Finally Celesta could restrain herself no longer. Kneeling in front of Ephiny, she sat her up, and held her again. "Ephiny, you intended to die, thinking it would ease the burden on others; that your friends and subjects would be better off without you. At least one friend has died, others will be forever changed. They feel shock, grief and rejection. Ephiny I have seen death in all it's forms, many I have had to bring here to Tartarus for one reason or another. Even then, the persons effected most by any death are those persons left behind. Listen to the thoughts of your friends, you will know the truth of which I speak."
Ephiny screamed as another barrage of faces and images assaulted her. Finally Celesta told her. "As you can see, only Xena is better off, and though you sentenced her to a hideous death she bears you no ill will. The guilt of her execution would have destroyed you, and I will not allow it to happen." Ephiny, already on the floor, curled up into a ball and screamed, "Why do you care? Why are you torturing me?" Celesta grabbed Ephiny by the shoulders and shook her. "This is Tartarus, Ephiny. You're the one who wanted to come here remember? You asked to spend eternity here, and now you're pleading for mercy after less than the tenth part of a single moon." She shook Ephiny again, "Think about it, the tenth part of a moon. Can you inagine the thirteen moons of one of your cycles? How many cycles do you think there are in an eternity?"
Then she let Ephiny go, "Now you asked me why I care about Xena. Most of her crimes were those of a grief stricken mother being manipulated by unscrupulous Gods. Their goal is the destruction of the Amazon Nation. They have been manipulating events to destroy any obstacle including Queen Gabrielle, Xena and yourself that stands in their way. I'm not talking about a few incidents, I'm talking all out war, and they've already won some battles. Had your actions succeded, and your orders concerning Xena allowed to stand, they would have won it all. We need your help
Ephiny sat up. "You're a Goddess, and those who you fight are also Gods. What could I possibly do to help. Why do any of you, with the exception of Artemis, even care what happens to us." Celesta shook her head and started to pace, "Ephiny, there are several of us, including myself, who love the Amazon Nation. The days I spent in your village, as an Amazon, were the happiest I have ever been. They gave me the one thing I wanted most, and the only thing truly denied me, in all of my long existence. I owe the Amazon Nation an eternal debt, one so great that even by saving it and all it's people from destruction and damnation I could not begin to repay it. "
Shocked by these revelations, Ephiny asked, "What debt could possibly be that large. You have lived among us?" Celesta turned to face her, and Ephiny saw what appeared to be tears in her eyes, "Ephiny, it is time for you to know all, and when you do, please try to find a way to forgive me."
Two more people popped into the cavern, first came a man with a large burn scar marring his otherwise handsome face. He walked with a limp and had the build of a blacksmith. "Ephiny, I would like you to meet Haephestos." Ephiny started to blush with embarrassment and moved to cover her breasts. "Ephiny" She froze for the voice which came from behind her was one she had expected never to hear again. She turned not believing her ears, her eyes widened, and her seemingly limitless supply of tears began again to flow. She hesitated unsure whether the figure was real, or merely another illusion. Finally Celesta said quietly, "she's real" and Ephiny flew into her mothers arms.
They embraced for a long time, "Mother I've missed you," "Ephiny I've missed you too and not a day goes by I don't hear your thoughts. How is my grandson?" "He is one of the happiest most loving children you could ever meet, strong, smart." "Ephiny why did you want him to grow up an orphan? Even with all the loving familly he has on his fathers side, he still needs his mother." "Mother, I needed you too, I wanted you with me at my wedding, at the birth of your grandson." Ephiny felt her mother stroke her hair, "I saw all of them, I rejoiced with you, and wept for you when your husband died. I wish I could have been there too, fussing over you like any mother of the bride has a right to do."
Ephiny's mother sighed and broke the embrace, she held Ephiny by the shoulders, as her voice took on a stern tone. "The other night Artemis came to visit me in the Sacred Forests and told me what you were up to. I got rather upset with you, young lady. You are lucky Artemis has a rule against cutting switches there." Another goddess appeared, "Erisa, in this case I would have made an exception. Of course you could just turn her over your knee like you did when she was a little girl." Erisa shook her head, "Artemis, I'm sorely tempted, but since everyone's here, we might as well get this over with." Celesta said sadly "We might as well."
Erisa gave Ephiny another hug then looked at her with sad eyes, "I think we all had better sit down." Waiting for the others she started, "Ephiny, I've wanted to tell you something for a long time, something you're entitled to know, but that I was forbidden to tell you. You are my daughter in my heart and every way possible but one. Ephiny, I never had children that lived. I adopted you as an infant and raised you as my own."
Ephiny sat in stunned silence. Everyone waited knowing the next move had to be hers. Tears in her eyes she turned to Erisa, "Why didn't you ever tell me, Why are you telling me now?" she turned angrilly to Celesta, "So part of my punishment is taking away the only mother who ever loved me, finding out the woman who raised me, found me in the woods where some uncaring bitch left me to die." She leapt for the Goddess and struck her hard. "Go ahead hit me, do your worst. I'm already in Tartarus so what do I care. Just don't steal my mother from me." She began flailing at her chest with her fists, puzzled that Celesta made no effort to defend herself. "Fight back, damn you" Erisa called "Ephiny, that's enough. She won't fight you. Look at her, please"
Ephiny, jolted into obedience by her mothers voice, looked at Celesta. She was crying. Ephiny backed up and moved away, never once taking her eyes off the goddess. "Momma, what are you saying. Tell me, all of it." Her mother walked to Celesta and offered her a hand up. Though unnecessary, Celesta took it. Haephestos turned to Celesta, "Are you alright, I know you asked me not to interfere but." "I'm fine, she's gone thru a lot already, I wish we didn't have to tell her the rest of it." He said "I know. Ephiny, Celesta will never fight you, and she asked me not to interfere if you went into a rage. I'm asking you please listen then we'll answer any question you want to ask. That's why we're here." Artemis moved to put her arm around Celesta. "Ephiny, please, this is hard enough on her as it is." "Hard on her, why should it be hard on her? Isn't this her job."
Erisa spoke "Ephiny, you weren't abandoned by, as you put it, an uncaring bitch. You were brought to me by your birth parents, both of them, to save you from the sentence of death you were born under. That's why I never told you. You were never to know who your parents were, until after you crossed over to the other side, this side. That was agreed before you were born, including by the one who sentenced you. Although it pains me to see you here, you have crossed so now you can safely be told." Ephiny turned to her with tears in her eyes. "Mother, you aren't making sense. Who were my birth parents? What kind of monster would sentence a baby to death?" "Celesta and Haephestos are your birth parents. You're the child of an affair between them that enraged both Aphrodite and Zeus." Stunned, Ephiny sat down hard.
"Zeus decreed that you be killed at birth. Celesta wanted a child as desperately as I did. She fled Olympus to hide here in Tartarus where her brother Hades could protect her and her unborn child, you Ephiny. You were born in Hades palace. My understanding is that Hades stood guard with his legions while Persephone as midwife delivered you." Ephiny asked accusingly, "Wait a minute. I'm not a god, so how could I be their child?"
Celesta said, "Erisa, maybe I should take this part." Erisa thanked her and moved to sit down. "Ephiny you were born a god, you don't have the powers of a god, because that was part of the deal we made with Zeus for your life. You had to be raised and live as a mortal. Erisa had tried many times to have children, but could not carry to term. She prayed to me to spare her unborn childs life. I could not, the fates had severed his life thread two full moons before he was to be born. I desperately needed a mortal mother for you, and had only until your first birthday to find one. I remembered Erisa's prayers, and saw in her one who would give unconditional love to any child, even the daughter of death.That she had the courage to face down Zeus if necessary made me want to meet her." She turned, "Artemis."
Artemis took over. "Ephiny when I visited Celesta in Hades guest quarters, I saw the love on her face as she held you to her breast. She told me about the prayers of an Amazon woman and asked me about her. Hera and Persephone kept watch over you while Celesta and I visited Erisa. She had already felt the life stop within her, and knew that her child would be stillborn. I introduced Celesta, and she told Erisa of your birth and danger.
We had a mother who desperately wanted children and could not have them. We had a child whose parents loved but could not keep her. It was arranged that Erisa would be visiting friends when her child was born. She had already fallen in love with you. Hades himself took her dead baby and gave it an honored place in the fields. When she was ready to take you, Celesta and Haephestos held you in their arms and both of them cried. They then gave you over to Erisa, and Hades withdrew the powers that were your godly birthright. Celesta and I then escorted both of you to your village, where she introduced us as sister Amazons and friends. Ephiny, when Erisa, who is your mortal mother, told you that you were her gift from the gods, she really meant it."
Ephiny, having a very hard time dealing with all this, asked for a break. "Wait please let me try and get this straight, I have two mothers, one mortal, one immortal. I was born immortal but am now very mortal, in fact dead. I was born in a palace, raised in a woodland village. So now, completeing the circle, I was born in Tartarus and here I am again. If you people have the time I could really use a little break." Haephestos answered, "We are in the caverns of Chronos, outside the passage of time. Take as long as you need."
Celesta turned to Artemis "Would you check with Persephone and see if she could send something down." Artemis disappeared. She reappeared with Persephone who carried a tray and six chalices. "Artemis said you all could use a break, and some refreshment." She passed around the chalices. Ephiny seeing no difference in them asked which she should take. Persephone smiled, "They're all the same, it's nectar. You were a little young for it the last time you were here." Erisa took a chalice "it's been a long time since I've tasted anything this excellent, what about old thunder bolts for brains?" "You are again our honored guest, if he doesn't like it who cares?"
"Persephone, I'm been being told the most incredible story about being born here, and you being the midwife who delivered me." "It's true, all of it, and I'm sure it's as rough on you as everyone else. You were a beautiful baby, I remember the smile on your mothers face when she held you the first time. And how we all cried when it came time for you to leave. Ephiny, your Uncle Hades wants to talk to you when you're finished here. No rush though, take all the time you need. Don't bother dressing up, you look fine."
Celesta turned to Erisa, "shall we show her?" "Why don't we tell her first." "Ephiny are you ready for more, you should like this." Ephiny groaned but sat down. "OK, just be merciful," Persephone laughed "Merciful; Ephiny you forget where you are." Her laughter stopped "and how you got here. You asked to be damned, you have no idea what you were asking. Instead you find a family that has loved and watched over you all your life. A family that took a lot of chances, and paid a price, so you could have a chance to live at all. We don't appreciate your throwing it away."
Ephiny reddened with shame, "I never meant to hurt anyone but myself. I had no idea how many people it would effect." Persephone replied "No, you didn't, and don't apologize to us, just do better. Remember that life is a precious gift, not something to be thrown off like an old cloak when it gets hard or inconvenient." Ephiny thought, *Why do I all feel like a naughty girl that's just been scolded and told she needs a spanking.* She was surprised to hear Celesta, her immortal mothers voice, in her mind. It told her *The answer to your question is: you are, you have been, and you do. Just be careful what you ask for because you're likely to get it *
Haephestos told her, "Ephiny, you need to remember gods, especially those with close blood ties, can read your thoughts. If you direct them to one of us, we'll be the only one able to hear it. If you mention another they will hear it as well. A general question like yours will be heard by all in your vicinity."
Ephiny sat down, "could I ask a few questions." "Celesta, you said you've watched me all of my life, and that the days spent in my village were happy. What did you mean?" "Ephiny, When Artemis and I took Erisa, your mortal mother, home we didn't just pop in and introduce ourselves as goddesses. We did pop in close enough to be convenient but still rode in like mortals. I already told you we visited as Amazons from another region and were accepted at face value. We've been back the same way many times." Ephiny shook her head, "Then I've seen you in the village?" "Many times. Erisa was very accommodating about that. Even though I couldn't raise you as a daughter, I never stopped thinking of you as such."
"Haephestos, men aren't usually welcome. Did you find a way to come as well?" "It wasn't as easy as disguising myself to look like an Amazon, but I did visit you. From time to time Celesta and I also watched invisibly." Ephiny asked "How did you do it." "One type person is usually welcome, a traveling merchant. I came as one of them, bringing regular trade goods as well as things I made on the forge. At times I aranged for something to be given you as a gift. The sword you carry, the one your mother gave you when you got your warriors mask. I made it for you, not out of the special metal of the gods, but of the finest steel." Ephiny agreed"It is an excellent weapon, the balance is perfect."
The deformed god looked down in what Ephiny could only imagine to be embarrassment. "Thank you. Celesta or I tried to be there for the special occassions. She, Artemis and your grandmother Hera were there when you recieved your mask,. They were there for your coming of age ceremony, perhaps the two of you should just show her." Erisa looked at the two goddesses and said "I think that might be a good idea." Both goddesses stood up and underwent a transformation.
Ephiny was stupified for standing before her were two old friends of her mothers that often visited their home. Both looked every inch the Amazon warrior, complete with leathers, masks, traveling gear and bows; just as she remembered them. Looking from them to Haephestos, she saw a kindly merchant that always had quality goods. She remembered her mother telling her that he had traveled far, and that he carried much wisdom. She, along with several of the other children, had enjoyed his visits. The long hours talking with him, listening to the many stories he told, were fond childhood memories. Haephestos smiled as he read his daughters thoughts, "We had to be discrete lest people begin to suspect the truth, but we did want to be at least a small part of your life."
Erisa spoke, "They also provided for you and the village in ways that wouldn't arouse suspicion. We had to do our part, but our crops didn't fail, game was always plentiful. Disease didn't ravage our village. Aries caused some trouble, as did others. Some died as is the nature of war, but we survived against odds that seemed impossible." Artemis added "Again, we had to avoid being obvious. Sometimes we took direct part, others we nudged adequate help your way." Ephiny said, "I remember your visits, going on hunts together. You were there when my mother died, she sent you a message and you came. You stood with me at her pyre."
Celesta sadly added "We were there good times and bad, we always watched over you, but we had to let you live your own life as a mortal. When your mother became ill she sent us a message, do you remember who she sent it with?" Ephiny by now totally overwhelmed "She gave it to a traveling merchant, you" she looked at Haephestos. "After a suitable time we came to visit. Your mothers illness hadn't gone far yet. Still it was a wasting disease that kills horribly after many moons. It was just before the real pain would have started. We talked for a long time and thanked her again for everything she had done for you. Later as we agreed, I released her quietly in her sleep. She was Hades guest for a time and then passed into the Sacred Forests where she enjoys a place of honor." Ephiny looked from her mortal mother to her immortal familly, saying sincerely "Thank you, all of you for taking care of her." Celesta answered for all of them, "It was and is truly our pleasure. And" bowing to Erisa, "it is we who are in her debt." Erisa blushed, "As I am in yours, for your gift of a daughter in answer to my prayers."
"I am sorry about Phantes. He was cursed by another as were you. He loved you very much and willingly sacrificed his life to buy you time. I managed to hide you and your unborn child from the searchers. You remember that they and their dogs walked directly over your hiding place. I shielded you from their sight and scent. You would have died in childbirth, had we not sent Xena your way when we did. Gabrielle was fated to die that day as well, my reward to Xena was in restoring her life. As later events have proven I did her no favors."
"You were there that solstice night when I was initiated into the religeous mysteries. The knife, the cup, you gave me the cup." "I gave you the cup, but your father made it for you. It saddened us all when your illness drove you to abuse them." Haephestos added "Your friends Tanya, Fayla, Lyssa made the knife Terreis gave you. They too liked my stories of far off lands. When I asked them about themselves, they told me they enjoyed watching the blacksmith work. I was touched by their love of the forge and helped them bring out their natural abilities. Tanya is one of my chosen, as were Fayla and Lyssa. Their love for the crafting of metal was as great as my own. They once traded me a beautiful dagger they had made for some tools, it hangs in a place of honor in my home."
"Ephiny there is much we must tell you. First you should
know that soon you will return to the land of the living. There you will have
to deal with the sickness that brought you here as a mortal. Do you remember
what we first taught you in the circle.?" Ephiny swallowed hard, "You mean to
harm none without just cause, and about the power of three." "You will need
to ritually cleanse your soul, It will be a long and at times painful process,
and you will be confined during that time." Ephiny said in ritual mode, "What
must be, shall be." Celesta gave her a half smile and asked, "Can it be any
worse than what you wished on yourself."
Xena woke shortly before dawn and built up Delia's small cooking fire, After putting on a small pot of water, she stepped out to wash and deal with more personal needs. Returning, she brewed tea and setting aside a mug to cool, checked on the patients. Ephiny's guards reported while she'd cried most of the night, the nightmares of the two previous nights seemed to have left her. Xena noticed she was wearing a clean shift. The guards sheepishly told her Ephiny had soiled herself during the night. They had cleaned her rather than wake the healers. They apologized for taking such liberties, but had decided that after the previous day, both healers needed their sleep. Xena thanked them for the kindness, both accepted the tea she offered.
Tanya was still under the effects of the sleeping potion they had given her. Xena looked over her injuries, sniffing them to check for the first signs of infection. She found none. Was it courage or insanity that had put her in the healers hut. Maybe some of both. *We have to talk about that dream of yours.* She knew it was more than a dream, for there was no way this young woman could have known M'Lila. Her armor was patterned after M'Lila's amulet. Niclio, she remembered, had called it a Celtic knot, and told her it had power to ward off the evil eye. She was certain the warrior had begun to cross over, the presence of Celesta confirmed that. *I guess it really wasn't your time to die.*
When Delia began to stir. Xena honeyed another mug of tea and set it beside her bunk. She owed much to this woman who had obtained for her at least temporary freedom. Despite the weaponry which adorned her walls, she was first and foremost a healer. She had taken for granted that Xena, as any "decent healer," would come when needed. In Xena's case the willingness had been most important. Though she had asked nothing, it had bought her a chance at life. Xena then remembered what Delia had told her before retiring.
"Whether or not you hang is up to you. True the Queen and council will pass judgement, but the decision is yours." Xena's eyes became almost hooded and her voice low, "You suggesting I try to escape?" "Xena, if you'd ridden out of here this afternoon I wouldn't have raised a hand to stop you. You didn't. While I respect your reasons, that's not what I'm talking about." "What are you talking about?"
"Eponin will hang you if you force her to. She's giving
you the chance to prove you're something besides the unthinking brute that rode
in, used a whip on a sick woman, dragged her out of here behind a horse at full
gallop, and then threw her into the sea. That brute deserved to hang." Xena
buried her head in her hands "I am that brute." "If you were, you'd never have
shown your face in our territory again." "Xena I know your reputation. I've
heard you described as everything from a cold blooded killer, to a soulless
demon straight from the bowels of Tartarus. I've seen you a few times before,
either in the village, once in your coffin, and most recently in jail. Today
was my first chance to look at the woman inside, what I saw wasn't a soulless
Xena looked up "So tell me, what did you see." "What I saw was a woman in pain, one who regrets her actions, and feels she can never be punished enough for them. I saw a barefoot woman brought here today, in a filthy shift, manacled, guarded, and facing a death sentence. Turns out she, whatever else, is a skilled and compassionate healer. Her only concerns that I saw were for the well being of others, including the woman who ordered her hideously executed. Pity she can't spare enough of that same compassion for herself to ask for a single bucket of cold wash water.
"Remember what Eponin said. Your past, like that of any other woman, started when you crossed our border. You broke our law, because of that I've no doubt you'll face some form of punishment, but you've a chance to put some points on your side. Prove you can be trusted by following the terms she gave you. Give her a reason not to hang you, prove to her you're not a menace to the nation and I've no doubt she'll take it."
"What choice does she have?" "She could order you taken to our border and banished. She could sentence you to a disciplinary squad and hard labor, or other non military service to the nation. She could order a public whipping, either by itself or along with one of these others. I don't know about you, but compared to hanging, any of those sound pretty good to me. You deserve some punishment, but I don't think you deserve to die. In fact I think you're the only one that thinks that."
Xena's reflections were interrupted by the sound of Delia's voice. "Told you last night you were compassionate, first time I've been woken up with tea in a long time. Thank you. How are our patients this morning?" Xena thought to herself *our patients, sounds strange, but it sounds good.* She filled Delia in. "Cleaning Ephiny without waking us was kind of her guards. Did you sleep well?" "Better than I have since Gabrielle died." "We should get dressed, soon as Alicia gets here we'll take a walk and get some breakfast."
As they were getting dressed Xena asked, "Delia, it's none of my business but you were talking in your sleep?" "Alicia says I talk in my sleep too. Sometimes I nap when things get quiet, never know what might happen at night. What did I do give you another lecture?" "No thank the Gods, my head's still spinning from the last one." Delia looked up from her tea. "What did I talk about?" Xena said quietly, "You were crying, couldn't make out much but there was a name, Leda or something like that. I wasn't sure if I should wake you or not. Sorry I shouldn't have brought it up." "It's okay Xena The name you heard was probably Lyta, let's get some more tea, I'll tell you a story while we wait for Alicia." They finished dressing, then Delia told Xena the story of her sister, and how remembering her death led to their saving of Tanya's life.
"You were twins, did you look alike?" "Like looking in the mirror, we were easy to tell apart though. Give you a guess." Xena thought for a moment, "She was left handed, you're right?" Delia choked on a mouthful of tea. Xena pounded her on the back. When she was able Delia asked, "How did you guess?" "Your sword, is rigged for a left hand draw. It was hers, wasn't it?" "Yes it was, I kept it after she died. I've never worn it, when I spar I draw one from the armory. I like to eat, helps me keep my figure."
Xena sat back down, "Gabrielle said the same thing about her staff. I've heard of twins sharing thoughts, I didn't realize it continued after death." Delia became very serious, "Xena, I can't explain it, I knew when she was wounded, and when I stood in front of her pyre I felt the strangest thing." "Tell me about it." "It was like half of my soul was cut out and sent up in those flames, and half of hers moved in to take it's place."
It was another long day. Late in the morning Tanya had a visit from several council members. They took her statement about what had happened the previous morning at the jail. They told her it looked like a solid murder case against Marya. Katrina would be tried for willful negligence causing death, Both would be charged with willful misconduct, mistreating prisoners, neglect in the performance of their duties, and anything else they could come up with. They all praised Tanya's courage, a few questioned her sanity.
They told her their conclusions in the matter which led to Lyssa's suicide. Based on the records, new evidence, and Kira's statements that morning, there appeared to have been no wrongdoing on either her own or Lyssa's part. It appeared likely that Queen Ephiny's insanity had already started to take root at that time. They hoped she could one day find it in her heart to be charitable. It appeared the missing articles, now recovered, had disappeared thru the actions of one or more Gods. They couldn't go into specifics, since they had a bearing on other matters still pending. Kira would receive a formal apology on behalf of the council, and her warriors mask would be returned. She had adjourned to the temple to begin preparations.
The question was what to do about Lyssa. They were willing to retrieve her body and cremate it per Tanya's request. They asked where, and under what conditions it had been buried. They also wanted to know if there were any special rituals or whatever that should be done according to her beliefs. Lastly they were divided on whether or not it would be appropriate to issue a formal apology, and return her warriors status after her death. Tanya thought both very appropriate, particularly the latter, since it's unjust removal had led directly to her suicide. Lyssa would still have to face the Gods for rejudgement. Let her do so with her previous honor intact. They agreed.
Tanya listened to the plans for the next day's double funeral. Due to the likely condition of Lyssa's body, her cremation would take place as soon as it entering the village. The recovery party would go out at first light. A series of signals would coordinate their return and the start of the funeral. Fayla's pyre would be lit first as she would receiving royal honors. Lyssa's body would be brought in immediately afterwards and receive a warriors rite. The council apologized for what might appear to be undo haste, but hoped Tanya would understand. Tanya assured them that she did.
The council then informed Xena that her testimony would be required at the trial of the guards. They also informed her that judgement of her own case would be postponed for at least one moon due to new developments. They declined to elaborate. They did tell her that no objections had been raised to her conditional release from close confinement. She decided to interpret that as a positive sign.
Later in the day Solari brought Tanya's uniform. She would want to wear it for the funeral. Tanya noticed that it was freshly cleaned. They talked quietly for a candlemark. Solari then talked to Delia, asking her would there be any way for Tanya to attend a brief ceremony that evening. It was for the council to announce the formal apologies and reinstatements for the wrongly punished warriors. Delia said, "let's see how strong she feels at the time. She'll have to go on a stretcher if she does, but we can prop her up a bit. Let me talk to her." "Tanya, the council is making their announcements and apologies this evening. Do you feel up to a short stretcher ride?" "Can you give me a little of that pain medicine first." Delia thought for a moment "Half a dose going, half when you get back, if you need it." "Thank you, I'd really like to be there."
Delia turned to Solari "Can you get some stretcher bearers or should we improvise," "I think I know where to find some. I'll have them report here for instructions. Will a candlemark before the ceremony do?" "Should be plenty of time, we'll be ready." Tanya asked "Solari, When it's over tomorrow, could you arrange for me to have their ashes. When things have settled down, I'd like to do a small private ritual for them." "I'll take care of it." "Thank you." "You're welcome, We'll talk later, right now I've got to round up stretcher bearers."
During the late afternoon Kayla stopped to check on Tanya. Alicia told her they would be preparing her for the ceremony soon. Kayla cheerfully offered to help. Tanya was too weak to stand unaided, a fact which, while no surprise to the healers, embarrassed Tanya no end. Together they helped her bathe and dress in her uniform. Her smaller wounds were starting to heal, none had the sickly odor that meant infection. Delia told her not to worry about the weakness. It would pass in time. After all she was beaten half to death just the day before.
Tanya quietly said "I think they got more than half way. I remembered more of the dream," Xena looked at Delia who nodded, "Tanya, so do I. Do you remember the woman with the amulet. The one that gave you the message for me." "Yes" "Her name was M'Lila, it's a long story. When I stopped being a warlord, I changed my armor and patterned my new breastplate after that amulet. Out of respect for the runaway Gaelic slave who died in my arms over 13 winters ago. She rescued me from a cross, then took a Roman arrow meant for me as I lay wounded in a healers cabin." Tanya's shocked expression belied her calm response. "I've wondered why you wore Celtic knots. Who was the other woman?" "From your description I think she was Hades sister Celesta, she's the Goddess of Death. I think you crossed over and were sent back."
Delia interrupted, "I'd like to hear both the story and the dream later." Turning to Tanya she said, "Tanya, I assume you'll have visitors shortly, I'll get you some pain medicine, and if you like we'll even help you into a chair before they get here." Tanya looked grateful, "I'd like that." "Xena, would you help me with the stretcher?" They went in back, "Xena, I should go with her tonight and see how she handles the ride. Sounds like it'll be fairly short. When we get her back here, Alicia can keep an eye on things while we get some supper." Xena nodded, "She'll likely have visitors afterwards, anything special you need me to do." "Not that I can think of."
Delia pulled a framework with a rope lattice out from behind a cupboard. "Here give me a hand, you'll like this." "What is it" "It's a backrest, be easier on her if she's propped up a bit." Together they slid the legs of the wedge shaped frame into leather pockets designed for the purpose. Xena was impressed, "It looks solid enough, almost like a sedan chair." "That's what gave me the idea." "Those long belts, they to hold her on?" "Sure are, can't have her falling off, can we?" "Spoil a lot of hard work if she did." "I had two stretchers built like this, and then came the scary part." "Let me guess you tested them out by having yourself carried around on them." "Sure did. Now we just pad it and throw a sheet over the top." "Looks good to me."
"Glad you think so. Because I'm not sure Solari's stretcher bearers have ever moved someone with broken bones." Xena understood, "You want me to lay down on a bunk and have them try loading me first." Delia looked at her, "I can always ask Solari to do it." "I'll do it. Solari should learn just like the rest of them." "Let me get Tanya that tea, then we'll sit her up. I'm thinking of asking Krystina to stop by after we eat. If Tanya's not too plagued with visitors, I'd like to hear that dream or whatever of hers myself."
Tanya was sitting up when Solari arrived with four stretcher bearers from her own squad. After allowing a few minutes of talk, Delia ushered them into the back. She showed them the stretcher, telling them to bring it into the dormitory. There, much to the delight of Tanya, she and Alicia explained the problem of moving fracture cases. Getting Kayla and Solari into the demonstration, she had them practice loading Xena a couple of times. Once Tanya was properly loaded, the good natured humor started.
Finally Solari stood up and told them it was time. One of the bearers asked about Tanya's sword, arguing she should have it. Delia announced "with the broken ribs and lacerated back she isn't in any shape to wear one right now." Tanya told them "it's okay, probably not even here, and besides I'm sure you'll protect me." Solari settled the matter, "the healers right, she couldn't wear one, and hers is over in the guard room anyway." Xena was listening to the exchange. She could see the guards understood, but knew also they were disappointed. Saying she needed a minute Delia stepped into her quarters. *Is it that important* she asked herself. When she came out she was carrying Lyta's sword in both hands. All eyes turned to her and all sound stopped.
She walked over to the stretcher holding the sword in both hands. "Tanya, this sword belonged to my sister. Lyta thought you could be either a healer or warrior, but not both. She was wrong, Xena is living proof of that, Kayla could be as well. All three had a role in saving your life yesterday. Lyta died after her first battle, of injuries much like your own. It was her memory, combined with Kayla's insight, and Xena's skills that allowed us to save your life. Since your own weapon is unavailable at the moment, would you honor my sister's memory by carrying her sword tonight and at the funeral tomorrow."
Xena thought half the guards were ready to burst into tears. Knowing how much the sword meant to the healer, she too was deeply moved. Tanya did shed tears, "It is I, who would be honored." Delia held the sword out to Tanya and placed it in her hands. Their eyes met for a moment as they held it together, then Delia relaxed her grip and stepped back. Tanya placed the sword across her lap. No one said a word until Solari quietly asked, "Do either of you need a minute?"
Xena watched silently as each bearer picked up a corner of the stretcher. Delia and Kayla moved to walk on either side. Solari then led off. Once they had left the building Xena sat down and the tears started.
Alicia waited a few minutes, then handed Xena a clean rag and a mug of tea. "Want to talk about it?" "Not really, everything just seems so unreal." "Whenever you're ready." Xena sipped her tea and said "let's make sure Ephiny's set before they get back with company. I'm getting really concerned about her." "So am I, She's drying out and if we can't get some water into her soon." She let it drop there.
Concern was also evident on the faces of Ephiny's guards. Ephiny was starting to feel warm and dry. She was still in a half sleep state, occasionally opening her eyes into a blank stare. She had not regained full consciousness for three days. One of the guards commented sadly, "She seems helpless as an infant." Alicia wetting Ephiny's lips felt them move slightly against the cloth, "I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear what you said." "Forgive me but what I said was, she seems helpless as an infant"
Alicia turned to the guard, "Nothing to forgive, she is as helpless as an infant, she'd be better off if she was." They finished and left the screened off area. Xena picked up her now cooled tea and asked Alicia, "What did you mean when you said, she'd be better off if she were an infant." Alicia answered, "When I was wetting her lips, she might have been trying to suckle the cloth. She hasn't done that before" "So if she were an infant you'd try to find her a wet nurse." Alicia shook her head sadly,"Even if we could find one, there wouldn't be near enough for a full grown woman." "There might be another way, if you've got a small soft piece of leather?" "What are you thinking," Xena told her. " How about a small pouch?"
After a short search they found a small mouth jar that would hold about a tea mug and a half of water, filled it and tied the thumb sized pouch over the open end. Turning their creation upside down Xena pricked a small hole in the end of the pouch, a few drops of water emerged. Alicia said, "Let's try it."
They walked back into the room. The guard looked dubiously at the strange creation. Xena said, "We might be better off if we put her on her side." "I agree, she'd be less likely to choke that way. Guard, help us turn her, please." The guard untied Ephiny's arm and leg on one side. "What are you going to do." "You said she seemed like an infant, what do you do with a thirsty infant that's lost her mother." The guard was slightly indignant "Find her a wet nurse, of course," "Well they don't come in her size so we made something we hope will serve as one." Xena asked "Alicia you got any experience," " no, do you." "Yes, I'll do it the first time, the two of you hold her up, watch out in case this brings her around."
Xena sat down on the bunk bracing Ephiny against her. Putting one hand behind her head she turned the bottle on it's side with the pouched end slightly down. A few drops of water leaked thru the hole they'd made. She gently placed it against Ephiny's lips which opened slightly. Xena pushed the device slightly further, about a knuckles worth into her mouth. To her relief Ephiny suckled tentatively, then more vigorously. In less than two minutes the bottle was empty. Xena passed it over Ephiny's body to Alicia saying, "I think our little girl would like a refill." "Coming right up."
As Alicia was refilling the bottle, Tanya and troupe returned. Delia asked her "I thought you'd be at the food hut when we got back, Is something wrong?" "No something is right." She replaced the pouch, " come on, I want you to see this."
Delia watched as Xena fed Ephiny a second bottle of water. She was impressed and said so. They kept her on her side for a few minutes in case her stomach rejected it, then laid her back down. "No sense making her sick, we'll give her more after a bit." Solari had seen them disappear into Ephiny's room, and was concerned when they didn't come out. She had about decided to check what was happening when they emerged, "Delia how is she?" "Still pretty much out of it, but these two did manage to get some water into her. So I'd say she's a little better." "That's great. How did they do it?"
Delia looked at Xena and Alicia. Alicia looked at Xena. She in turn looked Solari in the eye and said very seriously "Pure sorcery, first my associate and I" putting her hand on Alicia's shoulder, "turned her into an infant, then we conjured up a special wet nurse, able to give her water." Solari sputtered, "You did what, where in Tartarus, who?" Alicia played along "We turned her back afterwards, but" raising her hands as though to reach for Solari "we could always show you." Solari expression turned to sheer horror and she started backing up "get away from me." Xena let her sputter for a few moments and then held up the pouched bottle, saying "Solari, meet our wet nurse" at the stunned expression on Solari's face all three healers burst out laughing. "We'll be giving her some more after the evening meal, want to help?" Solari, realizing she'd been had, just shook her head. Xena, with her sensitive hearing, thought she heard giggles coming from behind the partition.
Delia walked over to Tanya, now laying back on her bunk. Her friends had already put the stretcher away, and were in a good mood. Her news about Ephiny's improvement pushed them even higher. Lyta's sword was still laying across Tanya's lap. Tanya very seriously picked it up in both hands. Offering it to the healer she said simply "Thank you for the privilege of carrying your sister's sword." Delia bowed slightly and accepted the sword "Thank you for returning it with it's honor." She then left to return it to it's place on her wall.
Solari turned quietly to Xena "I was shocked when she brought out Lyta's sword. She's never even let anyone else dust it." "Did you know her sister?" Solari hesitated a moment before answering, "Yes. Did you know they were twins?" "She told me this morning, said they were the mirror image of each other." Solari struggled to maintain her outward calm. *Seeing Delia with her sword, Gods it could have been her. I hadn't realized just how painful it still is.* "They were, and they used it to play tricks on the rest of us. We had to look which hand they were using to tell them apart. I'm sure they shared thoughts like twins are said to do."
Solari moved to change the subject, "Just whose idea was that wet nurse thing anyway. Or should I bother to ask?" "You should, because we got the idea from something one of her guards said. I don't know her name, but all Alicia and I did was figure out how to make the thing." "Point her out to me."
Delia came back. "Solari, can these women take Tanya
to the funeral?" "You've got them." She turned and issued orders. "Solari, Unless
you object I'll be bringing Xena along as a second healer." "If Tanya's doesn't
object, I won't either." Delia lowered her voice, "Xena, You know the situation.
I'll want you to stay with Tanya. It's bound to be rough on her, especially
when they bring Lyssa's body in. If she starts having problems, make sure she
gets back here okay." Xena nodded her agreement. "Of course, anything else I
should know." "We'll talk later. Alicia's bringing Tanya's meal, when she gets
back we'll go." Solari ended the conversation, "Maybe I'll see you over there,
but right now I'm starved."
Alicia made up two more feeding bottles while they were at supper.. She suggested they try feeding Ephiny some clear broth. They gave her water and decided to try the broth before sleeping.
Priestess Krystina paid them a visit. Tanya described in detail her dream with it's cryptic messages. When she finished, they were convinced that she had indeed crossed into the underworld, and returned. Much of the tale, which centered on both queens Gabrielle and Ephiny, was quite disturbing. Since the next day would be rough on Tanya, they decided to further discuss it's implications later. Delia and Xena walked the Priestess over to the temple. They fed Ephiny a bottle of broth, and another of water before retiring.
It was still well before dawn when Xena woke to the sound of muffled sobbing. Moving quietly into the infirmary, she saw Eponin standing in the doorway wearing only a shift, shawl, and sandles. Her dark hair hung loosely about her tear streaked face. Xena thought for a moment about how different she looked without her leathers and weapons. She was about Xena's age, maybe four summers older than either Solari or Ephiny. Gone was her tough exterior, she looked frail and scared.
Xena hesitated for a moment, unsure what to do. Then she carefully approached Eponin, calling her name softly so as not to startle her. Gently wrapping an arm around her, she eased her towards a low bench by the wall. One of Ephiny's guards stepped out from behind the partition, but with a nod of her head, Xena sent her back around the other side. She sat down, pulled the shorter woman to her breast, and let her cry. There were no words spoken. At length Eponin stopped crying. Xena relaxed her hold. To the unspoken question, she received a slight sideways shaking of the head. Xena walked with her to the door and Eponin left.
Xena took a few moments to pull herself together, then walked around the partition. Ephiny appeared to be sleeping, her color had improved and there were no signs of fever. The guards had heard Eponin come in, but had waited for some sign as to her intentions. Thinking out loud Xena asked,"I wonder why she didn't come in?" "Who can say, still it was a kind thing you did." "Thanks, I'll mention it to Delia, just do her a favor and don't tell anyone else." Understanding, the guard nodded, "She was never here."
Knowing she wouldn't get back to sleep, Xena dressed and made tea. Just before dawn Solari came up the steps. In the pale light Xena saw Ashraf and three others carrying shovels waiting outside. "Solari, what brings you here this early?" "We're headed out to get Lyssa's body. Delia said she'd set aside some pungent herbs and a couple old blankets." Xena chewed on a knuckle in thought, then she remembered, "I think she left them with Ephiny's guards, let me check." She came back with the bundle. "Why you?" "We're digging up a Amazon's grave, so there has to be a senior guard or a council member present." Making a face Xena replied, "I don't envy you the job." "Well none of us bothered with breakfast. Best get going, sooner we start the sooner it's over with." "Good luck."
Xena woke Delia when they'd left. Accepting the mug of tea Delia commented "Thanks Xena, you're spoiling me." She paused for a sip. "Don't apologize, I could get used to it in a hurry."Xena half smiled, "You're welcome" adding a quick status report. "I just checked on Ephiny. She's fine. Tanya's sleeping, I'll get her started." "Good idea." Delia approved. "Did Solari stop by?" "Yes. I gave her the things." Xena paused and added "She wasn't looking forward to it." Delia nodded understanding. "Don't blame her a bit." Across the compound the funeral drums started.
Finally Tanya's bearers came in and got her ready to go. Xena noticed that Tanya laid Lyta's sword on her lap with the hilt to her left, as Lyta herself would have carried it. Xena could see the emotion building on Tanya's face as she tried to fight back tears. She handed her a couple scraps of cloth, saying gently, "No one is ever ready to lose a friend or lover and you've lost both. You don't have to be the tough warrior right now, if you feel the need to cry, don't fight it. No one will think the less of you." "Thanks Xena" She swallowed hard. "Let's go." A bird call came from the direction of the woods. It was the signal that Solari and her party had recovered Lyssa's body and were waiting just outside the village.
A chair had been set for Tanya just to the right of the ceremonial platform. Two large pyres loomed in front of her. It was a strange feeling, knowing that one of them had been prepared for herself only two days before. It was only help from Xena, a skilled healer and a condemned criminal, that kept her from needing it. Xena was indirectly responsible for Lyssa's death, and Fayla's as well. Her actions after the death of her own son had set off the tragic chains of events that resulted in suicide and murder. For many moons she wanted nothing more than to kill Xena. Now after all of this, she could no longer find it in her heart to hate her.
Moments after Tanya was seated and her squad formed, Eponin, the councilwoman Niobe and the Priestess Krystina took their places on the platform. Eponin gave a short eulogy, Krystina a short prayer asking that Artemis conduct their souls with dispatch to the Sacred Forests of Eternity. There to enjoy the blessings of the Gods for all time. Then Eponin gave a signal and a slow drumbeat began. Four warriors marching in step with the drum, carried Fayla's shrouded body as it was brought out and laid on her pyre. As they stepped back, the drumbeat stopped. Two masked warriors in formal regalia, dipped prepared arrows into a small fire pot and turned to face the pyre, drawing back their bows as one. At Eponin's signal, the arrows made their short flight to lodge in the kindling at the base of the pyre. The royal salute began and ended almost as quickly. Standing behind her, Xena and Delia could see that Tanya was struggling to hold herself together.
Again came the drumbeat as Solari's party started across the compound. Xena knew they had been met at the edge of the woods with wash buckets and fresh clothing. Still she thought, they look remarkably clean considering their mornings work. On their shoulders they carried a bier of lashed poles on which lay Lyssa's tightly wrapped body. Tanya looked at Delia "please, help me stand, just while they light it." Delia looked at Xena who nodded in understanding. As Lyssa's body was laid atop her pyre both moved to face Tanya and placed an arm under hers. They lifted and Tanya pulled until she was on her feet. Then they moved sideways to support her, and locked their arms behind her back.
Niobe, seeing Tanya being helped to her feet, waited until she was ready. She knew this pyre had been intended for her. Only the miracle wrought by Xena and Delia had kept her from needing it. When they were ready, she began to speak, "Lyssa, daughter of Irana. Would that it were within our power to undo the wrong done you in life. We humbly ask your forgiveness, and call upon all the Gods to witness that a true Amazon, a warrior, and woman of honor, innocent of all wrongdoing, is sent to them this day. As the flames of the pyre release your soul, we ask them to grant it swift and safe passage to the Sacred Forests of Eternity." With that she signaled the archers. Again, flaming arrows landed in oil soaked kindling, and a dirge began.
As Lyssa's pyre began to burn, Tanya began to cry. Then as honors were paid to her long dead lover, she broke down completely. Xena and Delia helped her back into the chair. Both resumed their places, and turned to face the burning pyres, each placing a gentle hand on Tanya's shoulders. Soon they heard the sisters souls depart, as each signaled with a loud popping sound, that they had begun their journey. Slowly people began walking over to pay their respects. Solari and her crew walked over together. Eponin, Niobe and Krystina paid their respects as well. Krystina assured her that Fayla and Lyssa's ashes would be safe at the temple, whenever she was ready for them. Finally Tanya turned to Xena and Delia. "Thank you for bringing me, I think I'm ready to go back and lay down now."
They returned Tanya to the hospice and settled her back into her bunk. As Delia returned the sword to her quarters, she found Alicia and her bondmate fussing over two large trays of bread, meats and cheeses. Two wineskins and several glasses were sitting on a table. "Delia, Ephiny's set for a while. She's still half in and half out but she's looking better.. How's Tanya?" "It hit her pretty hard, but she'll make it. She has a lot more support than she ever realized." Indicating the trays she asked, "What's all this?" Alicia picked up a cloth and started wiping her hands. "Well since we knew Tanya wouldn't be going over to the food hut, Dori and I thought it would be nice if she could have a few friends here." Delia smiled at the both of them. "I think that's a great idea, let me give you a hand with those"
The three of them carried out the trays of food and drink and set them up on a vacant bunk. Delia announced "Alicia and Dori thought you might find a use for this."
From time to time through out the day, friends and well wishers stopped at the healers hut to pay their respects. Some had only quiet greetings, others offered a treasured memory. Tanya greeted and thanked them all. Delia noted with interest that Xena kept apart from most of the gathering. She appreciated that. Xena was freeing her and Alicia by dealing with the minor injuries and checking on Ephiny. She resolved to thank her later.
Ephiny woke late that afternoon, remembering the most fantastic dream. Opening her eyes she was blinded by the torchlight, and tried to shield her eyes with an arm. Terror struck her with the realization that none of her limbs would move. She heard indistinct voices and recognized the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh. She knew what it all meant, the dreams had been her judgement. The burning flesh could mean only one thing, Tartarus. Holding her eyes tightly closed lest they confirm her fears she began to cry.
Alerted by the guards Xena moved to Ephiny's side and called to her softly. Hearing Xena call her name confirmed Ephiny's worst fears. She felt a hand brushing away the tears on her face, and Xena's voice call again. Summoning up what courage she had left Ephiny opened her eyes again, and found herself looking at Xena's face. "Ephiny can you hear me, talk to me." "Now I know I'm in Tartarus, leave me alone." Xena turned to the guard, "get the healer. Tell her the queens awake."
The guard left and Delia came in, "Welcome back Ephiny, how do you feel?" Ephiny saw a face from long past, "Lyta, not you too." Delia said quietly, "Ephiny where do you think we are?" Ephiny turned her face away, "Lyta, no, don't make me say it, please, you don't belong here." Delia said again, "Ephiny where are you," "Must I say it, Tartarus, but why are you here with me." Delia took Ephiny's chin in her hand, turning her face towards hers she said. "Ephiny, open your eyes, look at me." Ephiny slowly did so, "Ephiny listen to me, I am Delia, not Lyta. You are not in Tartarus, you are in my hut, the hospice in your own village." "Then I'm not dead, it must have been a dream" "No Ephiny, you are alive. Do you remember how you got here." "In the dream they said, I tried to kill myself, Fayla was there, I remember fighting with her. Lyssa was there, and Tanya. Fayla said" Then she screamed "NO." "Ephiny, you did try to kill yourself, that was four days ago." "Fayla? Is she OK?" Grimly Delia shook her head. "No Ephiny, Fayla is dead, what you smell is her pyre."
For several long minutes Ephiny cried, finally she said "Was Fayla killed in the jail?" "Yes, how could you know?" Ephiny choked out "She told me, she was there with Lyssa, then it wasn't a dream. Tanya was there, not Tanya too?" Delia stood up, "Tanya's here in the next room. Ephiny, she's alive but badly injured. Where did you see them." Ephiny said "they came to me in an ice cavern, she said, she said" Xena asked quietly "Who was she, Ephiny, what did she say?" Ephiny spoke so softly they had to strain to hear the reply "She told me her name was Celesta, she said we were in Tartarus." Xena turned to Delia and raised an eyebrow, she received a slight nod in response. Delia moved her head in a slight sideways motion, mouthing the word *later.* Aloud she said "Ephiny we'll have a lot to talk about later, right now would you like some water?"
Ephiny drank a large amount of water, then asked "Delia, would you please untie me, I'll be okay now." Delia looked directly at her, "Ephiny, what would you do if I let you go." "I'd go to my hut and I'd, you don't trust me do you?" She turned her face towards the guard "I order you to untie me." Delia turned to the guard "As you were," then turning back to Ephiny she said firmly, "You're right, I don't trust you. I don't trust you not to go back to your hut and try to finish the job. That's why you're staying put, tied and under guard until I say otherwise." Ephiny yelled at the guard, "I gave you an order, untie me" Delia spoke firmly and with finality. "Ephiny, they won't follow your orders. On my recommendation, the council relieved you of all rights and duties as queen, until we're sure you can handle them again. Eponin is acting as queen until then."
"What is Xena doing here, I ordered her executed, why isn't she dead or in jail?" Delia had been expecting this question "Xena was released into my custody. I needed her help and skill to save Tanya's life. Even with her help, it was damned close. She's also been taking care of you. If it weren't for her, you might be dead by now." Ephiny said sarcastically, "That's one more reason to hate her. Leave me alone. GET OUT."
Delia answered calmly, "Ephiny let's get this straight right now, you don't give the orders here. If you need something like water, or a pan to relieve yourself, ask for it. Otherwise either I, or my assistants will give the orders, and right now Xena is one of my assistants, so you will damn well treat her as such. Is that clear?" Ephiny snapped back, "What's clear to me is I'm being held prisoner by a crazy healer and a condemned criminal." Then almost pleading "Delia, we were friends, please don't do this to me." Delia told her, "It seems I lose a friend either way, either because I try to keep her alive, or because I let her kill herself. So be it. Come on Xena we have work to do." Without another word she walked out of the partitioned area. Xena followed her.
Once outside, Delia made the announcement, "She's awake and madder than three wet hens." "We heard, sounds like she didn't take it very well." "Not well at all, Alicia we're going to need some more help. Rhea's not due back for at least another moon, any suggestions." Alicia replied "Two of them." Her eyes flashed fire. "First we get her to stop abusing the help we have." Xena looked questioningly at her,"Xena I heard what she said, even angry it wasn't called for." Xena felt her mouth tighten, as though she'd bitten into a lemon. "No. It was the truth. Look, I'm glad to help while I can. I appreciate the trust you've shown me and the rest." She hesitated "Doesn't change the fact that down the road, I've still got a dance date with a rope."
Delia's eyes bored into her, "Not if I have anything to say about it, you don't." She turned abruptly "Alicia, what was that second suggestion?" "What needs doing right now is basic sickroom care. That guard Kayla should be able to handle it." Delia folded her arms, after a moment she asked, "Xena, any objections to Kayla?" Xena looked surprised "You're asking me?" "Of course we are, you'd be working with her too." "No. Uh. No objections at all, she seems quick to learn and I think she likes helping out." Delia nodded, "That's settled then, we ask for her."
Delia turned to Dori, taking her arm she smiled and said, "I want to thank you for everything you've done today." Dori's teeth flashed, "Oh you're welcome, glad to do it." Several women were still standing around Tanya's bunk. Delia walked up to them. "Sorry to interrupt Tanya, but I need to borrow a couple of your friends." The women looked up expectantly, "Sure, what do you need?" " I need you to find Queen Eponin and Priestess Krystina and tell them Queen Ephiny is awake?" "No problem."
As the women set out on the errand Delia turned to Alicia and Xena, "Let's go back to my quarters, we need to talk." Delia put on tea, "Alicia, you know about Tanya's dream; right? Ephiny had one, and they mesh perfectly." "So what does it mean?" Xena spoke up "It means the gods are in this up to their necks." Delia said "I agree, It looks like Artemis and Celesta for sure, and we've got the possibility of Bacchus. Any others?" Xena closed her eyes, "Aries would mesh with the message Tanya brought back. He was involved in Gabrielle's death. Worse, he was playing footsie with Dahok, so we can't rule him out either." Alicia shook her head, "If we've got that many, odds are high Zeus himself is somewhere in the act."
Xena started to laugh. Delia asked her "what's so funny?" Xena stopped laughing, "Sorry, there isn't anything funny about it. If, as I suspect, the whole thing started because of my last visit, you'd have been better off if you had killed me then and there." Eponin's voice came from behind them "Delia, your runner said Ephiny's awake?" Delia filled her in quickly. "If it isn't a problem, I'd like to wait until Krystina gets here to tell you the rest." Eponin leaned back against the doorpost and folded her arms. "I can wait."
Xena offered her a mug of ale, "Thanks Xena, but I'd be better off with tea if you've got any." Alicia stood up, "I'll put on some water." Eponin nodded, Thank you. Xena I caught what you were saying just before I came in. About our being better off if we'd killed you. Mind telling me just what in Tartarus you were talking about?"
Xena ran down the list of events, starting with her last visit, that all seemed to add up to the gods involvement. Eponin told her "Xena, there's more." "The missing messages?" Eponin took a deep breath, "Yes, I believe you sent them. I think someone didn't want them to get thru." Xena answered "Messages don't always get through, doesn't mean someone deliberately stopped them."
Eponin sighed, "In this case, Xena, it probably does. "A few moons back we found a merchant caravan ambushed, everyone killed just outside our lands." Xena made a questioning gesture, "Bandits?" "Eponin shrugged, "Could be. But that caravan traveled a regular route for several seasons, and had a safe conduct to cross our lands. They came from the northeast and usually carried messages. Based on what we know, that was about a moon and a half after Gabrielle died."
It was Xena's turn to shrug, "Coincidence" "Maybe, but you'd sent messages with a merchant caravan coming from that direction about that time. What can you tell us about it?" Xena described the caravan in some detail. When she'd finished Eponin nodded, "coincidence maybe Xena, but it sure sounds like them."
Alicia chose that moment to hand Eponin a mug of tea. Thanking her Eponin went on, telling Xena about the centaur killed by a marauding bear three moons before the caravan ambush. "Solari took a party and hunted it down." Her eyes flashed with pride as she told how the youngest members of the party had actually killed the bear. When she'd finished Xena added, "Centaurs don't maneuver well in the woods. Besides, we don't know he was the one Gabrielle sent the meassage with. But it does make me think."
Eponin gestured with her mug, "Gets more interesting. After reading about it in Gabrielle's diary, I asked Solari who actually saw the body." Xena asked, "Let me guess, something happened to whoever it was." "Good guess. Only people to see him were a pair of scouts, both were killed in a rockslide shortly before your arr-, your return." Looking her in the eye Xena said,"It's okay to say it Eponin. How long before my arrest?" Eponin looked slightly embarrassed, "Less than a quarter moon."
Eponin looked at her, "Xena. Gabrielle described him in her diary, also gave his name. It was the same centaur. Tyldus confirmed it when I asked him. By the way he's offerred to testify as a defense witness at your trial." "If you knew, why were you pushing me for information?" Eponin sipped her tea before answering, "Xena, I was pushing because the Centaur was the only messenger I did know about. When you told me about the caravans the rest of it added up."
Then Delia spoke "Eponin, remember when she was brought in, she was so out of it she had no memory of anything for a while." "Yes why?" "Remember someone, might even have been me, saying it was like the waters of the Lethe had acted on her."
Eponin asked Xena "what do you remember before your arrest." "There's about three moons that are still a total blank. I don't remember being brought in, or my first few days in jail, just what I've been told." Delia asked "Xena, if you wanted Lethe water, how would you get it?" She shrugged "I've got no idea." "Other than asking a god, I don't either."
Alicia added "It doesn't make sense anyway. Why Lethe? Anyone close enough to do that, could have given her poison. And why just before she rode in?" Xena commented "And why here? There's warlords that'll pay a lot more for my head than you were offering."
Eponin scratched her head, "How much is your head worth Xena?" Xena shot back, "That depends. If you know where to go, you could feed the village for a couple winters off it." Eponin looked embarrassed, "Sorry if it sounded that way, it wasn't what I meant." Xena said "I did mean it. I'll have no use for my head after I'm hung. I'm sure the village can use the money, so why not sell it."
Delia looked shaken by her stoic honesty "Eponin, what did you mean?" "Five thousand dinars is a lot of money, and I gather theres more available." Xena turned her eyes to the ceiling, *last time I checked 100,000 dinars was a lot more than 2,000. That's if you can trust the Romans not to crucify you and take it back.* Eponin went on, "Xena, what it sounds like is that someone, who doesn't need money or the fame, wants you dead." Xena looked down, "I could name a few people." Eponin scowled, "how many of them have access to Lethe water?" "Just one, Aries"
The priestess Krystina came in at that time, "I understand the queen is awake. How is she?" Delia answered, "Feeling sorry for herself and mad at the world. Let her sulk for a while." "Will that help?" "It won't hurt. Reason I asked you to come over was, when she woke up she thought she was in Tartarus, and I was Lyta." "Mistaking you for Lyta would not be difficult, you played more than one trick on us that way. Sorry, you were starting to tell me something." Delia took a breath "Krystina, Ephiny had the same dream or at least part of it that Tanya did." "But that's impossible!" Delia shook her head, "Is it? They match perfectly." Krystina paled and said "let me sit down."
Xena made room on the bunk. The priestess sat down and continued "We're pretty sure Tanya started to cross over, but you said the queen's life was never in danger." "It wasn't, but she described the ice cavern, and called Celesta by name. Said Celesta told her she was in Tartarus, what do you make of it?" The priestess accepted the offered tea, then answered cautiously. "I'm not sure what to make of it, what do you folks think?"
They told her of their discussion prior to her arrival. Her conclusions matched theirs. "Xena" she said "you seem to be the focal point of this strange series of events. Any thoughts as to why?" Xena threw up her hands "Makes no sense. It hits the Amazon Nation pretty hard, and seems to be going after the queens." She dropped her hands in her lap. "Doesn't make sense they'd attack the nation thru me. Gabrielle yes, but not Ephiny or Queen Melosa." Krystina asked her "Why not?" Xena looked at her "because regardless of what anyone believes, I am not, never have been, and nor can I ever be, an Amazon."
Eponin put her hands against the wall and said "Xena you've said that before. I've accepted that you believe it but I never have. Would you care to elaborate?" "No." Krystina stepped in "Xena, I find it hard to imagine how that could be true. We take a lot of pride in giving women fresh starts. As far as we're concerned, your past, like that of any other woman began the first time you entered our village. Sometimes we need to ask questions, most often for a medical need and even then we don't do it lightly. If what we suspect turns out to be true, if it really does effect the nation's chances for survival, will you tell us then?" "Ask me again if it turns out to be that important." Eponin spoke, "OK Xena. I may find it hard to believe, but that's my problem, we'll drop it for now." "Thank you."
Delia decided, "there'll be plenty of time to discuss this tomorrow or the next day. Eponin, Krystina do either of you want to talk to Ephiny for a minute or two?" Eponin looked nervous, "What do I say to her?" Delia thought for a minute, " Just keep it short, and honest. If you still love her tell her that, if you're hurt, upset or whatever by what she tried to do, tell her that too. If she wants to go into a lot of details, tell her they'll be time for that later. She'll probably ask you to untie her, then get upset when you don't. Can you handle that?" Eponin answered truthfully, "I don't know." She looked at Xena who said quietly, "We'll be here if you need us." She had told Delia earlier about Eponin's early morning visit. Delia added, "It won't be easy. Would you like one of us to come in with you?"
Eponin thought it over, "I think I'd better do it alone,
but thanks for asking." Delia said quietly, "We'll be right outside if you need
us. Don't be embarrassed to ask." Eponin took off her sword and dagger, "probably
better I leave these out here." Alicia took the weapons and laid them to one
side. Eponin left Delia's quarters and walked quietly behind the partition.
A moment later the guards came out and waited near the entrance. Soon Ephiny's
voice became angry shouts, and Eponin emerged. Before the healers could say
anything Tanya spoke, "Eponin, come here for a minute?" She did and Tanya took
her hands, "hurts like Tartarus I know. You want to hug her, throttle her and
so many other things your head's spinning." She patted the side of her bunk,
"sit down, take a minute for you, just you, nothing and no one else." Eponin
sat down, and cried for a very long time.
An uneventful moon had passed since Ephiny regained consciousness. Tanya had long since gone back to her barracks. She would be restricted to light duty for at least another moon while her ribs and other injuries more fully healed.
Having earned more trust, Xena was now allowed to walk unescorted within the village during daylight hours. Often Delia, or Kayla, now working in the hospice would accompany her to the baths. Alicia loved horses, and got permission to take Xena to the stables. While she wasn't allowed to ride, she'd missed Argo, and the mare had been glad to see her. Xena fed her a couple of apples, and spent a while just brushing her down. Her critical eye gauged that the mare was getting slightly fatter in the belly. Xena suspected Argo had been amusing herself with some stallion during her absence and was now with foal. The woman at the stables echoed her suspicions, saying any foal of Argo's would fetch a good price. Xena had thought *wonder if I live long enough to see it, let alone sell it.*
Ephiny remained sullen and mostly uncooperative, but Delia felt it was now safe to move her. She would be taken to the temple the next day. A room had been readied for her with a bunk and basic amenities. She would be allowed out only under the supervision of a priestess. There she would be encouraged to talk and write about her feelings. Various healing and purification rites and rituals would be performed. The royal guard would continue to keep watch over her. Xena thought it was to protect the priestesses until she heard the orders. They would be allowed to use any means necessary, including physical force and restraint, to prevent Ephiny's unauthorized departure, or any attempt by her to harm either herself or others. One of the healers would visit her daily with calming herbs.
Three days before Xena, had given testimony at the guards trial. Both had been convicted, Marya of murder, Katrina of negligence causing death, as well as lesser charges. Today, under her conditions of freedom, she would be required to witness their punishments. Marya would be hanged. Katrina would be whipped and sent to a disciplinary squad for a cycles hard labor. Xena felt no sympathy for them at all.
Katrina was led out first. Flanked by guards the woman walked quietly, keeping her eyes to the ground. As her sentence was read aloud, she looked at Eponin briefly, then swallowing hard, she turned her eyes back to the ground. Her wrists were shackled to the whipping post and her leather top removed.. Xena noted that she was facing the gallows on which Marya's life would end.
She had been sentenced to a severe whipping, which Delia had explained was very specific. Judicial whippings were done in courses of thirteen lashes each. One for each moon in the cycle of seasons. Severe whipping meant three courses or 39 lashes, the most permitted for a single offense under Amazon law. Xena wondered at their leniency. As a warlord she had often ordered whippings of 50 and 100 lashes. On occasion she had ordered someone whipped to death.
As the first lash struck, Katrina screamed and her body slammed forward into the post. The whipping continued, each lash punctuated by further screams and thrashing, until by the end Katrina hung limply from her wrists. She would be left on the post for a candlemark, then returned to her cell where the healers would dress her wounds. When sufficiently recovered, she would be transferred to the disciplinary squad.
Delia stood at Xena's side, watching her reactions during the punishment. When Marya was led out Xena said quietly, "I feel like I'm getting a look at my own future." Delia had said "I hope not." and then fallen silent. Marya began struggling as her sentence was read, and it took four guards to wrestle her to the gallows. Even there her struggles continued as, she bit the hand of the guard/executioner placing the noose. Cursing, the woman drove her fist hard into Marya's stomach. The struggles stopped long enough for her to place the noose, and a detail of six masked warriors, to take up the trailing end of the rope.
Seeing the bitten guard wrapping a rag around her hand Eponin called, "Squad leader, does the injured guard require a healer?" The guard saluted, "it can wait until after the execution your majesty." "Then we will proceed." Asked by Eponin if she had any last words, Marya cursed one last time, and spat in her direction. Pain was evident in Eponin's voice, as she raised her hand, and gave the ritual invocation of deity. Suddenly her hand dropped. Slowly to the beat of a drum, the hanging detail hauled Marya's body off the ground, and made fast the rope.
Marya's death was neither swift nor merciful. For a short time her body jerked wildly, as she lost control of her bodily functions. Her face darkened and eyes bulged, as the ever tightening noose slowly strangled her. Finally all movement stopped, save for a gentle swaying of her body.
Half a candlemark passed before Eponin ordered, "Healer, make your examination" Delia checked the body for signs of life. Finding none she turned to the royal platform, saluted and anounced formally, "your majesty, the prisoner is dead" Eponin returned her salute, "Healer." Turning to the leader of the guard detail, "Return the first prisoner to her cell." She then addressed the village, "These proceedings are at an end, justice has been served." With that she turned and left the platform.
Late that night Xena lay awake in her bunk remembering the mornings events. The solemn dignity with which the sentences had been carried out impressed her. There had been none of the carnival atmosphere that so often accompanied public executions. She remembered the anguish in Eponin's eyes, the blank stares of Tanya and the priestess. She vowed that when her own time came, she would make it as easy as possible on everyone.
In her barracks, Tanya too lay awake. She had lost her oldest friend to these women, and had suffered mightily to help convict them. That too was justice, she knew. Her own actions at the queens hut, though leading to the clearing of Lyssa's name, had surely earned her the whipping. She remembered her shame faced admission that afternoon at the hospice.
"This morning I assaulted my queen, who I am sworn to
protect with my very life, in an insubordinate rage. That I was able to help
later doesn't change that fact, or absolve me of my guilt. Maybe this will."
Convinced of her sincerity, a still reluctant Eponin, had agreed to present her idea to the council.
"It's a matter of honor to you, isn't it," she had sighed, "alright Tanya, we'll let this clear the books on this morning, but that part of it doesn't leave this room. You're going in there to help convict killers, and while you're in there that's all I want you to think about." She had nodded, "I understand." "Good and there's one more thing, do you remember my saying that you need soul healing." "Yes ma'am" "I'm still convinced, and when this is over, we're going to arrange some for you. We'll do it quietly, but I'll expect your fullest cooperation."
Now Lyssa had been cleared and properly cremated. Fayla's
killers had been brought to justice. "So why" Tanya asked herself, " do I feel
so empty inside?"
As the days passed, more information became available on the workings of the gods effecting Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons. Tanya, Xena and Eponin had given Krystina and the other temple priestesses quite a bit of useful information on Ephiny's beliefs. She suggested that a purification, or penitential ritual, done in accordance with them, might be beneficial to her. It would take quite a bit of planning and effort, they told her. They agreed to think over the possibility and get back to her.
Xena noted that Eponin was becoming somewhat more distant. Except when discussing Ephiny's case and treatment they rarely spoke. Solari was a bit more forthcoming though Xena already knew the problem. The time was nearing when Eponin would have to decide her fate. She didn't blame Eponin, or envy her the decision as to what to do with her. Delia, Krystina, and Solari had all assured her that her good works with the temple and healers would weigh in her favor. Despite their assurances, she still expected to be hanged.
Alicia suggested the real problem. All concerned, including Xena, needed to feel that justice had been done. While she knew of no one who would still support her execution, no one was sure what to do with her. Banishment was a possibility, but it would deny the village the services of a fine healer, and Xena the avenue of redemption they hoped to offer her.
Artemis had talked to Eponin about the subject. Startled at first by some of the revelations, she had started to pull back. In a later discussion Eponin asked, "How do we get around that?" Artemis told her it was likely that the Olympian Council would hold a hearing on her petition regarding Gabrielle within the next moon. She had been planning to wait for the outcome of that hearing, before freeing the Amazons of their pledge to delay their final judgement of Xena. She did, however, want the decision in hands other than Ephiny's. She too had been pleased with Xena's redemptive path within the village, and wanted her to have the chance to continue it.
Finally she asked Eponin to call a closed council meeting for the next day at her temple. The members should be prepared to spend the entire day, she told Eponin. Food and beverage would be provided. The subjects of discussion would be Xena, as well as Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny. Xena was specifically not invited. Eponin was surprised by the request, but agreed to arrange the meeting.
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