For disclaimers and premise see part one.

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Xena is told of the councils decision. As her trial approaches, Delia makes some startling revelations.


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Eponin and Krystina went with the healers to tell Xena of the councils decision. Having deduced that her fate was being decided, Xena rose stoically as they entered the hospice. Eponin saw no reason for delay. "Xena, as you've probably figured out, we've been discussing what to do with you. The council has decided to hold your trial in a quarter moon. This may come as a disappointment, but we've decided not to hang you." Delia thought *Xena really does look disappointed.* Xena asked "Can I be told." Eponin said "That's why the priestess and I came over."

Krystina said "The council decided to reduce the charges, drop the most serious, and add a few others. We believe, based on your emotional state following the death of your son, you were only partially responsible at the time of your attack on the village. There is also a strong likelihood that you were under the influence of a god at the time. Because of these, we felt you shouldn't have to face the death penalty." She paused to let Xena respond. She just stared ahead, her lips pressed tightly together and said nothing.

"Xena the remaining charges are serious," She told her what they were. "they could have led to banishment but several spoke against it. Some argued that you wouldn't see it as punishment, and quite frankly I agree with them. All of us thought that if a meaningful role could be found for you, it would be better to keep you here under conditions, supervision, and some kind of a work sentence." Xena asked "I'm to be sentenced to labor then, for how long?" Krystina continued "Labor will be part of the sentence. We haven't decided how long yet, but it will be at least a full cycle " Xena nodded her head in understanding. "You said part of the sentence?"

Eponin took over, "That's right Xena, you'll also be getting some jail time, a public whipping, and I intend to order soul healing." "Soul healing?" We want you to work thru some of this guilt and self hatred you're so full of. You'll be spending at least one afternoon with the Priestesses every seven days. If they think you need more intensive work that's up to them, and they'll have the councils authorization to do whatever they think necessary. The same with the healers, since your labor will be served in this hospice." "Here?" "Yes. You'll be sentenced to community service, as opposed to hard labor in chains. We're short a healer right now, and they asked for you, They had only one reservation, Delia I want you to tell her what it was."

Delia looked at Xena, "I told the council I'd be glad to have you stay and work off your sentence here. If you want to stay afterwards we can talk about it then." Xena asked "what was your reservation?" Delia said firmly "That wallowing guilt and self loathing attitude of yours have got to go. I know the waiting and loss have been getting to you, they aren't what I'm talking about. It's this. You won't ask for something you need, or let yourself have something you want, because you feel unworthy of it, or whatever garbage you're feeding yourself that day. Xena in that state you remind me of a sulking child, and times I've been tempted to turn you across my knee and treat you like one." Xena dropped her eyes to the floor and said softy, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize."

Delia put a finger under Xena's chin and lifted her head up. "I'm sure you didn't, but now you do, so I'll be expecting improvement. We'll do our best to help you work thru the loss, grief, guilt, whatever. The Gods know you've got no corner on them." She said more softly "Xena, we told the council about those moods because we're concerned. You're a healer so I'm sure you know why." Xena quietly sat down, "I do."

"The council asked me what I thought we should do about them. That's when we decided you'd be spending time at the temple, since they're the specialists in healing souls. I also told them what I felt like doing sometimes." Xena shook her head, "What did they say to that." Eponin said very solemnly, "The council told her to go ahead. In a unanimous vote, they authorized either her or Alicia to put you across their knee at their discretion." Xena laughed, "You've got to be kidding. The council voted to authorize them to spank me. You are kidding right?"

Krystina answered, "They did, and we weren't kidding. Besides your adult punishment, if you keep acting like a sulking child, you're going to get treated like one. They even got offers of help, including one from me, and another from Artemis herself."

Xena threw up her hands. Krystina continued, "When someone is working off a sentence in the community, it's customary to assign a warrior to keep track of their progress. We offered Tanya the job and she's accepted. We'll be reporting to her and she reports to the council once a moon." At that Xena looked truly horrified. "You don't leave the village, carry a weapon, or ride a horse unless she approves, and you will have a curfew. You give Delia or myself a hard time about your work, spiritual healing or break your conditions and she'll know about it. She'll have the authority to send you back to jail or take whatever corrective action she thinks is necessary. Are you clear on all of that so far?" Xena looked up "I think so." Krystina folded her arms and smiled, "Good, now repeat it back to me."

Xena started running down the list, when she finished, she asked "You said so far, is there more?" Krystina looked at her with cold eyes, "Delia, Tanya and I have pledged responsibility for your behavior. Do you know what that means under Amazon law?" Xena looked at her then Delia, both were wearing grim expressions. "I'd guess it puts you in some kind of jeopardy."

Krystina responded, "It does, we (pointing to Delia then herself) pledged to be responsible for the safety of the village if they let a dangerous criminal, (points to Xena) you, work out a labor sentence in the village, instead of putting you in chains on a disciplinary squad." "What exactly are you risking?" "That depends on what you do. In the worst case, if you go on a rampage and kill someone, all three of us would hang beside you. If you escape, we have to finish your sentence. We'd also face a whipping, and three moons on the disciplinary squad for the escape, plus the penalty for any crimes related to it." Eponin noticed that Xena became increasingly grim. "Xena, there is nothing, not even you walking back in on your own, that could save them. As for you, the nation would hunt you down like a dog, no matter how long it took, or how far we had to go to do it."

Xena was horrified, "Why not just let me hang? Why put yourselves at that kind of risk for me." Krystina said, "Because that's what this nation is all about, helping women build new lives. You've shown us your word is good, you've said you want to reform. We believe you deserve a chance to make good on that. Xena, are we wrong to put our trust in you? If we are, tell us now?.

Xena said quietly, "No. You'll be able to trust me, unless I tell you you can't. Krystina said solemnly "That's good enough for me, how about you Delia." "I'll take it." Krystina said "Good, during your sentence you'll be considered be a probationary member of the nation. Serve it honorably, and other than being barred from council membership, you'll become a full member when it's over."

Xena asked another question, "What happens when Ephiny gets well enough to be queen again." Eponin answered, "That won't be for a while yet, but under our law once a sentence is passed, even if unserved, no one can ever increase the severity of it. You break the rules, that's a different matter and we deal with it at the time."

Eponin then asked, "When I formally hand down the sentence seven days from now you'll accept it?" Xena replied "Yes, I will. But I'd like to ask one more question, actually two more." Eponin said "Go ahead." Xena asked "Will the time I spent in jail before, count towards my sentence?" Eponin answered "Fair question. It was a bit longer than usual so I might give you credit for some of it. What's the other question"

Xena asked, "I know the whipping is going to be public, but does the authorization to spank have to be?" "Xena, I won't announce it, but it was a formal vote so it will be in the council record. I can't guarantee someone won't mention it. That prospect concerns you more than the whipping, doesn't it?" Xena realized it was the only part of the whole proposition she'd made a fuss about, "I'm not looking forward to the whipping, but I can accept it as justice. The idea of being spanked just seems so humiliating, I'm not a child anymore." Eponin closed the issue, "Then don't act like one, and you shouldn't have to worry about it."

With that the discussion broke up, and shortly afterwards all went to supper. Krystina asked Eponin, "She didn't flinch when I told her about this making her a member of the nation." Eponin replied thoughtfully, "She didn't argue with any of it really," Krystina added, "I didn't think she would. What did get her attention was being told what pledging responsibility meant." Eponin stopped and took her arm. "Krystina, if any of you have any doubts -" Krystina tried to be reassuring, "I think the three of us were the least concerned about that of anyone. She won't let us down." "What makes you so sure?" Krystina quietly remembered, "She won't because she sees this as real, and because she knows the nation will as well."
That evening Xena sat on her bunk, contemplating her hands folded into her lap. *at least now I know.* Delia came in with two mugs which smelled strongly of spice and honey. She handed one to Xena. She took it mechanically and mumbled "thanks."

Delia pulled up a chair and sat down, "You want to talk about it?" Xena took a sip of her tea, partly to be polite and partly to buy time. There was a lot she wanted to say, but wasn't sure how to begin, finally she just said so. Taking another sip, "Delia why didn't you tell me." "Tell you about what?" Xena set down her tea, "When you took me in straight from jail, you told Eponin you'd be responsible for me, why didn't you tell me what that meant?" Delia said quietly, "It never occurred to me that you didn't know. You gave us your word. I knew enough about you that it never occurred to me that you might not keep it."

Xena asked carefully, "Whatever else I was a condemned criminal, until this sentence is formally handed down, I still am. What would they have done to you if I'd just disappeared?" Delia took a swallow of tea and set it down, "I'd have faced the penalty for your crimes. In plain Greek, I'd have been whipped for your escape, then since Ephiny had announced a death sentence, I'd have been hanged." Xena choking on the words, "You risked that for me." "I never saw it as a risk, still don't." Xena just shook her head, "Healer, you've got a good heart, but with all due respect, you're crazy."

Delia shook her head, "That's where you're wrong Xena. I remember Eponin offering you a chance to run, when all you had to look forward to was going back to your cell and waiting for a rope. You refused her offer, concerned about what would happen to her and the nation if you did. Later Kayla told me what happened back here. She was shaken pretty badly by the sentence Ephiny had decreed. The Gods know I'd have run at that point. Kayla told me she'd given you the chance, but you still didn't take it. After that, I never saw a risk in trusting you."

"Xena, like I told you that first night, I'm not in the business of judging people. That doesn't mean I'm not a pretty good judge of them."
The days passed quickly. Finally the day before her trial arrived. Xena had gone to the baths knowing she wouldn't get a chance for a few days. When she returned Delia offered to brush her hair. While working on Xena's raven tresses she asked "Xena how do you feel about tomorrow?" Xena swallowed hard, "I've done a lot of thinking about that. I'll be glad to have it over, but to be truthful I'm scared." Delia replied casually, "Understandable, a whipping can't be a pleasant thing to look forward too."

Xena told her, "I'm more scared of letting the three of you down." Delia said calmly, "We know the risks, and we all think you're worth betting on." Xena swallowed hard thinking, * you're not going to make this easy on me are you.* saying, "Delia you'll never know what my time here has meant to me, but I can't let you do it." Delia stopped brushing and spoke very softly, "You can't let me do what?" "Take that kind of risk for me." She took a breath before continuing, "Delia I've betrayed more people than you'll ever meet. I'm a good healer and a good fighter, but other than that I'm just no good."

Still holding the hairbrush, Delia stood up and folded her arms across her chest. "Don't feed me that Xena. You could have taken the sword off that wall and run anytime since you've been here. I never hid it. Or my bow and quiver. You've had everything you need to make a run for it, and you haven't touched it.

Delia added harshly, "Yes, Xena, I know the kind of person you were. I know a lot more about your past, and those thugs you used to lead than you may think." Xena's eyebrow went up as she spit out, "Tell me" "Ten cycles ago outside Corinth, I had an arrow nocked and aimed for your heart. I wanted to kill you and didn't, because when I found the monster I was looking for, she didn't look like a monster." Alarm bells went off in Xena's head. "Maybe you didn't get a close enough look."

Knowing what Xena was up to Delia scoffed, "Won't work Xena. I was close enough to see your tears, as you took the baby out from under your cloak, and gave him to the centaur." Xena almost screamed, "You couldn't have been there." "Then how would I know the centaur had fresh blood dripping from a bandaged eye. I heard you say he was your son, and you didn't want him to grow up like his mother. Or how would I have heard Caliopus say that the son of Borias would be raised as his own. That was the son that died last spring, wasn't it?"

Xena was shocked, her mouth opened and closed but no words would come. Delia continued mercilously. "You had Corinth under siege, some of your men were foraging and came onto an Amazon hunting party. Only one got away. The war party we sent out killed most of them, but one was brought back alive." She opened a chest and took out a small square of black cloth with a red X in the middle. Shoving it under Xena's nose, "he wore this!" Xena paled recognizing her mark. "A while ago, I heard you ask Solari if she knew Lyta well. She was uncomfortable talking with you about her wasn't she, WASN"T SHE?" "YES"

"Solari was the one who escaped, and guided the war party that killed your men. They brought back the bodies of our women, and her own mortally wounded lover, my twin sister Lyta. Solari was so badly wounded trying to save her she couldn't even go to her funeral. She's had her flings, but she's never taken a lover since." She spun and pointed at her weapons wall. "I took the sword of the slain, Lyta's sword, and executed your man as her murderer. In case you're wondering that's the only time I've ever used it, and the only man I've ever killed. I keep the patch to remind me how empty I felt afterwards."

Delia dropped the patch to the floor, and took down the sword. Drawing it she looked at the blade for a moment, then offered it hilt first to Xena. Xena didn't move at first, then she reached out and took the sword, "Delia, what in Tartarus?"

Delia grabbed the blade of the sword and put it to her chest, "Now if you really are the soulless monster you claim to be. If you really are the kind of betraying bitch that will turn on those who offer you a hand up, kill me now, and get the hanging you seem to want so desperately." She saw Xena's knuckles whiten. "What are you waiting for? I spared your life, tried to save it again, and now I want to help you build a new one. That ought to be worth betraying. Go ahead, damn you, DO IT."

Xena and Delia faced each other for long tense moments. Finally seeing Xena's eyes flicker, Delia took a half step backwards and using a sideways twisting motion easily snapped the sword from her hands. Xena crumpled to the floor. Delia quietly resheathed the sword and returned it to the wall, leaning heavilly against it as her pounding heart settled towards normal. Solari chose that moment to stick her head in the door, and raise one hand in a questioning gesture. Delia pointed emphatically to her then the door clearly signaling - out. Solari left without saying a word. Delia thought *Thank the gods she didn't come any earlier.* She decided to let Xena cry, and wait for her next move, a move which would decide her future.

Delia reached for her tea and found it stone cold. Picking up both mugs she went into her cooking area and refilled them. She set one down on her table, then taking a clean rag, set it and the tea next to Xena. Xena picked up the rag and used it to dry her tears, then picking up the mug took a tentative sip, then a long swallow. She knew there was no possible way Delia could still want her around. Though Delia had so far said nothing, Xena dreaded hearing the order to leave that she was certain would be coming. The only place Xena could go was back to jail. *Now they'll hang me for sure, maybe it's better that way.* She cursed herself up and down in three languages, thinking she was doing it silently.

Delia felt a wave of relief wash over her, with the realization that Xena felt remorse for her actions. Her own counter attack had been absolutely brutal. The disarming maneuver was one she'd learned during her training, and used twice before when deranged patients had threatened her. What remained was the biggest question of all, *where do we go from here?*.

Xena was trembling as she struggled to stand up. Her face a tear stained mask of horror, she choked out, "Might I have a moment to collect my things before you call the guards?" Delia snapped back, "If I were going to call the guards they'd have been here long ago, and if you're going back to jail, I'm taking you myself." "I could have killed you." "You didn't, not even when I was taunting you to do it."

Xena cried "Why, Delia? Why did you try to get me to kill you. Your sister, Gods." Delia said firmly "I know you're not a monster anymore. Now hopefully you know it too. I've known your men killed Lyta since it happened. I saw you give that baby away as a peace offering, and knew if you'd given birth that recently, you couldn't have had a part in it. Was it the same child Xena, what was his name?" Xena let out a breath, "It was, his name was Solon." Delia said gently, "I am sorry for his loss Xena. The woman I saw give him away obviously loved him. Whatever else, she was a mother in pain, that's why I couldn't bring myself to kill her."

Delia sat down. "Xena, I meant what I said, the women of this village have suffered at your hands. You know about Kayla?" "She told me she gets a ringing in her ears that sometimes causes her to loose her balance. Said it keeps her out of the trees, so her days as a warrior are numbered." Delia nodded, "There's more to it, Xena. When she says she loses her balance, what she means is she collapses and her body jerks uncontrolably. She wakes up maybe a candlemark later and doesn't remember any of it." "Kayla has the falling sickness?" "Yes. Since you cracked her skull when you came after Queen Gabrielle, but even so, she's willing to give you a chance." Xena closed her eyes, "She's a lot more forgiving than I could be."

"Xena let me tell you something else about Kayla. She talked to me a couple of days ago. She's small, but she's got the strength of an ox, and the long whip is one of her best weapons. As a permanently injured victim of your attack, she was offered the chance to give you some of the lashes you've got coming. She turned it down, saying she'd gotten to know you, and considered you a friend. She's no doubt you deserve a whippping, but says someone else is going to have to give it to you."

"Kayla turned it down? I thought they'd be lining up for the chance." Delia shook her head "actually Kayla said they were being rather choosey. They thought you'd feel slighted if they sent anyone but the best." Xena quipped, "their concern is touching."

"Solari escaped with her life when your men attacked her party, because her mentor sent her for help. Besides her mentor, she lost three friends and her lover because that happened. I think the two of you are friends. I lost a sister, and maybe because we were twins, she's still with me." Xena sat down on her bunk shaking her head, "How could she be?"

Delia's eyes turned to her lap, "You can't imagine what it's like to lose a twin. Everytime I look in the mirror I see Lyta's face, when I hear my voice I hear hers. As a child I shared her thoughts. Now I'll carry her ghost inside me until the day I die. Still, knowing your men were responsible for her death, I was willing to have you in my home and hospice. Yes, I bet my life on your word by doing so. Others, some of whom you know quite well, have suffered, or lost loved ones at the hands of your murdering thugs. If we can let the past stay there, if we're willing to give this Xena, the woman in trouble, a chance to redeem herself. Why in Tartarus, can't you?"

Xena felt her cheeks redden with shame, "Do you want me to leave." Delia said "If I did I'd tell you. There's a lot of things I want you to do, but that isn't one of them."

Xena picked up the tea. Taking a sip, she asked quietly, "What do you want me to do?" Delia drew a breath, "First I want you to tell me how you really feel, about staying, about the sentence, about yourself." Xena wasn't sure how to start, "I'd like to stay, if you're still willing to have me. If not, I'll understand." She dropped her eyes, focusing on the mug she held in her hands. "What I don't like is you having to pledge your life to give me the chance." Delia answered, "You can stay, but we're going to do it by my rules. Number one: you stop abusing my assistants." Xena stared at her. "That, young woman, means yourself. Number two: you make an honest effort to earn that redemption you say you want. We'll give you the help we can, but we can't do it for you. A lot of the effort has to come from inside you."

"About that pledge. Xena, you should know that we do have the right to pull out of this at any time." Xena ran a hand thru her hair. "What would happen if you do?" "To us nothing, you'd be sent to a disciplinary squad to finish your sentence. We would be asked our reasons, and if based on them other action were thought appropriate, it would be taken." Xena asked "You mean another whipping?" Delia answered quietly "that would be one possibility, adding time to your sentence, either in jail or on the squad would be another." Xena stood up, "I'll try not to give you a reason. Delia would you excuse me for a couple minutes." "Of course."

Delia remembered an earlier discussion. "Xena you need to learn to ask for help. We need to know when you're hurting inside, and why, so don't be afraid to tell us the bad parts. We know they're there. I'm a healer, Krystina is a priestess, and we've seen a lot of ugliness, so don't worry about shocking us. We know how to keep our mouths shut. We even have the right to keep your secrets in a court of law. Now there are times we might have to break that, like in Ephiny's case. She tried to kill herself, we had to know why. We had to relieve her of her authority as queen. I could give the orders in an emergency, but then I had to go to the council and explain why I needed them confirmed. Since her actions, and illness, effect the entire nation we do have to keep them informed." Xena had asked "You'll be giving reports on me to Tanya and the council." Delia had answered, "Those won't include your innermost thoughts. They'll be about your attitudes, cooperation, progress, any difficulties we're having, or recommendations we might have. Any problems with that?" "Sounds fair"

Shaking her head, Delia decided to get more tea, *just can't get it thru your thick skull can I.* Xena came back in as Delia was filling her mug. "You know how to help yourself." Then, taking a close look at her, she said, "We got distracted and I never finished brushing your hair" Xena ran a hand thru it, "It feels good to sit back and have it brushed." Delia took a sip of her tea, "You told me you and Queen Gabrielle used to do each others. Was that why you hesitated the first time I offered?" "Yes, it was a special time for us, I was afraid of losing it." Delia ran a hand thru her own fiery tresses, "Lyta and I did each others hair. It was special for us too. You haven't lost it though, have you?" "Xena smiled, "No. I think she'd be glad I let myself have something I enjoy. She used to get on me about that too."

Walking into the next room, Delia found her brush and sat down. "Come here, Xena." Xena hesitated for a moment, then with a sigh walked to where Delia was sitting. "Xena, would you like me to do your hair?" Xena said very softly, "Yes please" "Then sit down here with your back to me so I can reach it." She reached up to take her hand. It was then she realized Xena was trembling, and staring at the hairbrush sitting in her lap. She thought *she's acting like a scared little girl* then said quietly, "Xena, sit down so I can brush your hair." Xena sat on her heels and folded her hands into her lap. Delia went to work on her tresses.

Neither said anything for quite a while. Finally Delia patted Xena on the head indicating she was finished. Xena got up and went to the mirror, thanking Delia for doing such a beautiful job. "Glad you like it. Now come on back and sit down."

Xena returned, and again sat on the floor in front of her. Finally she broke the awkward silence, "Delia, I'm sorry about being a brat again." Delia hesitated before answering, "Yes, Xena, you were being a brat. Do you remember what happened?" "It's so jumbled up, you were brushing my hair, then I lay crying on the floor thinking I'd ruined everything."

Delia set down her tea "You almost did. You came up remorseful and crying, that gave me reason to believe you might still be worth salvaging. If you'd come off the floor defiant, aggressive, or cursing me, you'd be back in jail right now." Delia picked up the brush and ran it thru her own hair. "Do you remember Solari coming in?" Xena flinched, "No. What did she want?" "Don't know, I gestured for her to get out and she did. If it was an emergency she'd have called out long before she got back here." Delia set the brush down in her lap and picked up her mug. She noticed that Xena's eyes kept focusing on her lap.

"Xena, she'll be wondering what was going on. She saw me leaning on the wall catching my breath, you curled up on the floor crying like a spanked puppy. Thank the Gods I'd already put the sword away." Xena looked concerned, "What will you tell her?" Delia said "Don't know yet, not about the sword, that doesn't concern her and I really don't think she'd understand. I'm not going to tell her that I told you about her and Lyta either. She's not comfortable talking to you about her, so for now let it be." Xena finished her tea, Delia took the mug and set it to one side. Xena told her quietly, "I think we'd better come up with some explanation pretty fast." "Why's that" Xena glanced at the doorway, "I hear her voice coming this way and I think Eponin's with her." Hearing footsteps Delia paled. "Xena, fold your arms across my knees, put your head on them and don't say a word." Realizing what Delia had in mind, Xena complied quickly. She felt Delia lay a hand on top of her head

There was a knock followed by Solari's voice, "Delia, it's Eponin and Solari, okay to come in." Delia did her best to sound annoyed, "yes." Solari entered first, followed by Eponin who, startled by the sight which greeted her, quickly closed the door. Delia asked "Pardon me if I don't get up, something I can help you with."

Both women looked embarrassed, Solari said quickly "Krystina asked if you could bring Xena to the temple tonight, about two candlemarks after supper." Delia asked "any idea what she wants" Eponin answered "She wants to do a small ritual for Xena. Something about blessing her." Delia nodded "That's kind of her," She looked down at Xena and lifted her head slightly "we'll be there, won't we Xena." Xena mumbled "uh huh" Delia let Xena's head drop back onto her arms. Solari stammered, "I'll let her know." Delia replied "Thank you." Then looking down for a moment added, "I apologize for being so short earlier. " Solari hesitated. "I could see it was a bad time."

Eponin asked quietly "Delia is there some kind of a problem." She looked at Xena and answered in a polite but firm voice, "Nothing I couldn't handle." Eponin turned beet red and answered quickly, "We'll see you at the temple then, sorry to bother you." She turned to the door, "Coming Solari?"

Outside Solari turned to Eponin and shook her head, "I must be going crazy, because I can't believe what I think I just saw." Eponin put a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe we're both going crazy, because I think I saw it too. Lets get back to the temple, Krystina seemed worried. After that I think I need a drink." Solari asked her "I didn't think you drank before praying." "I don't usually, but it's early enough one won't hurt. Join me?" They were still shaking their heads as they walked away.

Back in Delia's quarters Xena while still sitting on the floor, had pulled back from Delia's knees. Xena asked "They sounded embarrassed, were you trying to give the impression I think you were?" Delia said "If you mean that I'd given you a spanking, yes I was." She laughed "Xena, you should have seen their faces when they walked in. They bought it alright." More seriously she said, "I doubt Solari will be asking questions about earlier, but I suspect that's why Eponin was with her." Xena said "You probably went up a few notches in their minds. I'm not sure I'll be able to look them in the eye tonight." Delia shrugged "They won't say anything, if they do just act embarrassed and say nothing. For that matter you could always smile, there are women who claim to like it on occasion."

Delia asked how she felt about Krystina's ritual. "I'm sure she means well, but it really isn't necessary." "You said you're not a religious person." Xena shook her head, "I never had much use for the gods they're too self serving. They use everyday people like playthings for their own pleasure and amusement Always got their hands out. Offer tribute or don't bother asking. Do it our way or else." Delia said quietly, "sounds like a pretty fair description of a warlord to me. Maybe you just didn't like the competition."

Xena stood up and gestured towards the back door, "I won't be long." As Xena left, Delia walked out into the infirmary. It had been quiet for a couple of days, so none of the bunks were occupied. She liked it that way, for it meant the women in her care were healthy and avoiding accidents. Though several women were pregnant, all were healthy enough, and no one was due to deliver for a couple of moons yet. She sighed, knowing she'd be stitching up Xena's back in a few days, but she'd deal with that when the time came.

Krystina came up the steps. "Delia, is everything alright here? Solari seemed concerned when she couldn't give you my message the first time." Delia thought *that's why she came back with Eponin* "She just came at a bad time was all. Xena was having a problem. I dealt with it." "Is she alright?" Delia answered carefully, "As well as can be expected. Her situation is getting to her, and whether she'll admit it or not, she's scared." Krystina nodded, "I don't wonder, the prospect of a whipping would scare me." "Would me too, but I think she's more concerned about letting us down." The priestess smiled, "She won't." "That's what I told her."

Delia heard Xena come in. "Xena's inside if you want to talk to her." The priestess shook her head, "actually I need to talk to you, do you have time for a short walk?" Delia chewed on a knuckle "I'll make the time. Give me a moment to tell her."

The two women left the hospice. Krystina suggested, "Should be quiet around the stables this time of day." and started walking in that direction. "I apologize for the short notice about tonight. What we've got planned shouldn't take more than about four candlemarks, I hope it's not too much of a problem?" "Shouldn't be, especially if I can catch Alicia."

They continued walking, "I was surprised by your message, Xena may know a lot about spiritual matters, but she's not very religious." Krystina remarked "I've been impressed by the extent of her knowledge. In my opinion her lack of faith, while understandable, is a big part of her problem." "How so?" "Well for so long she believed only in herself, and now she doesn't see herself as fit to believe in." Delia replied thoughtfully, "makes sense. Eponin said you were planning to bless her or something like that."

Arriving at the corral Krystina leaned on the rail, "Actually that's what I need to talk to you about. Xena's a renegade in the truest sense of the word. An Amazon whether she'll admit it or not, but without allegience to any tribe or any God. Let that come up tomorrow and she's a dead woman. ( Delia shuddered ) She denies being an Amazon, and the only tie we can prove is the late Queen." "Is that enough?" "That's what I asked Eponin, she wasn't sure." "She wasn't sure?" "Depends on how far someone wants to push it. If somebody finds an old law, or tries arguing that Xena's loyalty was to the Queen and not the nation, it could be grounds for a challenge if she rules against them."

The priestess turned to face Delia, "That's where tonight comes in. Andrea and I worked out a ritual to strengthen Eponin's hand. We based it loosely on the ritual for blessing adopted children, and added elements of the penitential rite." Delia shook her head, unsure if she'd heard correctly. "That's a strange mix."

"Not really. Xena's not a child, but she is starting a new life. You and I are accepting responsiblity for her in law, that puts us almost in the position of parents." "I'm not sure I want to explain it to her that way." "Agreed, but I thought we could use some of the symbolism to help get her started right. I'm hoping you'll help me present her at the altar, the two of us standing in place of her mothers."

Delia was stunned by the request. Seeing her head snap up Krystina asked, "You okay?" "Sorry, you just surprised me is all. I'd be glad to do it." For a moment Delia thought the priestess looked haunted. Krystina shook her head, "old memories is all. Here's what we have planned."

Delia was impressed by the symbolism and simplicity of the planned ritual. "Krystina you're a genius." "Actually Andrea gets a lot of the credit, it was her idea to add the bathing, and loincloths." "Out of curiosity, why all three of us?" "Because, as Andrea pointed out, a good mother leads by example."

Krystina pulled her into a hug, "Delia, I know we're focused on Xena right now. I promise you that once she's settled, we'll give you as much time and attention as you need." Delia felt her eyes dampen as she lay her head on the priestesses shoulder.

Krystina held Delia's head to her, "Let it out, Delia." She gently stroked Delia's hair, and whispered words of comfort as the healer cried. She remembered the bitter confrontation just a few days before at the temple:

The dark haired woman who'd hassled Delia on training time, was the only dissenter on the vote to let Xena stay at the hospice. Right after the vote she had snorted loudly, "you get to keep your damned renegade. Well just remember, you asked for her, so don't come crying to us about your social life." Krystina turned a cold eye to the woman, "What's your problem Ildiko? Is what she's asking so unreasonable?"

Ildiko stood up "My problem?" She stepped closer, "I don't like whiners, or criminals, or people that coddle them. I still say we should hang Xena like the mad dog she is, and" She stared coldly at Delia, "anyone that protects her." Krystina stepped behind Delia putting a hand on each of her shoulders, "Before you condemn Delia, how many of you have the courage to take a condemned criminal into your home? Sleep in the same room with her? Put your own neck on the line to give her a chance? People have asked me if she has a death wish. Well I've heard about bets too, and I think they're about as sick and insulting as anything I ever heard."

Alicia moved to Delia's side and glared angrilly at the councilwomen, "Krystina's right, and every one of you know it. Ildiko, you're jumping all over Delia because she wants a day off now and then. Well, so do I, and I'm willing to work with Xena, so maybe you think I aught to hang too. That would be a real smart move, hanging all three healers in the village. Maybe you want to call our patron goddess a liar in her own temple, and include her in your little tirade."

Alicia blocked Ildiko's backhanded blow. Her answering punch layed the woman on the temple floor. With a roar she came to her feet, and two of the council grabbed her arms. "Not in the temple." Ildiko screamed, "This isn't over, healer." then found herself facing an irate goddess. "This is my temple, and it is over, unless you want me in on it."

Alicia went to one knee, "My lady." Artemis waved dismissively, "you were merely defending yourself" She turned back to Ildiko who was now also kneeling, "but you struck the first blow. In doing so you, a guest in my home, insulted myself, my hospitality and my other guests. What have you to say for yourself?" The color drained from Ildiko's normally swarthy face. "Forgive me, my lady, I lost my head and spoke without thinking."

There was a long moment of silence as Artemis stared at the cringing woman. "Words are cheap Ildiko. Forgiveness must be earned. At sunrise on the morning after Xena's trial, YOU WILL report to my priestess, barefoot, with ashes on your head, and sacking about your loins." Finally she turned to Krystina, "My priestess" Krystina knelt, "My lady." "The scourge, and half a moon of menial labor may help this one, (she pointed at Ildiko) find her missing head, another of prayer and meditation may help her remember how to use it. Arrange them." "Yes my lady."

Delia pulled back her head silently thanking the priestess. "We'd best head back. I need to find Alicia, and in the state Xena's been in, I don't want to leave her too long." The priestess nodded and loosened her grip.

They walked quietly back to the hospice. When they arrived Krystina said, "I'd love to stay and talk, but I think I'd better check preparations for tonight instead." "You're welcome anytime, you know that. If you see Alicia" "I'll see that she knows." Delia checked first with Xena, then headed for the outhouse. Thinking there about her discussion with the priestess she realized, *we have a problem.*

When Delia came back inside she found fresh tea, and Xena waiting for her in their quarters. The healer noted that Xena had changed into her Amazon leathers while Delia was out. She sat down and took a swallow of tea. "Krystina wanted to be sure we'd gotten her message, Solari was concerned when she couldn't deliver it on her first visit." "What did you tell her?" "Basically what I told Eponin, we'd had a minor problem and I'd dealt with it. I'm pretty sure she believed me, and I'm equally certain Eponin and Solari told her what they saw."

Xena shrugged, then listened quietly while Delia told her what Krystina had said about the ritual. Her eyes dampened when Delia told her about the special offerrings which would follow. "I appreciate anything they'll do for Gabrielle. Even knowing how she died, it - - " images of Gabrielle's fatal plunge ran thru her head.

Delia nodded in sympathy, "I know. It still bothers you that you couldn't give her a decent funeral. Xena, nobody blames you for that." Pulling herself together Xena said, "I said a prayer for her when we burned the other bodies, but that was the best I could do." Delia responded, "it's an honor that they're setting it up for you. Since you and Gabrielle were so close, in a way it's for her too. Nobody asked them to as far as I know. Off the top of my head, I'd say they care and want to see you make it."

For a few moments Delia sat quietly drinking her tea. When Xena said, "Delia, something else is bothering you. I can feel it. What is it?" Delia set down her mug and gestured to the floor in front of her. "Xena, sit over here, face me like you did when we were talking earlier." Xena complied and moved to the floor by Delia's chair. Delia began, "In a couple of days they're going to strip the hide off your back with a whip, you don't appear concerned about that at all. I'm curious, why is that?"

Xena tried to pass it off, "Why would I be? I've been whipped before and survived it. This time I've even got a good healer to clean me up afterwards. " Delia looked her straight in the eye, "Thanks for the vote of confidence Xena, but are you sure that's the real reason." Xena looked defeated, "No. The difference is why they're doing it." "I don't understand." "The other times it was either some warlords private vengence, or someone looking for information. This time I'll be facing just punishment, ordered by a court, for crimes I committed. Between my last childhood spanking and now, the only time I've had to face my crimes, any of them, was the time I spent in Tartarus."

Delia spent a moment trying to control her curiosity. Finally she said, "It's hard to imagine what that must have been like."

Xena remembered all too well. "Hades crucified me in the middle of a fire field and forced me to look at my life. While I hung there on my cross, the heat of the fires, the unending visions of the suffering I'd caused, the screams of my victims kept hitting me like crashing waves. The most painful part, was knowing I deserved what I was getting." Delia gave a visible shudder and pulled her head to her lap "Xena" "The heat was intense, hotter than any pyre, but I could feel it cleansing me. It was as though the fires were burning away the layers of evil I had piled on my soul. Does that make sense, to find peace in a place of eternal torment?"

Delia stroked her hair as gently as she would a childs, "When you put it that way it does. You're not seeing the whip as an instrument of torture, but rather as an instrument of cleansing, a way of washing the guilt of misdeeds from your soul." Xena said very quietly "You do understand" "Why did you come back?" "Gabrielle needed me. Now she's there, dammit. Maybe Artemis can help her, maybe not. At least she's been able to get her a hearing, finally, and I am grateful to her for that." Delia asked quietly, "Have you considered that her soul may have needed cleansing as well. Or that she might be there for a totally different reason, something known only to her and the gods." Xena jerked her head up, "No. How could you possibly think that?" Delia pushed her head back down, "I've wondered about that for a while, because when I saw her face in the reflecting pool, she looked to be at peace."

Delia gave Xena a moment to think about that. Then knowing she had to continue, she spoke again, "Earlier today, when I was doing your hair, you were acting like a child that expected to be spanked." Xena swallowed hard, "I did?" "Yes. Why does that possibility frighten you, more it seems than the certainty of the whip?" Xena said "I don't know. Being spanked as a child meant I'd let my mother down. She'd always send me to my room afterwards, but I saw her crying a few times after she spanked one of my brothers." Delia said gently, "I've wondered about that, since we told you about the council vote. At first I thought they were joking, but when the offers of help started, I realized they were serious." "Delia, you're thinking about doing it aren't you?"

Delia took a deep breath and eased Xena into a sitting position. "Yes Xena, I am. You're not a child, but your self sacrificial wallowing earlier today put us in a position where I have to do it. You remember that mess, don't you? The one that wound up with our too good an acting job to avoid more embarrassing questions" Xena looked confused. "Yes but, Oh great, we convinced people it was a spanking before we knew about the ritual, now I've got to be bathed in front of those same people." Delia forced a smile, "That's right, it dawned on me while I was out back. So now we have a choice, either we, no make that either you come up with another explanation for what they saw, or I redden your behind like you so richly deserve. Got a preference?"
Xena raised her hands in a questioning gesture, and looked upwards towards the ceiling. Delia seeing this said, "so be it" got up and closed the door. Turning back towards her chair she saw that Xena was again trembling. Delia took on a motherly tone and guided Xena to the right side of her chair. Cautiously explaining that "the skirt has to come off" she untied the waistband and lay the garment to one side. Beneath the skirt Xena was wearing an Amazon undercloth. Tied at the small of her back, it passed between her legs to fall in a short front flap. For a moment Delia debated whether or not to leave it, then decided, *NO. If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right.* and the undercloth joined Xena's skirt.

Delia seated herself, then took Xena's hand and patted her lap. Xena stared silently for a moment, then obeyed the unmistakable order. Delia's left arm went across her back to steady her. Delia thought, *how many times did I wind up in this position for something Lyta did or her me. Part of the curse of being a twin she remembered, was that all too often both been punished, when an adult hadn't been sure which of them was deserving.*

A hundred thoughts ran thru Xena's mind as she lay waiting. She could feel the heat building in her face, and knew it would be flushed from embarassment. She knew she could stop Delia at any moment, but for some reason she didn't want to. She heard Delia's soft voice, "Xena I'll spare you the line about this hurting me more than it does you, I can assure you it won't. I want you to remember that from here on in you're to give yourself the benefit of your doubts, and (pause) at least as much care and consideration as you'd give your horse."

Finally Delia picked up her brush, and wielded it with increasing force against her exposed target. Though the whole surface of her backside turned a bright red, Xena didn't struggled or say a word through out the spanking. Anyone listening would have heard only the harsh slap of a hairbrush on flesh, occassionally joined by Delia's voice repeating her message.

Finally Delia set the brush down, and after a few moments helped Xena off her lap and onto her bunk. Turning away she picked up a blanket to cover her, then turned back to find that Xena was already asleep. Covering her Delia shook her head. *Young lady from the looks of you, someone should have done that a long time ago.* Xena was still sleeping peacefully when Delia woke her for supper a few candlemarks later. Neither spoke of the days events.


Alicia and Dori came to the hospice after supper. Xena had met Dori before, but that night, having just come off duty, she looked the perfect, if tired warrior. Powerful muscles rippled beneath the tall woman's dark skin, as she pulled Xena into a bone jarring hug. Xena struggled for breath, "Alicia'll be jealous." Dori's sharp pointed teeth flashed into a smile "No she won't." and she let Xena go. "She knows I've been wanting to do that for a while, lot of times I've thought you needed a hug. I just wasn't sure how you'd take it."

Putting an arm around Dori's waist, and a hand on her cheek Alicia smiled. "I never worry about Dori hugging people, I know she's coming home with me." Dori ran her fingers thru Alicia's hair, "you're worth coming home to." Delia greeted both warmly, then "I'm really sorry about the short notice." Alicia raised a hand to Delia's lips, "don't apologize, Krystina explained everything and we're glad to help"

Dori smiled, "Queen reinforced the guard so I'll be on duty tomorrow, but I wanted to stop by and wish Xena luck." She turned to Xena, "High priestess is strange some ways, but if she thinks this is important so do I. Trust her, she's not going to steer you wrong."

A short while later, Solari arrived at the hospice, and escorted Delia and Xena to the temple. The priestess who met them at the gate admitted Solari, but asked Delia and Xena to wait until the high priestess could join them. She went on to explain what was planned and asked if they had any questions.

When Krystina joined them she was wearing warriors leather rather than her usual robes. Xena thought the outfit somehow seemed both out of place and appropriate on the priestess. The wrap around skirt was braintanned buckskin, as was the sleeveless lace up shirt. that of a huntress. Centered between pairs of antler tips, a large stone arrowhead hung just above her breasts. On her left wrist was a well worn archers bracer, and an old but well cared for leather belt set off her waist.

There was something about the belt that caught Xena's eye. Wear spots told her it had once been a warriors weapons belt. Though the belts carving had worn with age, Xena could tell that it had once been beautiful. Her thoughts were interrupted when the priestess said, "It's time" Through the open temple doorway, she could see Eponin and Solari standing with a robed priestess. As the trio approached the doorway, the priestess stepped forward and barred their way with her staff.

She demanded, "Who comes here?"

Krystina replied in a clear voice, "Two members of the Amazon Nation, followers of the Goddess Artemis, with Xena of Amphipolis, daughter of Cyrene, on whose behalf they would speak."

The priestess asked, "Who are you who speaks for her"

Krystina and Delia in turn stepped forward.
Krystina replied, "I am Krystina, a daughter of Artemis"

Delia stepped forward, "I am Delia, daughter of Lydia."

Xena knew Krystina was not actually a daughter of the goddess. The term was used when someone whose birth mother was unknown was taken into the tribe. Far too often, these were infants, exposed by their parents to die.

"Wait here while I make your presence known." The priestess lowered her staff and closed the door in their faces. A few moments later it was reopened by a more elaborately robed priestess, "Andrea, my assistant" whispered Krystina. "Silence" Andrea demanded. She cast a cold eye on the group, "are these the ones who seek entrance?" "Yes your holiness" "You were wise to summon me. That one, (indicating Krystina) has a most suspicious look about her." She turned to the waiting women and in a harsh voice made the same inquiries as the guard.

Apparrantly satisfied by their answers she turned back to the guard. "They may enter. Escort them to the place of preparation."

The trio was then led to a small torch lit garden, in the middle of which was a shallow bathing pool. Andrea ordered the waiting priestesses, "Show the witnesses (indicating Eponin and Solari) to their places. Prepare the petitioner and her escorts. When they have been prepared, bring them to the sanctuary." One priestess guided Eponin and Solari to a stone bench opposite the steps leading into the pool. "Please be seated. You may converse between yourselves if you wish, but if you do so please keep it to a whisper." Both nodded their understanding.

Xena watched as two priestesses undressed Delia and led her into the pool. Once she was kneeling in it's center, the priestesses used ornate pitchers to pour water over her. She saw their lips move, but she could neither hear, nor make out the words.

Krystina was next, and as her shirt was removed, Xena bit her tongue to keep from gasping. Across her back was an ugly web of faded scars that could mean only one thing. At some time in her past, the priestess had been brutally whipped, and her back left untreated. Suddenly realizing that she was staring, Xena tore her eyes away. *If she wants me to know, she'll tell me.*

Finally came Xena's turn. Two priestess approached, one told her, "Clothes are a shield behind which we hide our bodies. So too are pretense and evasion shields, behind which we hide our hearts and souls. As we remove your clothes to prepare you for the bath, shed you these others to prepare yourself for prayer."

The priestess then directed Xena to a bench, where once seated, they removed her boots and halter. Standing then she noted a moments hesitation as they removed her skirt and undercloth. Once naked the priestess led her into the pool. Seeing Eponin and Solari whispering as she knelt, she then closed her eyes as the water began to flow over her. While the priestess poured she spoke softly, " we bathe your body with the waters of the earth, so too may your soul be bathed in the cleansing light of the goddess."

************************************************************* *****
Upon leaving the pool Xena felt a priestess ran a towel over her hair, as two others dried her body. When they had finished Xena felt both embarrassed and refreshed. A priestess approached with a length of coarsely woven linen, about five cubits in length and just over one wide. She wrapped the cloth around Xena's waist, tying it at her left hip, and let the tails fall loosely along her thigh. Delia and Krystina were similarly garbed.

The priestess told her, "We clothe you in the simple garment of a servant. We do this to remind you that one must approach the gods humbly and with respect, as a servant would approach her mistress."

The priestess then led the three barefoot and bare bosomed women to the sanctuary and directed them to stand before the polished stone altar. Another directed Eponin and Solari to their places, and held a finger to her lips cautioning silence. Xena was directed to kneel between Delia and Krystina for the presentation, each women placing a hand on her shoulder.

Andrea walked to the east side of the altar and raised her staff to draw a sign in the air. In turn she moved to the south, west and north, and in each corner she repeated the ritual. Returning to the east. "At this time, and in this holy place I call upon Artemis, divine protector of the Amazon Nation. I, Andrea, your priestess, honor thy holy name, and ask that you hear the petitions of those here present."

All present bowed their heads in respect, as Artemis appeared, and stood on the opposite side of the altar from the three women. Andrea spoke slowly and with great reverence. "My lady, before you kneel two of your disciples, with one on whose behalf, they would humbly ask your blessings." Artemis looked from the priestess to the three women before her. "I will hear their petition."

Krystina began, "My lady, we bring before you not a child, but one who once followed an evil path, but now follows the road to redemption. She is unsure of herself, and fears that her spirit will be too weak to sustain her, on what she knows will be a long and difficult journey. She has indeed faltered along the way, and for this she will on the morrow face the judgement of mortal law. Though knowing it will be harsh, she has accepted it willingly, and has asked no mercy. On her behalf we would ask your blessings to strengthen her spirit and guide her steps as she walks this path, that she may one day earn the forgiveness she seeks."

Delia knelt before the goddess, "My lady, I wish to bear witness to the remorse and sincerity of this woman. I humbly ask you to accept her among your own, and guide her on the road she now travels."

The goddess turned to Xena, "Why do you not speak for yourself?" Xena turned her eyes to the ground, "I have sinned grievously against your people, and am unworthy of either forgiveness or your blessing." The goddess frowned. "The question of worthiness is not for you to decide. You have heard the request of those who spoke on your behalf, is their request also yours?" Delia and Krystina both held their breath, as Xena answered "Yes, my lady."

There was a noticable easing of tension among the women. Continuing to address Xena, Artemis said "You have indeed sinned grievously against my people, but you did so under the spell of a sorceress, unaware of her true intentions. Once you were aware of these, and their effects, you risked your own life and soul to vanquish the sorceress and undo her evil." She passed her arm to one side and a forest clearing appeared. Within it, Xena recognized Cyane and some of her tribe. "You are looking at the Forests of Eternity. As you can see your efforts were successful." As Artemis drew back her arm the images disappeared. Xena uttered a soft "Thank you" as she felt the tiniest fraction of the guilt leave her soul.

"You're welcome." The goddess's face grew grim, "These, however, were not your only crimes against my people. Indeed, as your presenter stated, you are currently facing the judgement of mortal law. My blessing, should I choose to give it, will not change that fact. Are you prepared to accept this judgement, and whatever penalty the court may demand of you?" Xena bowed her head, "Yes, my lady"

The goddess turned to Delia and Krystina, "Should I grant your petition, will you to the best of your abilities, accept a mother's responsibility for her spiritual upbringing?" They replied in turn "we will" She turned back to Xena, "Your contempt for the gods is well known, but it is also known that your word, once freely given is your bond. If I accept you back among my people, will you give me your word of honor to learn their ways, respect my temple, and continue your quest for spiritual redemption."

Xena swallowed hard, "My lady, you have my word." Artemis then turned to Krystina and Delia, "Present her." Both again placed a hand on Xena's shoulders. Krystina gestured to Delia that she should make the presentation.

Delia took a breath to compose herself. "My lady, we, Delia daughter of Lydia, and your daughter Krystina present to you, Xena, daughter of Cyrene who has been placed in our charge." At her nod Krystina took over, "we pledge to the best of our abilities to raise her in accordance with the teachings of your temple, and the laws of the Amazon Nation. We ask you to bless her with your mercy, guide her with your wisdom, and protect her with your strength."

Eponin had to fight back tears as Artemis stretched her arms over the kneeling women.
************************************************************* ********
On the walk back to the hospice Xena stopped and looked at the night sky. "Gabrielle and I used to look for shapes in the stars." "I think she'd be proud of you tonight, I know I am." Dori had tea waiting when they returned to the hospice.

The next morning Xena went to the stables early, brushed Argo and fed her an apple. Hugging her neck she cried softly, thinking of better days, when Argo and Gabrielle were together with her on the open road. Though she tried to block out thoughts of what lay ahead, she found it impossible. Leaning against the stable fence she looked towards the practice field. The pairs of women facing off with staves reminded her of Gabrielle practicing her drills. She longed to take part in the sparring, or to mount her faithful horse and ride like the wind. She knew however that for now both were forbidden her. Maybe they'd let her get some exercise once she was out of jail.

A red headed warrior walked to the far end of the field, and set hand sized pieces of wood upright on a fallen log. Xena watched in morbid fascination as the woman uncoiled a long whip and one by one flicked them cleanly to the ground. As Xena was turning to leave a warrior with olive skin and raven hair joined the first. Telling herself it was merely curiosity, Xena watched as the second woman dispatched the targets even more expertly than the first. Shaking her head to clear it, she then walked back to the hospice.

All too soon, Solari and two members of Kayla's squad arrived to escort Xena to her trial. It would be held in the main square so all who wanted could attend. Just before they left Delia told her, "whichever way this goes, there'll be a home waiting for you here and work with me if you want it." She then offered Xena a hug which she accepted and returned. Before Gabrielle, touching for Xena had always been either sexual or violent. It was just one of the many ways the gentle bard had touched her soul. Alicia carefully put her arms around her whispering "good luck."

Once in the holding area Xena looked over the gathering crowd. While she could see many friendly faces, in others she saw pure unmasked hatred. Tyldus, once her mortal enemy was there, though as always the centaur's expression was impossible to read. Eponin had told her that he would speak in her defense. Kayla and Tanya had both warned her they'd had overheard some of the warriors talking, and that there was a real possibility that some of them might try causing trouble.

There were two cases to be heard. Xena's, being the most serious, would be heard last. Xena listened with interest as Eponin heard the case of a warrior, found drunk in her quarters when she failed to report for a work detail. Her squad leader testified that she had assigned the work detail as punishment for a previous offense of being drunk and disorderly. When she had gone to the woman's quarters to find her, the woman had become combative and the guard had had to be called.

Eponin offered the woman a chance to speak in her own defense. She declined saying simply, "I have no excuse to offer, and accept your judgement." Eponin sentenced her to thirteen lashes and three moons on the disciplinary squad. She also ordered soul healing, that the woman might better learn to control her excesses. Xena thought, *Eponin seems to put a lot of faith in the temple. Now I guess it's my turn.*

Finally Xena heard her name called, and stepped forward. While approaching the platform, she felt the tingling sensation that alerted her to the presence of a god. An intense crawling sensation then hit her. * Aries is the only one that actually makes my skin crawl, but it's never been this strong*

Xena stopped short as the realization hit her that the only reason Aries would be there was to get her hung on the origional charges. She had been warned that they had to be presented, along with the evidence that would let Eponin reduce them. *Where is he?* Her train of thought was interrupted as Solari first asked if she was alright, then nudged her forward. *It wouldn't make sense for him to be disguised as one of the council since Eponin would be passing sentence. It can't be Eponin, but getting me hung means forcing Eponin's hand, maybe by a key witness?* She stopped again, remembering that she had only one actual defense witness, everyone else including Delia is prosecution. As Solari again nudged her forward she decided to play a hunch, but to do that she needed time and an ally.

Xena began taking quick deep breaths, knowing it would cause her to feel faint, and show symptoms Delia could report honestly. *No sense getting her into trouble if I'm wrong.* Eponin asked how she pled to the first charge, assaulting the queen. She spoke as coached, deciding it's now or never "not guilty, due to circum - " She gasped, clutched her chest and fell to the ground. Delia was at her side in an instant. Her face darkened as she made a quick examination. Xena's pulse was rapid and her breathing wrong, "I need her moved to the hospice right now." Behind her she could hear Eponin order a delay in the trial, pending word from the healers.

A runner was dispatched and returned with Alicia and a stretcher. Xena was taken to the hospice and put in the partitioned area where Ephiny had been. Delia turned to Kayla. "Tell Eponin I need to see her. People, I need room, everybody please wait outside." Xena listened to them leave then whispered "Delia I'm okay, I needed time and couldn't think of any other way." Delia whispered, "tell me." "Remember I told you I can sense a gods presence. There's at least one in the crowd, I think it's Aries. If so, we need Krystina." Eponin knocked, "Delia, how is she?" Delia replied seriously "Her breathing and pulse are both off, might be just a faint, might be her heart, I won't know for a few candlemarks yet. Could you send Krystina here, please" Eponin said "I'll bring her right over." She turned and left.

Soon after the priestess and Eponin came back together. Xena had already told Delia what she needed. Delia told her she had to trust Eponin, but that she'd get her a few minutes alone with Krystina first. Xena hated what she had to do.

When the priestess came in, Xena told her quickly of her suspicions. She was skeptical and asked, did Xena realize what she was asking? Why would the goddess possibly grant this, how could she even ask. "You've finally convinced me I want to live. You said I've got a special role to play in resisting Aries plot. Well Aries is desperate. If I'm right, he'll try to poison my defense, and force Eponin to hang me." Krystina said, "There has to be another way, what you're asking" Xena hating herself for it said, "There's no time, and Aries has been killing messengers so there's no other way. All I'm asking is what Kiyana was asking twenty odd cycles ago, a chance to live. Not for me, for the nation. I'll pay for my crimes, hang if I have to, just don't let Aries destroy the nation."

At the name Kiyana, Krystina sat straight up her face a mask of shock. "You were so young, I didn't think you remembered." Xena said, "I remember finding you and another woman in our barn, you were hurt so I got my mother. I didn't remember until last night." "How" "I saw the scars. I remember the belt you were wearing last night. You were very sick, hot and your back was a smelly bloody mess. It never healed right did it?" "No, though I'm told the scars have faded over time" "The other woman called you Kiyana. I helped my mother hide you. She said I was never to tell anyone, not even my brothers, so I never did." "Did you know why we were hiding" "When the soldiers came, I heard them tell my mother that you and your friend were condemned criminals that had killed three guards escaping from prison. I remember they were mean to my mother, but if she wasn't going to tell them about you I wasn't either." "Your mother was a brave woman, and you were a very brave little girl."

Xena whispered thru tight lips, " you see where it got me?" "Wasn't your courage that got you in this mess. It was your own stubborn self serving will run riot." The priestess nodded then asked very quietly. "This thing you ask me to do, what if I refuse, will you turn me in?" "No." "Why not?"

"I don't know or care why you were in prison. I do know what it is to want to reform, and how hard it is. I'm glad both of you got the chance. When I last saw Hermia a couple cycles ago she was well. Married with two grown daughters. You put a life together and devoted it to the temple. Someday, if I live thru this, maybe you'll tell me the rest of the story. If I survive and you don't want responsibility for me I'll understand. Now we don't have much time so what do you want to do?"

Krystina closed her eyes for a moment, when she opened them she looked at Xena and said, "Eponin and Delia know my story. I've trusted them with my life, will you trust them with yours?" "Yes" "Then first you tell them what we're up to. Then we'll ask Eponin for a one day delay, and yes I'll do it." "Agreed" The priestess stepped around the partition, "Delia, Eponin"

She stepped back inside, "Xena, about the belt. It was my mother's. I know it was stupid, but I kept it because, aside from taking her name when I came here, it's the only thing of hers I have. Since you remember Hermia and know the name she's using now, I'll tell you that was her mothers name as well." Xena whispered, "Kiyana daughter of Krystina, whatever your past, today your mother would be proud of you." The priestess looked ready to cry.

Delia and Eponin came around the partition, Eponin said, "Krystina, I heard the end of that." Krystina smiled sadly, "Eponin, Delia, this is the young girl who saved my life so long ago. She has something to tell you, I need you to listen." "Need?" Eponin looked at Xena dangerously. "Is she threatening you?" "No" "Alright Xena, speak your piece."

When Xena finished, Eponin turned to Krystina,"You're willing to do this?" "Yes." "Why?" Krystina could barely control her rage, "My family was killed, I wound up in prison, was hunted like a dog, and likely still have a price on my head. All because somebody was trying to make points with Aries a long time ago. I'll do it because I know what it's like to live in the shadow of the gallows, and because Xena and her mother are the only reason I'm still alive. If that's not enough reason, I'm not sure I can explain."

Eponin turned to Delia, "Cover us for one day. Krystina, how soon?" Artemis appeared, "I've been listening, Xena you're right. It's Aries not Tyldus. Eponin, Krystina and I will bring the real Tyldus here. Aries won't dare interfere. You somehow keep the one out there busy for a couple of candlemarks. We'll do the rest but be warned. Velasca and Discord are out there stirring up trouble as well. Eponin said, "What do you want us to do?" "I'll get help, wait for me. An ally I won't name is keeping watch and will call me if there's trouble. It's midday now, announce the trial will start, oh make it mid afternoon." Eponin nodded, "I can delay until tomorrow if you like." "No. I'll be back in four candlemarks with other witnesses, and we'll need the element of surprise. Healer, with your permission we'll arrive in your quarters." "They're at your disposal. I'll see to your privacy." "Thank you." The goddess held out a hand to Krystina, "My priestess."

Krystina took the goddess's hand and a moment later they arrived at the Centaur village. Tyldus greeted his visitors and inquired as to their purpose. He was surprized that he hadn't been notified of the trial. Of course he'd testify for Xena. "When my son Phantes was accused of murder, Xena and Ephiny were the only ones who cared enough to look for the truth. I don't care whether she's guilty or not. I won't have her hang thinking I failed to honor that debt." Artemis told him not to try traveling alone since Aries minions would likely be waiting in ambush. She would come for him, wait in his hut and be ready. He agreed.

Celesta met Artemis and Krystina in Amphipolis. She too had been listening while Xena and Krystina talked at the hospice. While they were at the Centaur village, she had traveled to the underworld, where Hades was putting their plan for Aries into action. They quickly described what they proposed to Krystina.

Having already been briefed by Celesta, Cyrene was ready to travel. When they arrived she was talking to Taurus, her eldest son and assistant. They heard her tell him that she had no idea how long she'd be gone. "It might be a few days or several moons before I can even get you a message." However confused Taurus may have been, he handled it well. He told his mother, "I don't pretend to know what's going on, but if two goddesses need your help, it's obviously important. Do whatever you have to do for however long it takes, and don't worry about anything here." Much to his embarrassment, Cyrene hugged him, then picking up a small bundle she turned to the goddeses, "I'm ready."

Their last stop turned out to be more heart wrenching than they had thought. They found Gabrielle's mother in a barn on her farm near Potadeia. Hecuba listened stoically as Artemis told her the basic facts of her daughters death, and of Aries plot to sacrifice the Amazon Nation. Like the priestess, Hecuba remembered the pain of long ago. How Krystina's renegade band had taken her in, after her own tribe had driven her out. How, in an unprovoked night attack, they had been slaughtered in Aries name.

Hecuba remembered too the courage and kindness of Cyrene after their escape from prison. She had done much, at great personal risk, to help them start new lives. There would be time later to mourn her own daughter. For now she would help save the daughter of this woman to whom she owed everything.

Hecuba told them Herodotus had been killed in a farming accident the summer before. She had sent word to the Amazon village for Gabrielle, and been concerned that she hadn't gotten a reply. She asked for a few minutes to talk to her daughter Lila and her husband who now ran the farm.

Inside she gathered a few things including an old amulet. She told Lila there was trouble concerning Gabrielle. She couldn't explain, but old friends had come for her, and she had to leave right away. "Very important, don't say anything about this to anyone until you've heard from me." Finally she hugged her daughter and walked to the barn. As they had done at the inn, Artemis and Celesta placed a protective aura around the farm. Moments later, the group materialized in Delia's quarters.
Lila had followed her mother to the barn, rounding the corner to see five women including her mother disappear. Old friends indeed, people don't vanish like that, so at least one of them had to be a Goddess. Lila couldn't imagine why her mother would be traveling with a Goddess, let alone a priestess and an Amazon. Suddenly the implications of her mothers sudden departure, and her words "trouble concerning Gabrielle" hit her very hard.

Feeling faint, Lila caught herself on a post. Her parents had always been secretive about her mothers past, but this was beyond belief. Her mind filled with questions for which she had no answers. Sitting on a barrel she asked herself, *why the secrecy? Which Goddess, and why was she involved? An Amazon messenger? Gabrielle is after all their queen. A priestess? Lila began to cry as her mind formed the question she dared not ask.

Finally she returned to the house and told her husband what she'd seen. He had not seen the others. Still startled by Hecuba's pronouncement, he began to fear for his wife's sanity. That afternoon Lila's story played on his mind. He would have heard riders or a wagon, and their stock was accounted for. There were strange bootprints in the barn, but none leading to it. *that's impossible, unless - "

Coming out of the barn he saw Lila weeding the kitchen garden, from a distance it looked like she was crying. He put down his tools and went to her. "Lila. I'm a farmer, not a priest or an oracle. So I don't know what to make of it either"
Krystina stepped quietly out of Delia's quarters, "they're here. We need you to find Eponin." After sending the runner, Delia went to her quarters, where Artemis quickly made the introductions. When Eponin arrived, Artemis told her to maneuver the fake Tyldus into the temple enclosure. Reinforcements would be waiting there. Aries would be exposed and arrested quietly. Celesta added, "Our troops will secure the safety of Ephiny and the priestesses. If Aries puts up a fight, we'll have all we can do to protect the real Tyldus. I strongly suggest you take cover as soon as he's exposed and let us handle him." Eponin swallowed hard, "Count on it."

Artemis disappeared, reappearing moments later in Tyldus's hut. The grizzled old Centaur looked ready for war. Artemis remembered his concern "get your grandson settled?" "No problems there, I'd already arranged with my second to watch him while I testified." "shall we?" Touching his shoulder, they traveled to her temple in the Amazon village. Arriving, Tyldus took in his new surroundings. Artemis said quietly, "Welcome to my temple Tyldus." A caped man in black armor joined them, Artemis made the introductions "Tyldus, I'd like you to meet Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Hades, Tyldus, Ruler of the Centaurs." Returning Tyldus's bow, Hades apologized for not offering his hand, "My touch isn't safe for mortals."

Tyldus was stricken speechless. Finally he said, "No disrespect, but I was hoping it'd be some time yet before I met you." Hades smiled, "I understand, but you have nothing to fear when that time comes. You'll be joining your son in meadows so lush, you'll find their beauty and aroma more potent than the strongest ale. I expect you'll be as happy there as he is. " Tyldus, who'd sometimes been concerned about his prospects, was stunned. "Thank you." was all he could manage to say.

Hades indicated the black armored men guarding the temple itself. "I'm sure my niece explained, but we're here to take Aries into custody for treason against Olympus." Tyldus nodded nervously, "She told me that he's disquised himself as me, and why." "We appreciate your help." Hades indicated a small group of armored men. "These are a few of my legionnaires, to be specific my personal bodyguard. We're hoping the sight of you stuns Aries enough we can hit him immediately. He'll have to change back to his real form to resist, and as soon as he does, I'll be grabbing for his powers. I've no doubt about your courage, but it would be best to let us handle him."

Tyldus folded his arms across his chest, "I didn't get this old taking fool chances. He's all yours. Might I ask what you plan to do with him." Hades replied, "He'll be held in Tartarus, then tried on Olympus for treason. He'll be joining the Titans if he's convicted." Tyldus started to reach for the God's shoulder in a gesture of sympathy, then pulled back as he remembered the danger. Instead he said. "You have my sympathy, hurts to have to punish one of your own, but sometimes it has to be done. No offense, but I wouldn't want your job."

Hades was surprised by the sentiment and it showed. No mortal had ever offered him sympathy, and considering his domain it was unlikely that any ever would. His face lifted slightly into a tight lipped smile and he nodded, "None taken, but the job already is." A moment later, Tyldus saw him signal his legionnaires. Although the signal was new to him, something inside the old fighter knew what it meant, "They're coming"

Eponin led "Tyldus" thru the gateway into the temple enclosure. She saw nothing unusual but, being a seasoned fighter, she knew the smell of an ambush. Her senses already at their highest stage of alert, jumped as a gravelly male voice called "over here, you poor excuse for a horses ass." "Tyldus" let forth an oath and turned to face his tormenter. At the sight which greeted him, Tyldus/Aries knew the game was over and began to shift into his usual form. Eponin dove for cover as the first lightening bolt hit him squarely in the chest.

Eponin rolled behind some stonework and instinctively drew her sword. The temple compound was suddenly full of darkly armored and helmeted warriors. She had seen Aries staggered by the impact of the first bolt. Now in his usual form, he let loose a blast of his own, and with a yell charged the two figures facing him. They separated and the bolt passed harmlessly between them. The air crackled as Hades and Artemis returned his fire. Both bolts struck Aries throwing him towards where Tyldus was taking refuge. Eponin heard a loud crunching impact as the Centair's hind hooves caught a weakened Aries full in the chest. Siezing the advantage, Hades and Artemis fired long sustained bolts that threw Aries to the ground, pinning him in a web of blue fire.

Suddenly the light show ended, and Hades extended his right hand towards the writhing figure. "Aries, God of War. In the name of the Olympian Pantheon I arrest you for High Treason." A glowing ball leaped from Aries chest and flew into Hades outstretched hand. One of Hades legionnaires stepped over to Eponin, "Your majesty, would you come with me please." Though she knew no harm was intended her, Eponin felt her blood chill at the invitation. Leaving her cover, she walked in company of the legionaire towards the figure on the ground. Aries scoffed as she approached, "What did you plan on doing with that anyway?" Eponin, realizing she still held her sword, returned it to it's scabbard. Artemis had just finished removing Aries belt, which held the great sword of war. Standing she handed it to Hades.

Hades turned to Eponin with a grim expression. "Thank you for helping us capture the fugitive." A gleaming set of manacles appeared in his hand. Artemis took them and presented them to Eponin, "Perhaps you would do the dishonors." Eponin bowed deeply, then taking the restraint said, "It would be my pleasure." Kneeling she grabbed Aries right wrist and roughly clamped the first cuff onto it. Then with a practiced move she rolled him onto his stomach and sat on him. Aries taunted her. "We're talking gross disrespect here" Eponin told him, "shut up" and slid the second cuff beneath his belt.

Forcefully pulling Aries left arm behind him, Eponin cuffed his hands together with palms turned outward and looked back to Artemis. Taking the offered leg shackles she put them on Aries as well. When finished, she stood up dragging the now restrained and powerless God to his feet. Keeping a firm grip on Aries, Eponin bowed her head slightly, "The prisoner is secured," then added quietly but respectfully "Thank you." Hades nodded his approval. At his command, two legionaires moved forward, and Eponin shoved Aries towards them. "Give Queen Gabrielle my regards when you see her in Tartarus. But be careful, she's a lot tougher than you are." Hades ordered his legionnaires, "Take him away" then at his gesture they, along with Aries, disappeared."

Bowing formally, Hades turned to Eponin, "Your majesty, we haven't been properly introduced. I am Hades, Lord of the Underworld." Eponin replied formally, "It is an honor to make your acquaintance." There was an uncomfortable silence. Hades spoke "Queen Eponin, I sense your bitterness over Queen Gabrielle's fate. Her final judgement was truly out of my hands. I received orders regarding her such that even I, knowing they were unjust, could not ignore them."

Eponin asked carefully, "Celesta and Artemis told us about the conspiracy, but meaning no disrespect," she stumbled on her words, "I'm not sure how to say this but." Hades helped her, "Your majesty, just say what is in your heart, I will not hold it against you."

Losing the battle for composure Eponin blurted out, "I've never approved of human sacrifice. Now I'm asked to believe that the same all powerful Gods my mother brought me up to worship and respect, would have to sacrifice an innocent soul like Queen Gabrielle's to save their own skins." She took a breath, wondering if it would be her last, "Well, maybe you'll throw me in Tartarus - or Hell - for saying this, but at that point, I started wondering if your divine skins were really worth saving."

Hade's calm reply shocked her, "I understand. If what you described were truly the case, I would wonder about that myself. Everything Artemis and Celesta told you about the conspiracy is true. There is a lot more, that for now at least, we cannot tell you. Hades lowered his eyes to the ground. "As for Queen Gabrielle, however grim her situation is at present, I assure you that it is not hopeless." Sensing Eponin's skepticizm "Your majesty, the vow of a God, taken on the River Styx is their eternal bond. I give you my word by those same waters, that within the laws of Olympus, I will do all within my power, for however long it takes, to see that Queen Gabrielle one day receives the full, and considerable, honors she deserves."

Eponin replied softly, "Forgive me for doubting you. And thank you for sharing this with me." "Nothing to forgive" "Queen Gabrielle's mother is here for the trial, may this be shared with her?" Hades nodded "I have heard her anguished thoughts. (Turning) Artemis, do you mind?" "Not at all." Putting a hand on his chin Hades thought for a moment. Turning to Eponin, "Your majesty, if you would bring the high priestess and both women who came with Artemis here after the trial recesses for today, I will speak with them." Eponin bowed with respect, "I shall do as you ask." Hades bowed, "Now I must take my leave." and disappeared.

Eponin turned to Tyldus, "Glad you could make it in time for the fight." Tyldus clasped her warmly by the arm. "Aries wanted to try out a set of hooves. Thought I'd oblige him." Eponin laughed, "When this is over, perhaps you'd join me in a tankard of ale." Tyldus took her arm, "Only one?" Eponin gestured with her hands, "I didn't say how big a tankard." Tyldus laughed. Artemis turned towards them, "We do appreciate your help. Unfortunately, there's still a trial to conduct." Eponin's cheer faded, "These other witnesses. What do you want me to do?" Artemis told her.


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