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
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.
Feedback is welcome at - MedicinBow@aol.com
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.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
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 wasnt sure she could eat, but Phoebe insisted. "Course youre upset, what mother wouldnt be, but youre 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 youre 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 dont, but Im sure now that the trials over theyll figure it out."
She made a mental note to talk to Eponin, "We really appreciate the help youve given us. And I know Phoebe does as well.."
"Just glad to have something to do."
"Well, youre welcome to come back anytime."
Alicia coughed, "Delia, Why dont 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. "Im glad youre going with them. Hecuba and I were talking before you got back. Theyre 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. Wasnt easy for Cyrene to visit the jail this morning, it might be a bit awkward but shell manage."
Alicia nodded, "Im sure she did her best raising her, but Xenas been a grown woman for a long time. She made her own choices and now shes paying for them."
Delia looked over her collection. "A few days ago, you said knowing something is going to happen didnt make it easier to accept. You were right." (picks up a set of chobos) "Xenas in a lot of pain, and her back looks like its 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 havent 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 wouldnt 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. " Dont bother getting dressed either, Ive seen you naked before, and I know what a whip can do. How do you feel otherwise?"
Xena lay back down "Just glad its over."
After leaving the jail Cyrene knocked on Hecubas door. Invited inside, she took the offered seat on Hecubas bunk and asked hesitantly. "Hecuba, could I ask you something personal."
Leaning against the wall Hecuba folded her arms, "I cant promise to answer, but go ahead."
Cyrene looked down, "Sorry, I dont mean to embarrass you, but youve been thru this and I dont know who else to ask."
Hecuba dropped the tough girl pose and sat beside Cyrene, "Yes, Ive been thru it, its painful and humiliating, but I survived and so will she. Im 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?"
"Im not sure I understand what youre asking?"
Cyrene hesitated then buried her face in her hands, "Im sorry I shouldnt have asked."
Hecuba took her hands, "If youre 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 couldnt. Do I have that right?"
"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 shouldnt I do?"
Hecuba closed her eyes as though deep in thought, "Dont cheat her of the pain shes entitled to feel."
Seeing her blank expression Hecuba sighed, "I dont mean the whip, though thats painful enough. Whatever you do, dont honey coat her actions. Maybe the Gods were involved, but dont let her blame everything on them, and dont you either. Shes had a fair trial, and was found guilty. She needs to know shes been punished because of something she did."
She paused for emphasis. "Above all, dont let her wallow in remorse, or give up on herself. And Cyrene, dont blame yourself for her actions. That was my mothers 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 hadnt been such a rotten mother maybe she wouldnt have made them."
Hecuba took her by the shoulders. "Dont go there, Cyrene. Youll just tear your guts apart. Every time Gabrielle got into trouble, Id blame myself. I was strict with her because I was afraid if I wasnt," she began to cry "shed end up just like me, with blood on her hands, and a price on her head."
Hecuba dried her eyes, "Im sorry for being such a baby. Its important not to let her feel abandoned. When everyone else in the tribe shunned me, my mother didnt. Having that one friendly face mattered. She stuck with me, even when I kept getting into trouble What hurt most wasnt the whip, it was knowing Id 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 wouldnt even let me give her a hug goodbye. And after the ten cycles were up I couldnt even send her a message for fear a bounty hunter would get their hands on it. Shed be almost seventy now, so shes 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. Ill never be worthy of it, but I have nothing else to remember her by."
Cyrene hugged her for a long moment. "Thank you. Youve really helped me understand." Then "Im getting hungry. Have you eaten yet?"
"No. And that stew of Phoebes smelled good. Why dont we see if she has any left?"
"Why dont we?"
Cyrene wasnt the only one having a difficult night of it. As sentencing magistrate, Krystina was obliged to witness the punishments shed ordered. Her mind struggled to shut out the screams as two women shed 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, its fair that I suffer now.*
Eponin too was sickened by the days events. She would tell Sophia. "For a moon now weve done nothing but hold funerals, secret meetings and trials. One deity or another pulling our strings like a puppeteer. Weve picked up two middle aged archers, buried a healer, and whipped another half to death. And weve found out that Velascas back and up to no good. And that were the targets of a power struggle between the gods."
Sophia nodded in reply. "Weve also broken up a good share of Velascas following here. And weve gotten her mouthpiece off the council. Speaking of which I didnt see her today."
"Neither did I, and she always shows up for whippings and executions."
"Shes a real ghoul that way. But who knows, maybe that flogging Krystina gave her yesterday took some of the fun out of it."
"Lets hope so."
From a shelf Eponin took down the queens mask. "Sophia, Ive had this damn thing for less than a season. Ive had to hang one woman, and between Xena, Ildiko and the contempt cases, Ive had to order two hundred and twenty seven lashes in the last two days alone. Thats 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 wouldnt 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 doesnt belong on a woman of conscience."
Sophia put a hand on her shoulder. "Youre wrong there chief, because thats 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 youve ordered was well deserved. I put the rope around Maryas neck, and I gave Xena half her whipping. And no, I didnt enjoy it. But Im 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 theyd 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 dont. Id like to let the dust settle for a few days, but weve got more problems than Xena. And I feel like weve been neglecting everything that wasnt somehow tied to her case."
Sophia shook her head, "we havent really, but even if we had youre not going to catch everything up in one night. So if you dont mind a suggestion?"
"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 weve got to do, sit down with them and set priorities."
"Why shouldnt I do that tomorrow?"
Sophia leaned on the desk. "Because youre right chief, it has been a miserable moon. Its taken a lot out of you. And taking a day or two to catch up with yourself might do you a world of good."
"Ill think about it."
"Do it. Sleep late, take a long hot bath and get someone to give you a good massage. Then -"
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 shed been crying. "Between everything thats happened, and what needs doing, I feel like Im caught in a rockslide. And every problem that hasnt hit me yet, is coming straight for me. Or that Im 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 werent forgetting something important. And Morpheus might be satisfied that youd remember and stop reminding you.
Eponin glanced around the hut. "Worth a try." Reaching for a wax tablet she told the guard. "If youd 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. Im likely to be up a while."
"Thank you, your majesty."
A mug of tea, two tablets of notes, and a couple candlemarks later, Eponins 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 Xenas whipping, and savored every scream. Still, the whole affair brought a taste of ashes. Ildikos 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 shed 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. Wheres the fun of being a goddess if youve still got to play by someone elses rules?*
It was Eponins handling of Ildiko that had cost her ground. "If youd run the obnoxious bitch through, like she deserved, I could have rallied the troops around her. But you knew that, and youre too smart to give me a martyr. And after that mess shed have made a lousy one anyway." The loss of fifty followers, while a setback, wasnt the disaster it seemed. Neither Eponin, nor Ildiko had known that Velascas 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 its leaders, break faith with Artemis. Thanks to Ildikos bungling, that wasnt 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. "Dont Zeuss rules forbid our direct interference in mortal affairs?"
"They usually do."
"So hows 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. "Youre getting just a bit to smart for your skirt, Eponin. But youre 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. *Youre weak, weapons mistress. You think youve won, but you wont. 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 youve had a soft spot for the Amazons for a long time. Tell me, does Persephone know about that Amazon girlfriend of yours? Cyrene. I think her name is?"
Hades expression hardened. "Thats 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. "Its over, Ares, and your minions failed, miserably."
"You win some, you lose some. Hows Cyrene doing, now shes 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 Cyrenes 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 theyd 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 Centaurs 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 Centaurs 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, "youre wasting their potential." And to Zeus, "theyre warriors, so by rights they should belong to me." He had tried to win Hades to his side, "doesnt it gall you that not even their dead come to you? Artemis is a neat gal, but shes 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. Shes making decisions for the Amazons that should rightfully be ours. And it burns my butt that shes 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. Youd 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 shed go back to the Amazons."
"Youre forgetting that she had two young sons she couldnt take with her. Id 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 dont 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 Gabrielles voice filled the caverns.
"She does a good job singing Xenas praises, dont you think. Her selfless good deeds, her tireless efforts to reform. Enjoy, Ill 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. Howd 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 didnt whip Xena. Hows she doing."
"Her stitches are holding and theres 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, "Ill go. Kayla can come with me. Thatll give us a chance to talk."
"Dont 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 Ive been afraid to bring it up."
"Afraid wed lose her?"
"Yeah. As a healers apprentice she shows real promise. But, being a royal guard gives her enough status, I suspect wed lose if we forced a choice on her."
Alicia nodded, "there is that. We cant 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 womens 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, weve got work to do. So I guess wed 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."
"Thats for sure."
An outraged Alicia came around the corner of the work table, "and just who in Tartarus asked you?"
Eponin blocked her path. "Ill 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. "Ive heard more sincere sounding apologies. Delia, you got something you can give them for those foul tempers? Im sure they wont 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, maam "
While Alicia was drawing the potent cathartic Delia took Eponin aside, "Weve 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 cant 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 youre 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."
Eponins 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 youd seen Ildiko?"
"Not since that business at the temple a couple days ago."
"Nobody else has either. Not even at Xenas whipping."
Delia shook her head, "Thats surprising, I rather thought she was looking forward to it."
Eponin sighed, "so did I but she wasnt there. We checked her hut this morning. Her weapons and pack are still there. All the horses are accounted for Which means shes 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. "Youve checked the stable and outbuildings?"
"Yes, and Ive ordered a quiet perimeter search. But somehow, I cant picture Ildiko committing suicide. Especially after what Artemis said about having marked her for damnation."
"I sure wouldnt. But Eponin, is there any chance we could talk about this later. Kaylas out on an errand. Id like to get these done, so we can take them to the jail when she gets back."
"No problem. Ill have Zelda bring those two over once Im done with them. They give you any trouble take a strap to them, and make sure I know about it. Ill 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. "Theyre from my squad. From the looks of their backsides Id 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 dont 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. "Ive 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 isnt easy for me. And I have to convince myself that theyre not worthy of any compassion to do it. Having to switch from that way of thinking, executioners mode I call it, into healer isnt 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 Im concerned thats lynching, and for that, Id have hung them both. They should have gotten at least the same sentence Xena got."
Delia shook her head, "I agree with you. But thats not what being a healers about. Its harder than Hades sometimes to keep your personal feelings out of your work. And theres times youre just too close and those feelings can get in the way of sound judgement. Times like that its best to say so and swap off with someone else if you can. Do you understand what Im talking about?"
"Youre telling me I should have done the whipping or the healing, but not tried to do both. Im 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 didnt 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 youd told us youd rather not Id have gone instead."
Kayla shrugged, "but that wouldnt have been fair to you."
"No, but Id 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 Gabrielles afterwards didnt give my head much chance to clear. Not that I begrudge them the support, but I wasnt 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."
"Thats going to be a problem for me, Delia. Ive had it beaten into my head that you follow orders without argument. And that you think you cant or dont want to doesnt 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 youve got a problem working on someone or in a given circumstance, I want you to tell us. If its at all possible, well cover you. And were human so when youve got more training under your belt, dont 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?"
"Thats not my decision. Im too close to the situation."
Delia put a hand on Kaylas shoulder. "Sounds to me like what happened this morning was poor judgement based on circumstances and inexperience. So no, Im not going to punish you this time. Hopefully it wont happen again. If it does well deal with it at the time."
Later Kayla told the two miscreants. "Try looking at it this way. Theres a lot of dirty details, like garbage, stables, latrines, that have to be done every day. Now the queen and weapons mistress arent happy with that bunch. So, if we can keep them from dying of infection, or blood loss, theyre likely to be seeing a lot of them for a while. Which means therell be less of them for us to get stuck with."
One of the women ran an arm across her forehead. "You know, shes got a point. Hey Kayla, how did you get to be so smart?"
"Comes from faithfully practicing the three mus."
Kayla smiled, "Moderation, meditation, and masturbation."
The other shook her head. "With a lot of emphasis on the latter Ill 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 youre full of it."
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
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 Alicias offer of support. "Im not sure why, but I think I need to do this for myself."
Alicia had nodded understanding, telling her quietly. "Remember why youre there, and that the guards will let you out when you call. And please come see me afterwards so I know youre alright."
The guard called to Xena, telling her she had a visitor and who it was. Xena was surprised, but said shed 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, Im 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. Im not sure Id be able to do this again. I wanted to talk with you, but Im 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 couldnt have been easy."
Hecuba closed her eyes remembering, "It wasnt. Two, three times a moon, especially that time of the moon, Id 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 dont think they believed him. They probably thought he was abusing me."
Xena shook her head, "Gabrielle never did. She told me once shed 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 didnt 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 shed sensed a terrible fear of being locked up. And that Herodotus had nightmares of you being found and dragged off in chains."
"Sometimes hed 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 dont understand how people can just buy and sell others as slaves?"
"Its legal Gabrielle, besides theres good money in it."
The Amazon queen came out as Gabrielle banged her staff on the ground. "Being legal doesnt 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 lets say someone found out about it. What would happen to them?"
"Theyd be arrested. Then if their owner could identify them, theyd get them back."
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?"
"Thats how the law sees 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 lets talk."
Xena put water on the fire for tea. "Gabrielle, somethings bothering you about slavery, and its a lot more than that it exists. Want to talk about it?"
"Look me in the eye, Xena. Promise me youll 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."
Hecubas eyes were haunted, "In my dreams Id 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 Ive 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. Its been a lot worse since Gabrielle died."
Hecuba gave her a tight lipped nod, "Its been pretty bad since Herodotus died. Now knowing about Gabrielle, knowing where she is. I dont 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. Youre a mother, you understand."
A tear formed in Xenas 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 fathers temper and he was wearing his sword. It scared me. I didnt want him growing up to be like me."
Hecuba closed her eyes, "Ive had three daughters. Neither Gabrielle or Lila ever knew theyd 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 "Im 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 couldnt 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 didnt deserve, but had to accept because I didnt 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 Ive tried, or how much others have tried to help. Im still no good."
Xena knelt down in front of her. "Herodotus didnt think that, neither my mother or I do, and Gabrielle loved you."
Hecuba shook her head, "Xena, right now Im 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 cant answer that, but it sounds like Im not the only ones 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, were 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. "Id give anything to say yes, but I cant, to any of them."
There was a long moment of silence, finally Hecuba released the bracket and turned with a sigh, "at least youre honest about it. I never wanted any of that for my daughter."
"What mother does?"
Hecuba sat down. "Xena, what Im trying to say is, I dont want us to be enemies. You loved Gabrielle, and while I was never sure, Id 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 Ive 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 "Im glad you came."
"So am I, Id 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 Hecubas 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. "Its going to be a nice day."
"Looks like it. And youre 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. "Ive survived a lot worse. Besides Delias short handed. And, with all the extra work I sent her, the ones shes got are full. Ill be alright."
Hands on her hips Andrea scowled and scolded. "You better be. Honestly Krystina, the way you dont take care of yourself is a sin."
"Oh, and what sin is that?"
"Youre willfully abusing the goddesss 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 Krystinas eyes. "That hurt, Andrea."
"The truth often does. I know its been rough on you, but that was a bad situation all round. And its not just the whipped women that need to heal "
"I keep telling myself there werent any good choices. And that we did what we had to do, but it doesnt help much."
"There werent really. Does it help that Xenas 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 isnt just a game to get her off. Strangely enough, one of my biggest regrets is Ildiko."
Andreas 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 wouldnt 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, Lets 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 its 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 its 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?"
"Ephinys 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 isnt helping matters any. What I want to do, is offer her a few days sanctuary to pull herself together, and I think nows 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 shell take it?"
Krystina set down an armload of wood, "I hope so, but I wont push it."
Andrea stood up, "at least shell know shes welcome, and when shes ready, shell come."
Both women went for fresh arm loads of wood. Andrea volunteered, "Krystina, Im 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. Shes lost her husband, daughter and granddaughter. Being dragged out of her home on a moments notice couldnt be easy. And with everything thats happened since shes been here. Its wonder the poor woman isnt babbling in a cell like Queen Ephiny."
"Shes a lot stronger than youd think, but youre right, she needs time to mourn."
As they set down their loads, Andrea offered, "I think were going to have to do some serious soul work with her too."
"Ive 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."
"Id 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 dont 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 Im not surprised she took off afterwards. Shes no fonder of jails than I am. Tell me, what do you think she needs?"
"Im sure the first thing she needs is time to mourn. I think theres more, but until she does that, I dont think its possible to know what that is."
"Im suspect youre right." Krystina thought for a moment, "Ive told you about my mothers friend Rachael."
"Wasnt 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 theyre fed and cared for, so theyre 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, Im sure theres 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 Id 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 Im 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 its time I did."
"I agree. And its time you put them on a regular schedule. Granted you did rate them as archers, and they are getting weapons refresher. But if theyre going to be here over time, theyll need some kind of regular duty."
Eponin took a flask from the shelf. "Its 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. "Youre right, they will need some kind of regular duty. I know Cyrenes been helping out in the food hut. I was going over supply problems with Phoebe yesterday. She tells me Cyrenes been a real gods send." She took a sip of the fiery wine. "But thats part of the problem. She really is a gods send, and part of me feels like we kidnaped them."
"We didnt, 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 dont know. But I do know that neither of them tried. Fact remains, however they got here, theyre here now. But since you said that was part of the problem, whats the rest of it?"
Eponin sighed. "A lot of its who they are."
"I dont understand?"
Eponin took a long swallow of her wine. "Cyrenes Hades girlfriend, and a living legend to boot."
"So, Xenas their daughter. And that didnt stop us from putting her on trial for her life, or whipping her half to death afterwards."
Krystina nodded. "Thank you. Whats the problem with Hecuba?"
"Being royalty, shes got a better claim to this mask than I do."
"And my guess is shed like it even less "
"If thats 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, theyre grown women. Theyre used to hard work and pulling their own weight. Waiting for the trials to end before putting them to work made sense. But theyre over now, so the time has come. Being an innkeeper, Cyrene is used to being up early, baking and planning meals in quantity. That makes her ideal to work with Phoebe who, as you said, considers her a gods send. And Im not surprised that Hecubas been helping out in the stables."
"I cant leave her there."
"And why not?"
"Shes royalty, for Gaias sake."
"So what? Shes 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?"
"Its been rough on both of them. Which isnt too surprising considering what they walked into. But its 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, Xenad 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 Ephinys still upset because her judgement was overruled. But when we pointed out that as one of the victims shed have had to excuse herself from a jury trial anyway she seemed to accept it. Yesterday she told us she feels cheated because she wasnt 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 doesnt know about the temple meetings, or the full extent of Artemiss involvement, but she does think Xena got off too lightly, considering her crimes. She told us that shed planned to have her executed to bring the whole mess to a close. And that she doesnt think this will do it."
Krystina shook her head, "I wish I knew. Well find out when Xena gets out of jail. My guess is that most everybody will take their lead from Gabrielles mother."
Eponin asked, "Hows 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. Shes trying to be brave, but shes a grieving mother without time to grieve."
"Whats more, getting dragged out of life, and having to face facts hasnt been easy on either of them. Theyve 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. Nothings definite, and we havent talked to her yet, but if shes 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 Krystinas grim expression over her tented hands. "Sounds serious?"
"I think so. (Sighs) I really cant go into the details, but shes hurting. And I think what weve got in mind would do her a lot of good."
"Then I can spare her. We can talk about duty assignments when youre done with her."
"I appreciate that, but I think it would be better if we did that now. Hecubas a link to my own past, and a lot of what haunts her haunts me as well. Youve never been hunted, or had a price on your head. Pray the gods you never do. But whether we can prove it or not, Im sure Raisa was a bounty hunter. And equally sure that Ildiko was working with her."
"Youve mentioned that before, and I suspect youre right. But why?
Krystinas voice turned grim. "I can give you five thousand reasons."
"That the reward?"
"Dead or alive, and theres the same on Hecuba. But anybody that wants it is going to have to work for it, because theres no way theyre taking either of us alive."
"Anybody sends a posse after you better make it a big one, because theyre not taking you without taking all of us first."
Despite her efforts to hold them back, tears flowed from Krystinas eyes. "I appreciate that Eponin, I really do. But Im not that important. The nation is, dont risk it to save me."
"Well you must be important to them or theyd have forgotten about you after all this time. And since they havent, what makes you think theyd stop at you. Suppose they want to punish the nation for harboring you, should I let them?"
"The Tartarus it is. Krystina, youre 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. Ive had trackers out, but theres 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. Youre right, its 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 dont suppose?"
"I dont know what to think. But considering what alls been going on lately, I wouldnt bet against it. Velasca has an interest in her too. And I sure wouldnt want to be in her boots if she has her."
Krystina shuddered at the thought. "Neither would I." She sat silently for a moment. "Ive never been terribly fond of Ildiko. She can be a real pain in the pooper sometimes. But I dont 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, Im 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 didnt show up, or at least nobody remembers seeing her, until after the trial started. And if Ildiko didnt know about your past before then, it doesnt make sense theyd 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 shed 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 theyve all seen my scars. But Ive never used my real name, or told anyone where Im from. So unless they can read the brand theyd be hard pressed to figure it out."
Eponin thought grimly, *That or one of thems an oracle. She doesnt need to think about that right now.*
Krystina interrupted her thoughts with an even grimmer scenario. "But thats not the scariest part. If I had to guess what happened with Ildiko, Id 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 wasnt 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. Ive had nightmares off and on for a long time. But theyve gotten a lot worse since then."
"Sounds pretty bad."
"Theyre horrible, and so real I dont even want to close my eyes. Last night it started when the guards walked into my cell. They didnt 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 hangmans voice telling the magistrate hed shortened the drop so Id last longer and give them a better show. They must have been hoping Id beg for mercy, because they got disgusted with me when I didnt. 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 arent all the same, but Ive had something equally awful practically every night since Xenas trial started. Its gotten so bad I almost wish theyd 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 theres anyway we can help."
"Ill let you know. And Eponin, -" A moments hesitation, later "Thank you."
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
Phoebe led Cyrene to a heavy wooden door set in the built up mouth of a cave. "Im glad they made it official. Theres a few things Ive 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. "Ive 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 Ive got some over here needs checking. Im not sure its 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. Its surface felt smooth, and yielded to the pressure. She scowled, "I dont know, Phoebe. This ones pale and has a smooth slick feel to it. And its 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 theres only one way to be sure."
Phoebe settled onto a low three legged stool. "These are good caves, cool, dry, and weve been lucky enough to keep the vermin out. We got two cycles worth of provisions stored, mostly in cellars or caves like this. Well get through one bad harvest, two wed be stretching things but wed make it. After that, were 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 weve had good crops." She raised her eyes and hand in a gesture of thanks. "And because we had extra Ive been trying different ways to preserve food."
Interested, Cyrene leaned forward. "Had any luck?"
Phoebe nodded, "I sure have. Ive 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. Doesnt 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 itd be worth it."
" It is. Cyrene, Ive got graviera, and kaseri thats 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. Dont ask me why cause I dont know. I wish I did. All I know is it works. And when it comes right down to it, thats all I need to know."
Finishing the cheese, Cyrene licked her fingers. "Its probably fit for the table. But Im not sure."
Phoebe scowled, "Oh?"
"Kind of hard to tell on just one sample."
The scowl disappeared as Phoebes laugh echoed through the cave, "you got a point." Drawing her knife she passed it to Cyrene. "Why dont 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 its demeaning for you to be working with me. Some nonsense about you being a warrior and cooking being womens work. And well, you know about me?"
Cyrenes eyes flashed. "Womans work? I was born a woman. And womans work, mens work, whatever its all work that needs doing. And I dont 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 youre probably too much of a lady to say."
"Dont bet on it. They want to say it to my face and Ill crack their heads for them."
Phoebe patted the air with both hands. "Down girl. Im on your side, remember?"
"I know. And thanks for setting them straight. At home Im 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? Its all part of keeping an inn. I make a decent living, pay my staff well, and Im not beholden to nobody."
"You happy doing it?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then thats 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 doesnt hurt so much to use my arms, Itll take time but Ill 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 dont you go worrying about it. Besides, Im a big girl, I can take care of myself."
"Just dont get yourself tossed in here doing it. As an inn its got rotten rooms, the service stinks and the food leaves something to be desired."
"Whats wrong with the food?"
"Its 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 Ive 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, its 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 Im earning my keep."
Xena went quiet for a few moments. "Phoebes a strange one, but I think Delias 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? Ive never seen her smile, let alone laugh?"
Cyrene smiled. "You forget who youre talking to, little one. You had a nice laugh as a little girl."
"Hasnt been much to laugh about since."
Cyrenes smile disappeared. "No, I dont suppose there has. Or maybe you just havent 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. Shes quiet, minds her own business, most people never give her a second glance. She talks funny, and a lot of people dont think shes very smart because of it. Well, Xena, theyre wrong. Anybody that can manage a kitchen big enough to feed hundreds of women at a time isnt dumb. Shes got a real head for figures. If you ask her how much salt, barley, dried meat, oil weve got, shell tell you to the tenth part of a stone. And shes got a plan in her head for how shes going to make it go till the next harvest, with reserve for special parties and the like. Fresh game comes in, more people, shell 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 theyre 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 youre 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 youd 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 its 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 dont think of Amazons as farmers."
"Theyd be surprised. The warrior squads rotate in the fields with their weapons. Helps keep them fit. Weve 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. Theyre 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 weve got mines for copper, tin and iron. When we take male prisoners we put them to work there. If they try to escape theyve 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 cant 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. Hed even been at Gabrielles wedding, and on that never ending day. *We didnt 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 hed 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 daddys 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 Cupids misfired arrows. And started wondering just how accidental those shots had been. A love sick warrior waiting to pick up the shattered pieces of Gabrielles 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 Gabrielles hand, as well as to Ares.
Ephiny was the love child of Aphrodites 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 Xenas 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.
Xenas 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 mans 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 wasnt that bad looking either. Shaking her head to clear it, *Its been too long.* When the image lingered, she symbolically took herself by both ears and told herself firmly, "Dont go there, Xena."
Still it was significant because, as Tanya had explained, the Amazons took Joxers 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, theres 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 havent seen Niobe that playful in ages."
Eponin shook her head. "Whats that they say about dignified elders?"
Krystina smiled as Cyrene caught the beat. "Theyre like overgrown little girls. Lifes fun when youre too young to know better, but its even more fun when youre old enough to get away with it. "
"Ill take your word for it."
Eponin thought for a moment. "Im not up to dancing right now but Ive 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. Shes sitting back there by the trees. Why dont 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 Hecubas arms and pulled her into the circle.
On Olympus, storm clouds were brewing. Citing Baccuss objections, Zeus postponed indefinitely the hearing hed promised Artemis on Gabrielles 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, "Shes 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, "Were being threatened by outside forces, and youre 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 shed set aside. "Whod 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. "Ive 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. "Hes not mine, but Ive 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 wouldnt 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, "hes gentle, great with kids, And he loves apples. I call him Lucas, dont 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 wasnt too thrilled about it."
"Maybe if he were a mare."
"Maybe. You ride?"
"If you need a horse hes easy to handle. A gentle touch on the reins is plenty, its almost like he knows what youre thinking. And dont let his age fool you. He can run like the wind, and he loves doing it."
"Ill 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 Ive already got a job. And youve 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, Im old enough to be your mother. Youd probably have a lot better time without me."
Folding her arms Kayla shook her head, "Were not planning an orgy, and since were all grown women, whats age got to do with if we were?"
Hecuba blushed. "Youd be awfully disappointed."
Kayla smiled, "somehow I dont 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?"
Kaylas face became a mask, "well, we did manage to coax some treats out of the kitchen. Im not sure we could eat them all by ourselves?"
"The way to a womans heart." Still laughing, Hecuba stood up. "Alright, if youre sure you want me?"
"Wouldnt invite you if we werent."
"Id 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."
"Whatd you tell them?"
"The truth of course."
Krystina gasped, "You didnt - not about?"
Hecuba smiled, "now would I do a thing like that?"
"Youre 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 wasnt easy for me to bed him after Lila was born, the scars, and you know." Tears filled Hecubas 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 wouldnt blame him if he saw another woman. He got really upset with me over that. Told me that if hed wanted another woman, hed have married one. And that if I couldnt 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."
"Id 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 hed probably lose me if I got pregnant again. He said, yes hed like a son, but that he wasnt 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 Im 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 Id 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 hed 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 Id 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 wasnt afraid to show kindness or compassion. And he appreciated it in return. He told me once that he knew the only place Id 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 wasnt sure what to do when he died. Wed never told the girls about my past. I wasnt sure I wanted to face telling them. With Gabrielle being queen, coming here meant Id have to tell her at least, and I didnt want to do that here. I tried to contact her, but apparently my messages didnt get through." She broke into tears, "and it wouldnt 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 shed 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 Hecubas 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 regalias 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 Krystinas mother..
But while Krystina had made the leather goods, their necklaces had been Hecubas special project. She had taken the claws and fangs of a large bear theyd brought down while hunting with Krystinas mother. Fashioning beads of wood and bone she combined them into necklaces, whose pendants, large stone arrowheads chipped by Krystinas 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 werent all. Krystinas 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 Hecubas skin came others that shortened her breath, and brought a warm familiar dampness between her legs.
Standing beside her Delia smiled thinking, * Krystina. I dont 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, weve got to convince that woman to stay. Because since shes been here, you look more alive than Ive seen you in a long time.*
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
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 immortals 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 were already here, we might as well hear her out."
Both agreed.. "Its 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. Youre 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, weve got peace treaties with them. And a crazy queen thats a Centaur princess besides. Her so called regent cant even handle a simple trial without Artemis holding her hand. Maybe thats why weve 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."
"We were watching. Sickening, wasnt 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 youre suggesting could bring the whole pantheon down on our necks. And with you being your fathers daughter and all, how can we be sure youd keep your word?"
"Are you saying I wouldnt?"
"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 yours to disappear. What have you done about that?"
"Im working on it." Velasca replied angrily. "She was paying homage to you by trying to avenge crimes that the court wouldnt. And theyre punishing her because of it. So why arent you doing something about it?"
Alecto looked to the others. "Shes got a point."
Later in their own temple, Tisiphone, avenger of murder, would remark flatly. "I dont 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 wont 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 wed 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 wed be giving her the forests and the hunt as well. And dont forget that it would give her the right to judge souls."
Folding her arms, Tisiphone scowled. "And if thats not enough, the sight of that nincompoop sitting on the throne of war should be enough to scare anyone. But shes got Zeus wrapped around her finger, leading him on by his codpiece no doubt, so its an even bet shes after Heras 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 doesnt 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 Goddesss 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. "Ive 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 penitents 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. "Theres a problem with that last. Simply put, its one thing to say youll never talk, or that theyll have to kill me first. Its another thing altogether to be in the hands of skilled torturers determined to break you. Ive 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 torturers souls, not ours." ---------------
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 Eponins 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 youd 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 shes reading her wrong."
"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 Ephinys 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? Hers 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 goods come out of it. Tanyas 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 thats when we first found out about Velascas conspiracy. The price was fiendish, but those are all good things. As for Tanya, my impression is that shes 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, Im afraid, wont be easy."
It proved a great deal harder than either woman expected. Eponin listened to their arguments, "Youve 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 doesnt have a problem?" Seeing Delia shake her head Eponin went on. "Krystina, can you?"
Krystina sighed, "No. But I do think shes handling it. And if, as we both suspect, her problems were rooted in that situation she was in, well. Its not likely were 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 Tanyas enough of a mystery I dont 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 weve talked about that before And that shes not sure herself. But based on her stories shes 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 Ephinys suicide attempt. Her age was the first of many mysteries that soon surfaced around the woman. Krystina had checked the record scrolls during Tanyas recovery from the injuries shed 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."
Kayla had confirmed their findings. "Im not sure how old she is, neither is she, but shes older than she looks. She says theres a problem figuring it out because the Mesopotamians use a different calendar than we do."
Eponin had relaxed slightly. "Okay, that makes sense. Whats her best guess?"
"Mid to late thirties."
Eponin shook her head. "I should age so well."
Delia had smiled. "Youre 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 youre telling me just doesnt seem possible."
"None taken. She does look young, all three of them did, and it bothers her sometimes when people dont 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 Hypolytas 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 Hypolytas 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 dont they might remember details that would help us verify Tanyas story."
Eponin thought about that. "It might."
Delia looked up. "If you do they might be able to solve another mystery."
"Well, to a healers eye, its pretty obvious that Tanyas had at least one child. She denies it, and the scrolls dont say anything it. So any children she had were before she came here."
"You sure shes had one?"
"Yes. Shes got faded stretch marks. Theyre not bad to look at, so it probably was only one, but theyre clearly from carrying a pregnancy."
Eponins face tightened, "Stillbirth?"
Delia shook her head.. "I doubt it. Her nipples show clear signs that shes nursed. Id guess she either lost a child, or had a son and gave it up. I dont know which, but Id 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. Its not safe for me to have a child, and they wouldnt let Kayla. But Tanya clearly did, and denies it. Looking at Eponin and Krystina she thought grimly. *No, cant 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. "Shes got a lot of grief and guilt in her. On the other hand, shes 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, Id call her council material."
Eponin shook her head, "theres too many question marks about her. Like why dont any of us remember her. Shes 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 Delias voice as she replied. "What does that prove? We dont even know where a fair number of our women come from."
"True. And it doesnt usually matter. But consider this. According to Tanya Greek, is her third or fourth language."
"So maybe Im deaf, but to me she doesnt have an accent."
Krystina shook her head in disagreement. "To my mind she does. I cant pin it down, but Id bet a lot that she didnt grow up speaking Greek."
Delia scowled. "But what does that prove except that her story holds water. Weve already confirmed her language skills, and Ill admit theyre impressive."
Eponins 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 theres a few real differences between the two."
"Tanya shows up on the scrolls, Raisa didnt. And while Tanya may be stubborn, opinionated, and at times obnoxious, Ive seen no evidence of her having evil intent."
Eponin disagreed. "Neither have I, but the fact remains that shes 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 didnt 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 cant. But like I told you then, I have seen that kind of thing a few times before. Its 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 Ive never seen a god die. Have either of you?"
Eponin lowered her hands. "But gods dont die?"
Delia too was becoming frustrated. "Theyre born, arent 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 dont even notice. And for that matter how many of us have ever seen a god to notice?"
"But Ephinys 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 cant use her as a measure."
Eponin conceded Delia her point. "Youre probably right. But, whatever Ephiny may be, according to Artemis, Tanyas as mortal as you and I are. And shes too much of a mystery for my liking. On top of which shes 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 dont want anyone that doesnt 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, youre right, shes got potential."
Talking later with Hecuba, Krystina told her of their problems with Tanyas story.
Hecuba . "The woman does have a right to her privacy. As for her being in Queen Hypolytas tribe, I didnt know her. Which isnt too surprising since I left there twenty eight cycles ago. Or that if she really was ten or twelve when she got there, shed have to be in her forties now for me to have even met her there. And in looking at her, that just doesnt seem possible."
Krystina sat silently for a few moments. "Our best guess would be about thirty five, but its not just her age thats at question."
"Then what are you really looking for?"
"Tanyas 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, thats a lot of coincidence. And unfortunately we know a lot of it wasnt."
Hecubas expression tightened. "You think someones been holding her in reserve." Chewing on her lip Hecuba considered the implications. "Krystina, werent you telling me that Artemis welcomed her into your closed meetings before Xenas trial?"
"Well, if Artemis trusts her, maybe we should too. Because if Tanyas part of this Velascas conspiracy, and Artemis brought her into the inner circle, maybe wed better start thinking about why."
Shuddering, Krystina cut her off. "Any possible why is too horrible to even think about."
"I know. And Im not accusing either of them. But I am saying if you trust either of their motives, you just about have to trust the others. And if you cant trust Artemis, why are you still wearing her veil?"
Krystinas 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 youre both wrong. Im not questioning Tanyas loyalty. And Im certainly not questioning Artemiss favor. What I am questioning are parts of Tanyas story, and her judgement in personal matters. If you ask me, thats a long ways from calling someone either a spy or traitor."
Settling back onto her seat, Eponin folded her hands atop the table. "I dont know whats gotten into you two, but the way youre arguing this, youd think I was trying to punish Tanya. Well Im not. All I want is for someone to spend some time with her, and help her work through some of the things weve 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 its far worse than you suspected."
Alecto froze. "How so?"
"Come, Ill show you."
Looking at the images in the scrying mirror. Atropos pointed out several women. "Part of Velascas power play is based on her claim to be Queen of the Amazons. This one, Eponin, stands in her way."
Alecto studied the image. "Shes at the top of Velascas 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, Velascas birthright, and claim to the throne, allow her to operate outside the pantheons 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 its affairs."
Threads glowed as the cherubic Clotho cast a hand over the great tapestry. "Here you see the plan as weve 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 Velascas plan to succeed the nation must break faith with Artemis, and its people rise up against her temple. This woman is the strongest, yet most vulnerable link in its armor. As anothers high priestess, Velasca doesnt dare touch her directly, not even Zeus would let her get away with that. Her removal by mortals would not be a problem and Velascas followers have already tried twice "
Alecto shook her head. "What makes her so vulnerable?"
Lachesis explained Krystinas situation. Tisiphone, avenger of murder, scowled. "What is a condemned murderess doing in a temple, let alone serving as its 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 theyd 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 weve ever faced. Whats more, shes intoxicated with the dark power coming to her, and she doesnt know shes getting it."
Alecto again looked at the cable, "weve tangled with Dahok before. The Titans had him cornered until Zeus came along and distracted them."
Clotho shook her head, "Its more than Dahok, and theyre covering their tracks. Right now all of its focused on the Amazons and Zeus is prepared to sacrifice them to buy it off. Problem is thats exactly what Ares had in mind regarding Dahok."
Tisiphone bristled with barely bridled rage. "Always its the woman that gets sacrificed. Well not this time, dammit."
Atropos tightened her grip on the golden scissors. "Agreed."
A fierce expression settled on Clothos cherubic face, "Were clearly under attack by unknown forces with powers at least equal to our own. Its luck that theyve 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 its only focus, or has it shown up elsewhere?"
"Not so far. Its likely probed, but shes the only focus weve found."
Images appeared in the scrying mirror. "Cutting Velascas thread would seem to be the obvious solution. But if we do, this dark force would simply shift its 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 Velascas single minded. And she knows she cant win if the nation keeps faith with Artemis. So heres what I say we do."
The plan was brilliant in its simplicity. Clotho explained, "we lay traps. With the right bait we can hold Velascas attention with the promise of victory while keeping it just outside her grasp. If were 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 itll do both, and to do either it has to expose itself. When it does we can mobilize forces against it. And once its within our realm," She gestured toward the crone, "Atropos does her thing with the scissors and were rid of it once and for all."
The three Furies looked at each other. Tisiphone spoke for all. "Whats 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. Were going to have to do them dirty, and unfortunately for them we cant take a chance on it looking faked. And theyre 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?"
"Id suggest we ask the patron deities of the effected nations. Well 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 daughters people against her. And well have Hades support as well. But I wouldnt trust anyone else. "
"Hes Xenas 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."
"Doesnt it though. Zeus is the only Olympian that knows about the darkness. But all he cares about is saving his own skin. Were not sure about Bacchus, but he and Ares were carousing partners, so I wouldnt 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. Id 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. "Charons not such a bad sort once you get past his looks." The others turned to her in astonishment. Tisiphone folded her arms defensively. "Hes bright, witty, and carries a good conversation. He loves to cuddle, but all he usually sees are dead folks so hes starved for affection. He knows how to make a woman feel wanted. And hes 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"
Alectos hand closed over Tisiphones mouth. "Youll 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 Ill make sure the last quarter candle never happened."
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
Tanya glared at the young priestess barring the temple gates with a staff. "Either get that thing out of my way or Im going to shove it some place youll need a healer to get it out of."
A scowling priestess walked towards the gate. "Whats 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 Im not in the habit of leaving deadly weapons with little girls. So why dont I just leave. You can explain to this Olivia why I didnt 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?"
"Tanyas upset, as you can see, but shes 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 theyd 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. Velascas single minded, but shes cautious. And shes a gambler. But she likes to load the dice, and given a chance shed never bet on a race until just before the winner was declared. So if we can convince her that this is a sure bet, shell 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 lets do it."
That night Tanyas squad leader called her in. "I got a message from the temple. The high priestess says you didnt make your meeting with Priestess Olivia this afternoon. She wants you at the temple tomorrow at sunrise, to do a days penance."
"She can go straight to Tartarus. Or is that too much to hope for?"
The squad leader counted silently to ten. "Im in no mood for jokes, Tanya."
Tanyas hands tightened into fists. "She couldnt have gotten the whole story. I missed that meeting because her damn gatekeeper wouldnt let me onto the temple grounds. And thats the only reason."
The squad leader held up a hand. "Whoa. If you did go to the temple this afternoon and the gatekeeper wouldnt let you in, then why in Tartarus is her holiness upset with you?"
"Like I said, they couldnt have told her the whole story."
"Then suppose you tell it to me?"
The squad leader listened then shook her head, "Doesnt 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 leaders face turned grim. "Dont thank me yet, Tanya. My orders are to see that youre at the temple gate at sunrise, unarmed, barefoot, wearing sacking and ashes. And unless her holiness comes back, or sends word otherwise, youre going."
"Dont do this to me."
"What do you want me to do about it? I dont need any trouble with the temple. And one day of scrubbing floors and praying wont 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 theres nothing else, Ill see you at sunrise."
She started to walk away, then froze as Tanya replied. "I dont think so."
"If I dont, your whole squad will be there the day after, and I doubt theyll be very happy about it. Now I suggest you get some sleep, youre 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, youll be busy scraping pieces of them off the floor."
"Lay a hand on either of them, and Ill see you in jail."
Krystina was talking with Eponin and the squad leader, when Tanya returned to the barracks. Eponin barked, "at attention, guardswoman. Ive just heard about your problems at the temple today, as well as your threats and disrespect towards her holiness tonight. Shes 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."
Eponins 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."
"Thats not the way I heard it."
Tanya took a deep breath. "Might I speak freely your majesty?"
"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, Ive 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 Tanyas side of the story, your holiness?"
Krystinas face darkened. "Yes, your majesty."
Tanya interrupted. "Not before you passed judgement, you didnt. And when I tried to explain, you wouldnt listen."
Eponin snapped. "Youre at attention, Guardswoman. You were saying, your holiness?"
"Tanya did offer an explanation when she confronted me at the hospice. She says I wasnt listening. Well, if I wasnt listening, how was it that I heard her threats?"
"Good question. But so was Tanyas. 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 didnt 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 Im only asking three days penance, and not pressing charges."
Tanyas 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 shed 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 Im there to see. Politely. She tells me to give my sword to this same gatekeeper, that shouldnt be trusted with an eating knife and follow her. I objected, but she didnt 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 dont know what they told Priestess Olivia, or her holiness, but that is what happened. I believe I acted responsibly, and reject her holinesss 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. Thats 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 dont see where I owe an apology for that."
Krystina bowed. "Im going to insist on the three days of penance, your majesty. But if Tanya will give us no trouble, none what so ever tomorrow, Ill release her tomorrow night. Otherwise shell be scourged and start the three days over. And that is entirely due to the threats she made tonight."
"Shes 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 didnt do a damn thing wrong and you know it. Your priestesses were asking for a fight. I walked away from it. If youre going to punish me for that, I suggest you keep them away from me. Because the next time I see them, Ill clobber them and make it worth it. And while youre at it, you stay away from me too."
Krystinas voice hardened. "And like I said at the hospice, you lay a hand on any priestess, and Ill 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. "Its 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 Tanyas 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" Tanyas expression went grim.
Eponins voice dripped with ice as she struggled to control her temper. "That can be arranged. Now shut up."
Krystina sighed. "Some people just dont know when to quit, your majesty. Now Tanya, I need a yes or no answer. Do you understand the instructions for reporting that Ive just given you?"
"I understood them just fine, you self righteous bitch. But that doesnt mean I agree to them."
Eponin felt her fingernails bite into the palms of her hand. "That does it." Tanya crumpled as Eponins 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 youre just about this far from the whipping post. And thanks to that smart mouth of yours youre 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 didnt respect you. I still think I did the right thing at the gate this afternoon. That youre being grossly unfair, and theres 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 Xenas trial, you of all people should know what it feels like to be wrongly accused, let alone convicted and sentenced without a trial. And thats exactly what you did to me today.
Now youve got the right to demand three days of slave labor from me. But thats all itll be because I didnt do anything wrong at the gate. I got mad later when I found out what youd done, but thats 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 dont consider wrong would be an affront to the gods. And Im asking you not to force me to commit blasphemy. You want to blacken your own soul, thats your business. Just dont take mine to Tartarus along with it."
Tanyas speech wasnt the apology Krystina had expected. But its blunt honesty had struck several nerves within the priestess. .
Turning her eyes to the ground Krystina considered her response. Finally she looked up. "You werent 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. Im told that you offered to shove the gatekeepers staff somewhere shed 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 its 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 its 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 arent 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 dont 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, Ill release you after evening prayers. Otherwise youll 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, youre 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. Youre 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?"
"Werent we expecting a penitent this morning?"
The gate keeper consulted a small wax tablet. "Yes maam, that same royal guard caused such a ruckus yesterday is supposed to be coming in for three days. But heres 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 maam. You say the squad leaders bringing her?"
"Yeah. Shes one of Olivias. There shouldnt 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 wouldnt want to be in this gals boots."
"Neither would I. Ilsa was telling me that ones 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 shes 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 didnt 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."
Krystinas face tightened, "I see. How soon do you think before shes fit for duty?"
"That depends. Its likely that one or more of her humors is out of alignment. Well work on those today, and if all goes well she should be feeling much better tomorrow."
"Thank you. Ill 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. Id 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. "Dont even think about lying to me, Kayla, I could smell it on her breath when she belched. And I know damn well we didnt give it to her. Now how much?"
"About a third of a dose."
"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 hadnt done anything wrong. I figured if she was sick theyd forget about it."
"They wont. 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 havent realized it yet, were in the business of keeping people well, not making them sick. Thats the difference between being a healer and a poisoner. The cascara isnt a problem. She could have had that for the asking. But madder root is a powerful emetic, and theres only two situations where we use it. What are they?"
"If someones been poisoned we try to get whatever it is out of them before it can take hold. The second is when were realigning someones humors."
Delia nodded, "Thats right. Now did Tanya know what you were giving her?"
Tears began running down Kaylas cheek. "No, she recognized the cascara. And I told her shed feel sick to her stomach But she didnt 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. Youre going to walk her there to make sure she doesnt get lost on the way. And I want you to stay for early prayers. I wont tell Krystina what you did, but when you finish delivering Tanya Im putting you in penance right here until she gets out. Youre going to scrub walls, floor, laundry, every blanket and bandage weve got. And once shes gone, and Im sure weve got some privacy, Im going to leather that tail of yours like its never been leathered before. Any questions?"
Kayla looked up, "Tanya didnt do anything wrong. And youre already punishing me. Cant we try talking Krystina into letting her go?"
Delias head dropped. "Absolutely not. Tanya is going to the temple just as soon as shes able. And if you do anything else to stall it, youll be going with her. That will give you time to decide what youre going to do about finding a new job."
"But she didnt 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 didnt she tell the gatekeeper she was expecting her?"
Delia scowled, "Im sure shell 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 youll need for the next few days. Then if youd tell your squad leader Id like to speak with her, Id appreciate it."
That evening Krystina returned to the hospice where Delia gave her a short report on Tanyas condition. Folding laundry nearby Kayla listened as they talked. She felt Delias eyes fall on her as the priestess moved to Tanyas bunk a short time later.
Standing by the bunk Krystina asked. "How are you feeling Tanya?"
"It hasnt 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. Well be expecting you."
"Sorry to disappoint you your holiness, but Im not going to the temple tomorrow. You must have me confused with someone else."
Krystina scowled. "What do you mean youre 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, youd release me tonight. I havent caused you any trouble today. So I expect you to keep your word and release me."
"You didnt 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 couldnt have reported if Id wanted to. Now are you going to keep your word and release me or not?"
"Youre twisting my words Tanya. That was a day of penance without giving us any trouble, and Id release you from the other two."
"Im 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 isnt my problem."
Krystina turned, "this doesnt concern you, Kayla?"
"Im sorry your holiness, but youre upsetting a patient, so it does. I was going to offer to fetch Tanyas squad leader, so she could clarify what was said last night. Would either of you like me to do so?"
Straightening, Krystina said, "that wont be necessary. Tanyas 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 dont appreciate your interference in temple matters. Now if youll excuse us?"
Kayla shook her head, "Im 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 wouldnt 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."
"Dont be ridiculous."
"Im not, a day in the hospice would count against a jail sentence. This situation is no different. So either way, shes 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 doesnt 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 wasnt specified could be inferred. I also remember some rather painful lessons about keeping my word."
"Im 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."
Kaylas 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 priestesss word a lie?"
Delia fumed in the background as Krystina slumped. "Alright, Kayla you win. Ill release Tanya from penance.. And Ill notify both your commander and her majesty that Ive done so on my way back to the temple. Im 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 dont give a damn whether its okay with you or not."
Turning back to Tanya she went on. "Tanya, I gave Priestess Olivia your message. Shes a very busy woman, and shed made time yesterday to see you. Shes 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. Shes going to be disappointed when I tell her youre not coming now."
"She wants to talk, she knows where to find me. Now I appreciate you releasing me, but Im still a sick woman. So, would you mind if I get some rest?"
Krystina sighed, "as you wish, Ill say a prayer for your recovery."
Resisting the urge to make a cutting rejection of the priestesss offer Tanya opted for the safe route and replied weakly, "Thank you."
Delias 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."
"Shes right, Tanya, Ive known about the potion she gave you last night since the first time you belched in my face this morning. Shes already in a lot of trouble with me over it. And Kayla right now youre just one jump ahead of a poisoner in my scrolls, and youre losing ground fast. Ive half a mind to call Krystina back here and tell her the truth. And if I did youd both be facing insubordination, capital blasphemy, and a host of other charges for your little charade. The only reason I havent told anybody is that Id rather not watch you hang. But Kayla, if I were you, Id start looking for another line of work."
Turning away from the two teary eyed women Delia called, "Alicia, Ill watch the door if theres anything you want to say to these two."
"Thank you. Theres plenty Id like to say to them. But being an honest Gods fearing woman, if I said half of it, Id 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 weve been teaching you. Right now I feel like Ive been kicked in the gut by a Centaur. And Id imagine thats about how Delia feels. All to get your friend out of three days temple penance. I hope youre 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 didnt want to do that one lousy day. With friends like that, she sure doesnt 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 youre 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, Im 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 doesnt matter. What happens to Kayla does. So Id like to ask both of you, if theres any way Kayla can redeem herself, enough that youd let her keep her job?".
Delia turned towards them. " Why should I even consider it? Shes not even the one doing the asking. I told her what Id do this morning and it didnt 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 shed be looking for a new job. She made her choice, and unlike some, I keep my word."
The events at the hospice hadnt 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 yours?"
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 wouldnt have dared do that if I wore the mask."
Discord sneered at the images. "That woman, (pointing to Eponin) doesnt have what it takes to be queen. If one of my guards dared talk back to me like that theyd be dead, so fast."
Shaking her head as the events caught up with the present Velasca said. "They arent 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 dont know but something about this smells. They were two of Ephinys 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 yours theyve already got most of your followers. Bah, you worry too much."
Velasca smiled inwardly, *Not the ones that matter they dont.* Aloud she said, "maybe youre right. They would be good catches if we can get them."
"Why dont we keep an eye on them for a while?"
Unbeknownst to Velasca and Discord, the Fates were busy watching them. Clotho announced. "Theyve seen the bait, but theyre suspicious. You want I should jiggle it a bit, or just let it lay?"
To be continued
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