The next day was a busy one. Friends called at the hospice to offer help and condolences to the grieving healers. Kayla and Xena covered the hospice while Delia and Alicia discussed plans for Rhea's funeral with the priestess.

Sophia assembled a large working party. As ordered, they kept weapons handy, and sentries posted, but there was no sign of trouble. As with Lyssa and Fayla it would be a double funeral. By late afternoon both pyres had been built.
Xena and Kayla again covered the hospice, during Rhea's funeral. Tanya still on light duty, joined them after the service. Xena had grown to like both women, and found the depth of their discussion a pleasant diversion, betwen tending patients and the more mundane aspects of hospice routine.

During Tanya's recovery, Xena had learned of her metal working skills. She had brought examples of her work, and their quality had impressed her. Xena asked if she would be continuing it now that Fayla and Lyssa were gone. Tanya wasn't sure, her skills tended more towards the actual metal work than scabbards or grips. Kayla expressed an interest in learning, saying she was pretty good at carving things.

They discussed the subject at some length. Tanya told them of an unfinished short sword she had started started prior to Xena's last visit. She was both pained and surprised by the revelation that it had been commissioned by the Royal Guard for Gabrielle. "But why? She never carried a sword." Kayla explained that the guard had felt she needed one for ceremonial purposes. A badge of authority like her mask. "We're not sure what to do with it now." Finally understanding, Xena asked if she could see it sometime.

Tanya was delighted by the request, and went on to describe the design, which was unique in Xena's experience. She added that when her health returned, she might try making one for Delia. While as a healer Delia was technically a non combatant, like all Amazons she was required to maintain skill at arms. Her skill with the bow was legend, but having seen her spar with a sword, Tanya thought she should have one of her own. "She's quite good, better than some warriors I know."

Later Tanya told Xena, she hoped she'd stay in the village, once her present difficulties were over. Kayla echoed the sentiment. Xena's mood darkened, as she reminded them she might not have a choice in the matter. Tanya asked "Do you still expect to hang?" "They've never told me otherwise." Tanya stared at her, "Xena, it's true Ephiny was going to hang you. But -" Xena interrupted, "No, she was going to have me burned at the stake." "I heard about that, Amazon law forbids it. I looked it up. No barbaric executions like burning, quartering or burying alive. Hangings ok, so is beheading." Xena shook her head, "if I get a choice, I'll take the rope."

Tanya balled her fists in her skirt, "if they were going to hang you, they'd have done it already. You wouldn't be walking around the village, that's for sure. I was there when Artemis intervened at your first hearing." She pointed to Kayla then herself, " we both were. I don't know why she's got a special interest in your case, but I don't remember that ever happenning before. If that's not enough, first they let you out of jail to save me. Then they let you stay out on conditions, and now they've even lightened up on those."

Kayla stood up and put her two dinars in. "Xena, you've shown us you aren't a danger to the village. The amount of freedom you have shows you the truth of that. At first you needed a healer, or armed escort, just to take a bath, or go to supper. A lot of people you hurt that day, like myself, have a better idea what was actually going on with you. Makes it easier to forgive, or at least judge you less harshly."

Xena interrupted, "What did I do to you?" Kayla looked her straight in the eye, "You took a spear away from somebody, and knocked me cold with it. I needed a couple dozen stitches, and had to stay in bed for almost a quarter moon. My head still rings sometimes, my balance is off when it does, so I have to stay out of trees." Xena lowered her eyes to her lap and said quietly, "I'm sorry."

Kayla continued, "So am I. Sorry it ever happened, sorry for the death of your son, the queens daughter, and whatever else led up to it. I'm not happy about my head ringing, and Delia says it's likely to last the rest of my life." Seeing that Xena still had her eyes down, she said sharply, "Look at me Xena." When she had lifted her face, "That's better, now here's the other part. While you were busy braining me with a spear, I was trying to shove one into your guts. I'm glad I lived thru it, but I'm also glad I got the chance to know you. You've got some serious problems, but you're basically a decent person that packs a mean wallop. Now I can't speak for anyone else, but far as I'm concerned, we can call it a fair fight and forget it."

Tanya's face hardened, "When they brought Lyssa into the square, to humiliate and whip her, I wanted to kill you. When I found her dead, and had to bury her like a criminal, I wished it was you. Thats why I looked up the law on executions, because right then Xena," She had to fight for composure, "Right then Xena, I wanted you whipped until your bones showed, and then buried alive." Her expression softened as tears filled her eyes. "Now her name's been cleared, she's had a proper funeral, and I've had some time to mourn. Waking up, finding out I've been dead, and that you saved my life was a real shocker. So was realizing I'd been given messages for you, and what they meant."

Swallowing hard "Xena, some of my feelings are still pretty raw, but I don't hate you anymore. You set a chain of events in motion, but Ephiny had a lot closer hand in their deaths than you did." "How do you feel about her?" "Hurt, angry, confused. We'd been friends for a long time, but right now I honestly don't know how I feel. The temple's helping me sort some of that out, but I do know, that I don't hate her either."

Kayla excused herself, before stepping out she put a hand on Tanya's shoulder. "The blue can get pretty heavy sometimes." When she'd gone, Xena stood up and sighed, "Tanya I've got to check that bowyers leg. Would you mind putting some water on? She's going to need a fresh poltice, and I wouldn't mind some tea." "I don't mind."
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Delia took a private moment to watch the burning pyres. She tried telling herself, the dampness in her eyes was from the smoke, but herself was having none of it. Rhea had been just nineteen, and one of the most gentle people, Delia had ever known.

Rhea had loved life. She danced so naturally, that one could believe she was born doing it. Her soft melodic voice, could calm the most frightened child.

Rhea had loved working with children more than anything else. Finally, her training complete, she had decided to have one of her own.. Shortly after Xena's arrest, she had left the village, hoping to return pregnant. For her to be so brutally murdered made no sense at all. Lifting her eyes from the pyre to the heavens, Delia silently prayed "Rhea, may you live forever with the gods" Again lowering her eyes, she stood in front of the pyre, and wept without shame.
****************************************************************** *****
Xena spread a paste of moldy bread, moistened with ale, onto a square of cloth. Tanya asked her, "what does that do?" "I discovered a while back that it sometimes stops infection." "Bread mold?" "Don't ask me why, or how it works. But it does often enough to be worth trying. Seems like the more green it has, the more likely it is to help."

Tanya looked at the mixture and made a face. "I thought you were supposed to keep dirt out of a wound, but now it's infected you add spoiled food." Xena put up her hands, I've drained the wound and flushed it twice. I'm hoping this helps, because if the infection gets much worse, we may have to take off her leg." "The gods forbid."

Kayla came back and started mixing an infusion of the same moldy bread. Tanya looked on in horror. "Tell me that isn't the same moldy tasting stuff you gave me." Kayla looked on smugly, "sure was. That's when she showed me how to make it." Xena glanced into the mug, "Looks good, Kayla. Wish we had some maggots to go with it." Hearing Tanya belch she looked up. The woman was pale and sweaty. "Tanya? You okay?" Kayla took one look at her friend, and shoved her out the back door. Glancing over her shoulder Xena could see Tanya bent over beside a tree, "she'll be alright." She put a hand on her shoulder. "Kayla, we're going to make a healer out of you yet."

Kayla spun around, and put her hands together as though praying, "NO. please not that, have mercy on me Xena, I swear to you I was framed." Xena shook her head, holding back a laugh. Tanya stepped back inside, bracing herself on the doorframe with one hand, pointing an accusing finger with the other. "You two - come near me - with your moldy bread - and your maggots - and so help me - you're baccae bait - both of you." Kayla folded her arms and stared at Tanya, "Xena, you ever notice how some people just don't appreciate miracles of modern medicine?"

"I'll give you modern medicine," Tanya let loose a string of oaths. When she'd finished her tirade, Xena quietly asked, "is that pathetic outburst really the best you can do?" Tanya slumped like a becalmed sail. Kayla picked up a mug, 'here, this will settle your stomach." Tanya eyed it with suspicion, "what in it, more maggots?" "Mint tea - I swear it" Xena looked shocked, "Tanya, we don't put maggots in tea." "Then what do you use them for?" She held up a hand, " Forget I asked, I don't want to know."

Xena fixed Tanya in a cold stare. "We didn't use them on you, we didn't have to. Maggots eat infection and dead flesh, so if we can't get a badly infected wound cleaned out any other way, we sometimes use them as a last resort. Doesn't work on belly wounds, and once a limb's poisoned it has to come off. Maybe that's not a pleasant thought, but neither is losing a leg or dying."

Tanya took a tentative sip, and felt her stomach begin to settle. "Xena, I owe you an apology. Kayla you too." She took a breath, and another sip, "you saved my life, and whether you did it with mold, maggots, or magic, I am grateful."
****************************************************************** *****
In the food hut, a grim faced woman noticed Delia's absence. Stepping back into the kitchen, *everything looks under control* she went quietly to the back door, " I need some air, won't be too long." she slipped outside.

Hearing footsteps, Delia quickly dried her tears. The grim faced woman took her in her arms. "Saw you were missing, thought I'd find you here." She guided Delia to a bench near the ceremonial platform, "Gonna miss that sweet tooth of hers. Never could get enough of my honey nut bars." She looked towards the pyre, "Don't know if they got anything like that in the Forests. So I asked the high priestess, she let me put a couple of them in her hand before they wrapped her." "Thank you. She'd have liked that."

Delia shook her head, "It just doesn't make sense." "Wrong place, wrong time, who knows. Guess we'll just have to catch her killers, and ask them." Delia stood up, and ran her fingers thru the length of her hair, "Guess I'd better be getting back in there. Thanks for coming after me." The woman smiled for just a moment, "You're welcome."

Her face darkened, "There's black clouds just beyond the horizon." Delia looked at the sky, "Not that kind, war clouds, and something far worse. Don't ask me what, or how I know, but they're there. Rhea got caught out in that storm, and it killed her. Now it's tasted blood, and it's gonna come after the rest of us. She didn't die in vain Delia, because her death's a warning. We best heed it, pull ourselves together and start getting ready to meet it." Delia nodded grimly, and together they went back inside.

After they'd tended the bowyers leg, Xena asked, "Kayla before you went out, you said something about the blue being heavy. What did you mean?" Tanya's hand dropped to her skirt. Picking up a corner of the blue fabric that lay beneath the leather apron, "She was talking about this blue Xena, about my conflict between it, and my feelings towards Ephiny."

Xena was confused and said so. "What does the one have to do with the other? You don't have to like someone to guard them." Tanya and Kayla looked at each other, Tanya shook her head. "Xena, the blue halter and underskirt Kayla and I wear, do you know what they mean?" "It's part of a uniform, means you're both royal guards." "No Xena, that's what they are, but what do they mean?" "Palace guards are usually the best, most trusted warriors in the realm."

Tanya shook her head, "You're on the right path at least. We are good fighters, but that's the least of it. Amazon Queens aren't pampered palace pets. Most are capable fighters, they have to be or they don't live long. We're sworn to protect her with our lives. No excuses, not even if the only way to save her, is jumping in front of an arrow, or you. Queen Gabrielle did that with Princess Terreis, and we loved her for it."

Kayla added, "We're sworn not only to protect the queen, but guard her secrets as well. We can walk unannounced and unescourted into her quarters, day or night, whether or not she's there, or alone. We might see treaties, battle plans, whatever, but we're expected to keep our mouths shut. I've been asked to read draft treaties, and give the queen my honest opinion of them. We're often her closest friends, and confidants, because she knows we can't be bribed, or tortured, into betraying her."

Tanya finished the thought, "This blue means, trust. Because of what's happened, and my reactions to it. I have to decide if I can still give Queen Ephiny that kind of trust and loyalty" "What happens if the answer is no?" "That depends on how far she trusts me."
****************************************************************** ****
Tanya asked, "Xena, how much longer do you think until I'm healed? Sore, I can deal with, but this short of breath business is getting to me." "Take off the halter and let me check your ribs." For a few moments Xena poked, prodded and asked questions. Tanya was a bit embarrassed, when she told Kayla to do the same. Xena announced, another moon at least, everything else looks ok. Hows your back?" "Depends on how I move, itches a lot." Xena showed Kayla the thin red lines where the whip wounds were healing, "Delia did a beautiful job on these, they'll fade with time, shouldn't scar too badly." Tanya picked up her halter, "nice to know, okay to put this back on now." Xena nodded.

As Tanya dressed, "well, would I pass as a criminal if the queens sends me on an undercover mission?" Kayla grabbed her, "Slave maybe, not enough scars for a criminal, and if you ever pull another stunt like that, I'll put them on you myself." Letting Tanya go she added, "You scared Tartarus out of all of us. We could have found another way."
"The queen and council agreed with the plan." Kayla brought up her hands as though in surrender, "I know they did, what I'd still like to know is why you did." Xena stared hard at Tanya, "so would I." "You already know the reason, to catch a murderer and clear a friends name." Kayla glared at her, "That's what you said then, but they had other proof, and a lot safer ways of getting more if we needed it. I don't know if it's guilt over their deaths or what, but for some reason you wanted, or felt you deserved that beating."

Kayla then turned to Xena, "While we're on that subject, you feel that you deserve to hang. Well, nobodies sure what to do with you, but I doubt hanging or banishment are in the equation." "Why not?" "Because, based on what we know now, hanging doesn't fit the crime. Besides doesn't Eponin need you to help her and Tanya do some kind of rituals for Queen Ephiny?" "We've talked about it. The high priestess suggested either a healing or penetential rite in her own tradition." "That answers that. They're lovers, and Eponin isn't going to hang or banish someone who might be able to help Queen Ephiny if she can help it." "Makes sense now that you say it."

"Xena, that's where the problem comes in. You broke our law. Had you been taken that day you likely would have been hanged. As it stands now you'll face some punishment, but even if they sentence you to hard labor, you could still come back and make a place here. Others have, you could if you want too."

Kayla sat back down, then continued in a far more gentle tone. " You're more than a warrior, but in the outside world you'll never be able to put that sword down. You know it as well as I do. Right now this village is short a healer, and you're as good a one as we've ever had. You've saved lives, and you've seemed happy working here. You've as good a grasp of spiritual affairs as most priestesses. So you see, there can be a life here for you if you want one."

Xena stood up, "Okay. I need to take a walk. When I get back you can tell me what you think they should do with me, then what you think they will do. Now if you'll excuse me." With that she stepped out the back door and headed for the outhouse. As much as any other reason she needed a couple of minutes to pull herself together.

Scythia was the problem, Uteri's band had accepted her, even knowing she had betrayed them in the past. She'd had to tell them, to prevent them paying her honors she could never deserve. They had seen the effect of her actions, lived them. After their defeat of Alti, they'd gathered the old bones onto a common pyre and sent them off with the new holy word. Xena hoped it had been enough to free their souls from the land of the dead.

She had been tempted to stay, believing then that Gabrielle was in the Forests of Eternity. No matter how pretty a picture Tanya and Kayla were painting she was unworthy of the Forests. She was certain that her relationship with Alti had blackened her soul forever.

Now knowing that Gabrielle was in Tartarus made going to the Forests impossible. How could she, who had never been punished for even one of her crimes, accept that peace. Especially when Gabrielle who deserved all of it, was facing eternal torment because Xena had befriended her.The thought brought tears to her eyes. *I belong in Tartarus, not Gabrielle. The least I can do is accept the consequences of my own actions and join her.*

Kayla brought Tanya more tea, refreshing Xena's as well. As both were injured parties who had gotten to know Xena, Eponin had talked to them the day before on the subject of her fate, and both had definite opinions.. Swearing both to secrecy she had told them of the councils discussions,. Eponin had also asked if they had any notion as to how Xena might feel about staying in the village.

Both knew that Delia would be invited to the closed council session the following day. Her continued acceptance of Xena in the hospice, and therefore her home, would be an important point in the discussions.

Xena returned. Seeing her mug refilled she thanked the women, then sat down and repeated her question. Kayla went first, "Xena as an injured party I'll be asked my opinion. Until the day I saw you work on Tanya, I would have held out for a death sentence. Now, I plan to ask for a sentence of some kind that lets you stay here. I think you've earned that." Xena asked "what changed your mind?"

Kayla said honestly, "I'm not sure there was any one thing. You didn't try bargaining when we asked you to try saving Tanya's life. I suggested that you might, and if looks had been daggers, I'd have been dead right then. When Eponin told me to get your horse and help you escape, you turned it down for the good of the nation. I offerred you another chance in the back room, when we heard they were planning to burn you alive, -"

Xena interrupted, "Right then I was tempted." "Shows you got some sense."

Kayla put down her mug, "We've shared a lot of tea, I'll always remember the first time." "I'm not sure what you mean." Kayla continued "I asked you about Tartarus, why you bothered. Do you remember?" "Yes" "I'll never forget your answer. I saw remorse, and a willingness to face the consequences of your actions." When Kayla reached over and took Xena's hands, she didn't resist. "You told me the Gods hadn't sent you to Tartarus, you'd bought passage. I think it's time you ask for a refund." Xena felt tears well up, then as they started to flow she closed her eyes and let them.

Tanya and Kayla sat on either side of Xena and let her cry. Eventually she excused herself and returned looking better. Tanya asked "Would you rather hear my answer some other time?" "I've fought battles were easier than this." Tanya replied, "No doubt, the hardest thing any of us ever do, is take a really honest look inside ourselves."

Tanya smiled at her, "Xena, I spent almost half a moon on that bunk, so I had time to watch and listen to what was happening. Sometimes when you thought I was asleep I wasn't, like the morning of the funerals. I woke up, and stayed quiet so as not to interfere. I got a pretty damned good idea what kind of person you are. Anybody ever tell you that you talk in your sleep?" "I never believed them." Tanya snorted, "You should, because you're a real chatterbox. You had me close to where you were sleeping, so you'd hear me if I had a problem. Well Xena, it works both ways."

Xena looked trapped "What did you hear?" Tanya replied, "You talked as though to Queen Gabrielle a lot, let's just say I know how deeply the two of you were in love Often in your sleep you cry for her loss." Xena felt the tears well up again, fighting them back she replied. "I miss her terribly, but that can't be all you're talking about."

Tanya's face became grim. "No Xena it isn't." She lapsed into a language unknown to Kayla who stared blankly. Xena's face turned deathly pale, as she spoke in the same language. Tanya replied then switched back to Greek.

Xena pressed her face in her hands and began rocking forwards and backwards, sobbing loudly. Tanya said sharply "Xena, lay down. Please lay down." Kayla was at Xena's side and eased her onto the bunk. Xena shook her off and tried to stand. Tanya said "Xena please, I can't catch you, I can't lift you and I doubt Kayla can alone." Kayla shaken by this turn of events demanded, "What did you say to her? What was that language." Tanya looked sympathetically, "She asked me not to tell you what we said, but the language was my mothers, it's called Scythian."

Kayla grew concerned, "should I get the healers?" Tanya replied "I don't think she'll need them, she's shook is all, just let her rest." Kayla persisted, "What in Tartarus did you say to her. Scythia, I thought you were from Mesopotamia?" Tanya explained, My mother came from Scythia, my father was a Mesopotamian merchant who bought her from Persian slave traders. He owned Lyssa's mother as well." Kayla asked her "You were born a slave in Mesopotamia? Mind telling me how you got to Greece?"

Tanya said quietly, "When I was eight my "father," the man who owned us died. My mother, Lyssa and Fayla's got away in the confusion afterwards. We were picked up by an officer in Philips army and brought to Greece. Our mothers, fearing we'd be separated once we got to Macedonia, escaped and hid out in the mountains. An Amazon hunting party found us north of the Thermodon river and took us to their village. Fayla and Lyssa came to this one a few cycles later after their mother died. I followed about a cycle later." Kayla said respectfully, "Your mothers were brave women."

Xena started to sit up, "Your mothers were Amazons weren't they, that's how they knew to trust each other, how they survived." Tanya answered quietly, "Yes. Mine was Scythian theirs' Mesopotamian. How do you feel now?" "I could use some water." Kayla brought her some. Tanya said firmly, "Xena I was put in chains as a child. You forged your own in your conscience. You've worn them long enough." Xena started to protest but Tanya fixed her in a stare to rival her own.

Tanya told Xena in no uncertain terms what her problem was. "Xena, you won't let go of your past because it gives you an excuse to torment yourself. You need it to blame in case you go berserk. You say you've never been punished for it. That's a pile of poop if I ever heard one. You've been punishing yourself for it every day of your life." Xena started again to protest, Tanya cut her off. "Xena, you died, were judged and sent to Tartarus. The reason you don't feel punished, is because you got a second chance." Putting her face right up to Xena's she said softly, "Just why did you fight so hard for that chance, if you didn't think you deserved one?" She moved back, "Think about that, Xena. Now ask yourself just how often does Hades let someone go? Then since we're talking about second chances; ask yourself, why does he think you deserve one?"

Xena almost shouted, "Why doesn't Gabrielle get one? All she ever did was be a friend to me."Tanya said quietly, "Isn't that all Queen Cyane wanted, to be a friend, to help you redeem your soul." "Yes." "Ever stop to think why you went to Scythia, it was your grief over Queen Gabrielle's death. Because of it, you learned of a major wrong from your past. No, you can't give them back their lives, or their time in the land of the dead, but you did free their souls. Xena cried "Stop it, please, stop it."

Tanya didn't budge, "Xena, you need to hear this. From everything I know about Queen Gabrielle, she doesn't belong in Tartarus. You don't want to live, or stay here and risk redemption while she's there. You think it would be disloyal to her. Xena you're wrong. You're not going to help her, yourself, or anyone else by joining them there." Xena's voice took on a sharp edge, "That's enough Tanya."

Tanya knew she was pushing matters, but even as she watched Xena rise she was determined to have her say. "Not quite Xena, the last time a nation was threatened by evil, it played into your lust for power, and a nation died along with their souls. Are you going to let it destroy another the same way? Xena, the guilt you keep inside is poisoning your soul, and putting the rest of us at risk. I've a mind to suggest Delia dose you good, so you can dump it out back where it belongs. Xena, we knew this evil in Mesopotamia. We called it Avi Dahaka, and it's too big for anyone, even you to fight alone. Maybe if you try it our way we can save Queen Gabrielle's soul, the nations and your own while we're at it.

****************************************************************** ****
Xena's hands tightened into loose fists. Kayla pushed Tanya behind her, "hold it Xena." Xena stopped, then lowered her hands slowly to her side, "I don't want to hurt you Kayla." "You don't want to hurt Tanya either, you just don't want to admit she's right." Xena stepped backwards, as the truth of Tanya's words hit her. Still Kayla pushed, "Running's easy, so is getting hung. Facing the truth, the real truth, not those lies you keeep telling yourself, and starting over, now that's hard." "What would you know about it?" "More than you'll ever know."

A cough came from the doorway, Xena turned to look, glad for any interruption. Delia and Eponin were standing there with what looked like a large tray of food. Tanya stammered, "How long." Eponin smiled at her "long enough. Xena, this woman's got a lot of sense, I hope you were listening." Halfway between embarrassed and terrified Xena asked, "How much did you hear." Eponin looked at her and said softly, "A lot, but nothing I didn't already know." Xena paled, and slumped defeated onto the bed. "Yes Xena, I know about Scythia, Alti, and Queen Cyane. I also know about Uteri and your recent trip there."

Xena looked up, her face a mask of acceptance. "How long have you known, and" looking hard at Tanya, "how did you find out." Eponin looked down at her, "Tanya didn't tell me, so quit staring at her. Artemis told the council a couple days ago, when we were discussing what to do with you." Xena asked, "What did you decide?" Eponin told her, "We couldn't decide, some think hangings too good for you, others think it'd be a waste of perfectly good rope." She paused for effect "I agree with both, and think it'd be the waste of a decent human being as well."

Delia had put the tray down and was waiting patiently. "Xena, Kayla. Alicia and I appreciate you keeping an eye on things, and thought you might be getting hungry. This should be easier to chew than that piece of Tanya's mind you've been snacking on." She turned "Tanya", and waved towards the tray. "Thanks for keeping an eye on these two clowns." "My pleasure." Tanya and Kayla started piling flatbread with meat and cheese. Xena sat on the edge of her bunk and stared blankly into space. Tanya apologized to Eponin and Delia, "Sorry, I didn't realize you were waiting." Eponin put a hand on her shoulder, "Next time I need someone chewed out maybe I send for you." She nodded from Delia to Xena who was still sitting immobile. Taking the hint Delia moved to stand in front of Xena. Folding her arms, she asked in a menacing voice, "Xena, if you're so full of it you can't eat, maybe I should follow Tanya's advice?" Xena grimaced and stood up, "That, won't be necessary." Delia replied smugly "Good."


****************************************************************** ******
The next day Delia and Alicia were sent for shortly after the council convened. They sat stoicly while Eponin reported that, based on their findings, Rhea had to have been killed by a goddess. The boot prints narrowed the field of suspects to one, Velasca. They were filed in quickly on the details of Aries plot as they were known.

Delia's mind wandered back to the day before, and the prophesy of the grim faced woman who'd joined her at Rhea's pyre. She stood up, "may I ask a question?" Artemis extended a hand in invitation, "please do." "Why was Rhea killed?" All eyes turned from Delia to Artemis, "The healer Rhea was killed because she had learned things in her travels that the conspirators did not wish you to know. There was a second reason which I am not at liberty to reveal, for now suffice it to say that she was killed on the direct orders of Zeus himself." Shocked murmers rose from the group but Artemis was firm, "I'm sorry, but I really cannot say more."

The council asked the healers about Xena. Both commented on her abilities and willingness to work. Delia told them of her maddening habit of depriving herself. "She asks nothing for herself, not even when she needs or wants it desperately. She'll take it if offered, but she won't ask. I've seen it before and it isn't good. She's severely depressed, and in her circumstances, who wouldn't be." The council asked her to elaborate. "Xena's a stoic. She accepts that she deserves to hang, and doesn't want to be told otherwise. She told me once that it bothered her that she'd never been punished for a single crime she'd committed. It doesn't seem to matter to her how much good she does, the guilt she keeps stored up inside robs her of any pleasure in it."

Alicia added, "The only time I've seen her take pleasure in any accomplishment, was when she figured out how to give the queen water thru a bottle. She has a real sense of humor when she lets it go." Solari shook her head at the memory. Alicia went on "Xena's a first class healer and I'd hate to lose her. More than that, she's a decent person with a badly mangled past, that really needs a second chance. I'm willing to do what I can to give her one." Delia added "I agree, with Rhea's death we're short a healer and she's damn good. If you can get her to stay in the village, I'd like to have her." Niobe asked, "She wouldn't stay if you just ask her?" Delia said "I don't think so, for the same reason she denies being an Amazon. She doesn't feel worthy of it, yet I think she knows it's her only chance for redemption."

Eponin added, "I'd like to call the warrior Tanya whom you all know. I believe she has some good insights and instincts in this matter." Niobe looked to the rest of the council and then to Artemis. Artemis nodded, "call your warrior." While Tanya was being brought to the temple, Eponin explained that she had already deduced most of what they were talking about, including Scythia thru her own means. Even Artemis was shocked, "How could she know that part," Eponin answered, "What she said was Xena talks during her nightmares, she heard her speaking Scythian one night and listened." Solari asked, "On top of everything else she speaks Scythian, with all due respect Artemis, are you sure she isn't one of you?"

Artemis smiled "Not that I'm aware of, she is one of Haephestos chosen, but so far as I know her blood is mortal." Eponin added, "It seems Tanya's mother was a Scythian Amazon captured in battle and sold into slavery in Mesopotamia. Says how she got here is a long story, but I'd wager it's worth listening too." Niobe said "I, for one, would like to hear it. Perhaps another day we could convince her to tell it to us over ale."

Tanya arrived as the council was taking a break. Several asked about her injuries. When the break was over, and Artemis had regained order, she asked Tanya to step forward. She asked "I know you are recovering from injuries. Perhaps you would be more comfortable seated" She pointed her hand and a chair appeared. Tanya bowed respectfully, "Thank you, my lady." Artemis said quietly "You're quite welcome," then in a more normal voice "Queen Eponin, you believed this warrior had insights and instincts of value, please proceed."

Eponin stood up and began her questioning. "Tanya, we're discussing what to do with Xena. You know her situation. Please tell us your thoughts on the matter." Tanya replied honestly "I'm not sure where to begin, if you ask a specific question, I might get a better idea what you're looking for." "Fair enough. What do you know of her past." Tanya looked puzzled "I know she was born Greek, and became a warrior in her teens, I've heard a lot of stories." Eponin held up her hand, "Tell us what you know about Scythia and how you learned it." Tanya spoke at some length about the dreams she'd overheard. She also explained enough of her own past to account for knowing the language.

Eponin asked "for the record what languages do you speak" Tanya answered, "Greek of course, Scythian, and the Mesopotamian dialect I was born with. I have some knowledge of Aramaic, Coptic, and Gaelic." Niobe asked her a question in Coptic which Tanya answered flawlessly. Priestess Krystina asked her one in Aramaic, she answered satisfactorily though stumbling over a couple of words. Artemis looked at her and asked three questions rapidly in Scythian. then confirmed her knowledge of that language as well. Eponin asked her "I hope you don't mind if I ask mine in Greek." Tanya smiled and replied politely "I don't mind at all" Eponin heard a chuckle and turned to see the offender was Niobe. A stern look her way restored silence.

Eponin turned back to Tanya, "You lost a lover during Xena's attack on the village in the spring before last?" Pain was clearly evident in Tanya's voice as she answered. "No. She got caught up in some strange occurrences which followed the attack, and took her own life a few days later." Eponin looked at her sympathetically, "Tanya, we all know that, I just need it on the record of this meeting. What do you know of the attack or the reasons behind it?" Tanya replied carefully, "Only what I heard later, neither Lyssa or I were directly involved." Niobe asked "Where were you, and what were you doing when it happened." Tanya looked embarrassed, "Do I have to answer that." When Niobe crossed her arms in stony silence she blushed, saying "Guess I do, Well since neither of us were on duty that afternoon, we thought we'd get away, and well we," Niobe raised a hand halting her, then smiling she said gently, "I think we understand" Tanya said quietly "Thank you"

Eponin stood up and walked to the front of the assembly, "Tanya, while you were in the hospice recovering from your recent injuries did you get to know Xena a bit?" "Yes. She has trouble sleeping, we talked a few times late at night when things were quiet." "What did you talk about." "We share a lot of interests, knife making, religions and philosophy. She's very intelligent, and very troubled." "Did she ever talk about the attack." "Some, she told me about how her son had just come back into her life, and how he died at the hands of Queen Gabrielle's daughter. Told me how it was still tearing her up, and about a place she called Illusia."

Eponin asked "Before you got to know Xena, how did you feel about her." Tanya replied, "I hated her, and wanted to see her hang for what she'd done to the queen, and my friends. I wanted to kill her myself for what happened to Lyssa." Artemis interrupted, "Obviously your feelings towards her have changed, please tell us how and why." Tanya explained at length about Xena saving her life, and her near death experience. She added, "When I realized that, whatever else, she was a mother blinded by grief and lashing out in pain, I didn't hate her anymore." Artemis followed up "Do you still think she should hang." Tanya looked shocked, "NO." "What do you think should happen to her?"

Tanya took a deep breath and tried to stand, but it was too much for her. Eponin helped her retake her seat. "I'm not sure, but I'd find a way to drop the capital charges. From what we know now, I'd assume she wasn't totally responsible for her actions right then, and to me that's as good a reason as any." She began coughing, "Could I have some water please?" Eponin saw she was holding an arm tightly across her chest. She looked from her to Artemis and then back, "Tanya do you need a break?" She replied, "Thank you, just for a minute, my ribs are hurting." Delia came forward and looked her over, "When we finish here come over to the hospice and I'll give you something." Tanya forced a smile "I'd appreciate it."

Tanya then continued, "I'm guessing there's more to this than I know, but based on what I do know, I'm not even sure Xena belongs on trial. I'm sure she'd disagree, but it's starting to look like she's as much a victim here as anyone else." A stunned Eponin asked, "Why do you think that?" "Call it a gut feeling based on things I've overheard. Add to that the Gods intervention at her first hearing, the delays and now two days of secret meetings with a divine presence." Slowly she stood, and one hand to her side she waved her other slowly across the room, "There's a lot more going on here than deciding the fate of one criminal. Xena's crimes were committed in broad daylight in front of half the village. She confessed at her first hearing, anybody else would have been hung or banished a long time ago. That there's still any question about her fate means someone, " She looked pointedly at Artemis, "has a reason for wanting her alive and here."

Tanya sat down heavilly, amid stunned silence Artemis asked. "Tanya you seem to be an intelligent woman. Assuming you're right, why would I want Xena alive and here." Tanya looked the goddess in the eye, "You need her, as either your champion, or as bait against Avi Dahaka." Tanya swallowed hard, and would later swear she could see the fires of Tartarus looming in the goddesses eyes, "I'm guessing that Queen Gabrielle and the nation are in it up to their necks as well."
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Elsewhere in the temple, a priestesses talked rapidly with Xena. Ephiny was having problems, she refused to eat, speak, or even take basic care of herself. That morning she had been forcibly restrained after throwing her wash bucket at the guards. Now tied naked to her bunk, Ephiny began thrashing and cursing as Xena entered the small cell like room.

After being moved from the hospice, Xena had cared for Ephiny only since Rhea's death. Even before it had been ackward.Though she had gained some respect as a healer, Xena was still facing capital charges, and Ephiny was one of the witnesses against her. She had mentioned this to Delia, the healer had reminded her, "I'll have to testify against you too, so will Kayla." Xena had looked down, "I know, and that can't make my being here very easy for you."

Delia had acknowledged, "it doesn't, but I'll also be testifying about your efforts to reform, and I intend to plead for leniency based on them." Xena had to fight back the tears "But Delia, I'm guilty as charged. The law says I have to hang." Delia had grabbed Xena and spun her around, "No Xena, the law says you could hang, it doesn't say you have to. And I think it would be a waste." She let go of Xena's shoulder, "Right now I think you're right about Ephiny. She has a lot of guilt about the hideous execution she ordered up for you. She'got a resentment about the broken arm you gave her. She couldn't dress herself. She had trouble eating and caring for her most personal needs. The two of you've never had a chance to talk about that have you?" "No."

Xena remembered this as she knelt beside Ephiny's bunk. "You can hate me all you want, but don't take it out on the guards or priestesses." Ephiny spat at her, then began screaming like the terrors of Tartarus were upon her. Xena jabbed fingers into her neck silencing her, then stood up and, gave quiet instructions to the priestess. Soon she brought two buckets of warmed water, soap and rags. With the guards help they bathed the struggling woman, and administered a calming potion.

Once the bath was completed, Ephiny was swaddled as an infant, blindfolded and wrapped tightly in a burial shroud. One of the guards paled at treating their queen as an infant, Xena explained, "it'll be easier on her than the ropes." When Xena finally took off the pinch, Ephiny again started screaming obsenities, then felt herself being carried into another room. "Put her down." Ephiny was laid on thick mats, "let her scream and thrash all she wants, but keep her on the mats, and don't let her out of your sight." "for how long." "Until I say otherwise."
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For a few monents everyone held their breath, as Artemis took on immense proportions and loomed menacingly over Tanya, "With all due respect, you asked me a question. If you're going to kill me for answering it honestly, I'd appreciate your getting on with it." Artemis hissed at her, "why are you not afraid?" "Because you haven't denied a word I've said, and if you were going to kill me I'd be dead already."

Artemis returned to mortal size, "Your wisdom and courage will one day earn you great honors, unless of course your temper and insolence gets you hung first." Tanya asked quietly, "May I say something?" "Go ahead, if you're sure you want to." Tanya leaned forward to look the Goddess in the eye, "I'm wondering why, despite your posturing and protests, you still haven't denied anything." Artemis shook her head and said quietly, "I haven't denied it because you're right" She turned to the council, "You may speak freely with this woman, about anything we discussed at our last meeting."

Artemis waited for the sounds of relief to subside. "Which brings us back to the problem at hand, Xena." Eponin stood up, "my lady, if I might continue?" Artemis stepped back and waved her permission. Eponin bowed and stepped forward to summarize the previous discussions about Xena. "Tanya, I asked you and Kayla to get a feel for whether or not Xena'd be willing to stay in the village. Were you able to do that?"

Tanya shook her head, "I believe that if Xena were free to leave the village right now, she would leave, and commit suicide shortly afterwards." Eponin took a deep breath before continuing, "so in your opinion the only way she'll stay is if she's forced too?" "Yes." Eponin thought, *That's just great, she's willing to stay and be hung, but not willing to stay by invitation.* She put her hands on either side of her head as though shaking it. Tanya asked, "may I speak freely?" Eponin brought her hands to her side as though pleading, "Please do."

Tanya stood up, "Xena has to stand trial. Too many people got hurt in her attack to just let her off and stay here without explanation The village won't buy it, and neither will she. Getting her to stay becomes less of a problem since it can be made part of her sentence, though I doubt that a cell is what the Goddess has in mind." Artemis silently nodded. "That pretty much rules out the disciplinary squad since she's likely to need some freedom of movement."

Eponin threw her hands in the air. "First I can't hang or banish her even though she's charged with capital crimes. Now I can't even lock her up, but I can't drop the charges either because she won't stay if I do." She turned to face the Goddess, "with all due respect I need a break." "By all means take one."

Artemis spoke first after the break. "Tanya, you were correct earlier, there are reasons I want Xena to stay here and become a part of the nation. Earlier you said that you didn't think she would unless forced. Why is that?"

Tanya's answer shocked the group. "She doesn't feel worthy of membership in the nation, partly because of Scythia, though she did her best to correct it." She turned to look at Artemis, "If there's any way of finding out if it worked and letting her know, it might help." The goddess told her she would arrange it.

Tanya thanked her then continued, "Her outstanding charges are a problem. Let's face it, we couldn't hold her without her cooperation. She's willing to stand trial and be hung, but because of Queen Gabrielle's situation, she's not willing to stay and risk redemption. Xena'd think she betrayed her if she got into the forests while the late Queen is stuck in Tartarus." She looked apologetically at Artemis, "I know you're trying to do something about that, while that's a matter for the gods I pray you'll succeed." Artemis answered her gently, "You are right. It's a matter for the gods, but several of us are working on that issue. I told your council a few days ago we've made progress and there's reason to hope. Perhaps one of them would give you the whole story later. Please go on."

Tanya figeted uncomfortably, "This really isn't my place." She took a deep breath, "Xena won't take charity, but if we give her a chance to clear the books, and earn a place here, I think she'll take it."

Krystina's face tightened, she stood shaking her head to clear it as ancient memories assailed her. "I agree with Tanya. If we let Xena off, she'll see it as disrespect for Queen Gabrielle's memory, and I think others would as well." Tanya interrupted, "There's been talk that you're going to let her off, the idea isn't sitting well. Some say you've put the village in danger by letting her work in the hospice."

Eponin's face grew red with anger, "Who's saying that?" "I don't want to mention names at this point." "Why not?" "Because it's a small group and most of it comes from honest fear. Most of them think that anyone with Xena's record of wanton violence belongs in jail, or away from the village. There's a couple of us keeping an eye on things, and if it looks like someone is deliberately stirring up trouble you'll know about it. Coming down on it now will only make things worse." Eponin wasn't convinced, "Tell me about this honest fear."

"Everyone knows that before Artemis intervened, Queen Ephiny sentenced Xena to death. Condemned prisoners usually stay in jail until their executions, precisely because it is too dangerous to let them out. They have everything to gain by running, nothing to lose by trying. They're wondering why Xena's different, some are honestly afraid she'll snap again and this time kill somebody. A couple have young daughters and wonder what kind of example it's setting for them. I've even heard bets placed as to how long it would take Xena to slit the healers throat and run." Delia's face turned the color of her hair, "that's ridiculous." Eponin cut her off, "Tanya, I get the picture. Krystina weren't you in the middle of saying something when we got off track."

Krystina shook her head, "We've already discussed this to death. Whether we like it or not Xena's our responsibility, and her case is like a festering wound that's spreading it's poison over the whole village."

Suddenly she stood up, and became animated as she spoke. Her hands moved in stabbing and gushing motions, "That wound has to be opened and drained of infection, and the only way to do that is to put her on trial." She made a wide spreading motion, "then we have to apply the poltice to draw out the poison. Then we have to care for the patient, break the fever, keep her clean, and fed so she's got a chance to heal." Leaning forward she put a hand above her eyes as though staring at the horizon, "at the same time we have to keep watch, so we can stop the infection if it tries to return." She spread her arms wide as she faced the group, "If Xena's case is the wound, the healers lance is a fair trial. The poltice is justice." Shaking her right hand in a loose fist she continued. "Make no mistake about it, Xena needs that healing justice at least as badly as anyone else. Maybe ruling out death, banishment and imprisonment, doesn't leave many options, but her punishment has to be seen by everyone including Xena herself as meaningful."

Raising both hands in a pleading gesture Krystina made an impassioned plea, "Xena deserves to be punished, but she also needs to heal, so build that healing into her sentence. Have the courage to be creative, while she's paying her debt to the nation, give her a chance to earn her place in it." She dropped her hands to her side " So what's it going to be? Do we lance the wound, or do we let the patient die?"

There were several moments of stunned silence as the women considered the priestesses words. Finally Eponin spoke, "We can use Xena's grief to mitigate the death sentences. I think the village will buy that, but she's still assaulted a queen regent and left several people including that fellow Jester whatever his name was injured. In Kayla's case it's permanent, and others suffered in the resulting confusion. I never did see banishment as an option, but how do we explain not even locking her up?"

Tanya thought for a minute, "Why not rewrite the charges?" That got Niobe's attention, "What do you suggest?" Tanya took a breath, "It might help to look at what actually happenned. I wasn't there, so somebody might have to help me on this, but I'm told that Queen Ephiny ordered her stopped on the approach." Krystina stood up, "I was there, first thing she did was jump the spear line set up to stop her. She threw her chakrum at the queen when she saw that fellow Joxer carrying her out of the purification hut. Then she fought with Queen Ephiny and the guards when they tried to take her into custody. Finally she threw a whip around the queens ankles and dragged her out of here behind a horse. That about sums it up."

Tanya brought up her hand as though holding a ball. "Seems to me there's plenty there to work with. To start with Queen Gabrielle was Xena's bondmate, and we've got some pretty strict laws about brutality." Niobe rested her chin on her fist, "so we do, and if we use grief to get around the treason factor charging her with brutality makes sense. Eponin, you and I discussed that a while back. What do you think?" "I think Tanya's on the right track. Tanya?" "Once Xena jumped the spear line she was trespassing, so the fight with Queen Ephiny, the guards and even that man was actually resisting arrest. Why not charge her with that instead of the individual assaults?" Eponin looked around the room, several of the women nodded, "makes sense to me?"

Solari added, "What about the horse she rode out of here on. It wasn't hers and horse stealing is a pretty serious offense." Niobe said, "Sounds good so far, we've got trespass, horse stealing, and resisting arrest with violence causing injuries. All by a bondmate so brutal, what with the chakrum toss and whip dragging, that it borders on attempted murder. None of which carry the death penalty. I think we can work with this"

Artemis took over, "My priestess was right earlier, the infection must be lanced. She's also right, that I want Xena to stay in the nation and become a member of it. So with respect to these charges, how do you propose to make her sentence meaningful?"

A grim faced Krystina spoke first, "her crimes easilly justify using the whip, and I don't see how we can convince either her or the village she's been punished unless we do. Time can't be on our side, so the faster we can get past this and start working on her soul the better."

Eponin nodded, "Alright, I can go with the whip and soul healing. I'd had thoughts of putting her on the disciplinary squad for a cycle or two, but that won't bond her to the nation, and" She looked at Artemis, "I take it we don't have that kind of time?" The goddess shook her head, "Would putting her in jail for a moon or two be okay?" "Should be, but it depends on Aries minions, and Olympus. Nothing may happen until spring, but I'd figure a season, season and a half at best."

Eponin thanked the goddess then turned back to the group. "Okay, Xena'll be going back to jail for a while, so between that and the whip, we've got the punishment part settled." She turned to Delia and Alicia, "Both of you said earlier that you were willing to keep her if that could be arranged. Do you still feel the same way?"

Delia turned to Alicia, "Alicia you first." Alicia replied, "I'm not the one living with her. My only problem is that morose state of hers we told you about. Seriously when she gets in that state she reminds me of a sulking child, and there's been a couple of times I've wanted to put her across my knee and treat her like one. Other than that she's a first class healer and I think we're lucky to have her."

Delia turned to Eponin "Rhea's death pretty much forces the issue. We need a third healer, and it takes three cycles to train one." One woman asked, "Doesn't look all that hard, can't you do it any faster?" Delia fought back the rage, "If all I want to teach them is the basics I can do it in one. They'll know what to do when things go right. What they won't have is the experience or judgement they'll need when everything goes wrong."

Delia put her hand on her forehead in thought, "Yes, we'll keep Xena, but I'm going to need your help." Eponin asked quietly, "what do you need?" "Well for one thing her conditions are a problem. Alicia's been great about covering calls, but I can't take a night off, because she can't be left alone overnight. I can't send her on night calls because she can't go out after dark. I can't even take her with me on one." "I'm sure we can work that out." "I'm glad, because a moon or two is one thing, but if she's going to be with us over time we need to make better use of her skills. As for time off, if we can't work that out otherwise, I might have to ask you to put an addition on the hospice, so one or the other of us can have a social life."

A couple of the women began snickering, Delia scowled, "Get your minds out of your underclothes because I'm dead serious. Right now Xena's a grief stricken widow in a lot of trouble. Part of our problem is to help her heal so she can build a new life. One way to keep her here, is to encourage her to develop a romantic interest. In plain Greek she's still young, intelligent, reasonably attractive and unattached. If I weren't her jailer, I might make a play for her myself." Eponin shook her head, "Delia makes a good point, we're talking maybe three cycles here and a lot can happen in that time. Delia figure out what you need, we can work it out while Xena's in jail." "Thank you."

Eponin leaned forward, "Delia, like Alicia said, you're the one living with her. Sounds like it's been pretty tough." "It has. But I've come to respect her as a person as well as a healer. That's not easy to reconcile with the old memories, and knowing my testimony might help hang her. I'm hoping it gets easier once her trials out of the way." Delia put her head in her hands, "Most of the time it's alright. Others, like when she gets into that wallowing guilt, drive me up a wall. There's been times when I've been tempted to do like Alicia said and turn her over my knee." Niobe interrupted, "why haven't you?"

Eponin held up her hand, "Go on, Delia." Delia lowered her hands to her lap, "Neither Alicia or I have had two days off in a row since Xena's rampage. I'd planned on taking a hunting trip after Rhea got back. Went so far as to commission a new bow, and was really looking forward to a few days in the mountains. Another thing I've been wanting to do is spend a few days here." Krystina interrupted, "Delia, by here do you mean here at the temple?" "Yes and that was before I took Xena in. Don't get me wrong, however rough it's been I don't regret doing it, I just need some time for me."

Krystina put an arm around Delia's shoulders. "One way or the other we're going to see that you get some." Eponin nodded, "we'll work it out." then turned to the group, "Does anyone object to Xena staying with the healers," There was only one objection. Niobe's eyes twinkled "and authorizing them to spank her at their discretion." There were no objections, but there were several loud offers of help." Niobe was embarrassed "I meant that as a joke" She heard a disjointed chorus of voices saying "We didn't."

The discussions continued breaking only for a midday meal provided by Artemis. Finally all were in agreement. Xena would be tried and formally sentenced in a quarter moon. It would give anyone with second thoughts a chance to work them out. Delia and Krystina would tell Xena what was proposed.


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