The Sabres had reacted as one body when the power of war electrified Randi, coming to stand behind Gwen in a show of solidarity. They remained firm, not moving by her command when Gwen went to Randi, but watching with the same fascination as the rest of the world as Gwen tamed the fire burning in Randi’s eyes. When Ares yielded to Randi, they exchanged amazed looks, but still didn’t move, not having been released from Gwen’s command. And as long as there was no immediate danger, they were bound to wait until called for.
When the gods moved towards them, however, the Sabres did the same, coming up to stand behind Randi and Gwen even as the gods surrounded the defeated Ares. No one showed a reaction when Randi turned to Zeus and demanded, “Let’s get rid this godhood thing,” beyond a widening of their eyes. But it was damned certain there would be talk around the dinner table later. None of them had ever experienced anything like this before – no one in the world had.
Randall was enthralled with the action taking place in front of him. He reached out towards the screen trying to touch his favorite person. He cheered as she fought, knowing his ‘Wuv’ would triumph. After all... she was his hero and heroes don’t lose. When the essence of war encompassed her, he clapped and cheered, proclaiming, “Pretty!” Ella just let her mouth drop open in complete disbelief and Ditto chimed in her two cents with a loud, staccato bark.
Tommy watched, eyes wide, as the woman he had always considered his little sister became a god. To say it was disconcerting was an understatement, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the vid screen. He’d never seen her fight like that – never expected her to be able to hold her own so easily with Ares... even without his powers. And then to have Randi become the one thing in the world she despised more than any other... well, Tommy wasn’t surprised to hear the words come out of her mouth. His only surprise came from the lack of venom, more of a resignation in her tone than anything else.
Jill didn’t say anything. Her gaze was fixed on her daughter, who was the picture of composed happiness locked in Randi’s embrace. Whatever else had happened, godhood had done nothing to their bond but made it stronger, and seeing it made Jill smile. Geoff’s sacrifice had been worth it, and that was enough to give her an unexpected measure of peace.
Sky watched, nodding his approval. It was gratifying to see such a successful culmination of effort. Though the current events playing out before his eyes were beyond his ability to forecast, even through the vid screen he could see the bond that linked Randi and Gwen together. He took a small measure of pride in the part he had played towards their healing, and watching Randi stand up and kick Ares’ ass was rewarding on a carnal level – all in all an extremely satisfying day.
“Holy shit!” Tiny muttered to no one in particular as Ares godhood descended on Randi. The rest of the Sabres gathered around the vid screen echoed his sentiment after their own fashion while all eyes remained locked on the action taking place in the Amazon compound. Then they watched with amazed eyes the wordless conversation between Randi and Gwen before Randi forced Ares to yield. None of them could hear the words that were spoken, but the defeat in his posture was unmistakable even before he conceded the field to her.
They cheered when Gwen ran into Randi’s arms. Then complete silence fell when Randi told Zeus to get rid of her godhood. Surely they had misunderstood; despite her desire to simply go home and live in peace with Gwen, no one would give up the opportunity to be a god... would they? She could still go wherever she wanted and live in peace.
Only Tiny immediately understood her motivation and he nodded his approval. “You go, girl,” he said into all that silence, compelling every eye in the conference room to turn towards him. He huffed in impatience and rolled his eyes at them. “C’mon, guys. None of you are that dense.”
“But Tiny... it’s the ultimate power....”
“No, it isn’t the ultimate power, but it is a power and responsibility Randi has always despised and done her very best to avoid. She was goaded into becoming the Sabre Commandant and pushed into taking the position of Empress. And as soon as she recovered herself completely, the minute she escaped from the last of Ares influence, she put into motion plans so she can to resign from it and walk away.”
“I don’t understand that,” Yuri said plaintively. “Oh, I know she doesn’t want it; I get that. I was genuinely surprised when she accepted the position of Commandant and then proclaimed herself Empress. It goes against everything I knew about her before she came back from the dead.”
“But being a god is different. She has the epitome of power in the palm of her hand and yet she is walking away from it. Doesn’t she understand the good she could do with it??”
Tiny chuckled. “I think you are looking at this from the wrong angle, Yuri. Didn’t you hear what Randi and Gwen said to Ares? First of all, being a god is not the ultimate power – it never has been. Randi has held her ultimate power in the palm of her hand and the depths of her heart for a long time and everything she has done has been in an effort to protect that.”
“You’re talking about her love for Gwen, aren’t you, Tiny?” Chase asked.
“Yeah. The love they share is Randi’s whole world; nothing and no one else comes close. Being a god would take away from that, and for Randi, that is unacceptable. Besides, she has done more good for mankind as a mortal than the gods have managed to do in the millennia of their existence. She has given us a chance to determine our destiny on our own... without any added outside influences stirring things up for us except for those we allow in. What happens to the human race is now ultimately our responsibility – no gods or religions or differences to blame... just us.”
“Wow,” Yuri said thoughtfully. “I never thought about it before. It’s always been us versus the rebels on a quest for peace.”
“Well, now it’s just us on a search to better ourselves and the world we live in. And that should be everyone’s responsibility... not just hers. Because of her, we have a fighting chance of making it work.”
Aphrodite held tight to the box she had recovered as she, Athena and Artemis separated from the other gods and moved to stand in front of Randi and Gwen instead. “Randi, are you sure about this?” Dite asked seriously. “Giving up your godhood, I mean. You could make such a difference....”
Gwen held on to Randi when she would have pulled away. Randi looked down in curiosity, not angry but a little confused by Gwen’s reaction. She read the unspoken request in the green eyes and touched the backs of her fingers to Gwen’s cheek, yielding the floor to her soulmate with grace and dignity.
Gwen slipped out of the embrace only as far as necessary, feeling Randi’s arms slide around her middle when Gwen moved to stand in front of her. She leaned back comfortably, relishing the feel of being held safely in Randi’s arms once more. Nothing in heaven or earth could compare to that and Gwen wanted the goddesses to understand.
“Aphrodite, Randi has already made that difference. Didn’t you hear what we said to Ares earlier? This is humanity’s best chance to evolve as a species... to grow for themselves and see what, if anything, they are capable of beyond fighting and dying. Already most see the similarities instead of the differences, and the rest are being educated as we speak. There is nothing more Randi could do as a goddess that she has not already accomplished as a mortal.”
“No, Aphrodite,” Athena cut in unexpectedly. “They are completely right, and we all know the souls of both the warrior and the bard have more than earned the chance to be done with this. Our time as gods and the parents of humanity has long since passed, and while we will always exist... always be around keeping a watchful eye in things, it is time that mortals determined their own destiny without any interference from us. They deserve the opportunity to stand or fall on their own.”
“Enough, daughter,” Zeus said, the conversation having attracted his attention. It had answered his questions, hearing them reaffirm what they had said to Ares. “Miranda, step forward and we will remove the power of war from you. And then we will go and give humanity the chance you have earned for them.” More than one of the lesser gods looked like they wanted to protest, but one look at Ares convinced them all to shut up and agree. At least they would still be immortals; none of them wanted to suffer Ares’ fate. He still hadn’t moved from where he had fallen after yielding the field to Randi.
The Pantheon lined up behind Zeus once more, extending their powers to withdraw the power of war from its host again. Gwen moved to one side, but refused to move completely away from Randi, instead choosing to give Randi something to focus on besides what was happening. Randi stood still, letting Gwen hold her hands while she gripped the sword and keeping their gazes locked. She didn’t even notice when the essence emerged from her being and hovered over her before reluctantly following the call of the Pantheon and coming to rest in the bottom of Hephestus’ locked box.
Aphrodite closed the box and this time Zeus locked and sealed it. Then he took it from Aphrodite, clearing his throat to get Randi’s attention and still having to wait a full minute before she turned her stare in his direction. The Amazons and the rest of the world were all but forgotten and Zeus slowed time to allow them a bit of privacy to finish the remainder of their business. Then he extended the box towards Randi and waited for her to accept it.
“This is yours. Only you can open it... either by will or by your death and the death of your soulmate. If you open it by will, you will become the God of War and we will not undo that choice. If you and Gwen die without opening the box, the power will revert to Ares and he will shed his mortality to resume his godhood.”
“And if he dies before I do?”
Zeus spared a glance at his fallen son, guarded by the Sabres and watched by the rest of the gods. “When his time comes, if it is before yours, I will put his body into stasis until such time as you pass over. Only then will he be allowed to reclaim his godhood.”
“Very well,” Randi nodded. “Do you need to know where this will be kept?”
Zeus shook his head. “No. The essence will know and it will find you or Ares when it is freed.”
Randi nodded and Zeus turned away from her, headed back towards Ares who lay flat on his back with his good arm covering his eyes. He couldn’t bend into a fetal position as his cracked knee and sore ribs were on opposite sides of his body and made curling up in any form an uncomfortable prospect at best.
“Zeus?” He turned back to Randi when she addressed him and waited. “Why did it choose me? Despite everything I said to him, Ares was born to godhood. It’s *his* essence.”
He looked at her for a long moment, then nodded his head in satisfaction at what he found in her. She would have been a most powerful god... even moreso than he himself was, and Zeus was suddenly grateful for the strength of will that compelled her to turn her back on it and remain mortal. “My children were born to be gods, yes, but each godhood chose its host. Ares was most suited to be the God of War. That essence became his because he was the most capable warrior and for a very long time, he was very good at what he did. Then you... your soul... came along and he lost his focus.”
“So you’re saying that essence chose me because....”
“... you were the strongest, most capable warrior, yes.” He looked directly at Gwen who had been watching the conversation quietly but with exceeding interest. “Though you were a most compelling candidate as well. Now, if you will excuse me,” motioning towards Ares, “I think we need to find a place to get him settled and heal him. He should at least start his life as a mortal with a strong body. What he does after that....” Zeus shrugged.
“Where will he go when he leaves here?” Gwen asked, looking back and forth between Ares, Zeus and the three goddesses who were still nearby.
Athena stepped closer and nodded to Zeus, who went back to his son’s side. “We thought we’d leave it up to you. We could take him back to Olympus, but we didn’t think that was what you had in mind when you demanded his mortality as a condition of the contest. We all assumed you might want a say in his dispensation. You did defeat him after all.”
“Personally, I would like to see him live and work as a mortal on this plane for the rest of his natural life... something difficult and challenging to his body, if not his mind. Maybe a taste of true hard work will make him a better person, even if doesn’t make him a better god. I don’t have enough faith to think any change on his part would last beyond his regaining his power,” Gwen said bitterly.
“You really think he won’t learn from this?” Artemis asked sadly.
“Yeah, that is exactly what I think,” Gwen answered honestly. “We have put up with his meddling to varying degrees in every lifetime we have shared for millennia. I know this for a fact - I have documentation of much of it, and the Amazon library holds some of the earliest texts about our lives together. I think regaining his godhood will only make us a bigger target for him. So I’d like to know he at least had to work through this lifetime so we can enjoy some peace.”
“Very well,” Athena accepted her words with a disappointed nod. “We will make sure he is put somewhere that he will have to work daily for his survival. At least he will be kept busy enough to afford you both the peace from his machinations you have more than earned.” She started to walk back to the rest of the gods when she was halted by Gwen’s hand on her arm.
“Find him a place where he has to work hard and earn his place, but also offers him a chance for friends and companionship. Even he shouldn’t have to spend the next fifty years alone.”
Before anyone else could speak, Aphrodite rushed in and wrapped Gwen up in a tight hug. “Oooh, babe! You so totally rock! I knew I could count on your radical self to go beyond and give Ares a chance.”
Gwen exchanged confused glances with Randi, whose expression turned to one of amusement when Dite continued to hold on to Gwen for dear life. Finally, Randi stepped forward to break Aphrodite’s hold and allow Gwen to take a deep breath. “What was that about?” cutting her eyes to take in the amused countenances of all three goddesses.
“When it was determined that you would be responsible for deciding Ares’ fate, there were those in our number who felt anything you chose would be excessively harsh, given his actions towards you. Most felt it was your due and that you would be justified in whatever course of action you took.”
“However, we argued that you would show him some bit of mercy; it is just in your nature... part of who you are and have always been.”
“Yeah, it’s just majorly cool to have been proven so right.”
“Oh,” Randi said. “So now what?”
“Well, first we will take Ares to his new earthly home, and then we will all head back to our various immortal planes of existence. I imagine this will keep us all quite enthralled with discussion and debate for the next little while. Nothing this exciting has happened to us in ages.”
Randi chuckled. Somehow, she didn’t doubt the truth of that statement. “Well, if ya’ll can manage it between gossip sessions, ya’ll might want to try to come to the party we have scheduled here in a few days. It promises to be a lot of fun, but um....” looking at Gwen for help.
“We’ll be there, but you won’t recognize us. Well, you two might, but the rest of the world won’t,” Athena said with a smile. “You deserve that much.”
“Besides, it’ll be nice to just be one of the girls for a change,” Artemis agreed.
“Yeah, but for now, we’ve gotta jet. Hair to do, make-up to fix, nails to sharpen... you know how it is. We’ll be keeping an eye out though; we don’t wanna miss this way rocking par-tay.”
Randi and Gwen just shook their heads and watched as the three goddesses crossed back over to join the rest of the gods. Finally it dawned on Ares that this was real, and he was going to have to live as a mortal for the next few decades. He began to fight and struggle. “NO!! You can’t do this to me! I am the God of War!! You can’t do this!!!! NOOOOOOO!!!!!”
Zeus restrained Ares with a touch on his arm and his cries turned to whimpers and please for mercy. The three goddesses turned and gave Randi and Gwen a wave before disappearing in a shower of petals, sparkles and flashing light, accompanied by the rumble of thunder. Only when the last reverberation had rolled through and the final flash faded did time resume its normal journey and the crowd around them surge with sound and motion.
“What just happened?” Reed asked Rosie. “Where is Ares?”
“Don’t worry, Reed,” Randi said. “Everything’s been taken care of. Are you all right?” She and Gwen stepped into the ring of Sabres, feeling the circle close, shielding them from the Amazons who were slowly approaching them.
“Except for the feeling that that I missed something important, I’m great. When you were healed by the godhood, it healed the rift in your barrier as well. I kinda miss the warmth I felt before, but I am happier knowing it is in place.”
“I’ll bet,” Randi chuckled. “C’mon. We’ve go things to do and a party to plan.”
“Actually, I think we can leave the party planning to the Amazons. Rumor has it they’re experts.” This caused Randi and Gwen to break out into serious laughter, from relief as much as from what Reed had said. The Sabres just watched them with bemusement.
“You have no idea,” Gwen managed to get out. Randi just wrapped her arm tighter around Gwen’s shoulders and guided them all back towards the mountain. There was still work to be done and most of it was not here. But the sooner they got it finished, the sooner they could come back and party with the Amazons one more time.
“How long will you be gone, my queen?” Lorac asked when they had finally reached the sanctuary of their quarters. Though thrilled with Randi’s defeat of Ares, the Nation was still recovering from the potion he had administered and they were still somewhat subdued as a result. It would be another day or two before any of them felt up to hosting a party; the events of the day had been very draining - especially given the amount of prep work that had been required of the Nation before the actual fight between Randi and Ares.
So they were looking forward to a day or two of down time to recover before hosting what was sure to be the blowout of a lifetime.
“Probably a week. Randi has to put the last of her plans in place and we want to stop by the village for a day or two to talk to Sky and the People. They’ve done so much for us - we were supposed to go by there right after our spirit walk, but things came up.”
Lorac nodded. That seemed to be true a lot around these two, but things also got fixed when they were around as well. “Invite the People to come with you as well... all of them.” She smiled at the astonishment so clearly written in Gwen’s expression. “I know it is unusual, but we owe them a great debt as well. Perhaps it is time to start some new traditions.”
Gwen cleared her throat. “Well, then... why don’t we make this an end of summer bash?”
Lorac nodded her agreement. “That would give us a couple weeks to get everything together and get the word out to everyone. Do you think Reed would be willing to stay and be a liaison for us? Since they are her tribe, she could make a great contribution towards making this successful.”
“I’ll ask her, but I don’t see why not. I don’t think Randi would mind.”
“Wouldn’t mind what, love?” rubbing the excess water from her hair as she stepped into the room. The Sabres had given her their traditional congratulations when they reached the fountain, and she had decided a shower would be the quickest way to warm up from the ice cold water they had plunged her into... since her first chosen method was currently unavailable dealing with diplomatic matters.
Gwen’s eyes sparkled brightly when they met equally bright blue ones. The energy between them was palpable, but her voice was steady when she answered Randi’s question. “Leaving Reed here for the next couple weeks. It would help the Amazons prepare and would give her a break from us.”
“That’s not a problem. I decided to have all the Sabres with us continue their duty here while we were gone anyway. They are all Amazons, after all. I figure they will enjoy a bit of light duty after the last few weeks and they can help Lorac with whatever else needs to be done to get the Nation settled.” She turned her attention to the regent. “You are close, yes?”
“Yes, Empress... Randi,” she conceded, seeing the glower form on Randi’s face. “We’re not as far along as we’d hoped to be at this point, but given the mitigating circumstances, I am mostly pleased at the status of our progress. Having the Sabre Amazons here will make a big difference in what we can accomplish before you and the queen return.”
“Then consider it done.” Randi turned back to Gwen. “So when is this shindig? I figured the Nation might need a little time to recuperate before hosting any sort of big bash, so how long? I need to let Tommy know when to get the guys together and get out here.”
“Two weeks,” Gwen replied. “We thought we’d make it an end of summer party. That will give us time to do what we need to do and everyone else time to make arrangements to get out here.”
Randi smiled her approval. “I like that. It means we don’t have to rush either, and yet gives us a deadline I can live with. All right. We’ll head out first thing in the morning. But now we need to go have dinner with the unit and let them know what is going on and then I have a few calls to make. Lorac, would you like to join us?”
“If it is all the same to you, Emp... Randi, we gave the cooks the night off so that everyone could get a bit of a rest. I’d like to do the same. It’s been a stressful few days.”
“Absolutely,” Gwen agreed quickly. “We won’t leave without saying goodbye.” Together the three walked out the door and the two Sabres assigned to mobile duty went with them towards the Amazon mess area. The unit had grown too large to accommodate them all in their quarters and both Gwen and Randi knew the Sabres would have no problem fending for themselves... especially with Rosie present.
Lorac split off from them to return to her own residence and the rest continued on into what had evolved into the main congregating are for the Nation – namely the mess hall. Surprisingly, from the scents wafting across the area, Rosie hadn’t cooked; instead, they had done a potluck with all of them contributing something to the meal. When Gwen and Randi were spotted crossing the courtyard area, a cheer went up from the Sabres, and they were welcomed with open arms as old friends.
More than one Amazon observed the group from the shadows, but none of them approached the Sabres, unwilling to disturb the camaraderie so obvious between them. The Sabres on the other hand were loud and happy, celebrating Randi’s victory for reasons the rest of the world could only try to imagine. Laughter flowed freely and food was passed back and forth with snarky comments and ribald teasing.
“That was so boss, boss,” Shibata exclaimed. “The look on his face when he realized he couldn’t beat you was just too sweet!”
“And watching him crumple when you kicked him... man! That was fabulous!”
“Yeah, we could hear the Amazons behind us... they were loving it.”
“It really was a good show, Randi. Did you expect it to go like it did?”
Randi swallowed her food and wiped her mouth, then turned and faced Rosie. “Did I expect to win? Absolutely. The rest of it was something of a surprise.”
“What was it like... being a god, I mean. It was the most interesting thing I have ever seen.”
The table grew completely silent. Rosie had asked the question all of them had wondered about, but none of them had dared to ask. Randi cleared her throat and met the eyes of each woman in the unit before she looked at Gwen.
“It was seductive and powerful... and completely empty.”
“It didn’t offer me anything I didn’t already have, and Gwen was right there to remind me of that fact.” Gwen lifted her hand to cup Randi’s face and Randi returned the gesture with a look so intense, Mason hesitantly cleared her throat to draw Randi’s attention back to the conversation.
“Was there any temptation to keep the power?”
Dead silence. “Yes,” Randi replied starkly, turning her eyes back to the table. “Revenge is a huge motivation... especially the instant you understand the scope of payback you could give to this asshole that has made your life and the lives of so many others miserable.”
“So what happened?” This from Reed.
“Gwen,” said without hesitation. “Nothing compares to what we share... not even the power of a god.”
“Aww,” they all chorused together, causing a blush to skitter up Gwen’s face and a smirk to form on Randi’s.
“Moving on...” she added, taking their eyes away from Gwen and refocusing them on her with the official tone. “I want everyone, not just the med teams, to stay here until we return in two weeks. You can all contribute to settling the Nation and Lorac would appreciate your presence. Reed, you’ll be the liaison between the Amazons and the People, as well as the contact point for the Sabres. Part of your duties will be to coordinate with everyone to help set up this party.”
“The People are coming to the party? And the Sabres as well?”
“Yes,” Gwen said decisively. “This is going to be a celebration for us. We want to invite everyone who helped us make it through this last crisis to have a chance to celebrate with us. We’re heading out tomorrow. We need to stop in the village to invite the People to the celebration, and then onto the capital to begin implementation of the new integration plans.”
“Do you think that will work? The integration plans?”
“I think the best way for people to learn tolerance is for them to live and work with people they see as different; to find how similar we really are in the ways that matter most… and how the differences are what make us individuals. Sabre training reinforced this belief in all of us. I think the rest of the world needs to catch up.”
“Fortunately, a majority of the world already does think that way. We just want to make sure it continues once we walk away. Don’t you want the next generation to have Sabre values?”
“I would like the next generation to not only know, but be able to appreciate peace... without having to do what we did to achieve it.”
“Hear! Hear!” was heard around the table.
“All right then. You all know what to do. If you have questions, go to Lorac. She has the plans for how things are supposed to be laid out here. But work together, guys. The sooner this place is finished, the sooner you can all start rotating home on a more regular basis. Be able to live normal lives for a change.”
“So... no more Sabres? No more military?”
“No... there will still be Sabres and a military for the foreseeable future. But their functions will change and evolve as humanity grows.”
“You really think...?”
“I really think we have to try and hope that humanity has learned enough to survive and flourish.”
“Good enough,” Rosie said unexpectedly. “There comes a time when a parent has to let their child go to make its own decisions and mistakes. They hope they have taught their child well and that the child has learned everything that is necessary to be a responsible, successful human being. Mankind has reached that point and then some. You and the Sabres have done all you can do, Randi. It’s time to let the rest of the world start taking responsibility for itself.” Rosie smiled at the enigmatically. “The good news is - I think they’re finally ready to do that.”
“The better news is – I am more than ready to let them,” Randi added with a smile. “Rosie, what would you like to do tomorrow? You’re welcome to come back with us, or you are welcome to stay here. Though I feel compelled to warn you that if you stay here, you will more than likely be put to work doing something or other to get ready for the party.”
“I have never been known to pass up an opportunity for a party,” Rosie grinned. “Besides, I did say I wanted to see what this place would be like under more normal circumstances. I think this would probably be about as normal as it gets.”
Gwen chuckled. “Normal has never been a goal of the Amazon Nation. We take great pride in our uniqueness. Makes dealing with all that estrogen a little easier to manage.” That got laughter from around the table. Even the hidden Amazons had to laugh at the ironic truth in that statement.
“Well, if there is nothing else,” Randi said, rising from her seat and causing a ripple effect around the table as the rest stood in respect. She would have rolled her eyes, but the behavior had been deeply ingrained and since she had managed to keep them from addressing her by title, she decided to let this little lapse pass without comment. She extended her hand and Gwen took it immediately. “Good night, ladies.” And the two left without further comment until they were out of sight.
Then the Sabre Amazons sat back down to finish their repast with high spirited conversation. Finally, they had a real future to look forward to.
“That was nice,” Gwen said after the sweat had dried a good while later. She stretched and pulled Randi’s arm tighter around her naked body, relishing the contact along their joined lengths. She bit her lip to keep from laughing at the rapidity that statement forced Randi to sit up on one elbow and lean over Gwen, blue eyes pinning green with an intense glare.
“Nice?! That’s all you have to say – it was NICE?!?” She flopped back down on her back and covered her eyes with her arm. “Not even married a year and the magic is gone; the honeymoon’s over. And here I thought it was some of our most fervent, passionate lovemaking to date.”
Gwen rolled over on top of Randi, settling herself and tweaking the nipple closest to her reach. That got her a squawk and another glare, but Randi didn’t try to dislodge Gwen; it would have injured Gwen and Randi didn’t want that even if she was surprisingly hurt by Gwen’s comment. Instead, she closed her eyes and tried to cover them with her arm again; Gwen ducked underneath it, causing Randi to put her in a headlock instead.
“Open your eyes, beautiful.”
”C’mon, Randi... open your eyes for me, love. Let me see into your soul.”
Gwen frowned. Something in Randi’s tone made her realize that Randi had genuinely been hurt by her comment, even though they had obviously been having two completely different conversations. Gwen sat up slightly, taking Randi’s arm from around her neck and brushing a light kiss across the knuckles she held gently in her grasp. “Sweetheart, open your eyes for me, please?”
Her voice was soft and beseeching and Randi could no more ignore the pleading in her tone than she could stop breathing and live. Gwen gasped at the hurt she could see in Randi’s pained expression.
“Oh, Stud... I wasn’t talking about our lovemaking. Hot sex with you is always incredible and making love just adds a depth and intensity that moves it beyond that. Don’t ever, *ever* think that I don’t appreciate the pricelessness what we share together... in and out of the bedroom.”
“I was talking about dinner with the Sabres. My body was... is still tingling in so many places from your touch, I was trying to calm my still-jangling nerves a little by engaging in a little non-sexual conversation. You know, give us a little breather before we started again.” She smiled, then her expression turned wry. “Bad choice for an opening line, I guess.”
“Yeah, a little. Of course, I didn’t need to react like that either.” Randi frowned. “Sorry. I’m not really sure where that came from, to tell you the truth.”
“It’s been a very long, very weird day?”
“It’s been a very long, very weird few weeks.”
“You can say that again... and I’m sorry too. I should have thought about the fact that although we can share our dreamscape, it doesn’t mean you can read my mind or follow my silent thought processes. Especially since that thought actually did start at how lucky I am to have such a talented, thoughtful lover.”
Randi pulled her hand free from Gwen’s clasp, causing another frown to mar her expression. Then her face changed to happy satisfaction when Randi proceeded to tenderly run her hands up and down Gwen’s bare back and sides. Randi laughed when Gwen fell into her body in a boneless heap, purring like a kitten with a belly full of cream.
“Are you laughing at me?” murmured against Randi’s chest.
“No, Little One. That sound is pure joy. I love the resonance of your happiness against me.” She caught Gwen’s astonished look. “What?? I’m married to a bard. I’ve learned a few things about expressing myself.” Then she laughed even harder at Gwen’s look of resignation and chagrin. “God, I love you. Don’t you ever go changing on me, all right?”
For her answer, Gwen locked her lips with Randi’s, licking and nipping until she felt Randi surrender beneath the onslaught. Then Gwen released Randi’s mouth with slow satisfaction. “I love you too,” she said softly, squeezing Randi with all the strength she could muster.
They stayed snuggled up together for a while, gently stroking what skin they could comfortably reach. Finally, Randi took a deep breath. “So how did you get from our lovemaking to dinner with the Sabres? ‘Cause you’re right... I am absolutely not seeing how you got from one to the other.”
“Oh, it was easy,” Gwen replied. “I was thinking about how wonderful I felt and how lucky I was to have you in my life and that made me wonder if the rest of the world knew how lucky I was and that naturally led me to thinking about the Sabres who definitely know how lucky I am if not in the same way that I know how lucky I am and that turned my thoughts back to the Sabres and dinner and then....” She stopped speaking and took a breath when Randi covered her mouth lightly.
“Whoa there, sweetheart. Take a deep breath. I think I get the picture.”
“And it made sense?”
“Sure. Just because I can’t read your mind doesn’t mean I can’t follow your thought processes when you share them, ya know. Ow! Whaddya do that for?” scowling, unable to rub the spot in question with Gwen still comfortably sprawled on top of her. Then it didn’t matter so much as Gwen kissed the place she had just bitten then trailed up her neck, making Randi forget the slight pain. When she reached Randi’s lips, Gwen indulged in a long kiss, smiling as she pulled away.
“You wanna know something?”
“I am so glad we’re leaving tomorrow. I’ve had about all the excitement I can... mmph?”
“Shh... let’s not jinx it. I would prefer for things to go smoothly for the next couple weeks so we can go home to stay.” Gwen’s eyes widened and she nodded her head rapidly in agreement. “Now, have we had enough of a breather for a while?”
Gwen didn’t speak; her answer was clear in her actions.
“You know the hardest thing about being here? No sunlight. I miss being able to look out the bedroom window and watch the sun rising from the comfort of your arms.”
“Well, tomorrow morning we will be in the village, so we can see the sunrise over the mountains. And in another day or two, we’ll be in the capital city and we can see the sunrise over the trees that surround the house there. But two weeks from now, we will finally be home for good, and we will spend the rest of our lives together watching the sun rise over the water as we lay in bed together wrapped in each other’s arms.”
Gwen shifted her position to allow her to look into Randi’s eyes. She smiled, enchanted when the gesture was returned from the depths of Randi’s soul. “I’m looking forward to that.”
“Well, then,” bending her head just enough to give not-so-chaste kiss. “Maybe we should get started. The sooner we go, the sooner we will be home.”
“Wait,” Gwen said when Randi started to get up. “Can we stay here just another few minutes?” lifting her hand. “I want....” Randi smiled again, sweetly this time, and lay back, closing her eyes and pulling Gwen into her body. Gently Gwen began to trace Randi’s features with trembling fingertips and Randi released a shaky sigh. “God, I’ve missed this.”
Randi kissed the fingers as they caressed her lips. “So have I,” she whispered.
It would be a little while before they were ready to leave the Amazon compound.
“I thought they were going to leave first thing,” Lorac commented to the group of Sabres she was standing with. The rest of the Amazons were spread throughout the complex from Gwen and Randi’s quarters all the way to the landing bay where the regent, Rosie and the Sabres were waiting. The Sabres didn’t even crack a smile, but Rosie laughed out loud. Lorac turned to look at her, an eyebrow raised in question. “What?”
“Oh honey... they may be the queen and her consort – they may be the rulers of the entire world. But the fact remain that they are first and foremost two people in love who for all intents and purposes are still newlyweds... still honeymooning. You don’t seriously expect them to keep to a schedule if it’s not official, do you?”
Lorac smirked. “I guess not. Gods know I certainly wouldn’t.”
The Sabres might have tittered at the comment, if not for the fact that the doors to the landing area opened at that moment and they all snapped to attention. Their guard followed them and there were a couple Amazons behind them carrying Randi’s and Gwen’s bags. Reed could feel the frustration about that rolling from both monarchs in waves and motioned Jess and Iroque to relieve the Amazons of the bags and casually check through them before loading them onto the shuttle.
Lorac waited until they approached, then dropped to one knee with her head bowed and an arm across her chest. “My queen... consort – it has been our honor to have you here.”
“Rise, my friend. There is no need to stand or kneel on ceremony here.”
“As you command, my queen,” rising smoothly to her feet. “Thank you both for making the Amazon Nation a safe place to live free once more.”
“I am glad we could do something to help, Lorac. I’m just sorry he brought his fight with me....”
“With us, Randi. Don’t discount his hatred of me by trying to assume total responsibility for what he did here. He came here strictly because of me.”
“My queen, the Nation does not blame you for what Ares did. Only Ares can take responsibility for that and we all have great hope that Artemis will punish him accordingly.”
Reed stepped forward. “Everything has been seen to, Empress. The shuttle has been checked and your bags have been stowed.” Randi nodded, accepting the formality of Reed’s report. “Nothing was tampered with, sir. They kept a good watch here. And Jess cleared your bags.”
“Thank you, Reed. You and Jess will be in charge of the unit until I return, but your primary function will be as my liaison.” Reed nodded her acceptance of the order with a bit of relief. It would give her a little less on-hands responsibility so she could recover from the severe drain the last few days had put on her resources, and Randi knew that.
“Jess,” waiting for the tall redhead to approach the little group, “I am going to put you in charge of the unit with Reed, though they will be your primary responsibility. In addition, I want you to begin Corky’s rehabilitation program.”
“I want her to learn meditation techniques, logical thinking, strength and endurance, self-control and esteem... whatever you think will make her a better person. She has to learn to like herself again first before she can become a contributing member of the Amazon Nation once more.”
Randi glared in Jess’ direction. “Something not clear in my instruction there, Jess?”
“I’m just a little confused, sir, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
Randi silently huffed with impatience but her face was a schooled in a mask of imperturbability. “What are you confused about, Jess? It was my right and my responsibility to determine Corky’s punishment for her challenge against Gwen since the fight was not to the death. Short of taking a whip to her and beating her within an inch of her life, this was the best punishment I could devise. And this one has a chance of making a difference for her and for the Amazon Nation.” She turned to Lorac. “Have Corky brought to me.” Then she looked back at Jess. “Now do you understand?”
“Aye, sir. I’ll do my best. Am I allowed to utilize...?”
“Whoever and whatever you need, but try to involve the Amazons as much as possible. I know the elders felt they were making headway with her.” Corky approached at that moment and fell to one knee with her head down. Randi was content to let her remain that way while she spoke.
“I have decided on your punishment Corky, but before I pronounce sentence, I want you to understand something.” Randi paused, then commanded, “Look at me.” She waited for Corky to focus on her eyes before she continued. “I want to be crystal clear about this and I want you to see I am not lying to you.” Corky nodded her understanding, but didn’t speak. “You get one shot at this... one chance. And if you screw this up, I will come back here and exact punishment swiftly and painfully. You got it?”
“Very well. It is therefore my judgment that you become an Amazon apprentice. You will return to your roots and relearn what it means to be an Amazon. Some of your training will be traditional; some of it will be more modern. But you will do whatever task your mentor gives you until such time as she decides you are ready to be brought before the Amazon council. They will determine if and when your training is complete. Questions?”
“Yes ma’am... who will be my mentor?”
“Jess will be your primary instructor, but I have given her wide authority to utilize whatever personnel, Amazon and Sabre, she needs to ensure you get the most thorough training we can manage. Anything else?”
“Very well,” Randi repeated. She leaned forward so only Corky could hear her. “Don’t fuck this up, Corky. You already hurt her once – you won’t get another chance.”
“I understand, Empress. I know saying I’m sorry doesn’t make it right, but I’m not gonna blow this.”
Randi held her eyes a moment longer, then nodded in satisfaction. “All right then. If you ladies will excuse us, we have somewhere to be. If you need to reach us, Reed will be able to reach us anytime. Otherwise, we will be back in two weeks.” The landing bay echoed with clapping and cheers. She and Gwen waved and climbed into the shuttle, closing the doors as the crowd pressed into the walls. Randi started the engines and ran through the preflight checks, then with another wave, then flew out of the mountain compound and set off towards Sky’s village.
Randi landed near the small cabin where she and Gwen had spent their honeymoon. She reached for Gwen’s hand, smiling when Gwen tangled their fingers and then pulled them up to her lips to brush a kiss over Randi’s knuckles. Randi turned towards her, blinded by the bright smile Gwen wore, her face a picture of supreme happiness. “What?”
“I have such wonderful memories of this place.”
“Even though the last time you were here....”
Gwen covered Randi’s lips with her free hand. “Especially because of the last time I was here. It helped bring you back to me.”
“Well, how would you like to go inside and make some new memories?”
“Every minute we spend together we’re making new memories, Stud. But you know and I know that Sky knows we are here and is waiting for us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stay here a night or two before we go back to the capital city. I think Tiny will understand, given everything that has happened recently, if we take a day or two to recover. Besides, you are the ruler of the world... it’s not like anything can happen without your permission.”
“All right. We’ll call Tiny and let him know and then we’ll head into town. We’ll need some supplies anyway, unless we want to eat out of jars or military meal packets.” Randi made a sour face that caused Gwen to laugh. Wide blue eyes turned to her aghast. “Trust me... military rations are nothing to laugh at,” shuddering. “They are downright scary.”
“Well, then... heaven forbid we get stuck with emergency food while we’re here. C’mon,” standing and moving towards the exit. “We might have to clean the place up a bit. I think Reed, Lacey and I left in a bit of a hurry last time.” Randi didn’t comment – she knew what was and wasn’t being said.
She pushed the control to open the doors... and froze. Gwen watched the Sabre mantle fall over Randi’s shoulders and sat quietly, waiting for Randi to finish her assessment of whatever it was that had triggered her Sabre instincts. Then Gwen felt Randi relax beside her and let out the breath she had unconsciously been holding.
“We’ve got company. The People are here to greet us.”
“Well let’s not keep them waiting. Let’s go say hello.” They snatched up their bags and stepped into the doorway, only to pause at the sight in front of them.
Sky was standing before them in full ceremonial dress, arms raised to the sky and eyes closed. When Randi and Gwen froze in place, Sky began to chant and dance. When he was done, he started to pray. “Great Spirit, we give thanks to you for bringing our missing family home once more. May they find peace and rest in your arms while they abide here and may they accept your blessing as part of the People.” Randi and Gwen exchanged glances and waited, assuming they would find out what was going on in Sky’s own good time. Then he reached out his hands to them.
“Ravenhawk... Little Dove – we are here to welcome you home and to invite you to join the tribe. You successfully completed your rather unorthodox spirit walk,” his wry look breaking the seriousness of the mood momentarily. They gave him sheepish smiles in return and he shrugged. “We’re glad you both came through it and that we were allowed to be an important part of it.” He looked at them still standing on the threshold of the shuttle. “Come; let us walk together,” motioning them towards the cabin.
“I hope you don’t mind, but you left here in such a hurry, we took a little time to clean up and stock the place before we locked up behind you.”
“Thank you, Sky. Ya’ll didn’t have to do that, but we both appreciate it,” Gwen said, patting his arm with her free hand. The other she kept wrapped in Randi’s. Sky patted her hand.
“Little Dove... Gwen – whether or not you decide to officially join the tribe or not, we still look at both of you as part of us. And we take care of our own.”
Randi and Gwen exchanged a long look, communicating silently while Sky watched curiously. He knew neither of them were seers, but he truly believed they could see what the other was thinking. Finally, they broke their gaze and turned back towards Sky. He arched an eyebrow in question.
“We’ll do it. If you’re sure the People really want us to be a part of them given the amount of trouble we tend to attract, then we’d be honored to become part of the family officially.”
Sky chuckled. “That just means there will always be someone we can blame when things go wrong... we’ll just make it your fault.”
Randi looked down at Gwen and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Isn’t everything already?”
“Pretty much, sweetheart. Pretty much.” Sky laughed out loud.
“So what does joining the tribe entail?”
“Well, you’ve done the spirit walk and you’ve accepted our invitation to join, so all we need to have a naming ceremony and then a feast to celebrate.”
“All right. When?”
“No time like the present,” Sky said. He raised his arms again and waved to the woods that surrounded the house. Immediately, the People began to converge, including several vehicles that drove up the long lane that led to the house. Randi decided to worry about how they could see the signal later. First there was a ceremony and a celebration to enjoy.
Despite the warmth of the day, the People built a bonfire. In the light of day, it didn’t make much of an impression, but by evenings’ end, it would light up the entire party. They unloaded long tables from the transport vehicles and set them up around the perimeter of the fire, then brought all manner of food and spread it out along the length of the tables until they were groaning under the weight of the numerous dishes. Randi and Gwen blinked at the rapidity things were happening.
“Were you so sure we would agree?”
Sky smiled. “Yes. *This* I foresaw clearly.”
“Well, thank you for asking us anyway,” Randi said with a smile. “Now is there something we need to do to prepare?”
“You might want to take your bags into your cabin and put on something comfortable.” Randi looked down at her black fatigue pants and T-shirt, then took in Gwen’s denim clad hips and green silk shirt.
“I am comfortable. Is this all right?”
“Absolutely. And in the meantime, everyone else will don their robes. We will begin whenever you and Gwen return.” Randi and Gwen exchanged glances, then shrugged and hefted their bags, accepting Sky’s not-so-subtle hint to go away for a few minutes to allow him and the rest of the People to prepare for the coming ceremony.
Randi placed her hand on the security lock, sparing a moment to wonder if Reed and Lacey had left it open in their haste to leave or if there was another explanation for Sky’s ability to bypass the security she had set up for this home. Then she was opening the door and the scent of cedar caused her mind to wander towards other, happier directions.
Gwen snuggled up right behind her, closing her eyes and inhaling the combined scent of Randi and cedar. The smell brought a smile to her face and this was what Randi saw when she turned to look down at the warm body cuddling into her side.
“Yeah. I like the smell of you mixed with cedar; lot of wonderful sensations wrapped up in that particular scent. C’mon... let’s go put our bags down and give them a minute or two to do whatever it is they need to do without us around. Besides, I could use something to drink.”
The room was sparklingly clean, the floors and windows reflecting an amazing amount of sunlight. The bed was made with clean linen that added the smell of cotton in the sunshine to the scent of cedar. Randi took both bags and set them on the bed to empty their contents into the drawers while Gwen stepped behind the kitchen counter.
“What?” Randi said, looking up from putting their things away. Gwen was so still, Randi crossed to her side immediately, only to chuckle when she discovered the reason for her shock. “Well, Sky said he saw. My question is how long did he see for. We won’t be here long enough to make a dent in all of that fresh food.”
“Maybe we’re not supposed to,” Gwen replied thoughtfully. “Maybe this is so we can make a contribution to those tables out there – you know, just like we would at any other family gathering.” She started pulling things out of the refrigerator then chuckled. “It’s already ready to take out; I just need to unwrap it.” She snagged drinks for both of them and closed the door. “Remind me to thank Sky for this. How long should we stay in here?”
Randi popped the top on her drink and moved back to the bed to finish unloading their bags. Even if it was only for a night or two, she had come to crave the normalcy of not living out of a suitcase. She had had more than her share of that during her tenure as a Sabre and savored every opportunity she had to unpack.
“I dunno,” stowing their bags out of sight. “I figure we can finish our drinks and freshen up a bit, ‘cause I think it may be a long time before we get back in here today.” They shared wry grins.
“You think they will give the Amazons a run for their money?”
“I think they might try.”
They were quiet again after that, content just to cuddle together on the big bed and sip their drinks. After a time, Randi shifted to drop a kiss on Gwen’s temple before climbing off the bed. Then she extended a hand and Gwen took it, grinning when Randi levered her up and off the bed with ease.
“C’mon. Let’s go see what they’ve got planned for us.” A quick trip to the bathroom, and they were ready to be inducted into the People’s tribe.
They stepped into the sunshine and were greeted by silence. The entire tribe sat robed on the far side of the bonfire waiting for them to approach. When they reached the bonfire, they were stopped by two women who draped robes around their shoulders, then helped them don them completely. Once they were suitably attired, two men approached them with paint pots in hand. By Sky’s command, they waited until Randi nodded her permission, then they moved closer and painted tribal markings on both women. Once that was done, Sky bid them welcome.
“Walk forward, my daughters, and join the People of the Ancestors.” They did as he asked and knelt on the provided pillows when he directed them to do so, glad to be some distance from the burning conflagration. The day was hot and their clothing and the fire only made it doubly so. They both hoped the proceedings would be quick, or this could get uncomfortable.
Sky motioned to four children who carried large sun shades and planted them behind Randi and Gwen. Then they each leaned forward to brush a kiss on Randi’s and Gwen’s cheeks before sitting crossed-legged on either side of them. Then Sky took his place behind them and spread his arms wide.
“Brothers and Sisters of the People of the Great Spirit – join me in welcoming the newest members of our tribe... Ravenhawk and Little Dove. They come to us of their own free will and have completed their spirit walk with great success.” This got smiles from everyone; they had all been part of the support for that particular journey. “Now please... bring your gifts of welcome and offer your blessings to them... quickly,” he added with a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. “The sooner we finish with the ceremony part of this, the sooner we can get to the celebrating.”
“And the sooner we can get into cooler clothing,” said in an aside to Randi and Gwen. Their expressions didn’t change, but he felt their relief anyway. The people however, cheered at his audible words. Any reason for celebrating was a good one, but this one was especially gratifying. They all felt they had helped to earn this victory.
So they formed a single line and brought their small gifts that they handed to the children on either side of Gwen and Randi. Then the People placed their hands on Randi’s and Gwen’s heads and prayed briefly, offering each of them a blessing before moving on. Randi and Gwen thanked each person before allowing them to continue – a little atypical of a normal ceremony, but the People let it pass. The gesture made them all smile.
When everyone had offered their blessing, they were in a large circle around the still blazing bonfire. The children, all of them, gathered up the gifts and moved them to the one empty table and sat down to await the ending of the ceremony.
Sky walked around to stand in front of Randi and Gwen, extending his hands to help them rise. They did so with nary a groan, though both were silently thankful for the plush pillows they had been kneeling on. Sky leaned forward conspiratorially. “We learned the hard way not to kneel on the hard ground. Young knees don’t like it any better than old ones do; the old ones just complain faster.”
He led them into the circle, then returned to where he had been standing during the blessing ceremony. He retrieved the pipe and prepared it quickly, lighting it from a small stick at the edge of the bonfire. Then he headed back towards Randi and Gwen.
“Randi? Um, we don’t smoke.”
“Puff out?” Gwen muttered. Then Sky passed the pipe to her and there was no more time for questions or explanations. Even puffing out, Gwen still choked a little. So she passed it on to Randi and around the circle it went.
When it came back to Gwen and Randi, Sky nodded at them. “Once more, please, so that the circle will be complete.” They did as he asked, then passed the pipe back to him, watching him draw deeply before knocking the remaining ash into the fire.
“My friends, let us welcome our two newest members – Ravenhawk and Little Dove.” The crowd responded with whoops and cheers. “And now,” Sky continued when the noise had settled down, “It’s time to eat, drink and dance.” The crowd cheered again, and Sky motioned Randi and Gwen to lead the way to the tables. It was time for the People to share fellowship and fun with two that had come to mean so much to so many.
The sun had been down for several hours and the bonfire burned down to embers when Gwen stood up to speak. Randi stood behind her, arms wrapped around her middle possessively and her chin resting on Gwen’s shoulder. Her eyes were half-closed in contentment and the People smiled at the picture of completeness and happiness they presented.
Gwen took one of Randi’s hands and tangled their fingers together. Then she smiled at everyone still gathered around the fire. “We just wanted to take a minute to say thank you to all of you. You’ve made us feel so welcome... such a part of the family here. And for what you did during our spirit walk....” She trailed off, not sure what else to say about that. After a moment’s silence, Gwen swallowed and continued. “However, today was amazing.” She chuckled self-consciously. “Dancing was a lot of fun, but I think I’ll leave the singing to Randi.” The rest joined in her light laughter.
“What I’m trying to say is - we appreciate ya’ll very much.” Cheers rang out into the night, and then as if by some unseen signal, the entire tribe rose and quickly began packing things up. Very shortly, the only sign that there had ever been anyone there was the trampled grasses and the ring of stones that contained the pile of sand covering the cooling embers.
“What just happened here?” Randi was still wrapped around Gwen as they looked around their now deserted homestead. “Saying thank you made them leave?”
“I think that was their indicator that we had accepted our new place in the tribe. I guess that is what they were waiting for.”
Randi straightened and looked around the deserted darkness again slowly. “Well, all righty then,” she drawled. “Guess we’ll tell them about the Amazons’ invitation tomorrow.” Then she dropped an arm around Gwen’s shoulders and headed them towards the cabin. “What do you say to a shower to wash off the paint and sweat?”
“I say lead the way, Stud. I’m looking forward to sharing that bed with you again.”
Their shower was quick; it had been a long day and they were both worn out. They climbed into bed and snuggled up in the middle, releasing dual sighs simultaneously. Then they caught one another’s eyes and burst into giggles.
“Okay, that was just too sappy for words.”
“And I think we are both exhausted.” Randi smiled when Gwen tucked her head under her chin and nodded.
“I know I am,” Gwen murmured. “Today was great, but I feel like I have been going forever.”
Randi smiled and kissed the blonde head and gave Gwen an extra squeeze. “In a lot of ways, we have. Or at least for so long it seems like forever. But at least we are finally close to the end of this chapter and when this is done, there won’t be any more responsibilities or obligations for at least a little while.”
“Yes, there will be, but this time, they belong to all of us... and not just you.”
“At least all of humanity finally wants to accept some responsibility.” The only sound that greeting this statement was Gwen’s soft snores as she drifted off to sleep. Randi pressed another kiss to the top of Gwen’s head, then closed her eyes and fell asleep to the deep, even breaths of air that blew across her chest.
Morning came softly, the gray sky shrouding the sunlight behind heavy, dark clouds. Randi opened her eyes and blinked, frowning in confusion for a moment before Gwen tightened her hold and murmured before resettling herself into deeper sleep. Randi exhaled slowly and relaxed as thunder rumbled at the edge of her hearing. Then she felt Gwen tense in her sleep and immediately recognized the reaction. Randi allowed her hand to stroke lazily up Gwen’s arm and back, waiting for her to loosen her grip a little.
It was so gradual that it had only just become evident when the next clap sounded just a little closer and Gwen tensed in her sleep again. Randi closed her eyes as a wave of sadness washed over her. Gwen had never recovered her love for storms and still reacted badly to them, even in her sleep. Randi shifted their bodies until she surrounded Gwen as much as physically possible. Then she resumed her stroking of Gwen’s smooth skin, humming lightly in her ear.
The thunder grew louder and closer, but Gwen started to relax in spite of the impending storm. She couldn’t hear the rolling sound above the beauty of Randi’s music, and she couldn’t feel the rumbling with Randi’s caresses trailing goosebumps up her skin.
Gradually, Gwen opened her eyes, blinking sleepily at the bright blue that hovered above hers. She smiled and lifted a hand to Randi’s face. “What a beautiful way to wake up. You were singing to me, weren’t you?”
“Um hmm.” She closed her eyes as Gwen’s fingers began their tender tracing of her facial features. “I wanted you to relax and feel safe.” A frown creased Gwen’s forehead, but the subsequent rumble of thunder clicked her mouth shut before she could begin to form the question. Her fingers hesitated, but to her credit, they didn’t clench, and after only the briefest moment’s pause did they resume their journey over Randi’s soft skin.
“I do feel safe here, Randi. This is the safest place in the world... it always has been for me.”
Randi smiled and kissed the fingers that had just tickled her lips. “For me too,” she confessed. “Nothing has ever been able to touch me as long as I was in your arms.”
“Well, in that case, maybe we should just never leave,” wrapping her arms around Randi’s neck. Gwen didn’t even flinch when the thunder clapped over the house again, and the storm was nothing more than a memory by the time either of them realized it. Gwen chuckled when it finally occurred to her, and Randi raised her head up from Gwen’s belly and cocked a lazy eyebrow in question.
“I was just thinking about your method for making me appreciate the beauty of storms again. I could become addicted to them again quickly at this rate.”
“Good,” Randi said with surprising firmness. “I miss dancing in the rain with you, and I have a secret fantasy that involves you, me, our dell and a warm summer rain.” Gwen could stop the flaring of her nostrils and Randi rose up and stole a kiss before slipping from the bed. “Now, c’mon. We need to get to town and finish up our business here so we can go to the capital tomorrow and finish up there. I have a surprise for you.”
“A surprise? What sort of surprise?”
“Well, if I tell ya, it wouldn’t really be much of a surprise, would it?”
Randi just laughed. “You’ll like it; I promise. It’s something you asked me about not too long ago.”
Gwen cast her gaze inward, mentally reviewing the conversations she and Randi had shared recently. Most of them had to do with them going home, but she didn’t think that was it exactly. When they went home, it was going to be to stay. But there was something... niggling at the back of her mind. She could almost taste it. “Give me a hint?” taking the juice Randi handed her with a smile. “Thanks.”
“I am fulfilling a wish.”
“Well, duh!” came the saucy reply complete with smirk. “But I want a hint!” She jumped and squealed when Randi popped her on the ass with the towel in her hands. “Why you....”
Randi waved her forward. “Come and get me, Little One. I’ve given you all the hints you’re getting.” She slowly backed towards the front door, heedless of her nakedness. “You’re gonna have to figure the rest out for yourself.”
Gwen jumped, but Randi was already gone from the cabin, running towards the stream. Gwen leaned against the doorjamb and just watched her run. Randi’s joy was apparent and Gwen smiled at the joy it brought her. About halfway across the meadow she stopped without warning and turned, rushing back towards Gwen. It didn’t alarm her, though her eyes did grow considerably rounder when it didn’t look as though Randi was going to slow down before she plowed over Gwen. Instead, she reached out when Randi extended her hand and let Randi pulled them both towards the river.
Gwen tried to slow them down a little as they neared the edge of the water, but Randi pulled Gwen into her arms... and leaped.
Twin gasps followed the emergence of Randi’s and Gwen’s heads above the water. Gwen smacked Randi on the arm and glared at her, then started rubbing the same spot when Randi pouted at her.
“Whaddya do that for?” Gwen’s eyebrows went into her hairline.
“Excuse me?! I’m not the one who jumped into the middle of this freezing cold river.” She frowned and narrowed her eyes at Randi. “This wasn’t the wish fulfillment, was it?”
“No, though I did promise you we would come back in the summer and swim. I don’t remember it being quite so cold though,” muttering the last part under her breath. Gwen heard her, however, and moved around to kiss the strong back.
“You probably did this after working hard all day on the cabin, didn’t you?” The dark head nodded. “You think you might have been just a little sweatier than you were having just woken up?”
“Yeah,” Randi conceded grudgingly.
“So can we go back to the cabin now and take a hot shower before I turn into an icicle?” Randi turned and realized immediately that Gwen wasn’t joking. She could see the faintest tinge of blue around her lips. Randi reached out her hand and took Gwen’s. Then she led them back up the incline, picking up the towel she had dropped and wrapping it around Gwen’s shoulders.
Gwen smiled. “Oh, yeah. Being out of the water and in the sun helps a lot. What about you?”
“I think the running helped. I’m not actually cold; just wet. C’mon... run with me. Time’s a-wasting and Sky told me yesterday that the inn is serving roast beef for lunch.”
“Far be it from me to stand between you and a good pot roast,” Gwen laughed. Randi shortened her strides, and together, laughing, they ran back to their cabin.
They were greeted by everyone as they slowly entered the town in the transport. Most waved an acknowledgment, but a few called out hellos. Randi and Gwen did their best to return them all before finally pulling up outside the small inn. “I thought we’d eat and then maybe go see Lance for a bit... maybe take him out for a short ride? That should give Sky time to get everyone together.”
“Sounds good to me.” Gwen held the door and followed Randi inside. They waved to those already seated and Sky came over to greet them.
“We weren’t sure we would see you again after last night. I thought you needed to get to the capital.”
Randi smiled. “Another day won’t matter, Sky. Especially since we haven’t actually done what we came here to do... although last night was a lot of fun. Thank you for making us part of the tribe.” She and Gwen took the seats Sky indicated and he pulled out a chair across from them at Randi’s gesture.
“We were pleased you agreed to join us. And if either of you ever get to the point where you are comfortable sharing what happened during your spirit walk, we would be honored to transcribe your journey into our archives.” He held up his hands to stop their protests before they started. “Sometimes, the experience is too personal to share and the intensity never lessens, but sometimes time and distance make it a little less difficult to reveal those events to others.” Sky shrugged. “It is your choice, though; completely up to the two of you.”
"Well, we'll think about it, Sky, but no promises. What happened to us was very personal and extremely private. However," she hesitated when a plate of food was placed in front of both her and Gwen. "Thank you," she acknowledged the girl with a smile. "However," she tried again, "we were hoping you would call everyone together. I'm sure Reed has already contacted you," Randi paused, waiting for his response and Sky nodded his agreement. "But we would like to extend the invitation personally."
He motioned for them to eat and they did so with gusto, bringing a smile to his face. Then they moaned in tandem, and Sky laughed. "One would think you hadn't eaten in days, but it is nice to know the culinary talents are appreciated." He smirked; Gwen stuck out her tongue, but Randi continued to enjoy her food. "Give me a little while to call everyone in, although I would imagine most are expecting a call. I will tell you that there is great hope here that once everything settles down for the two of you, you will be here a little more regularly."
"We'd like that, Sky," Gwen replied softly. "We'd like that a lot."
He beamed. "We will look forward to it then. It will probably take an hour or so to get everyone here. Most folks are working."
Randi nodded. "I figured as much. We thought we'd go see Lance... take him for a ride."
"Good luck," Sky muttered. He grimaced at Randi's questioning look. "He's been a little wild. Since there's been no one to ride him, he's gone to pasture. Great for the fillies; there are several of them expecting foals now. But not so great for anyone trying to catch him."
"Don't you worry about that, Sky. He'll come when Randi calls."
Sky looked doubtful, but he nodded gamely. "All right then. Give me about an hour. Do either of you need anything else?" gesturing to their empty plates. Randi shook her head.
"No, thanks, Sky. Sounds like I need to get to the corral. This could take a little time." Randi stood and offered her hand to Gwen who accepted it with alacrity. "Thanks for lunch, Sky. We'll be back shortly." Then they separated and Randi and Gwen headed out towards the barn.
Randi's steps slowed perceptibly, remembering the last time she had made this specific little jaunt – her fury at Sky's insinuations and the destruction of the rogue band of rebels that had killed Nanny that followed. Gwen tightened her grip on Randi hand and looked at her in concern.
"Sweetheart? You all right?"
Randi blinked away the sudden tears that had formed in her eyes and looked down at Gwen with a sad smile. "Yeah," she smiled sadly. "I was just remembering." She didn't need to clarify; Gwen understood exactly what she was remembering. "But at least I *can* remember now."
"You did what had to be done, love. They would have destroyed this place and everyone here if you hadn't... including me."
"I know. It's just strange." She shook her head. "C'mon. We've got a horse to ride."
"We've gotta catch him first."
"Nah... I trained him. He may be pissy about it, but Lance will come when I call him." Gwen laughed. They walked behind the barn and to the corral, watching as the stallion ran free in the far field. Randi whistled and he skidded to a stop, head up and searching for the owner of that distinctive sound. She whistled again and he answered with a whinny, rearing up and then racing for the side of the corral it was coming from.
Lancelot jerked to a stop a few feet from the fence and just looked at Randi, sides heaving and nostrils flaring. Then without warning, he ran straight toward the fence, butting Randi in the chest hard enough to knock her flat on her butt in the mud. Gwen gasped, Randi glared and Lance whinnied again, the sound suspiciously like laughter. Gwen reached down and offered Randi a hand up. Randi took it and Gwen pulled her to her feet with ease.
"What the hell was that all about?" Randi asked the horse. He had backed away from the fence again, and she had the distinct feeling he was playing a game. Too bad she really wasn't in the mood for wet pants, slick with mud. He ran towards her again, only this time Randi was ready and she jumped on his back. The mud on the back of her trousers squished, but after a single wince she ignored it, focusing instead on the twisting body beneath her.
Lance jumped and danced and Randi rode the wave with him. Gwen watched in awe of the ballet they were creating together. Finally, after what seemed like forever, Lance slowed and surrendered, settling down to a walk. Randi pranced him around for a moment more before approaching Gwen. She extended her arm, surprised when Gwen shook her head no.
“We already know he is not particularly fond of sharing you, especially with me. Given that he was mad enough to knock you on your butt into the mud, I don’t think we should chance him throwing us off from his back.” A beat. “You I trust; him... not so much.”
Lance glided up right into Gwen’s personal space and gently rubbed his face into her chest. Caught a little by surprise, Gwen allowed the touch, chuckling nervously and scratching him between the ears. She looked up bashfully through light lashes, noticing instantly the broad, rakish grin Randi sported.
“I don’t think he is angry at you at all. You tamed him the last time we were here, remember – ‘cause I am betting he certainly does.” Lancelot whuffled his agreement, warm air moving strands of hair away from Gwen’s face. Gwen looked the horse in the eye.
“Do you remember me, boy?” He nodded. “You promise to behave?” He nodded again. Sighing, she nodded back and stepped away from his head... or would have had Lancelot not followed her movement. This time, Gwen’s laughter was full-bodied and genuine. “I can’t keep scratching if we’re gonna run, boy.” Ha nodded his understanding again and backed up a pace so Gwen could have room to mount. After a bit of finagling and finally climbing on the fence to attain the height she needed, Gwen found herself comfortably ensconced in front of Randi on Lance’s back. Even the mud was dry so they no longer squished. Then it really didn’t matter anymore – Randi gave Lancelot the signal to run... and he did so with great abandon.
Gwen squealed and Randi laughed. Lancelot just kept running.
Sometime later, when they were all good and winded, Randi pulled them to a stop near the barn. She slid off and reached up her arms to help Gwen down. Then together they walked him into a stall in the barn and combed and brushed him clean. After a few words, and a promise to return sooner rather than later, the two headed back to the now crowded inn.
Sky chuckled when he got a good look at Randi. The mud had dried, leaving interesting patterns on her shirt and pants. Randi just glared at him and Gwen remained conspicuously silent. He didn’t comment, choosing instead to motion them indoors. Silence fell as soon as they crossed the threshold.
“I’m sorry for having to drag ya’ll away from what you were doing today,” Randi started. “We actually meant to bring this up yesterday and then got a little busy.” Grins around the room met her words. They had done good and they knew it. “But,” Randi continued, regaining their attention, “we wanted to make sure you all knew you were all invited to the Amazon party coming up in two weeks. It promises to be a real blow out and after last night, I’m pretty sure ya’ll would enjoy it.”
Glances were exchanged around the room and a consensus was reached in silence. Then Sky crossed to them and nodded. “We will be there. I will work out the details with Reed.”
“Excellent,” Randi agreed. “Now if you will excuse me,” shifting her body slightly. “I’m gonna go home and get out of these muddy clothes.”
“Will we be seeing you around here after that?”
“Yes,” Gwen said with a smile. “There are still a lot of things I have to see up here.” This time the People cheered and Randi and Gwen left with the sound echoing around them.
The sun was just peeking over the mountains when Randi and Gwen headed out for the capital. It wasn’t that they were in a rush to leave as much as it was they were simply eager to be done. So shortly after dawn their transport settled on the landing platform on the roof of the capital house with barely a whisper. The Sabres, having been expecting both Empress and Queen, rushed out to form an honor guard. Randi and Gwen exchanged amused, annoyed grins, then left the relative peace of the shuttle for the chaos that awaited them.
Tiny was smart, though. He knew better than to bring more attention to their arrival than necessary, so the only people present were the Sabres that made up the honor guard and those that had immediate or pressing business with Randi. Fortunately, there weren’t many of those and all of them tended toward finishing up Randi’s last, best project.
He extended his hand up to Gwen and she took it as she stepped out of the transport. Then Randi handed out their luggage before jumping to the ground beside Gwen. Gwen smiled at her affectionately. “Had all the decorum you can stand for awhile?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” wrapping an arm around Gwen’s shoulders and guiding her towards the staircase. She turned and looked at Tiny. “You want some help?”
“Nope. You wanna go to your quarters first or straight to the office?”
“Office. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can all move forward. I imagine everyone is ready for that.”
Tiny smirked. “I know everyone is looking forward to that party Reed invited us to.”
Randi and Gwen looked at each other and snickered. “I’ll bet,” they said simultaneously. Then they headed to Randi’s office, entourage and all.
Hours later, exhausted yet exhilarated, Randi gave her final approval over the plans she and Gwen had developed and the Sabres surrounding her had finalized. There were rights and responsibilities and choices that humanity would need to make, but at least the groundwork was laid for them to do all those things. Randi blew out a deep breath.
“So we’re all set?”
Tiny nodded. “Worldwide coverage is at your command and discretion. We can go public any time you’re ready.”
“First thing I want to do is grab something to eat, a shower and some rack time. Tomorrow, I would like to go through the school here and see for myself how things are progressing. Then we’ll make a decision, but it will be within the next few days. There is no need to drag this out and Gwen and I would like to go home for a day or two before we head back to the Amazons if we can manage it.”
The remaining Sabres left at a nod from Tiny and Randi looked at him with a raised eyebrow, waiting for him to explain what had just happened.
“Will you *be* at the Amazons if you *do* go home first?” Randi looked at Tiny askance and he hastened to explain. “Randi, we all know you both would rather be there alone together than anywhere else. It has been a while since you were there together at all.”
“And we gave our word to the Amazons, Tiny,” Gwen replied softly. “That still means something to us.”
“Oh... God, Gwen. Of course it does. Sorry. That’s not what I meant. I just... I mean we... you....” He stopped stuttering when she placed a warm hand on his back and when he looked into her green eyes, he saw understanding.
“It’s all right, Tiny. We wouldn’t be leaving home to go anywhere for a while if we hadn’t promised. But we need a couple days at home. Everywhere we have been lately has been chaotic; someone always needing something from us. We just need some peace... where it’s just the two of us. We can get that at home. Tommy will grumble, but he will also respect it.”
“Sorry,” he repeated. “I didn’t mean any disrespect. It’s just... it’s kind of an odd feeling – like an era is coming to a close.”
“It is, Tiny. In a lot of ways, it already has.” Randi motioned to the screens that held all their work and her notes. “This is the new beginning.”
“I know,” he agreed. “It’s just... we’re trying to figure out where we fit in... you know, now that there really isn’t a need for us.”
“Oh, Tiny... that’s not true. There will always be a need for peacekeepers. We’re just shifting the Sabre purpose back to what it was originally intended to be. All this means is that you and Reed can have a semi-normal life.”
“Why only semi-normal?”
Randi smirked, knowing he would walk right into that. “Have you thought about who I’m talking about here, Tiny? I mean really? You’re never going to be *completely* normal; you haven’t been able to manage that in thirty-eight years, old man. It’s not in your blood.”
He tried to get angry, but he couldn’t stop the wry smile that crossed his face even while he bit his lips to keep it from happening. “I hate you, ya know.”
Randi snorted. “You just hate that I know the truth.”
“Well, there’s that too.”
Randi rose from her seat and extended her hand to Gwen. “C’mon, sweetheart. Let’s go see what is cooking in the kitchen and... what?” noticing the look of chagrin on Tiny’s face.
“There is nothing cooking in the kitchen. Rosie dismissed the cooks when she was here and we’ve been so busy, we didn’t bother to replace them when ya’ll left. It’s not like we’re not all used to eating rough, and there has been plenty of food for us to choose from. We’ve just been cooking for ourselves whenever we get around to eating.”
Randi glared, then sighed. “All right. We’re gonna go get a shower. Get all the Sabres who are not on duty or asleep right now into the kitchen in an hour. We’ll do a potluck.”
Tiny’s eyes widened. That many people in the kitchen together? He was going to have to scramble to get anything done in an hour. He tapped his wrist as he followed Randi and Gwen out of the office, sending out an immediate all call to every Sabre in the palace to meet him in the kitchen in five minutes. There was a lot of work to do.
“All right; I think this has gone far enough.” Ares looked around the small cave, then back to the Pantheon that waited behind him. They had healed him as soon as they had arrived in this place. The rest of the gods had already returned to their homes; only the Greek gods remained for the final part of Ares’ punishment. Ares crossed muscled arms over his chest and smirked.
“Ha. Ha. Joke’s over. Now c’mon, Zeus - give me back my power and let me get back to doing my job.”
“This is no joke, Ares. This is your life now... as it will be for the rest of your mortal existence. You have everything you need here to survive. What you make of that survival is up to you.”
Ares extended his arms and spun in a slow circle. “You REALLY expect me to live in a *cave*... as a mortal... for any length of time??
Zeus shrugged. “I really don’t care if you stay here or not, Ares. Your actions have been unconscionable – especially towards the warrior and bard. This place offers shelter with a hot springs because of the latent volcanic activity, plenty of material for you to create a comfortable environment and is close enough to civilization that you can find companionship if you choose to do so. We have provided you with tools and supplies to get you started. What you do after that is strictly up to you. It is more of mercy than you ever offered.”
“You have GOT to be kidding me. My job description never covered *mercy*.”
“It never covered obsessive compulsive either, but you seemed to have mastered that pretty well,” Artemis muttered. “Do you know what kind of damage you did to my Nation? And unless they ask, I can’t even remove the memories of your atrocities against them.” To everyone’s surprise, Artemis swung at Ares, catching him unawares and landing a solid blow to his jaw. He lifted a hand to retaliate, only to remember he had no power... and to find every sibling he had had already conjured their own power against him if he tried anything else.
“So that’s it then? I’m supposed to just accept this and live like some poor mortal until I die?”
“Or they do, Ares. They *will* have peace; they have earned it. Just be glad they decided your fate, brother,” Aphrodite said pointedly. “If it had been left up to me, you would never have the chance to be the God of War again.”
“I’m going to remember this.”
“I hope you do, Ares. I hope you learn something from it.”
He would have laughed – he wanted to... just to show them how unaffected he was by their judgment. Only in the blink of an eye, there was no one left to hear him... and no one to care what he thought. With a snort of disgust, Ares stomped into the cave that would be his home until his mortality ran out... or theirs did.
He had no concept how long that would actually be.
Concluded in Part 9
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