The usual disclaimers apply - the name Xena Warrior Princess, and all non historical characters used in the series of the same name are the property of MCA Universal, Renaissance Productions or whoever they sold or otherwise transferred them to. I hold no ownership or other financial interest in either what so ever. This is a work of fan fiction, written for my own personal entertainment without their knowledge or consent, and without any hope or expectation of personal financial gain.
This story is not for young readers. If you can't legally buy a beer or tobacco where you live this wasn't intended for you. There is graphic violence within the context of the story and appropriate for it's time in history. There are alternate situations and reference there to - but nothing overtly graphic.I have revised the last part to make it easier to read. While I have corrected various "typos", and added a word here and there to improve clarity, the basic text through Chapter 20 remains the same. As originally posted a year ago it included the beginning of Chapter 21. These have been moved to this part, and open 65 pages of new text that move us beyond Xena's trial into the vast uncharted regions. To my readers I apologize for the delays in getting this out. The next part is almost ready and while I make no promises, I hope to post it soon.
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Please reference either Xena or the story in your subject line. I wish to thank Power Chakram, author of Destiny's Dominion for her encouragement and constructive criticism. And I thank you, my readers for your patience.


The food hut was quiet when the women arrived. Phoebe was supervising the boiling of boned out deer carcases for soup. One of her assistants was taking fresh bread from the oven. Cyrene found these pleasant smells both familiar and comforting.

Phoebe greeted the women warmly. Cyrene wasn’t sure she could eat, but Phoebe insisted. "Course you’re upset, what mother wouldn’t be, but you’re not going to do your daughter, or yourself, any good by starving." Before Cyrene could protest Phoebe had walked away. She returned a few moments later to set a mug of venison broth and some of the fresh bread in front of Cyrene.

Picking up the mug, Cyrene took a tentative sip, then another, and found that her stomach was indeed beginning to settle. Without speaking, she drank the broth, and looked better. Hecuba however seemed haunted. She appeared startled when Phoebe greeted her "Excuse me, your highness", and set a plate of warm nutbread in the center of the table. "I remembered how much your daughter liked this, and figured she had to get it somewhere."

Remembering the conversation of the night before, Delia said, "Last night the two of you said something about going to either the temple or the practice fields this afternoon."

Cyrene looked up from her mug, "we were. Hecuba, do you have a choice?"

Hecuba sat silently for a moment, "I could do either, but if you can handle it, I think doing something physical makes the most sense."

Cyrene nodded, "I think you’re right. Delia, Alicia, do either of you have any idea what they plan to do with us now that this is over?"

Delia thought, *good question.* "Sorry to say I don’t, but I’m sure now that the trials over they’ll figure it out."

She made a mental note to talk to Eponin, "We really appreciate the help you’ve given us. And I know Phoebe does as well.."

"Just glad to have something to do."

"Well, you’re welcome to come back anytime."

Alicia coughed, "Delia, Why don’t you go to the practice field with them? Kayla and I can cover this afternoon."

"Sounds good to me."

Back at the hospice Alicia took Delia aside. "I’m glad you’re going with them. Hecuba and I were talking before you got back. They’re both taking it pretty hard, and there are bound to be people talking about it."

Delia took down her quiver, and settled it onto her right shoulder. "I know. Wasn’t easy for Cyrene to visit the jail this morning, it might be a bit awkward but she’ll manage."

Alicia nodded, "I’m sure she did her best raising her, but Xena’s been a grown woman for a long time. She made her own choices and now she’s paying for them."

Delia looked over her collection. "A few days ago, you said knowing something is going to happen didn’t make it easier to accept. You were right." (picks up a set of chobos) "Xena’s in a lot of pain, and her back looks like it’s been chopped up for stew meat. I put a lot of stitches into her. And I felt sick cleaning her up, in a way I haven’t in a long time."

Alicia sat down, "justice is a strange mistress. No matter how brutal that was, when you consider her crimes, it was still a light sentence."

Delia sighed deeply, "I wouldn’t call it light, but at least they intend her to survive."

When the practice broke up Cyrene went to the jail. Xena was laying face down in her undercloth when her mother entered the cell. She sat up and reached for her shift, but her spinning head stopped her. It was obvious to Cyrene that she was in considerable pain, "The healer said you were supposed to lay still until tomorrow." Gently taking the shift. " Don’t bother getting dressed either, I’ve seen you naked before, and I know what a whip can do. How do you feel otherwise?"

Xena lay back down "Just glad it’s over."


After leaving the jail Cyrene knocked on Hecuba’s door. Invited inside, she took the offered seat on Hecuba’s bunk and asked hesitantly. "Hecuba, could I ask you something personal."

Leaning against the wall Hecuba folded her arms, "I can’t promise to answer, but go ahead."

Cyrene looked down, "Sorry, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you’ve been thru this and I don’t know who else to ask."

Hecuba dropped the tough girl pose and sat beside Cyrene, "Yes, I’ve been thru it, it’s painful and humiliating, but I survived and so will she. I’m also a mother, so what was it you wanted to ask me?"

Cyrene swallowed hard and asked, "Hecuba, when you were at this point in your life, what might have made a difference?"

"I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking?"

Cyrene hesitated then buried her face in her hands, "I’m sorry I shouldn’t have asked."

Hecuba took her hands, "If you’re asking what I think you are, then yes, you should."

Cyrene summoned her courage, "You said that when you went to jail, or were whipped the first time, you wanted to change but couldn’t. Do I have that right?"

"Close enough."

"Then what would have made it possible? What can I as her mother do at this point to help Xena turn her life around? What shouldn’t I do?"

Hecuba closed her eyes as though deep in thought, "Don’t cheat her of the pain she’s entitled to feel."


Seeing her blank expression Hecuba sighed, "I don’t mean the whip, though that’s painful enough. Whatever you do, don’t honey coat her actions. Maybe the Gods were involved, but don’t let her blame everything on them, and don’t you either. She’s had a fair trial, and was found guilty. She needs to know she’s been punished because of something she did."

She paused for emphasis. "Above all, don’t let her wallow in remorse, or give up on herself. And Cyrene, don’t blame yourself for her actions. That was my mother’s mistake, and the rest of the village helped her make it. Xena is an adult. She made her own choices, and she has to face her own consequences."

"If I hadn’t been such a rotten mother maybe she wouldn’t have made them."

Hecuba took her by the shoulders. "Don’t go there, Cyrene. You’ll just tear your guts apart. Every time Gabrielle got into trouble, I’d blame myself. I was strict with her because I was afraid if I wasn’t," she began to cry "she’d end up just like me, with blood on her hands, and a price on her head."

Hecuba dried her eyes, "I’m sorry for being such a baby. It’s important not to let her feel abandoned. When everyone else in the tribe shunned me, my mother didn’t. Having that one friendly face mattered. She stuck with me, even when I kept getting into trouble What hurt most wasn’t the whip, it was knowing I’d let her down."

Her face became a mask of pain, "My last memory of my mother is of her tear stained face looking at me from across the border, on the day I was banished. They had my hands manacled and tied to the saddle horn. They wouldn’t even let me give her a hug goodbye. And after the ten cycles were up I couldn’t even send her a message for fear a bounty hunter would get their hands on it. She’d be almost seventy now, so she’s probably long gone. She never saw her grandchildren. Never even knew she had them. She had no family to stand by her pyre. All because her only daughter was a criminal. When I needed to change my name I took hers. I’ll never be worthy of it, but I have nothing else to remember her by."

Cyrene hugged her for a long moment. "Thank you. You’ve really helped me understand." Then "I’m getting hungry. Have you eaten yet?"

"No. And that stew of Phoebe’s smelled good. Why don’t we see if she has any left?"

"Why don’t we?"


Cyrene wasn’t the only one having a difficult night of it. As sentencing magistrate, Krystina was obliged to witness the punishments she’d ordered. Her mind struggled to shut out the screams as two women she’d cited for contempt received twenty six lashes each. *Why did I punish those women so severely. I could have just locked them up, or put them in the stocks* The answer came quickly. *At first we were having a trial. Once Raisa showed up we had a lynching in progress. And drastic measures were needed to break it up.* The trouble with Ildiko played heavily on her mind as well. *For all our sakes, dear Artemis, let this be over please.* Leaving the jail her stomach rebelled, and it was the better part of a candlemark before she could compose herself enough to walk back to the temple.

In her cell, Xena heard the other prisoners being taken out and whipped. Despite her own pain, she had no sympathy for them. Though her body screamed in agony, her soul felt lighter. It was the code of the warrior that shed blood had to be paid for in blood. * Gabrielle suffered at my hands, it’s fair that I suffer now.*

Eponin too was sickened by the days events. She would tell Sophia. "For a moon now we’ve done nothing but hold funerals, secret meetings and trials. One deity or another pulling our strings like a puppeteer. We’ve picked up two middle aged archers, buried a healer, and whipped another half to death. And we’ve found out that Velasca’s back and up to no good. And that we’re the targets of a power struggle between the gods."

Sophia nodded in reply. "We’ve also broken up a good share of Velasca’s following here. And we’ve gotten her mouthpiece off the council. Speaking of which I didn’t see her today."

"Neither did I, and she always shows up for whippings and executions."

"She’s a real ghoul that way. But who knows, maybe that flogging Krystina gave her yesterday took some of the fun out of it."

"Let’s hope so."

From a shelf Eponin took down the queens mask. "Sophia, I’ve had this damn thing for less than a season. I’ve had to hang one woman, and between Xena, Ildiko and the contempt cases, I’ve had to order two hundred and twenty seven lashes in the last two days alone. That’s more than we usually order in a whole cycle. And I, for one, am damned well sick of it. But the way things are going, I sure wouldn’t bet much on these being the last." She replaced the mask. "This thing is a curse. The last three women who wore it are either dead or insane. And it sure doesn’t belong on a woman of conscience."

Sophia put a hand on her shoulder. "You’re wrong there chief, because that’s exactly where it does belong. On a woman that cares enough to look at the facts, and listen to both sides. A conscience is what separates a good queen from tyrants like Velasca, who whipped and banished innocents because they were in the way of her ambition. You hung a cold blooded murderess that confessed her guilt. And every lash you’ve ordered was well deserved. I put the rope around Marya’s neck, and I gave Xena half her whipping. And no, I didn’t enjoy it. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, and neither should you. They committed the crimes. You gave them fair trials. A lot fairer than they’d have gotten most places. And afterwards, we did what the law says had to be done."

Eponin sighed, "my head knows that, but my guts don’t. I’d like to let the dust settle for a few days, but we’ve got more problems than Xena. And I feel like we’ve been neglecting everything that wasn’t somehow tied to her case."

Sophia shook her head, "we haven’t really, but even if we had you’re not going to catch everything up in one night. So if you don’t mind a suggestion?"

"Go ahead."

"Take tomorrow off, do something you enjoy and just catch up with you. Day after, call for status reports from all sections.. Then when you find out where we are, and what we’ve got to do, sit down with them and set priorities."

"Why shouldn’t I do that tomorrow?"

Sophia leaned on the desk. "Because you’re right chief, it has been a miserable moon. It’s taken a lot out of you. And taking a day or two to catch up with yourself might do you a world of good."

"I’ll think about it."

"Do it. Sleep late, take a long hot bath and get someone to give you a good massage. Then -"


"Yes chief?"



Finding sleep elusive Eponin sparked a small oil lamp into life. A moment later the guard knocked softly. Finding the regent slumped over her work table she inquired as to her health. Eponin looked pale and from the redness of her eyes the guard knew she’d been crying. "Between everything that’s happened, and what needs doing, I feel like I’m caught in a rockslide. And every problem that hasn’t hit me yet, is coming straight for me. Or that I’m trapped in a deep cave, stumbling around in the dark, with the water rising and no way out."

"Not a pretty picture, your majesty."

"No, and it seems Morpheus is determined that I not forget anything, because he keeps running it all through my head."

The guard thought for a moment. "May I make a suggestion, your majesty?"


"Write it down. That way you could be sure you weren’t forgetting something important. And Morpheus might be satisfied that you’d remember and stop reminding you.

Eponin glanced around the hut. "Worth a try." Reaching for a wax tablet she told the guard. "If you’d light the brazier and put on some water, I could use a mug of tea."

"Of course, your majesty."

"Put on enough so you can have a mug. I’m likely to be up a while."

"Thank you, your majesty."

A mug of tea, two tablets of notes, and a couple candlemarks later, Eponin’s chin dropped to her chest and she began snoring. The guard gently helped her back to her bunk. "Sleep well, your majesty."


Unseen by any in the village, Velasca had attended Xena’s whipping, and savored every scream. Still, the whole affair brought a taste of ashes. Ildiko’s self righteous blundering had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That the council had fought so desperately to avoid a death penalty, when even Xena herself agreed she deserved it, was proof of their weakness.

Now, thanks to that idiot Ildiko, things were coming apart badly. Having been at the temple meetings, she should have known there was no way Artemis would let Xena hang. And much as she’d like to kill Xena herself, because she was now a full goddess, the rules of Olympus forbade her a direct challenge. Unless, of course, Xena were to issue the challenge. *Amazon rules. Olympian rules. Where’s the fun of being a goddess if you’ve still got to play by someone else’s rules?*

It was Eponin’s handling of Ildiko that had cost her ground. "If you’d run the obnoxious bitch through, like she deserved, I could have rallied the troops around her. But you knew that, and you’re too smart to give me a martyr. And after that mess she’d have made a lousy one anyway." The loss of fifty followers, while a setback, wasn’t the disaster it seemed. Neither Eponin, nor Ildiko had known that Velasca’s greatest strength lie outside the nation proper. That among the renegade tribes were small bands dedicated to her worship. At clandestine shrines deep within hidden caves, male warriors, captured in battle or seduced into traps, had been sacrificed on her bloody altar.

Within the nation proper it was a different story, for here Artemis still held power. And while Velasca had plans for her, she knew she would get only one chance, and now was not the time to take it. Fortunately, she had learned something of patience while in the lava pit. Her plans required that the nation, or it’s leaders, break faith with Artemis. Thanks to Ildiko’s bungling, that wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Still, she thought, there was more than one way to skin a goddess.

She had invited Discord to the whipping, asking afterwards. "Don’t Zeus’s rules forbid our direct interference in mortal affairs?"

"They usually do."

"So how’s she (Artemis) get away with it?"

"Simple. The Amazons are hers so she can do whatever she wants with them. Unless, of course, they dump her and give their allegiance to someone else."

Fuming, Velasca aimed a lightning bolt at a nearby boulder, giving a satisfied grunt as it exploded into dust. "You’re getting just a bit to smart for your skirt, Eponin. But you’re weak"

That Eponin had taken emergency powers might actually prove useful. Caring nothing for the suffering of her own followers, she had admonished them to take their punishment stoically, and promised them their revenge later. "Our time will come, soon. And when it does we shall return their lashes tenfold."

Eponin alternately thrashed and whimpered, as Velasca probed deeply into her sleeping mind. *You’re weak, weapon’s mistress. You think you’ve won, but you won’t. Give me your fears and from them will come the weapon that destroys you." Her unseen face took on an evil grin as she came to the tightly barred door deep within the hidden recesses of her soul "What have we here?"


Unseen beneath his helmet of invisibility Hades watched as Ares shivered within the Tartarean ice. Earlier Zeus had visited his palace demanding. "I want Ares released. Now!"

"No. His crimes are against the pantheon, so the whole pantheon should judge him."

Hades had begun a list of his crimes, but Zeus cut him off. "The pantheon needs a god of war"

"And Ares needs to be taught a lesson."

"Yeah. Well his mother wants him released. And speaking of lessons you’ve had a soft spot for the Amazons for a long time. Tell me, does Persephone know about that Amazon girlfriend of your’s? Cyrene. I think her name is?"

Hades expression hardened. "That’s between Persephone and I "

Zeus scoffed. "Sure it is. Course when you can only see your wife four moons out of the cycle what does she expect." The argument between the brothers had nearly come to blows.

Ares looked up as Hades shimmered into view. "It’s over, Ares, and your minions failed, miserably."

"You win some, you lose some. How’s Cyrene doing, now she’s back where she belongs?"

Hades sighed deeply, remembering their once bitter rivalry. "Like a mother."

"Give her my regards, will you?"

Even as a young girl, Ares had recognized Cyrene’s potential as a warrior. She had courage that belied her size, and a fierce loyalty to the Amazons that had rescued and raised her. Defiant and deadly in the face of overwhelming odds, Cyrene had been the last woman standing at baccae pass. Still struggling, after three days of battle, despite her wounds and exhaustion, to defend her wounded sisters when the main Amazon army had broken through.

Later Cyrene had been on patrol in the Strymon Delta when they’d stumbled on a small Centaur camp. Taken by surprise, the Centaurs lost several of their number to Amazon arrows, when Cyrene her quiver empty, had recognized one of the Centaur’s top generals, drawn her axe and charged. Three companions, all survivors of the pass, had followed her. Coming from the side Cyrene had driven her axe deeply into the chest of one centaur, leapt onto the back of another and cut his throat. Jumping to the ground before he fell, she pulled her axe from the body of Atticus, the Centaur’s top general. Only later would she realize that her second victim had been their king.

The fighting was far from over, but as Ares proudly remembered, in less time than it takes to tell it Cyrene had decapitated the Centaur nation, securing ultimate victory for the Amazons. An arrow wound in her shoulder would keep her out of action until hostilities ended a short time later.

The true thorn in Ares side was that such magnificent warriors swore their loyalty to another. He had argued with Artemis, "you’re wasting their potential." And to Zeus, "they’re warriors, so by rights they should belong to me." He had tried to win Hades to his side, "doesn’t it gall you that not even their dead come to you? Artemis is a neat gal, but she’s greedy."

Ice cold eyes stared back at him. "Since when did you object to greedy?"

Ares laughed, "good one. But you know what I mean. She’s making decisions for the Amazons that should rightfully be ours. And it burns my butt that she’s squandering their potential."

Artemis had confronted him. "Have I ever stopped them from worshiping you?"

"No, but -"

"But what? All you can see them as are your playthings, in the bedchamber or on the battlefield. To be used for your pleasure, then discarded when another catches your eye. Well, let me tell you what real courage is. Real courage is bearing a child when one in three women die in the process. One in three, Ares. You’d think it scandalous if they lost that many in battle. How many of your brave male warriors would run in terror at those odds, or the pain of birthing a child? And what does that tell you of their so called courage compared to that of the Amazon weaver, potter or goatherd?" Ares had stormed off without another word.

Shivering in the ice Ares put the memory aside. "I thought once Cyrene killed old Atrius she’d go back to the Amazons."

"You’re forgetting that she had two young sons she couldn’t take with her. I’d say she showed real guts by sticking it out and raising them."

Ares scowled. "The greatest female warrior of her time, a real hero. I had plans for her before you got in the act and spoiled things."

"And just how did I do that?"

"You gave her a conscience, something to live for. You ruined her just like that damn bard did her daughter. Cyrene and Xena, two of the greatest warriors of all time, they could be an unstoppable mother daughter team. To see one an innkeeper and the other a healer, well it just turns my stomach. What a waste."

Shifting his helmet to both hands Hades added "Depends on how you look at. But don’t forget, it was the innkeeper that raised Xena. Maybe a little entertainment will take your mind off your troubles."

"Entertainment?" Suddenly Ares screamed as the sound of Gabrielle’s voice filled the caverns.

"She does a good job singing Xena’s praises, don’t you think. Her selfless good deeds, her tireless efforts to reform. Enjoy, I’ll be back later. Much later."


Delia was finishing sick calls the next morning when Alicia returned to the hospice. "Pretty much the usual batch of hangovers and morning sickness. Thankfully not in the same women. How’d things go at the jail?"

"Not good. Kayla was alright when we checked on Xena, but somewhat less than sympathetic with the others."

Delia ladled water into a pot. "She didn’t whip Xena. How’s she doing."

"Her stitches are holding and there’s no sign of infection. I gave her a draught to help her sleep and told her one of us would be by this afternoon."

Delia nodded, "I’ll go. Kayla can come with me. That’ll give us a chance to talk."

"Don’t be too rough on her. She told me afterwards it was hard to change roles like that."

"I can believe it."

Over morning tea, Alicia asked. "Has Kayla talked to you at all about her status?"

"Not really. And to be honest I’ve been afraid to bring it up."

"Afraid we’d lose her?"

"Yeah. As a healers apprentice she shows real promise. But, being a royal guard gives her enough status, I suspect we’d lose if we forced a choice on her."

Alicia nodded, "there is that. We can’t rely on Xena either, at least in the long term. She could finish her sentence one day and ride out the next. We have any other prospects?"

"None that I know of."

The problem, as both women knew was, that while healers had a certain amount of power, healing lacked the status of several other skilled trades. Warriors were held in high regard, second only to the priestesses, and basic military training was almost universal. War related trades, bowyer, fletcher, blacksmith held higher esteem. The more traditional women’s trades, weaver, cook, potter, goatherd etc. while needed and in many cases requiring great skill, were among the least desirable to girls coming of age.

Draining her mug Delia stood and rested a hand on the doorframe. Looking out over the village she said quietly. "Someplace out there, there has to be a woman that wants to be a healer. All we have to do is find her." Turning back, "Now that the trials over, and the sentences carried out, maybe things will quiet down for a while. But for now, we’ve got work to do. So I guess we’d better get started."


Eponin came in, followed by two royal guards, while they were working. Staring at the fresh poultices. "Looks like you got your hands full. Those for the jail?"

Delia sprinkled dried herbs onto a wide strip of cloth. "Yes, where else would we be taking them?"

One guard leaned to the other, whispering. "Waste of perfectly good medicine if you ask me."

"That’s for sure."

An outraged Alicia came around the corner of the work table, "and just who in Tartarus asked you?"

Eponin blocked her path. "I’ll deal with this." Then barked out. "Guardswomen, at attention right now."

Circling the guardswomen like a shark Eponin growled. "No one invited you into this discussion, let alone asked your opinion about anything. Apologize to the healers. Now." Alicia and Delia listened to the half hearted apology. Eponin folded her arms across her chest. "I’ve heard more sincere sounding apologies. Delia, you got something you can give them for those foul tempers? I’m sure they won’t consider that a waste of good medicine."

Delia nodded, "I most certainly do, your majesty. Alicia, would you draw each of these women a nice big dose of cascara?"

Alicia bowed deeply, "yes, ma’am "

While Alicia was drawing the potent cathartic Delia took Eponin aside, "We’ve got a lot of extra work on our hands right now, your majesty. All these bandages have to be washed, floors scrubbed, that kind of thing. And we can’t spare Kayla to do it."

Eponin held up a hand, "I get the picture. How long would you need them?"

Delia nodded, "three or four days should do it."

"You got them. Alicia, have they had their medicine?"

"Yes, your majesty."

"They give you any trouble about it?"

"No, your majesty."

"Good." Turning to the guard Eponin growled, "Both of you are detailed to the hospice for the next quarter moon to assist the healers with routine chores and maintenance. Once dismissed, you will return to your barracks and change into loincloths. And while you’re changing, tell Commander Zelda I want all three of you in my hut in a candlemark. Is that clear?"

Both women answered loudly. "Yes, your majesty."

Eponin’s voice dropped dangerously low. "It better be. Dismissed." The near panic stricken guards saluted and left.

Delia watched them go. "They best be prepared to work. Was there something you needed, your majesty?"

"I was wondering if you’d seen Ildiko?"

"Not since that business at the temple a couple days ago."

"Nobody else has either. Not even at Xena’s whipping."

Delia shook her head, "That’s surprising, I rather thought she was looking forward to it."

Eponin sighed, "so did I but she wasn’t there. We checked her hut this morning. Her weapons and pack are still there. All the horses are accounted for Which means she’s unarmed and on foot. Her bunk looked like it had been slept in, but the clothes Krystina had cut off her were still on the floor, along with two empty wineskins. Her boots were still there. So, I thought she might have gone to the temple to square that penance she skipped out on. Krystina says no."

Delia closed her eyes as though in pain. "You’ve checked the stable and outbuildings?"

"Yes, and I’ve ordered a quiet perimeter search. But somehow, I can’t picture Ildiko committing suicide. Especially after what Artemis said about having marked her for damnation."

"I sure wouldn’t. But Eponin, is there any chance we could talk about this later. Kayla’s out on an errand. I’d like to get these done, so we can take them to the jail when she gets back."

"No problem. I’ll have Zelda bring those two over once I’m done with them. They give you any trouble take a strap to them, and make sure I know about it. I’ll let you know what we find out about Ildiko."


En route to the jail Kayla asked, "Delia how did those two get assigned to you?"

"They spoke out of turn in a way that embarrassed her majesty and enraged me. You know them?"

Kayla nodded grimly. "They’re from my squad. From the looks of their backsides I’d guess the commander had a few words for them too."

"She did. Will it be a problem for you to have them working with us for a few days."

"I don’t know."

Delia shook her head, "First we get the patients taken care of. Then I think you and I should stop at the food hut and talk about it."

"Did Alicia tell you I was having problems at the jail?"

"She did, and while I think I understand what happened, we need to talk about that as well."

Phoebe greeted Delia warmly as she and Kayla walked into the food hut. A short time later the two women sat across from each other at an isolated table. For a few moments they sipped their tea in silence. Then Kayla set her mug on the table wrapped both hands around it and sighed. "I’ve given a fair number of whippings, Delia. But yesterday I got mad, watching Xena get hers. She may have deserved it, but those two tried to keep her from getting a fair trial. Just like that councilwoman tried to change the verdicts. Whipping someone, seeing them writhe hearing them scream, that isn’t easy for me. And I have to convince myself that they’re not worthy of any compassion to do it. Having to switch from that way of thinking, executioner’s mode I call it, into healer isn’t easy. Especially when all I could think of was that they got off way too light to begin with."

"What would you have done with them?"

"They tried to deny a fair trial to a woman on trial for her life. Far as I’m concerned that’s lynching, and for that, I’d have hung them both. They should have gotten at least the same sentence Xena got."

Delia shook her head, "I agree with you. But that’s not what being a healer’s about. It’s harder than Hades sometimes to keep your personal feelings out of your work. And there’s times you’re just too close and those feelings can get in the way of sound judgement. Times like that it’s best to say so and swap off with someone else if you can. Do you understand what I’m talking about?"

"You’re telling me I should have done the whipping or the healing, but not tried to do both. I’m sorry, but I thought I could handle it, and I do want to pull my weight."

Delia nodded, "You do pull your weight. I went to the jail last night because I didn’t think you should have to make that switch in a heartbeat. And if you remember, I asked if you were okay to go with Alicia this morning. If you’d told us you’d rather not I’d have gone instead."

Kayla shrugged, "but that wouldn’t have been fair to you."

"No, but I’d have done it. Like last night, I knew Xena needed that whipping. But watching it happen bothered me a lot, and riding herd on her mother and Queen Gabrielle’s afterwards didn’t give my head much chance to clear. Not that I begrudge them the support, but I wasn’t ready to face another whipping last night. But part of being a healer is putting your own feelings aside long enough to do what has to be done."

"That’s going to be a problem for me, Delia. I’ve had it beaten into my head that you follow orders without argument. And that you think you can’t or don’t want to doesn’t matter to anyone except you."

Delia sighed. "I know. I had the same basic military training as everyone else. But being a healer is different. And if you’ve got a problem working on someone or in a given circumstance, I want you to tell us. If it’s at all possible, we’ll cover you. And we’re human so when you’ve got more training under your belt, don’t be surprised if we ask you to do the same for us."

Kayla gave a tight lipped nod. "You plan on punishing me like you are those two?"

"Do you think I should?"

"That’s not my decision. I’m too close to the situation."

Delia put a hand on Kayla’s shoulder. "Sounds to me like what happened this morning was poor judgement based on circumstances and inexperience. So no, I’m not going to punish you this time. Hopefully it won’t happen again. If it does we’ll deal with it at the time."

"Thank you."

Later Kayla told the two miscreants. "Try looking at it this way. There’s a lot of dirty details, like garbage, stables, latrines, that have to be done every day. Now the queen and weapons mistress aren’t happy with that bunch. So, if we can keep them from dying of infection, or blood loss, they’re likely to be seeing a lot of them for a while. Which means there’ll be less of them for us to get stuck with."

One of the women ran an arm across her forehead. "You know, she’s got a point. Hey Kayla, how did you get to be so smart?"

"Come’s from faithfully practicing the three mu’s."


Kayla smiled, "Moderation, meditation, and masturbation."

The other shook her head. "With a lot of emphasis on the latter I’ll bet. Kayla, you got any more of that cascara juice in there?"

"Plenty. You want some more?"

The woman shuddered. "No thanks, but you aught to try some, on account of you’re full of it."



The next day Hecuba asked permission to visit Xena. Visiting someone in jail was a new experience for her, always before it had been the other way around. Nervous as she handed over her sword and dagger, she regretted not accepting Alicia’s offer of support. "I’m not sure why, but I think I need to do this for myself."

Alicia had nodded understanding, telling her quietly. "Remember why you’re there, and that the guards will let you out when you call. And please come see me afterwards so I know you’re alright."

The guard called to Xena, telling her she had a visitor and who it was. Xena was surprised, but said she’d see her. Hecuba felt her stomach tighten as the door opened. Telling herself firmly *I can do this* she stepped into the cell.

Hecuba paled as the door was locked behind her. She turned slowly in a circle, looking first at the bunk, then the window, and finally the door. Xena thought she looked close to panic as she stepped to the back wall and touched the shackles. She moved beside her and spoke softly, "Hecuba, please, sit down."

Xena guided her to the bunk opposite hers, "You Ok?"

Hecuba smiled tightly, "Just some bad memories. How do you feel?"

"Other than a sore back and wanting out of here, I’m okay."

As Xena turned, Hecuba got a close look at her back. The healers had closed some of the welts and applied a poultice, but it still looked a mess. Her memories cut in again, and justice or not, she felt sympathy for the woman. Closing her eyes as she answered, "I remember the feeling." She sat staring silently ahead for a few moments.

Xena asked gently, "you look pale as a ghost. Would you like me to call the guard?"

The short blonde woman pulled herself together, "No. I’m not sure I’d be able to do this again. I wanted to talk with you, but I’m having a hard time remembering what I wanted to say."

Xena sat down opposite, and said quietly, "It must have taken a lot of courage just to walk in here. Gabrielle never knew, did she?"

"No. We kept my past hidden from the girls. All their lives, I lived in fear of them finding out their mother was a wanted criminal."

"It couldn’t have been easy."

Hecuba closed her eyes remembering, "It wasn’t. Two, three times a moon, especially that time of the moon, I’d have nightmares and wake up screaming. Poor Herodotus always told the girls it was okay and go back to sleep. They never said anything, but I don’t think they believed him. They probably thought he was abusing me."

Xena shook her head, "Gabrielle never did. She told me once she’d picked up some of your dreams."

Hecuba buried her face in her hands, "Oh Gods, what she must have thought."

Xena gently moved her hands, "they didn’t make much sense to her. She knew you were hiding something about your past. She told me you had nightmares about being whipped, and that she’d sensed a terrible fear of being locked up. And that Herodotus had nightmares of you being found and dragged off in chains."

"Sometimes he’d comfort me half the night, but it never mattered how little sleep he got, he always got up and did a full days work anyway. And Xena, in all the time I was married to him, that poor man never once complained. Did Gabrielle ever tell you what she thought the dreams meant?"

"She thought you were a runaway slave. She was sure enough that everyday she offered a prayer for your safety."

Xena remembered. "I don’t understand how people can just buy and sell others as slaves?"

"It’s legal Gabrielle, besides there’s good money in it."

The Amazon queen came out as Gabrielle banged her staff on the ground. "Being legal doesn’t make it right. I mean people have lives, feelings. To just be kidnaped, dragged from your home, put in chains and sold. It must be horrible." Xena looked away, "happens all the time. Almost happened to you."

Later when they made camp. Xena looked up from the piece of harness she was mending. Gabrielle was sitting across the fire from her. The bards head was resting on her clenched fists, her eyes bored deeply into the darkness. "Dinar for your thoughts?"

Gabrielle had turned to face her, usually the line brought a smile. This time Xena was unprepared for what for all the known world looked like fear.

Nor was she prepared for the question Gabrielle asked. "Xena, if someone had been a slave a long time ago and got away, and let’s say someone found out about it. What would happen to them?"

"They’d be arrested. Then if their owner could identify them, they’d get them back."

"Identified? How?"

Xena put down the harness piece. "Well, most owners either brand or tattoo their slaves."

Gabrielle paled, "brand them? you mean with a hot iron, like cattle?"

"That’s how the law see’s them Gabrielle, as property just like horses or cattle."

Gabrielle had gone silent. Xena moved to sit beside her. "Gabrielle, why all the sudden interest in slaves?"

Gabrielle had stood up, "no reason, just forget I asked."

Xena stood up and put an arm around her, feeling that the smaller woman was trembling she pulled her into a hug. "Come on Gabrielle, sit back down and let’s talk."

Xena put water on the fire for tea. "Gabrielle, something’s bothering you about slavery, and it’s a lot more than that it exists. Want to talk about it?"

"Look me in the eye, Xena. Promise me you’ll never say a word about this, to anyone?"

Startled Xena had done as Gabrielle asked, "who is it, Gabrielle?"

The response came in a whisper, " my mother."

Xena finished the story, "About then she buried her face in my shoulder, and burst into tears."

Hecuba’s eyes were haunted, "In my dreams I’d see myself in a cell like this one. Could feel the chains on my wrists, the rough wall against my back. I wish I had a dinar for every time I’ve seen myself dragged to a whipping post or gallows." She looked down "My worse fear was that the girls would see me dragged out in chains."

Xena said gently "So tired you have to sleep, but afraid to close your eyes, jumping at every sound in the night. I know. It’s been a lot worse since Gabrielle died."

Hecuba gave her a tight lipped nod, "It’s been pretty bad since Herodotus died. Now knowing about Gabrielle, knowing where she is. I don’t know how much more I can take."

Hecuba looked at her, "Gabrielle probably told you I was strict with her."

Xena nodded, "She did."

"Growing up, she reminded me so much of me. Vivid imagination, always getting into trouble. No concern for her own safety. She wanted to be a warrior, had wild notions of running off to live a life of adventure. I knew where that road could lead her Xena. I never wanted her to see the inside of one of these places, or the rest. You’re a mother, you understand."

A tear formed in Xena’s eye, "Solon never knew I was his mother. He was ten when I saw him for the first time since he was a baby. He had his father’s temper and he was wearing his sword. It scared me. I didn’t want him growing up to be like me."

Hecuba closed her eyes, "I’ve had three daughters. Neither Gabrielle or Lila ever knew they’d had an older sister. Their grandmother never knew they were born, much less had a chance to see them. No mother deserves the Tartarus I put her thru, but that poor woman stood beside me till the end. Six moons in the stockade, and when they brought me back to the village she was waiting at the jail. She told them" She swallowed hard fighting tears. "She told them "I’m here to take my daughter home." Queen Hypolyta banished me a few moons later. And while they were tying me to the whipping post, I saw my mother on her knees in the dirt, begging her to show me mercy."

Hecuba began trembling, unsure whether the rage or tears would take her first. She opened her eyes, and turned them towards the floor. "Because of what happened later, I couldn’t even tell the girls about her. When they asked about my family I told them I was an orphan, and it hurt, but I was afraid. Then came pity I knew I didn’t deserve, but had to accept because I didn’t dare tell them the truth."

Xena reached over and took her hands, "what is the truth?"

Hecuba began to cry, "The truth, Xena? The truth is that no matter how much I’ve tried, or how much others have tried to help. I’m still no good."

Xena knelt down in front of her. "Herodotus didn’t think that, neither my mother or I do, and Gabrielle loved you."

Hecuba shook her head, "Xena, right now I’m back in leathers and sitting on a bunk in an Amazon jail. Maybe you can tell me why it feels like I belong here?"

"I can’t answer that, but it sounds like I’m not the only one’s been carrying around a pile of guilt."

Drying her eyes Hecuba stood up and walked to the back of the cell. "Xena, you and I, we’re more alike than Gabrielle ever knew. Oh, I never led an army, or traveled the world. We both picked up a sword in our teens, learned how to use it, and regretted it ever since. Spend the rest of our lives coming to terms with ourselves."

Xena stood up and said quietly, "Gabrielle used to say I had to learn to forgive myself."

Hecuba grabbed one of the brackets, "If you can ever figure out how to do that, would you mind telling me?"

Still holding the bracket Hecuba leaned forward until her forehead touched the wall. Xena could hear the pain in her voice as she asked, "Xena, can you honestly tell me, that Gabrielle was never locked in a cell, that she never had chains on her wrists, or felt the lash."

Xena turned her own tear filled eyes to the floor, her voice barely a whisper. "I’d give anything to say yes, but I can’t, to any of them."

There was a long moment of silence, finally Hecuba released the bracket and turned with a sigh, "at least you’re honest about it. I never wanted any of that for my daughter."

"What mother does?"

Hecuba sat down. "Xena, what I’m trying to say is, I don’t want us to be enemies. You loved Gabrielle, and while I was never sure, I’d suspected you were lovers for a long time. In a way, at least the way I grew up, that makes you my daughter in law. You committed a crime against her, but from what I’ve heard she forgave you. You stood trial, admitted your guilt and accepted your punishment. Between us at least, let that be the end of it."

Sitting beside her, Xena said, "We never were enemies, at least not from my point of view."

They talked a short while longer. Hecuba finally said, "I should be going."

Xena stood up "I’m glad you came."

"So am I, I’d offer you a hug, but ah"

Xena stepped closer and took her hands. "Maybe you could save it for later."

Hecuba smiled weakly, "Not a problem"

Xena went to the wall opposite the door and waited. She heard fear in Hecuba’s voice as she called the guard. Disbelief was plain on her face as the door opened and she was allowed to leave.


The next morning, Krystina and Andrea stood at the temple gate watching the sunrise. Looking at the horizon Krystina told her assistant. "It’s going to be a nice day."

"Looks like it. And you’re looking a little better. How are you feeling?"

"Maybe a little better. Stomachs settled at least."

"You should have let us send for the healer."

Krystina shook her head. "I’ve survived a lot worse. Besides Delia’s short handed. And, with all the extra work I sent her, the ones she’s got are full. I’ll be alright."

Hands on her hips Andrea scowled and scolded. "You better be. Honestly Krystina, the way you don’t take care of yourself is a sin."

"Oh, and what sin is that?"

"You’re willfully abusing the goddess’s property, meaning your own carcass, by failing to properly care for it."

Krystina tensed and her face reddened. Andrea braced herself for the retort but it never came. A moment later the fire left Krystina’s eyes. "That hurt, Andrea."

"The truth often does. I know it’s been rough on you, but that was a bad situation all round. And it’s not just the whipped women that need to heal "

"I keep telling myself there weren’t any good choices. And that we did what we had to do, but it doesn’t help much."

"There weren’t really. Does it help that Xena’s willing to have us work on her soul?"

"The gods know she needs it. I think the biggest thing is that she knows it too. And that this isn’t just a game to get her off. Strangely enough, one of my biggest regrets is Ildiko."

Andrea’s mouth dropped open. "She was trying to get you hung."

"I know. And we had to break her, but to hear her damned like that. And to know that if she came to the gate right now and begged forgiveness, we wouldn’t be allowed to help her."

Andrea took her shoulder. "No. But if she does have a change of heart, we could always ask the goddess for permission. Come on, Let’s walk a bit."

Krystina walked into a small garden. A walkway of flat paving stones led to the heart of the garden, a stone ringed circle of packed earth, thirteen cubits across, with a stone fire ring at it’s center. The border stones defined the sacred space, and were marked at intervals of three cubits to represent the 13 moons of the lunar cycle. At the east and west corners, stood stone altars flanked by tall torches. Wooden benches sat just outside the packed dirt circle. There were many areas of ritual within the large temple enclosure, but this small garden, shielded by it’s thick curtain of greenery was reserved for the priestesses, and their special guests.

Stepping at the edge of the circle, the priestesses bowed to the west, east and finally the center. The ritual greeting having been given, Krystina told her assistant. "I want to invite Eponin out here, for a moon ritual."

"Fine with me, but out of curiosity, why?"

"Ephiny’s situation is tearing her apart, partly because of what she tried to do, partly because of what she really is. Getting the nations problems dropped on her at the same time isn’t helping matters any. What I want to do, is offer her a few days sanctuary to pull herself together, and I think now’s as good a time to do it as any."

Andrea knelt beside the fire pit, and began building a small pyramid of kindling. "Sounds worth a try. Do you think she’ll take it?"

Krystina set down an armload of wood, "I hope so, but I won’t push it."

Andrea stood up, "at least she’ll know she’s welcome, and when she’s ready, she’ll come."

Both women went for fresh arm loads of wood. Andrea volunteered, "Krystina, I’m thinking, maybe we should invite your friend Hecuba too."

"No problem. In fact I was thinking of doing it myself. But I am curious as to why you want to?"

Shifting her load as she walked Andrea considered her answer. "Call it a gut feeling. She’s lost her husband, daughter and granddaughter. Being dragged out of her home on a moments notice couldn’t be easy. And with everything that’s happened since she’s been here. It’s wonder the poor woman isn’t babbling in a cell like Queen Ephiny."

"She’s a lot stronger than you’d think, but you’re right, she needs time to mourn."

As they set down their loads, Andrea offered, "I think we’re going to have to do some serious soul work with her too."

"I’ve already suspected that, but what makes you think so?"

Andrea began stacking wood, "She was paying a lot of attention when we were talking about soul sickness the other night in the guardroom."

"I’d hope everyone was."

Looking away for a moment Andrea considered her words. "I think they were but with Hecuba it was different. Her eyes were intense, almost like she was in pain. And she seemed to be hanging on every word. I don’t know if you could see her hands, but she kept rubbing them against each other. And if you ask me she was looking like she was ready to cry. I wanted to talk to her after the meeting, but she disappeared too quickly."

Krystina knelt beside her. "Then you noticed it too. And I’m not surprised she took off afterwards. She’s no fonder of jails than I am. Tell me, what do you think she needs?"

"I’m sure the first thing she needs is time to mourn. I think there’s more, but until she does that, I don’t think it’s possible to know what that is."

"I’m suspect you’re right." Krystina thought for a moment, "I’ve told you about my mother’s friend Rachael."

"Wasn’t she the one that taught you to speak Aramaic."

Krystina smiled at the memory, "Yes, she also taught me something of her peoples beliefs. A lot of them seemed harsh, but one of their mourning rituals made sense to me."

"What do they do?"

"She told me, the family gathers together for a quarter moon after the funeral. Friends make sure they’re fed and cared for, so they’re not distracted from their grief, while they spend their days in prayer and meditation."

Nodding Andrea remembered. "Like you did for me when I lost my mother."

"Yes, I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but as I said, it made sense to me."

"It took a long time, to really be at peace with her loss, but those few days made a real difference." She blinked back a tear, "She was sick for so long, I fooled myself into thinking I’d be ready. I held her hand while the healers gave her the nights bane, but when she breathed her last, the whole world came crashing in."

Krystina remembered her own mother, dying of infection on the cold stone floor of a fetid prison cell. Still kneeling on the packed earth she took Andrea in her arms, "no one is truly ready Andrea, no matter how much of a mercy it is.


Later Krystina would talk to Eponin. "I was wondering what your plans were for Cyrene and Hecuba now that the trials are over?"

"Delia asked me the same thing, and to be honest I’m not sure what to do with them. So I was kind of letting them find their own niche."

"Have you told them that?"

"No, and it’s time I did."

"I agree. And it’s time you put them on a regular schedule. Granted you did rate them as archers, and they are getting weapons refresher. But if they’re going to be here over time, they’ll need some kind of regular duty."

"I know."

Eponin took a flask from the shelf. "It’s good port. Have some?" Pouring two mugs she set one in front of Krystina. Sitting across from her she cradled the mug in her hands. After staring into it for a moment she went on. "You’re right, they will need some kind of regular duty. I know Cyrene’s been helping out in the food hut. I was going over supply problems with Phoebe yesterday. She tells me Cyrene’s been a real god’s send." She took a sip of the fiery wine. "But that’s part of the problem. She really is a god’s send, and part of me feels like we kidnaped them."

"We didn’t, really."

"I know that, but what would you have done in their place. A pair of goddesses show up, unannounced and ask them to do something. Could they really have refused?"

Krystina stared into her mug. "I don’t know. But I do know that neither of them tried. Fact remains, however they got here, they’re here now. But since you said that was part of the problem, what’s the rest of it?"

Eponin sighed. "A lot of it’s who they are."

"I don’t understand?"

Eponin took a long swallow of her wine. "Cyrene’s Hade’s girlfriend, and a living legend to boot."

"So, Xena’s their daughter. And that didn’t stop us from putting her on trial for her life, or whipping her half to death afterwards."

"Good point."

Krystina nodded. "Thank you. What’s the problem with Hecuba?"

"Being royalty, she’s got a better claim to this mask than I do."

"And my guess is she’d like it even less "

"If that’s possible. But how am I supposed to put her on some menial duty."

Setting her mug on the table Krystina sighed. "Whatever else Cyrene and Hecuba are, they’re grown women. They’re used to hard work and pulling their own weight. Waiting for the trials to end before putting them to work made sense. But they’re over now, so the time has come. Being an innkeeper, Cyrene is used to being up early, baking and planning meals in quantity. That make’s her ideal to work with Phoebe who, as you said, considers her a gods send. And I’m not surprised that Hecuba’s been helping out in the stables."

"I can’t leave her there."

"And why not?"

"She’s royalty, for Gaia’s sake."

"So what? She’s loved working with animals all her life. Better than she does most people if the truth is told. As I remember she used to be a good milker. And she enjoyed it, which is more than I ever did. I think farming just came natural to her."

Eponin shook her head. "Better her than me. The mares and she asses were alright, but you can milk them to the side. You got to get behind a goat, but the darned things kick straight kick, and the ewes were the worse of the lot."

Krystina suppressed a smile. "I remember a particularly nasty one kept trying to bite me. But I got my revenge when she dried up. Let me tell you, she was delicious."

"Tempting thought, but we still need wool and cheese. How are they getting along otherwise?"

"It’s been rough on both of them. Which isn’t too surprising considering what they walked into. But it’s more than the trials. Cyrene knew the life her daughter was leading, and faced the likely consequences of it a long time ago. She told me before the whipping that, all things considered, this was the best outcome she could have dared hope for."

Eponin nodded. "A lot of places, Xena’d have been strung up without a trial, or a quick pretense of one at best. And before Artemis intervened we were on our way to doing that here."

"I know. And Ephiny’s still upset because her judgement was overruled. But when we pointed out that as one of the victims she’d have had to excuse herself from a jury trial anyway she seemed to accept it. Yesterday she told us she feels cheated because she wasn’t allowed to testify against Xena, or be there for the whipping."

"Does she hate her that much?"

"I doubt she hates her at all. She doesn’t know about the temple meetings, or the full extent of Artemis’s involvement, but she does think Xena got off too lightly, considering her crimes. She told us that she’d planned to have her executed to bring the whole mess to a close. And that she doesn’t think this will do it."

"Do you?"

Krystina shook her head, "I wish I knew. We’ll find out when Xena gets out of jail. My guess is that most everybody will take their lead from Gabrielle’s mother."

Eponin asked, "How’s she doing?"

Krystina debated how to answer. As a friend she was concerned but, how much had Hecuba told her as a friend, and how much as a priestess? "She needs closure and spiritual guidance. This whole mess is tearing her apart. She’s trying to be brave, but she’s a grieving mother without time to grieve."

"What’s more, getting dragged out of life, and having to face facts hasn’t been easy on either of them. They’ve been supporting each other, and now that the trials and the whipping are over, I think Cyrene will be alright. Andrea and I were talking about inviting Hecuba to spend some time at the temple. Nothing’s definite, and we haven’t talked to her yet, but if she’s agreeable the rituals we have in mind would take half a moon. And I wanted to make sure you could spare her that long?"

Setting down her mug, Eponin looked at Krystina’s grim expression over her tented hands. "Sounds serious?"

"I think so. (Sighs) I really can’t go into the details, but she’s hurting. And I think what we’ve got in mind would do her a lot of good."

"Then I can spare her. We can talk about duty assignments when you’re done with her."

"I appreciate that, but I think it would be better if we did that now. Hecuba’s a link to my own past, and a lot of what haunts her haunts me as well. You’ve never been hunted, or had a price on your head. Pray the gods you never do. But whether we can prove it or not, I’m sure Raisa was a bounty hunter. And equally sure that Ildiko was working with her."

"You’ve mentioned that before, and I suspect you’re right. But why?’

Krystina’s voice turned grim. "I can give you five thousand reasons."

"That the reward?"

"Dead or alive, and there’s the same on Hecuba. But anybody that wants it is going to have to work for it, because there’s no way they’re taking either of us alive."

"Anybody sends a posse after you better make it a big one, because they’re not taking you without taking all of us first."

Despite her efforts to hold them back, tears flowed from Krystina’s eyes. "I appreciate that Eponin, I really do. But I’m not that important. The nation is, don’t risk it to save me."

"Well you must be important to them or they’d have forgotten about you after all this time. And since they haven’t, what makes you think they’d stop at you. Suppose they want to punish the nation for harboring you, should I let them?"

"That’s different."

"The Tartarus it is. Krystina, you’re a part of this nation. And nobody is dragging you out of here without a fight. Nobody. The same goes for Hecuba, Xena or anybody else with a price on her head."

"Any idea what happened to Ildiko?"

"I wish I did. Her people are asking questions. I’ve had trackers out, but there’s been no sign of her between here and the border."

"Sounds ominous. You say she left everything behind?"

"Everything, her pack, weapons, even her boots. You’re right, it’s ominous. Especially since none of the horses are missing, and not even the dogs could find her."

Krystina paled. "she clashed with Artemis the day before she disappeared. You don’t suppose?"

"I don’t know what to think. But considering what all’s been going on lately, I wouldn’t bet against it. Velasca has an interest in her too. And I sure wouldn’t want to be in her boots if she has her."

Krystina shuddered at the thought. "Neither would I." She sat silently for a moment. "I’ve never been terribly fond of Ildiko. She can be a real pain in the pooper sometimes. But I don’t want to believe that a member of the council would betray me to bounty hunters. And it had to be for the money, because what did I ever do to her?"

Eponin raised her hands in question. "Who knows? But in thinking back, I’m not so sure she was involved with Raisa. Did she know about your past before the trial started?"

"Not from me? What are you getting at?"

"Raisa didn’t show up, or at least nobody remembers seeing her, until after the trial started. And if Ildiko didn’t know about your past before then, it doesn’t make sense they’d be working together. And even if they were, I doubt you were the main target."

"No, that was pretty clearly Xena. But the fact remains she’d gotten into the sealed archive and to Ephiny in those couple of days. So she had to be working with someone. And much as I hate to admit it, you were probably right when you said there had to be at least one priestess involved."

"How much do they know?"

"Some of our rituals are done naked so they’ve all seen my scars. But I’ve never used my real name, or told anyone where I’m from. So unless they can read the brand they’d be hard pressed to figure it out."

Eponin thought grimly, *That or one of them’s an oracle. She doesn’t need to think about that right now.*

Krystina interrupted her thoughts with an even grimmer scenario. "But that’s not the scariest part. If I had to guess what happened with Ildiko, I’d bet that either Velasca or Artemis took her somewhere. I traveled with Artemis and Celesta to bring Hecuba and Cyrene here. It was strange, like I was flying, swimming through the air maybe, but I wasn’t scared. And it was good to see them again, even under the circumstances. But after Raisa showed up, I realized that Velasca could deliver me to the hangman the same way any time she wants to. I’ve had nightmares off and on for a long time. But they’ve gotten a lot worse since then."

"Sounds pretty bad."

"They’re horrible, and so real I don’t even want to close my eyes. Last night it started when the guards walked into my cell. They didn’t even give me a chance to cooperate. They just grabbed me threw me face down on the bunk, ripped my shift off, and took turns raping me. At that point everything went into slow motion. They tied my hands behind my back, and spent a short eternity dragging me from my cell to the gallows, all the while being jeered and pelted with garbage. They put a rough hempen rope around my neck. Did you know it makes a tiny squeak when they snug it down behind your ear? I heard the hangman’s voice telling the magistrate he’d shortened the drop so I’d last longer and give them a better show. They must have been hoping I’d beg for mercy, because they got disgusted with me when I didn’t. Then came that awful moment when the floor dropped out from under me. I was conscious when I hit the end of the rope and it was sheer agony. My neck felt like it was being ripped out of my body. My heart raced, my head pounded like the worse hangover you could imagine. Finally the darkness settled over me. I woke up clutching my throat, unable to breathe, not knowing if I was dead or alive."

Eponin shuddered, "Good Gods, Krystina. How often do you have nightmares like that?"

"They aren’t all the same, but I’ve had something equally awful practically every night since Xena’s trial started. It’s gotten so bad I almost wish they’d do it and get it over with."

"The gods forbid." Eponin pulled the now sobbing priestess to her. "Is Hecuba having dreams like that?"


"If there’s anyway we can help."

"I’ll let you know. And Eponin, -" A moment’s hesitation, later "Thank you."



Phoebe led Cyrene to a heavy wooden door set in the built up mouth of a cave. "I’m glad they made it official. There’s a few things I’ve been wanting to show you." She swung the door open, "like these, the cheese cellars."

Stepping inside, Cyrene looked over the heavily laden shelves and tables. Stopping for a long deep breath she savored the aroma. "I’ve always liked the smell of aging cheese."

Examining a large egg shaped cheese Phoebe asked, "got a favorite?"

Cyrene smiled. "Lots of them, but I like what a good xinomyzithra, like that one can do for the taste of food. But manouri with fresh fruit, warm bread, and honey is probably my favorite breakfast."

Smiling, Phoebe pointed towards a table of creamy white rounds, "one of mine too. And I’ve got some over here needs checking. I’m not sure it’s fit for table and could use a real experts opinion."

Stepping to the table, Cyrene laid her fingers atop one of the cheeses, and pressed her thumb lightly in to the side. It’s surface felt smooth, and yielded to the pressure. She scowled, "I don’t know, Phoebe. This one’s pale and has a smooth slick feel to it. And it’s soft with a sweet smell, almost like citrus.".

Thinking, *sounds like we got us a good one.* Phoebe pulled a small knife from her belt and said, "sounds serious." Her eyes twinkled as she cut two pieces and handed one to Cyrene. "But you realize, of course, that there’s only one way to be sure."

Phoebe settled onto a low three legged stool. "These are good caves, cool, dry, and we’ve been lucky enough to keep the vermin out. We got two cycles worth of provisions stored, mostly in cellars or caves like this. We’ll get through one bad harvest, two we’d be stretching things but we’d make it. After that, we’re in trouble."

Cyrene nodded, "that would have to make you feel secure. And even a bad harvest would help stretch things."

"Nobody is going to starve. Mostly because we’ve had good crops." She raised her eyes and hand in a gesture of thanks. "And because we had extra I’ve been trying different ways to preserve food."

Interested, Cyrene leaned forward. "Had any luck?"

Phoebe nodded, "I sure have. I’ve tried smoking some of the cheeses because I noticed that the drier ones keep better."

"Just like meat and fruit."

"Yep. And I got a recipe for cheese made with warm milk. It was good, and it kept better than some of the others, so I tried it with graviera and kaseri. Doesn’t change the flavor of the cheese, but it keeps quite a bit longer."

"Interesting, how hot do you have to get it?"

"About like you would really hot bath water."

Cyrene blew out a long low breath. "Might add a little work, but if it keeps that much better it’d be worth it."

" It is. Cyrene, I’ve got graviera, and kaseri that’s three and four cycles old. Heating the milk cut spoilage by at least half, even in softer cheeses like this manouri. Dipping it in warm brine helps too. Don’t ask me why cause I don’t know. I wish I did. All I know is it works. And when it comes right down to it, that’s all I need to know."

Finishing the cheese, Cyrene licked her fingers. "It’s probably fit for the table. But I’m not sure."

Phoebe scowled, "Oh?"

"Kind of hard to tell on just one sample."

The scowl disappeared as Phoebe’s laugh echoed through the cave, "you got a point." Drawing her knife she passed it to Cyrene. "Why don’t you get us each another one?"

Finishing her second piece of the soft white cheese Phoebe leaned forward. "Cyrene, they tell me you were some kind of heroine when you were younger."

"I never felt like one."

"The real ones never do. The reason I bring it up is that a couple of the younger ones think it’s demeaning for you to be working with me. Some nonsense about you being a warrior and cooking being women’s work. And well, you know about me?"

Cyrene’s eyes flashed. "Woman’s work? I was born a woman. And woman’s work, men’s work, whatever it’s all work that needs doing. And I don’t feel in the least bit demeaned by it. Tell me, do these troublemakers like to eat?"

"They sure do."

"Good. Tell them for me, to either keep their opinions to themselves or start taking their meals elsewhere."

"I already did, that and a few other things you’re probably too much of a lady to say."

"Don’t bet on it. They want to say it to my face and I’ll crack their heads for them."

Phoebe patted the air with both hands. "Down girl. I’m on your side, remember?"

"I know. And thanks for setting them straight. At home I’m an innkeeper, so this is something I know how to do. I keep a respectable place, serve good meals and ale at fair prices. I also do laundry, scrub floors and clean chamberpots. And so what? It’s all part of keeping an inn. I make a decent living, pay my staff well, and I’m not beholden to nobody."

"You happy doing it?"

"Yes, I am."

"Then that’s all that counts."


Cyrene went to the jail late that afternoon and was glad to see Xena on the mend. While still obviously in pain, she was wearing her shift, and her color was better. Xena told her. "It doesn’t hurt so much to use my arms, It’ll take time but I’ll be alright."

Cyrene turned her eyes skyward, "Thank the gods for good healers."

"How are you getting along, mother? Anyone bothering you because of me?"

Cyrene sighed. "No, and it would be my problem if they, did so don’t you go worrying about it. Besides, I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself."

"Just don’t get yourself tossed in here doing it. As an inn it’s got rotten rooms, the service stinks and the food leaves something to be desired."

"What’s wrong with the food?"

"It’s boring, and usually cold by the time we get it."

Cyrene looked around the cell. "I helped build this jail, Xena. And we never intended it to be an inn. Never figured my own daughter to wind up in it either."

"There a back door anywhere?"

"Sorry, but we forgot to put one in."


Cyrene sat down. "I told you that I’ve been helping out in the kitchens since I got here. Her majesty finally got around to making it official."

"You should be right to home there."

"Like I told her majesty, it’s something I understand. I was having trouble sleeping the first night, and wandered into the food hut. Phoebe and I hit it off right away. Between helping her with the baking and breakfast, combat refresher training in the afternoon, I finally feel like I’m earning my keep."

Xena went quiet for a few moments. "Phoebe’s a strange one, but I think Delia’s sweet on her."

"So she was telling me. Delia was telling me the two of you are a lot alike. Quiet, but smart as a whip and she says you both have a wicked sense of humor."

Startled, Xena looked up, "Me, a sense of humor? And Phoebe, the original grim faced sourpuss? I’ve never seen her smile, let alone laugh?"

Cyrene smiled. "You forget who you’re talking to, little one. You had a nice laugh as a little girl."

"Hasn’t been much to laugh about since."

Cyrene’s smile disappeared. "No, I don’t suppose there has. Or maybe you just haven’t dropped your guard enough to see it. And that, little one, is one more thing you need to change."

Laying on her bunk after her mother left, Xena remembered meeting Phoebe, and her discussion with Delia about her later that evening.

Delia had told her. "Everybody knows Phoebe, but damn few understand her. She’s quiet, minds her own business, most people never give her a second glance. She talks funny, and a lot of people don’t think she’s very smart because of it. Well, Xena, they’re wrong. Anybody that can manage a kitchen big enough to feed hundreds of women at a time isn’t dumb. She’s got a real head for figures. If you ask her how much salt, barley, dried meat, oil we’ve got, she’ll tell you to the tenth part of a stone. And she’s got a plan in her head for how she’s going to make it go till the next harvest, with reserve for special parties and the like. Fresh game comes in, more people, she’ll have it or them taken into account in no time.

When you figure every woman means a thousand meals over the course of a cycle, you better have someone in charge of planning them that knows what they’re doing. Figure it takes a stone and a half of dried oats or barley, to feed one woman a hearty bowl of porridge every morning for a cycle. If you figure twice that for bread you’re going to need a bushel of grain per woman, or two and a third hectares of good grain just for bread and breakfast. Add a seed crop, poultry feed, fodder for the horses, losses to mice, and you’d better plant double that. Oh and leave us not forget pastries and the all important making of ale. Takes a lot of work to grow that much grain, let alone get it from the field to the oven. And it’s got to be guarded against wandering bands of two legged vermin that would rather steal their bread than do an honest days work."

Xena cringed at this last, remembering countless villages plundered, left with barely enough to survive, while her armies lived high on the fruits of their labor. "Most people don’t think of Amazons as farmers."

"They’d be surprised. The warrior squads rotate in the fields with their weapons. Helps keep them fit. We’ve got a dozen hectares in barley alone. We also plant wheat, oats and millet. And we raise onions and garlic in the muck lands. One of our outposts is on the coast. They’re out in the boats every day, looking for mackerel, squid, or whatever else Poseidon is serving that day. Most of the catch is dried, salted and packed for shipment to the other villages. We send back grain, dried meat, olives. To the north and east we’ve got mines for copper, tin and iron. When we take male prisoners we put them to work there. If they try to escape they’ve got to cross the entire territory to get anywhere. Some have tried, but none have ever made it."

"Ever have problems, male prisoners being guarded by women?"

"Not like you mean."

"How do you avoid it?"

"Simple, we geld them, works on men just like it does on horses. And, since most can’t keep a civil tongue in their heads, we cut that out too."

"You gals play rough."

"You could say that, but we only do that to men that have invaded our lands. If one strays across the border, we usually just escort them back to it."

"Interesting" Xena thought, *so what was Joxer doing here, just in time to get in good with the Amazons by trying to save Gabrielle. And, so he could tell me all about it later, after she died.* Another thought hit her, *he was there in Illusia too.* For a moment she thought, *probably some trick of Ares. But later both of them had been at the Halls of War. What in Tartarus?*

The thought had plagued her and thinking about it later, Xena realized it made less sense than before. *I know he was in love with Gabrielle, but -* She started thinking of all the unlikely places the good hearted wanna be had shown up. He just happened to be there when she and Callisto switched bodies? Likewise at the palace, where they met Diana and Meg? Smiling she remembered the Temple of Aphrodite, the antics of Attus the Ape man, and the enchanted scrolls. The smile disappeared with the memory of Baccae forest, and later the incident with two con men that had nearly cost him his life. Finally came the tears as she remembered that horrible moment at the Halls of War. He’d even been at Gabrielle’s wedding, and on that never ending day. *We didn’t even run into Ares that much.*

Joxer was mortal, of that she had no doubt. But she realized there was at least one God involved in all of these. She started comparing the gods, and their possible motivations. Ares, of course, wanted Xena and Gabrielle separated. He had freed Callisto, and trapped Gabrielle into that unholy bargain at the sister peaks. And he had been heavily involved in the events both in the Amazon village and Illusia. Joxer might have prayed to him. She could just picture the deal Ares would have offered. Lure Gabrielle away from Xena, and he’d make him a great warrior. Mnemosyne was only involved once. Counting the incident with Baby Bliss, Cupid was involved at least four times, as was Hestia.

Finally it hit her, the one goddess that showed up all over the map, Aphrodite. Weddings, the enchanted scroll, Attus, Aphrodite was there. And where had grandma been, when baby Bliss had gotten hold of daddy’s bow, and just happened to show up right where Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer were. Xena shook her head as she remembered the accidental love triangle that had resulted from Cupid’s misfired arrows. And started wondering just how accidental those shots had been. A love sick warrior waiting to pick up the shattered pieces of Gabrielle’s heart after Mnemosyne wiped her memories. And again, to console her, when she and Xena split after the deaths of their children. Joxer would likely have prayed to the love Goddess for Gabrielle’s hand, as well as to Ares.

Ephiny was the love child of Aphrodite’s husband, so the love goddess might not love the Amazons who had taken her in. Or Gabrielle, who had made her regent, again over Ares daughter Velasca. She had been fated to die in childbirth during the war in Thessaly, and again during Xena’s attack on the village. Joxer had gotten a lot of points for his defense of Gabrielle that day. Declared a woman by courtesy, and an honorary member of the Amazon royal guard, he was the only male that had ever been honored in such a fashion.

Xena’s mind rebelled at the thought of Joxer in an Amazon skirt and halter. Then, with a sharp jolt, she realized that it might be an improvement over his usual collection of cast off armor. A lot of the older women wore sleeveless shirts, and the typical Amazon skirt was either a short wrap resembling a man’s kilt or a loincloth. Actually, they could do worse. When you cut past the bluster, Joxer was actually a rather decent sort. And without that ridiculous breastplate and helmet, he wasn’t that bad looking either. Shaking her head to clear it, *It’s been too long.* When the image lingered, she symbolically took herself by both ears and told herself firmly, "Don’t go there, Xena."

Still it was significant because, as Tanya had explained, the Amazons took Joxer’s honors very seriously. Because of them, he had free right of passage through Amazon lands. He was considered a suitable, even desirable father for Amazons wanting babies. "Well, there’s no accounting for taste." The honors also meant that if she chose, Gabrielle could marry Joxer, without having to abdicate.

But while Joxer had emerged the hero, Xena would be unwelcome on Amazon lands, and hunted by them, after her attack on the village and their queen. Ares had pushed her into that attack, and by his way of thinking, she would have nowhere to run except to him.

It became painfully obvious to her, that whether or not Aphrodite was part of the conspiracy, she and Ares were working together.


After supper Krystina joined Eponin as she stood near the bonfire. Together they watched as dancers leapt and whirled to the lilt of pipes and beat of drums. "Nice to see people happy for a change."

"It sure is." She watched as Niobe dragged Cyrene into the dance circle. "I haven’t seen Niobe that playful in ages."

Eponin shook her head. "What’s that they say about dignified elders?"

Krystina smiled as Cyrene caught the beat. "They’re like overgrown little girls. Life’s fun when you’re too young to know better, but it’s even more fun when you’re old enough to get away with it. "

"I’ll take your word for it."

Eponin thought for a moment. "I’m not up to dancing right now but I’ve got an idea." She turned and whispered to one of the guards, who left and returned a short time later with a small drum. Eponin braced it between her knees and tapped tentatively. "You were telling me Hecuba used to be a good dancer. She’s sitting back there by the trees. Why don’t you see if you can get her out there?"

Krystina shed her robes to reveal a brief set of leathers. Joining the circle she moved with grace twice around the fire, gesturing to Hecuba as she passed by. Seeing her move slightly closer, Krystina reached out on the third pass, grabbed Hecuba’s arms and pulled her into the circle.


On Olympus, storm clouds were brewing. Citing Baccus’s objections, Zeus postponed indefinitely the hearing he’d promised Artemis on Gabrielle’s fate. Artemis, desperate to get her out of Tartarus asked, "regardless of parentage, does anyone deny that she was born, and died an Amazon?"

Ever suspicious Zeus asked, "That is well known, what of it?"

Artemis then tried a new tactic, "Then at least let me take her to the Amazon Land of the Dead."

Baccus shook his fist, "She’s lucky to be in Tartarus and not Hell. I say she stays where she is." He started to advance on Artemis, Zeus threw a lightening bolt between them, "ENOUGH!!"

Casting a hard eye from one to the other he said, "We’re being threatened by outside forces, and you’re squabbling over who gets to punish one insignificant soul. I will hear no more of this - OUT!!"

With a wave of his hand both Baccus and Artemis disappeared. After indulging himself in a long sigh, Zeus picked up his chalice and drank slowly considering his options. Rising he went to his hall of mirrors and sent out a summons, moments later a dark haired goddess in Amazon leathers appeared. Zeus passed her a chalice of nectar saying, "Velasca, am I ever glad to see you."


The next day found things quiet in the village. Hecuba was helping out in the stables when Kayla walked in. They greeted each other warmly. The normally closed mouthed Hecuba had taken an immediate liking to the woman. That she had been raised by Krystina was evident in the way she worked. Her defense of Gabrielle sealed things. As far as Hecuba was concerned Kayla was one of the good gals.

Kayla looked from Hecuba to the pitchfork she’d set aside. "Who’d you tick off?"

Hecuba laughed, "only about half the folks between Tartarus and Olympus."

Kayla smiled, "not bad for a mornings work. Try hard enough, you can probably get the other half by suppertime."

There was a waterskin hanging on a peg. Hecuba reached for it and sat down. "I’ve always liked working with animals, and I want to earn my keep." Taking a long drink she passed the skin to Kayla. "What brings you here?"

Pointing to a middle aged bay gelding Kayla replied. "Him." Walking over she patted his neck. "He’s not mine, but I’ve always been fond of him."

The horse rubbed his nose against her, then began nuzzling the pack at her side. Kayla rubbed his forehead with obvious affection, "I wouldn’t forget you, boy." Taking an apple from her pack she held it out on her open palm. A moment later the horse was contentedly crunching away. To Hecuba she said, "he’s gentle, great with kids, And he loves apples. I call him Lucas, don’t know why but it seems to fit. You might say we adopted each other."

Hecuba came over and scratched behind his ears. "Good tempered, looks sound enough." Pulling his mouth open she checked his teeth. What is he about ten, maybe twelve."

"Eleven. You know horses pretty well."

"Thanks. Comes from being a farmer."

Kayla picked up a rough brush and began working on the horses golden flanks. "He likes being brushed. I braided his mane once, I thought it looked nice but he wasn’t too thrilled about it."

"Maybe if he were a mare."

"Maybe. You ride?"


"If you need a horse he’s easy to handle. A gentle touch on the reins is plenty, it’s almost like he knows what you’re thinking. And don’t let his age fool you. He can run like the wind, and he loves doing it."

"I’ll keep that in mind."

Kayla finished grooming the horse. Then, turning him loose in the pasture, she helped clean the rest of the barn. Hecuba turned to her, "comfortable as you are with animals, maybe I should take you with me when I go home."

"Thanks, but I’ve already got a job. And you’ve got a home here if you decide to stay."

Suddenly Hecuba started to cry. Unsure what was wrong, Kayla sat on a bench and pulled the older woman to her.

That night after supper Kayla knocked on her door. "A couple of friends and I are headed over to the hot springs, thought you might like to come with us."

Startled Hecuba looked up. "Thank you but, I’m old enough to be your mother. You’d probably have a lot better time without me."

Folding her arms Kayla shook her head, "We’re not planning an orgy, and since we’re all grown women, what’s age got to do with if we were?"

Hecuba blushed. "You’d be awfully disappointed."

Kayla smiled, "somehow I don’t think so. But no, we just plan to soak some tired muscles. You might want to bring a blanket because we usually lay around and talk a while afterwards. Now are you coming peaceable like, or are we going to have to resort to begging and bribery?"

Hecuba began laughing, "how much are you offering?"

Kayla’s face became a mask, "well, we did manage to coax some treats out of the kitchen. I’m not sure we could eat them all by ourselves?"

"The way to a woman’s heart." Still laughing, Hecuba stood up. "Alright, if you’re sure you want me?"

"Wouldn’t invite you if we weren’t."

"I’d hope not. Just let me get a blanket."

The next day, Hecuba would tell Krystina. "It was a wonderful evening. And the best part was they treated me like one of the girls, rather than royalty. They asked me what you were like before you became a priestess."

"What’d you tell them?"

"The truth of course."

Krystina gasped, "You didn’t - not about?"

Hecuba smiled, "now would I do a thing like that?"

"You’re looking for a lifetime of hard temple penance if you do."

"Does that mean I get to scrub your floors and do your laundry?"

"It sure does."

"Sounds a lot like being married, but without any of the good parts."

"There are good parts?"

"I miss Herodotus. And when I saw how some of the other men treated their wives, I knew just how special he was. He never raised his voice to me, let alone hit me. It wasn’t easy for me to bed him after Lila was born, the scars, and you know." Tears filled Hecuba’s eyes. "I tried, but -"

Reaching out Krystina took her hand. A few moments later Hecuba swallowed hard. "He never pushed me, and he never complained. I felt like a failure, and told him once I wouldn’t blame him if he saw another woman. He got really upset with me over that. Told me that if he’d wanted another woman, he’d have married one. And that if I couldn’t see that I meant a lot more to him than a quick tumble..." She began sobbing. "He never once hit me, but right then he was mad enough, I thought he might. But what he did was start crying. And through the tears he offered to bring me and the girls back here. And then I started crying too."

"I’d hurt him badly. He told me he wanted a wife to share a life with, not a slave to do his bidding, or a concubine to share his bed. I wanted to give him a son, but the healers had warned him he’d probably lose me if I got pregnant again. He said, yes he’d like a son, but that he wasn’t willing to risk my life for one. And that if keeping me alive meant he had to live without sex he was willing to do it."

Pulling away, Hecuba dried her tears. "It was a painful discussion, but I’m glad we had it. A lot of men would have simply taken what they wanted, and not cared how I felt. Or if I died in childbirth so long as they got their son. But Herodotus did care. He asked me if I knew how special it made him feel, that I’d left my world for him. I told him he should have been born a woman. That way we could have had the best of both worlds." Her face reddened slightly. "Later I asked him if he’d known any men who took male lovers while he was in the militia. He was embarrassed to tell me how they did it. But I made him glad he did. And he asked if I knew how women pleasured each other. (Smiles) When I told him, he asked if I’d like him to try pleasuring me that way. It was awkward for both of us at first, but because we both cared how the other felt, we were able to work things out so we both won."

"And that was the kind of man he was. He could be tough as boot leather when he had to be. But he never treated me as a possession, and he wasn’t afraid to show kindness or compassion. And he appreciated it in return. He told me once that he knew the only place I’d really be safe was in an Amazon village. And that if anything happened to him, I should sell the farm, pack up the girls and come here.

I wasn’t sure what to do when he died. We’d never told the girls about my past. I wasn’t sure I wanted to face telling them. With Gabrielle being queen, coming here meant I’d have to tell her at least, and I didn’t want to do that here. I tried to contact her, but apparently my messages didn’t get through." She broke into tears, "and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had."

That night Krystina smiled inwardly as several of the royal guards dragged Hecuba into the dance circle. She was pleased to see that Hecuba had left the sleeveless shirt she’d given her in her hut and wore a brief halter top reminiscent of her younger days. She knew that for Hecuba to let the women see her scars was a sign of trust, and that she was starting to settle in.

In contrast to the dark leather covering Hecuba’s breasts, several of the younger women had shed their tops, and were dancing suggestively around her. It brought back memories of another day and time.

It was the celebration of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. In the firelight they had danced under the full moon, dressed to honor the goddess and the game she had provided for their table. She and Hecuba had made their regalia’s together. Their soft buckskin loincloths and halters had been barely big enough to preserve their modesty. Wide belts of elk hide supported fringed sheaths, in them antler hilted hunting knives, solstice gifts from Krystina’s mother..

But while Krystina had made the leather goods, their necklaces had been Hecuba’s special project. She had taken the claws and fangs of a large bear they’d brought down while hunting with Krystina’s mother. Fashioning beads of wood and bone she combined them into necklaces, whose pendants, large stone arrowheads chipped by Krystina’s mother hung just above their breasts. The effect was savage and beautiful. Krystina and her mother had claws, while Hecuba having made the killing shot had made her own necklace of the fangs. It had been a good hunt and a good memory.

And the necklaces weren’t all. Krystina’s mother had given them each a special present that night, a pair of anklets, strung with small beads and the hoof caps of deer that jingled as they danced. Delighted, Krystina and Hecuba had expressed their appreciation with thanks and hugs. Then, as the drums grew louder, they danced in savage abandon to the glory of the great goddess, and the delight of all who saw them.

Again Krystina smiled, these were good memories, and as the firelight reflected off Hecuba’s skin came others that shortened her breath, and brought a warm familiar dampness between her legs.

Standing beside her Delia smiled thinking, * Krystina. I don’t know what happened that she got married and you joined the temple, but you were clearly made for each other. And one way or the other, we’ve got to convince that woman to stay. Because since she’s been here, you look more alive than I’ve seen you in a long time.*


Velasca watched appreciatively as the ribbon clad figures whirled in the wild dance of the Furies. Her teeth flashed an evil smile, as she sat on her fathers throne and considered the proposition she would put to them. It would be irresistible.

The dance over Alecto approached, saying in a stern voice. "Velasca, daughter of Ares, by what right do you call yourself the Goddess of Chaos. I see nothing but a spoiled little girl sitting on her fathers throne, playing at being important. Take care lest I turn you across my knee."

Velasca fumed at the insult. "And I see nothing but a half naked harlot looking for trouble standing before me."

The other Furies closed ranks with their sister. "We came in response to your beseechment. I see no offering, and hear only insults. Now speak your peace, and be quick about it."

Rising to her feet Velasca threw a fireball at the immortal’s feet. "I made no beseechment. I invited you here to talk as equals, about a matter that could benefit both of us. Take care lest I lose my patience and take my proposition elsewhere."

"What could you possibly have that would interest us?"

"The full force and fury of the Amazon nation. Fighting women, the greatest force of kick ass avengers the world has ever seen. Now shall we talk?"

Alecto looked to her sisters, "Well, since we’re already here, we might as well hear her out."

Both agreed.. "It’s only manners. And it might be amusing."

"Besides, what have we got to lose?"


Alecto folded her arms across her more than ample chest. "Let me get this straight. You’re asking us to soften up the Amazons so you can challenge Artemis as their patron goddess? Do I have that right?"

"Not exactly. I want you to drive her [Artemis] as insane as that so called regent of theirs."


Velasca growled. "The name Amazon used to inspire fear in our enemies. Now, instead of smiting our enemies, we’ve got peace treaties with them. And a crazy queen that’s a Centaur princess besides. Her so called regent can’t even handle a simple trial without Artemis holding her hand. Maybe that’s why we’ve got crime victims that make friends with their attackers instead of taking vengeance on them. Even testify on their behalf when one of the crimes being tried was an assault on them."

"Xena’s trial?"


"We were watching. Sickening, wasn’t it?"

Receiving a nod of approval from each of her sisters Alecto went on. "Having an army at our disposal might prove interesting. But, win or lose, what you’re suggesting could bring the whole pantheon down on our necks. And with you being your father’s daughter and all, how can we be sure you’d keep your word?"

"Are you saying I wouldn’t?"

"Not unless it suited your own purposes."

Another spoke up. "Your followers tried to force the issue, and wound up swearing allegiance to Artemis instead."

"She can have them."

"They caused that chosen of your’s to disappear. What have you done about that?"

"I’m working on it." Velasca replied angrily. "She was paying homage to you by trying to avenge crimes that the court wouldn’t. And they’re punishing her because of it. So why aren’t you doing something about it?"

Alecto looked to the others. "She’s got a point."


Later in their own temple, Tisiphone, avenger of murder, would remark flatly. "I don’t trust her. And what need have we of an army anyway?"

The ever angry Alecto agreed. "We needed to hear her out, but that one is bad news. She won’t stop at Artemis. And if she decides to take on the pantheon, well you remember what happened the last time?"

Megaera, the jealous one, shook her head. "I think we’d better have a talk with the Moirae."

Alecto turned suddenly. "Why them?"

"That nincompoop started as a demigoddess, kills her way into being the Amazon queen and now she wants to be their goddess as well. And if we help her replace Artemis we’d be giving her the forests and the hunt as well. And don’t forget that it would give her the right to judge souls."

Folding her arms, Tisiphone scowled. "And if that’s not enough, the sight of that nincompoop sitting on the throne of war should be enough to scare anyone. But she’s got Zeus wrapped around her finger, leading him on by his codpiece no doubt, so it’s an even bet she’s after Hera’s position as well."


Krystina looked over the small group of acolytes. "One of the most sacred duties of a priestess is to administer the sacrament of penance. And there are a lot of misconceptions about it. The first thing you need to know is what it does and doesn’t do. Temple penance helps the sinner obtain pardon for the eternal punishment for their sins. It does not excuse any civil penalty for which they might also be liable. And keep in mind that the spiritual pardon does not come from you. The goddess grants us the privilege of acting as her agents when we take our final vows. And whether we grant a woman forgiveness for her sins, or when we deny her absolution for good reason, we do it in the Goddess’s name."

Another thing to keep in mind is that salvation is not a commodity to be bought and sold. The size of the penitential offering need not be in proportion to the grievousness of the sins to be forgiven. And a priestess must refuse any offerings that she suspects would create hardship for the penitents family. If the offering appears too large for a penitents means, ask them about it. Do so quietly, but be direct. Tell them the goddess seeks only that which they can afford. And that she does not want what they need to live, or meet their obligations. For the same reason, lengthy penances are often served in pieces over time. A penance of a season might thus be served a quarter every moon for a cycle. The other three quarters, the penitent would go about their lives, while striving to lead a righteous one. Any questions so far?"

A young acolyte rose. She stammered timidly. "Your holiness but what happens if we assign a long penance and the person dies before they can serve it?"

Looking squarely at the young woman, Krystina said firmly. "In that case the priestess who assigned the penance will have to finish it on her behalf."

Barely suppressing panic the young woman choked out. "Thank you, your holiness." And sat down to reconsider her vocation.

Looking over the near panic stricken faces. Krystina then smiled. "How many of you are reconsidering your decision to join the temple?" None dared to admit it. Krystina asked "None of you?" Then called out. "Liars." Looking over the shocked expressions she shook her head and sighed. "I’ve been asked that same question several times by both acolytes and penitents. Now let me tell you what really happens. Any priestess who assigns an unduly harsh penance, I mean a penance seriously out of proportion to the penitent’s offenses, will serve it with her if I find out about it. In all cases, whether just or not, death ends the penitential obligations. If the penitent has been faithful in meeting them prior to their death we consider their efforts sufficient to have earned them absolution."

As priestesses, anything told you during a confession is to be kept secret under the temple seal. You may not speak of it to anyone except the penitent themselves without their permission And this does include other priestesses. In law, the temple seal is inviolate. You will keep it even if faced with torture, imprisonment or death. Even in these extremes, breaking the seal of confession, would be to damn your immortal soul."

She waited a moment, then went on to say. "There’s a problem with that last. Simply put, it’s one thing to say you’ll never talk, or that they’ll have to kill me first. It’s another thing altogether to be in the hands of skilled torturers determined to break you. I’ve been in that unfortunate position, and take my word for it no one can hold out forever. So when I listened to this same lesson as an acolyte, I asked then High Priestess Angora about that. She told us that the goddess does not expect us to do the impossible. What she would have us do is resist to the limits of our endurance. If we then break the seal, the sin will fall onto our torturer’s souls, not our’s." ---------------

When the lesson was over, Krystina dismissed the acolytes and returned to her quarters, emerging a short time later in leathers and carrying her bow. Several rather rude and un-clerical thoughts ran through her mind as she ran into Eponin’s messenger at the gate. Learning however that Eponin was on the practice field, her original destination, her spirits lifted. "I was headed in that direction anyway." She told the messenger. "Perhaps you’d walk with me?"

Later that afternoon Krystina stopped at the hospice. Over a mug of tea she asked Delia. "Has Eponin talked with you about Tanya?"

"Yes. And I think she’s reading her wrong."

"How so?"

"Well, for openers, her concerns are based on a situation that no longer exists. And I suspect that business down at the jail cured her of any death wish. She was grieving for a wife and sister in law killed the night before. And we never took into account that Ephiny’s suicide attempt had to be effecting her too. From the sound of things, despite everything else, the two of them were friends and had been for some time. Is it any wonder that she was down on life right then? Her’s was coming apart at the seams."

Setting her mug down carefully, Krystina shook her head. "It was a bad situation all around. But even so, quite a bit of good’s come out of it. Tanya’s wife and that other guardswoman, Kira I think it was, got their names cleared. Xena got a second chance, and Kayla a new job. And that’s when we first found out about Velasca’s conspiracy. The price was fiendish, but those are all good things. As for Tanya, my impression is that she’s starting to heal. And that rather than force things, we should give her the time and space to do it."

Delia sighed. "I agree. Now how do we convince Eponin of that?"

"That, I’m afraid, won’t be easy."

It proved a great deal harder than either woman expected. Eponin listened to their arguments, "You’ve both had her under observation since that happened. Delia, you had her in the hospice for half a moon, then back on details. Can you honestly tell me she doesn’t have a problem?" Seeing Delia shake her head Eponin went on. "Krystina, can you?"

Krystina sighed, "No. But I do think she’s handling it. And if, as we both suspect, her problems were rooted in that situation she was in, well. It’s not likely we’re going to wind up in a mess like that again."

"Not if I can help it." Rising to her feet Eponin faced the women. "Look, I can see your point But Tanya’s enough of a mystery I don’t think we can take anything about her for granted. Not even her age."

Delia groaned. Giving her a dirty look, Eponin went on. "I know we’ve talked about that before And that she’s not sure herself. But based on her stories she’s got to be in her mid to late thirties. Fact remains that she looks to be in her early twenties at best. Which would make those same stories impossible."

Krystina remembered how Tanya had come into their consciousness in the wake of Ephiny’s suicide attempt. Her age was the first of many mysteries that soon surfaced around the woman. Krystina had checked the record scrolls during Tanya’s recovery from the injuries she’d suffered while playing bait for a killer at the jail. What she had found came as a shock. She had told Delia and Eponin,

"The scrolls give her age as unknown, but they do say she came as an adult almost eighteen cycles ago, meaning she has to be at least thirty three."

Eponin thought about that. "Do the scrolls give an age for those two sisters came with her? They had to be about the same age."

"Afraid not."

Kayla had confirmed their findings. "I’m not sure how old she is, neither is she, but she’s older than she looks. She says there’s a problem figuring it out because the Mesopotamians use a different calendar than we do."

Eponin had relaxed slightly. "Okay, that makes sense. What’s her best guess?"

"Mid to late thirties."

Eponin shook her head. "I should age so well."

Delia had smiled. "You’re not doing all THAT badly, your majesty."

Eponin turned three shades of red then gave a mocking bow. "Thank you. And neither are you, oh wizened one." Then turning to Kayla she had asked. "No offense Kayla, but in looking at her, what you’re telling me just doesn’t seem possible."

"None taken. She does look young, all three of them did, and it bothers her sometimes when people don’t take her seriously because of it."

Delia nodded agreement.

Remembering the revelation, Krystina said. "So far everything we know about Tanya matches what she told us about having been brought to Greece by the Macedonian army after Philips war with the Persians. And that, Gods help us, was around the time I got here."

She made a quick mental note. *In fact that would put her in Queen Hypolyta’s tribe not long after Hecuba left.* Figuring quickly in her head, *Macedonian wars were about the time our old village was destroyed, so probably around five cycles.* Aloud she said. "Tanya told us she was with Queen Hypolyta’s tribe for a while. Do we have anyone else around that might have been there about the same time." Eponin looked at her. "Not that I know of. But we should be able to check that in the scrolls. Why do you ask?" Krystina thought for a moment. *How do I do this without involving Hecuba?* Aloud she said. "If we do they might remember her. And even if they don’t they might remember details that would help us verify Tanya’s story."

Eponin thought about that. "It might."

Delia looked up. "If you do they might be able to solve another mystery."

"Like what?"

"Well, to a healer’s eye, it’s pretty obvious that Tanya’s had at least one child. She denies it, and the scrolls don’t say anything it. So any children she had were before she came here."

"You sure she’s had one?"

"Yes. She’s got faded stretch marks. They’re not bad to look at, so it probably was only one, but they’re clearly from carrying a pregnancy."

Eponin’s face tightened, "Stillbirth?"

Delia shook her head.. "I doubt it. Her nipples show clear signs that she’s nursed. I’d guess she either lost a child, or had a son and gave it up. I don’t know which, but I’d bet on the son because she got pretty defensive when I brought it up."

Eponin and Krystina, both of whom had lost children, looked at each other. Krystina swallowed hard. "I had a beautiful little girl, with thick brown hair and big brown eyes. Finding her -" Losing her struggle she broke into tears. "That was half a lifetime ago, and it still hurts to talk about it. But I could never deny having her."

Eponin took the sobbing priestess in her arms,"Neither could I." Then she too burst into tears.

Leaving the grieving mothers their privacy, Delia, excused herself quietly and made tea. While it was brewing she thought darkly. *Both Eponin and Krystina would have made good mothers. But the Fates, in their infinite cruelty, denied them the chance. It’s not safe for me to have a child, and they wouldn’t let Kayla. But Tanya clearly did, and denies it. Looking at Eponin and Krystina she thought grimly. *No, can’t blame this one on the Fates. Or all of it anyway. Tanya had been part of whatever had happened to her child. Or maybe it just hurt too much to talk about.*

After a decent interval, Delia served the tea. A short time later the discussion went on and continued for a couple of candles. Delia summed it up. "She’s got a lot of grief and guilt in her. On the other hand, she’s a hard worker, with many skills, and she can think on her feet. Her language skills and reasoning ability indicate a superior intellect. Except for her temper, I’d call her council material."

Eponin shook her head, "there’s too many question marks about her. Like why don’t any of us remember her. She’s a warrior and after eighteen summers neither Sophia, Solari or I knew her? With her attitudes, you think one of us would. Why does she deny having a child? And does it seem strange to either of you that out of two squads of royal guards, twenty seven women, four of them are Mesopotamians?"

There was a hint of indignation in Delia’s voice as she replied. "What does that prove? We don’t even know where a fair number of our women come from."

"True. And it doesn’t usually matter. But consider this. According to Tanya Greek, is her third or fourth language."


"So maybe I’m deaf, but to me she doesn’t have an accent."

Krystina shook her head in disagreement. "To my mind she does. I can’t pin it down, but I’d bet a lot that she didn’t grow up speaking Greek."

Delia scowled. "But what does that prove except that her story holds water. We’ve already confirmed her language skills, and I’ll admit they’re impressive."

Eponin’s breath whistled through her teeth. "And after blending in with the trees for so long, she shows up in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills to be valuable. Sound like anyone else we know?"

Delia folded her arms. "Yeah, Raisa. But there’s a few real differences between the two."

"Such as?"

"Tanya shows up on the scrolls, Raisa didn’t. And while Tanya may be stubborn, opinionated, and at times obnoxious, I’ve seen no evidence of her having evil intent."

Eponin disagreed. "Neither have I, but the fact remains that she’s gone from being totally unknown, to having real connections and influence awfully fast. She even backed Artemis down in her own temple. And she came back from the dead."

Delia cut in. "She didn’t actually die."

Eponin shot back, "neither did Ephiny. So how do you explain the two of them meeting up with each other in Tartarus? Or that message Tanya brought back?"

"I can’t. But like I told you then, I have seen that kind of thing a few times before. It’s not common by any means, but it does happen."

Eponin threw her hands in the air. "I remember you telling us about it. And granted Tanya was close to death. But I never realized Ephiny was dying?"

"Neither did I. But then I’ve never seen a god die. Have either of you?"

Eponin lowered her hands. "But gods don’t die?"

Delia too was becoming frustrated. "They’re born, aren’t they? They grow up. So it stands to reason that at some point they die. Maybe they just live so long, and age so slowly that we don’t even notice. And for that matter how many of us have ever seen a god to notice?"

"But Ephiny’s not a god?"

Krystina jumped into the argument. "According to Artemis and Celesta, she was born one. And from what they told us about her during that first meeting at the temple, I agree with Delia, we can’t use her as a measure."

Eponin conceded Delia her point. "You’re probably right. But, whatever Ephiny may be, according to Artemis, Tanya’s as mortal as you and I are. And she’s too much of a mystery for my liking. On top of which she’s got no regard for her own safety. It may have been grief, but she clearly expressed a death wish not all that long ago. Thinking back, that plan of hers to trap those two killers at the jail was little more than a disguised suicide attempt. And I don’t want anyone that doesn’t care whether they live or die making decisions for the nation. If we can get her past that point, and clear up some of the mystery, you’re right, she’s got potential."

Talking later with Hecuba, Krystina told her of their problems with Tanya’s story.

Hecuba . "The woman does have a right to her privacy. As for her being in Queen Hypolyta’s tribe, I didn’t know her. Which isn’t too surprising since I left there twenty eight cycles ago. Or that if she really was ten or twelve when she got there, she’d have to be in her forties now for me to have even met her there. And in looking at her, that just doesn’t seem possible."

Krystina sat silently for a few moments. "Our best guess would be about thirty five, but it’s not just her age that’s at question."

"Then what are you really looking for?"

"Tanya’s kept herself below the horizon for a long time. And almost everyone that could tell us anything about her is either dead, or insane. There appears to be a solid explanation for every one of them. But, taken together, they set up a situation where she could drop out of the trees, and became invaluable almost immediately. If you ask me, that’s a lot of coincidence. And unfortunately we know a lot of it wasn’t."

Hecuba’s expression tightened. "You think someone’s been holding her in reserve." Chewing on her lip Hecuba considered the implications. "Krystina, weren’t you telling me that Artemis welcomed her into your closed meetings before Xena’s trial?"

"She did."

"Well, if Artemis trusts her, maybe we should too. Because if Tanya’s part of this Velasca’s conspiracy, and Artemis brought her into the inner circle, maybe we’d better start thinking about why."

Shuddering, Krystina cut her off. "Any possible why is too horrible to even think about."

"I know. And I’m not accusing either of them. But I am saying if you trust either of their motives, you just about have to trust the other’s. And if you can’t trust Artemis, why are you still wearing her veil?"

Krystina’s hands went to her face. "Oh, dear Goddess."


The next day Krystina put the same question to Eponin and Delia. Eponin rose indignantly. "Just one hot heartbeat there, Krystina. As I recall we were discussing Tanya, and her possible need for soul healing. Just how in Tartarus did Artemis get dragged into it?"

Sighing deeply Krystina replied. "It was Hecuba that tied it together. And she was right."

"I think you’re both wrong. I’m not questioning Tanya’s loyalty. And I’m certainly not questioning Artemis’s favor. What I am questioning are parts of Tanya’s story, and her judgement in personal matters. If you ask me, that’s a long ways from calling someone either a spy or traitor."

Settling back onto her seat, Eponin folded her hands atop the table. "I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but the way you’re arguing this, you’d think I was trying to punish Tanya. Well I’m not. All I want is for someone to spend some time with her, and help her work through some of the things we’ve talked about. Before she goes off the deep end and we lose her."


The cavern of the Moirae, better known as the Fates, lay shrouded in cloud and mystery. A fiery glow heralded the arrival of the Furies. Atropos, the inevitable, looked up from the bundle of threads she was cutting. "We saw." A wave of her hand stopped the spindles and rollers. "And it’s far worse than you suspected."

Alecto froze. "How so?"

"Come, I’ll show you."

Looking at the images in the scrying mirror. Atropos pointed out several women. "Part of Velasca’s power play is based on her claim to be Queen of the Amazons. This one, Eponin, stands in her way."

Alecto studied the image. "She’s at the top of Velasca’s list."

Yes, but killing a queen buys her little more than vengeance."

Alecto gave her a puzzled look. "Vengeance is good?" The other Furies nodded agreement.

Nodding, Atropos pointed to another image. "Vengeance is good. But within the Amazon nation, Velasca’s birthright, and claim to the throne, allow her to operate outside the pantheon’s rules with impunity. The Olympian protection for demigods would not bind her as it did her father. As queen, Velasca would count any among the Amazons, like Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny, among her subjects and could kill them at will. And, regardless of Olympian rules, or the objections of their patron goddess, she would have unfettered access to the Amazon nation, and unlimited right of influence over it’s affairs."

Threads glowed as the cherubic Clotho cast a hand over the great tapestry. "Here you see the plan as we’ve identified it. Ares has long sought dominion over the warrior women. His first plan was for one of these woman to bear him a daughter who would eventually lead it. As you see here, three had girls, two by him, one of which, Velasca, was immortal. Of the others, one could not carry a pregnancy and another died in childbirth. This one, his favorite, had a son by another and left the nation."

For Velasca’s plan to succeed the nation must break faith with Artemis, and it’s people rise up against her temple. This woman is the strongest, yet most vulnerable link in it’s armor. As another’s high priestess, Velasca doesn’t dare touch her directly, not even Zeus would let her get away with that. Her removal by mortals would not be a problem and Velasca’s followers have already tried twice "

Alecto shook her head. "What makes her so vulnerable?"

Lachesis explained Krystina’s situation. Tisiphone, avenger of murder, scowled. "What is a condemned murderess doing in a temple, let alone serving as it’s high priestess?"

"Though judged for murder, she was in reality an escaping prisoner of war. No innocents were killed, only those who either held her, or were trying to return her to captivity. As for her present position, she earned it."

Horrified by what they’d seen, the Fates and Furies sat down for a council of war. Megaera growled low, "We six are the last of the old ones that remain unchained. And I for one will not be dictated to by a half baked demigoddess with delusions of grandeur. Even if she is getting help from elsewhere."

Clotho, the cherubic appearing spinner, was in fact as old as time. "Neither shall we, but this force which feeds her is like none we’ve ever faced. What’s more, she’s intoxicated with the dark power coming to her, and she doesn’t know she’s getting it."

Alecto again looked at the cable, "we’ve tangled with Dahok before. The Titan’s had him cornered until Zeus came along and distracted them."

Clotho shook her head, "It’s more than Dahok, and they’re covering their tracks. Right now all of it’s focused on the Amazon’s and Zeus is prepared to sacrifice them to buy it off. Problem is that’s exactly what Ares had in mind regarding Dahok."

Tisiphone bristled with barely bridled rage. "Always it’s the woman that gets sacrificed. Well not this time, dammit."

Atropos tightened her grip on the golden scissors. "Agreed."

A fierce expression settled on Clotho’s cherubic face, "We’re clearly under attack by unknown forces with powers at least equal to our own. It’s luck that they’ve focused on the Amazon nation. Both they, and their neighbors the Centaurs, were isolated by Ares as part of his plot with Dahok."

Megaera looked up, "this dark force, is Velasca it’s only focus, or has it shown up elsewhere?"

"Not so far. It’s likely probed, but she’s the only focus we’ve found."

Images appeared in the scrying mirror. "Cutting Velasca’s thread would seem to be the obvious solution. But if we do, this dark force would simply shift it’s focus elsewhere. We have to put a name to it, and defeat it, before dealing with her."

"Sounds like a pretty tall order."

"It is. On the other hand Velasca’s single minded. And she knows she can’t win if the nation keeps faith with Artemis. So here’s what I say we do."

The plan was brilliant in it’s simplicity. Clotho explained, "we lay traps. With the right bait we can hold Velasca’s attention with the promise of victory while keeping it just outside her grasp. If we’re right this dark force will taste blood and be drawn to it. But when the prey proves elusive, and the meal is not forthcoming, it will show up to either guide Velasca to victory, or punish her failure. My guess is it’ll do both, and to do either it has to expose itself. When it does we can mobilize forces against it. And once it’s within our realm," She gestured toward the crone, "Atropos does her thing with the scissors and we’re rid of it once and for all."

The three Furies looked at each other. Tisiphone spoke for all. "What’s the catch."

Lachesis sighed. "Choosing the right bait. Velasca thrives on human misery so it has to be a person, maybe two to support each other. We’re going to have to do them dirty, and unfortunately for them we can’t take a chance on it looking faked. And they’re going to have to be tough enough to take it. And their plight has to touch both nations, their leaders and temples, in a way that Velasca will find irresistible."

"Who do you suggest?"

"I’d suggest we ask the patron deities of the effected nations. We’ll need their cooperation anyway."

"Makes sense to me."

Seeing Alecto and Megaera nod their agreement Tisiphone then asked. "What about the other Olympians?"

Lachesis looked intently at the tapestry of time. " Celesta and Hephaestus have a daughter among the Amazons and a personal grudge against Velasca. Both have pledged their support in defense of their daughter’s people against her. And we’ll have Hades support as well. But I wouldn’t trust anyone else. "

"Why Hades?"

"He’s Xena’s father."

On the other side, Discord is working with Velasca. I suspect she plans to let her do most of the dirty work, then take over."

"Sounds like her."

"Doesn’t it though. Zeus is the only Olympian that knows about the darkness. But all he cares about is saving his own skin. We’re not sure about Bacchus, but he and Ares were carousing partners, so I wouldn’t trust him."

"After what he did to his own daughters, who in their right mind would?"

Joining Lachesis at the tapestry, Clotho added. "Who indeed. I’d sooner cozy up to Charon."

Alecto gasped in mock horror. Putting a hand on her stomach. "the very idea. You will pardon me while I lose my lunch."

Hands on her hips, Clotho looked to the Fury. "Well he may be an old prune, but at least with him you know where you stand."

Tisiphone shook her head at both of them. "Charon’s not such a bad sort once you get past his looks." The others turned to her in astonishment. Tisiphone folded her arms defensively. "He’s bright, witty, and carries a good conversation. He loves to cuddle, but all he usually see’s are dead folks so he’s starved for affection. He knows how to make a woman feel wanted. And he’s absolutely fantastic in bed."

Five jaws dropped as one, "CHARON?"

Megaera shook her head to clear it. Turning to the three Fates. "Would you ladies excuse Alecto and I for a bit, we have to take our hopelessly depraved sister home and put her out of our misery?" Tisiphone turned to her with dreamy eyes. "Oh goody. That way I can spend all my time - umph"

Alecto’s hand closed over Tisiphone’s mouth. "You’ll have to forgive our poor deluded sister. She must have caught a reflection while we were cursing someone with madness."

Looking to Clotho and Atropos, Lachesis turned back to the tapestry and began pulling threads. "You lift the curse. And I’ll make sure the last quarter candle never happened."



Tanya glared at the young priestess barring the temple gates with a staff. "Either get that thing out of my way or I’m going to shove it some place you’ll need a healer to get it out of."

A scowling priestess walked towards the gate. "What’s going on here?" The gatekeeper stepped to one side as the second priestess confronted Tanya. "Who are you?"

"I received a message that a Priestess Olivia wanted to see me."

"And you are?"

"Tanya, daughter of Tula, royal guardswoman. Now where do I find this Priestess Olivia?"

"Leave your weapons with the gatekeeper and follow me."

"How about I keep them and you just give me directions?"

The priestess glared, "that was not a request, guardswoman."

"And I’m not in the habit of leaving deadly weapons with little girls. So why don’t I just leave. You can explain to this Olivia why I didn’t come see her." With that Tanya turned and walked off.


Clotho turned from the Tapestry to face the others. " "I think this might be a good place to test our theory. Alecto, I think this where you and your sisters come in."

The Fury looked puzzled. "What do you want us to do?"

"Tanya’s upset, as you can see, but she’s a persuasive speaker. That incident would undoubtedly by reported to the High Priestess. And Tanya usually gets along rather well with her. Left to their own devices they’d work this out rather easily. But what do you suppose would happen if we were to throw in a pinch of persecution?"

"I think we might find the results rather amusing." She turned to her sisters, "What do you think, girls?"

Tisiphone cocked her head. "We might. You say this is just a test run?"

Clotho nodded. "Yes. They used madness with Ephiny and Xena, hoping that others would do their dirty work for them. Velasca’s single minded, but she’s cautious. And she’s a gambler. But she likes to load the dice, and given a chance she’d never bet on a race until just before the winner was declared. So if we can convince her that this is a sure bet, she’ll go for it. And with your help we can herd her along these lines."

The Furies looked at each other. Finally Alecto turned, "sounds good to us."

"Then let’s do it."


That night Tanya’s squad leader called her in. "I got a message from the temple. The high priestess say’s you didn’t make your meeting with Priestess Olivia this afternoon. She wants you at the temple tomorrow at sunrise, to do a day’s penance."

"She can go straight to Tartarus. Or is that too much to hope for?"

The squad leader counted silently to ten. "I’m in no mood for jokes, Tanya."

Tanya’s hands tightened into fists. "She couldn’t have gotten the whole story. I missed that meeting because her damn gatekeeper wouldn’t let me onto the temple grounds. And that’s the only reason."

The squad leader held up a hand. "Whoa. If you did go to the temple this afternoon and the gatekeeper wouldn’t let you in, then why in Tartarus is her holiness upset with you?"

"Like I said, they couldn’t have told her the whole story."

"Then suppose you tell it to me?"

The squad leader listened then shook her head, "Doesn’t make sense to me either. It looked like her holiness was headed towards the hospice. She might still be there if you want to try straightening it out."


Sighing the squad leader’s face turned grim. "Don’t thank me yet, Tanya. My orders are to see that you’re at the temple gate at sunrise, unarmed, barefoot, wearing sacking and ashes. And unless her holiness comes back, or sends word otherwise, you’re going."

"Don’t do this to me."

"What do you want me to do about it? I don’t need any trouble with the temple. And one day of scrubbing floors and praying won’t kill you."

Catching Krystina as she was leaving the hospice, Tanya quickly found that she was in no mood to listen to excuses. "I heard all of that, Tanya. You were reported as insubordinate, and disrespectful. Now if there’s nothing else, I’ll see you at sunrise."

She started to walk away, then froze as Tanya replied. "I don’t think so."

"If I don’t, your whole squad will be there the day after, and I doubt they’ll be very happy about it. Now I suggest you get some sleep, you’re going to have a long day tomorrow."

"So are you."

Krystina turned and scowled. "And just what was that supposed to mean?"

"It means that if either of those two bitches come near me, you’ll be busy scraping pieces of them off the floor."

"Lay a hand on either of them, and I’ll see you in jail."

Krystina was talking with Eponin and the squad leader, when Tanya returned to the barracks. Eponin barked, "at attention, guardswoman. I’ve just heard about your problems at the temple today, as well as your threats and disrespect towards her holiness tonight. She’s asked me to release you for two additional days penance for a total of three. And that I assign guards to accompany you. Now will the guards be necessary or can you behave for three days?"

"She has no call to do this, your majesty. Her people were trying to pick a fight. I walked away from it."

"Answer the question, dammit."

"I could consider behaving for one day. If she keeps those bitches away from me. But all bets are off if they come near me or she insists on three."

Eponin’s breath whistled out through clenched teeth. "Would you rather spend them in jail?"

"I see no reason why I should have to do either, your majesty."

"That’s not the way I heard it."

Tanya took a deep breath. "Might I speak freely your majesty?"

"Go ahead."

"Thank you, your majesty. Neither you, nor her holiness even asked my side of the story before passing judgement. So far as I can see, I’ve done nothing wrong. And I strongly object to having judgement passed on me before my side is even heard."

Eponin held up a hand. "Hold it." and turned to Krystina. "Have you heard Tanya’s side of the story, your holiness?"

Krystina’s face darkened. "Yes, your majesty."

Tanya interrupted. "Not before you passed judgement, you didn’t. And when I tried to explain, you wouldn’t listen."

Eponin snapped. "You’re at attention, Guardswoman. You were saying, your holiness?"

"Tanya did offer an explanation when she confronted me at the hospice. She says I wasn’t listening. Well, if I wasn’t listening, how was it that I heard her threats?"

"Good question. But so was Tanya’s. Had you heard her side before passing judgement?"

Krystina bristled at the challenge to her authority. "No, your majesty, but the facts speak for themselves. Tanya was summoned to a meeting at the temple. And though given time off from her duties to attend, she didn’t show up for the meeting. That alone is grounds for disciplinary action. Given the reports of an incident at the temple gate involving her, and her threats when she confronted me at the hospice, she can consider herself lucky that I’m only asking three days penance, and not pressing charges."

Tanya’s hands tightened in to fists. "Summons? Charges? I was given a message from a Priestess Olivia, saying she needed to talk with me. So I went to the temple, after the noon meal as she’d requested.. When I got there, some snot nosed little gatekeeper threatens me with a staff. Another priestess shows up, I tell her who I am, and who I’m there to see. Politely. She tells me to give my sword to this same gatekeeper, that shouldn’t be trusted with an eating knife and follow her. I objected, but she didn’t want to hear it. So rather than get into a fight, I asked them to give my regrets to Priestess Olivia and left. Now I don’t know what they told Priestess Olivia, or her holiness, but that is what happened. I believe I acted responsibly, and reject her holiness’s notion that I should do penance for that incident. And since I consider myself completely blameless, what good would it do me anyway?"

She took a deep breath. "Since her holiness was obviously mislead, I am willing to accept her apology on behalf of her priestesses. If she drops the rest of this foolishness. As for Priestess Olivia, from the sound of things, she never got my message. So, perhaps her holiness could give her my regrets and tell her that if she still wants to see me, she can find me here after duty hours."

Eponin snapped impatiently. "You about finished?"

"Yes, your majesty."

"Good. Now, why did the one at the gate threaten you?"

Tanya shook her head, "I have no idea, your majesty. Again I told her why I was there and asked where I could find that priestess. That’s when she blocked my way with the staff and demanded my weapons."

Krystina sighed, "Your majesty, whatever happened at the gate this afternoon, she did make threats this evening, first at the hospice and again here."

The squad leader asked hopefully, "any chance we can settle this mess with an exchange of apologies."

Turning to Krystina, Eponin asked the same question. Krystina scowled. "Will she apologize to the priestesses at the gate? She did act rudely and disobey their orders."

Tanya sucked in a breath. "No. That gatekeeper was too eager to hit someone with that staff to be trusted with an edged weapon. And I told the other one that. You may call it disobedience. But I call it common sense, and I really don’t see where I owe an apology for that."

Krystina bowed. "I’m going to insist on the three days of penance, your majesty. But if Tanya will give us no trouble, none what so ever tomorrow, I’ll release her tomorrow night. Otherwise she’ll be scourged and start the three days over. And that is entirely due to the threats she made tonight."

"She’s all yours."

"Thank you, your majesty."

Folding her arms, Krystina then turned back to Tanya. "Your penance starts tomorrow at dawn."

Tanya glared back "Forget it. I didn’t do a damn thing wrong and you know it. Your priestesses were asking for a fight. I walked away from it. If you’re going to punish me for that, I suggest you keep them away from me. Because the next time I see them, I’ll clobber them and make it worth it. And while you’re at it, you stay away from me too."

Krystina’s voice hardened. "And like I said at the hospice, you lay a hand on any priestess, and I’ll see you in jail."

"I got a better idea. How about you and I step over to the practice field and settle this right now?"

Eponin growled low in her throat. "It’s already settled, Tanya. And I strongly suggest that you shut up and let her holiness finish."

Krystina bowed slightly. "Thank you, your majesty Now Tanya, you will report for penance at dawn tomorrow. And to avoid any disagreements about when dawn is, I will define it. For ritual purposes, dawn is when the first rays of the morning sun reflect off a mirror at the temple gate. That is when the gate will open. Wait quietly outside until it does. You are to report unarmed, barefoot, dressed in sacking, with ashes on your head. Bring nothing with you that is not intended to be an offering. If you report late or improperly attired you will be punished for disobedience. If you report armed, you will be denied entry." Seeing the hopeful look in Tanya’s eyes she sucked in a breath through her teeth. "You will also be reported to her majesty for arrest "

Mumbling "Might as well be in jail" Tanya’s expression went grim.

Eponin’s voice dripped with ice as she struggled to control her temper. "That can be arranged. Now shut up."

Krystina sighed. "Some people just don’t know when to quit, your majesty. Now Tanya, I need a yes or no answer. Do you understand the instructions for reporting that I’ve just given you?"

"I understood them just fine, you self righteous bitch. But that doesn’t mean I agree to them."

Eponin felt her fingernails bite into the palms of her hand. "That does it." Tanya crumpled as Eponin’s fist caught her low in the stomach. A second punch laid her on the ground. Breathing heavily Eponin glared at the felled woman. "Would you excuse us, your holiness."

"Of course, your majesty."

Eponin watched the priestess go, then dragged Tanya to her feet. Holding up two fingers almost touching Eponin growled. "Tanya, right now you’re just about this far from the whipping post. And thanks to that smart mouth of your’s you’re losing ground fast. So fast that one more threat, or disrespectful remark to her holiness will get you there. Do I make myself clear?" Tanya swallowed hard against the rising bile. "Yes, your majesty."

"Good. Now what in Tartarus is your problem?"

A short time later the squad leader brought Krystina back. She waited expectantly.

Tanya took several deep breaths and it was clear that she was struggling to hold back her temper. "Her majesty was just explaining that I should show respect for your office even if I didn’t respect you. I still think I did the right thing at the gate this afternoon. That you’re being grossly unfair, and there’s no way in Tartarus that you can convince me otherwise. And I particularly resent you passing judgement on my actions without hearing my side first. From what you said at Xena’s trial, you of all people should know what it feels like to be wrongly accused, let alone convicted and sentenced without a trial. And that’s exactly what you did to me today.

Now you’ve got the right to demand three days of slave labor from me. But that’s all it’ll be because I didn’t do anything wrong at the gate. I got mad later when I found out what you’d done, but that’s personal, one woman to another, and has nothing to do with your vows or veil.

And woman to woman, that offer to step out on the practice field still stands. But I think that for me to go to the temple and do penance for something that I don’t consider wrong would be an affront to the gods. And I’m asking you not to force me to commit blasphemy. You want to blacken your own soul, that’s your business. Just don’t take mine to Tartarus along with it."

Tanya’s speech wasn’t the apology Krystina had expected. But it’s blunt honesty had struck several nerves within the priestess. .

Turning her eyes to the ground Krystina considered her response. Finally she looked up. "You weren’t wrongly accused, Tanya. Regardless of your reasons for doing so, the fact remains, that you refused to follow the orders of a priestess while on temple grounds. I’m told that you offered to shove the gatekeepers staff somewhere she’d need a healer to remove it. In other words, that you used a threat of violence to try forcing your way onto the temple grounds. Nor were you denied entry to the grounds. A condition was set for admittance. You chose to leave rather than comply."

"The temple has it’s rules, Tanya. And they apply to everyone on the grounds, not just the priestesses who live and work there. One of them is obedience to orders, regardless of your opinion of the order or the person who gave it. When a priestess disobeys an order she is punished. And her opinion of the order, or the person who gave it, even if correct and otherwise valid, will not excuse their disobedience. If they obey, responsibility for the order and it’s consequences will fall on the person who gave it. You disobeyed an order. I can, and will look into your complaint, but the fact remains that you disobeyed."

Krystina folded her arms. "As for doing penance in the temple. How you can expect me to let you off after your misbehavior at the temple today and your threats tonight is beyond me. You aren’t going out of any desire to cleanse your soul, at least on your part. You are being punished in an effort to discourage future wrongdoing. And I don’t care whether you want to be there or not. Any more than the magistrate would care if a criminal wanted to go to jail.".

The one day penance I first assigned was meant as a warning,. much as a magistrate might give a light sentence to a petty criminal on their first offense. Three days should give you a chance to begin taking stock of your life. The same temper that Artemis warned you to get under control lest it get you hung is what got you in trouble today, so it might be a good place to start.

Bottom line, your penance will stand at three days as ordered. But despite your numerous threats I will stand behind what I told her majesty earlier. If you report on time, and give us no trouble tomorrow, and that does mean no sass or backtalk, I’ll release you after evening prayers. Otherwise you’ll be punished with a scourge and start the three days over. Now I grow weary of this discussion. So unless her majesty or your squad leader have anything to add I suggest you get some sleep, you’re going to need it."

Eponin bowed, "Thank you, your holiness. Tanya, your squad leader will provide the proper attire and escort you to the temple in the morning. You’re confined to quarters until then. Dismissed."


Dawn broke full over the temple gates. The weary night guards looked up as the senior approached. "Good morning Everything quiet?"

"Yes ma’am."

"Weren’t we expecting a penitent this morning?"

The gate keeper consulted a small wax tablet. "Yes ma’am, that same royal guard caused such a ruckus yesterday is supposed to be coming in for three days. But here’s no sign of her yet. Would you like us to go get her?"

"No, her squad leader was supposed to be bringing her so something must have happened. When they show up hold them here and send for me."

"Yes ma’am. You say the squad leader’s bringing her?"

"Yeah. She’s one of Olivia’s. There shouldn’t be any trouble, but let the squad leader handle it if there is."

The two guards watched the senior go back into the temple. One turned to the other. "She looked upset. I sure wouldn’t want to be in this gals boots."

"Neither would I. Ilsa was telling me that one’s got a mouth on her and a rotten attitude besides."

"I heard she gave her holiness a bad time last night too. Now showing up late, how much you want to bet they have her over the block tonight?"

"No bet here."


Krystina walked into the hospice after breakfast. Forgoing the usual pleasantries, "They told me at the guards barracks that you put Tanya on the sick list this morning."

Delia wiped her hands, "I did. Kayla and her squad leader helped her in at dawn. She was feeling weak, looking flushed. She complained of a badly upset stomach and cramping in her lower gut. Her stomach was bloated, and when I examined her, she said it felt tender all over."

"Any chance she was faking it?"

Shaking her head, Delia replied, "Not with those symptoms. I gave her a double dose of cascara to clean out her gut, then put her on broth and bed rest."

Krystina leaned into her fist, "I see. Sounds to me like she got into some spoiled food, or maybe bad water."

"Could be, but she does have stomach trouble from time to time. Acts up more when she’s upset, a lot like what happened to you a while back."

Krystina lowered her hand, "I remember, if I ate almost anything with any flavor to it my stomach would get upset. Then for a while it felt like there were rats or something chewing on my insides. When Tanya didn’t show up this morning I thought she might be trying to pull a fast one. But if you say she really is sick?"

Delia sat down, "She is. Not bad, but enough she needs to take it easy today."

Krystina’s face tightened, "I see. How soon do you think before she’s fit for duty?"

"That depends. It’s likely that one or more of her humors is out of alignment. We’ll work on those today, and if all goes well she should be feeling much better tomorrow."

"Thank you. I’ll leave you to your work and check back on her this evening."

When Alicia returned from breakfast, Delia called Kayla in the back. "You share a barracks space with Tanya, right?"

Kayla nodded, "yes."

"How was she last night?"

"She was pretty upset, told me they were sending her to the temple for three days Her stomach was bothering her a little, like it does sometimes. When they woke her up she looked and felt really sick. I’d snagged her a quick breakfast, but her stomach was bothering her too much to eat it. So when the squad leader came to take her to the temple we brought her here instead."

Delia folded her arms and looked at Kayla. "How much madder root did you give her?"

Kayla slumped. "Don’t even think about lying to me, Kayla, I could smell it on her breath when she belched. And I know damn well we didn’t give it to her. Now how much?"

"About a third of a dose."

"What else?"

"Half a dose of cascara."

Delia sat down across from her, "why?"

Kayla felt the tears well up, "they were sending her to the temple and she hadn’t done anything wrong. I figured if she was sick they’d forget about it."

"They won’t. Now did you give her anything besides madder root and cascara?"

"No, I thought that would be enough."

Delia scowled, "It was. Enough that I should throw your tail right out of here. In case you haven’t realized it yet, we’re in the business of keeping people well, not making them sick. That’s the difference between being a healer and a poisoner. The cascara isn’t a problem. She could have had that for the asking. But madder root is a powerful emetic, and there’s only two situations where we use it. What are they?"

"If someone’s been poisoned we try to get whatever it is out of them before it can take hold. The second is when we’re realigning someone’s humors."

Delia nodded, "That’s right. Now did Tanya know what you were giving her?"

Tears began running down Kayla’s cheek. "No, she recognized the cascara. And I told her she’d feel sick to her stomach But she didn’t want to know any more than that."

They talked for a short time. Finally Delia said. "Tanya should be well enough to go to the temple tomorrow. You’re going to walk her there to make sure she doesn’t get lost on the way. And I want you to stay for early prayers. I won’t tell Krystina what you did, but when you finish delivering Tanya I’m putting you in penance right here until she gets out. You’re going to scrub walls, floor, laundry, every blanket and bandage we’ve got. And once she’s gone, and I’m sure we’ve got some privacy, I’m going to leather that tail of your’s like it’s never been leathered before. Any questions?"

Kayla looked up, "Tanya didn’t do anything wrong. And you’re already punishing me. Can’t we try talking Krystina into letting her go?"

Delia’s head dropped. "Absolutely not. Tanya is going to the temple just as soon as she’s able. And if you do anything else to stall it, you’ll be going with her. That will give you time to decide what you’re going to do about finding a new job."

"But she didn’t do anything wrong."

"Aside from the incident at the gate, both your squad leader and Eponin heard her make serious threats against her holiness and other priestesses. Given a chance to take them back and apologize she refused. Now the subject is closed."

Kayla shook her head, "damn that Priestess. What in Tartarus did she want with Tanya anyway? And why didn’t she tell the gatekeeper she was expecting her?"

Delia scowled, "I’m sure she’ll explain that to Tanya sometime in the next few days. Now like I said the subject is closed. I want you to go to your barracks. Collect whatever Tanya will need for the temple, and whatever you’ll need for the next few days. Then if you’d tell your squad leader I’d like to speak with her, I’d appreciate it."


That evening Krystina returned to the hospice where Delia gave her a short report on Tanya’s condition. Folding laundry nearby Kayla listened as they talked. She felt Delia’s eyes fall on her as the priestess moved to Tanya’s bunk a short time later.

Standing by the bunk Krystina asked. "How are you feeling Tanya?"

"It hasn’t been one of my better days your holiness."

"So I was told. We missed you today, but the healer says you should be well enough to join us tomorrow. We’ll be expecting you."

"Sorry to disappoint you your holiness, but I’m not going to the temple tomorrow. You must have me confused with someone else."

Krystina scowled. "What do you mean you’re not going?"

Tanya lay back on her bunk and closed her eyes, "I mean exactly that, your holiness. Last night you told me that if I gave you no trouble today, you’d release me tonight. I haven’t caused you any trouble today. So I expect you to keep your word and release me."

"You didn’t report either."

"I got up to report, but Kayla and the commander saw that I was sick. So instead of taking me to the temple they brought me here. And after the healer put me on the sick list I couldn’t have reported if I’d wanted to. Now are you going to keep your word and release me or not?"

"You’re twisting my words Tanya. That was a day of penance without giving us any trouble, and I’d release you from the other two."

"I’m no oracle, so I can only go by what you said. Last night, you specifically used the word tomorrow, which is today. If what you meant was something different. That isn’t my problem."

"Excuse me."

Krystina turned, "this doesn’t concern you, Kayla?"

"I’m sorry your holiness, but you’re upsetting a patient, so it does. I was going to offer to fetch Tanya’s squad leader, so she could clarify what was said last night. Would either of you like me to do so?"

Straightening, Krystina said, "that won’t be necessary. Tanya’s correct. I did say tomorrow meaning today, believing that she would be at the temple doing penance today. Obviously she is not, so that offer does not apply. And I don’t appreciate your interference in temple matters. Now if you’ll excuse us?"

Kayla shook her head, "I’m sorry your holiness. But Tanya is still a patient, and this does effect her release. Now I believe you sentenced Tanya to three days penance for some alleged wrongdoing."

Krystina fought the building rage. "I wouldn’t call it a sentence, but I did assign her three days penance for her misbehavior."

Kayla pressed her point. "You used your legal authority as High Priestess to do so, and her majesty confirmed your judgement. That makes it a sentence. Tanya served her first day here because she was too ill to report to the temple."

"Don’t be ridiculous."

"I’m not, a day in the hospice would count against a jail sentence. This situation is no different. So either way, she’s met your conditions for an early release."

Krystina fumed for a few moments. " I thought you were mentoring in healing not law. But what I meant was- "

Kayla cut her of. "With all due respect, your holiness it doesn’t matter what you meant. You made a contract with Tanya, to release her after her first days penance if she gave you no trouble there in. Her majesty and our squad leader heard you make it. You were the one that taught me about contracts. About how I should read them carefully, and take nothing for granted because the words meant exactly what they said, and that nothing that wasn’t specified could be inferred. I also remember some rather painful lessons about keeping my word."

"I’m glad to see you were paying attention, I sometimes wondered about that while you were growing up."

Kayla smiled, "I always paid attention, I just had a harder time understanding some things than others. But we can talk about me some other time."

"You can count on that."

Kayla’s smile disappeared. "Are you going to keep your commitment to release Tanya from penance? Or was all that other stuff you taught me while I was growing up, about honor, and being able to take a priestess’s word a lie?"

Delia fumed in the background as Krystina slumped. "Alright, Kayla you win. I’ll release Tanya from penance.. And I’ll notify both your commander and her majesty that I’ve done so on my way back to the temple. I’m also going to tell them how it came about."

"Fine with me."

Straightening Krystina growled through clenched teeth. "You can lose the attitude, Kayla, because I don’t give a damn whether it’s okay with you or not."

Turning back to Tanya she went on. "Tanya, I gave Priestess Olivia your message. She’s a very busy woman, and she’d made time yesterday to see you. She’s not happy about you standing her up."

"I hope you told her about those two nitwits at the gate."

"I also told her you were going into penance, and suggested she try talking with you during your stay at the temple. She’s going to be disappointed when I tell her you’re not coming now."

"She wants to talk, she knows where to find me. Now I appreciate you releasing me, but I’m still a sick woman. So, would you mind if I get some rest?"

Krystina sighed, "as you wish, I’ll say a prayer for your recovery."

Resisting the urge to make a cutting rejection of the priestess’s offer Tanya opted for the safe route and replied weakly, "Thank you."

Delia’s temper was rapidly approaching the boiling point as she walked Krystina to the door. Finally she stepped back inside and barked. "Alicia, watch the door. If anybody comes within earshot holler. Tanya sit up, and Kayla you get over there next to her. Good, now both of you listen up, and you better damn well listen good."

Kayla whispered to Tanya, "she knows."

"She’s right, Tanya, I’ve known about the potion she gave you last night since the first time you belched in my face this morning. She’s already in a lot of trouble with me over it. And Kayla right now you’re just one jump ahead of a poisoner in my scrolls, and you’re losing ground fast. I’ve half a mind to call Krystina back here and tell her the truth. And if I did you’d both be facing insubordination, capital blasphemy, and a host of other charges for your little charade. The only reason I haven’t told anybody is that I’d rather not watch you hang. But Kayla, if I were you, I’d start looking for another line of work."

Turning away from the two teary eyed women Delia called, "Alicia, I’ll watch the door if there’s anything you want to say to these two."

"Thank you. There’s plenty I’d like to say to them. But being an honest Gods fearing woman, if I said half of it, I’d be at the temple doing penance for a very long time.".She changed places with Delia. Then with hands on her hips, and an expression of pure disgust on her face, she confronted the women.

"Congratulations Tanya, you managed to beat three days of penance. And Kayla you proved what a loyal friend you are to Tanya .by helping her do it. You really put it on the line for her, threw away a promising career as a healer. Risked being hung as a blasphemer. Spit on the temple that raised you, and the woman who did a lot of the work. Never mind that you abused us, our trust, and every ethic we’ve been teaching you. Right now I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut by a Centaur. And I’d imagine that’s about how Delia feels. All to get your friend out of three days temple penance. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

And Tanya, all you had to do was go to the temple this morning, grit your teeth, cooperate for one day, and it would have been over. But instead, you let your best friend jeopardize her career, her life, and maybe even her soul, because you didn’t want to do that one lousy day. With friends like that, she sure doesn’t need any enemies."

You could have thanked Kayla without taking the potion. You could have told her you cared for her too much to put her at risk like that. Then gone and taken your punishment like the grown up woman you’re supposed to be. Instead you proved yourself a conniving self righteous coward, that will use anybody and anything, to get your own way on your own terms. You disgust me." Deliberately she turned her back on the now sobbing women, "Thanks Delia, I’m done."

Tanya brushed away her tears, "What Kayla did may have been wrong, but she did it out of caring for me, and without thinking of anything else. Whatever you think of me doesn’t matter. What happens to Kayla does. So I’d like to ask both of you, if there’s any way Kayla can redeem herself, enough that you’d let her keep her job?".

Delia turned towards them. " Why should I even consider it? She’s not even the one doing the asking. I told her what I’d do this morning and it didn’t include putting her out of here. But I also warned her that if she did anything else to stall you going to the temple, that she’d be looking for a new job. She made her choice, and unlike some, I keep my word."

The events at the hospice hadn’t escaped the attention of a snickering goddess at the Halls of War. Discord raised a chalice of Nectar to her lips as events unfolded in the Amazon Village. Calling Velasca to the large gilt edged scrying mirror she asked. "Are these two your’s?"

Having known both Tanya and Kayla as royal guardswomen Velasca looked on in disbelief as the images first reversed themselves then moved rapidly forward. She listened with interest as Eponin, Krystina, and Delia argued about putting Tanya into soul healing. Then with disgust as Tanya argued her case, thinking aloud. "She wouldn’t have dared do that if I wore the mask."

Discord sneered at the images. "That woman, (pointing to Eponin) doesn’t have what it takes to be queen. If one of my guards dared talk back to me like that they’d be dead, so fast."

Shaking her head as the events caught up with the present Velasca said. "They aren’t mine. That one (pointing to Kayla) was raised by the temple. And I could never figure the other one out. But both of them usually get along well with the temple and high priestess."

"Think we can use them?"

"I don’t know but something about this smells. They were two of Ephiny’s most loyal followers. And they used that one as bait before."

"But what would they be setting bait for now? Thanks to that idiot mouthpiece of your’s they’ve already got most of your followers. Bah, you worry too much."

Velasca smiled inwardly, *Not the ones that matter they don’t.* Aloud she said, "maybe you’re right. They would be good catches if we can get them."

"Why don’t we keep an eye on them for a while?"

Unbeknownst to Velasca and Discord, the Fates were busy watching them. Clotho announced. "They’ve seen the bait, but they’re suspicious. You want I should jiggle it a bit, or just let it lay?"

To be continued

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