even though we would miss him terribly, I could not deny him his dream. He wanted to see and experience new places, meet new people. I silently asked Athena to keep an eye on him. Chin was slightly out of her jurisdiction, but she was a Goddess, nevertheless. In the meantime, I trusted Yu Pan’s judgment and encouraged Solan to heed the old master’s advice.

I had nearly finished the scroll I was writing in when I heard Gabrielle’s light step as she came into my study, slowing walking toward me.

“No need to sneak up on me, love. I heard you before you opened the door.”

“How is it I can slip past even Ephiny without her hearing, but you catch me every time?”

“I suppose if she was as good as me, you’d be married to her and not me.”

“Very amusing, my Conqueror.”

“Thank you,” I returned without pausing in finishing my letter.

“You promised you would start coming to bed earlier,” Gabrielle admonished.

“I know, but something came up that required immediate attention.”

I stopped writing and grabbed the candle, spilling some of the wet wax on the seam of the scroll. Pressing my signet ring into the pliable wax, I sealed the official document.

“Hand me that case, will you, love?”

Gabrielle brought the requested item, and I knew what she was thinking without her having said a word. I hadn’t yet looked up, but I could already see the look of concern on her face. How would I explain my leaving to her? Especially when it was a trip I didn’t want to make without her? I had never thought in such a way before. In the past, I had simply gone where I was needed. Rulers didn’t always have the luxury of staying in their palace, safe and tidy unless they weren’t fighting rulers. I was a warrior and that would always be so, or until I was to old to fight my own battles. Greece was still a place where the strongest made the rules. It wouldn’t always be so, but for now it was.

I sealed the closure on the leather scroll case in much the same way as I had the parchment inside.

“Xena, I’ve never seen you seal the case, too. Is this something overly important?”

“Indeed. If anyone else saw it, but the person I’ve addressed it to, I might have a rather big mess to deal with.”

“I don’t like the sound of all of this. Please, tell me this is something you can share with me.”

“It is,” I answered, placing the scroll case on my desk. “Come here.” I guided her into my lap and kissed her.

“Now I am getting very worried.”

I chuckled. “It’s not quite that bad…not yet, anyway.”

She looked down at the case before us and rolled it with her fingers until the seal became visible. Under my sigil I had stamped another imperial mark, that of the person to receive the message.

“This is going to the Pharaoh of Egypt…Cleopatra?”

“Aye. It is a message meant for her eyes alone. I’m giving it to Acasia.”

“Oh, but Periander just arrived from Athens. They’ll have had hardly any time at all together.”

“Unfortunately, the Empire comes first. I need someone I can trust, but not a messenger. I need a spy…a warrior.”

“I take it if this gets in the wrong hands then—”

“It could well start a war of massive proportions. Not here, but in Alexandria.”

“And because Alexandria belongs to the Empire you have to be involved?”

“Part of my agreement with them. Pledging fealty to the Empire was due to the last Pharaoh, Ptolemy Auletes. He was a wise man and a good ally, but he was cursed with two of the most troublesome children I had ever known.”

“Cleopatra?”

“And her brother, the younger Ptolemy. There were a couple younger boys and I believe another girl, but they weren’t in line for the throne and so, were of little consequence. It may have actually saved their lives. When the older Ptolemy died, he left the disposition of Egypt in my hands. I have always let them rule themselves in exchange for fealty.”

“Like you do with the Amazons and Chin.”

“To name two, yes. The older Ptolemy made me a sort of guarantor of his will, which meant that I would have to chose which of his children was to rule in his place.”

“Guardian, eh? And you chose Cleopatra. Hhmm, let me guess why. Did it have anything at all to do with her…assets?”

“Get those thoughts right out of your head. She and her brother were children.”

“How old?”

“The younger Ptolemy was twelve and Cleopatra was fifteen.”

“And did you sleep with her?”

“What? Why would you ask a thing like that?” I tried to quickly come up with a plausible lie, but not only did I abhor lying to Gabrielle, I was terrible at it.

“You know what kind of a woman I was back then, little one. I did things—”

“It’s all right, love. We both have a past we don’t like to think on.”

I smiled out of relief. She was right, of course. I didn’t like to think of Gabrielle’s past any more than she enjoyed imagining mine. “Anyway, I chose Cleopatra—actually, young Ptolemy forced my hand. When my forces were there, and I was executing the elder Ptolemy’s will, the young boy hired an assassin to kill his sister. They nearly killed me in the process.”

“His own sister?”

“Royal families of every land have a habit of killing their own to move closer to the throne, as distasteful as that sounds.”

“I saw a lot of that in Persia. Did you kill him then…Ptolemy?”

“Right about now, I’m thinking I should have.” I looked up to see Gabrielle wearing a surprised expression. “I didn’t have the heart to kill the boy, since he got most of his ideas from his traitorous advisors. They saw a kid they could manipulate and they did. I banished them all, he and his advisors, troops, the lot. I pretty much thought the kid’s own army would eventually kill him and save me the trouble.”

“So, what’s the emergency now? From what I understand Cleopatra’s been a good ruler for nearly, what…fifteen seasons?” Gabrielle asked.

“Ptolemy didn’t die. In fact, he was given sanctuary by some nomadic tribes far to the north, Parthinians. I’m just surprised that we never received word of such a thing. The bad news now is that Ptolemy and the generals of his new army are on their way back to Egypt to arrange some sort of meeting with Cleopatra.”

“How true is that information?”

“True enough.” I held up the edge of an open scroll. “This arrived this evening. It’s from Cleopatra. Because Egypt and its surrounding lands have been honorable in their fealty toward the Empire, she’s calling in a marker, so to speak.”

“You owe her something?”

“In a way. When a land shows me their devotion, then later they get into trouble, it’s my responsibility to assist them, if not actually get them out of trouble.”

We were silent for some time. Gabrielle was intelligent. I knew it wouldn’t take her long to realize the inevitable.

Eventually she sighed. “So, when do we need to leave?” she asked.

At first, I thought she had misspoke, that she hadn’t actually said we. As I stared into her face, I realized that there was no error. Gabrielle had every intention of going with me.

“Gabrielle, I have to go alone.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?”

“Well, I don’t want to, but—”

“Then, it’s settled.”

“Not by any means. Gabrielle, we have a family now. We have Amira to think about.”

She stopped with her mouth open as if to speak, but closed it again rather slowly. A few more moments of silence lay heavily between us. “So, you’re telling me that I have to decide between you and our family.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

She must have been thinking hard because she didn’t say anything more for a long time. When she finally spoke, her words surprised me. I had expected to hear a certain resignation, not the adamant ejection that met my ears.

“I find that unacceptable,” she said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I don’t think I should have to make that choice. I don’t think you should have to either. I—”

“Gabrielle, it—”

“Xena, listen to me for a moment.” She lowered her head, raising it again after a small pause. She had an odd look in her eye, but I recognized it as one of my own. She wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure if she could find the right words. “I would never do anything to put Amira at risk of any sort of hurt, but I love you and I’ve…I’ve gone through too much to lose you on some nameless battlefield with only a bunch of warriors around you.”

“Gabrielle…my, little one…” I gently lifted her chin that had uncharacteristically begun to quiver. “You are not going to lose me on any battlefield.”

“You say that, but I know you, Xena, you’re the first into the fray. If something happens I—well, I want to be with you, fighting beside you.”

“My small warrior,” I replied, followed by a smile. Holding her closer, I honestly felt flattered. There was such strength in her words, and the power of the sentiment touched my heart as only Gabrielle, and her heartfelt language, could manage to do.

“There may come a day, my love, when we will have to discuss this, but this is not that day. You haven’t given me time to explain, yet. Although I have no intention of dying on any battlefield ever, it certainly won’t be in Alexandria. I’m not going there to do battle at all, nor do I think it will come to that. Egypt’s forces are considerably smaller than the Empire’s. Even if Ptolemy should join with Cleopatra, they still wouldn’t have the numbers or might to defeat us.”

“I don’t understand then, why do you have to go at all?”

“A display of might…power, I guess. To show Ptolemy and Cleopatra that nothing gets past the eyes of the Empire. I can’t afford to have them warring with each other any more than with me. Greece receives a fair bit of grain from the Land of the Pharaohs. Bad times there equate to shortages on our end.”

“I had no idea,” Gabrielle muttered, almost as if to herself. She had a new look in her eyes, another one I knew well. Except, this time the expression usually meant there was some plotting going on.

“So, why do I have to choose at all? Why doesn’t the whole family go?”

I just stared at her, mostly too embarrassed to admit that I really hadn’t thought of that as an option. “What?”

“Didn’t you hear me or hadn’t you thought of that?”

Damn! Why did she have to know me so well. “Honestly? I suppose I thought that…we just got settled and…with the others here…well, I don’t know…I—oh, all right, I never thought of it.” To her credit, Gabrielle didn’t even laugh at me. “I guess my mind was focused elsewhere.”

“And understandably so.”

“Okay, why are you being so nice to me?”

Gabrielle laughed. “I’m trying to be understanding and you still get paranoid.”

“Yea, well, it keeps me alive,” I replied with an expression tinged with hurt pride.

“Have I hurt your feelings?”

“Luckily I’m a quick healer. I have to admit, love, that I never thought of asking the entire family to travel so far by ship.”

“First of all, when you count it in days, it will be less than traveling to Amazonia, and I, for one, would love to see the Land of the Pharaohs. It would be educational for Amira. Frankly, no one has to come if they don’t want, but it may look rather good.”

“Ahh. You mean impressive.” Her words had started me to thinking along the same path I guessed her mind ran.

“Just so we don’t take any chances with our safety, we go with a fair sized fleet and your flagship is a spectacle in itself. An official visit from the Conqueror and her new Queen shouldn’t be a complete surprise to a land under Empire rule. Of course, if your entire family and your child were also present, no one would ever suspect that you had any military intentions at all.”

I smiled broadly and almost laughed aloud. “I’m beginning to realize why you consistently beat me at King’s Men. You, my love, not only have a head for strategy, but there’s a little deviousness lurking in there, too.”

“Who me?” She chuckled and then kissed me. “What do really think of my idea? Will we be safe…safe enough to take the family?”

I thought about it for a few moments, leaning back in my chair, Gabrielle resting her head against my shoulder. There was potential in going as a family unit, but in the back of my mind there was a niggling sort of fear. Could I keep them safe?

Quickly adding numbers in my head, I figured that forty or fifty ships would hold enough soldiers and Amazons to not only impress Egypt, but to also put a barricade between those I loved and any potential harm. It didn’t take much longer to make my decision.

“Well, if it’s to be the Land of the Pharaohs for us, then let it be for our entire family.”

The End

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