Part I: A God-Thing
by L. M. Townsend
DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Eve, Argo, et al (meaning anyone else I didn't list and should have.) are the property of MCA, Universal, and Renaissance Pictures and anyone else who has a legal claim, and I thank them for their creation and for allowing me to live in their universe for a little bit. (Melysë and The Amazons belong to themselves and I dare any man to say different!) The stories are mine, though, and written just for fun, not profit.
Subtext? Subtext? Well, yeah. There is. Some of it obviously implied, some blatant, though nothing graphic, and some of it's in the eye of the reader; WHILE THERE ARE NO GRAPHIC SEXUAL SCENES OF ANY KIND, there is kindness, affection, loyalty, mutual respect, friendship, and yes, lots and lots of love, so, if you read anything into any of the words or situations these characters find themselves in, then you have only yourself to thank/blame (depending upon your point of view!) If you have a bug up your butt about people of any persuasion loving each other and sharing their lives, then I pity you. I won't apologise for them, though, so if you have a problem with any of these stories, it's up to you to go and read something else. Remember, no one's holding a sword ( or a chakram) to your throat!
Violence: Oh, yeah - this is a story with Xena in it. Remember, she likes to fight.
*Spoiler Alert - several references to various episodes throughout the history of the show.
*Major Spoiler alerts for DREAMWORKER, ULYSSES, DESTINY, THE QUEST, RETURN OF CALLISTO, THE XENA SCROLLS, FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS, THE QUILL IS MIGHTIER, THE DEBT, GABRIELLE'S HOPE, ORPHAN OF WAR, MATERNAL INSTINCTS, ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE I & II, PAST IMPERFECT, PARADISE FOUND, THE WAY, BETWEEN THE LINES, SEEDS OF FAITH, GOD FEARING CHILD, ETERNAL BONDS, LOOKING DEATH IN THE EYE, LIVIA, EVE, and MOTHERHOOD
Part I: A GOD-THING
Xena eyed the woman reading the scroll, but this was not her Gabrielle. Gabrielle and Xena's daughter Eve, had travelled on without her for Xena had a debt to pay. Ares, the god of war, formerly Xena's mentor, then sworn enemy, and now - well, Xena wasn't sure what the current relationship was with Ares - he had committed the first completely unselfish act of his life when he sacrificed his immortality to save the lives of both Gabrielle and Eve. Xena still wasn't convinced the god didn't have some self-serving angle to play out, but she owed him - big.
Ares had appeared to Xena while she and Gabrielle and their daughter, Eve were on the road. They hadn't yet decided where they were going. They had a mission to fulfil, but weren't yet sure how to start. Eve, once known as Livia, was undergoing the same struggle Xena had. She was trying to atone for all the evil she had committed as Livia, Champion of Rome, scourge of the followers of Eli. Xena knew that she was the one best equipped to help her daughter, having already overcome - mostly - her own dark side. But Gabrielle who had been the key which had allowed her to embrace the light within her, pushing the dark aside until it was needed was with Eve; and when it came to defending themselves, Xena was certain that her family could handle themselves in a fight.
Xena sighed, pulled her sword from its scabbard and began to run the sharpening stone over the oiled blade. Scrape, rasp, scrape...the sound was a comforting one. The other woman looked up from the scroll she was scanning and smiled.
"I'm glad you're here, Xena," she said, rising ponderously, shifting her huge, pregnant body to a slightly more comfortable position. Xena smiled back, still sharpening, but didn't say anything. Ares' request had surprised her - come to this Amazon village and stay with his daughter - yes, his daughter - until her baby was born.
"Xena, I won't ask you again to have my child," he said. "But there is a way you can still help me with a more - mortal immortality." It was then he had acknowledged his daughter, Melysë, his daughter with an Amazon warrior named Lyssë. Melysë was now the queen, bearing an heir to the Amazon throne - and to Ares' bloodline. But Ares needed Xena to make sure that the child would be born - and born safe. "I have enemies - more than you might imagine," said the former god.
"I don't know, Ares," Xena said, grinning. "It doesn't take that much imagination - just kidding. Why do you need me to protect an Amazon? Those women can take care of themselves - and anyone else who comes along."
"Not - Melysë," said Ares, quietly. "I never wanted to acknowledge her - she's something of an...embarrassment to me. Her mother was - something else. Warrior-Queen of the Amazons, she...well, never mind." Ares grinned and Xena snorted in disgust. "No, seriously. Melysë is an Amazon, but she is not a warrior. She had potential, once, but she turned her back on it, chose a path of 'peace'. She's a priestess to the Amazons' Goddess."
"I can imagine how that might bother you," said Xena, reminding herself against irritation that were it not for Ares, her family would be dead. "That the daughter of the god of war would choose to priestess to the Great Triple Goddess of the Amazons rather than to her own father, but why don't the Amazons protect her? She is bearing their next queen, after all."
"She may be bearing their next queen," said Ares. "The child may be a son."
"Ah, I see," said Xena. "You're afraid that the Amazons might decide a boy-child isn't worth protecting. Ares, the Amazons I know aren't like that. They may send their sons back to the fathers, but they cherish all children born to them."
"Xena, times have changed since you knew the Amazons," said Ares. "you and Gabrielle have been away for a long time."
"Yes, thanks to you," said Xena.
Xena and Gabrielle had lain in a frozen tomb for twenty-five years after faking their deaths - and Eve's - in an effort to protect Eve from the Olympian gods. Ares had taken them and entombed them there in ignorance, while Eve had been raised Roman and had grown up as Livia, champion of Rome - and Ares' blood-thirsty protegée, as her mother had once been.
"Hey, how was I supposed to know you were alive?" said Ares.
Xena gently placed her hand on Ares arm, a gesture she wouldn't have felt safe until a short time ago. "I'm not really blaming you, Ares. We just played our parts too well," she said. "But I still can't believe in what amounts to infanticide of the Amazons - especially not of a priestess of the Great Triple Goddess."
"There's more," said Ares, as Xena dropped her hand.
"There usually is," she said. "Ares, why don't you just tell me the whole thing?"
"Sorry, Xena, this honesty and 'goodness' thing - it's still new to me," said Ares, uncomfortably.
"Yeah, I was there once," said Xena, grinning wryly. "Took a chatty blonde bard who epitomised honesty and goodness to get me used to it."
"Pass," said Ares.
"Yeah, right," said Xena. "You weren't saying that when - "
"Alright, Xena," Ares interrupted. "Melysë is not a warrior. At one time, she could have been great - almost as great as you, but now - she's weak and I'm afraid the Amazon midwives won't know what to do if she has a hard time delivering the baby. They're accustomed to stronger, more robust warrior-types. I'm asking you to go as a healer as well as a guardian. Your healing skills are well-known."
"I have many skills, Ares," said Xena. "I'm just not sure playing nursemaid to a pregnant demi-Goddess Amazon priestess will be one of them."
"Xena I have to have someone I can trust - and I don't trust anyone more than you with this. Please, Xena," said Ares.
"You know, Ares, I could get used to you like this," chuckled Xena. "One act of unselfish courage and sacrifice and - "
"Don't remind me," Ares groaned.
"Well, since you didn't remind me," said Xena. "Which is very not like you - not calling in a favour, that is - I guess I can go hang out with the Amazons for a while."
And so it had been decided, Eve and Gabrielle were going to Amphipolis to see Xena's aged mother, Cyrenê, and Xena's brother Toris, who now ran Cyrenê's successful tavern. Xena would join them later and they would decide where to go from there.
Xena frowned at the blade she was sharpening and tested it. "Ouch! Damn, I hate that!" she said, popping her nicked finger into her mouth.
"Are you okay?" asked Melysë, trying to rise. Xena gestured her back down. "No, don't bother - happens all the time," she said grinning. "You'd think I'd've learned better by now."
Melysë grinned back at Xena and settled once more into the cushion. Against her will, Xena found herself liking the Amazon. She had been prepared for a whiny wimp - the way Ares had described his daughter was not exactly complimentary - but while Melysë was indeed soft-spoken, Xena had seen a will of steel and a strength of character in the Priestess-Queen that bespoke of a long line of Amazon ancestry. It was also evident that the Queen had earned the love, loyalty, and respect of her entire tribe, which spoke volumes to Xena about the type of woman, as well as the type of leader, she was.
Xena had arrived at the Amazon village near sunset. She approved of the military discipline evident in the Amazon sentries who had stopped and questioned her. They had been respectful, but firmly obeyed their orders and had escorted Xena to the Queen's cottage, automatically posting themselves between her and the Queen, while Melysë had greeted her warmly, wearing a simple, long-sleeved tunic and breeches, offering hospitality in the form of mulled wine and a basin of clear water to wash the road dust off. Melysë had looked startled at Xena's appearance at first, but stood stoically throughout the interview, though she had offered Xena a chair. When Xena had declined, Melysë had remained standing, though Xena could see that her late pregnancy was causing her some discomfort. Throughout the meeting, Melysë was poised and regal, but warm and gracious, too. Melysë had asked Xena's business with the Amazons, and Xena had been tempted to circumvent, but found before the Queen's unwavering gaze, that she should tell her the truth. Glancing quickly at the sentries, Xena had replied that Ares had sent her. Melysë immediately picked up on Xena's hint for privacy and dismissed the sentries. Without hesitation, the two saluted their queen and left the cottage.
"Why did my father send you here, Xena?" asked Melysë, smiling.
"He's concerned," said Xena.
"Yeah, okay," laughed Melysë. "Since when?"
"Since he became mortal and fears his bloodline may end with you," said Xena.
Melysë laughed harder. "That sounds more like him," she said. " We can't have his last known descendent be the 'family disgrace'. How did he become mortal - or shouldn't I ask?"
So Xena told her the story. "Incredible," said Melysë, no longer laughing. "Ares did that?"
Suddenly, Xena could see that the Amazon Queen really needed to sit down. She quickly got to Melysë's side and helped her into a chair.
"Thank-you," said Melysë. "Please sit with me. I can't believe Ares would - do you suppose he might actually be concerned for me?"
"Anything's possible," replied Xena, finding a chair and sitting, her long legs stretched out in front of her.
"Huh, I always thought he was ashamed of me," mused Melysë, then she reached over and tossed an apple to Xena, who caught the fruit neatly. "I'm having dinner brought to us - I'm not up to eating in the common room these days. I figured you've been on the road a few days - you must be tired and hungry and wanting a hot bath and a warm bed?"
"Sounds perfect," said Xena, biting into the apple.
"Great," said Melysë. "Since 'Daddy' sent you to keep and eye on me, you'll stay here, of course. I hope you don't mind? You don't strike me as the barracks type. I also have a private bath house with plenty of hot water and towels behind the cottage - it's one of my few indulgences. I can't bear community baths - especially now."
The women were near the same age - if one discounted the twenty-five years Xena had spent in deep-freeze - and resembled one another somewhat. Both had long dark hair, but where Xena's tresses were straight, Melysë's were wavy, spiralling here and there in stray curls. Xena's clear blue eyes caught Melysë's dark golden-green ones and the Amazon shyly dropped her gaze. Melysë's complexion was pale and creamy and bespoke of a woman who spent much time indoors, rather than like Xena's sun-kissed tan. In fact, one day after Xena had been with her for a few weeks, Melysë had come in from no more than ten minutes in the sun with blisters on her arm where her long sleeve had pushed up. Xena had exclaimed and put her arm in cold water, but Melysë shrugged it off. The blisters healed within a few hours, reminding Xena of Melysë's semi-divinity.
After only a few days, the two had fallen into an easy routine. They would talk about things and Xena found she could tell the Amazon many things she had only told Gabrielle and with the same acceptance and non-judgement she had always received only from her best friend.
"I wonder if that's part of being an Amazon," mused Xena.
Once, long ago, Xena had been invited to join a Tribe of northern Amazons, but that had been before, when Xena revelled in her dark side and an evil shamaness, Alti had promised her a great destiny - "Destroyer of Nations". Well, Xena had almost destroyed that Amazon nation. Years later, she had returned and tried to make amends. She had released the souls of the Amazons she herself had killed in cold blood - souls which Alti captured and fed on for her own dark powers and had restored the Tribe to their spiritual roots. Now they were growing and thriving. Xena had confessed this to Melysë and had met with the same, non-judgmental, listening silence while she told her tale.
"Xena," said Melysë, placing a warm hand on Xena's clenched fist. "The Amazons have forgiven you - no, don't say anything, just listen - we all count you as a friend, an ally, and a sister Amazon. I, a priestess of the Amazons' Goddess, the Great Lady of the Moon, speak these words of forgiveness to you, so know it to be true. Yes, you committed a great wrong against the Amazon Nation, but you went back and you risked your life - and your own soul - and you made it right again. You've done your penance and you have received our forgiveness - and Hers. It's up to you to forgive yourself. I'm glad you told me this. I understand now why the greatest of us won't accept the name 'Amazon' - you feel you don't deserve it, but believe me, if anyone does, it's you, Xena."
Xena had to admit, it was difficult to resist Melysë's frank appreciation and admiration of the warrior - she was a little like Gabrielle in their early days together. The only difference was that Melysë was more self-confident, older, and she knew that she could never be Xena - but that was why Melysë admired her and respected her. Melysë had no illusions about herself - and furthermore, she liked herself as she was. And she liked and accepted Xena, in spite of everything. In this, Melysë reminded Xena of Lao Ma, a woman who had saved her life - had saved her soul if Xena admitted the truth of it, even to herself. She had met Lao Ma in Chin and Lao Ma had been the first to see past the rage and the hate that had consumed a younger Xena. Lao Ma had seen the potential for good in Xena, but it had taken Hercules to show Xena the good in herself and Gabrielle to keep reminding her of it. Gabrielle, who day after day, had loved and accepted Xena, despite any differences between them. The Bard's enduring friendship had kept Xena's light shining, banishing the dark side of her to the recesses of her past.
Melysë was like a perfect blend of the two most influential women in her life and Xena could relax in her company as she could with so few. Melysë respected her and cared about what Xena felt and thought. She talked to Xena, asked her opinion, and listened to what Xena thought about running the Tribe as well as mundane things.
"How many centuries has "Daughter of Ares" been an epithet for Amazon?" Melysë asked, looking up from the scroll.
"I don't know, you'd have to ask Gabrielle that," said Xena.
Melysë brightened. "I would love to - will she visit, too, do you think?" asked Melysë. "Xena, you must forgive me - I've been raised on tales of you two. For so long, we thought you were dead. We mourned you and Gabrielle, but when we began hearing of Livia - I mean...I don't mean to anger you, but some of us thought it was you, back from the dead, or perhaps re-born in another body and reverting back to your warlord ways."
"In a way," said Xena, quietly. "She was...is...me."
Melysë put a hand on Xena's shoulder, a comforting gesture, but the hand felt as hot as flame and Melysë pulled it away. "Sorry, I forget sometimes," she said. "My 'divine legacy', I suppose. I can heal with these hands, but when I feel another's pain, I can't always control the power. I hope I didn't hurt you."
"No, not all," said a startled Xena, and, in fact, she did feel better, but Melysë looked paler - if that was possible - what had that touch cost her? "Hey, you need to get some rest now. Why don't you let me help you into bed? I'll wake you when it's dinnertime and after, when the sun is down, we can take a walk - the exercise will be good for you - and the baby."
Melysë agreed, and Xena pulled her up out of the cushions and helped her to her bed.
"Oh, Mother!" gasped Melysë, short of breath. "I will be so glad when this little Amazon is born!"
Xena smiled and sat down on the bed, massaging Melysë's pregnant abdomen. Her experienced hands told her it wouldn't be much longer now.
"I know - I felt the same way," she said soothingly. "Rest now, and I'll be here when you wake up."
Melysë smiled and closed her eyes, soon drifting off. Xena arose and grabbed her sword. She had time to get in about an hour or two of practice and then a quick bath before dinner.
"Xena," she heard behind her and recognised a familiar tingle.
"Ares," she replied, without turning.
"Amazing, you can still do that?" he said.
"Oh, yes," said Xena, smiling and turning around. "What is it? Melysë's fine - she's resting."
"I know, I just looked in on her," said Ares.
"You know, you underestimate her," said Xena. "She may not fight battles, but she is 'something else'."
"Glad you think so," said Ares.
"You know, I'd hate to underestimate you," said Xena. "But fatherly concern is not a face I'm accustomed to see you wearing. So, why are you here?"
"I came to warn you that an army is marching on the Amazons," he said.
"Whose?" asked Xena.
"Pitana's - Melysë's cousin," said Ares. "A few years ago, she declared the royal challenge against Melysë and lost. Rather than kill her, Melysë banished her - you see what I mean about weak? If she had just killed Pitana when she had the chance, there wouldn't be this risk. Now Pitana has raised an army against her."
"So Melysë is weak because she chose to show her kinswoman mercy?" mused Xena. "Yes, at one time I might have thought so, too. But Ares, your daughter is not stupid - she must have known this could happen and made contingency plans."
"I hope so, Xena - well, in a way," the former god of war grinned. "In another way, might just be my chance to see my favorite Warrior Princess back in action, leading the Amazons in battle. Could be quite a show."
"If it comes to that - which I doubt it will," said Xena.
"Well, whatever," said Ares. "The army is about three days ride from here."
"Ares, thanks," Xena said. Ares winked and vanished and Xena sighed, wondering just how many of his godly powers he had retained after all.
She wandered over to the practice field and had a good workout, even teaching some moves to some of the younger Amazon braves, hoping they wouldn't need them anytime soon. Since her chat with Ares, Xena hadn't had time for a bath before it was time to wake Melysë for dinner. She excused herself from the Queen's presence and limped over to the basin for a quick wash up.
"Xena, are you alright?" Melysë asked.
"Oh, I'm fine," Xena said cheerfully. "Just a little out of condition - twenty-five years frozen will do that."
Melysë grinned. "Well, much as I love the smell of warrior-sweat when I first wake up," she said laughing, "you need a good hot soak to get the soreness out of those muscles and then a rubdown. I'll send your dinner to the bath-house and you can eat in the tub."
Teasingly, Xena tossed her towel at Melysë. "Are you insinuating that I smell?" she laughed.
"Not at all," Melysë grinned. "But at least eating in the bath, you can't drop food on your leathers."
"That so?" said Xena, approaching, playfully menacing the queen. "So I smell and I'm a sloppy eater?"
"You wouldn't hit a pregnant woman," said Melysë in mock seriousness.
"Noooo," said Xena." But I would do this - " Melysë laughed as Xena tickled. "No - stop - please!" Melysë cried, laughing. "Really - stop - what are you trying to do, induce labour?"
Xena stopped, concerned and placed her hand on the baby. "Are you okay?" she asked.
"Oh, I'm fine," replied Melysë, as Xena helped pull her to her feet.
Suddenly Melysë hugged Xena, warmly. "I am glad you are here," she said. "I finally know what it would be like to have a sister."
Gently, Xena disengaged from the embrace. "I thought the Amazons were your sisters," she said, beginning to gather her things for the bathhouse.
"In a broad sense, yes," said Melysë, thoughtfully. "But I am their queen and that separates us. Every Amazon in the Tribe would stand and fight for me, give their lives for mine, but no Amazon would dare tickle or joke with me. It's sad, in a way, but necessary, too, I suppose. I have to have their respect to lead them, but it would be nice to have a friend, too."
Xena turned and smiled. "Well, you have one, now," she said. "I felt the same way - until Gabrielle showed me how to have - and how to be - a friend."
"You go have that bath, now, Xena and then come back and we'll eat together," said Melysë.
Soaking in the hot water was wonderful, but Xena missed having Gabrielle to wash her back. Finally after turning pruny in the hot water, Xena sighed and got out of the bath. She was drying off when she sensed a tingling. She whirled around to a see an attractive blonde, pouting.
"Aphrodite," said Xena, pulling on her clothes.
"Finally has a 'sister' - I like that!" she said.
"What do you mean?" asked Xena.
"Well, she has a sister - who does she think looked in on her, watched over her, protected her from Hera- ?" said Aphrodite.
"What are you saying, Aphrodite?" asked Xena. "Ares isn't Melysë's father?"
Aphrodite laughed. "Like, Duh," said the Goddess. "Zeus is her father."
"Does Ares know this?" asked Xena.
"No, Zeus let him think he fathered Melysë," replied the blonde. "Zeus let everyone think Ares was the father - to protect her from Hera. I was the only one who, like, knew, 'cause Zeus charged me with being her big sister and, well, taking care of her. She was such a cute little girl, and - "
"Aphrodite, what do you know about Pitana, Melysë's cousin?" asked Xena.
Aphrodite wrinkled her perfect nose. "Ew! A horrid little girl who grew up into a horrid woman," said Aphrodite. "She was always mean to Melysë, teasing and taunting and picking fights. Melysë always won, though."
"Did you help her win?"
"As if! Like I would lower myself to fix a fight!? That's Ares's thing, not mine," said Aphrodite.
"Thank-you, Aphrodite," said Xena. "And if Melysë knew what you had done for her, I know she would be grateful."
"Yeah, well, she always was a nice kid," said Aphrodite. "Maybe I should, like, introduce myself-?"
"I think she'd like that," said Xena smiling. "And you know you'll be an aunt, soon - just think, another cute little kid; but why don't you try playing with this one more?"
"I'll do that," said Aphrodite. "Xena - thanks. I'm glad you're her friend."
"Me too," said Xena, as the Goddess vanished.
Xena hurried back to Melysë's cottage, her hair still damp. As promised, dinner was waiting. Steamed fish and vegetables, nutbread, still warm from the oven, soft white cheese, hot wine, mulled with spices in that special Amazon recipe that Xena loved. Xena sipped carefully at the wine while Melysë drank water.
"Oh, that's marvellous," Xena said, sniffing appreciatively of the meal.
"Please, eat," said Melysë. "I'm afraid I don't have much appetite these days - I get so short of breath so easily."
"You need to keep up your strength - you have some hard work ahead - and not too far ahead, I think," said Xena, breaking open the bread and handing a piece to Melysë.
Melysë sighed and made a face. "Please, I'd rather not think about that now," she said, biting into the bread. "I had midwife duty as part of my priestess-training at the Temple at Ephesus, and while that was one of my favourite duties, it did teach me that this is gonna hurt." Melysë shuddered. "I think I'd rather face combat than this."
"Scared?" asked Xena, gently.
"Terrified," replied Melysë, trembling.
"Wasn't quite so terrifying at the beginning, though, was it?" chuckled Xena, taking a bite of vegetables.
"Wanna bet?" asked Melysë. "I think I was even more scared then."
Xena set down her fork. "You're kidding?!" she said. "But it got better - right?" Melysë shuddered and didn't say anything. "Hey," said Xena, putting her hand on Melysë's arm. "Who's the father? Did - were you - did you choose this?"
"Sort of," said Melysë, quietly. "I mean, I consented - I didn't actually choose. The Amazons' needed an heir, and as their queen and priestess, I went to the Full Moon rites and - well, here we are. I'm just lucky it only took the one time - oh, Goddess, let this be a daughter! I don't think I could do that again!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't know," said Xena. "It must have taken a lot of courage for you to do that. But you shouldn't have to subject yourself to any man that you don't love just to bear an heir."
"Courage? Not really," said Melysë with a wry grin. "I drank a large quantity of wine - laced with poppy juice, for good measure - closed my eyes and thought of the Amazon Nation. That poor boy - he was as scared as I was, I think - I didn't think I'd ever stop crying - and he must've thought he'd be executed for treason or something."
"It doesn't have to be that way, you know," said Xena. "With someone you love and trust, who cares for you - "
"Xena, I can't afford to fall in love," said Melysë. "I am an Amazon - and the Queen at that. I don't have the opportunity to meet anyone to fall in love with; and if I did, it would simply cause too many problems. No, if this is a son, I'll just have to use more poppy juice next time. Maybe unconscious - "
"You know, all you had to do was ask," said a shimmering form, who materialised into Aphrodite. "I could help you with that little problem."
"Um, I know you," said Melysë. "At least, I think I've seen you - around, but you were wearing more - at Ephesus? Or was Lesvos, at the College...?"
Aphrodite winked and laughed.
"Melysë, this is Aphrodite," said Xena.
"Aunt?" said Melysë.
"As if! I, my dear, am your big sister," said the Goddess.
"I - don't understand," said Melysë, looking to Xena. "I thought - my father was Ares?"
"Yeah," said a leather-clad form, materialising beside Aphrodite. "What's going on, Sis'?"
"Well, I guess it's safe enough, now, what with Hera and Zeus both gone. Melysë is our sister. Zeus' daughter," said Aphrodite.
"What!?" said Ares, grinning. "You're kidding! Yes! My reputation is intact - no wimps from my loins!" Ares' faded away, laughing.
"Aw, I'm sorry, Little Sister," said Aphrodite. "He didn't really mean-"
"Yes he did," said Melysë, calmly, a little smile playing about her lips. "And do you know what? I share his relief! Thank the Goddess!"
"You're welcome," said Aphrodite, disappearing with a giggle.
"Don't think she meant you," said Xena, under her breath, to Melysë's grin.
"You're right, but I like her!" said Melysë. "And I meant what I said, I am relieved that Ares isn't my father. I don't know that Zeus is any better, but at least I won't be expected to live up to any expectations of becoming the ultimate warrior like - well, like you, Xena. Your boots would be very difficult to fill. Impossible, in fact, for me. I am no warrior, and I really don't want to be one. Oh, I've fought - and...and killed, but it was - the most horrible thing I - I don't ever want to do that again. I still have nightmares about ...that - It was when my mother was killed. In fact, it was the same battle. I killed the archer who shot them. I - I -oh, Goddess, it was horrible. It was...messy...I was enraged and terrified and the grief - I took revenge for my mothers' death, but I swore I would never willingly kill again. Not like that. After I did it, I felt even worse."
The memory came rushing unwanted upon the queen, the memory which still gave her nightmares. She was in her first battle, a little nervous, but ready. After all, her mother and the Priestess-Queen, Hypolite were there. Not that they would have any time to be protecting her - no, Melysë was a fully trained priestess and warrior now. It was up to her. She tested the edge of her sword and hefted the wooden shield before her. Her mask was hot and itchy over her face, but it was supposed to give her the fighting skills of her totem, the snow leopard, which the mask represented, so she figured she'd better leave it on. Then her mother, the Warrior-Queen, gave the signal, and Melysë was dropping down from the trees, surprising the enemy. She had fought well, blooding several opponents, and knocking them out of the battle without killing. The fight was like a dance and Melysë had always danced well in the rites to the Goddess of the Amazons. The heavy long-sword felt a little clumsy in her hands and she longed for a staff, her weapon of choice, but she had been ordered by her mother, the Warrior-Queen, to use a sword for this battle, and Melysë followed her Warrior-Queen's orders like any other warrior.
Suddenly she saw the men running and cried out with a joyous war-whoop, believing the Amazons had routed their enemies - until she saw her mother and Hypolite, dead, shot by the same arrow. She had screamed and then her eye caught sight of the archer which had done this, grinning. His grin left when he saw the snow leopard mask, fangs gleaming white, suddenly over him. Melysë had hacked clumsily at the man, her grief and rage hampering her skill. Suddenly, she felt strange. Dropping her sword, she screamed, but it came out of her a roar. She saw her own bare hands, now tipped with sharp, lethal claws, and teeth, now fangs, as they ripped at the hapless archer as if she were watching someone else. By the end of the killing, Melyse was covered with the man's blood; it was everywhere, splashed against the surrounding trees, soaking into the leaf-covered ground. Finally, she ran into the trees far enough away where the other Amazons wouldn't hear her throwing up.
Melysë had stayed in the trees for many days, evading the Amazons who searched for her, until she came back to herself. She washed the blood off in the river and ate what she could forage, but mostly she meditated and prayed and mourned. Finally, she reached a peace and a place in her soul where she could forgive herself and live with what had happened, although she swore she would never allow it to happen again. Then she returned to Amazons, who elected her Queen. Even when Pitana had declared the Royal Challenge against her, it had been enough to merely show her cousin the face of the leopard. Pitana had fallen to her knees in terror, and Melyse had exerted her will to its utmost to pull back and spare Pitana's life.
Xena was quiet for a moment. She had heard the story of Melysë's first - and only - battle. The Amazons said she had fought the killer of her mother like a beast, ripping him apart with her bare hands. The savage fury the Amazons had described was far from the gentle priestess she saw before her now, but Xena knew bloodlust and battle rage first hand, and the supreme willpower that it took to control it. She remembered the first person she herself had killed. In fact, Xena remembered every person she had ever killed.
"And if we keep talking about it, you'll have those nightmares tonight for sure," she said.
"You should go to bed and sleep now."
"Yes, I probably should," said Melysë. "But I've had such revelations tonight, I don't think I will. How about that walk? I don't think there's much of a moon, but it should be light enough for a short walk around the village."
"Sure," said Xena. "I need to walk off some of that marvellous supper."
The women rose and walked for a while in silent companionship, but their thoughts were loud and clear. Xena couldn't get the advancing army out of her mind and couldn't decide how to broach the subject to Melysë without frightening her. The baby would be born soon and Xena, remembering Eve's birth, preferred that it not happen in the thick of some battle. Well, Xena thought, subtlety has never been my chosen route. Better out with it. "Melysë, Pitana has an army and she's marching on us," she blurted out.
Melysë merely sighed and nodded. "I rather thought she might someday," she said quietly. "And of course she has to pick now, when she thinks I'm at my most vulnerable - pregnant and 'helpless'. She always was mean-spirited - and stupid? - a great warrior, though. I was willing to make her Warrior Queen, to co-rule and to lead my armies, but that wasn't enough for her. She wasn't content to simply lead the defence, Pitana wanted to go out and conquer, to - how did she put it? to 'lead the Amazons back to our former glory and might'. She'd have made us no better than the men who hate us and try to slaughter us just for our very existence. I wouldn't have it, and she declared the royal challenge against me. I won, by the grace of the Goddess, and instead of killing her, I banished her and any who were loyal to her. Oh, call me coward, but I just couldn't live with myself if I killed her, not in cold blood like that. Almost, though - I could hear whispering in my head...'Kill her - she'll be back to cause you grief, so just kill her and be done with her', but I just looked at her lying on the ground, and I remembered how she used to follow my mother around, begging with her eyes for attention - a kind word of praise, anything - and I thought of how unhappy she must have been, how lonely - and I couldn't do it."
"Do you have a plan?" asked Xena.
Melysë smiled, sadly. "I'm afraid I do," she said, her smile fading quickly. "But this time, I'll have to kill her."
"Maybe not," mused Xena. "There may be another way. Let me think on it for a while. Ares said the army was still three days away..."
"Unless he does a 'god-thing' and brings them faster," said Melysë, frowning.
"What?! Why would he do that?" asked Xena.
"Why does he do anything?" said Melysë, bitterly. "I'm not his daughter, after all - he owes me nothing. Besides, he helped her that last time we fought."
"He what!? Why?" asked Xena.
Melysë shrugged. "He said if only he had Pitana, a real warrior for a daughter, someone he could be proud of," she said. "Then the 'Daughters of Ares' could stand tall and be a force to be reckoned with once again. And then he gave her a - a boost - I guess, you could call it. She started beating me and I was sure I would die that day. And then, I felt the...this power surge through me and I got her down. It was always like that when we fought, even as kids; she'd just about beat me, and then I'd feel the power and get the better of her. In retrospect, that must have really pissed her off - no wonder she hates me!"
"Yeah," said Xena. "I need to think on this. Let's get you back and in bed. I have some things to take care of."
Once Melysë was asleep, Xena stepped back outside, gazing up at the two-day-old moon.
"Ares," she said.
"You called?" came a deep voice.
"You were here awfully quick," said Xena, smiling. "Still mortal?"
"As you are, Xena," said Ares, grinning.
"Where's Pitana tonight?" asked Xena.
"Xena! I told you, three days' march - east - of here," said Ares. "What? You don't trust me?"
"On what grounds? No, don't answer that," said Xena. "Look, I know Melysë isn't your daughter. But she is your sister - and remember, you have very little family left."
"Yeah, I know," said Ares. "But Melysë is - well, she's -"
"Not a warrior," said Xena. "I know. But she is my friend, Ares - and you know how protective I am with my friends."
"What do you want, Xena?" asked Ares.
"You asked me to come here and protect Melysë - I know, I know - that was when you were trying to protect some legacy," said Xena. "But I am asking you to allow me to do just that - protect your sister - and her unborn child. Don't interfere by doing any - 'god-thing' - to help Pitana."
"On one condition," said Ares.
"What's that?" asked Xena, tiredly.
"I want you to fight Pitana," he said.
"What's the catch?" asked Xena.
"Oh, no catch," said Ares, laughing. "Pitana is almost as good as you were. I want to enjoy the show."
"If Melysë is safe and doesn't need me, I will fight one-on-one with Pitana," agreed Xena. "But Melysë and her baby are my first concern now."
"Cool!" said Ares, fading from sight.
Xena sighed. "Xena?" said a soft, familiar, and much beloved voice.
"Gabrielle? What are you doing here? Where's Eve?" asked Xena, hugging her best friend.
"Eve is with your mother," said Gabrielle, surprised at the rare hug. "And she's positively blossoming with her. And Cyrenê - Xena, I swear, she looks years younger since Eve's been there. This visit has really been good for both of them. What's going on? Aphrodite said you might need me and I came here right away."
"Aphrodite," said Xena. "She's really come through for us lately."
"Yes," said Gabrielle. "I always kind of thought there was more to her than she let on. She's been a good friend. Funny, isn't it? The only gods really left are love and war."
"Oh, Gabrielle," said Xena hugging her tighter, "I have missed you! Come on, I want you to meet another of Zeus' daughters - and she's the Amazon Queen."
Melysë was thrilled to meet Gabrielle and Gabrielle liked Melysë right away. She asked Melysë unending questions about her training at Ephesus and her studies at Sappho's college on Lesbos. Melysë wanted to hear all about Gabrielle's experiences when she was the Queen of the Amazons.
Gabrielle was also thrilled to learn that the Amazons had most of her scrolls and that the young Amazon scribes had been set to transcribing them and distributing the copies to libraries and universities throughout the known world. "People are reading my scrolls," she said wonderingly. "And liking them!"
Melysë smiled and took Gabrielle's hand. "Of course," she said. "They are well-written and very inspiring. And, truth to tell, they are fun to read. You have indeed earned the title "Bard of Poteidaia" - although, I wish your Amazon status were a little more well known - it couldn't hurt us to let the world know we are literate - well, most of us anyway."
Gabrielle laughed. "That's true," she said. Then "What's wrong?" as Melysë suddenly gasped.
"I - I think its the baby," said Melysë, as sure enough, her water broke. "Oh, yuck! Goddess, I'm sorry, Gabrielle - what a thing for you to have to see!"
Gabrielle, knowing Melysë was trying to cover her fear and embarrassment, patted her shoulder, and ran to get some towels - and Xena.
Xena was out on the practice field, drilling with some of the warriors when Gabrielle came running up to her. One look and Xena knew what was happening.
"Gabrielle take over here for a while, then let them go," Xena said, running to Melysë's cottage. "I think they'll be celebrating the birth of a new little Amazon before long."
The warriors cheered. "Tell Melysë we're for her!" "Blessed Be!" "Tell Melysë to bring us a princess!" and other well-wishes were shouted. Xena nodded and jogged off to Melysë. The Amazon was cleaning herself and the floor when Xena came in.
"Hey, what are you doing?" she asked taking the towels from Melysë's shaking hands. Melysë hugged Xena and Xena remembered how she had clung to Gabrielle when Eve was being born. "Hey, it's gonna be alright. I'm here, I'm here; I've gotcha. Shh, it's alright, I'm here, and Gabrielle will be here, too, very soon."
Melysë took a deep breath - well, started to, but it caught as her eyes widened in pain. "Oh, my Goddess!" she gasped. "Oh, Xena, I don't think I can do this, I really don't!"
Xena grinned. "I don't think you have a choice," she said, getting some fresh, clean towels and setting a pot of water to boil. "Wish Gabrielle were here to do this - I never could boil water - sorry, little joke there. Come on, let's get you out of those clothes and into something a little easier to work with. I think we're in for a little wait, but you never know."
The afternoon wore on and Melysë stayed cheerful between contractions. "I don't know why I was so afraid," she said. "These are no worse than bad cramps - I can do this. What?" Xena was smiling sympathetically. "Oh, it gets worse, doesn't it?" said Melysë and Xena nodded. "But gradually worse, so a person could sort of - oh, Goddess, I'm scaring myself, again. Xena, tell me about - oh, anything!"
"I'm sorry, Melysë, but Gabrielle's the story-teller," said Xena. "I could sing a little for you, though."
Xena began humming and sponging off Melysë's sweaty brow. The Amazon found it soothing and visibly relaxed.
"That's right, you out-sang the sirens for Ulysses," she whispered. "Thank-you, Xena. I know what a gift you are giving to me- and to my baby."
Xena smiled and continued to sing softly until Melysë fell into a light drowse. Gabrielle came in quietly and smiled at Xena, singing to Melysë. "I could almost be jealous," she whispered. "You don't sing for just anyone."
"I sing for you," said Xena, softly, so not to wake Melysë. "I sang for Eve and Solan; Eli and Marcus, Lyceus, and ... Joxer...It's better to sing a new life in than to sing a life out."
"That's your magic, Xena," said Melysë, coming out of the light sleep.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't - baby did," she said, struggling upright.
"Another contraction?" said Xena and Melysë nodded.
"Xena's singing is her magic and your stories are yours, Gabrielle," said Melysë, wincing. "Xena, I really hate to impose, but do you think you could sing this little one back into a nap? She's really kicking up a fuss in there."
Xena came back to the bed and felt the baby. She grinned. "Won't be long now," she said. "Gabrielle, why don't you boil some water?"
"What for?" asked Gabrielle.
"Because you've been out in the sun, drilling the troops and Melysë has this 'thing' for warrior sweat," laughed Xena, as Melysë threw a pillow at her.
"Don't listen to her," said Melysë. "Just because she said she never learned how to boil water - "
"That's not too far from the truth," said Gabrielle, chuckling and going to fill the pot for more boiling water. "Did she tell you about the time..." And so Gabrielle told story after story while Melysë awaited the birth of her child and still miles away, an army marched...
The afternoon had worn on into evening, and Melysë still struggled. The pain was hard and almost constant now and Melysë was visibly exhausted.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered, away from Melysë. "Should it be taking this long?"
"I don't know, Gabrielle," replied Xena, worriedly. "Babies come when they will, but the labour's been hard for too long and the baby's still not coming down."
"Xena, what about what you did for Ephiny?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena shook her head. "No, this baby isn't breech - and a centaur - like Xenan was," she said. "Still, it may come to that. I hope not, though."
Aphrodite shimmered into view. "How's she doing?" she asked, softly.
"See for yourself," replied Gabrielle.
Aphrodite approached Melysë. "Hey, Little Sister," she whispered.
Melysë's eyes flew open and she struggled to smile. "Hey...'Big Sister'..." she croaked, weakly. "Have you come...to offer a little...'divine intervention'?"
"I'm sorry, Little Sister," said Aphrodite, sincerely. "This isn't my area of expertise."
"No, just the first part," muttered Gabrielle.
"Hey, I wasn't there," said Aphrodite. "Just ask her. But a little 'divine intervention' isn't such a bad idea. I know Who Melysë serves; maybe I could just -- Yeah!" Hugging herself, Aphrodite winked out with a giggling little squeal.
"Where'd she go?" asked Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, I think even the gods have to have Someone to pray to," said Xena. "Let's just hope that Someone is listening."
Melysë hadn't heard much past Aphrodite's "I'm sorry..." for she had embarked upon her own journey, far up and away from the pain which had consumed her body. Melysë felt herself soaring among the stars and the crescent of the young moon. Then she was in a strange and beautiful land, where every face she saw was familiar and well-loved.
"Melysë!" Melysë whirled about to see her mother, Lyssë, who had been killed in battle many years before.
"Mother!" she cried, while being enfolded in her mother's embrace. "I've missed you so!"
"And I, you, My Little One," said Lyssë, as Melysë marvelled a how much like Xena her mother looked.
"Yes, Xena," said Lyssë, smiling. "She is a very great soul - many here are looking forward to being re-united with her - in this life or another. I am glad she is your friend."
"I will miss her, too," said Melysë.
"Oh, no you won't," said her mother. "Your daughter is waiting for you to come and lead her into the body which your body is still working to birth."
"My - my daughter?" said Melysë.
"Yes, Child," said Lyssë. "Every mother makes this journey, to collect the soul of her child and lead them into life. Most don't remember it after the child is in their arms, but every mother makes the journey, all the same."
"Are you - will you be born again through me, Mother?"
"No, my Love," said Lyssë. "It's not yet my time - but we'll be together again. Until then, though, your little one is waiting."
"Oh, Mother, I think of you so much," said Melysë. "There is so much I would still say - "
"Sh, my child," said Lyssë. "I know all that is in your heart - I hear your thoughts and I feel your love. I love you, too, and yes, I am very, very proud of you."
"Thank-you, Mother," said Melysë, eyes shining. "Is Hypolite here, too?"
"There's no time for reunions, now, Child. Go now, and get your daughter - she has been waiting for you," said Lyssë. "And if you are gone too long, your friends will worry."
"Where - where is she?" Lyssë pointed and Melysë looked to see a great Temple, like in Ephesus, only it was more splendid. Melysë walked to the Temple, marvelling at its greatness. "This is how it was before," she thought. "How it really is, underneath how it looks now."
"Mother?" Melysë looked to see a dark-haired little girl with shining dark eyes and fair skin looking up at her. "Yes," she said, gathering the child in her arms. "We have people waiting for us, waiting to welcome you and love you. Are you ready to be born?"
"Yes," said the child, smiling.
And Melysë, carrying the child, headed back into the pain which had freed her soul for the journey to get her child's soul under the blessing and watchful Eyes of Someone who loved her.
With a gasp, she came back into her body and into the pain, and realised that her arms were empty, but her daughter was still with her. "Xena! Gabrielle!" she gasped. They rushed over to her.
"We thought you were resting," said Gabrielle.
"What's happening?" asked Xena.
"I don't know," said Melysë. "The pain - it's less, but - ooohhh! Something's happening!"
"Ok," said Xena, calmly. "The baby's coming. Can you push?"
"I - I can't not push!" cried Melysë. "But I'm so tired..."
"Okay, it's okay, shh, shh," Xena soothed. "Gabrielle, come out in front here - you know what to do, like with Eve. I'm going to get behind her and help her push."
"Ok," said Gabrielle, moving into position.
"Oh!" cried Melysë.
"What's wrong?" said Xena.
"She doesn't have a name, yet," replied Melysë.
"Shh, don't worry, we'll give her one - won't we Gabrielle?" said Xena.
"Of course," said Gabrielle. "we're good at names and stuff."
"Ok, you ready?" asked Xena, and Melysë nodded. "Then let's go."
"Come on, push," Gabrielle encouraged. "Push - that's it - just one more, I think..."
Shimmering in the corner, unseen by the three women, Aphrodite appeared smiling and looking up whispered, "Thank-you ... Mother." In another corner of the room, another sort of shimmer and black-leather clad Ares looked on in wonder and new admiration.
The three women, oblivious to the observers, continued working for a few more minutes, then were rewarded by a strong yell.
"Here's your little Amazon," said Gabrielle, placing the baby in Melysë's shaking arms.
"Oh, she's so beautiful," said Melysë, tearfully. "And so tiny - is she alright do you think?"
"Well, let me see," said Xena, leaning over to look at the infant. "Ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth and all in the right places - yep, I think we've got a keeper, here."
Melysë laughed. "Thank-you, all of you," said the new mother.
Aphrodite came closer, crying. "Oh, she is beautiful," she said, stroking the baby with one finger.
Ares cleared his throat. "Uh, may I see her?" he asked.
"Of course - 'Uncle Ares'" said Melysë, smiling. "I don't know if it's just Aphrodite's presence, or something else, but I have never felt so much love in all my life."
"I wish I could take credit, Kiddo," said the Goddess. "But I think its coming from her, the baby, and everyone else in the room."
"You're right," said Gabrielle. "I feel it, too. It's like the sun on a spring day."
"Arynë," said Melysë.
"What?" said Xena.
"Her name - it's Arynë - after the Sun Goddess, Arinna, of the Hittites - her father was a Hittite warrior - actually I think he was a minor prince," said Melysë.
"I like it," said Xena.
"Yeah, me too," said Gabrielle.
"It's perfect," said Aphrodite.
"Sounds a little like 'Ares'," said the war god. "It'll do. Congratulations - Sister." Ares blinked out.
"Don't let him fool ya," said Aphrodite. "He's thrilled - and touched - and I think a little disappointed that he's not little Arynë's grandfather. Well, I gotta go, too - have to celebrate, but don't worry - I'll be around. Toodles!" Aphrodites shimmered away.
Melysë sighed. "You two don't have leave right away, too, do you?" she asked.
"No, not yet," said Xena, gently, smoothing the covers of the bed. "You sleep now and we'll be here when you wake up. Come on, Gabrielle. We have good news to share." When Xena and Gabrielle announced the news, the Tribe was ready to celebrate, but there was no time. Pitana was marching her army and getting closer. "Tomorrow," Ares announced.
"We'll be ready," said Xena, grimly. "Aphrodite, can you take Melysë and the baby someplace safe - to my mother, in Amphipolis?"
"Sure," said the Goddess straightening up from crooning over the baby.
"Xena, no," said Melysë. "I mean, thank-you, but I can't leave my people now. I am their queen. They need me."
"To do what?" asked Xena. "You just had a baby, for crying out loud - and it wasn't exactly an easy birth, you know?"
"Xena, I can't just leave them - not even in your hands," said Melysë. "I promise I won't try to fight, but I can't just bail - what would that do to morale?"
Secretly Xena knew she was right. Morale was running very high right now, and that might be the edge the Amazons needed to win this. When little Arynë had been presented in the Temple, every member of the Tribe had attended the ceremony and when Aphrodite, Xena, and Gabrielle had been appointed godsmothers, the whole Tribe was cheering ecstatically. "Alright - but you promise - " she began.
"I promise," said Melysë.
"I'll stay with her," volunteered Aphrodite. "I still have a few tricks up my sleeves. A well-placed love-bolt, and the fiercest of warriors melts into a puddle."
"That - might be useful," mused Gabrielle.
Xena looked at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes. "I want you there, too, Gabrielle," said Xena, quietly "I won't worry so much, knowing you're protecting them."
"What about you, Xena?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm taking on Pitana," said Xena. "I made a deal with Ares - he wouldn't do his 'god-thing' for Pitana if I fight her one on one."
"Figures," said Gabrielle. "He's changed - but not that much. How much 'god-thing' does he still have, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Xena. "But as long as he's not using it against us, it really doesn't matter - for now. Get in position, I think its time."
The Amazons were in place, high up in the trees, from which they would descend rapidly upon their foes. Melysë, Arynë, and the rest of the Tribe's children too young to hold a weapon, and those too old to fight, were taken to the village Temple to wait and pray, while Gabrielle guarded them.
Arynë cried a little and Melysë nursed her, while gathering the rest of the children around her and began to tell them a story. Gabrielle smiled - it was one of hers. Melysë looked up at Gabrielle and smiled and winked. "You could tell this better, Gabrielle," she said.
"No, go ahead - you're doing great," replied the Bard.
Afterwards, Melysë told one about the Lawgiver, Queen Lysippe, and Gabrielle made a mental note to write it down - if they got out of this alive. "Have faith, Gabrielle," she told herself. "Xena's gotten us out of way worse than this. What about that time I was shot with a poison arrow and Persia's army was attacking us? Xena fought off the whole army! And that time I was kidnapped and Xena rescued me even though she was blind...Or the time Gareth, the biggest, meanest giant who ever lived was coming - Xena took care of him with that flying parchment-thing. Or how Xena retrieved Hades' Helm of Invisibility by descending into the Underworld, and fighting off the Harpies. Or that time the Horde - I mean Pomira- was attacking the fort - well, ok, I helped, there, but still, it was Xena who..."
Gabrielle had been reassuring herself aloud, and had unwittingly gathered the children around herself.
"Tell us about the giant, Gabrielle!" "No, tell us the Harpy story!" the children clamoured at her for stories. Gabrielle sighed. "Well, ok," she agreed," but just one - or two...I have to keep watch."
The Amazon children nodded soberly. They understood the importance of sentry duty. Sadly, Gabrielle realised that these were the children of a hunted people. The Amazons had been considered fair game for centuries by prejudiced men who thought the women would be easy prey. She wondered if a time would ever come for these people to live in peace.
Suddenly, Gabrielle broke off in the middle of a story at the sound of Xena's distinctive battle-cry. She leaped up and ran to the spy-hole and looked out. The people inside the Temple were silent - even baby Arynë did not cry, but looked about her with wiser eyes than any new-born should have.
Xena was sparring with a slightly shorter, sandy-haired woman. The woman was sneering and shouting things which Gabrielle couldn't quite make out. Gabrielle's eye caught sight of Ares, leaning against a tree while all around the two fighting women, warriors stood and watched. He didn't appear to be enjoying the fight as much as he thought he would. In fact, his expression was one of disgust.
"What's happening?" asked Melysë, who had risen and stood next to Gabrielle.
"Xena's fighting someone - Pitana, I think," she replied. "But the rest of them are just standing around watching - I don't get it."
Melysë sighed. "I think I do," she said. "Pitana must have made the Royal Challenge - again."
"But - I thought she couldn't do that," protested Gabrielle. "She already challenged you and lost. I thought by Amazon law, only one challenge was permitted?"
"No, Gabrielle, you're right," Melysë sighed again. "Pitana cannot challenge me again, but she can declare the challenge against my daughter - Arynë."
"That's stupid," said Gabrielle.
"That's Pitana," said Melysë, with a sigh.
Suddenly there was a scream. Pitana threw down her sword and stamped her foot. "I said, BRING HER OUT," she screamed. "I have the right - I declare the Royal Challenge against Arynë, daughter of Melysë and first heir! I demand a fight to the death!" Ares rolled his eyes and disappeared.
Suddenly Gabrielle realised Melysë was no longer standing beside her. She looked around and saw Aphrodite, holding Arynë, looking puzzled. Gabrielle whirled around and looked out to see Melysë walking calmly toward the fighters. Xena looked at Melysë and Gabrielle could swear she saw flames in Xena's eyes at the sight of the Amazon Queen's regal approach. Melysë's step was sure and steady and her jaw set and determined. Her own eyes flashed in anger, as she stopped and stood before her cousin.
"So," said the queen. "You want to fight a 3-day-old infant to the death? Not much of a challenge, Pitana, for so great a warrior as yourself."
"Don't you dare patronise me," screamed Pitana. "I have the right!"
"So you do," agreed Melysë, calmly. The warriors of both armies murmured. Ares reappeared, looking interested, but still leaning casually against the tree. Pitana leered. "So where is she?" she asked.
"Pitana, you have the right to declare the Challenge against my new-born daughter," said Melysë. "I have the right, as her mother, to either fight in her place, or choose her champion."
"It's a fight to death, this time, Melysë," taunted Pitana. "You are half-god - maybe immortal - so you can't fight me this time."
"I don't know that I am immortal," said Melysë. "But I will not fight you, in all fairness. If Xena will consent, I choose her to champion my daughter. Xena?"
Xena smiled slightly and nodded. Ares grinned.
"Very well," said Pitana, grinning smugly, and picking up her sword with a flourish. " I relish the idea of how my reputation will soar when I kill Xena, and then I will take the Amazon throne - no one will stand against me, then!"
"That's all very - interesting, Pitana," said Xena, slowly twirling her own sword above her head. "But what makes you think you'll kill me?" They fought hard and fast. Melysë had been right, Pitana was good. She drew first blood on Xena, slicing open her left thigh.
"It's a fight to the death, Xena," panted Pitana. "And I have tasted ambrosia - the food of the gods. When I have had another taste, I will be a god - a full god, not just a half-blood, like my cousin."
Suddenly it made sense; any mortal Xena had ever known( - except Xena herself, but she had been dead at the time -) to taste of the sacred food of the gods became insane. Pitana's eyes were wide, the pupils almost invisible, and her laugh was a mad cackle. She fought furiously and well, but with careless abandon, leaving herself open too many times, and Xena had pressed every advantage, yet Pitana bore no wounds despite the fact that Xena was sure she made several hits. Her wounds were closing too fast to bleed.
"Ambrosia?" said Xena.
"Oh, yes," laughed Pitana. "You see, Xena, you can't kill me."
"Oh, but Pitana," said Xena, grimly. "Haven't you heard? I have killed gods."
"Wh-what?" said Pitana, dropping her guard for a moment, glancing at Ares who grinned and nodded, as Xena slashed, cutting a line across her cheek. It bled, but slowly closed as doubt began to creep in upon Pitana. "H-how is that possible?"
"My daughter is Eve, Bringer of the Twilight, Messenger of the Way of Love," said Xena, slashing again. Pitana jumped back, no longer sure. "And I am her Protector, given the power to kill gods while she lives. So, you see, no one is immortal any more!"
At that, Xena began slashing and stabbing. Furiously, Pitana put up a defence, but she had been relying so heavily on the protection the ambrosia should have given her, that she couldn't block effectively. Finally, she lay on the ground, under the point of Xena's sword.
"It's your call, your majesty," Xena said quietly, never taking her eyes from Pitana.
Aphrodite came out of the Temple, carrying Arynë, followed by Gabrielle and the others.
Melysë took the baby in her arms and looked intently into the child's eyes, searching...finally, not finding what she sought, Melysë looked at Ares, then at her people, then back at Xena, her eyes avoiding Pitana.
"She would have murdered my child - a helpless baby," said the queen quietly. "She would have killed me and anyone else who got in her way and she would have led the Amazons into tyranny and death. Pitana declared this a death challenge and disqualified me on the premise of my possible immortality, all the while believing herself immortal. By her deception, she has dishonoured herself and betrayed her Amazon oath and no longer deserves the name 'Amazon'. So, as priestess and Queen of the Amazons, I hereby rescind Pitana's Amazon birthright. From this day forward, Pitana, you are no longer an Amazon. Let her live, Xena, but I want her confined where she can do no more harm."
The Amazons cheered, but Melysë wasn't finished yet. "Warriors of Pitana," she said, addressing those who had not yet fled (while those who had were being rounded up and captured). "You have a choice: swear before Ares, god of war - and my brother, your loyalty to me and your friendship to the Amazon Nation, or - " Ares grinned menacingly and approached the group. "I leave my brother to offer you the consequences of your other choice," Melysë finished.
The warriors, mostly mercenaries who were loyal only to Ares - and whoever handled their payroll - were quick to kneel before the Amazon Queen, as Pitana was led off to prison.
"That was good, little sister," said Ares, grinning at her. "I see...potential."
"Ares where did Pitana get ambrosia?" asked Melysë. Ares shrugged.
"Hey, I'm not sharing my stash," he said.
"Ambrosia," mused Xena. "That explains - a lot."
"Yeah, well - it's -" began Ares
"A 'god-thing'," finished Melysë and Gabrielle.
Ares threw back his head and laughed as he faded away.
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