Feedback is welcome, for now please send to MedicinBow@aol.com, this is a friends account, so please keep it clean and put Xena in the subject line. After losing half a hard drive of data, including several segments of this story to a virus, I do not open mail that I cannot identify.
Unlocking Xenas manacles Solari asked, "How do you feel?"
Xenas head dropped, "like I got off too easy."
Solari shook her head, "First time Ive ever heard that one. Tell me again three days from now."
Settling onto her bunk, Xena thought of her friend Marcus. Hades had given him a break after the return of his helmet. More because he owed him than for the few good deeds hed done in his short return to life. "One little whipping, however painful, wont begin to balance the blind ladies scales. Not even after adding a short jail sentence and a couple cycles of servitude. And," she thought grimly, "thats just with the Amazons."
She could almost laugh as she thought of the irony. She was feared and hunted by kings and warlords alike from Greece to Britannia, Chin, and Rome, not to mention a few odd places beyond. Known and hated through out the known world. There was likely to be more money on her head alone than on any three other people in recorded history. She shook her head ruefully, "something for the record scrolls." Yet, despite the armies that sought her, the millions of dinars on her head, the mighty Xena, the warrior princess, the destroyer of nations, had been brought to bay by a group of adolescent girls on a training patrol.
Just before her first trial Phaedra had told her, "The important thing is that, for whatever reason, you didnt resist. We cant use our suspicions about the Lethe water. So theres something wed like you to do for us."
Eponin told her, "The girls have been honored by their queen, envied by their peers, and split a reward of five thousand dinars for your capture. We dont want to take that away from them, but their heads are growing faster than their chests. We think they might live longer if we shrink them a bit." "I know what you mean."
Under oath Eponin had asked. "Youve got quite the reputation, yet you surrendered to a training squad without a fight, and made no attempt to escape afterwards. While we appreciate that, Im curious as to why?"
Xena had answered. "Youre training your girls too damn good, and theyve obviously been paying attention. Youd think with girls that young, one of them would have gotten careless, or tried to hog the glory. Just my luck none of them did. I never saw their ambush until it was too late. Once out of the trees they kept their heads, and worked together as a team. I kept watching for one of them to get careless, but they were too damn scared to think for themselves."
Eponin had snarled, "and just what makes you think that?" "Because the inconsiderate little beasts blindly followed their orders like good little girls, and never even gave me a chance."
Eponin had closed the exchange, "maybe thats why youre on trial, and theyre still alive."
It had all been planned. The training squad had been assigned guard duty for the trial. Watching them as the exchange went on, Eponin saw a good deal of the adolescent arrogance leave their faces to be replaced by much more sober expressions. Both Eponin and Xena knew the exchange had taken nothing from their accomplishment. They had captured the warrior princess, and brought her in alive. Stressing the danger had, if anything, enhanced their status in the eyes of their peers. But the sobering message was also there, and Eponin was glad to see it sinking in.
One girls mother had visited her at the jail. "Xena, I want to thank you for what you said today. My daughters a good girl, but ever since your arrest shes thought shes queen of the mountain. And her friends havent been helping any. Ive been having nightmares about her bragging , being called on it and getting killed. This afternoon she came home, hugged me, called me momma and started crying. We had a good talk about what you said. Maybe now I wont have to bury her young."
Xena felt the tears well up. "I hope not. But all I did was tell the truth."
"Theres ways of saying the same thing, Xena. Ive been around long enough to recognize a planned speech when I hear it. I think you were trying to let some hot air out of a few swelled young heads. And as the mother of one of them, I appreciate it."
"Im glad it helped. And youre right we planned it that way. Im dead anyway, no reason they should have to be."
Tears flowed down the womans cheeks. "I hope they let you live. You did wrong, but theres ways to punish a body without killing them. Youre a good healer, and it looks like youre trying, so I hope they let you stay too."
As the woman turned to leave she turned back embarrassed. "Xena, I hope this isnt too personal, but are you a religious woman?"
"My mother raised me to be one. Maybe I should have paid more attention?"
The womans face had turned to the floor. She looked up a moment later. "Would you mind terribly if I asked the priestess to pray for you."
"Id appreciate it, but Id rather she say one for my mother. This has got to be awfully rough on her."
"Maybe shell say one for both of you. And so will I."
At that Xena had broken down in tears. "Thank you."
Solari had come in shortly afterwards with pastries. "Dierdra left these for you. Didnt remember until she was outside and asked if Id give them to you. Theyre a good bunch of girls Xena, but you know how it is when youre their age."
"Their friends are insanely jealous, and have been trying to worship them like heroes. A couple of the girls have already mentioned that little speech to me. You hit them hard and in a way they could hear you. It helped, and Im glad."
Xena looked at the pastries, "These look good. Wish I could get some tea to go with them?"
"Got some in the guard room. Its not up to Delias standards, but Ill get you a mug."
Since being brought back to jail, Xena reflected, theyd treated her decently. Even making sure she got a bath every fourth day if she wanted it. She had to admit that having a guard sit in the corner with an armed crossbow, was a new bathing experience for her. Still, it was a break from the monotony, and helped make jail life a bit more bearable. Shed had a bath last night which would make her next the night before the whipping. *Good. Ill still be able to take it. Maybe Ill ask Delia to scrub my back again when she checks me. Could make it less likely to get infected.*
Xena wasnt the only one thinking about her sentence.
After her fight with Krystina, Ildiko had gone to Eponins hut. She came straight to the point. "Your majesty, I think the council should review Xenas sentence before you confirm it."
Eponin turned angrily towards the woman. "You got a problem with it?"
"I most certainly do. And Ive asked Niobe to call a meeting for tomorrow morning so we can discuss it."
Eponin felt her fists clench in rage. "And what is your problem? Seventy eight lashes not enough for you?"
"I think she should have gotten the full measure."
"You heard the healers recommendation, that many would kill anybody, even Xena."
"Precisely my point. Even after the limits imposed on us by the law on multiple offenses, the prescribed penalties for Xenas convictions add up to a death sentence. Were it up to me, shed get it. Given the current climate of leniency in this village I realize thats highly unlikely."
"Try impossible. You were at the meetings with Artemis. She wants Xena alive, which means no death penalty. She wants her here, which means banishments out too. And, she wants her able to function within a reasonable amount of time. That set of constraints didnt leave us many options. We settled on the whip, jail and soul healing. Thats precisely what Xena was just sentenced to. Now whats your beef?"
Phaedra stepped into Xenas cell. Seeing the look on her face Xena sighed. "What happened, they decide to hang me after all?"
"Not funny, but Xena I think youd better sit down."
Phaedra explained. "Xena, I told you the queen has to confirm your sentence. And, in the case of physical punishment, she has to issue the actual orders."
"She doesnt want to?"
"She does, but one of the council women is playing fast and loose with the law. Eponin and Niobe both excused themselves from your second trial. That being the case, she thinks the council should have the final say. She also wants Eponin, Solari, Niobe and her holiness ruled ineligible to vote."
Xena took a long breath, "I was acquitted of that set of charges. And whats their problem with Krystina?"
"Theyre arguing that she spoke as a defense witness in your first trial. And that since you saved her life as a child shed be biased towards leniency."
"Thats absurd, she was only vouching for Gabrielles mother in the first trial."
"I know, and I dont like this any better than you do."
"Be hard to like it less. Whats the worse thing that could happen?"
Sighing a deep breath Phaedra replied, "They want you dead, Xena. But theyre not going to get it. And I dont really see where they can get far. They cant throw out the verdicts and retry you, because regardless of magistrate, they were rendered by a jury. What they can do is resentence you for the convictions you already have. They want to challenge the rulings on soul sickness, which will be difficult, since Delias a fully trained soul healer and can prove it. The Scythian convictions are shaky, partly because of the time since the events, and the influence of the Shamaness - what was her name?"
"Her, and the fact that were not even sure how the Scythian Amazons feel about them. They had the chance to arrest you and didnt. And if they try pushing those charges, thats still our best argument."
She settled back, "its hard to see where they gain on this. They could probably throw you into a disciplinary barracks instead of leaving you at the hospice. Your good time only gets them about two moons, that may be a lot to you, but to them thats hardly worth it. There is some potential in the whip. But youre already sentenced to a lot of lashes, and Delias still hoping for a reduction so shes not very likely to sign off on more."
"If they throw out the rulings on soul sickness, what happens to her?"
Phaedra sat straight up. "Oh my Gods, thats what theyre after. If they throw out the soul sickness, they can charge Delia as having given false or misleading testimony under oath. Theyd have to charge Alicia and some priestesses as well. If convicted theyd all be liable to the same penalties as you. But unless theyve got a few fully trained soul healers tucked under their skirts theyll never make it."
The two blonde women in Tartarus looked at each other, the taller seemed in shock. "A season in jail and a whipping, thats it? For assaulting their queen?"
"Its too much."
"Too much? Gabrielle, she tried to kill you. No offense, but Amazons arent generally known for their forgiving natures. Especially when someone messes with their queen. Im surprised she lived long enough to stand trial."
"She almost didnt."
Callisto shook her head. "I still cant believe they put you here. Just which gods did you tick off anyway."
Gabrielle sighed, "Ares, Baccus, Demeter, Aphrodite for sure. Probably Hera, she hates Hercules. Xena and I were friends of his."
"Hera hates everybody, including Hera. Aphrodite? What in Tar-, sorry, what did you ever do to her?"
Gabrielle sighed, "its a long story."
"Ive got eternity."
Gabrielle started to cry.
Callisto put an arm around Gabrielles shoulder. "Im sorry, but Aphrodites one of the cruelest, most vindictive bitches in the whole pantheon. She may look all sweet and cuddly, but she isnt. And forget that dumb flighty routine of hers, shes smart as a whip. And her sting is just as bad."
"You should see how she treats that lap dog of a husband of hers. Rumor has it she caught him with another goddess a ways back. She cut his man thing off and threw it in the forge."
Gabrielle dried her tears, "whats so unreasonable about that?"
"Well, when you consider the number of people shes with all the time. Its like, where does she get off being jealous?"
Callisto sighed, "Anyway Zeus hates Hephaestus, but hes Heras favorite and he didnt want her getting ideas. So he healed him, and threw her down here for a while. If you ask me, Hera should do him. I mean he really cant keep it in his codpiece. He even chased me halfway around Olympus a couple of times. He was so drunk he couldnt see straight. Rules said I couldnt kill him. Pity, but I had a little girl talk with Hera and she got him off my tail."
"I thought you said she hated everybody?"
"Thats what gave us something in common."
"I dont think you hate me?"
"Never did. You were just a way of getting at Xena. Shes the one I hate"
Gabrielle answered, "someone does but thats not the point. Ive stolen from temples, killed in cold blood. I was a wicked woman, and Im where I belong."
"No, Gabrielle, you arent, neither of us are."
Gabrielle swallowed hard, "No offense, but are you sure of that?"
"Yes Gabrielle, I am. You belong where they put good little Amazons." Callisto swallowed hard. "And I killed a god, Strife. He was a real pain in the pooper, always the sick jokes, underhanded schemes. Anyway I killed him and thats a really big no- no up on Olympus. So theyve got a special place for me too. According to Ares, its a lot worse than this place ever thought of being."
Gabriele remembered an earlier discussion. "I forgave you a long time ago."
"I know. It threw me. Remember that night at the campfire, while we were chasing Velasca. I told you I didnt feel anything? It was true. No love, no hate, hurt and pain had kept me going for so long that I thrived on them. I took over an army once by challenging its leader to a whipping contest."
"A whipping contest?"
Callistos mouth tightened, thats right. Its a Spartan test of courage. First one to cry out in pain loses. He did, so my first order, was to keep whipping him until he died." She pulled Gabrielle close. "I needed the pain to keep the hatred alive. And because I hated I could endure any amount of pain. I think thats what attracted Ares to me."
Callisto had gone on, "Ares didnt hate you either. But he did see you as a threat."
Gabrielles jaw dropped, "Me, a threat to the God of War. I mean I know I took Xena away from him."
"Thats not it at all. He sees you as having the potential to be an even greater warrior than she is. And hes got a real thing for female warriors. You were keeping a whole tribe of them away from him."
Callisto nodded, "Thats right, Velasca was talking about that, while we were in the lava pit. Actually she was cursing you out something fierce, for taking some kind of mask away from her."
"The queens mask?"
"Probably, but she was spouting off how she was supposed to be queen, and bring the Amazons into daddys fold where they belonged."
"Daddys fold?" Gabrielles eyes widened, "Callisto, are you telling me Velasca is Ares daughter? That would make her Xenas half sister."
"Shes Ares daughter. And Xenas a demigoddess, so were you for that matter, but shes not Ares daughter."
"I cant remember. Just that I couldnt kill either of you because you were demigoddesses."
"I really dont know. Just that Ares warned me that Zeus didnt allow it. You could kill your own half divine children. But you couldnt deliberately kill a full God, or anybody elses."
Gabrielle fumed, "Then Ares was bluffing. The Fates wouldnt have killed Xena, even if she had killed Hope. That lying cheat of a -"
Callisto put her hand top Gabrielles lips. "Yes they would have. The Fates play by their own rules. Even Zeus is afraid of them."
Gabrielle looked at her, "If neither of us belong here, why are we here?"
A light flashed in front of them. "Youre here because youre wicked women. Gabrielle, didnt you just confess to robbing temples, and killing in cold blood?"
Gabrielle folded her arms in defiance. "Yes. And you already told me I have to spend eternity in your little playpen because of it."
Hades grew red with rage, "this little playpen as you call it can get a lot more unpleasant. And Callisto, there is such a place as you were talking about." He waved his arm and suddenly all were in a dark cavern. The stench of brimstone rose from a glowing green pit in the center. Both women shied in horror at the waves of pure evil that rose from the pit. "This cavern is sealed so no soul can wander in by accident." He pointed to the wall, "that is what lies at the other end. That place is called Hell, its a dumping ground. Are you sure you want to spend eternity there?"
He snapped his finger, and a moment later a warlords soul appeared in the chamber. Hades spoke to him in an even tone. "You made a career of pillaging temples, selling virgin priestesses into slavery. You joked about it, and I feel no remorse in you. You bragged even as you were standing on the gallows, and despite our best efforts, youve shown no contrition here. Instead youve escaped and bragged that not even Tartarus could hold you. When we brought you back, you assaulted my guards and broke into the Elysian Fields. There you tried to terrorize those who lived respectable lives. There (again pointing to the wall) is the fate that now awaits you."
The warlords knees buckled in terror, "Mercy, for the love of the Gods, please."
"When did you love the one or show the other?"
The wretched creature was now sobbing. "Please. I wont give you any more trouble. I swear it."
"What good has your word ever been? Guards." Four black armored guards grabbed the wretches arms and legs. Hades spoke with grim finality, "Put him in."
The warlord screamed as his body swung twice between the guards. On his third trip forward they released their grip and he plunged headfirst into the pit of damnation.
Gabrielle screamed in horror, burying her face against Callisto. Callistos voice was tinged with fear, "Not her, Hades, please, whether or not she deserves Tartarus, she doesnt deserve that."
Hades folded his arms, "And what of you? Would you enter the pit willingly to save her?"
"Will you erase the memory of it from her mind?"
Tears fell from Callistos eyes, "then to save her, I will."
Gabrielle lifted her face to Callisto, "No, Callisto.. Hades, she doesnt deserve that either. She turned away from the darkness at the end. Shes cared for me here, that should count for something? Please dont make her do this."
"Would you go in her place? Like you did Xenas at the Hall of War?"
"Yes. She deserves a chance. I dont. And even if I did, I couldnt make it here alone."
Hades raised his eyebrows. "You think you could there?"
Gabrielle started to pull away from Callisto, but Callisto pulled her tight. "Hades, get her out of here. Please."
He snapped his fingers and Gabrielle disappeared. "I swear to you on the River Styx that she will remember none of this."
Callisto swallowed hard and bent to one knee. "I am no longer a goddess, but thank you."
"You are welcome. You were a Goddess, so you know what my oath is worth."
"I do. And again I thank you for sparing her." She rose to her feet slowly. Sighing, "Now, its time to keep mine. You wont need the guards." She stepped to the edge, then turned to Hades. "Would you permit me a question in private before I go? Please?"
"Yes. A moment while I dismiss the guard."
Hades turned to the guards, "return to your posts." and with a wave of his arm they disappeared.
Once theyd gone Callisto swallowed hard. "I wanted to ask you about Gabrielle. Shes not really here to be punished, is she?"
"Why else would she be here? You heard me judge her."
Callisto chewed on her lip, "Most of those charges were so trumped up a blind woman could see through them, and youve got a reputation for being fair. You havent been to her. I mean blasphemy against me, come on. I mean, I ran her husband through the day after her wedding. I tried to kill her I forget how many times, and in general made their lives miserable. One bite of ambrosia doesnt change all that. I also know how you hate rapists. So that whole business about laying with Dahak and bearing his child doesnt wash either. And that daughter of hers, evil incarnate. I wouldnt be surprised to meet her down there. And as for destroying Dahaks temple. "
Refusing to commit himself, Hades asked. "Then since you think Im fair, why havent I been to her."
"I think youre hiding her here from Ares, Dahak or somebody. Either that or youre using her as bait. And youre making it look good so they figure shes a closed scroll and dont try to snatch her. And I think the reason you didnt put me in here before was to help you keep her safe. Was I right?"
Hades slumped. "Come away from the edge. We need to talk."
Hades and Callisto spoke at length in the caverns of Cronus. "You were destined for that pit, I spared you. Now you owe me. Youre right, Gabrielle has a few black marks on her soul, most people do, but she doesnt deserve an eternity of suffering. Unfortunately there are holds against her on Olympus, that I couldnt over rule. So for now, I need her to think she does. And others to think shes getting it. Because, whether you believe it or not, Tartarus is the safest place she could be right now."
Callisto scowled, "you call this place safe? What pray tell, do you call that "royal round" you put her through, a picnic?"
"I said it was the safest place for her, I never said it was safe. That "royal round" as you call it, is designed to teach despotic monarchs what it feels like to be on the other side of their tyranny. Any monarch that comes to Tartarus goes through it at least once."
"So she had to go through it too. So nobody would suspect that youve got a special interest in her."
"Unfortunately. Im not naive enough to believe that the dark side doesnt have people here. Right now they see her as out of the way and no longer a threat to them. If they see her getting any special treatment theyll know otherwise."
Callisto shook her head in disgust. "So she suffers torture she doesnt deserve. Youre filtering what shes getting from the upper world, arent you?"
"Yes, we are. And I remember the discussion youre thinking of."
Callisto had asked "Gabrielle, youre from the Chaldice, near the coast right?"
"Thats right Potadeia. Why?"
Callisto closed her eyes in thought. "Well Xenas from Amphipolis. If I remember thats in Thrace, twenty, maybe twenty five leagues to the north near the Strymon Delta. And the Amazon lands are north and East of that. So thats what about fifty to sixty leagues?"
Gabrielle put a hand under her chin as she figured the distances. "Im not sure, but I think its more like forty or fifty. What are you getting at?"
Callisto took Gabrielle by the shoulders. "I cant figure your mother out. Thats four or five days on horseback between Potadeia and the Amazon lands. And it would be closer to half a moon if she walked. Does it make sense to you that your mother would have walked half a moon to testify for someone whod half killed you? Especially if she knew you were dead?"
Gabrielle forced a smile, "you didnt know my mother. She knew she owed her so she probably would have. Besides she could ride, and the Amazons would probably have taken a wagon for her."
"Either way, walked or rode, it still would have taken her several days to get there. How many isnt important. The only way she could have known Xena was going on trial was if the Amazons told her. So why didnt they tell her you were dead? You said she didnt start mourning you until after the trial started."
Gabrielles eyes opened wide, "youre right that doesnt make sense. And my sister Lila, shes worried that I might be dead, but she isnt sure."
Hades clasped his hands behind him. "You were right, we did get Gabrielle and Xenas mothers to the trial. Others already know that so its alright if she does. But it was done to counter a plot and save Xena. You were on Olympus for a time so you know whats happening there."
"Yeah. Old Zeus is a lecherous wimp, and -"
"Careful, he may be a lecherous wimp, but hes still my brother."
"Just like old Rhea the Titan was your mother, but I hear shes down here someplace. Out of curiosity, what happens to me when Gabrielle goes to the Elysian Fields or wherever. A one way trip down that pit you showed us?"
Hades replied grimly, " I could wind up taking that trip before this is over"
Callistos jaw dropped. "That big?"
"Yes. I wont make you any promises. Way things are going I cant. But what are you looking for?"
Shuddering Callisto replied. "For myself nothing. We both know what I deserve. Do what you can to get Gabrielle an even break. And do what you can to make her happy. Even if that means you have to let Xena off."
Hades raised an eyebrow at that last. "Youve forgiven her?"
"No. I just want to see Gabrielle happy. At least shes trying, which is more than I ever did. And it wont matter where Gabrielle is, shell still be stuck in Tartarus without her." Tears fell from Callistos eyes, "Whatever you do with me or with Xena, will you at least make sure Gabrielle doesnt wind up in that pit."
Hades put a hand on her shoulder. "Ill give you my word on the Styx, that Ill do everything in my power to keep Gabrielle from winding up in that pit." Callisto breathed a sigh of relief. Hades went on. " Callisto, you may not be a Goddess anymore, but having been one, your word on those waters binds you too. And I need you to promise me something."
"Gabrielle will not remember the pit or know youre gone. I need it to stay that way. The other thing I need you to do is quit encouraging her. Be a friend, but let her believe she belongs here. The dark side cant read you because you were a full goddess. They can read her, and if they catch on that shes anything more than a damned soul, theyll throw her down that pit without a second thought. Regardless of the cost to themselves or anyone else."
Callisto gave a solemn nod. "Alright, Ill give you my word on the River Styx, that Ill keep your secret, and do what I can to keep her safe."
Niobe banged her fist on the table. "Ildiko, you asked for this meeting to discuss what you called irregularities in the trials and sentences passed. The question of guilt or innocence has already been determined. Special circumstances surrounding this defendant, and the charges then pending against her, were already argued in open court. Now, what exactly are you calling irregularities?"
Ildiko rose and walked to the front of the room. "There were a great many irregularities, some are not terribly serious such as permitting a Centaur, a male to give testimony in an Amazon Court. I will concede that he did swear oath by Artemis as required. His testimony was of relevance, and backed up by Amazon witnesses to the events in question.
My main concern was a bias towards the defendant on the part of the magistrates. Her holiness testified for the defense in the first trial. She also owes a life debt to the defendant, as she pointed out during the first trial. We should not have allowed her holiness to sit as magistrate in the second. She should have reminded us of these, and excused herself from consideration. There would be no shame in this. Others either participated, or lost loved ones in the events being tried. They rightly excused themselves. One can only wonder why her holiness did not do the same.
Because of these, her participation in combined sentencing only compounded this error. She made grievous errors in instructing the jury. Xena was convicted of manslaughter. But that one count covers many deaths, and was committed resisting arrest for yet a third crime for which she was also convicted. Resisting arrest with violence which causes death is not manslaughter. It is murder and should have been sentenced as such. Her holiness as magistrate conveniently forgot to mention this fact to the jury before they began their deliberations. She later erred in applying the law on multiple offenses to unrelated crimes, tried separately before different magistrates. Sentence should have been passed separately for convictions in the first trial before proceeding to the second.
These, unfortunately, are not the only problems. The magistrate in a capital trial must be a member of the council. As a convicted felon, her holiness is ineligible to sit on the council, and does so only by virtue of her office as High Priestess of Artemis. By extension she is also ineligible to preside at trials. We were unaware of her criminal past until the trials had actually begun. Again, a quiet word, to either her majesty or the head of this body, might have prevented the need to publicly embarrass her.
There are other problems as well. The healers testified that Xena suffers from a sickness of the soul which causes her to commit violent crimes. Their testimony during sentencing amounts to nothing less than obstruction of justice for personal gain. That gain being a lessening of their work load by having Xena sentenced to community service in the hospice. The woman is a violent criminal, perhaps the most wanted woman in all the known world. Thousands have died by her hand, and more by her orders. And if she truly is insane, the gods preserve us. I ask you, would we tolerate a mad dog running loose in the village. No wed put it out of its misery, and ours. And if shes in the condition the healers would have us believe, we should do the same with her.
Women of the council, there are enough problems here, that only by setting aside the verdicts, reexamining the evidence, and re-sentencing Xena can we hope to correct them.
Niobe turned on Ildiko. "Weve got a woman in jail whos been tried twice now, and sentenced for her convictions. You didnt raise these objections against her holiness when she was asked to sit as magistrate. Nor did you ask for another opinion on soul sickness during the sentencing hearing. Why are you doing it now?"
Ildiko put up both hands as though in surrender. "I doubt any of us were thinking clearly in the confusion surrounding the death of the mysterious witness Raisa. I will concede that the juries did well with the watered down charges they were given. And of some, like the murders of our own women, Xena was rightly acquitted. But the ruthlessness of their killers cannot be ignored either. They were her men. And regardless of whose hand held the sword, it was her hand that put it there. Have we forgotten the brutality with which she dragged poor Queen Gabrielle out of this village. The agony she must have suffered. May the Gods rest that poor womans soul."
Cyrene was cleaning beans for stew when Delia and Phaedra walked into the food hut. Their grim expressions tied her stomach in knots, and a moment later she was fighting tears. Phoebe put a hand on her shoulder. "They asked if I could give you a bit." She reached for the bowl of beans, "Get yourself some tea, Ill finish those."
Phaedra told her quietly, "theyre raising every objection they can think of. Like I said before, they cant change the verdicts, but theyre challenging everything else. Weve beaten back some of them. They tried to argue that her holiness was biased towards leniency, because she testified at her first trial. We beat that one, when I pointed out that she testified as a friend of the court, to establish the identity of two witnesses, you and Hecuba. And that the council asked her to sit as magistrate in the second trial after that, so they were obliged to accept her decisions."
She stopped for a sip of tea. "Then they got nasty. Theyre arguing that as a convicted felon shes ineligible to sit on the council. Which would also make it improper for her to sit as magistrate. Were arguing that she holds her seat by virtue of her office as High Priestess of Artemis, and that this should override any other concern.
Her holiness is a convicted felon, indeed a fugitive, and former renegade. She swears on her veil that none of these are the result of crimes against Amazon law, or convictions in an Amazon court. Now theyre demanding that her holiness reveal her true name and history, so that the nations records be checked for convictions. Shes got a hefty price on her head and is understandably quite reluctant to do so. Theyre pushing this as an admission of guilt."
What theyre trying to do is throw out the whole second trial. That would force us to retry Xena before a new magistrate and jury. Its not going to work. Even if it did, the first thing wed do is demand a that an expedition be sent to Scythia to confirm that nations wishes with regards to the matters there. Its unlikely theyd make the round trip before winter, so wed probably be looking at a retrial in late spring. My guess is they wont want us to pursue the matter. As for the charges here, Xena flat isnt guilty, so where they gain by this escapes me. The council knew Krystinas situation before it asked her to serve as magistrate. Theyre not going to throw her off the council, they cant because of her position. And not that she needs one, but if they keep pushing, Im sure I can get her the votes for a pardon. The bottom line is whether anyone likes their outcome or not, those trials were fair, and the sentence is just."
Krystina told Hecuba the same story. "What would they do, pardon me for being born? Thats not what I need one for. But if they open those scrolls theyll have everything they need to know to collect the rewards. Stepping down as High Priestess would take me off the council. But dammit nobody gave me this job. I earned it, by working my tail off, and being good at what I do."
Hecuba felt the cold rage grow as she listened. "Youre no criminal, and whatever those damn posters say, you never were."
"Five thousand dinars on my head say someone sure thinks so."
"Theres the same price on mine." Hecuba looked away, "point this bitch out to me."
Shaking her head Krystina took her by the shoulders. "Shes not worth hanging for."
"Then dont let them open the scrolls."
"It may already be too late." Krystina remembered a discussion of the nations record scrolls, at a council meeting, the morning after the end of the first trial.
Eponin called the council to order. "Everyone knows what happened yesterday, both at the trial and afterwards?" She put both hands on the table and leaned forward. "Good. Now I had Ariana check the scrolls last night, to see if this Raisa had any relatives that might want her body. Ariana, tell the council what you found."
The councils chief scribe cast her eyes about the room. "I found no mention of her at all. No relatives, or anything to show that she ever lived in this village."
Eponin shook her head, "isnt that a little odd?"
"Quite odd your majesty, as the scroll of the nation contains all of our names, mothers name if known, children, etc."
"Thank you. Who else did I have you look up?"
Ariana consulted a list, "there were several older records. Among them was Cyrene daughter of Artemis, abandoned child approximately 3 moons. Found _ moon after the fall equinox in the third cycle of the reign of Queen Druscilla. That was, let me see 51 cycles ago."
"Does it show anything else about her?"
"Completed warriors training at 15, served with distinction as an archer scout in the first Centaur war. Twice awarded eagle feathers with gold cresting for conspicuous bravery in battle."
Shocked murmuring rippled through out the room. Eponin held up her hands for silence. "Gold crested eagle feathers our very highest award for valor, rarely granted, and usually then as a memorial. This modest woman won it twice and lived to talk about it. Ariana tell the council what it says about the awards."
The scribe consulted her notes. "The first was for her actions during the siege at Baccae Pass. The other after leading an assault on the Centaurs command post in the Strymon Delta. Which assault resulted in the death of their king, and a majority of his senior staff. She was seriously wounded in both actions."
Ildiko jumped up indignantly, "How dare this peasant woman pass herself off as one of our greatest heroines?"
Eponin waved her down. "She hasnt said that she is the same woman. But she is. There were only four Amazon survivors of that siege. Cyrene, Queen Ephinys mother, my own mother, and to my right our own councilwoman Niobe. Niobe?"
"We were friends growing up, and Ive kept touch with her ever since she left. It is the same woman. Ariana, what do the scrolls say happened to her?"
Ariana bowed, "Indeed there is no doubt that this is the same woman, for the records show, that she left the village just after her 20th birthday with an infant son and gives his name as Taurus. It goes on to say the she returned to register the birth of a daughter at age 22. The girlss name was recorded as Xena daughter of Cyrene, and gives her place of birth as Amphipolis Thrace."
Niobe bowed, "Thank you."
Ildiko shook her head, "Forgive me your majesty, it just seemed impossible that our greatest heroine, could have given birth to our greatest foe. The gods indeed are cruel. "
After scowling for a moment Eponin nodded. "It does seem incredible, but if you remember the temple meetings, Xena isnt our greatest threat. Ariana, read the other names I asked you to look up."
The scribe again consulted her list. "Krystina and Hecuba daughters of Artemis, both former renegades age 23, who swore allegiance on the same day 24 cycles ago. They were brought to the village by this same Cyrene. It does note that some information about them was kept under seal."
Eponin asked, "Is that common?"
"No, your majesty. Its actually quite rare. It usually means an adult woman came to us with a past that, if widely known, would put either herself or others in grave danger." She looked to Krystina, who shrugged. "Her holiness is one of these women. What she revealed about herself at the trial would almost certainly have been placed under seal. That bounty hunters were after her, well (hesitates) forgive me your holiness but Im assuming they had a reason."
"It was, and yes they did. Could we move on to something else? Please?"
"What was the last name I asked about?"
"Gabrielle, daughter of Hecuba."
"Do the scrolls confirm her mothers testimony?"
"They do. Queen Gabrielle was indeed born in this village, to the same Hecuba that came with the high priestess."
"Thank you. Ladies, youve heard how complete -"
Ariana interrupted, "Your majesty, there is one discrepancy in Hecubas testimony."
A loud voice called out, "I knew that woman was a liar."
Eponins heart sank, "Tell us about it."
Ariana produced the relevant scroll. "Hecuba testified that she returned to this village to have a second daughter blessed here. The scrolls show that she returned in mid pregnancy, and that she stayed for some time after giving birth. The reasons she did so are unclear, but the child was entered on the scrolls as Lila daughter of Hecuba. She was indeed blessed at the temple here.
Krystina interrupted, "your majesty, Hecuba never said where the child was born. She came back here about four moons before giving birth to Lila. She had planned to stay until the healers felt it was safe for her to travel. However Lila was born in mid fall, and by the time Hecuba was sufficiently recovered to travel, winter was upon us. Because of this, she stayed until after the spring planting, when her husband came for her."
She fixed a cold stare on the woman who had called Hecuba a liar. "This had been arranged before she left the first time, because giving birth to Queen Gabrielle almost killed her. Our healers felt she would have a better chance of surviving childbirth if attended by an Amazon healer, rather than a village midwife. Her husband knew this when he married her, and agreed that if she did have another child, she would be "visiting her sister" at the time. Those reasons are kept under the healers seal, and I would hope that we can respect her privacy there."
The dark haired woman raised her eyes, "if it was so dangerous why did she bear the child? Surely she was taught how to prevent conception."
"She was, and how to end an unwise pregnancy if necessary. The healers had warned her that it was unwise. Still she loved her husband, and because he had so completely accepted Queen Gabrielle, she willingly risked her life to give him a child of his own."
The woman turned her eyes to the table, "Maybe she isnt a liar, but shes definitely crazy, and she used us."
"If you mean she was crazy in love, I agree. Used us, I dont think so. When her husband brought her, and Gabrielle, he also brought a wagon load of oil and milled barley to help us care for them."
Eponin brought them back to the matters at hand. "Im glad thats cleared up because there is a point to all of this. Youve all heard how complete the records are. Only the council and scribes have direct access, anyone else has to go thru them."
Ariana added, "That is to help preserve the scrolls. Even so they wear with age and have to be recopied about once in a generation. Only the queen and high priestess of Artemis, are allowed to read or grant access to the sealed information."
Eponin looked around the room. "It is a hanging offense for anyone to open the sealed scrolls without permission, as is any unapproved release of their contents." Suddenly she banged her fist on the table, "We searched Raisas effects yesterday. Concealed among them, were parchments, containing information found only in the sealed scrolls."
After listening to the account Hecuba said grimly. "They already have the information. And theyre just looking for a way to use it without getting themselves hung. Well theyre not taking me alive, or you either. Not if Ive got breath left in my body to stop them."
"Agreed, but you go after her, theyll wind up hanging the wrong woman."
"Just who is this bitch anyway?"
"Your daughters biggest mistake as queen."
Talking the next morning with Eponin and Phaedra, Krystina told them bluntly, "Im not going to resign as high priestess. And I wont give them my birth name either. Phaedra, I appreciate the thought, but to take a pardon would be like saying Ive lied all along. Everything, my oath of allegiance to the nation, my vows as a priestess. How many times have I been the deciding vote on the council? Everyone of those decisions could be called into question. And its not just me that would be put at risk. Hecuba has the same price on her head as I do. What of Cyrene? If theyre still looking for us, what would they do to her for helping us? Or the nation which took us in? Queen Julia took us at our word. So did her holiness Angora, and Daphne when she made me her successor. Artemis herself knows the truth, and she doesnt object to my being either her priestess or on the council. And dammit, if they can take my word, so can Ildiko."
Later Krystina addressed the council. "After everything we went through to hold fair trials it comes down to this. A few would twist the law into a noose, holding justice hostage, to get what they couldnt win in court." She looked directly at Ildiko, "were still looking into the matter of Raisa. Someone on or around this council had to be helping her. And as I remember her speech, it bore a lot of resemblance to your comments during the closed meetings at the temple. Would you care to explain that?"
"Are you accusing me of something, Priestess? If so spit it out."
Krystina put her hands flat on the table. She leaned forward. "Im not accusing you of anything. Yet. But if you like we could try you for blasphemy."
"BLASPHEMY? Where in Tartarus do you get that?"
Krystina pulled herself erect. "If you remember there was a fight during the second meeting. Artemis ordered you into penance beginning the morning after the trial ended. That was yesterday. I reminded you right after passing sentence. Why were you not there?"
Ildiko glared back, "The sentence hasnt been confirmed so the trials arent over yet. We are here discussing serious issues raised by them. Surely you cannot expect me to abandon those to -"
"To keep your word to a mere goddess?"
"You put words in my mouth, priestess."
"And you put the nation at risk by angering her. The trials are over. Face that fact, report to the temple, and take your medicine, as ordered by the goddess herself."
As they were leaving Eponin called, "Ildiko, a word?"
Eponin and Niobe waited until the others were gone, then closing the door carefully, they confronted Ildiko
Niobe fumed, "You asked me to call a closed hearing due to irregularities, in the trials and sentencing. I called it. So far about all youve done is mount a vicious attack on her holiness, and the healers. And I started suspecting a personal motive yesterday."
Eponin added grimly, "Ildiko, Krystina may not want to accuse you. But I think you were behind Raisa. I dont know who she was, but I think you brought her in to sabotage those decisions we made back at the temple. And that she was the backup you had to play."
"Am I? That note of hers was general enough it could have been written a moon before."
Ildiko bristled, "I didnt write it."
"Never said you did. Whoever wrote it was left handed. Youre right handed, so you didnt write it."
"Im glad to see we agree on something. After that business with Raisa, we all jumped. And as for those decision at the temple. They were made before Raisa, and before Scythia became an issue. Surely we cant be held to them now?"
Eponin grabbed her, "Queen Gabrielle made a mistake pardoning you and the rest of Velascas bunch. I thought I was going to vomit when she gave you a seat on the council. I even remember her saying, "letting them see that their interests were being represented might help bring them back into the fold. Ask me, she should have hung the lot of you. Im not as nice a person as she was, just give me an excuse, and Ill prove it to you."
Niobe pulled them apart, "Ildiko, weve spent the better part of two days rehashing trials. As her holiness said, youre running dangerously close to blasphemy."
Eponin leaned on her hands and in an exasperated voice asked. "The council asked me to hold off on confirming the sentence so we could hear your complaints. So far theyve been garbage. Now we give the prisoners a days notice before physical punishment, and thats the full forty eight candles. So thanks to you we cant give Xena her whipping tomorrow morning. How long should I tell her were postponing it?"
"Why tell her anything until were ready to give it?"
"Right now Im tempted to give you one. But shes got to be told its not going to happen. Shell ask, so how many more days of this crap do you plan on putting us through?"
"You havent got the grounds to whip me. Or the guts. And this will take however long it takes to make you see reason."
Eponin pushed off the table and turned on her, "Dont tempt me any more than I already am. Ive definitely got the guts, and Ill find the grounds. And if I do, and any of your faction tries to interfere, the royal guard will kill them. Now most of them are decent hard working women. Theres a few hot heads like yourself that dont know when to shut up and quit. Now are you speaking for them, or for yourself?"
"For them, of course."
"Good, you get them together, all of them that arent in jail for contempt that is. And Ill talk to them tomorrow morning. Have them outside the temple gates two candlemarks after breakfast."
Ildikos jaw dropped, stunned she asked. "Theyll want to know what its about."
"Ill tell them in the morning. Now get out of my sight."
"But we reconvene in a candlemark?"
When Ildiko left Niobe asked quietly, "what do you plan to tell them?"
"Tempted to tell them pack their gear and leave, but theyre holding a group pardon so I cant. And like I just told that bitch, most of them are decent hard working women. (Shakes head) In answer to your question, I havent figured that out yet. But youre coming with me. And now I need some air before they come back, so if youll excuse me."
The next morning Eponin walked towards the temple gates. As she approached Krystina and several priestesses left the gates to join her. Another group of about fifty women fronted by Ildiko stood waiting. As Eponin approached, the commander of the royal guard ran ahead and called loudly. "all kneel before her majesty, the queen regent." Krystina and the priestesses immediately dropped to one knee. Ildiko remained standing. The commander spoke gruffly, "that was an order. Now follow it." Ildiko turned to her group and shrugged. Then with a smile on her face she too dropped to one knee.
Eponin whispered quietly to Niobe. "Here goes. (Loudly) Councilwoman Ildiko, is this the group you speak for?"
"It is, your majesty. Apart from those currently on patrol or in jail for contempt."
"Very good," Turning then to the kneeling women. Eponin told them, "For two days Ive listened to your representative raise arguments as to why we should throw out the trials just completed. Is that what you want the council to do? Anyone who agrees raise a hand."
Niobe counted quickly, "I make it seven of them."
Eponin called loudly, "only seven of you want this. Dont be shy. This is your chance to voice your mind. So if you want the convictions against Xena thrown out and her retried, just raise your hand." Two more hands went up. "Thats nine of you out of how many? Captain what is your count?"
"Fifty six, your majesty."
Eponin scowled, "fewer than one in six want the trials thrown out? Niobe, didnt you hear Ildiko say that she spoke for all of these women?"
"I did your majesty."
"Then the rest of you must agree that the trials were fair. Come on those of you who think the trials were fair raise your hands." This time the count was thirty seven.
Eponin shook her head, "those of you who didnt vote either time stand up." She pointed to one of them, "You. Why dont you think the trials were fair?"
The woman shuddered, "Your majesty, I dont think we had any business trying Xena for something happened twelve cycles ago in where ever that was. Let them sort out their own problems."
Eponin nodded, "since you dont think it was fair, why dont you want to throw out the verdict? You may speak freely."
The woman took a couple of breaths to steady herself, "I got two problems, your majesty. Xena was found not guilty of some charges, including the ones that mattered here, and I dont think she should have to face those again. I dont understand that soul sickness stuff at all, but what was happening with it seemed important. I think Xenas getting off pretty light considering, but the laws the law. I may not like it, but Ill bet that Id like jail a lot less."
Eponin called on several of the standing women. None objected to the first trial. The comments were mixed on the second. Some didnt like it at all, one woman said, "We already had the evidence that Xena was innocent of the massacre that killed your mother. Why didnt you look it up before dragging hers through that mess. And much as I hate to admit it, that damn Centaur was right. If we was going to try Xena at all we should have done it long ago. Queen Melosa knew about it."She pointed, "your mother, her daughter, her sister." She pointed back to herself, "my mother fell in that battle too. And none of us thought Xena should be tried before. That woman what started this whole mess, she should have been the one on trial."
Eponin listened for some time. Pointing to Ildiko. "This woman claims to speak for all of you. Thats not what Im hearing." She went on to tell them some of Ildikos arguments. "Finally, how many of you think Xena was shown too much mercy?" Almost every hand went up. "Alright how many of you think I should order a hanging?" Again most of the hands went up. Eponin shook her head in disgust. "How many of you were looking forward to watching a whipping this morning?" Again a sea of hands, including some in her own delegation. "I was too, that way wed have gotten this mess over with and life could get back to normal around here. But thanks to your representative weve had to delay it. Now all of you were followers of Velasca. Anybody that wasnt, raise your hand." This time there were none.
Eponin looked to the delegation. "Velasca wanted us to throw out the rule of law so she could rule by decree. She attacked this village, and killed several women, in her attempt to usurp the mask. All of you could have been hanged for your support. Instead you were shown mercy by Queen Gabrielle, even given a voice on the council. Was she wrong to pardon you, give you that voice?" The only hands that went up were in Eponins delegation. She turned back to Ildikos group. "Those pardons stand in law. So dont be shy. How many of you thought she was wrong in granting them?".She waited "still no one? Does this mean you favor mercy for yourselves and not others. As I remember, not one of you was even tried.. Xenas been tried, twice, in trials most of you agreed were fair. None of the verdicts called for hanging. Four counts of treason, three of murder, seven death penalty counts, and not one of them stood up in court. Yet almost all of you still want to see her hang?"
She thought for a few moments. "How many of you felt that Velascas attack on the temple of Artemis was justified or excusable?" Again no hands. Eponin pointed to several women asking them, "why not." There was a range of answers but most centered around respect for the patron goddess. Or fear, of bringing her wrath down on all of them. "Are all of you still followers of Artemis?" A sea of hands went up. "Anyone who isnt?" Again silence. "Then none of you should object to swearing your faith to her here and now. Your holiness."
Krystina came forward. "Captain of the guard. Line these women up." Pointing to Ildiko, "I want her last." When this was done she turned to Eponin, "Your majesty, will your delegation set an example for these women."
"We will. And with your consent I will lead and set the example for all."
Krystina bowed, " it is only fitting that her majesty set a good example for her subjects."
A few moments later Krystina indicated a small table set up in the temple gate. Two priestess sat behind it with small daggers, rolls of parchment and leather ties. "Each of you will kneel before me and swear your faith. You will then go to that table, where you will give your name and duty to the scribe. You will be asked to leave an offering, a lock of hair and one, hopefully only one, drop of your blood as proof of your sincerity. Your majesty."
Niobe followed Eponin. Then one by one the rest of the royal delegation knelt in front of Krystina to give their oaths. When they finished Krystina pointed to one of the other priestesses. "This is my one of my assistants Priestess Phaedra. She will assist me in taking the rest of your oaths. Wait in line until you are called. Captain, start the women."
The long line moved at a steady pace. Still it was close to two candlemarks before the line reached the end. Finally there was only one left, Ildiko. Krystina called firmly, "Ildiko, come forth and kneel before me."
Feeling all eyes upon her, Ildiko bit back her retort and moved forward. She remained standing, "Your holiness, no disrespect to your office, but if I must take the oath, I prefer it be given by another."
"Do you object to the oath? Or is it only to being given it by me?"
Ildiko was beginning to sweat, "I object to this whole process. Forcing these women to swear their faith, when it was never in question, has been a ridiculous waste of time. And while I have no objections to the oath itself, I have plenty of objections to you."
Krystina scowled, "her majesty swore her faith without hesitation, as did the rest of these women. The only objection thus far has been yours. So, if we are wasting time at this point, you are the one who is wasting it." Seeing the rest of Ildikos delegation gathered close behind her. Krystina asked formally. "Ildiko, do you accept the great Goddess Artemis as the Patron Goddess of the Amazon nation?"
"Of course I do."
"And will you swear true faith and allegiance to her, placing her first in your life, ahead of all other gods and goddesses."
"Dont be ridiculous Krystina, or whatever your real name is, of course shes first. Who else would there be?"
There was a general expression of shock as Krystina slapped Ildiko a heavy backhand blow. "You will address me as your holiness. Priestess will also be acceptable. Now Ildiko, you have stated that, you accept Artemis as the Patron goddess of the Amazon nation. And that she is first in your life among all gods and goddesses. Do you accept, that she reigns supreme over all our lives, and will at their end be the final judge of them?"
"Priestess Phaedra administer the oath of faith to this woman."
"Yes your holiness. Councilwoman Ildiko, you will kneel."
Ildiko knelt slowly, "Alright priestess, get on with it."
Slowly, carefully pronouncing each word, Phaedra led Ildiko through the Affirmation of Faith. Once finished, Ildiko rose and after giving her name, hair and blood she turned back to Krystina, "now Priestess whatever your name is, are you satisfied?"
"Not quite. Why did you object to me giving you the oath?"
"You know gods damned well why I objected."
Krystina folded her arms across the front of her robe. "Enlighten me?"
Ildiko launched into a tirade, about unworthy priestesses, and criminals who hid behind holy vows. Krystina listened calmly. When Ildiko came up for air, she turned to the former followers of Velasca. "It is true what she says. I was born into a tribe of what you called renegades. And I was suckled at the breast of a woman who bore the scars of the lash and a tattoo of banishment. She was a hunter, a healer, and whatever else, she was my mother. The name I use now was hers, my birth name is no ones business but my own. That is the Amazon way. The way in which she raised me. I have no idea why she was whipped or banished, she never told me, and I never asked. She was my mother, and thats all that has ever mattered.
Growing up around the nations cast offs taught me a lot about people and justice. Most were decent hard working folks like yourselves. Or at least thats what they became, given a second chance, like you were given. A lot of them were young hotheads that simply fell afoul of a queen with absolute power. The fiercest fighter in the tribe, strong as an ox, and with no sense at all. Women who like Velasca saw brute force as their only option. And who would have hung or banished the lot of you for supporting their rival.
Queen Gabrielles mother was a lot like mine. Troubled youth, banished from her tribe, but who given a chance was able to turn her life around. It didnt happen overnight. It took a lot of hard work on her part, and a long painful look inside. In time she became one of the best friends a woman could have. She taught her daughter to seek justice not vengeance. How it was better to bring people together for a common good, than split them off into rival groups. It was the benefit of her mothers teaching, learned in that renegade tribe, which all of you received. Many, including myself, thought she was crazy to give you a seat on the council. After two days, of listening to your representatives insistence that we throw the law on its head, I was sure of it. Now we find that the vast majority of you disagree with the line she was spouting. So I have to wonder does she, as she insisted, truly speak for you?
If you listened to our story at the trials, you know that Queen Gabrielles mother and I came here on the run. It doesnt take much to figure out that theres a price on my head. I wont tell you how much or where its from, but its substantial. And in the world of men, theres a rope still waiting for me after all this time. You may understand that I want no part of it.
What your representative to the council would have me do, is give her my birth name, and enough other details of my past, that she could claim the reward if she were of a mind to. Im not accusing her of that, but Im not that kind of a fool either. She says its to check the nations scrolls for convictions in my birth name. Why does she care when in the twenty four cycles I have lived here there are none. I will offer you this, my oath, right now on my veil as a priestess of Artemis, that I have never, under whatever name, been convicted of any crime by an Amazon queen or court. That oath is as binding on a priestess as that of a warrior on her sword, or of a god on the River Styx. To swear it falsely would damn my soul forever. Your esteemed representative refuses to accept it. Will you?"
There were several moments of agonizing silence, then followed a general roar of affirmation. Krystina let loose the breath she hadnt realized she was holding. "Thank you." Turning to Eponin she bowed. "I am finished, your majesty."
"Thank you, your holiness." Eponin turned back to Ildikos delegation. "Councilwoman Ildiko, you say you speak for these women behind you."
"Yes, your majesty."
"For the last two days youve been wanting me to declare emergency powers. Powers which would allow me to set the trial verdicts aside, and order Xena hanged. Is that what you still want?"
"Yes, your majesty."
Eponin looked beyond Ildiko, "You all heard your representative, she still says she speaks for you. And that I should declare emergency powers and order a hanging. Did everybody hear her?" A loud chorus rang out. "Anybody still want to see a hanging? Shake a fist in the air so I can see it." Again a roar along with a sea of fists. "How about a flogging?" Again the answer was the same. Eponin turned to the captain. "Youve got it." The cheering got louder. Abruptly Eponin ordered, "Captain of the guard. Read the proclamation."
A gasp went through the crowd as the captain stepped forward and unrolled a piece of parchment. She read, "All present will be advised that by vote of the Amazon National Council, Her Majesty Queen Regent Eponin is granted full emergency powers for a period of not less than three moons from this date."
Eponin stepped forward, "The vote was taken yesterday, with only one absence, that of your representative, being recorded as a no vote. It was read on the steps of the council hut, and posted on its door this morning, making it official. That was done on our way down, after we received word that you had gathered here. Thats how easy it is to lose when your representative isnt paying attention, or off pursuing her own agenda. She wasnt there for the vote because she gave us an ultimatum and walked out. That following the organized attempts at lynching during the trials, her veiled threats of insurrection, and her decision to put her own will ahead of our patron goddesss to pursue her own agenda in your name. She got you exactly what she said you wanted. Are you happy?" There were murmured rumblings. Eponin shouted out, "Let me hear you. Are you happy?" This time a loud negative chorus rang out.
Eponin called back, "How could you be? I promised you a flogging., and I havent delivered. Yet. Your holiness show them what we brought."
One of the priestesses left the table carrying a soft leather drawstring bag. Kneeling in front of Krystina she removed a multi tailed whip of soft leather straps and presented it to her. Krystina stretched it taut in both hands and raised it above her head. "The temple scourge," she announced, "Used in the cleansing and discipline of priestesses and penitents. It wont mark you for life, but its no picnic, And used with force it will leave you bruised and sore for a while. Now youve said twice that you wanted to see a flogging. So to prove to you that we do listen, choose one of your own, and with her majesties consent Ill give her one."
There were expressions of both shock and anger. Eponin called out, "pick someone, or I will." First dragged than shoved by four women, Ildiko landed on the ground at Krystinas feet.
Ildiko paled in shock, "You cant do this. Its not fair."
Eponin called loudly, "we most certainly can. Under that emergency decree you were so insistent on, I could have you flogged to death. Guards, assist the high priestess."
Krystina pointed to Ildiko, "Stretch this wretch out between the gate posts and cut off her clothes. All of them including her boots."
Ildiko tried to pull away, "wait, Ill take them off."
Krystina slapped her, "Shut up. Penitents do not speak unless spoken to. And they answer respectfully if they know whats good for them. Guard carry out your orders."
By the time the last piece of Ildikos clothing lay ruined on the ground there was a crowd gathered on both sides of the gate. Eponin called out "down in front, let everybody get a good look at this. Whenever youre ready your holiness."
A light flashed beside Krystina. She knelt as Artemis appeared. "My goddess."
"This will take but a few moments, my priestess."
The goddess then turned to Ildikos delegation now kneeling in a half circle behind Krystina. "Your affirmation of faith this morning pleases me. Know you this, your nation is in danger both from within and without, your queen will need your support to prepare for it in the days and moons ahead. Give it to her for she is wise, and while her ways may not be yours, there can be only one queen." Stepping up to Eponin she placed her left hand on her bowed head. "Lead my people chosen one, with courage, honor, and my blessing."
Placing a hand on Krystinas head she said. "This is my beloved daughter. She will one day walk in my forests at my right hand. Those who bear malice towards her, beware. She who would conspire to harm her for their own gain will just as assuredly answer to me. And though they beg for thousands of thousands of cycles of seasons, after the sun grows cold and dies, I shall grant them not one moment of mercy."
My priestesses, my people, there will be times ahead when it will appear as though Ive abandoned you. Your faith will be sorely tested, but know you this. What appears to be is not always what is. For so long as there is life in my body, I shall ever stand beside you. Keep faith, with your queen, your sisters, and your goddess.
Finally she pointed to Ildiko now naked and spread eagled on the gate. "This wretched creature put her own will ahead of you, who trusted her. She has put it ahead of mine. Ildiko, you will pay a heavy price for your schemes and treachery. Both in this life, and that which follows. You fell to your knees in my sanctuary, and begged my forgiveness. I told you what you must do to earn it. You were to report to my temple, this temple, in penance on the morning after the trial of Xena ended. Here you were to submit yourself to the scourging whip, and a moon of penitential service. The trials ended three days ago, yet you did not report as ordered. Instead you tried to thwart my will, both for yourself and others."
A ball of light flew from Ildikos head into the goddesss outstretched palm. "I take back the special knowledge I gave you and the rest of the council. You, as did they, took a vow of secrecy regarding it. And you betrayed it that very same day. Your Affirmation of Faith this morning rings false and hollow." Her speech slowed and took on a mournful note. "Ildiko, you are banished from my temple. And for your blasphemy " Ildikos body arched as a bolt of lightening struck her between the shoulders. "I have just branded your soul with the mark of eternal damnation. Only I can remove it."
There were gasps of horror from the crowd, "And soon Ildiko, soon you will know the fate which awaits you. My priestess, you will scourge this wretched excuse for a woman one hundred lashes. Then you will get her slimy carcass off my gate. She will make her own way back to her quarters. The guard will accompany her to see that no one dresses her, or otherwise comes to her aid until she reaches them. And Ildiko, these lashes are solely for your disrespect towards my high priestess these last three days. Should you ever wish to make your peace with me, the price will be a great deal higher than that which you already refused to pay. My priestess, you may proceed."
It was barely mid day when the crowd in front of the temple dispersed. Angry purple blotches covered Ildikos back from her neck to her hips as she crawled away from the gate sobbing. There was silence, as the former councilwoman claimed her now ruined clothes, and struggled to regain her feet. Krystina felt no sympathy, *it could have been a lot worse. A few days and the pain will be gone, and in a moon so will the bruises A heavier scourge would have stripped the hide from your back, that many from the long whip would have killed you.*
It had been planned the night before. By then Eponin, Krystina, and Niobe all thought it critical to isolate Ildiko from the rest of Velascas former followers. And to break her, lest her arrogance and insubordination lead to open rebellion.
Eponin had asked, "Any idea how many women Ildiko actually represents? She says its about a hundred. And that theyre all behind her on this."
Niobe had sighed, "hard to tell. Some of Velascas followers left, some never committed themselves. But Id be surprised if its much over half that. Whether or not theyre behind her is anyones guess."
Krystina had been pacing. "Were going to have to do something about her, because this is likely to be just the beginning." Stopping she leaned on the table. "She sat in on those closed meetings when we were planning Xenas first trial. The same meeting where Artemis told us of Velascas escape and the plot against us."
Eponin looked up innocently, "so was the rest of the council."
"The rest were never part of Velascas bunch. We cant plan a defense around her without giving our strategy to Velasca as well."
Eponins jaw dropped, "I never thought of that. Damn."
Artemis had joined them. "I had thought about it. Queen Gabrielle had good intentions. And her ideas would have been sound had Velasca been just another deposed queen. Unfortunately she isnt. And she doesnt share Gabrielles hopes for national peace and unity. There was nothing either Celesta or I said at those meetings that Velasca didnt already know. Or that she couldnt easily figure out."
She had gone on to point out the difficulty of replacing Ildiko. "Her faction of fundamentalists would just pick someone else. No. You must prove to them that you are a strong queen, one that will take their interests seriously. But that doesnt mean you have to give them what they want. Just that youll listen to their side. You may want to give them part of it. The important things now are that Ildiko not win, and that Velasca loses support. Now heres what I want you to do."
Phaedra went to see Xena that afternoon. "Lots happened."
Xenas fists tightened, "Howd I make out?"
"Well she argued that when you take time served it wont leave enough for cleansing to take hold. She asked Eponin to make the jail time two full seasons. I told Eponin that anything added on this end had to come off the other at three to one. Shell go two to one and it doesnt include lost good time. Shes splitting the difference and adding a moon and a half. That would get you out in late fall. Taking twice that off the other end so four moons jail, six seasons minimum service. The whole sentence would be over in late spring, cycle after next."
"So I get to rot in here for another four and a half moons."
Phaedras eyes hit the floor. "Afraid so. They hit us with the one thing we couldnt break, a difference of opinion. We got something for it. Theyre losing their guaranteed council seat. Their representatives cheating, and our willingness to hear their side, convinced them to let it go without a fight. We needed that , because we cant plan a defense against Velasca and company, with her representative sitting in on the strategy sessions. But we have to give them something too, because were going to need those same women fighting on our side when she gets here."
"Youre using me to buy their loyalty."
It wasnt a question. Phaedra looked up at her. "What choice have we got? And all theyre really doing is reallocating the time you already have."
"I thought you needed a healer?"
"We do. And I dont like giving them a win either. But Xena, I really think I did the best I could for you."
"I dont fault you. Theyve been sizing me up for a noose for a long time now. Tell me, is this carved in stone?"
Kneading her forehead Phaedra let out a long breath. "I asked Eponin to wait until I talked with you. But Id guess it is."
Xena stood up and looked towards the shackles on the back wall. "Any chance shed come talk to me? Her, Krystina, and whoevers leading Velascas band of fundamentalists."
"Ill ask them. What do you have in mind?"
It was crowded in the cell but all listened as Xena spoke. "You folks have been trying to tell me that this is a nation of law. And one of them is that a sentence once passed cant be increased. Ive spent darned near two moons in this cell when you add it up, and I wont deny its your right to keep me here. I stood up in court, told my story, and Ill take whats coming to me. If youd said death, Id have accepted it. But you didnt, you said a season, less time served and seven seasons minimum of community service in the hospice. Thats two full cycles along with a public whipping and soul healing.
Ive made my peace with the Scythian nation. And the council knew that before Raisa showed up. I stood trial for the massacre of your people committed by my men. And I was found innocent. One woman, Raisa turns justice on its head. Now this Councilwoman Ildiko wants to do the same. Whats going to happen the next time someone shows up with a parchment, or a faction wanting a piece of my hide. Or of someone elses that might be a lot better thought of. Are you going to pay off the blackmail and give it to them? Because if you are, you might as well go all the way and hang me now.
Theyre doing the same thing I used to do as a warlord. Using threats and intimidation to get their way. Well go after the council as accessories. Or well go after the temple and healers. Or theyll create so much Tartarus youll give in eventually. So why not save yourselves the misery and do it now. Thats how a warlord operates. Corinth took a beating, but they put up a fight and eventually I decided it wasnt worth the cost of taking them. Small villages, supply villages we warlords used to call them, knew they didnt stand a chance so they surrendered like sheep to save their own skins. Thats what youre doing here. Trying to save your own skins by surrendering the rule of law to appease a bunch of pardoned traitors. If Id known you were going to do that Id have demanded a trial by combat long ago. At least there I know the rules, and Id put my chances of acquittal as pretty high. But would my gutting your champion really be proof of innocence, or just that I was better with a sword?
Community service has always been an option. I wont be free to come and go as I please. The temple is going to be watching and working on me. Ill have a list of conditions to follow. If I screw up during that service youre got the right throw me right back in here. No questions asked. You dont even have to let me out after the season if the soul healers say Im not ready then. But dont decide that now, youve got three moons, wait and see how I do. Then make that decision according to the law on soul sickness, not as an early sop to the mob. Whatever they think, from my point of view this sentence doesnt look like any picnic."
Her holiness never said the law on multiple offenses applied except within the separate trials, just that she was guided by it. And I thought she explained it pretty well at the time. Both magistrates explained the reasons for dismissing some charges. And when the verdicts came in, a lot of reasoned thought went into figuring out a sentence. You told me no one is above the law, not even the queen. Now youre going to do whatever you want with me. And I wont fight you because youve tried to be fair. But if Im not above the law, and the queen isnt, why is this Ildiko, Velasca and her followers, or this Raisa and whoever used her to spark that second trial? Think about it. And thanks for listening."
Xena leaned back into the wall, waiting for their reaction. Surprisingly, the woman from Velascas faction was the first to speak. "Were not a mob, Xena. And were not traitors either. Neither was Velasca, up until that last day when she attacked the village and temple. Her challenge was according to law. And she gave a damn about this nation. Her vision for it wasnt all that different from Queen Gabrielles, just her notions about how to get there. Queen Gabrielle thought you built a strong nation and a lasting peace with cooperation and treaties. Velasca believed they came from the point of a sword Well, if you ask me, they were both wrong, or maybe only half right. I think youre going to get a lot better deal if you bargain from strength. And that if you want them to keep their word, youd better have swords to back up your own.
The law is the nations word. And the jail, lash and noose are its sword to back it up. They wouldnt have gotten any grief out of me if theyd decided to hang you. If a person commits enough serious crimes, I think the nation has the right, and its leaders the responsibility to say enoughs enough, and protect our own. We have a special law on career criminals for just that reason. And its why the law lets us lock up lunatics. Partly we do it to protect them from themselves as with Queen Ephiny. But mostly we do it to protect ourselves, from what they can neither stop themselves from doing, or be held accountable for afterwards.
And whatever you think Xena, we dont hate you. For a lot of us you were the ultimate Amazon. A proud warrior, fierce and independent, cunning and courageous, bold and passionate. You lived among men, but the men took your orders. And kings shuddered at the mention of your name. We cant forget that you helped us out a few times too like in the hospice, and against that warlord Krykus. We know you loved our queen. But we cant excuse what you did to her. You remind me of a dog I had growing up. When I was a little girl shed stretch out beside me on cold nights, and we both slept warm. But then she got old, sick, and maybe because she was hurting she started getting mean. We had to put her down and it was damn hard to do. But I didnt want to see her hurting. And I couldnt risk her hurting someone else.
Thats the situation I think were in with you Xena. You got sick, and maybe you dont want to hurt people, but you did. Maybe youre okay right now, but when whatevers gotten into your soul flares, people get hurt or die. And I dont think we, as women of conscience, should risk you going out of control again, especially around our children I only see two options, keep you locked up, or kill you. And I dont know about you, but faced with those choices, Id rather be dead. Now Ive said my piece, so Ill shut up and let these others talk."
Krystina was waging an inner war for calm. "When I passed sentence, I knew it wasnt going to please everybody. I explained my reasoning at the time. Ill stand behind it now. Xenas not insane, but, she does have problems. And shes right, we did know about the events in Scythia. We also knew shed made her peace with them, and that we have straight from Artemis herself. Thats why we didnt bring them up until Raisa forced us too. Councilwoman Ildiko was at the meeting where we found that out. She like the rest of us were sworn to secrecy on that and several other things. Raisas speech was very close to what Ildiko said that day."
The woman who had just spoken shook her head, "If you already knew that why didnt you just say so?" Eponin took over, "we couldnt because of the vow of secrecy. And because of that we panicked." "Im sorry your majesty but I dont understand."
Eponin sighed, "There was a lot said at the meeting that were still not free to talk about, and may never be. Raisas speech was designed to force issues that we couldnt deal with openly. Xena had no defense against the Scythian charges. An expedition to Scythia would have taken moons. Wed have sent at least a squad, and one or more members of the council. All to prove something we already knew. There were some very good reasons, aside from the time and expense, why we didnt want to do that. But there was the other charge. You heard the testimony. Half the council were either involved in that fight or lost someone as a result of it. Whoever gave Raisa her speech knew that, and figured that would bring the choice of magistrate to someone more their liking. Care to guess who was next in line?"
The woman squirmed in her seat, "Councilwoman Ildiko?"
Eponin nodded, "thats right. And if we threw out the second trial, based on her objections, and retried Xena. Shed still be in line to preside."
"I get the picture."
Krystina explained, "we explained the situation to Xena and her defense advisor. Xena could have forced us to send an expedition to investigate. And if she had, wed have found out that, she really has made her peace with the Scythian Nation. She knew that too. Instead Xena agreed to be tried on them, and accept the trial verdict, to stop another Raisa from using them to stir up more trouble later. Councilwoman Ildiko wasnt part of that discussion. And were going to have to ask you to keep that information quiet as well."
The woman shrugged, "I will, but why does it matter anymore? She was tried, even acquitted of the most serious charges."
Eponin sighed, "it matters because of some of those other things. Someone was behind Raisa, and that person is guilty of both blasphemy and treason. And theyd have tried something else if we didnt take the profit out of it. Trying Xena on the Scythian charges accomplished two things. Now that theyve been tried, those charges can never again be brought in an Amazon court. Unless there was either serious impropriety in the initial trial, or the defense asks for them to reexamined. Which is what Ildiko was hoping for. Her objections could have been raised while we were deciding who would preside at the trial. She held them in reserve in case the verdict wasnt to her liking. Just as importantly, wed already decided that soul healing would be part of Xenas sentence. By proving the existence of an ongoing ailment that far back, it provided us with a basis for leniency. And it gives her some protection, a clear defense, against whoever was behind Raisa trying that route again."
The woman was confused and said so. "Obviously its important to you that Xena stay alive. But I have two more concerns. You know shes been pardoned or whatever but you tried and sentenced her anyway. How is that justice? And Ive still got my doubts about the soul sickness business. So what happens now?"
Krystina stood up and walked to the back of the cell. "This doesnt get repeated either. The sentence we passed, is the same as her majesty was ready to pass when Raisa made her appearance. It was dressed differently, but its basically the same. A short jail term, a public whipping, community service and soul healing. I think the healer can better answer the other."
Delia told her, "Soul sickness scares a lot of people because they dont understand it. We, the temple and hospice, do soul healing all the time. Its not something we brewed up special for Xena. Well work her treatment to fit her situation, but we do that with every body. And because Xena recognizes her need, and is willing to cooperate, Id put her chances of recovery better than most. Now Ive got a question for you. You say the law has to protect us all. But how can we expect her, your children, or anybody else to respect it if we change it at whim. Xenas playing by the rules, not hers, ours. She stood trial, and accepted the judgement of the court. Isnt it time for us to do the same?"
The woman stood up, "It is. Im not a lawyer, priestess or healer so I dont understand the fine points of law or healing. And a lot of this might make more sense to me if I understood what else was going on. But Ive never liked someone changing the rules in the middle of a contest. And thats what it sounds like Ildiko, or whoever was trying to do. Those trials were fair. I still think the sentence passed was too light. But Xena was right, to do anything other than confirm it would be cheating. And if we start doing that everyones going to lose."
Eponin nodded, "I agree. Xena, did your advisor explain about the problem giving you time served."
"She did. I dont like losing it, but I can live with it."
"Then Ill confirm the rest of your sentence as passed. Ill note the reason for that one change, and seal the documents once I get back to the council hut. Were supposed to give you a days notice of physical punishment. So well plan the whipping for the day after tomorrow."
"It would be alright with me if you did it tomorrow and got it over with."
Eponin looked to Phaedra. "Tomorrow morning alright with you?"
"Not my back, but if its alright with Xena well waive notice."
Xena nodded, "Ive already had three days notice and then some."
Eponin nodded, "tomorrow it is."
Hades visited Cyrene in her quarters that night. Few would have believed the gentleness shown by the Lord of the Underworld, as he held Cyrenes hand, and listened to her fears. "I dont know if I can stand to watch whats going to happen tomorrow."
Hades pulled her to him, cradling her head as she leaned into his shoulder and cried. He said softly, "It wont be easy, but you have far more strength than you know. You wont be alone, Ill be with you to lend you whatever strength you need." After talking a short while he told her, "In the morning, go to the jail and tell our daughter you love her. Later when its over, tell her again." At length Cyrene fell asleep on his shoulder. Hades gently tucked her into bed, then placing a kiss on her forehead he quietly took his leave.
Ildiko had a visitor of another sort. Humiliated and in pain after her morning at the temple, she had retreated to her quarters and begun drinking heavily. After passing out in a drunken stupor she was awakened in the night watch when a candle pierced the darkness of her hut. "Whos there?" "Guard" She reached quickly for the dagger at her bedside. "Yeow" She screamed, as the normally cold metal burned at the barest touch.
A chilling voice came from behind the candle flame. "They cannot hear you, nor can they help you now."
Stumbling naked from her bed, Ildiko recognized the voice as the goddess Celesta, and fell sobbing to her knees.
Two fiercely masked warriors appeared beside the goddess. One silently threw a pair of manacles to the floor. Celesta coldly ordered, "pick them up" slowly Ildiko did so, "now put them on." By now Ildiko was shaking so badly that, though she tried, she was unable to fasten the metal cuffs onto her wrists. Celesta turned to the silent warriors, "do it."
Swiftly the warriors shackled the womans wrists and ankles. A warm wetness ran down Ildikos legs, as a dark tunnel opened before her eyes. Shaking uncontrollably, Ildiko began pleading for mercy, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She screamed in terror, as the tunnel became a whirlpool. A hot malevolent wind emerged, to surround her as though with bands of fire. The bands tightened, and retreated into the whirlpool, pulling Ildiko slowly but inexorably inside.
Remembering the night before her first whipping, Hecuba felt a kinship with Xena shed never felt before. *Maybe its because I know what shes going thru right now.* Several of the older women remembered her, as she was sure they did Cyrene. Theyd given her a chance when she needed one, she hoped theyd do the same for Xena. Despite Hades assurances, she woke with nightmares about Gabrielle, and took a long time crying herself back to sleep.
In her cell, Xena lay on her bunk feeling strangely at peace. Suddenly the sounds of the outside world stopped. Opening her eyes she saw Hades standing beside her. She sat up abruptly, "What do you want?" then saw the pained expression on his face.
"Xena, no one outside this cell can hear us. We need to talk." He told her everything, and they talked for a long time afterwards. Before leaving he said, "You wont see me tomorrow, but Ill be in the square with your mother, shell have whatever strength she needs." Xena said sincerely, "Thank you, for everything."
For some time after Hades left, Xena sat staring at the brackets shed once been chained to. Finally she lay back down, and slept soundly until the guard wakened her with the morning wash bucket.
The village was starting to show signs of life as Cyrene left her hut. Passing the square she saw a work detail raising a stout post. For a few moments she watched in morbid fascination, then seeing a crosspiece with rings being settled into place, she quickly turned away. She continued on to the hospice, unsure whether or not the kind hearted healer would be awake.
Delia was awake, and set a steaming mug of tea in front of her. They drank in silence until Delia finally asked how shed slept. Cyrene told her "it seems so unreal. A few days ago Im a middle aged innkeeper, finishing up lunch when in pops a goddess. She tells me my daughter is on trial for her life, and needs my help. Everythings happened so fast since that, I spend half the nights just trying to slow down. Poor Hecuba, I cant imagine what shes going thru."
"How can I help?"
"I dont know, just help me get thru today. I feel like I need to be there. Hades visited me last night, told me I should go to the jail this morning, tell Xena I love her, then do it again when its over."
Setting down her mug Delia asked. "How do you feel about it?"
Cyrene opened her hands in a questioning gesture. "When I got up this morning everything came crashing back. Shes my daughter Delia, and whatever shes done I cant forget that."
Delia looked at her carefully, "Would you want to?"
"Of course not, Im just having trouble facing this."
"What mother wouldnt?"
Delia picked up Cyrenes mug and as she walked to the brazier, she heard Cyrene ask"Delia, what am I doing here?"
Pushing a fresh mug of tea at her Delia replied, "Right now youre having a mug of tea, then were going to collect Hecuba and get some breakfast. After that, if you like Ill walk over to the jail with you. I have to look in on Xena anyway, so its not a burden."
Cyrene asked "is something wrong?"
"A lot of things, but not like that. I have to check her over, make sure shes healthy enough to be whipped."
Cyrene said, "Thank you. Im afraid Ill start crying if I go alone, and she doesnt need that."
Delia took her hand, "I wish it didnt have to happen either."
After their second mugs of tea they went to find Hecuba. Passing back thru the square Cyrene again found herself staring at the post. Delia put an arm around her, "Dont suffer it twice," Cyrene took a step towards it. Delia asked quietly, "What are you thinking."
Cyrene shook her head and answered, "I dont know."
Delia let it slide, and steered her back towards the guest huts. They met Hecuba and Krystina on the way. Delia said "we were just coming to see if you were interested in breakfast."
Hecuba replied, "Krystina stopped by asking the same thing. Cyrene, you were out early, bad night?"
"I woke up early and decided to take a walk, wound up drinking tea with the healer here. "
Krystina smiled at Delia, "A lot of that goes on around here. Her teas, and her ear are always good." Delia blushed with the compliment.
After breakfast Delia walked Cyrene to the jail. After reporting Xena fit for punishment, she asked the guard to let Cyrene have a few moments alone with her daughter. The guard turned to Cyrene, "of course, just call when youre ready o leave."
Xena stepped over to her mother, "Ill get thru this fine. I just dont want you to see it happen."
Cyrene held her at arms length and said firmly, "Its going to happen whether Im there or not, and Im going to be there. Xena, youre my daughter and I love you, but I know you. Dont tough it out for my sake, Ive already done my crying. Hades, and a couple of others have told me you need this. I still find that hard to accept, but if this is what it takes to rid you of some of the festering guilt you keep inside, dont waste it worrying about me." She pulled a stunned Xena close and held her.
When they broke the hug. Cyrene told her, "I have to go, the healers waiting."
Xena pulled her mother to her again and said, "I love you, too."
Leaving the jail Cyrene found Delia talking to Solari. She tried to apologize for taking so long, but both women shrugged it off. Solari returned her dagger looking a bit embarrassed, "You can see her again later, if you like. Maam, what Hecuba said at the trial, was right. A lot of women come thru here, the ones who have good people who care usually dont come back."
Solari asked quietly, "Do you mind if I make a suggestion."
"I dont mind, but I think I can guess. Youre going to suggest I find some quiet place to wait until its over."
Solari nodded, "Yes I was, but somehow I doubt youd do it. Well be taking her in a couple of candlemarks, and its going to bother me. Ive taken women for execution who bothered me less. Shes been a friend, and when this is over I hope we can be again."
Cyrene said, "I hope so. For a long time, I hoped Id get a message saying she was dead. This morning when I saw them setting the post, I was just glad they werent building a gallows."
"So am I."
"Dont worry about me, like I told her Ill hold up fine."
Delia said, "Cyrene, we have some time, lets get you some tea."
When theyd gone Solari looked into Xenas cell. The sight of Xena, sitting on her bunk staring at the wall, concerned Solari. In anyone else shed call it fear, but in Xenas case she knew there had to be more to it. Unlocking the door she stepped inside. Xena stood up as she entered, "time to go?"
Solari shook her head, "not quite two candlemarks, getting impatient?"
"Just want it over with. And I want to thank you for letting my mother visit."
Solari nodded, "Youre welcome, I suggested she find a quiet place to wait till its over, but she wasnt having any of it."
Xena sat down, "Thanks for trying. I suggested the same thing, but shes determined to be there."
Solari sympathized. Shed seen mothers break down during a daughters punishment Executions had to be public, but whippings were usually carried out in a courtyard behind the jail. The humiliation of being marched into the square, and left on public display were only rarely added. "Sorry Xena, Id take you out back if I could, but Eponin ordered it done publicly so I cant."
Xena shrugged, "I understand."
Solari asked her, "Xena I came to see if you wanted anything, weve got some tea in the guardroom. Chance to wash up, whatever."
"Mug of tea sounds good, Solari there is one thing."
"What is it?"
"If trouble starts, try and keep her safe."
"Do my best. Let me get you that tea." She called "Guard" When one came to the window, "We need a mug of tea in here." It was brought and passed thru. "Ill leave word for the guard to bring you more later if you ask."
"Thank you." Solari opened the door and left. Xena sat for a short time, drinking the tea. It wasnt as good as Delias, but she appreciated it and the gesture. She decided to use the pot before they took her.
Krystina and Hecuba were at the hospice when Cyrene and Delia returned. The priestess asked, "Hows she doing?"
Delia answered, "Shes probably holding up better than the rest of us. Alicia, we ready to go?"
"Yes. Kayla offered to go to the jail with you."
Delia wrinkled her face in thought, "No problem, Solari told me, theyre doing the last two contempt cases tonight at the jail. Theyre getting twenty six each."
"Ill take care of them. Kayla can you help?"
A strange expression come over the sandy haired womans face. "Might as well, Ill be there anyway." she ducked quietly into the back.
Alicia looked after the retreating woman in surprise, "Did I just miss something?"
Delia answered quietly. "Solari told me shes been ordered to do the whipping tonight."
Alicia turned to Cyrene, "How are you holding up?"
"Did my crying last night, Ill get thru it okay." She looked at the other women, "Im just glad I dont have to face it alone."
Hecuba told her, "Cyrene, my daughter was the victim, but I take no pleasure in whats going to happen."
As Kayla came back in, Delia asked "Hecuba, Cyrene theres just time if either of youd like something to help steady you." Both declined. "They wont take her back for a candlemark afterwards, Ill have to go to the jail when they do. If either of you need to get away, come here. Alicia, let them use my quarters, give them a drink, whatever. Just dont let anyone bother them."
Alicia nodded, "Leave it to me."
A slow drumbeat began and a runner knocked, "Theyre getting ready."
Delia turned to the group. "Half a candlemark, Kayla time for us to go. Hecuba, Cyrene if you want to come with us youre welcome. If not, Ill definitely understand."
They walked to the square in silence. Delia led them to the right of the ceremonial platform. About ten long paces away, directly in front of them stood the post. The crowd was already gathering. Some sought justice, others wanted revenge, some like the small group with Delia, just wanted it over.
At the jail Xenas door opened, two guards followed Solari inside. All had masks pushed up on their heads. Taking a set of manacles from her belt Solari said, "Its time Xena. Anything you need to do first, say so now." Xena shook her head, stood up and held out her hands. Solari cuffed her wrists, then after leg shackles were added, gestured towards the door. Xena walked silently outside, where two more guards were waiting.
As the group formed a square around Xena, a priestess stepped to her side. Xena looked at her, "last I knew, I was being whipped, not hung?"
The young priestess looked down, "that is my understanding as well. But the whipping is so severe that the high priestess has asked me to pray for your soul, in case you do not survive it."
At Solaris order the group began walking towards the square. Xena had to concentrate on the short cubit length steps that the shackles allowed. "Would you thank the high priestess for her concern. Maybe you could pray for my mother, this is going to be pretty hard on her."
"I shall pray for you both."
Coming around the food hut they arrived at the square. On the ceremonial platform Xena could see Eponin, Krystina and the council woman, Niobe. In front of the post stood two masked warriors. She grimaced slightly, noting their powerful builds and the long whips on opposite sides of their belts. The priestess whispered "good luck" then moved to the right of the platform to join Delias party. To the right she saw her mother flanked by Delia and Gabrielles mother.
Xenas focus changed abruptly as she and her guards arrived at the post. At Solaris command the group stopped, and faced the platform. Eponins voice droned in their ears as she began reading Xenas crimes and sentence. Finally she ordered, "Prepare the prisoner."
Solari ordered softly, "Xena, turn around and face the post." When Xena had turned, Solari unlocked her manacles. Standing on a bench behind the post the guards quickly locked Xenas wrists into the overhead shackles.
Once Xena was secured, the guards stripped her to her undercloth. Tying Xenas hair with a leather cord, and pulling it forward over her shoulder, Solari offered her a thick leather strap. "Something to bite on?" Tight lipped Xena shook her head. "If youre sure" Solari faced the platform and saluted, "Your majesty, the prisoner is prepared."
Eponin returned her salute and ordered, "proceed."
Solari and the guards retreated to positions of safety. The whippers moved to their own positions on either side of the post and uncoiled their weapons. Out of her left eye, Xena could see her mother, still standing stoicly with Delia. Hoping to make this as easy as possible on them, Xena began the mental exercises taught her by Lao Ma, in preparation for the pain she knew would soon be coming.
Delia whispered, "Shes watching us, stay focused, and dont look away."
Unseen Hades put his hands on Cyrenes shoulders. Feeling his presence she thought. *Please, will you lend me strength*
His voice came into her mind, *That is why Ive come. My strength, is yours.*
She felt a warm current wash over her body and took comfort in it. She whispered, "Ill be okay" She looked at her daughter, and smiled at her for just a moment, then knowing one of her many skills was lip reading, she mouthed the words "I love you."
Xena saw her mothers lips move. She didnt catch the meaning but when they moved again she read, "I love you" The mental exercises evaporated. As she heard Solari count one, Xena closed her eyes and waited, then felt a ribbon of fire slice across her back. She felt the air rush from her lungs as the second lash struck from the opposite side. Coming from alternate sides each lash struck across those already received and her back screamed in agony. By the time the count reached 13 each lash evoked a loud groan. Then suddenly it stopped.
Cyrene stood rooted in place, drawing on Hades strength to keep her face a mask. There were few jeers, nothing like the carnival atmosphere she had dreaded. Delia spared her a glance and whispered, "You holding up."
Cyrene answered "well enough"
Hecuba had a grim expression, though she knew this was justice, she remembered well what it was to be in Xenas position. With each crack of the whip she remembered the searing pain, and humiliation. She told herself. *this wont bring her back* and resolved to talk to Xena later.
When the second round was over Xena was writhing against the post, her eyes tightly closed. She remembered her mothers words earlier that morning. She felt an unfamiliar voice in her mind saying simply *let it go*
She thought, *I cant.* then felt an unbelievable pressure building like a massive boil within her soul.
The voice Xena now recognized as Hades returned, almost desperately saying *please.* She surrendered to the pain as the third round began, and felt a sharp tearing pain as her soul opened. Tears flooded her eyes as the long repressed scream erupted, carrying on it a flood of dark soul poison. Cyrene tightened visibly, but made no sound, and shed no tear.
As the whipping continued, Xenas screams cut the air as each lash added to the wreckage of her back. Eponin ordered Delia to check her after the fourth course. The sickened healer moved to the post quickly, hoping for an excuse to stop the carnage. Xena had taken fifty two lashes so far, and unless she could stop it, still had two full courses to go. Delias hopes were dashed however, as she realized that Xenas heart and breathing were still strong. She asked in a whisper, "I can stop this."
Xenas eyes closed tightly, "Dont help me cheat, Delia." She took a breath, "just make sure my mothers okay."
Delias mouth tightened, "I will - Good luck"
Delia left the post and made her report. "Your majesty, the prisoner appears fit, but I ask mercy."
Eponin was torn by her decision, Xena had already taken a more severe whipping than most prisoners. Still Delia had ruled her fit. Mentally she kicked herself for passing so severe a sentence. She ordered, "The sentence will be carried out in full. Proceed."
A grim faced Delia returned to Cyrenes side, "I offered to stop it, she just asked me to make sure you were okay." The crack of the whip continued, as did the screams. Finally it was over. Both breathed sighs of relief as the whippers coiled their weapons, and moved to positions in front of the ceremonial platform.
Xenas battered and bloody form hung limply by her wrists. Every breath was an agony, as her muscles were pulled tight by her own weight. The midday sun beat hard upon her, the salt sweat burned as it ran into her wounds and eyes. Still as the waves of searing pain washed over her, Xenas face took on an eerie expression of peace.
Never had a single candlemark passed so slowly, Cyrene thought, as she waited with Delia and the others. Finally Eponin announced "these proceedings are ended, return the prisoner to her cell."
As Xena was taken down from the post, Kayla retrieved a stretcher from beneath the platform, Hecuba put her arm around Cyrene saying gently, "Its over."
"Thank the gods"
Xena felt she could walk, but allowed herself to be laid on her stomach and carried back to her cell. The guards were gentle as they put her on her bunk. Delia began washing her mangled back. Xena asked, "my mother?" "
Shes okay. I asked the priestess to take her and Hecuba back to the hospice, so she could have some privacy."
Turning her head, Xena could see that Delia was pale. "Thanks. Delia are you okay?"
"No Xena, Im not. Here drink this." Delia passed her a water skin and Xena drank deeply. Soon the herbs took over and she closed her eyes.
Once at the hospice, Cyrenes mask dissolved. Alicia showed her to Delias quarters where, she sat down on Xenas bunk, and buried her face in her hands. Hecuba put an arm around her, and they cried together. Alicia quietly left the room, gently closing the door behind her.
A short time later Hecuba stepped out, "Alicia, how long do you think until Delia comes back?"
"Hard to say, depends on what she has to do. Usually a couple of candlemarks, but with that many lashes its anyones guess." She asked gently, "How are the two of you holding up?"
"It was pretty hard on her though youd never have known it out there. Tower of strength until we got back here. Thank you for the tea, it helps knowing someone cares."
"Maam, we all care. Ive worked with Xena for about two moons, and gotten to know her a bit. Shes a decent person. Not quite a moon ago, Rhea, the other assistant, was murdered. Delia and Id known her a long time, and we were pretty shook up by it. She told us once that we were the closest thing to a family she had. Im sure you understand."
"Xena pretty much took this place over for a few days. It made a lot of difference to us."
Alicia sat down. "You still havent said how youre doing?"
"Ive been trying to be strong for Cyrene. Gabrielle was my daughter and I believe in justice. Maybe thats hard to believe based on my past but I do. From what I saw, Xena got a fair trial, and a just sentence. Still Ive just got this empty feeling. They could whip her to death and it still wouldnt bring my daughter back."
"No maam, it wouldnt."
"Its hard to explain, but watching was almost like going thru it again. Id hear the lash and feel the pain in my mind, hear my own voice screaming in agony, over and over until it was done."
Alicias mouth tightened, "memories can be like that."
Hecuba nodded, "Every time Xena screamed, it felt like my soul was being ripped out. This was the woman my daughter loved. Who from everything else Ive heard loved her as well. In that sense I guess shes family, and who wants to see their family hurt, no matter what theyve done."
They talked for a couple more minutes then Alicia said, "When Delia gets back, itll be time for late lunch. Do you think either of youll be able to eat?"
"Im not sure about Cyrene, but I think she should try."
"Afterwards, we could head over to the practice field, might be good to have something to do besides stew. Nice as you people are we cant hide out here forever."
"No, but you can for as long as you need to. But, if youre up to it, the practice fields a good idea. You both look tighter than a bent bow. An afternoon shooting, maybe sparring a little, might help burn some of it off."
Hecuba forced a smile, "worth a try at least. Got any suggestions for afterwards."
Alicia looked up, "Sure do. A nice soak in the hot springs can be like a slice of the Elysian Fields after a hard day."
Hecuba noticed a twinkle in Alicias eyes, "Ill bet theyre even nicer when you share them with someone special."
Alicia smiled, "Trust me, they are." Hecubas expression fell for a moment. Sensing the problem Alicia told her, "Hecuba, Im a widow too so please take this for what its worth. Treasure his memory, but get on with your life. It wont be easy, but if he was worth having at all hed want you too."
Tears came to Hecubas eyes, "Thank you. Ill keep it in mind."
Alicia stood up "Im glad. Now what do you say we check on Cyrene?"
Delia returned shortly after that. Alicia handed her a mug of tea. Cyrene asked."How is she?"
Delia had given the answer some thought, "About like youd expect, pretty uncomfortable when we cleaned her up. She asked about you."
"What did you tell her?" "Told her you were doing fine. Right now shes resting. Id suggest you wait till tonight to see her."
Hecuba added, "I wonder if theyd let me talk to her?"
Delia replied, "Wont know until you ask, worse they can do is say no." She told Alicia "I dropped Kayla at the food hut, go ahead if you want. Ill take the ladies when you get back." Alicia said, "I can have something sent over." Glancing around the empty infirmary Delia drained her mug, "Tell you what, its quiet enough lets all go."
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