Celesta told her sadly, "Ephiny, you stood before a mirror, passing sentence on yourself, but you forgot to do something. Tell me what was it?" "I don't understand." "Ephiny as a queen you have passed sentences of death. There is something customary on such occassions which you neglected to do when passing it on yourself."

Celesta sighed as a blank look greated her. "Let me try this another way. The warlord Krykus tried to exterminate, or enslave, both your nation and that of your husband. Assume he stands before you. Better yet," With a wave of her hand the image of Krykus appeared. "Ephiny it is your duty as the Amazon queen to sentence him. Do so now." Though unsure what the goddess was getting at, Ephiny agreed."Alright, but I still don't understand." "You will" Ephiny drew herself erect, then said in a clear voice. "Krykus, You are guilty of crimes against the Amazon nation. As it's queen, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead. And may the gods have mercy on your soul."

The goddess waved her hand and the image of Krykus disappeared. "Very good Ephiny, now watch this." New images formed. Ephiny cringed as she saw herself standing in front of her own mirror. She shuddered as her own voice sentenced her reflection "Ephiny daughter of Erisa, I sentence you to death. May you be damned to Tartarus for eternity, and even that is better than you deserve" Celesta shook her head, "Tell me Ephiny, why are you any less worthy of the gods mercy than was Krykus?"

Ephiny bowed her head, then asked "It seems you have watched me all of my life, why was that? This place set aside for people like myself, what is it, why am I special?" Feeling herself start to cry,Celesta turned away from Ephiny seeking composure. Finally she said, "Ephiny, I must tell you a long and painful story that will explain all of that, there will be others coming to talk with you as well. This place is sacred even to the gods, we come here when it is our time to die." The answer surprised her, "Then why am I here? I'm already dead, and I'm certainly not a god." "Your body lives, it is being cared for in your village."

Ephiny carefully asked " Please just tell me because I really don't understand. If my body lives, why am I in Tartarus." "You asked to be brought here and punished." "I will explain the rest when the others arrive." Ephiny sounded embarrassed, "Could I have something more to wear." "Why bother? You intended to die in that loincloth as a symbol of penance. I know you often wear it for prayer. As this is a place of penance and prayer it would seem most appropriate. And why, if you didn't mind having your wine soaked body found dead in it, are you embarrassed to be seen in it now?"

Lyssa came first, she too had chosen to die as a penitent and wore nothing more than Ephiny. The distinctive mark of hanging curved upwards to the left side of her neck. The marks of the lash were visible on her back as she turned to greet Celesta. Then she turned to Ephiny who sat with her head buried in her hands.

"Ephiny, you had me punished for a crime I did not commit. You had no proof, nor could you have had, since neither Kira or I were guilty. You took my honor, and I could not live with the shame. You denied me even a decent funeral. You were in pain at the time, angry at yourself for failing to protect either Queen Gabrielle or her things. You turned this anger towards others. I know my death caused you even more anguish, because I could hear your thoughts. Ephiny, you did not kill me, I took my own life. What hurt me most was not the whipping, painful though it was, nor was it the noose. It wasn't even being stripped of my mask and uniform in a public ceremony of humiliation. It was knowing that you no longer saw me as worthy of trust."

Fayla materialized beside her sister. She wore her guards uniform, and the bruises of her fatal beating. "Ephiny, when we were struggling over the knife, I was hit from behind. Since both of us were unconscious, I was taken to the jail until matters could be sorted out. Before I could regain consciousness I was beaten as you see, and murdered by the guards. They are facing charges of murder, and will likely be executed."

M'Lila and Tanya appeared. Ephiny did not know M'Lila and was not introduced. She addressed Celesta. This is the woman we spoke of." The dark woman told Fayla and Lyssa, "Please feel free to greet your friend." The sisters gathered Tanya in a three way hug. As they embraced Celesta passed her hand over them and their wounds disappeared. Lyssa's loincloth disappeared as well, and was replaced by the uniform of the Amazon royal guard..

They held each other for several moments before M'Lila said to Tanya, "We shall look out for them. Now there is something we need you to do." Fayla said "Thank you for your friendship in life and for helping us find justice in death." Lyssa told her, "Remember me and the loved we shared. We'll meet again in the Forests of Eternity. But for now my love, it would bring me joy if you could move past your sorrow and find peace." As the three women left the cavern Tanya heard Ephiny's anguished voice calling her name.
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Delia showed Xena the preparations she had made, "Looks like you've got everything ready. Eponin told Solari "go outside. keep the door closed and everyone out until we're done. I don't want any unfortunate misunderstandings." When the door closed she turned to Xena "anytime you're ready" " Let's do it."

Delia and Alicia watched carefully as Xena operated, explaining as she went along. "You had the right idea, but you have to do each rib separately." Xena showed them on the first couple, then guided them thru the rest. "When you move the rib, be careful of the artery inside of the bottom edge." As they worked each successive rib into place Tanya's breathing became visibly less labored, her skin turning from bluish grey to a more healthful pink. While they were working, Xena explained how to treat a couple other impact injuries to the chest. Among them was her reed and bladder technique for reinflating a collapsed lung. At last she said "now we make sure everything is stitched up and we're done." Alicia offered, "I can do that if you like" When she'd finished the three of them went over Tanya's body discussing the various injuries and treatments given.

Finally Xena looked at Eponin "I think she'll live." To Delia "She's in good hands. Any chance I can look in on Ephiny before they take me back?" Eponin turned quietly to Kayla, "Go to the stables and get Xena's horse ready to travel, field gear, weapon, provisions and bring it around back as fast as possible. Delia, have you got a set of leathers that would fit her?" Xena said "Eponin, don't do it."

Delia turned to her "Xena you just saved this woman's life, we're trying to save yours." "I'm tempted, believe me, and it means a lot to me that your willing. But Eponin, think what you're doing. I know something is wrong, otherwise why let me go as a fugitive, when you could do it openly with a pardon."

"Tell me Eponin, please. Ephiny put a price on my head and 5,000 dinars is a lot of money. If I leave here I'm a fugitive, fair game for any Amazon from any tribe, any bounty hunter. I've still got a death sentence hanging over my head, the only reason I'm alive now is Artemis intervened. How long that's good for, who knows. What happens to the nation, I'm not a part of it, never can be, but it meant a lot to Gabrielle. It almost came apart at the seams when Melosa died. Now Gabrielle is dead, Ephiny isn't in condition to rule, so that leaves you. You let me go, what happens? Civil war. I won't have this nations blood on my hands. I've got so much to answer for now that eternity in Tartarus won't begin pay for it all. Maybe I'll meet Gabrielle there, maybe Artemis can get her reprieved. Either way, am I supposed to thank Artemis for her soul, by destroying the nation they both love. I'd rather hang a thousand times than destroy her memory, that's why I can't do it."

Eponin grasped the bunk, pleading. "Xena, I can't give you a pardon. I'm only acting as queen during an emergency, besides which they have to be approved by the council. We'll tell them everything you've done today. I'm pretty sure we can convince them to commute your sentence. I might even have the power to do that, but I don't know yet what rights and powers I really have. I don't want to execute you but if the council comes back and says do it, I'll have no choice."

A knock came at the door, Eponin called out, "Solari, I asked for no interruptions, what is it?" Solari's worried voice came back, "It's Niobe from the council, says its matter of life and death." Alicia whispered to Kayla."Take Xena in the back." When they were out of sight Eponin called out, "Bring her in."

A short silver headed woman carrying sheets of parchment and a scroll entered with Solari. She approached Eponin and knelt on one knee. "Your majesty, thank the gods I found you in time." Eponin helped her up, "Niobe what is this urgent matter you found me in time about?" Niobe said excitedly "This order Queen Ephiny left for Xena's execution. It's not valid." Eponin was shocked, "What order are you talking about." Niobe handed her a sheet of parchment, "This one. We just found this at the council hut, and didn't know if you'd seen or acted on it." "This is the first I've even heard of it." Eponin took the document and began reading it aloud.

In the back the two women could hear everything being said in the infirmary. Despite her earlier statements, Xena looked longingly at the back door. Hearing the words, burned at the stake, Kayla signed quickly, "get out of here while you still can." With that she turned offering her back to Xena in a clear invitation to hit her. Then they heard Eponin read, 'Any and all persons into whose possession this document may fall, are advised to take due notice this order is invalid and without force. Any execution so performed either under it or in this manner, would be unlawful and punishable as murder under the law of the Amazon Nation. Set with the seal of the Amazon National Council this date.' Xena slumped, as Kayla let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

Niobe continued "I knew you were thrust into the position of queen by circumstance only within the last two days. You are also dealing with a personal crisis, and in that you have my sympathies and support. This scroll contains our basic law in capital cases. I brought it to you since we seem currently plagued by them. Are you aware of your rights as queen in such matters." "I am not. In fact, I don't know my rights or responsibilities in most matters. As you know, I wasn't trained for this position, never wanted it, yet now I find it thrust upon me. Please enlighten me with regards to sentencing, pardons and commutations, as well as the status of pending cases."

"The queen may impose a death penalty, provided the proof of guilt required by our law have been met. We discussed them in regards to the jail guards accused of murder. Since you now have the required proof against Marya, you may impose a death sentence on her. Katrina has grave responsibility in the death of one prisoner, and the attempted killing of another, but she didn't actually kill. You may not try her as an accomplice, because no such provisions were in our law prior to her crimes. Her case does show the need for them. If you ask the council to enact them, I'm sure the petition would find much favor.

In the case of Xena and her assault on Queen Gabrielle, there is proof she committed capital crimes under our law. She may be sentenced to death should you wish. Due to the unusual circumstances of her case, you may wish to consider a less severe punishment. These include information from the late queens scrolls, and the interest expressed by our patron goddess. In due course the council will offer a recommendation, but the final decision is yours. Her case is quite complex, I would prefer to discuss it at a later time."
Eponin thought about that for a moment, "What about commutatation and pardon?" "You may commute any sentence, to one of lesser, but not greater severity than initially imposed. For example, a banishment may be commuted to labor, but not the reverse."

"Pardons are granted by the queen, but only with the consent of the council. Usually they are based on serious effort to reform or presentation of mitigating evidence that might have resulted in acquittal at a trial. There are other reasons but those are the most common."

"Have you other questions at this time your majesty?" Eponin sighed "My head is already spinning, but yes I have two." "And they are, your majesty?" "If I sentence someone to say, a whipping and hard labor, can a council or queen who might follow me, change it later to either banishment or death?"

"They may not. Once sentence is passed it may not be increased in severity. This is true even if it has yet to be carried out or served. What is your second question?"

"May I change or cancel orders of non criminal nature issued by previous queens?"

"That would depend on the order, adoptions stand regardless of reigning queen. Treaties may of course be renegotiated in their proper time, but each new queen is bound by those of her predecessor. I sense that you have something in mind, perhaps if you ask directly I can give a specific answer."

"Some time ago Queen Ephiny gave orders that a young woman be denied a funeral pyre after committing suicide. She and another were stripped of their warrior status, whipped and made laborers after the unfortunate events of Xena's last visit.

"This denial could not then have been a portion of her sentence. That is strange, such an order is usually the case only following an execution. Even then, a pyre may be granted for many reasons to include the request of the condemned's family. It is done without great ceremony, but it is not unheard of. You wish this woman's body taken from her grave and cremated?"

"Yes. It was very important to her family and lover that her body be burned. Her lover lays in that bunk. She is the guardswoman Tanya you met last night when she offered the plan to obtain a confession from the murderess Marya. This morning she voluntarily suffered a whipping, humiliation, and near loss of own her life to bring that plan into action. A pyre for the dead woman's only sister is being built as we speak. She was the guard murdered in the jail just two nights ago. It was Tanya's request that I look into the matter.

"Why is it important she be cremated, especially after this time. Why not let her rest peacefully in her grave?" "I discovered only yesterday that these three women were born in Mesopotamia and brought up with beliefs from the land of their birth. By their beliefs the gods judgements are effected by those of man. They believed then, and Tanya still does, that by ordering the suicide Lyssa's body into a dishonored grave, Queen Ephiny condemned her soul to Tartarus."

Niobe was shocked, "If they believe that, why did they not secretly cremate her? Does anyone else in the village share these beliefs or even know of them?"

"When I became aware of this I asked Tanya the first question They buried her at the queens orders out of loyalty to her. Tanya made the unthinkable request that she, also be buried in such a manner. To rejoin her lover she said, that though it be in Tartarus, they would at least be together. There may be others who know or share this belief, but I just don't know."

Xena could see that the guardswoman watching the manacled jail guard was becoming agitated. Suddenly she spoke, "I know of this belief and share it." She fell to her knees, "Your majesty please, punish me if you must for speaking out, but please I beg you, do not allow this to happen." Eponin looked kindly at the guard "It shall not, nor shall you be punished, for as I said the request is unthinkable."

"Who are you and from where do you come. Why are you guarding that woman so?" Niobe looked around, suddenly she pointed at Xena. "what is she doing here?" Eponin held up her hands, then pointed to the kneeling woman, "She is guarding that woman at my orders, The woman on the floor is a guard from the jail with a great devotion to her duty. Great enough, that she objected to Xena being allowed to use a knife to work her knowledge of the healing arts."

Niobe looked first at Xena, then Delia and finally settled again on Eponin, "Your majesty, what is going on here?" Epnin drew a breath, "Xena's skills in the healing arts are as great as her skills at war. She is here at my request and that of the healer. " She pointed at Tanya, "For most of the day Tanya here has lingered at Hades door. Her appearance now is that of a badly injured woman. Xena opened her chest, and did something with her ribs that saved her life." Niobe looked at her sternly, "I see. We can speak of this later, but the guard had something of importance to say."

"My name is Ashraf, I was born on the banks of the Euphrates river. Slavers raided my village and sold me to a Phoenician merchant for his pleasure. He brought me to Athens where I was sold into a brothel. I later escaped and fled into the wild. Some days later I was found by one of your trade missions, more dead than alive and brought here. I have been in the village for eight summers. The belief told you by the weapons mistress, forgive me, queen, is that which I was taught as a child and still hold." Niobe asked carefully "You do not then worship our Gods?" Ashraf answered with equal caution "One must take care not to offend any Gods, I live in this land and so worship it's Gods, but I also worship those of my birth land." Niobe relaxed slightly.

"Ashraf what do your beliefs tell you would happen to her soul, should this woman be taken from her grave and cremated with even minimal honor?" "We believe it would be drawn from the underworld to her pyre, where the Fravartin, her families spirit, would find it. They would take it before the gods to be rejudged. Even the smallest honor might help erase the shame of her criminals burial. Beyond that I cannot speak for the Gods."

Niobe thought for several moments and then decided. "Your majesty, I will examine the records of the incident you mention, and the orders regarding this woman upon my return to the council chamber. Healer, when do you feel that this one will be able to talk for a few moments? Perhaps a quarter candlemark?" "It will be several candlemarks, perhaps after the evening meal, but most likely not until morning. Truly Xena did save her life with a skill I did not possess, and has taught me to do the same for others.. There is much I could learn from her if she is permitted to live."

Ignoring the obvious question Niobe turned to Eponin."I have seen the pyre being built for this dead guard. When is her funeral?" Eponin answered "Tomorrow at mid morning. The council decreed that she be granted royal honors if you remember." "I remember suggesting it. Her body is at the temple, I believe. Your majesty, would you in the name of the council inquire of priestess Krystina if she feels the body will keep for another day. If so, would you also in the name of the council, order a one day delay in her funeral." "Of course" "Healer when will this Tanya be able to leave your hut for a short time, perhaps a candlemark or two." Delia thought for a moment, "If she is not required to walk or stand the day after tomorrow, seated, two candlemarks should not be a problem." "Thank you." Niobe turned to leave but Delia's voice stopped her. "I request that Xena be permitted to stay here for a time, rather than being returned to the jail. Since she saved this ones life with her cutting skill, it might be best if she helped care for her, unless of course, she would prefer to return to her cell."

Niobe looked pointedly at Eponin, "I would defer this question to her majesty." Xena thought *Eponin has sure started to sound like a queen* Eponin having already thought about this turned to Delia, "Either yourself, one of your assistants or a member of the royal guard would have to accompany her if she leaves the hospice. She may leave only to go to and from the baths, food hut or temple. She may attend a public religious ceremony if she chooses and an escort is available. She will be required to witness any public punishments. Since a healers presence is required at these, an escort should not be a problem. She may sleep here or be returned to her cell overnight as you wish. If she stays you will be responsible for the safety of any who come into contact with her. Are you willing to have her under these conditions?"

Delia put a hand on her chin as though considering the matter. Looking at Xena she received a tiny nod in return. "I'll accept responsibility for her. About your conditions, what about having her do basic chores like cutting wood or drawing water." "Only with an escort and inside the village."

Eponin turned to Xena, "Do you want to stay, and if I permit this, will you abide by the conditions the healer has agreed to?" Xena thought *Wouldn't you, if the alternative was rotting in that stinking cell.* Aloud she said, "I would like that." Alicia thought, *Eponin you're enjoying this too much* Eponin folded her arms, and considered the matter. "Xena you are still under arrest, and charged with crimes for which the maximum penalty is death. Pending final judgement of your case, you may not ride a horse, or carry a weapon. Any tools needed to perform healing, or other work as may be asked of you, are permitted during such need. As your belongings are being held in evidence, clothing and other basic necessities will be provided you. Until your case has been judged, you may not under any circumstances wear armor or feathers." At this last Xena thought, Eponin's putting on a show for the benefit of Niobe. She suspected the woman had quite a bit of rank. Finally Eponin said, "Xena - If you agree to these terms, I would ask for your word of honor" Xena drew herself erect and looked Eponin in the eye, "I agree to your terms, and offer you my word of honor."

Eponin turned to Niobe, "Is there anything else you require." "No your majesty, I shall investigate those matters we discussed and speak with you again. For now I shall take my leave. Good day" Niobe bowed then left the hut. As Eponin closed the door she slumped against it, "thank the gods, I couldn't take much more of that." Alicia laughed "actually I thought you were enjoying it."

Xena asked quietly, "Eponin, we could hear you reading. If Ephiny's order had stood, would you have burned me?" Eponin looked very serious, "Yes Xena, and when I made the final check of your bindings, I would have accidentally snapped your neck."

She sat down on a bench, "Now the decision of what to do with you is mine. I offered you a chance to run, you turned it down for the good of the nation. I can respect that, but make no mistake about it, I too love this nation. After I study the evidence, and hear the councils recommendation, I will decide your case, and do what I have to do." Xena's eyes turned towards the floor, "I could expect you to do no less." Eponin added "Saving this woman's life will weigh in your favor. You could have bargained her life for yours, you didn't even try. That matters to me, and it will matter to the council, as will your behavior from here on." "I understand."

Eponin turned towards the door. " It's okay to let her up now. She addressed the fuming guard. "I'm sure you heard, but Xena is being released on condition to the healer and royal guard. Solari and I'll go back to the jail with you and take care of the formalities. Of your earlier reservations nothing will be said. Solari turn her loose, Kayla fetch her weapons."

Delia waited while the warriors talked, but finally she'd had enough. "Xena, there's a spare bunk in the back, and I suspect you could stand a mug of tea." Not waiting for an answer she turned to Eponin. "Would you have some clothing sent over for my fellow healer as soon as possible." "Of course, Delia." Then guard, Eponin and Solari left. Delia turned to Alicia, "Why don't you take a break. When you get back I'll take Xena over to the baths. Xena, I should warn you, I like a long hot soak, so you better plan on being there a while." Xena also loved long hot baths, but said quietly "As you wish." Seeking to break the tension Delia pouted as though considering something of great importance. Then in a little girl voice. "Kayla, since I'll be all alone in the baths with such a dangerous criminal, would you mind coming with us." Kayla realizing the healer was playing, replied in her most dangerous tone "I shall fetch my sword, ma'am." Xena threw up her hands "I'll go quietly"

They were drinking tea when Solari returned and handed Delia a piece of parchment. "Xena, to make this official, pending judgement in your case, you've been released to the healers custody, conditioned on your good behavior." Xena replied quietly "Thank you Solari, I won't give you cause to regret it."

"Eponin's bringing some clothes and a few things you might need." "Thank you, the healer loaned me a shift, it'll feel good to be clean again." Solari looked at her "Xena no offense but, when was the last time you had a bath." "Not since I've been in jail unless the healers gave me one. No offense taken." Delia looked at her "Was that because you didn't want to take one, or because you weren't given the chance?" "Never had the chance, either to really bathe or do laundry."

Solari and Delia were horrified. Solari said "You were never offered the chance to bathe, while in jail?" "Was I supposed to be" "Every four days, on evening watch. Which would be tonight. Did you ever ask" "Well each morning they did bring me a wash bucket, I did the best I could with that." Solai persisted, "Just in the morning?" "They brought one last night, couple other nights. Never asked, I just assumed being in jail it was part of the punishment."

Delia asked quietly, "Xena you were in that cell for over a moon, you didn't even ask when. Gods." Xena looked embarrassed, "No, one of the day guards noticed, brought me extra water and sponges. Please don't ask me which. She was kind and I'd really rather not get her into trouble."

Solari snapped back, "I don't have to ask, young, dark, wears a necklace of bear claws.- she told me you were cycling, asked me for the sponges. Just like she was supposed to." Kayla looked like she was going to be ill, "If not then, would you have ever asked?" Xena replied honestly "Well, for my last request, I was planning to ask for a hot bath and something clean to die in." Kayla got up and quickly left the room.

Solari spoke quietly but firmly. "Xena, we don't punish people by keeping them filthy. You were supposed to be offered a chance to bathe every fourth night. You were supposed to be given a wash bucket every morning, and every night. If the guards know you're cycling, they're supposed to give you what you need to deal with it. That's the same for everyone whether they're in pretrial custody or serving a sentence." She stood up "When Eponin gets here, I want you to tell her the same thing you just told me." "All right." "By the way, you were being held in custody pending judgement of your case. Any punishment comes after that happens, not before." Xena looked at her mug. "Now if you ladies will excuse me, I'm going to the jail, and make sure tonight's baths get offered."

When Solari had gone Xena turned to Delia, "Healer I don't know your name, but I remember you taking care of me in my cell. You've got a kind heart, not many would have bothered." Delia took a swallow of tea before answering, "My name's Delia, and it's okay to call me that. As far as the rest of it goes, healers who decide whether or not to care for people, based on their name or station in life, aren't worthy of the name. I have opinions, both of you and what happened that day. Be that as it may, when you were brought in sick, my job was to heal your body, not to judge your actions. Others will do that, perhaps quite harshly." She stopped for a breath, "Xena no one, not even Hades, could judge you as harshly as you judge yourself."

Kayla came back saying "I think I'll sit with Tanya a while." Xena said apologetically "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that last." Kayla answered "If it was the truth you've no need to apologize." "It was, and I do." Kayla looked at her, "Then let me ask you this. As badly as you were treated in our jail, and facing a death sentence, you still saved one of us. Why?" "She needed saving."

Kayla sat down, "There's something I don't understand about you." "There's a lot I don't understand about myself, go ahead and ask." "When you were brought here dead, our squad was chosen to provide your honor guard. Tanya and I were both pallbearers." Shuddering, Xena closed her eyes, then opening them asked quietly. "Thank you, What would you like to understand?" Kayla looked embarrassed, and hesitated a moment before continuing. "When it was all over I started asking myself, why would anyone be desperate enough to come back, as to put that whole thing together." Kayla hesitated, "and well I knew your reputation." Xena took a swallow of tea. "So you figured I got sent to Tartarus, is that it?" "Yes" "I was in Tartarus, and someday I'll have to go back." She heard Delia catch her breath. Xena suspected what was coming, but waited while Kayla fidgited. Finally Kayla asked, "If you know you're going back, why do you still care about right, wrong, helping people like Tanya, or anything else for that matter?"

Xena set down her tea. "Kayla, I wound up in Tartarus because, for a long time I didn't care about anything. The evil I did then was unspeakable. The Gods didn't send me there, I bought my passage and paid for it in the blood of countless innocents. I care now because a farm girl I met outside Potadeia taught me to care. She told me damning my own soul didn't give me permission to make other peoples lives miserable. This simple farm girl with her gift for words brought peace between nations. She was as fierce a fighter as I've ever seen, brave enough to stand up to both kings and Gods. For all that, killing wasn't part of her personal code, and the few times she did kill almost destroyed her. I learned a lot from her, and miss her terribly." Kayla asked "She sounds like quite a woman, what happened to her?"

"We met an Amazon patrol one day. While we were on our way here they were ambushed by archers. One of the women was hit and she threw her body over the wounded woman trying to save her life. The dying woman gave her right of caste, and because of that she eventually became your Queen Gabrielle."

After that they drank their tea quietly until Eponin arrived, "Krystina says no problem keeping Fayla's body, so I'm holding off on the funeral. I asked her help going thru those scrolls we found yesterday." Delia nodded "Maybe they'll give her an idea what was going on in Ephiny's head before we take her over." Eponin added "besides none of us has time to read them right now." Delia brought another mug and said simply, "I'm sorry Eponin, but there still hasn't been any change." Eponin sat down "I know you're doing everything you can, It just seems as though." "I know."

She turned her attention elsewhere. "Kayla I told Sophia and your squad, how you helped save Tanya's life. I suspect you're going to be kind of popular for a while." Kayla started to protest, "But I didn't do anything." "Well from what I hear, it was your idea to ask for Xena, and you helped with the rest of it." Noting the defeated look on the warriors face, Delia told her. "Kayla you're welcome here anytime, whether you want to help out, or even if you just want to talk." Kayla replied grumpily, "I'll never live this down." Eponin laughed, Xena smiled at the warriors discomfurture.

Realizing she was still holding it, Eponin handed Xena the clothing bundle, "I had to guess your size, but it's pretty basic stuff, anything doesn't fit, just tell me." As Xena opened the bundle Eponin thought she looked a bit like a kid at Solstice. Seeing her eyes light up as she found the new undercloths Eponin's thoughts grew darker. "Xena I ran into Solari, she told me about your treatment in our jail and I apologize. Had we known, we would have put a stop to it." "Eponin don't worry about it." Eponin snapped back, "It's my job to worry about it, and it's about a lot more than missing a few baths. Any prisoner in that jail is pretty much at the mercy of their guards. Someone was routinely disobeying orders, mistreating prisoners, and I won't stand for it." Xena not knowing how to respond said nothing.

Eponin thought for a moment before continuing. "When Solari told me what you said, about not being able to bathe being part of the punishment, I felt insulted." Xena answered quickly "I didn't intend it that way, I've been in a few jails, never got a chance to bathe in any of them." Eponin held up one hand and continued, "A moment later I realized that was likely the case and stopped feeling insulted."

Eponin drained her mug, "Maybe it was for the best, because on the way over here something dawned on me that really hadn't before." After waiting expectantly for a moment Xena took the hint and asked. "What was that?"

Setting down the mug Eponin said, "I realized how little you really know of us. You know enough of our customs, that you've obviously been around Amazons before. When or where that was I have no idea." Xena remembering her travels in Scythia thought to herself *Thank the gods you don't* "I do have a feeling it didn't end terribly well, for all I know you were banished from some tribe, so far away we never heard of it." Xena fought down the panicked realization of just how close to the truth Eponin was.

For a moment Delia thought she saw a look of terror in Xena's eyes. Eponin noticed it too and realized she'd hit a nerve. "Xena, One thing we value is privacy, I'd like to know, but I don't need to know. So I want to tell you just a bit about us."

Xena seemed to calm slightly as Eponin went on. "We aren't a cruel people, but we live in a cruel world. Outside our borders, well you know what it's like for most women." Xena nodded. "Our laws are strict, and punishments harsh for those who break them. They have to be. A lot of women come to us on the run, some from a brutal husband, others from slavery, and, yes, some from the law. We take them in, not all stay, but we try and give those who do a safe place to get on with their lives. Here a woman's past is her own affair, unless she chooses to share it with us. We'll give her a fresh start or a new life, if she wants it and is willing to work for it."

Xena remembered Cyane telling her those same things, and her own betrayal of the woman so soon after. She realized it must show on her face, because Eponin stopped speaking. Delia picking up on the situation asked Kayla if she'd mind getting them all some more tea.

Eponin waited until Kayla had refilled the mugs before continuing. "Xena, another thing Amazons pride ourselves on is fairness. It's part of what sets us apart from the outside world. Winters can be harsh, crops can fail, and hunting may be poor. Those are the will of the Gods. Our own is that no one goes hungry here, other by their own choice, unless the entire nation does. Some come with no skills except those of the brothel, often they're sick, starved and in rags. It doesn't matter to us. However they come in they get fed, clothed, healed if possible and taught a useful skill. All we ask is they obey our laws, respect our customs, and try to make a fair contribution to our nation. Unlike the outside world, there aren't any beggars here. We accept whatever effort someone is capable of making as their fair contribution. We like it if they can earn their keep, but we don't turn them out if they can't. I don't think that's too much to ask, do you?" "Sounds more than fair to me."

"Xena you're here under some pretty unusual circumstances. While you're here this time I want you to do two things. Try getting to know us a bit, and while you're at it give us a chance to know you." Xena was startled at this last, "but Eponin you do know me." Eponin shot back "The Warrior Princess is not who I'm talking about. We know about her, she's a fearsome warrior and the Amazon Nation has taken a lot of grief over her exploits. I'm not talking about the legend, not even the Queens consort, but the woman inside, who you really are." "I can't do that Eponin." Eponin was devastated, *why did I even waste my breath* her face grew bright red as she spit out. "Why not?" "I'm sorry but I don't know who she is anymore."

Eponin's temper flared, "Then maybe it's high time you found out. You rode into our territory knowing you'd be arrested. You likely knew the charges carried the death penalty, so why did you ride in?" Xena dropped her hands and eyes into her lap to avoid provoking a challenge. She answered quietly, "I had to make sure you knew about Gabrielle's death." "If that were the only reason you could have sent a messenger moons ago. No Xena, you rode in wanting us to execute you. You were trying to commit suicide, just like Ephiny was when she put a knife to her breast."

Her anger spent Eponin slumped into her chair. Still intently studying her lap Xena spoke quietly, "I sent messages, and before she died, so did Gabrielle." Eponin knew she would have and had been surprised by the lack of word. She started carefully "When we read Gabrielle's diary."

Xena was stunned "You read her diary?" "We wouldn't have touched it if she were alive. Right now other than your own testimony, her diary and scrolls are the best evidence we have as to what happened " Xena swallowed and looked up, "Sorry I should have realized." Eponin continued, "if I remember, she wrote something about sending one from Thessilly, it was shortly after she'd been wounded in a fight with some Persians. Do you remember anything about the messenger, or any of the others." "Let me think. Thessilly might be the one she sent with a Centaur. I never heard his name, but I seem to remember him being a red haired roan. After she died I sent one with a merchant caravan." Eponin believed her, "Xena, you may have sent messages, but we never got them. Not even one since the day you dragged her out of here." "Not even one?" Eponin shook her head.

Soon after Alicia returned, Xena, Delia and Kayla set out for the baths, stopping first by Kayla's barracks so she could get fresh clothes. After a hard day following a short night most of her squad were at the hot springs. The two there were hesitant about approaching Xena. Still, a wineskin was produced, and the three toasted like conquering heros. Xena on seeing the skin thought to herself *barracks are the same anywhere*. Delia returned the toast to "the bravest and most damn fool warrior she'd ever met." It was good, naturedly accepted and the trio moved on.

Delia was true to her word, and soon they found themselves soaking in a steaming tub, scrubbing each others backs, and washing each others hair. As Xena helped Kayla refill the buckets to warm for the next bathers, she told her, she felt human for the first time in ages.

Eponin walked over to the council hut to talk with Niobe and the other members. They talked not only about Lyssa but Kira as well. In checking the council record, Niobe had found no proof of wrongdoing on either of their parts. It appeared to be as Tanya said, they had been punished unjustly. Niobe told her Ephiny had come to the same realization shortly before her suicide attempt, and recorded the fact in her personal scrolls. Xena's accounts of Illusia, combined with Gabrielle's from her scrolls led them both to the same conclusion, the gods had been involved.

Upon returning to the hospice the freshly bathed trio found Tanya awake. Still in considerable pain she greeted them weakly. Alicia told them she was brewing something to take the edge off. Delia agreed saying that, in her weakened state she was hesitant about giving her anything stronger. Kayla greeted her warmly. Tanya called softly, "Xena" Xena knelt down,"What is it." "They tell me you saved my life. Thank you, but Why?" She said weakly "I know you hate me for what happened to your friends, I thought you should have the pleasure of seeing me hang for it." Remembering M'Lila's words she added "besides it wasn't your time to die."

Xena started to get up, but Tanya's hand closed on her wrist. "No" Xena was surprised at the strength of the grip. "Xena, I had a strange dream, two women, messages for you." "Messages. Who were they?" "Dark woman, amulet, like your armor. Two Gods, one with horns, one with sword, betrayed friend. Pale woman, dark hair, candle" The grip relaxed as the herb laden tea overtook her and she started to sleep.

Xena gently folded Tanya's arm back onto her bunk. "We should let her rest now. She's had a tough day." She stood up looking deathly pale "Xena what's wrong." Delia caught her as she started to collapse "Kayla, Alicia, help me lay her down" Once they had her on a bunk Delia checked her over, "heart's strong, breathing's fine, message must have meant something to her. Kayla I want you to sit here, and if Tanya wakes up get the rest of the message. Will you do that for me?" "Of course. Is Tanya alright?" "Yes, the medicine just took over is all." Alicia looked at Delia, "I'll see if Krystina can come over, I think she'd better hear this."

A few minutes later Xena woke to find herself on a hospice bunk. A very concerned Delia and a priestess were beside her bed. "What happened," Delia said "You fainted." The priestess spoke "Xena, I am Krystina, High priestess of Artemis here in the village. You have seen me before." "You're on the council. I saw you at my hearing." "Yes I was told what you did here today, and that you had been released into Delia's charge. I too thank you for saving the young woman." Xena started to sit up but Delia's hand gently stopped her "You're welcome, I'm not dying, am I?" "No Xena why do you ask such a question?" Delia looked over her shoulder, "Alicia, Would you get Xena some tea please, add some honey." Looking at Krystina she explained, "I've found it sometimes helps people who suddenly go faint on us." Krystina speaking softly asked "Tanya talked to you of a dream, it obviously meant something to you. Who was the woman with the amulet?"

Xena wasn't sure how to answer. "Her name was M'Lila. Tanya couldn't have known her, she died 13 summers ago." Krystina looked at her and asked "Tell me about her?" Xena briefly told her the story. When she had finished Krystina asked, "This other woman, do you know her as well. "Maybe, I think she was describing Celesta." Both Delia and Krystina looked at each other, "You mean Celesta, the Gods messenger of death?" "Yes. Gabrielle and I saved her life a couple of summers back, after she'd been trapped by King Sisyphus." Delia looked at her "Xena, Celesta and this M'Lila woman sent you a message from the other side. How is this possible, and what does it mean?"
Xena hesitated and then answered "About two summers ago, I had a series of nightmares and wound up trapped in Tartarus in someone else's body, Callisto you've heard of her?" Krystina said "Yes, but she is a God. Queen Ephiny spoke of her after your last visit. We've also read of her in Queen Gabrielle's scrolls." Xena continued "It's complicated, she wasn't a God then, but somehow she escaped from Tartarus and became an immortal. She helped us stop Velasca and got some of her ambrosia. Her paths and ours crossed many times. Not important right now, but she trapped me in Tartarus thru my dreams with the help of Aries." Krystina said, "that is a story I should one day like to hear. What did the dream mean?" "The medicine took over before she could finish, but from what she did say, it means we have big trouble."

Alicia brought her a mug of tea at that moment, Xena took it and rolled onto her side. Waiting for her to take a sip Krystina asked her "Tanya said M'Lila mentioned two gods, one with horns and one with a sword. What gods did she pray to?" "She was from Western Gaul, they pray to the Celtic Gods, same as the Britons." Delia started at this, remembering the discussion with Tanya of the previous day, "Celtic Gods. Were these the Gods she was describing?" Taking a sip of tea Xena replied "I doubt it, if they were her Gods she'd have known their names." Krystina thought for a minute. "Makes sense, who do you think they were?" Xena replied "Bacchus and Aries, Gabrielle and I had run ins with both but that can't be either, Bacchus is dead." "How do you know?" Xena looked at her, "I killed him." Krystina looked confused, "You killed a God how? Besides Bacchus can only be killed by a, Gods preserve us, you're a baccae."

Xena sat up, "Gabrielle and I were both baccae for a short time. We were investigating the disappearance of women from a village near the baccae forest. We'd been gathering Dryad bones when Gabrielle suddenly turned and attacked me and the friend that was helping us." Delia asked "She was bitten by a baccae?" Xena thought for a moment "that was the strange part, I didn't see any baccae around her, I don't remember seeing a bite mark either." Krystina added "If she wasn't bitten then how?"

Xena continued "I don't know." She went on to tell her about the fight in Bacchus's catacombs. When she was finished Krystina asked her "You never saw the baccae that bit her?" "No, but they move pretty fast." "You didn't see the bite mark either." "No but I was kind of busy trying to keep from getting bitten myself. Why is that important?" Krystina said calmly "it might not be, but it could be everything." Xena looked puzzled, "Now I'm confused." Krystina asked her "Xena did either of you drink Baccus's blood?" "I didn't, and I'm pretty sure Gabrielle didn't." "Then he may still be alive."

"Priestess what are you saying?" Krystina looked at her with sad eyes, "What I am about to tell you, must not leave this hut unless I tell you otherwise." Xena and Delia both agreed. "Artemis petitioned Zeus on behalf of Queen Gabrielle's soul, asking for a council of the Gods to reconsider her judgement." Xena interrupted, "That's no secret, she said it in front of the whole village." "Xena please let me finish." "Sorry" "Zeus turned her petition down without explanation, saying only that she had no standing in the matter."

Delia interrupted this time, "How could she not? The Amazon queen is always one of her chosen?" Krystina said very quietly, "There has to be another God that claims her. I can say no more at the moment, but we must hear the rest of the woman's dream and consult with Artemis."

Eponin came in at that moment, Delia greeted her. "Tanya's been awake. She was in a lot of pain." "I'm not surprised, Is she able to talk?" "Not right now, we had to give her something for the pain. It put her back out." Eponin then turned to Krystina, "They told me at the temple you might be here." "Well you've found me, we were just having a cup of tea and talking a bit." "Seems Delia's always having tea with somebody. Anyway Niobe's calling a council meeting tomorrow at mid morning." "I shall be there." Seeing Xena sitting on the bunk looking pale she asked, "Xena, you okay."

Delia stepped in "Xena was a little faint after her bath, so we laid her down." Xena started to stand up "Just got a bit dizzy, you know how healers overreact." Delia looked at her sternly "Xena, based on the effects of the honey we gave you, I'd say what you need is food. Do you feel okay to walk over to the food hut or shall I have some brought here." "I'd like to walk, it's been a while." "Fine, we'll change first. If you ladies will excuse us." When they'd gone back to the living quarters the priestess turned to Eponin. "Now what did you really want to talk to me about?"

Xena sat brushing out her hair, "It feels good to be clean again." "I can only imagine. Let's see how Eponin did on guessing size, you've lost weight." Remembering the revelations about the baths Delia asked "They did feed you at the jail didn't they?" "Didn't have much appetite, porridge in the morning, soup at night."

Xena pulled the borrowed shift off over her head. She had no hang ups about modesty, besides Delia was another woman, and she had just bathed with her. Picking up an undercloth, a long strip of soft woolen cloth, about a handspan wide and six cubits long. Xena tied one end around her waist like a belt. Turning the knot so it lay at the base of her spine, she pulled the long tail forward between her legs. Tucking the end of the strip under the belt part, she drew it upwards to lay snugly against her, and let the end fall forward. Next she picked up two soft leather aprons intended to be worn together as a skirt. "When Eponin said basic she was right. It's been a long time since I've worn anything like this" "A lot of women like that style, say it gives them freedom to move. And it fits everyone." The halter fit well enough, as did the boots. "I'm a little surprised she picked these out for me," "I'm not, we give the same kind of bundle to all the new women."

Eponin stuck her head in, "Krystina and I are headed over to the food hut. Xena you look human again, everything fit alright?" "Everything fits fine, thank you." "Delia give me a couple of minutes before you come over. I'll be making an announcement about Xena's status, to avoid any problems."

Xena and Delia, checked on Tanya and Ephiny, before walking to the food hut. Xena asked "Does anyone know why she did this?" Delia shook her head, "We're trying to figure that out, it would be a lot easier if she could talk to us." Checking Ephiny's eyes Xena said, "Even and clear. Wounds not infected. You said the guard only hit her once. Doesn't make sense that she should still be out after two full days." Delia looked up "I agree. As to the why's, we have a few suspicions that we're keeping to ourselves. Since you're a healer, I'll tell you what we do know after supper."

Kayla walked with them to the food hut, where they took bowls of venison stew and pieces of bread from the cooks. Delia started looking for places to sit in the crowded communal dining hall. Kayla caught her attention, "I'll be sitting with my squad, I'd like you to join us, both of you." Delia replied for both, "We'd love to join you, can you get us time to eat between questions?" Kayla replied "Trust me."

The squad members made room for them on the benches. Kayla made an announcement, "Tanya's been awake and talking. They had to give her something for pain that knocked her back out. Now I promised our guests they'd have a chance to eat between questions, any problems?" There were none. As they finished a squad member picked up their bowls before Xena could protest and headed over to the cooks to refill them.

Xena's head was spinning at the turn of events that day. She'd been wakened early by some of these same women, during their noisy mood setting at the jail. Now she was being made welcome at their mess. Then too there was Tanya's mysterious dream, if indeed that's what it was. It seemed so unreal. Were it not for the conditions attached to her freedom, she would have gone for a walk to let it all settle. She had a nagging feeling that, any moment she'd wake up in her cell to find it only a dream. At length, Delia stood up and thanked the squad for it's invitation. As they were leaving Xena asked "Was it fair to leave Kayla all alone like that," Delia laughed "probably not, but it's good for her."

In another part of the food hut Eponin had been watching. She was glad to see things going well. She did feel just a touch of sympathy for Kayla, squirming uncomfortably in the midst of her squads hero worship. Finishing her meal she retired to the guest quarters she had taken temporary residence in. Krystina and Niobe joined her.

Delia and Xena took the long way back making a brief stop at the temple. It felt good to stretch her legs even a little thought Xena. In the past moon she had only been out of her cell three times. Twice had been to the council hut, the other the hospice today. Pacing in the cramped confines of her cell had done little to burn off either her energy or her mood.

When they arrived back at the hospice Tanya was awake, sipping broth from a mug, and talking with two members of her squad.

Xena smiled as one of Tanya's visitors indignantly informed her that the squad was very upset with her. She heard her say to the other visitor, "First they tell us she's dying, so all day we work our tailfeathers off, just so she could have a really nice pyre. Now she don't look a bit interested in using it. There's gratitude for ya." "I'll say, She better not expect us to build her another one any time soon." Tanya coughed, "Sorry to disappoint you." Xena asked in her best healers manner, "Tanya, how do you feel?" "Like I've been run over by a centaur stampede." Tanya found herself on the business end of one of Xena's patented raised eyebrow looks. "Centaurs don't stampede."

Xena excused herself to check on Ephiny. Hearing Solari come in shortly after, she returned. The usual questions were exchanged then Tanya asked Solari, " Did it work, did we get them?" She answered "Yes, we did. Still think it was worth it?" Tanya's blackened eyes looked straight at her. "You're damned right I do." She coughed and added, "Ma'am, it was my idea, don't blame yourself." Solari gently put a hand on her shoulder, then moved it when Tanya winced. "We'll talk later, right now get some rest." Her friends taking the hint, also took their leave.

Solari turned to Xena, "Well you look better, I heard you had a dizzy spell or something earlier, how do you feel?" "Between a bath, decent meal and new clothes, I feel better than I have in a long time." Solari looked her over with an appreciative eye, "our leathers suit you." Xena shook her head, "Thanks. Delia said you give the same type thing to all new women. I hope they appreciate them as much as I do." Solari smiled.

Solari stifled a yawn, "Sorry, It's been a long couple of days." "Maybe you should do yourself a favor and get some sleep." "You're right I should, we'll talk later." "Anytime" Solari started to leave, but then stopped and as she turned around Xena noticed a real smirk on her face, "Oh Xena, I meant to tell you. Those same guards beat up Tanya, tried saying you'd refused to bathe, big mistake." Xena frowned "you didn't believe them?" "No, but I used them for a little demonstration on how to bathe stubborn prisoners. Training exercise, I'm sure you understand" Xena chuckled, "Training's important, I hope they enjoyed it." Solari laughed "Somehow I don't think so. Goodnight Xena." With that she left.

After settling their patients Alicia had returned to her own quarters. Xena and Delia talked for a while and retired for the night.

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