For disclaimers see part 1

Xena stands trial, while her mother and Gabrielle's settle into the village.

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Xena had a chance to talk to her mother and Gabrielle's before the drums called the village back to the trial. Hecuba told her "Artemis told me of my daughters death. I also know of the death of your son, and my granddaughter. For their deaths I grieve with you. She also told me of the events which led to this day. Were I not convinced that you were then under the influence of an unscrupulous god, I would kill you myself." Xena lowered her eyes to the floor, "you would have the right." Hecuba continued, "I find today I've lost a daughter, and a granddaughter I never knew. I still grieve for my husband." Krystina put an arm around her. " I know you loved my daughter, I cannot both honor her memory, and hate the one she loved so dearly at the same time."

She began to cry, and Krystina sat her down on Xena's bunk. A knock came at the door and Solari stuck her head in, "Xena, it's time." Cyrene hugged her daughter briefly, then Solari and the guards led her away. Delia brought Hecuba a clean rag and a mug of honeyed tea.

Eponin called the trial back into session. Again Xena was called forward to hear the charges. A priestess, Phaedra, acting as Xena's defense advisor, pled for her.

A shouted objection heard from the crowd. Eponin called "Come forward, identify yourself and state your objections." The warrior came forward and after stating her name said, "I object to this woman being tried as an Amazon. She came as an invader with no ties to the nation." Another stepped forward, "Xena is an outsider. She has no allegiance to our nation, our laws or our Goddess. Only to a dead woman whose legitimacy as both Amazon and queen remain in doubt, at least to some of us. She should be tried as an invader, an enemy of the nation and sentenced accordingly."

Eponin said, "Your objections have been heard. However, the defendant Xena is an Amazon. Our late Queen Gabrielle, gave her a grant of Amazon citizenship in her will. She did so to make sure that in the event of her death, Xena might have a home among us. Regarding the status of Queen Gabrielle, there is one here who can attest to that. I call upon Hecuba of Potadeia to come forward,"

Eyes turned as a small blonde woman in peasant garb stepped forward. A priestess scribe asked her. "Will you swear before the Goddess Artemis that you shall speak the truth and nothing else in these proceedings." Hecuba placed her right hand over her heart and replied in a clear voice, "Before Artemis, Patron Goddess and protector of the Amazon Nation, I do so swear." Eponin asked "Please identify yourself." "I am now called Hecuba of Potadeia. Queen Gabrielle was my daughter." Sitting on the platform, Krystina noted that the objecting warrior wore a smug expression. She's probably thinking *how could this village woman do anything other than prove my point.* Eponin asked Hecuba, "Tell us of yourself, and of your daughters ties to this nation."

Hecuba drew herself erect, and as she began to speak the warrior's expression went rapidly from smug to grim. "Fourty seven winters ago, I was born under a different name into the tribe of Queen Hypolyta. My mother was an archer. I followed in her bootprints, receiving my warriors mask at fifteen. Unfortunately I was also wild and headstrong, and after various attempts failed to bring me into line, I was banished for ten cycles After leaving my own tribe, I fell in with a band of renegades. While with them, I gave birth to a daughter."

Xena wondered at this. There had been no child with the women she had found, so this couldn't have been Gabrielle. "I lived with them for just over three cycles. One night our village was raided by militia and slaughtered, only a few of us were left alive. My daughter, (Her voice became shaky), my beautiful daughter - just a moon past her first birthday - was torn screaming from my arms, and killed before my eyes.

Mad with rage, I remember vicious fighting and being hit from behind. I woke up in prison with the survivors of my group. All of us were wounded, within a moon only two of us were left alive." Seeing Hecuba falter, Eponin stood up, "would you like a few moments?" "Thank you, your majesty, but I'd rather finish." "As you wish" she sat back down, "Please continue."

As Krystina listened, she could see the events Hecuba was describing as though they were just happening. It became a struggle to retain any semblence of composure.

"About three moons later, I escaped from a work detail, how is not important but several guards were killed. That night I returned to the prison to rescue my sister. She had been beaten, but was able to walk. A few days later she became ill, so we hid in a small cave. The next day, while I was scrounging for food and water, bounty hunters found the cave." Fire flashed thru Hecuba's eyes, "She was sick, and barely able to stand, but those animals tied her to a tree and whipped her within an fingers breadth of her life, trying to find out where I was. I heard her screams, but I had only a dagger and there were five of them."

Down in Tartarus, Gabrielle heard her mothers story for the first time. In total shock she sat on a small boulder and began to cry. Callisto, knowing she was hearing Xena's trial, sat beside her and held her. When Gabrielle told her what she was listening to, she asked her to tell it to her.

Hecuba fought back the tears as she continued. "They left her tied to that tree, most probably as bait for me. That night my prayers were answered, the fools got so drunk that I was able to kill three of them and free her. She begged me over and over to kill her and save myself. I got her over the saddle of one of their horses before the alarm was raised. I took an arrow in my right thigh, but managed to pull myself onto another. Two days later one horse ran off, and the other came up lame outside the village of Amphipolis. By then my sister was unconscious and burning up with fever. I wasn't in much better shape. I'd gotten the arrow out of my leg, but the wound was infected. We later discovered that I was also pregnant."

Hearing the pain in Hecuba's voice, many opened their hearts to the woman. Solari, realizing where the story was leading, thought about the day Gabrielle had taken the mask. The ones who said she didn't have the birthright to be queen were wrong.

"I don't remember how or where I found the strength to do it, but I somehow dragged my sister into a nearby barn and got her into the hayloft. I knew we couldn't go on and prayed to Hades to take us quickly. We were found there the next morning by a young girl gathering eggs. I begged her not to tell anyone she'd seen us, but she brought her mother anyway. At great risk to themselves, they hid us and treated our wounds. It was several days before we were fit to travel. When we were, they and a male friend hid us in the bottom of a wagon and brought us here."

Xena remembered the trip. They had stayed a moon, and she had gotten to know a few of the children her own age. She remembered the mother of one dark haired girl showing her how to use a staff. She looked a lot like - suddenly Xena realized that the dark haired girl was Eponin. Xena wondered if she remembered.

"The baby I was carrying eventually became Queen Gabrielle. She was conceived in prison and born in this village twenty three summers ago. Her birth was recorded on the council scrolls as Gabrielle, daughter of Hecuba. She was blessed at the temple of Artemis, and lived here the first cycle and a half of her life. She grew up knowing nothing of my past." Gabrielle told herself, *that's for sure* "Eventually I married the friend of the woman who had saved us, and moved to a small farm he had inherited outside of Potadeia. He died last summer. The council archives will show that I lived here for not quite two and a half cycles. My sister stayed here, and we have kept contact over time."

"I returned once, to have another child blessed at the temple. Both Gabrielle and I had amulets signifying membership in the tribe. The priestess who blessed her gave me one for my youngest daughter as well. I have mine here." Reaching into her bodice she produced a small bronze amulet on a leather thong and passed it to Eponin. She in turn passed it to Niobe, who verified that it was genuine.

Eponin returned the amulet. "The nation grieves with you in your loss." She turned to the objecting warriors, struggling to keep the contempt she felt for them out of her voice., "Does this woman's story answer your questions regarding the Amazon status of Gabrielle of Potadeia, daughter of Hecuba. As the council confirmed her to be Queen by the right of caste of Terreis, that question is moot."

The warrior tried one last challenge, "This woman tells a good story, but what proof do we have of her words. All we have is an old amulet that you say is genuine, but how do we know it's even hers. She could have stolen it, perhaps murdered an Amazon to get it, she said herself she'd been in prison."

Krystina stood up angrily, "Your majesty, if I may." She addressed the crowd, "All of you know me, but for the record I am Krystina, a daughter of Artemis, High Priestess of the Temple of Artemis in this village. Does anyone question my word?" There was silence. She had caught them all off guard. Pointing to herself, "I too was born under a different name, as indeed (she pointed to the crowd) were many of you. I came to this village with this woman, the only other survivor of the renegade band she referred to. While living with us, she shared a hut with my mother and myself."

This time it was Hecuba's eyes that fogged up, as she remembered the kind woman and her daughter that had taken her in, and helped her turn her life around

"My mother and I were warriors. She was seriously wounded in the attack this woman spoke of, and died in the same prison she rescued me from. I witnessed the birth and death of her first child. We were thrown into prison without charges, and without a trial, simply because we are, not were are, Amazons. She told you that I had been beaten. Two days prior to our escape I tried to fight the unwanted advances of a guard and was whipped for it. What she didn't tell you was that while I was being beaten that same guard turned on her, and that it is likely that he, or one of the others with him, sired our fallen queen. She rescued me not once, but twice, and sustained me on our flight. Hecuba is an honorable woman, to whom I owe my life."

Krystina turned her eyes to Cyrene. "The village woman who nursed us back to health is here, as is her daughter; the defendant Xena. Xena is a follower of Artemis and was re-blessed at her temple just last night. The Healer Delia, and I stood for her, the Queen and the Captain of the Guard were our witnesses." Venom filled her voice as she turned to face the crowd. "As I said, neither Hecuba or I ever got a trial, fair or otherwise. I am determined to see that Xena gets a fair one. Are there any among you who would challenge the truthfulness of my words?"

There was dead silence. Eponin spoke again. "As to the question of Xena's right to be tried as an Amazon rather than an invader: Will Xena's mother step forward and identify herself?" Cyrene stepped up to the platform and was sworn. "I am Cyrene of Amphipolis, and a daughter of Artemis, taken into this village as an abandoned child and raised here. Xena is my daughter." Xena was shocked, her mother had never spoken of her childhood. Although she knew her to be friendly towards the Amazons, she never realized she had been one.

Eponin asked her, "When did you leave the village and why?" Cyrene drew herself erect, "I left the village 32 summers ago when I was 19, after the birth of my first child, a son. Having been an abandoned child, always wondering about my birth parents, I would not abandon a child of my own. Over the years I have kept contact and had friendly relations with the tribe or at least some members of it. I returned to the village after Xena's birth and had her blessed at the temple here. At my request, and without objection, the council registered her birth as an Amazon, that she should have a home in the nation should she ever want it. I have our amulets with me."

Bending slightly forward, Cyrene pulled an amulet from around her neck. She took a cloth pouch from her pocket containing the second. She passed both to Eponin who pronounced them genuine. When they were returned she placed one around her neck asking, "Might I give my daughter hers?" Without waiting for an answer she stepped over to Xena saying "bend down so I can put this on you." Xena looked to Eponin who nodded, then bent forward as her mother placed the long treasured amulet around her neck. "I was hoping to do this long ago, under better circumstances." Xena sniffed back a tear. Her mother assured her "We'll talk later."

Eponin asked, "Any further objections?" There were none. She breathed a silent sigh of relief, *Thank you, Artemis*

After Cyrene's testimony, Eponin, noting the time, recessed the trial until the next day at midmorning. Inwardly Xena cringed as Eponin then ordered, "Captain of the guard." Solari saluted, "the defendant will be held in custody." Xena was already being manacled as Solari approached. Looking on, Cyrene fought back tears.

Leaving the platform, Eponin saw Cyrene, Hecuba, and Krystina talking. Cyrene noted the hesitant step as she approached. Krystina broke the awkward silence saying simply "your majesty." Cyrene and Hecuba curtsied. Eponin told them quickly, "You may rise. Please." When they did so, Eponin looked down, "Ma'am, I have known your daughter for some time, and we have been friends. The necessity of passing judgement upon her pains me greatly." Cyrene spoke "It is a moment all mothers pray will never come. Your fairness does you honor, your majesty." Eponin said quietly, "Thank you. And my name is Eponin."

Saying "Excuse me for a moment," she turned and called "Sophia," they saw a warrior run towards her. Sophia said "let me guess, quarters for our guests, already being done. I take it the blonde one, Hecuba, is royalty?" Eponin nodded, "Yes, and Cyrene is an honored elder." "Any idea how long they'll be staying," "Figure at least a moon, could be a lot longer. Check if they need anything, they were traveling pretty light."

Sophia made a dismissive gesture, "Two women I can handle. Is Tyldus staying?" Eponin put her fist under her chin. She and Tyldus had talked about that on the way back from the temple. "He'll be testifying tomorrow, so yes. Give him the hut Ephiny used for her son's visits. She built it to be comfortable for a Centaur." Sophia shook her head, "already taken care of. I had it cleaned up during the break, when Xena got sick. I wish somebody had told me we had other guests -"

Knowing she was fishing for information, Eponin had to think fast. Sophia wasn't on the council, and so couldn't be told about either the conspiracy, or true extent of the Gods involvement. "Sorry about that, but they didn't get here until just before the trial started. Until they arrived, nobody knew if they were coming." Sophia thought, *And of course they can fly, just like Centaurs. That's probably how they got here without the guard knowing about it* She decided not to push things - for now.

Delia joined them as Eponin told Cyrene and Hecuba that quarters were being prepared for them, and to let her know if they had any special needs. Both women were skeptical when Eponin told them of Aries arrest, and of her earlier discussion with Hades. Still they walked with her and Krystina to the Temple.

Entering the grounds, they saw Ephiny in the garden talking to Tyldus. Ephiny was smiling and appeared happy. For a moment Eponin dared hope, then felt herself choke, as she remembered the goddesses warning about her true condition. It was hard for her to believe that the woman she had grown to love was in reality a banished goddess. Sitting as she was, on a garden bench in a plain shift and shawl, under the watchful eye of two priestesses, she looked anything but.

Eponin hesitated at the entrance to the sanctuary, unsure whether the invitation had included her. Telling the other women she'd wait for them outside, she left quietly and closed the door behind her.

Inside, Artemis appeared, followed closely by Hades. Bowing formally, he introduced himself to the kneeling women. "Please rise for there is much I must tell you." When they had done so, "First, know that for many of your cycles of seasons, I have watched over all of you. Hecuba, this started before you left your birth tribe. For reasons I cannot go into, I was forbidden to come directly to your aide, or ease the circumstances of your departure." Hecuba winced at the memory of the farewell whipping she had received. Lysia, Queen Hypolyta's second, had spared her nothing. While under the lash, she had prayed to Hades to take her, but there was to be no such mercy for her. Only as the burning brine was poured over her mangled back, had she mercifully lost consciousness.

"Krystina, you were fated to die in your escape from prison " Hecuba and Krystina exchanged a quick glance, then turned their eyes back to Hades. He continued. "At my request, the Fates spared your lives, and it pleases me to see what you have done with them. Their terms were that you had to reach Amphipolis by your own efforts. Until you set foot there, we could guide your steps, but do nothing to ease your suffering." Now it was Cyrene who looked confused,*where do I fit into all of this?*

Turning to Hecuba he said, "your husband's death was not an accident, he was killed on orders of the God of War." She gasped, "Why" Hades told her gently, "As you've been told, Aries has sold his soul to dark powers, and become a traitor to Olympus. Part of his plot was to separate Xena from your daughter, and both from the Amazon Nation. He supposedly ordered your husbands death, to force your daughter to leave Xena, and return to your home village. What he didn't plan for, or tell his assassin about, was Gabrielle's own death almost a season before."

Hecuba covered her face with her hands. Cyrene put her arms around her. Hades gave them a few moments before continuing, (gently) "Herodatus was a good man, he is in the Elysian Fields, and sends his love. Aries will pay for his crimes. You know of his arrest." The women nodded, "At present he is being held in Tartarus pending trial. The evidence against him is solid, and continues to mount. He will be convicted, and I assure you, severely punished."

Artemis sent him a thought, *These women could probably use a short break.* He replied in kind, *I forget sometimes, how easilly mortals become fatigued.* Aloud he said, "Artemis has suggested that you might like a few moments to refresh yourselves." Seeing their expressions of gratitude he said gently, "I shall return shortly." He bowed and disappeared.

Delia's hands were shaking as she tried to sip her tea. She looked up as Alicia gently took it from her, and handed her a mug of ale, saying apologetically, "you looked like you could use something a little stronger." Delia took a sip, then annother, "Thanks Alicia, you're a lifesaver." "Isn't that what we're all about?"

They sat quietly for a time. Alicia broke the silence. "We both knew this day had to come, and so did she." Delia thought for a moment, "Still hurts, she's a good woman who made a bad mistake. Knowing she has to make her peace with it doesn't make it any easier to accept what has to happen." Alicia said softly, "It doesn't, it never does." She sat down next to Delia, "for ten full cycles my people lived under siege, because one man couldn't swallow his pride. Menelaus" Alicia felt her tounge curl at the name, "didn't have the courage to face our prince, one on one. Instead he set about destroying our people, and a lot of his own in the process."

Delia looked at her, Alicia had never spoken of the war except in the most general of terms. She wondered, *Where is this headed.* "We knew we couldn't win against the entire Greek army, but that didn't make accepting defeat any easier. My father and brother died on the walls. My husband died trying to rescue his patients, when those Thessolean butchers burned his hospice ." Alicia's face was a mask of pain, "I had managed to drag two of the patients out when a hoplite grabbed me. I screamed at them to stop, that it was a hospice, and the last thing I remember before waking up in chains was how he laughed at their screams." Delia pulled the woman to her.

When Hades returned, the women waiting for him looked better. Greeting them he began, "Cyrene, Hecuba, as Krystina already knows, Aries and his minions have the intent of sacrificing your nation to the power he has allied himself with. We recently discovered that the massacre of her birth tribe was a sacrifice, in Aries name, to these same powers. They destroyed the people, but not their souls. Krystina, your mother and birth tribe await you in the Forests of Eternity. Now this tribe, as the center of the nation, has become Aries target."

He stopped for a moment to read their souls. He said gently, "Hecuba, I grieve for your daughter Gabrielle. She is in Tartarus, so cleverly was she set up by the traitors, the charges against her so damning, that I was ordered to put her there. Her father also demanded it." Hecuba gasped "Not Herodotus, he accepted her as his own." Hades continued, "Not Herodotus, for he is a good man and loves her still. When he learned of her plight, he traveled from the Elysian Fields into Tartarus to see her, and to beg mercy for her."

Hecuba again was on the verge of tears. "May I know who?" Krystina put her arm around her as Hades continued, "One of the prison guards who forced himself upon you just before your escape was actually Baccus in disguise. He is Gabrielle's father of blood, though perhaps sire would be a better term." Hecuba began to shudder as yet another bitter memory returned. Artemis shot Hades a thought message, *she can't handle the rest of it.* Hades folded his arms in thought, *she won't have to.*

Hades asked gently, "Artemis, perhaps she could have a chair." Hecuba protested weakly, "Is that proper, sitting in front of a god?" Artemis shook her head, "Of course it is, when there is a need, or when the god offers permission." With a wave of her hand three chairs appeared. She pointed to them and said simply, "please."

Hecuba asked "Please tell me, why is Gabrielle in Tartarus?" Hades was expecting the question, "It is thru no fault of her own. Hecuba, you raised a fine daughter, headstrong, courageous and with a fine sense of justice, just like her mother. Under most circumstances she would have passed directly into the Forests set aside for honorable Amazon dead. I would not even have judged her." Hecuba was shaken and her voice cracked as she choked out "Then please - "

Hades then did a most ungodly thing, he dropped to one knee and knelt in front of the grieving woman. He said gently, "Your daughter died while actually in the grasp of the same demons Aries sacrificed to. They fear your daughter, for she can recognize their faces in whatever guise, and has twice defeated their spawn in battle. Had we not dragged her soul to the underworld, it would have been lost forever. Once there I was forced to judge it, and the conspirators were ready. They presented Zeus with charges against her, charges so damning that he himself ordered me to condemn her.

Xena too has special powers, which compliment Gabrielle's. Both powers are essential to the coming war. However, Xena and Gabrielle will have to be together to win, for neither can succeed alone. The powers of evil know this. They were desperate to separate and destroy both. Their forces were at the trial today, trying with their objections, to force the queen to hang Xena. Gabrielle will be released from Tartarus as soon as possible. Should she then wish, I will cleanse all memories of it from her mind." Hecuba replied thru tears, "Thank you for telling me."

Hades stood up, "There is something all of you can do for her." The woman looked at each other, Cyrene said, "Name it" "This villages isolation is so complete that only one outside it knows of Gabrielle's death, and he can be trusted to keep silence. Cyrene, Hecuba if you will stay here for a while, perhaps several moons, that isolation may make it possible for me to restore her life to her. I will explain.

The Olympian Council will have a hearing on her case. It focuses on the right of a God, parent to a half god, to determine their destiny. This is not a right, though some try to make it so. Some abandon or kill their mortal offspring. Others make quiet efforts to know and provide for them. Bacchus has made no such efforts, and for this reason, Artemis has petitioned for his claims to be ruled invalid. Gabrielle's case will set the law, as the right has never before been challenged." Seeing their startled expressions he said, "It was never challenged because none before wanted their offspring put in Tartarus. All before tried to save them from it."

"Either way, I will send her to the Sacred Forests, where no Olympian save Artemis can reach her. However Artemis has filed a second petition seeking to have her life restored. Were her death widely know, this petition would be impossible to grant. Eponin and the council know of this, Xena knows much of it and you may if you wish discuss it with any of them. So I ask you, will you stay, and if necessary will you fight?" All solemnly nodded their agreement.

Hades then turned to Cyrene, "Cyrene, it is easy to love a child when they are admired by all. You did so thru adversity, which is far more difficult. Your kindness to these women, your trust in Herodotus, and the nobleman you asked to help smuggle them to this village, does you honor." "He was a man worth having." "He would say the same of you." Cyrene blushed. "Cyrene, your arms, and your inn, were the only two places on earth, where he never once felt unloved or unwelcome. He never forgot your love or kindness." Cyrene asked respectfully, "Might I be permitted to know what became of him?" Krystina moved closer to Cyrene, guessing what was coming. Hades stood silent for a moment, then under went a transformation recognized by all. "He stands before you."

Cyrene paled in shock. "You're Xena's father." He smiled, "Yes. Unfortunately, to keep my identity secret. I had to appear to age. I continued to watch over you however, and her." Cyrene was doing a bit better, "I understand, and the times we shared are still very special to me." Clasping his hands behind him, Hades resumed his normal form,. "Cyrene, I too treasure the memories of the love we shared, and of watching our daughter grow up." Cyrene felt her eyes grow moist, "You let me get to know and love her. I have kept her alive thru countless battles, and sent many to help her turn from the dark path she followed."

He turned to Hecuba, "Hecuba, it was your daughter that finished the job. It pains me to be in her debt, yet unable to spare her in the face of Zeus's orders. All I can give you is my word that she will be spared some day." Hecuba had to choke out the words, "It is more than I could dare hope for."

Hades turned again to Cyrene, "Cyrene, remember how, when times were slow, an unexpected caravan or noble's entourage would fill the inn, staying long enough, spending lavishly enough, to bring your fortunes around." Cyrene shook her head, "Always seemed to work that way. You sent them?" Hades closed his eyes and said quietly, "It was one way of helping to quietly provide for a woman I truly loved, and the children she bore me."

Cyrene asked "Lyceus" "Yes. He is in the Elysian Fields, very happily married. Atrius, who abused you, but did nothing to support or deserve you, is in Tartarus, slowly, and painfully learning the errors of his ways."

Cyrene nodded, then asked, "Can Xena's soul be saved." Hades looked at her sadly, "If she allows it to be. Just over two cycles ago, I took direct action when her spirit faltered. I allowed her to die, gave her a taste of Tartarus and sent her back. She made great strides during this time, though thru the influence of Aries and his dark masters, she has fallen back somewhat. She shows true remorse for her crimes, which is always important, and accepts their consequences."

Artemis gestured towards the altar. Five silver chalices appeared. "Ladies, if you would join us, please." She handed the chalices in turn to her priestess, Hecuba and Cyrene. Picking up the last two she handed one to Hades, saying to the women, "This is an ambrosia cocktail. It will not turn you into Gods, but it will restore the vigor of your youth. Hades, if you would please." "I drink to your daughters. May they one day be permitted to enjoy the happiness and honors they deserve." They each drank. The ambrosia cocktail was both filling and refreshing. Then Cyrene answered the toast "I drink to you and to all of the gods who know mercy and show compassion."

They drank again, finishing the ambrosia. Hades set down his chalice and bowed deeply. "We will speak again. For now I must take my leave." and with that he disappeared. Artemis turned to the women, "My daughters, there will be difficult times ahead. Let us now prepare for them. Priestess, if you would fetch the queen." Krystina stepped to the door and called to Eponin who came inside, looking both curious and drawn. Artemis told her, "Our audience is finished, our sisters will need to stay here for some time. I trust that will not be a burden." Eponin replied, "It will not be a burden. This village is their home, and they are welcome here." Artemis smiled, "Excellent, I leave them to your able care." With that she too disappeared.

Eponin turned to Hecuba and Cyrene, "I've been told that your quarters are ready. Would you come with me, please." Krystina asked "mind if I join you?" "Not at all." As they walked Eponin asked "Cyrene, you said growing up here you were trained as a warrior?" "Actually I was an archer, but we were all taught basic weapons and skills in those days. My squad leader was named Elise. She looked a lot like you." Eponin turned to her, "I'm not surprised, that would have been my mother. She died ten summers ago." Cyrene made a ritual sign of remembrance. "I'm sorry, she was a good woman." "Thank you" Eponin acknowledged. "Have you kept up any of what she taught you?"

Cyrene gave a small laugh, "I've run an inn for a long time. I've got a staff behind the counter and a set of chobos under it for when things get rowdy. I'm still good enough with a longbow to keep meat on the table. I taught Xena the basics when she was young, kicked myself a few times since." Eponin made a face, "I can imagine" Krystina asked Hecuba, "you used to be pretty good with a bow. Do you remember how to use one?"

Hecuba smiled at her, "Yes. I practice often." The smile left her, "and with chobos and the sword, in case they ever come for me." Krystina's lips tightened. Hecuba went on, "I keep the one I took from the bounty hunters hidden in the barn, and still go thru the old drills at times. Herodotus had his from the militia and we'd spar on occasion. I think he'd have died rather than let them take me."

Krystina stopped walking as she answered, "I've lived in fear of that day too. Wish I had a dinar for every nightmare I've had about being taken and hanged. They can't still looking be for us, but I just can't shake them." Hecuba hugged her, "I have them too, the attack, your mother, my baby. Herodotus tried to help, but we didn't dare talk to a healer or priestess." As Eponin and Cyrene listened, their hearts went out to the two women.

Cyrene turned quietly to Eponin "Hades and Artemis told us there was trouble brewing. If it does come, we're willing to fight." Eponin told her, "I appreciate the willingness but, no offense, neither of you are exactly young."

Cyrene put both hands on her hips and glared at her. "Just how young do you have to be to draw a bowstring. (Pointing to Hecuba) She runs a farm, I keep order in a tavern, so we're both in pretty good shape. Also, Artemis and Hades just asked us to have a drink with them. They said it would restore youthful vigor. Well, I feel as good as I did when I was 20. Have some faith in your elders, young lady. We'll hold up." Eponin stared back at her, "You're an Amazon alright, can't pass up the chance of a good fight." Then she laughed and offered her forearm, "alright then, warrior, I'll arrange to get you some arms and we'll see what you can do."

Hecuba and Krystina caught up with them. The women were shown to small but comfortable huts. Entering hers, Hecuba was startled and touched by the preparations made for her. On a table were candles, a basket of fruit, fresh water and wine skins. A clothing bundle and an extra blanket were on the bunk. Getting a look from Eponin, and a nod towards the clothing, Sophia apologized, "Ma'am, we didn't know how you got here, but I kind of figured you hadn't brought much with you. We brought you a basic issue, clothing, toiletry that kind of thing. If you don't want it or something isn't right, just tell us. Anything else you need, please let us know." Hecuba smiled at her, "I appreciate the trouble you went to, I'm sure everything will be fine. Thank you."

Eponin turned to Sophia, "Lets show Cyrene her hut. I'm sure they'd like to freshen up before supper." Finding the same arrangements waiting for her, Cyrene too thanked Sophia and Eponin for their consideration. After nodding in reply, Eponin turned to Sophia, "tomorrow when the trial is over, I want you take them to the armory and set them up. They're both archers, and they'll need personal weapons, give them whatever they want." Sophia hid her surprise, "Of course"

Eponin put a hand on her shoulder, drawing her aside. "Ep, what?" Eponin interrupted, "Sophia, you're going to have to trust me on this one.. I want you to check them out personally. If, as I suspect, they need some refresher training, let me know and we'll work it out." Sophia thought, *what in Tartarus is going on here.* aloud she said, "I'll see to it." Eponin then turned back to Cyrene and Hecuba, "The cooks told me that with everything going on today, evening meal is running a bit late. Said it should start about dusk. Ask anyone where the food hut is, they'll show you. We'll see you there."

After they left, Cyrene invited Hecuba to sit down for a bit. "When we woke up this morning, if we'd told anyone today would be like this." Hecuba finished, "We'd be in the asylum. Feels halfway between coming home and a nightmare." Cyrene said "I keep wondering when I'll wake up. I'd just finished lunch at the inn, a Goddess showed up and all Tartarus breaks loose." Hecuba forced a smile, "There's 48 candlemarks in a day, we've been here maybe 10. What happens next?" Cyrene hugged her, "Maybe we check out these bundles." She opened hers. "By the Gods, they've got to be kidding."

Hecuba looked and told her "Been a long time, but I will if you will." Cyrene said "been a while for me too. Not since shortly after I met you." "Xena was a child then," "I still have a set of leathers and my mask packed away, the kids never saw then." She closed her eyes, "Once in a while I'd wear them for Hades. I always knew he was a good man, but wow." Hecuba smiled at her, "That how you knew he had a soft spot for Amazons?" Cyrene just smiled. Hecuba laughed, "Okay, lets do it. Come over when you're ready."

All conversation stopped when two middle aged women in leathers walked into the food hut. At the head table, Eponin stood up. "I'd like to introduce Hecuba and Cyrene, who have returned to the village for an extended stay. As many of you know, Hecuba was the mother of Queen Gabrielle and is therefore royalty. Cyrene is Xena's mother, and however you stand on that issue, SHE is an honored elder and to be given every courtesy. Thank you for your attention, enjoy your meal." Delia walked over to them "Krystina and I are sitting over here, would you care to join us." Cyrene answered, "We'd be honored." After receiving generous portions of stew, bread and mugs of cider from the cooks, they joined them, and further introductions were made. There was pleasant conversation during the meal, and both were made to feel welcome.

Cyrene found it difficult to sleep in the strange, yet familliar, surroundings of the Amazon Village. Rising well before dawn she walked to the food hut where the cooks were getting ready for the morning meal. Accepting the tea offered her by a grim faced woman, she sat quietly, trying to sort out the previous day. After a few moments she found the same woman sitting across from her.

The woman introduced herself as Phoebe, "do you want to talk about it?" Cyrene tried to smile, but couldn't. Phoebe did manage a smile, then got up and went into the kitchen. For a moment Cyrene thought she'd offended the woman, and wondered how to apologize. Then she returned with two mugs and a plate of warm bread, fresh cheese, and fruit. "Worry takes a lot of strength." Recognizing her own tactic, Cyrene gave in and began talking.

Phoebe proved a good listener. In the end Cyrene apologized for keeping her from her work. "Happens a lot, think nothing of it. Besides I got plenty of help." Cyrene was startled by that, then realized Phoebe was doing the same as she did nightly at the inn. Phoebe confirmed that, saying, "lots of times, we let pride get in the way. We think we can handle everything, then take it out on ourselves when we can't." Cyrene nodded. Phoebe continued, "Some hurt builds up, they can't stand it, can't get it out, so they take it out either on someone else like your daughter, or themselves like the queen." Phoebe took on a strange expression at that last, and remained silent for several moments. Finally she said, "I want to tell you a story."

****************************************************************** ***
Later that morning the trial started again. Cyrene felt her heart sink at the sight of her daughter being led before the platform in chains.

Several witnesses were called and gave testimony about the attack. Kayla confirmed Ephiny's orders, and described their attempt to stop Xena on the approach. This was a critical point, because an unprovoked assault on the regent could be considered treason, and punishable by death. Xena had not struck a blow until after the order to stop her had been given. The intentions of the spear line should have made the situation obvious to her. The charge of treasonous assault against the regent Ephiny was reduced to resisting arrest with violence resulting in injuries.

Delia testified to the various injuries she had treated after the attack, noting with pride that no one had been killed. Evidence from Gabrielle's scrolls and the transcript of the previous hearing, almost three moons before, was placed into the record.

After the noon meal, Xena was sworn and questioned in detail about everything related to the attack, her arrest and everything in between. The one exception, Xena noted with relief, was that Eponin and the council were so far carefully avoiding any mention of Scythia.

That night Xena's defense advisor visited her at the jail and went over several points raised that day. A priestess mentored in law, Phaedra had been introduced to Xena only after the council meetings at the temple, when a horrified Eponin realized that she had no one assisting her in her defense. Krystina had been equally horrified and brought Phaedra to the hospice. "In a capital case Ephiny should have appointed someone right away. If I'd realized she hadn't -" Xena had shaken her head, "I don't have a defense. I had just figured to plead guilty, and accept the courts judgement." The scowling priestess had bluntly informed her. "That's a damn good way to get yourself hung. Your first lesson in criminal law. The prosecutor will always press for the top charge, but in a csae like yours there's a lot of lesser ones between there and innocent, that don't involve the death penalty. The defense mission is to prove to the jury that one of those is more appropriate."

The next morning Phaedra was ready. She began by reading several passages from Gabrielles diaries, which confirmed that she and Xena had been lovers for some time prior to the attack. Other passages, in both Gabrielle's diary and scrolls, told of Illusia, and hinted strongly at the involvement of a God in the tragic chain of events leading to her death. Xena's defense adviser argued that under Amazon law Xena and Gabrielle's relationship as bondmates took precedence over Gabrielle's status as queen." Again objection was heard and Eponin refered the question to the council They agreed with Xena's advisor. Without further objection, the charge of treasonous assault against a queen was reduced to brutality against a bondmate. Asked to plead to the new charge, Xena quietly answered guilty.

Finally Eponin asked the council if any member had further questions. Several did, then after Xena's advisor summarized her case, the council retired to consider it's verdict. It didn't take long. Xena listened silently as Eponin pronounced her not guilty, due to circumstances of treasonous assault on Queen and regent. Guilty of brutality towards, and the attempted murder of, a bondmate. She was also found guilty, as expected, of resisting arrest with violence, a separate count of resisting arrest with violence resulting in permanent injuries, and horse theft. Finally Eponin read, "The council notes as an aggravating factor, that these crimes took place within a religeous area, disrupting a ritual being undergone by the defendants bondmate."

Eponin held up her hand, "The defendant Xena, daughter of Cyrene, stands convicted of several serious crimes, including crimes of violence, all of which arise from a single incident. I call the head of the council to come forward, and briefly explain the law regarding sentencing in such cases."

Niobe stepped up to the front of the platform. "Amazon law recognizes that the situation described by her majesty is often the case. Resisting arrest, while a serious crime of itself, is by it's very nature almost never an isolated crime. Assault with intent to do serious bodily harm is a necessary component to any murder. Three provisions of our law deal specifically with such cases."

A strange silence fell over the crowd, as even the small group of agitators became fixed on Niobe's words. "In cases where one crime carries a far more severe penalty than the others, the punishment for it is often considered to satisfy the lesser crimes as well. This is almost always the case with the death penalty, and often with banishment."

Niobe paused for a breath. Looking out over the sea of faces she saw a wide mix of emotion. Though standing before the platform in chains, Xena appeared to have the most calm of anyone. Cyrene looked resigned, while Hecuba seemed haunted by the whole affair. Remembering the death of her own daughter in battle, Niobe's heart went out to the woman.*How much can any one woman take?*

One of the agitating warriors shouted, "enough with the lecture, get on with it." Eponin made a mental note of the woman, as Ariana again called for silence.

Niobe looked to Eponin and receiving a nod continued. "In a case such as this, where the crimes of the defendant are related and none seriously outweigh the other, the law permits her majesty to assess a combined punishment, more severe than would be permitted under our law for any of them taken alone. The only restrictions are that she may not assess a death penalty where none of the individual crimes would call for it. Nor may she exceed the combined maximum penalty prescribed by law for the two most serious of the defendants crimes."

Krystina and Eponin had already explained this to Xena, showing her the relevant scrolls. Once again the fairness of Amazon law struck her, as did the signature and seal on the scroll. Krystina had smiled, "Melosa was tough but she was fair." Xena said quietly, No offense, but for a moment I thought you'd set that up for me. Eponin told her firmly, "I do take offense at that Xena. I thought you knew us better than that." "I'm sorry, I must not have been thinking." Eeponin calmed slightly, "Your apology is noted, but since it's slipped your alleged mind, let me remind you that we're a nation of laws, and they're the same for everyone from the queen on down. We don't change them to suit our whim, and they don't apply to crimes committed before they're passed."

While Niobe read the laws of sentencing Eponin considered her options. Knowing what the council had agreed helped, but there were added factors. They had not planned for the second charge of resisting arrest, and that carried a compulsory whipping. The aggravating factor was one she'd hoped to ease past, now it too had to be factored in.

Eponin looked at the sun. It was already well past mid afternoon. The next phase was bound to be controversial, and there were other matters to deal with. Casting a questioning glance at Tyldus, she looked again at the sun, and then back to him. Getting a shrug in reply, she decided. "Trial will recess until midmorning, when the court will entertain pleas prior to passing sentence."

As the crowd thinned, Delia took Cyrene and Hecuba to the hospice for the health check done for all new arrivals. When they arrived, she explained that while Kayla wasn't officially an apprentice, she was learning the healers art. "Do either of you mind her helping?" Neither did. "Fine. Alicia you take Cyrene, and I'll take Hecuba. Kayla, you're with me." Finally, the examinations complete, she pronounced both "sound of wind and limb."

Eponin walked in as the two women were leaving. "How are they?" Delia ushered her into the back, "Either one's old enough to be my mother, and if I'm in half that good a shape when I'm their age, I'll consider myself blessed." Eponin remembered Cyrene telling her about the drink they'd shared with Artemis and Hades. "Maybe they are blessed. Delia, before you give me the report, you got anything for a splitting headache?"

Eponin drank the willow bark tea, then at Delia's insistance lay down on Xena's bunk with a damp cloth over her eyes. Sitting up a candlemark later, she thanked Delia and asked her, "sounds like they're both healthy. Any surprises?" "None with Cyrene" "Tell me about her."

Delia sat back, "Well, she's 51, doesn't know her birthday, but celebrates it on the summer solstice." Eponin nodded, "according to the council records, she was found in the early fall, and looked to be about 3 or 4 moons old at the time." She shook her head and immediately regretted it. "No matter how many we find, I'll never get used to it." Delia shook her head sadly, "I know, I just try not to think of the ones we don't. Eponin, why don't you lay back down for a bit?"

Eponin put the cloth back over her eyes, "I'll be okay" "Alright, Cyrene stands three and three quarter cubits, weighs 10 stone, appears to be strong as an ox. She's had five pregnancies, two sons, one daughter, two miscarriages, and stopped cycling about five summers ago." "Lucky her." "Yeah. Moving on, her heart and wind are fine. No trace of dropsy or consumption. Eyes, hearing and balance are great. She's got a.few battle type scars, but no major illnesses or complaints." "So no real problems?" "None that I could find. She's even got all her teeth and they're in good shape." "What about Hecuba?"

Delia stood up and began to pace, "That woman is a walking contradiction. She's 47, birthdays two moons after the winter solstice. Stands three and a half cubits, and weighs just over eight and a half stone. Four pregnancies, three daughters, one early miscarriage. Still cycles but not regularly. I'd say she's getting ready to stop."

Delia stopped pacing and leaned back against the doorframe. "She say's she hasn't seen a healer in over twenty cycles, but her overall health, heart, wind, etc is pretty good. She's missing three teeth. She said they were knocked out in her teens. The woman may be small, but she has strength of an ox, the balance of a cat, and the hearing of a deer. Next to Ephiny, her eyesights the best I've ever seen." Eponin made a face, "Are you sure about that? I've seen Ephiny track in the dark, read messages when I could barely see the letters on the page."

Delia snapped back, "I wouldn't have said it if I wasn't." (More calmly) "I can't say anything about her night vision." "Sorry Delia, but you're making her sound like a demigoddess." "It wouldn't surprise me, especially since my twins sense tells me she's also an oracle." "Good grief! What else do I need to know?"

Delia shook her head. "You may have noticed that Krystina gave her a shirt." "I'd noticed, but I didn't know where she got it Scars?" Delia nodded, "They'e faded, but she's got the worse set of whip scars, I've ever seen." Eponin suppressed a shudder. "Quite a few battle scars, and enough around her sex that childbirth must have been pure agony." "Rape?" "She wouldn't discuss them, but my guess is yes, and more than a couple of times." Eponin felt her fists clench in outrage. "Anything else?" "Based on her story, I'd expected a banishment tattoo, so when I didn't find one I asked her about it." "What did she say?" "It wasn't lifetime, so they didn't put one on her. On the other hand, she's been branded, just like Krystina."

Eponin held up a hand, "Sounds like her story holds water." "It does." At that moment Alicia stuck her head in the room. "Excuse me. Delia, Kayla and I are headed over for supper." Eponin, her face a mix of emotions, asked them to wait. "All of you know the situation we're facing." The women nodded. "Apparently Artemis and Hades have long term interests in both Cyrene and Hecuba. Krystina too, as it turns out." Alicia sat down, "Eponin, how much wierder is this going to get?" Eponin put up her hands in response, "you're asking me? Anyway those gods filled them in on the situation, and they know it's likely to mean a fight. Krystina was there, and confirmed that Hades asked if they'd stay until it's resolved, and fight if it comes to that. When Cyrene and Hecuba told me about it, they asked for arms. Do any of you know of any reason why I shouldn't give them to them?"

Kayla broke the silence, "can they handle them at their age?" Eponin put a hand on her shoulder whispering, "When I suggested that to Cyrene, she practically handed me my head." Delia shook her head, "Hecuba's in a lot of pain, as both a widow and a mother. I'd like to see her work thru some of that before we get too far into this." Eponin nodded. "That's what I'm asking, is she stable enough that we can trust her?" Delia thought about it, "Trust her not to go on a rampage. Yes. Not to hurt herself, I don't know, but whatever else, that woman is a survivor."

Kayla cleared her throat, "if you ask me, and you did, I say trust her." "Why" "She hasn't given us any reason not to. Being in mourning isn't a crime, and if she wants to hurt herself, there's plenty of ways to do that whether she gets arms from us or not." Eponin nodded, "Alicia?" "I agree with Kayla. You made that decision at the trial when you accepted them as Amazons. Since they're both adults and neither is under sentence, they have an absolute right to the arms, and an absolute duty to bear them in defense of the nation and their queen." Eponin nodded solemnly, "so be it."

The food hut was crowded and noisy when Delia arrived. Krystina waved to her as she came off the serving line. "Saved a seat for you." Delia sank gratefully onto the bench, "Thank you." "No problem. I'm expecting Cyrene and Hecuba in a bit." "I know, we just finished their health checks. I hoped to have a chance to talk to you about Hecuba." Krystina put down her spoon, "how is she?"

Delia saw concern on the priestess's face, ""physically she's in good shape. I'm concerned about what the shock of the last few days might be doing to her." Krystina took a sip of cider as she considering her answer, "You've seen her scars?" Delia nodded. Krystina set down the mug, "They're nothing compared to the ones she has inside." "Those are the ones I'm concerned about."

The priestess tented her hands under her chin, "Scars are strange things, Delia. They can be badges of honor, or bitter reminders, but either way they fade with time. Sometimes they itch so badly you scratch them open and they have to heal all over again. Let me guess you're worried that she might not cope and wind up like Ephiny." Delia nodded. "That's about the size of it."

Krystina picked up her mug, "She won't, and" gesturing with the mug "that won't taste very good cold, so I suggest you eat." Delia picked up her spoon, "how can you be sure." "I've eaten cold lentils." "Krystina!" The priestess sighed, "I know what you meant. She's a grieving mother, a widow, and she needs time to heal. I'd be a lot more worried if she wasn't upset.." Delia's spoon stopped halfway to her mouth. "I don't follow." "These last couple of days, she's come full circle. She's been banished by an Amazon court, driven out of her tribe and lived as an outlaw. Now still a fugitive, she's back in Amazon leathers and considered royalty. Is it any wonder her head is spinning?"

Delia shook her head, "guess not." Krystina lowered her voice, "she's a lot better off here than she would be in Potadeia right now." "Why's that?" "It's not just what's happenning now that's the problem, it's how it relates to her own past. Here you and I can help her work thru the pain. There she has no one." "I thought she had another daughter." "She does. Her name is Lila and she knows nothing." "Friends?"

Krystina shook her head, "Friends? Consider what it took for her to stand up in court, and admit that she's a condemned criminal on the run." "It shocked a lot of people I'll tell you that." Krystina's eyes hardened, "Did it shock them 5,000 dinars worth? I hope not Delia, because last I knew that was the price on our heads," Delia's eyes widened in surprise, "half that's still a lot of money." (smiles) "Where would I. - what?"

Shocked, Delia stopped as Krystina grabbed her hand, "Don't! Not even as a joke." The priestess spoke softly, but her words rang of steel. "We've been friends a long time Delia, don't force me to kill you, or myself." Delia paled, and apologized. The priestess released her hand. "Delia, think about what you were saying. My head knows you were joking, but my guts hear it as a threat." "I didn't realize. I'd never... I'm sorry, can we just forget I said it." Krystina took a deep breath before answering. "Sorry, Delia, I can't." Delia stared at the table, and started to stand up slowly. Krystina again grabbed her hand. "You could at least hear me out." Fighting tears, the healer pushed her bowl to one side. "We've been friends for so long, One bad joke." "We're still friends." The priestess pushed Delia's mug in front of her. "Just listen for a moment, okay." Delia nodded.

Krystina's face became a mask as she considered how to begin, "Delia, what do you really know about me?" "Just what you've told me. You're a caring woman, a priestess, not a bad archer, -" Krystina looked amused, "do you know my name?" Delia looked shocked, "Krystina, of course." "That's the name I use now. What about my real name, the one I was born with?" "I don't think you ever told me." Krystina sighed, "You're right I haven't, and far as I know there's only three people alive who know it. Hecuba's one of them." "Xena and her mother are the other two?" "Yes"

Krystina again rested her chin on her fists. "You're right, half of 5000 dinars is a lot of money. That's the whole idea of posting a reward, it's supposed to be tempting. But Delia that 5000 dinars isn't for both of us, it's on each of us, and it's dead or alive." Delia's jaw dropped. Krystina went on, "Look at it from my side, push comes to shove, can I ever be sure a friend won't be tempted or desperate enough to turn me in. Can I ever be sure the people I care about won't be tortured by bounty hunters alerted by a careless slip of the tongue?"

She reached across the table, "There's not a healer or temple outside the Amazon world, and damn few within, that Hecuba *or I* can trust with enough of her story to let them know what's really bothering her." She looked over Delia's shoulder. "They're coming this way, maybe we could continue this later?"

The trial resumed the next morning. As his name was called, Tyldus stepped forward, and again objection was heard. Eponin expected it, and had discussed the possibility with the Centaur earlier. Overruling the objection, she explained patiently, Tyldus could give testimony useful in determining Xena's mental state and motivation at the time of her attack. Both would be important considerations when deciding whether or not leniency should be granted.

The warriors faction tried one last tactic, could a Centaur be sworn as required by Amazon law. When asked, 'would he swear by Artemis' Tyldus readily agreed. "In every Centaur's hut you will find a shrine, Artemis has a place on mine as the protectress of my daughter in law and grandson. She is worthy of respect, and I will gladly give my oath by her." Eponin announced "Objection overruled."

Tyldus was sworn. He told of the events in the centaur village surrounding the deaths of both Xena and Gabrielle's children. He told how Xena had grown distraught and irrational after the death of her son. He asked leniency for her, saying no newly grieving mother should be held fully responsible for her actions. Certainly not against one who, whether rightly or wrongly, she felt responsible for her child's death.

Hecuba stepped forward. Eponin reminded her of her previous oath. She told how, only three days before, she had learned of the deaths of, both her daughter, and a granddaughter she had never known. She remembered her fury at the murderers of her first child, and agreed that Xena couldn't have been fully responsible for her actions.

She cited her own rebellious youth. "I was jailed 3 moons for petty theft when I was 16. It opened my eyes, I came out wanting to change, but I was never given a chance. Shunned and treated as a criminal, I lived an outcast in my own tribe. Finally I gave up trying, and lived down to every one of their expectations. Fighting and drunken insubordination got me whipped and 6 moons at hard labor when I was 18. Shortly before I turned 20 they got tired of punishing me. After a final whipping, I was put on a horse and banished for ten cycles.

By the time Krystina's band took me in, I was ready to take my own life. They, Cyrene, and finally this village gave me a chance to win back my soul. They knew my past, still they and you, gave me a chance to prove myself. The priestesses in both helped me sort out the pain and bitterness. It was what I needed to turn my life around. As the grieving mother of her intended victim, I ask leniency for Xena, due to the facts surrounding her crimes. Give her the same chance you once gave me."

Lastly Delia stood up and told of Xena's work as a healer while awaiting trial. How she had saved lives and shown remorse for her actions. She asked that Xena be punished in some way which allowed her to stay in the village, reminding them that it was short a healer. Xena's skills, she said, were as good as any healer she had ever worked with. Her talents might better serve the community working on condition in her hospice than on a labor squad. She also told them, that in her opinion, Xena needed some spiritual healing.

Finally Eponin asked, "Healer, if I sentence Xena to service as you suggest, are you willing to continue to accept responsibility for her conduct, under conditions similar to those of her pretrial release?" Delia answered instantly, "I most certainly am."

Eponin then asked, "Xena have you anything to say before I pass sentence." She looked down at her manacled wrists and answered quietly, "No your majesty."

Eponin lowered her mask,"Xena daughter of - " Hearing Eponin begin to pass sentence a warrior shouted "Your majesty, I object" Xena felt her muscles tense, as a thoroughly disgusted Eponin raised her mask and ordered the woman forward. The woman began to identify herself. "Don't bother, after the last three days, I know exactly who you are." "I'm flattered your majesty." "Don't be, what are you objecting to this time?"

The warrior pointed an accusing finger at Xena, "your majesty, I object to your sentencing this defendant, at this time, on the gounds of fairness." Eponin looked directly at her, "are you questioning the fairness of this trial? The warrior drew herself fully erect, "Your majesty called for those who sought leniecy for the - criminal - now standing before you. On the grounds of simple fairness, I object to your passing sentence on her, without giving those who oppose leniency a chance to voice their pleas as well." Xena's advisor started to object, "your majesty, -" but Xena whispered, "No, it's fair."

Eponin sat down for a moment feeling trapped. What the woman was demanding was fair, so unless she sustained the objection she would most likely face a challenge. Still she had the uncomfortable feeling that a lot of hard council work was about to come undone. Now how could she prevent this from turning into either a circus or a lynching. Looking at Xena, she saw a stone mask of resignation. Krystina whispered, "Don't rule yet, Call a break."

Eponin stood up and called for quiet, "What you're asking is so unheard of that I'm neither prepared to rule on it, or sure if it's permitted by law. This trial will recess until midafternoon, at which time I will rule on your objection." The objecting warrior bowed, smugly saying, "Thank you, your majesty."

Xena was taken back to jail, and while most of the village took the noon meal, the council met in emergency session. Many silently thanked the gods that none of the charges Xena had been convicted of carried a possible death penalty. Finding that the law didn't mention the issue either way, Eponin again felt trapped. Finally she asked, "how do we keep this from turning into a judicial lynching or a challenge?" Several of the council members weighed in on the issue.

The drums signaled the resumption of Xena's trial. After Ariana, chief council scribe had obtained quiet. Eponin called the warrior who had objected that morning. At Phaedra's urging Xena studied her features carefully and found that she did not recognize her. At Eponin's order the warrior restated her objection. For once there was silence as Eponin rose to rule.

Facing the warrior she stated in a clear voice, "The prisoner stands convicted of serious crimes. The possible penalties she faces are among the most severe permitted by our law. While not required, it is customary to permit pleas for leniency in such cases. Their purpose is to reveal any special circumstances which might indicate that less than the maximum penalty is called for." Xena listened with interest, as Eponin spoke. Glancing towards her mother, she saw her pained expression and thought, "just get it over with." She saw Hecuba staring at her, and found that she was unable to meet her eyes.

Eponin concluded, "I will sustain your objection, but in fairness I will limit such pleas to the victims of the defendants crimes, and their famillies of blood." Xena's advisor stood, "your majesty, the defense will not object to this ruling. However we would ask that your majesty specify that any such pleas be based on the matters now before us." "Agreed." The warrior stood silently for a moment as she debated her next move. She had won her objection, but lost. Neither she, nor any member of her group, was a victim or family member of one. Indeed the main victims mother had already issued a plea on Xena's behalf.

Help came from a totally unsuspected source, as yet another warrior stepped forward. "Your majesty, I would speak on behalf of Queen Ephiny, a direct victim of this woman's attack, who is unable to attend this trial due to illness." Though Eponin felt her temper flare, she struggled to maintain outward calm. "Who are you?" The woman identified herself only as Raisa. Eponin told her "Queen Ephiny's only blood relative is a minor son. His guardian grandfather has already testified. On what do you base your claim?"

The woman produced a folded sheet of parchment. Holding it up she said smugly, "this parchment in the queen's own hand, names me her representative at this trial." Eponin signaled one the guards to bring the parchment to the platform. Recognizing Ephiny's handwriting and signature, she passed the note to Niobe whispering, "what do I do now?" Phaedra approached the platform. Her face darkened as she read the note, "It's her signiture alright." "I know, so if you've got a sustainable objection I'd love to hear it." "You've got it."

Phaedra returned to stand beside Xena. "Your majesty." Eponin bowed, "advisor for the defense." "If it please the court. The defense asks that you reject this womans note, and the appointment it represents, because it was improperly issued. Queen Ephiny has been ruled by competent authority to be without the ability to reason. This ruling strips her of the right to issue orders, authorizations or appointments, until the council rules that her reason is restored."

Heartened Eponin rose, addressing the woman who had presented the note. "Raisa, you have heard the explanation of law given us by the defense advisor. Do you wish to add anything before I rule." (Draws herself up haughtily) "Your majesty, might I briefly question this woman (pointing to Xena's advisor) regarding her explanation of law." Seeing Phaedra shrug, Eponin yielded, "make it brief." "does the law also explain the proper procedure for obtaining authority to represent someone in the queens position." "It does." "In a single matter, not involving adoption, or the exchange of money, goods or lands, could the queens authorization to represent her be considered valid, if presented to the council, and countersigned by one of it's members." "Yes." Eponin felt her heart sink, as a voice behind her called out. "I'll sign it your majesty. Let her speak."

Xena looked to her advisor, "sounds like somebodies determined to get me hung." "Won't come to that, Xena. Trust me, this is a long ways from over."

The mysterious Raisa faced the platform. "Ephiny, daughter of Erisa, Queen of this nation was injured in the attack on this village for which that woman, (points to Xena) is on trial. She reminds you that prior to her illness, she had judged the defendant guilty of assaulting and kidnaping our late queen, both capitol offenses, and had signed a warrant for her execution. The warrant was set aside due to a minor flaw, as was her summary judgement when it was determined that the defendant, despite her numerous protests to the contrary, was indeed an Amazon and therefore entitled to a full trial."

She turned to face the platform, "one can only wonder why this woman denies her Amazon heritage? Is she ashamed to be called a part of this proud nation? Or does Xena, the Shamaness, deny her heritage, hoping to hide behind our law, that shields a woman from her pre Amazon past? Could the reason be her slaughter of our Scythian sisters who bid her welcome. Or could it be the murder of our own friends and relatives by her troops ten summers ago? Whatever the reason, her attack on this village, far from being a single moment of grief fueled insanity, is part of the bloody pattern that this (points an accusing finger at Xena) this traitor has woven across Amazon territories for the last eleven summers."

"Queen Ephiny is distressed by the fact, that though the entire council knew of these heinous crimes, the defendant was not charged with any of them. That during this entire trial not one of them has even been mentioned until now."

"Queen Ephiny and I disagree with those who argue that Xena should be excused for the attack at issue. We concede the possibility that she might have been momentarily without reason when she attacked us. She was, after all, a grief stricken mother at the time. Some have argued that her good works here since her arrest, have earned her a second chance. In view of the defendants history, we disagree, and feel that she should be dealt with like the mad dog she is."

"We are a nation of laws. Xena is a career criminal, and we have laws to deal with the likes of her. Will you hear about those during this trial? I think not. On behalf of Queen Ephiny, I challenge the court to read us that law, and have the courage to act on it."

"Queen Ephiny further wishes to point out, that unless the council and her regent, are prepared to act on all of this woman's crimes against the nation, they become accomplices to her treason."

She turned to face a seething Eponin, "Your majesty, on behalf of Queen Ephiny, I thank you for granting me the opportunity to speak."

Phaedra whispered in Xena's ear, "I'm going to get us some time." "Why bother, she's backed Eponin into a corner, and I'm dead." "Like I said, this isn't over. We may have to haggle, but this isn't going to end on the gallows if I can help it."

The priestess faced the platform, "Your majesty, because of the serious accusations made by this woman against the defendent, our entire leadership, and the strong emotions they appear to have raised, I have several requests." "You may proceed."

"First, in view of the gravity of these charges, and the serious questions raised by her entire statement. I demand the right to question the last speaker under oath." Raisa turned defiantly to the platform. "Your majesty I object, none of the other speakers have been called to defend their statements." Phaedra held firm, "None of the others made accusations of capital crimes. None of the others plotted to force the court into letting them speak. This is obviously a planned attempt to bypass justice and force her majesties hand. I strongly urge the court to investigate this matter fully."

The woman screamed, "You want me questioned, for what? Telling the ugly truth about your client. Have you questioned her on these matters? Does she deny the charges? Do any of you?' Eponin called "ENOUGH! The defense request is granted. You will be questioned about these matters. Advisor for the defense, what is your next request?"

"Your majesty, due to this woman's obvious reluctance to answer questions, I ask that she held in custody, to assure her availability for questioning, and any further proceedings." Eponin forced a tight smile, "Granted." (turns to Raisa.) "You are ordered held until the investigation of these matters is completed." "NO!"

The woman tried to run, but two royal guards pulled her to the ground and disarmed her. Eponin ordered, "Captain of the guard, take charge of that woman" Solari pulled manacles from her belt pouch, and swiftly fastened Raisa's hands behind her back. Eponin spoke quietly, "like some help getting her to jail?" "these women?" Eponin turned to the guards holding Raisa, "assist the captain" "Your orders, ma'am?" "Take her away."

As the struggling woman was led off, Eponin called Phaedra to the platform. Speaking in a whisper, "Your majesty?" "We're going to need time." "I was going to ask for a recess until the day after tomorrow, but now- " "How's three days sound?" "Should be enough, especially if we can work together." "I look forward to it. Take a moment to tell Xena what's up, then make your motion."

Phaedra returned to Xena's side, and quickly filled her in. That done she stepped forward, "Your majesty. The defense requests that the trial be recessed, and sentencing be delayed, until a proper investigation of these new allegations can be completed." Eponin let out a sigh of relief, "Request granted, the trial will be in recess until such time. The defendant is remanded to custody." Ariana banged her staff and repeated the announcement. Eponin turned to the council " there'll be a meeting tomorrow, two candlemarks after breakfast in the council hut. Be there!" Before anyone could argue, she turned on her heel and left the platform

The guards at the jail opened the door for Raisa and her escorts. "What's she charged with?" "Nothing, her name's Raisa, the queen wants her held as a witness in Xena's trial." "Witness, I thought they were going to sentence her this afternoon?" "So did I. But when the queen asked for pleas, this one made some wild accusations, and doesn't want to answer any questions."

Raisa tried to pull away, "They're true, I tell you." The guard tried to calm the agitated woman, "Settle down, you're only making things worse for yourself." Raisa quit struggling. "That's better. Look, whatever it feels like, this isn't the end of the world." Raisa looked at the cell doors, "then why does it feel that way?" The royal guard who had brought Raisa in spoke to her softly, "Right now they haven't charged you with anything, the queen just wants you to answer some questions." Raisa's eyes closed tightly, as she fought back tears. "Look, make things easy on yourself, cooperate with these women, answer the queen's questions, and you should be out of here in no time."

The guard said quietly, "that's good advice, I hope you're listening." When Raisa nodded tightly, she turned to the others, "any idea how soon they're bringing Xena back?" One shrugged, "Who knows, her advisor and the queen were talking when we left." "Better get this one settled then." "Need us to stick around?" "Nah, Thanks for the offer, but we'll take it from here."

One of the royal guardswomen looked back as they were walking away from the jail. "I've got a bad feeling about this, that one's scared out of her mind." The other shook her head, "I know. I just hope she doesn't do anything stupid."

Cyrene caught up with Phaedra as she was leaving the square. "How bad is it?" The tired woman kneaded her forehead before answering. "It isn't good, but beyond that I just don't know yet. " Cyrene was on the verge of tears, "I know you'll do what you can but, treason, murder?" "Ma'am, they can accuse her of anything they want, but proving it's another matter. After I talk to your daughter, and this Raisa answers some questions, we'll have a better idea what's going on, and what to do about it. Like I told your daughter, this is only beginning, and it's not going to end on the gallows if I can help it." "If I can help?" "I'll be sure to let you know."

In her quarters, Eponin began pacing, "Krystina no matter which way you look at this one, we're trapped. After all we've done to get Xena a fair trial, we're trapped, and she's dead unless we can find a way out of it." She stopped and turned around, "and even if we do get out of this one, what are they going to pull next?" A knock interrupted, "come in." Solari entered and went to one knee, "your majesty." Eponin froze, knowing in her guts that the formal greeting, and grim expression could mean only one thing - trouble.

Eponin sank into a chair, wailing "just tell me Solari, whatever it is, would you please just get off your knees and tell me." Solari stood up, "Raisa, the woman you just sent to jail, is dead." Eponin jumped up, "WHAT?" "HOW?" Solari swallowed hard, "She attacked the guards, tried to run." (Eponin groans) "She was shot trying to avoid recapture."

Eponin buried her face in her hands, "What shape are the guards in? Can they talk?" "Two have concussions, and one of them's out cold. Third had a dislocated knee, Alicia says she'll be alright in a few days." "What did she say about the others. She's keeping the one that's out. Sophia's getting statements from the other two." Eponin lifted her head, "We put murderers and people sentenced to death in that jail without having to shoot them. A witness makes damming accusations against the council So what do we do? We put her in jail and shoot her trying to escape." Solari turned red faced to Eponin, "She attacked three guards, stole a crossbow, and tried to run, dammit. So don't you dare blame my people."

Krystina stepped between the two women. "You're both in shock, and she obviously had something to hide." She held up a hand for peace, "we have to find out what that was. So Eponin, why don't you and I sit down, while Solari starts at the beginning and tells us exactly what happened."

Once Eponin and Krystina were seated Solari began, "Raisa struggled all the way to jail. The guards there say she was pretty shook, so they talked to her, tried to calm her down a bit. It seemed to be working, so they told the guards that took her in that it was okay to take off. They said that when they left Raisa's hands were still cuffed behind her. The one with the dislocated knee says Raisa mule kicked her while she was taking the manacles off. Then she swung on the second inside guard, and knocked her out.

The first guards on the floor screaming for help. The outside guard heard her, and met Raisa at the door with a crossbow, just as she's going out. They struggled, Raisa got the weapon, clobbered the guard, and ran. Patrol sees the Raisa running from the jail, and started chasing her yelling "escaped prisoner, stop her." Two archers, coming off patrol, hear them, see her, and try to head her off. Well, Raisa's got iron dangling from her wrist, a weapon in her hands, and the inside patrol chasing her, so she's obviously an escapee. One of the archers yells "halt," and puts an arrow in the ground in front of her. Damn fool Raisa was still holding the crossbow when she spun around to see where the arrow came from. That's when the second archer put one in her chest. Delia says she was probably dead before she hit the ground."

Eponin leaned on her hand, "Talk about a screwed up mess. You said Sophia's getting statements?" "She's talking to the guards. Ariana, and a couple of council scribes are helping with the archers and witnesses." She looked to the priestess, "Speaking of archers, Krystina, the one that took Raisa down, is at the hospice. It was her first kill, and she's taking it pretty hard." Krystina nodded, "I'll talk to her." CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The next morning Eponin walked up to Cyrene and Hecuba as they were finishing breakfast. "I was planning to take you to the armory last night, but things just got too crazy. This morning I want you to draw weapons, Sophia will start checking you out on them this afternoon. I'll try to be there, but I've got a council meeting this morning, so we'll have to see how it goes." Reaching into a pouch at her belt, "but first" she produced two feathered hair ornaments "we've got to get you dressed properly. Delia, Krystina would you do the honors."

Hecuba pulled back in horror, as Krystina moved to place a blue and silver beaded ornament into her hair. Surprised by her reaction, Krystina whispered. "Hecuba what's wrong?" "There's been a mistake, I can't wear royal colors." Eponin stepped in, "Why not? You raised a beautiful daughter that became a great queen." "That makes me a mother, not royalty." "By our way of thinking, that makes you both." Krystina threw her arms around her, "I never told her that I knew you, but I know she'd have wanted you to have it." Hecuba was on the verge of tears. Eponin said softly, "wear it in her memory." Hecuba nodded, and Krystina gently fastened the ornament into her hair. "We'll talk about it later, okay."

Delia took a black and bronze beaded ornament from Eponin, and tied it into Cyrene's hair. "welcome home, sister." Before Cyrene could reply, Delia's arms closed around her. All around the hut, women stopped eating, and cheered.

The sun was still low in the sky when they arrived at the armory. Eponin told them, "Usually I'm the weapons mistress, but I've been saddled with the queen's job since Queen Ephiny's been ill, so my assistant Sophia's taken over the place. Anything you need see either her, Solari, or myself."

The guard held the door as they entered the long low building. Stacked against the torch lit walls was a large selection of spears, quarterstaves, and bows. Rows of swords, and chobos lay on deep shelves. Crossbows and axes, hung from hooks, and racks. Stacked in the center of the building were cases of arrows, bow staves and bundles of arrow shafts. The aromas of various woods and leather filled the air.

Eponin spread her arms, "pretty impressive, don't you think." Sophia half smiled, "everything the well dressed warrior could want." Eponin smiled, "I've got things to do so I'll leave you in Sophia's capable hands." Sophia scowled, "sure thing chief, duck out on me when there's work to be done." "I'm sure you'll manage without me."

Sophia turned her back,. "Ladies, why don't you look around, while I deal with the riff raff." Over her shoulder Cyrene could see Eponin struggling to hold in her laughter. It was obvious that the two women were old friends. "I'll give you riff raff. Ladies a word of caution, if this pirate tries to shake your hand, count your fingers afterwards." Sophia advanced on her, making sweeping motions with her hands, "go on, get out of here before you scare off my first victims, oops I mean customers of the day." Eponin thumbed her nose, "be that way, I'll take my business elsewhere."

When Eponin had gone, Sophia sat down on an arrow case. "This has been her domain for a long time. Queen Ephiny, you know about her?" Both women nodded. "They're lovers, and Eponin's taking her illness pretty hard. She got stuck with the mask, and she's been driving herself ever since. I think this is the only place she feels comfortable letting her hair down. By the way, don't try calling her chief, I'm the only one gets away with that. In public she's the queen, but in here (her eyes twinkled) she's fair game."

She turned to Cyrene, "I'm sure the last few days have been rough, but whatever it may sound like, nobody here hates your daughter. I want you to know that, and that we don't hold her problems against you." "I know, but thank you for saying it." Sophia nodded. "I think the trial's been an eye opener for a lot of people. Knowing why it happened doesn't make it right, but it'll make it a lot easier to give her a second chance later." Cyrene nodded, "Thank you"

Sophia turned to Hecuba, "Your daughter's death saddened us all. She knew when to fight, and how to make peace. She'll go down in the scrolls as a great queen." "Thank you." Sophia fidgeted nervously, "Hecuba, I've lost two children, so I've got some idea what you must be going thru. You've got a good friend in the high priestess, I don't think I'd have survived it without her. She knew when to talk, when to listen and when to just let me cry." (sighs) "Nothing but time will really help, but if you need to talk, you know where to find me." Tears filled Hecuba's eyes, "Thank you. If it's not too painful?"

Sophia's eyes grew damp, "My daughter died in her sleep just a moon before her first birthday. I went to nurse her, and she was just dead." She ran her arm over her eyes, "The lung fever took my son last winter. He was living across the river with the Centaurs." She looked to Cyrene, "my son and your grandson were the same age and close friends. I knew him too." "What was he like?" " Your grandson was a good boy, intelligent, caring, well mannered. The kind of influence you want your children to grow up around. You'd have been proud of him." Cyrene choked up as words failed her. Sophia cautiously put a hand on her shoulder. "You're welcome."

After a few moments of silence Sophia stood up. "I think we'd best pull ourselves together. Are both of you alright? For now at least." Both women nodded, Sophia turned to the racks, "then we might as well get started. Eponin said you were both archers?"

Stepping over to the rack she selected two bows. "We try to get them all about 3 1/4 cubits and 3 O stone draw." She passed them to the women, showing them the markings on the side. Stringing the bows Cyrene and Hecuba examined them critically. Testing their draw, they told Sophia the bows were to their liking.

Handing each a heavy leather bracer, Sophia asked, "Next we have quivers, you like hip or shoulder?" Hecuba shook her head, "shoulder definitely, sheepskin if you got it." Sophia was surprised. "Sheepskin?" "A band of it inside the mouth keeps the arrows from rattling, helps when you're trying to sneak up on something." Sophia scratched her head, "I'll have to give it a try. Cyrene, how about you?" Cyrene was equally positive in her choice, "Shoulder, less likely to get caught on something if I gotta move fast."

Sophia pulled two off the shelf, then opened a case and withdrew two bundles of arrows. "There's a score of arrows in each bundle, 25 bundles in each case." She helped the women adjust their quivers, "I don't know what they've got planned for you, but Eponin wants me to check you out personally. I'll be busy this morning, and I've got a class right after noon meal, lasts a couple candlemarks. If you can meet me at the practice field after that, I'll arrange for you to try them out."

Moving thru the armory, she handed each a weapons belt and baldric, then a long dagger with belt sheath. Next came side packs with a shoulder strap, "right this way." She added a sharpening stone, block of beeswax, spare bowstring, fire flints and a wide rolled bandage to each pack.

Sophia sat back down, "I know you're both old hands at this, but I'm going to explain anyway. Two long blasts on the rams horn means all able bodied warriors turn out. Muster point is the food hut, and you'll have a candlemark from the second blast to get there. If you're outside the walls, do the best you can, and make sure the sentries record your arrival. Turnout gear is weapons, a blanket, waterskin, tinder kit and that bag. We'll issue trail rations, water, and extra arrows if you need them."

Sophia's face became grim, "Three short blasts, repeated over and over, means enemy troops are in sight of the walls, and we're either under attack or about to be. You hear that one, drop everything, grab your weapons and come running." (pause for emphasis) "And I do mean everything. I don't care if you're in bed, the baths, or the outhouse. If you've got to come stark naked, do it. If you have an assigned position, go there. If not head for the food hut, or temple whichever's closest, and you'll be given orders there."

Sophia stood up, "I should warn you, missing a turn out, without a good reason, is punishable as insubordination." Cyrene asked, " what do you consider good reasons?" "You're on the sick list, pregnant, (Cyrene chuckled) in jail and that includes visiting." "Huh" "Covers being late, since you'd be unarmed, and have to wait for someone to let you out. If you're involved in a temple ritual, we don't want you offending the goddess by running out on her. Any questions?"

Cyrene smiled sweetly, "would having to kick somebody out of bed count?" Sophia pulled in a breath, "Cyrene, just how old are you?" "Old enough to be your mother, what's that got to do with it?" Sophia face turned bright red. Hecuba chuckled, "Cyrene, you know there's nothing like a good fight to (soft voice, panting) work up a good hot sweaty lust." Cyrene winked at her, "great idea, drag her along, get her juices flowing, then (pause) work it off like true Amazons." "Yeah"

Shaking a finger Sophia found her voice, "You two - I - uh - " she drew herself up, "glad we got that settled." Cyrene and Hecuba struggled to keep from laughing.

Sophia thought, *alright you two, jokesters.* "Something tells me you two are going to fit in just fine around here. Follow me." Leading them to a row of bins, "Now if you really want to get those juices flowing, you're going to have to smell their breath, look into their terror filled eyes, just before you off them. She rubbed her hands in an exaggerated gesture. "You'll want to feel their hot blood running down your arms. Maybe" she picked up a grisly object, "you'll even want to toast your victory in it?"

Sophia watched the two women carefully. Hecuba reached out and took the stemmed cup, fashioned from a human skullcap. "A little crude, if you ask me. Cyrene, what do you think?" "I think she's hoping we'll lose our breakfast." Sophia snatched back the cup, "not on my floor, you don't."

Leaning against the wall, Sophia folded her arms. "Joking aside. You're right I was twisting your tail, but there's a reason. I've seen blood lust, and it's not something you want around you in a fight." Cyrene stared back at her. "You wanted to know if we're really as crazy as you were sounding." "Are you?" Hecuba answered, "not hardly. I've seen my share of blood crazed women. They might be just what you need in a last stand, but not when you have to trust their judgement." Cyrene nodded, "I've never enjoyed killing, but I was once very good at it. Sometimes you can't avoid a fight, but I've seen too many people I cared about cut down too young to want to go looking for one."

Sophia nodded. "So have I. A good sparring session, athletic competition, that's one thing. Gets the blood pumping, juices flowing, heightens the senses, and yeah that can be fun to work off in bed. But a killing war, that's another thing altogether." Hecuba sighed, "We used to say, to live for battle, is to die young." Sophia agreed. "The hot heads don't usually live long enough to figure that out." Cyrene nodded agreement. "That's for sure. So what's the story behind the cup?"

Sophia held it up "Four summers ago, a warlord name of Krykus tried to start a new war between us and the Centaurs. Your daughters helped stop that war before it got started. This was his, probably should give it a decent burial one of these days." (Sets down the cup) You've probably heard the story about how Queen Gabrielle got her right of caste?" Both women nodded. "They also helped us forge a peace with the Centaurs, and together with them, we brought Krykus to justice. He died out there in the square. I guess it's easier to plot the deaths of hundreds than to face your own. For all his bluster, he cried like a baby when I put the noose around his neck." Hecuba shuddered visibly, her fingers touched her throat. Seeing her reaction Sophia apologized, "sorry, I wasn't thinking."

Hecuba swallowed hard, then moved her hand. "No need, It's my problem. Just that coming face to face with the hangman,-" She shuddered again, "why'd they make a cup out of his skull?" "They didn't, it was his cup, not his skull, but what happened to him was just as bad. Queen Melosa had his ashes made into a chamber pot. That way she said, he'd finally be of some use." "That's disgusting."

Sophia pushed off the wall, and half turned to face the women and weapons racks. "So, where were we? Personal weapons," Points "we got swords, axes, chobos. How about a good fighting whip, maybe a staff, or a spare dagger?" Seeing both women deep in thought she added. "I'll probably check you out on all of them eventually. Why don't you help yourselves to whatever you like?"
Eponin called the council to order. "Everyone knows what happened yesterday?" She put both hands on the table and leaned forward. "Good. Now I had Ariana check the scrolls last night to see if this Raisa had any relatives that might want her body. Ariana, tell the council what you found." The councils chief scribe cast her eyes about the room. "I found no mention of her at all. No relatives, or anything to show that she ever lived in this village." Eponin shook her head, "isn't that a little odd?" "Quite odd, your majesty, as the scroll of the nation contains all of our names, mother's name if known, children, etc." "Thank you.

Eponin turned to Krystina, signaling that she should continue. "as is customary, Raisa's body was brought to the temple. After examination by her majesty, the chief healer, and others, we asked Queen Ephiny if she could identify the woman. Niobe, would you please tell these women what her answer was?"

The head of the council stood, "besides myself, the others the high priestess referred to included her own assistant, the captain of the guard, the acting weapons mistress, and Xena's defense advisor. Queen Ephiny was surprised to be asked. She thought she had seen her before, at night in the temple. She didn't know her name, and denied giving her the note she presented at the trial. When we showed her the note, she said it looked like her handwriting, but she didn't remember writing it." Niobe sighed, "unfortunately in her present condition Queen Ephiny's testimony isn't admissible in court."

Eponin said, "Unfortunately, Raisa's is already part of the record. So we have a dead woman, that we have no record of, with enough knowledge of our law, to force her way into speaking at the trial. That's bad enough, but somehow this woman got access to Queen Ephiny, and knew enough about our closed meetings at the temple to trash two days of hard work." Ariana suggested, "a forgery perhaps?" "But by who? Raisa wore a bracer on her left arm, and had calluses consistent with being a right handed archer. Ephiny is left handed, and so was whoever wrote that note.

Several women started to comment, but Eponin cut them off. "There's more, but we're still investigating, so the rest of it can keep. The problem now is how to deal with the mess she's left us, starting with explaining her death, and finishing Xena's trial. Yes, Solari."

"Half the village saw Raisa try to run when you ordered her taken into custody. She was dangling a manacle from one wrist, and holding a crossbow when the patrol shot her. A lot of people saw it happen, so I doubt we'll have any problem there."

Krystina added, "Normally I'd agree with Solari, but the way things are going, I think we should hold an inquest to formally clear the guards." Solari rose to protest, "we shouldn't need an inquest for that." Krystina held up a hand, "agreed, but any ruling the council makes could be challenged later because of her accusations against us. Raisa came out of nowhere. So could somebody else, saying we killed her to silence her, then ruled to cover it up." Solari slumped, "you're right." Eponin decided, "So be it. We'll schedule it for mid morning tomorrow. Ariana, Solari, make the arrangements."

Solari asked. "How do we handle the body? She died fleeing custody, but burying her like a criminal is bound to raise questions." Eponin's eyes flashed, "I'd leave it for the crows if I thought we'd get away with it." Ildiko nodded agreement "So would I your majesty, but since we're trying to ease past this, I think we'd better give her a decent funeral." Krystina volunteered, "I've ordered her body prepared for cremation." Eponin nodded, "She doesn't deserve it, but we'll keep it simple. I'll see Sophia about getting a pyre built. How does tomorrow night sound?" The priestess nodded, "She'll be ready. Your majesty, I suggest we take a break." .........................................
At the armory Sophia was impressed by the care with which Cyrene and Hecuba chose their hand weapons. *There's a lot more to these two than meets the eye.* Cyrene checked the balance of several staffs, then twirling one slowly around her body, made her selection. Sophia asked, "Out of curiosity, why a staff?" Cyrene laughed. Planting an end on the ground she leaned into the weapon, "It doubles as a walking stick, and most people won't see it as a threat, so you can take it anywhere, But" again she spun the staff, this time rapidly in a basic fighting drill, "you've got surprise, and reach on your side when you need them." Sophia nodded. "Good reasons, but wouldn't it be awkward to carry along with the bow?" "That's where a nice set of chobos comes in. I keep a set under the bar in case customers get rowdy, and there isn't room to swing a staff."

Hecuba examined swords with a critical eye, "nice thing about staffs and chobos is you can make your own." She picked up a short single edged sword, "interesting, Sophia what can you tell me about this one." Sophia shrugged. "Spoils of war. I think it comes from somewhere in the east." Taking a two handed grip Hecuba tried a slash and parry maneuver. " nice balance." She tried the same combination using only her left hand. "Any problem with my taking this one?"

Sophia put a hand under her chin, "let me see it." Seeing Hecuba's reluctance to part with the sword she looked at it closely. The two handed grip was a full third of the length, still it was well fitted, set with brass furniture, and capped with a heavy ball. The guard seemed a bit wide, and the flaring blade, had always struck her as just plain hideous. Still the gentle curve met the sharpened false edge right where you need a point, and the thickness of the blade lent itself to a powerful blow. "Hecuba, you're the only person who ever gave this sword a second glance. To be honest, the shape of the blade always reminded me of a butchering axe."

She passed it back to Hecuba, "It's yours, if you want it. Would you mind telling me what you see in it, that we've been missing?" Hecuba looked at the weapon, "reminds me of an axe too, but that's why I like it. You've got a good point for thrusting, but you've also got weight out front and a grip that lets you put power behind it. I don't suppose you'd have a left handed scabbard for it?" Sophia scratched her head, "I doubt it, but it looks like we could reverse that one. If that doesn't work, we could always make one up for you." "You sure it isn't too much trouble?" "So what if it is?"

Sophia held the weapon against Hecuba's shoulders, and broke out laughing. Self conscious Hecuba's face tightened, "what's so funny?" Sophia stopped laughing, "I'm sorry, but you're not going to believe this." Hecuba looked over her shoulder, "what is it?" "Turn around and I'll show you." Sophia slipped her left arm thru the harness and settled the sword onto her back. "We've both been looking at it upside down. Watch how I have to draw it."

Hecuba watched horrified, "You'd get killed pulling your arm across your eyes like that." "I know, but holding it against you just now, I realized why everyone said it was too awkward to use." She slipped out of the harness, "here you try it, just as it is."

Shrugging Hecuba slipped her right arm through the harness. Reaching over her left shoulder, she drew the blade in a graceful downwards arc, and fell naturally into the slash, thrust and parry sequence she'd been taught so long ago. Sophia stared open mouthed, "that sword was made for you." "It's got a good feel to it." "It's also got a new owner."

Watching Cyrene and Hecuba examine weapons, Sophia had seen their interest, but also that they were having a problem making their selections. Sophia had solved the problem for them, and as a consequence both were heavily laden. When Cyrene had difficulty choosing between a set of chobos and an axe, Sophia insisted that she take both. "Chobos are nice, but you're better off with an edge if you're facing armor."

Hecuba and Sophia were shocked, when following this Cyrene had looked again at the staff in her hands, "I brought a good ironwood staff with me, so however nice this one is," she set the weapon back on the rack, "I don't really need another." Cyrene started to move away from the rack, but Sophia's voice stopped her. "Cyrene, toss me that staff you just put back."

Sophia caught the weapon in mid air, spun it rapidly over her head, and around her body. Finishing her drill she grounded the butt of the staff. "You're right, it's got a nice balance." She set it carefully against an arrow chest, "Now, toss me another one." Cyrene selected another staff and tossed it to Sophia. After a quick examination she nodded, then ran the same short drill as before. This time however she finished by tossing the staff to Hecuba, then the first back to Cyrene. Pointing to the door, "okay we're going outside where there's some room, and you're both gonna show me that same drill."

When they had finished, Sophia held out her hand to Hecuba. "Let me borrow that. Cyrene, if you can land three blows, you both keep these." Cyrene nodded grimly, and set her feet. The two women circled for a moment. Sophia tried a few easy feints then lunged. Cyrene parried to the outside, then hooked the butt of her staff behind Sophia's knee, sweeping her feet from under her. Sophia scrambled to her feet but Cyrene brought her staff hard and low against her backside, sending her sprawling in the dirt. Pressing her hands to the ground Sophia started up, then froze feeling Cyrene's staff gently tap the base of her skull. "I yield"

Cyrene offered her a hand up, "You were going easy on me." Sophia shook her head, "No, I underestimated you, there's a difference." Cyrene rested her staff on the ground waiting, Sophia took a breath, "I took for granted you'd block that lunge to the inside, that's what the drills call for. If you'd done that, I'd have come in high and had you. By blocking in reverse, you took my weapon out of play and set up your knee sweep. What I'd forgotten was that you're an old Centaur fighter, and trained to fight low." Cyrene smiled and shook her head, "best way to stop a Centaur was to take out a leg. I suspected you'd be used to trainees following a set drill." "You're right." Passing the staff back to Hecuba "thanks." She turned to Cyrene and bowed, "the staffs are yours. You won them fair and square."

Eponin came back just before Cyrene and Hecuba left the armory. Looking over the two mothers, each bristling with weaponry, "looks like you made out alright." Sophia came charging over, pointing an accusing finger at Eponin, "You quit harassing my customers. What are you doing back here anyway? I thought you were taking your business elsewhere?" Cyrene looked at Hecuba and winked, "Sophia, you want we should throw this bird out on her tailfeathers?" Eponin hands went to her hips, "Sophia, you've been corrupting these innocents." "Innocents my foot. I'm about ready to turn them loose on ya." "Turn them loose? I'm surprised they can move under all that weight." The two mothers just shook their heads.

Leaving the armory Cyrene commented "Delia asked us to stop by and let her know how we made out. Lets drop some of this off at our quarters first." Hecuba agreed, "Good idea, we're going to talk, not storm the walls of Troy. Or are we?" Cyrene looked at her "After all that's happened since we got here, I'd be afraid to ask."

After depositing everything but their daggers, Cyrene's staff and Hecuba's sword in their huts, they walked to the healers. Krystina was there when they arrived, "I hear you cleaned out half the armory." Hecuba frowned, "I couldn't believe it, Sophia just kept piling weapons on us." Delia came over, "Kayla and Tanya are working out back. I'm sure they'd love to hear too."

Going outside, they found Kayla splitting wood, while Tanya stirred laundry in large copper boilers. Though both women had stripped to loincloths and headbands, they were dripping in sweat. Seeing them, Tanya called out, "Kayla do I see the answer to our prayers." Kayla looked up with a smile, "sure looks that way." Krystina scowled, then turning to Delia, "I'm glad to see you finally got those two doing penance. I confess, I've rarely seen a couple more deserving souls." Tanya and Kayla exchanged glances, then pointed to themselves as if to say, "who, us?" Delia folded her arms, "just what prayers were those?" Kayla pointed the axe towards a pile of buckets, "Some strong. stunningly beautiful, and scrumptuously sexy women, to bring up the water for the next load"

Krystina laughed, and grabbed a bucket in each hand. "Ladies?" Delia regarded the sweating women closely. "You look like we aught to dump a couple over your heads." "Love it." After giving Tanya and Kayla a quick but enthusiastic dowsing, the women refilled the wash boilers, then the buckets. Delia called a break and suggested that Cyrene and Hecuba tell them about their visit to the armory.

The women described Sophia's changing expressions, as they'd tried different weapons. Hecuba told about finding the sword, and their discovery that it was already set up for the left hand. Finally Tanya asked to see the weapon, then looked at it for a long time. Her face became haunted, "Tanya, what's wrong?" Tanya lay the sword across her knees. "It's called a scimitar, and comes from Mesopotamia. This one's from a place called Baghdad, about four days ride to the north of Basra where I lived. When I was a child, the palace guard carried these, on their left hips with the grip going across their bodies." Standing she demonstrated. "They'd draw cross body with their right hands, and slash at the same time. For a woman or a slave to touch one meant instant death."

Kayla looked at the sword, "strange how it got this far west. What would you figure? A Persian invasion a few cycles back?" Tanya shook her head, "not this one." She handed the sword back to Hecuba. "I appreciate your telling us about it, but I get the feeling there's something more." Tanya looked at her, "are you happy with it?" "Yes." "You should be, it's a fine weapon They do something special to the iron, gives it that grain pattern, and helps it hold an edge. Properly sharpened, that blade will cut through leather armor like soft cheese. Use that two handed grip and don't be afraid to put power behind it. That same whatever makes the iron a lot stronger, so it'll take all the power you've got, and then some."

Hecuba settled the sword onto her back, "Sophia'll be surprised. She said it reminded her of a butchering axe." Tanya sighed, "she was right. Hecuba, you've got a first class weapon there, but I might as well tell you the rest of it." Hecuba sat down. "You're afraid it might change the way I feel about it. Short heavy blade, two handed grip, not this one?" Suddenly she paled, "it's a beheading sword isn't it?" "Yes. Most scimitars are one handed, and a touch lighter." Hecuba was stunned, than burst into laughter, "what's so funny?" "The irony of it. Sophia, the hangman, gives me, a condemned criminal, the headsman's sword to defend myself."

Krystina watched with interest, "There's some irony to that, but does it change how you feel about carrying it?" "Why should it? I kept a bounty hunters sword all this time." Delia asked, "so what happens now?" "Sophia wants to start checking us out this afternoon. We're supposed to meet her on the practice field by the stables after lunch. She said they usually do beginners sword and staff in the afternoon, so we should take those as well as the bows." "Wish I could go with you, but-"

Alicia put her hands on her hips, "why can't you?" "Well, I need to brew those tinctures, and " Alicia cut her off, "Kayla, you want to learn how to brew tinctures?" The blonde looked at Delia, "Sure." "Tanya, that's the last load of wash, right?" "Sure is." "You mind helping in the storeroom afterwards." "Whatever you want, I'm here for the day." Alicia turned on Delia, "That's settled, every things under control here, and I'll bet you'd love to try that new bow of yours." Delia asked, "Sure you don't mind?" "If things get busy, I'll know where to find you." Kayla made a shoving motion. "Go on enjoy yourself." Delia smiled at the woman. "Thanks, just make sure you call if you need me."

Sophia was leading a group of young women thru sword drills when they arrived. Her voice carried to the waiting women, "that's a sword, not an axe, keep that point up." Delia pointed to a flattened log that served as a bench. "Let's wait over there. Looks like she'll be done shortly."

When the drill ended, Sophia dismissed the group and joined them. "The queen told me to check you out personally, so where do you want to start?" Cyrene answered, "You're weapons mistress." Sophia nodded, pleased with her response. "Alright then, bows first, then we'll move on to the hand weapons."

The women followed Sophia to one side of the field, and saw a short row of round targets sitting against an earthen backstop. "This is our beginners range. From the closest shooting positions to the targets is thirty paces. Take positions and brace your bows."

When they were ready, Sophia had them try five arrows each to get the feel of their bows. Her jaw dropped as the women began shooting. She knew Delia was good, but the new women weren't bad either. Cyrene, with the widest group of the three, had put all of her arrows into a handspan.

Retrieving their arrows, they moved back to the shooting points. Cyrene heard a voice behind her say, "Ten dinars say they can't do it again." Then a voice she recognized as the queen, "Care to make it ten on each" "Leave the healer out of it and you're on." Sophia called "Hey Circe, I'll take a piece of that action." When the bets were settled she called to the archers, "Ladies, five arrows as quickly as you can. GO."

Circe and Eponin walked to the targets with them. Sophia was truly impressed. Even Cyrene's arrows covered a space no bigger than the palm of her hand. Circe alternated wide eyed glances between the women and their targets. Eponin complimented the women, then turned her attentions to Circe, who after fidgeting for a moment, began counting coins into her upturned palm.

As the women moved back to their positions, Sophia asked, "Think you're ready to try a longer range?" Without waiting for a response she waved them back to the next positions. After another round Eponin told them, "Try ten arrows each from the farthest set." Seeing Cyrene and Hecuba exchange glances, she told them "They're fifty paces, don't worry about fast, I just want to see what you can do."

Cyrene's first arrow had been high, near the target rim. Her second struck halfway between the center and lower rim. The other eight were centered, and grouped within a quarter cubit. Hecuba and Delia's results were similar. Seeing this Eponin practically drooled. "Hecuba, Cyrene, archers are required to shoot a score of arrows from fifty paces at least four days in a quarter moon. Think you can handle that." After receiving their shocked assurances she turned to Hecuba, "You're pretty good with a bow, can you do as well with that sword?"

Stepping to the side, Hecuba drew the weapon, and ran flawlessly thru the same short series of drills the class had been practicing. Impressed, Sophia nodded to Eponin, then stepped up "Care for a friendly match?" Hecuba raised her weapon in salute. "At your service." Reaching over her right shoulder Sophia drew her own weapon. They sparred for half a candlemark, both gaining, but neither able to hold, an advantage. Finally a heavily perspiring Sophia called a halt. Each woman again raised her weapon in salute.

Eponin called "Cyrene" and threw her a staff, which she caught easily in one hand. Eponin bowed and gestured towards the open area. As they squared off, she tried a few easy feints, which Cyrene blocked effortlessly. Hoping to press her a bit, Eponin came in high and fast. Sophia noticed a gleam in Cyrene's eyes and thought, uh oh. Blocking the blow, Cyrene launched her counter attack. Eponin was staggered when the butt of Cyrene's staff caught her low in the stomach. Cyrene followed with a low sweep, and shoulder strike. A moment later Eponin was on the ground, with Cyrene's staff pressed against her throat. Letting go of her own weapon, Eponin conceded the match.

Cyrene offered her a hand up, "two out of three, your majesty?" They squared off again. This time Eponin was ready for the maneuver that had taken her legs from under her. Knowing she would be, Cyrene feinted. As Eponin lowered her staff to react, Cyrene reversed her grip and brought her staff down hard against Eponin's shoulder. Eponin's left hand flew open. Flipping her staff, Cyrene handily disarmed her.

The crowd roared as the weapons mistress/queen crouched, extending her hands like claws. The women circled warily. Suddenly Eponin lunged and grabbed Cyrene's staff. It proved to be her undoing. Many tavern toughs had tried the same thing, and Cyrene knew exactly how to handle it.

As Eponin's hands closed on the staff, Cyrene dropped, and rolled backwards. At the same time, she kicked hard between Eponin's legs, following thru to flip the woman over her head and onto her back. Continuing to roll, Cyrene landed astride Eponins's chest and pressed her staff firmly against her throat. Swinging her feet upwards, the dark haired woman found that Cyrene was out of reach. Again she conceded the match. Delia moved to check the fallen woman but Eponin waved her back. Sophia's voice taunted, "Do these sweet, innocent, little warriors meet with your approval, your majesty." Eponin growled "Sophia." then accepting Cyrene's offered hand she added more gently, "they'll do."

The afternoon passed quickly as several women lined up to try the newcomers skill. Hecuba sparred a hard match against Circe, also left handed, which she won. Later another, against a rested Eponin, which ended in a draw. Cyrene got knocked down a couple of times, but her skill and determination won her a great deal of admiration. Signaling for a break Hecuba passed her a water skin, "You're pretty good." Cyrene blushed "Thanks, so are you." Handing back the skin, she asked with a laugh. "Which way to Troy?" Hecuba shushed her, "Don't give them any more ideas." Then both laughed.

Solari and Krystina joined them a couple of candlemarks later. Having heard of the women's earlier demonstration, the priestess had changed into leathers, and was carrying a bow. Having rested, Cyrene and Hecuba were again asked to demonstrate their abilities. Krystina joined them on the firing line as each shot five well placed arrows from each position. She then asked to borrow one of the dulled practice blades. Swinging the weapon to her shoulder, she turned to Hecuba "you remember Daphne's dozen drill?" Smiling Hecuba replied, "sure do, twelve arrows just like the old days," and asked the spectators to move back. No one was sure what the women were up to, but they gave them room and their undivided attention.

Hecuba and Krystina moved back twenty paces, lay prone and shot their first arrows. The women rose to a kneeling position. Each shot twice more from seventy paces, then moved rapidly ten paces ahead and knelt, shooting twice more. Continuing to move each shot two arrows standing from the fifty, fourty, and thirty pace markers. Their last arrows were snap shot on the run between fifteen and twenty paces from the targets. Dropping their bows, they then drew their swords, and charged. Both brought their blades down to stop just before connecting with the upper outside corner of their target. Recovering rapidly, they struck the opposite corner, following through with a thrust. Each did a reverse spin, bringing their blades together with a crash. Their demonstration at an end, the women lifted their blades, saluted each other, then bowed with a flourish to the crowd. Checking the targets, Eponin and Sophia announced that all twelve of each womans arrows could be covered by a double hand span. Hearing this, the already cheering crowd went wild.

The practice broke up soon after.. Cyrene dropped her arms at her hut and went to the jail to see Xena. The guards greeted her with both sympathy, and admiration. "Ma'am, the captains left permission for you to visit anytime during daylight. You can be alone with her in the cell, but we'll have to lock you in." Cyrene nodded tightly, "I understand." "It can be scary, ma'am, but we'll be right here, just call when you want out." Once the guard had left her cell, Xena asked "Mother, what are you doing here?"

Cyrene looked around the cell. It was small and stark, maybe six cubits square, with .two narrow bunks, and bracketed wall shackles it's only furnishings. A barred window high in the wall let in sunlight and air. "Wondering how I failed my daughter that she wound up in a place like this." Xena grabbed her arms, "Mother no, don't even think that way."

Cyrene answered quietly, "Xena, a lot of mothers would feel that way. You're my daughter, and I love you, but for it to come to this -." They hugged. "Mother, did you really grew up here?" Cyrene pulled back, "Yes, and now you know why I never talked about my parents. I never knew who they were. All I know about them is that they left me in the woods to die. I've always wondered about them, sometimes still do." "You must hate me for abandoning Solon." Cyrene turned and faced the wall. "You're wrong Xena. I hate a lot of the things you've done, but I've never hated you.

She turned to face her daughter, "About your son. Xena, you gave him up, you didn't abandon him." "What's the difference." "Before you gave up your son, you at least made sure he'd have a home. What I've been told is that I was left under a bush when I was about three moons old, without even a blanket around me. Anyway Amazon scouts heard me crying. When they found me, they wrapped me in a cloak and brought me here. They loved me, raised me, but when Taurus was born I had to make a choice. I don't regret making the one I did, and everyone understood. But I wished then and now that I hadn't had to choose."

Xena fought back the tears. "You kept the amulet for me all this time." "Maybe Gabrielle and I were thinking the same way. I never wanted you to be without at least one place where you'd be welcome." "What's with the leathers." Cyrene sat down on the spare bunk, "Hecuba and I'll be staying a while, they gave us quarters, clothes and a few other things. The leathers feel familiar yet strange, we both grew up in them, but that was a long time ago. I still have my battle mask, and an old set tucked away at home." "Why did you keep them?" "Sentimental reasons. Besides you and your brothers, this tribe is the only family I've ever had. I earned that mask and I'm still proud of it. The leathers remind me that I have a place to run if I ever need one."

Xena cast a glance at her mother's hip, "From the looks of that scabbard, a few of those other things you mentioned were weapons," Cyrene said quietly. "Yes, I'm told you know there's trouble brewing. We told the queen we'd help if it came to that. Before you say anything, both of us owe our lives to the nation." "I still don't like it."

Cyrene stood up and looked at her daughter, "Would you rather we were helpless? I don't like it either, and hope it doesn't come to that. If it does I can still use a bow, and you've seen me break up fights. Besides, Hades and Artemis bought us some kind of ambrosia drink, I feel better than I have in a long time. We've been on the practice field all afternoon. We both shot well enough to impress the queen. I dumped her on her tail twice with a staff, and Hecuba fought her to a draw with a sword."

Xena's jaw dropped, "I wish I could have seen that, but the practice field is a lot different than a battle." "Different? You mean because you're not in blood to your ankles, scared out of your mind, while the sight, sound and stench of death tie your stomach in knots, and turn your bowels to water. Yeah, Xena, it is just a little different." Seeing her mothers haunted expression, Xena bit back her ready retort asking simply, "Mother?"

Cyrene walked over to the wall brackets and closed her eyes, *The first chance we get to really talk in a long time, why does it have to be in a jail cell?* "I fought in the first Centaur war, Xena. I was wounded at Baccae Pass, and again in the Strymon Delta." Xena was stunned. "Baccae Pass, wasn't that a big Centaur offensive?" "They were trying to cut the nation in two." Xena looked at her mother as though for the first time. "I've heard that a squad of archers blocked the pass with a rockslide, then held the Centaur army back for two days until the main Amazon army could get there." "You heard right."

Xena sat quietly, waiting. Cyrene closed her eyes, "how well do you know the story?" "Not well. I know most of those archers were killed. Damn fools should have known better than to try a stunt like that." Cyrene's face turned dark, and the slap echoed through the cell. "Don't ever call them that, Xena, definately not around Amazons, and especially not around me." She put her face in her hands. "We did know better, but we had no choice. If the Centaurs had made it thru the pass, they'd have cut the nation in two."

Xena could see tears in her mothers eyes. "You see, Xena, we'd intercepted two of their courriers, and found their battle plans. They'd planned to leave a quarter of their troops in the pass. The rest would have split into two elements and circled behind us in both directions. They'd have cut our supply lines, our mesenger routes, and we'd have been caught between the horns of the bull. The northern Centaurs were coming in from the top, on both sides of the pass, to crush us. Elise, our squad leader sent Erisa back with the plans. She took two arrows, but she made it through."

Cyrene closed her eyes, "The other twelve of us blocked the pass. What came next was a nightmare straight out of Tartarus. Nine of my closest friends died there. Elise, Niobe and I were wounded. A slung stone broke Elise's right shoulder so she couldn't shoot. She managed to pick up arrows and waterskins for us. Until she took a spear in her leg that last morning. Niobe had a broken leg, and an arrow through her left arm. She threw rocks and spears with her right, until a slung stone cracked her skull on the second day. I'd taken an arrow in my right leg, and broken it in the fall. It infected badly, and according to the healer, I almost lost it. When our army came in and started clearing the field, I was the only one still able to fight. I shot my last three arrows, and when our women broke thru, I was guarding Elise and Niobe with a Centaur spear. Princess Melosa was one of the first to reach us. She told me later that I collapsed right afterwards and just cried. Queen Julia called us heroines, gave me some fancy feathers. There's even a small shrine dedicated to our squad in the temple. Me, I was a scared young warrior, not quite sixteen, just glad to be alive."

Xena sat in shocked silence as her mother went on. "Xena, out of the thirteen of us, four of us survived to have children. Elise, our squad leader, was Eponin's mother. She was leading that hunting party your men massacred. Niobe, you've seen on the council. She led the war party that took your men down. Her only daughter was killed in the battle. Erisa was Queen Ephiny's mother. She died of the wasting sickness some time ago. And you, of course, are my daughter" "Your friends raise queens, while your daughter grows up to be a criminal. You must be thoroughly ashamed of me, mother." Cyrene drew a breath. "Not since you met Gabrielle, but there were times in the eleven cycles before, that I wished I'd died in that pass."

After leaving the jail, Cyrene joined Hecuba for supper. Word of their practice session had spread like wildfire. Several women stopped to compliment them on their skills. Hecuba asked the obvious question, "any idea what happens now?" Cyrene shook her head, "Sophia said she wants us back at weapons practice tomorrow afternoon. Beyond that, I don't think they know either."---------------------------------------------

Warfare, accidents, and marriage had claimed many of the women Cyrene had grown up with. Niobe was the only one left from her training squad, and that night they shared memories at the hot springs. The daughter of an Egyptian merchant, Niobe's mother had been sold into slavery to settle a gambling debt. Soon after, the slavers had attacked a small party of Amazons, capturing several. It would prove to be their undoing, as an Amazon war party avenged their losses the following night.

As a warrior in training Cyrene had heard the story from Niobe's mother. The slaves had been freed in a bitter predawn battle. Many of the freed women, like Niobe's mother, had nowhere to go and were brought back to the Amazon nation. The few slavers who survived the battle had also been taken to the nation. There they found that Amazons had no love for slavers, and that their justice was both swift and final.

They had kept contact over time. Trained as a scout, Niobe had also served as a messenger. Frequently traveling thru Amphipolis, she had often stopped for a meal, or to spend the night at Cyrene's inn.

Being on the council, Niobe had been charged with passing judgement on Xena. While, as she told Cyrene, she was pretty sure Xena didn't remember her, the past few days had been awkward. Tonight, however, two old friends renewed their acquaintance, sitting and holding each other quietly in the warm steaming pools. Memories and wine were shared as time and events melted away.

In Hecuba's hut, she and Krystina also shared memories. Hecuba, too, had enjoyed the afternoon immensely, but now felt guilty for it. Startled, Krystina asked her why. Hecuba answered that she was supposed to be in mourning, not out having fun.

After a moment Krystina answered cryptically, "You used to enjoy cooking, and as I remember you did it very well." "Thank you." "I'm sure you've cooked since your husband died, have you ever felt guilty about that?" Hecuba was surprised by the question. "Why would I?" Krystina explained. "You shouldn't. Cooking's hard work, and it needs doing regardless of whatever else is happening. What I'm saying is, that even in mourning, there's nothing wrong with either enjoying your work or taking pride in it."

Hecuba looked at her friend, "I'm confused." Krystina ran her hands thru her hair, "Try looking at it this way. (Points first to Hecuba then herself) Both you and I were trained as warriors. Maybe that isn't what we usually do anymore, but we're still warriors. Remember Hades telling us the nation was a target, asking if you'd fight?" Hecuba was beginning to see the point, "We agreed." "That's right. So now you're a warrior, who's village is being threatened, and you've been issued arms. In that position I'd consider it my duty to practice, get the feel of them, and refresh my skills. Wouldn't you?" "I see what you were getting at" Krystina reached out and took her hand, "Hecuba, I'm telling you this both as your priestess, and as your friend. You've no more reason to feel guilty about this afternoon than you would for cooking a meal."

Hecuba let out a breath, "If I'm going to have to fight beside these women, I'd better start getting to know them." Krystina nodded her agreement,"That's still part of being a warrior, knowing you can rely on the person next to you. Talk with them, get to know them, and let them know you. If they're having a party, go. Try to have a good time."

Hecuba thought for a moment, "It could be a problem if they invite me to have a drink, I still don't." The priestess smiled, "I'm glad to hear it, how'd you handle it at home." "I told people I'd taken a holy vow to abstain. Herodatus always backed me up on it." Krystina looked at her remembering, "Hecuba, that's not a lie, but they didn't know your past either." Hecuba paled, "The Gods forbid." Krystina put a hand on her shoulder, "most people around here already know enough of your story that I'd just tell them the truth. They're not going to hold it against you. And besides, there's likely to be someone around that needs to hear it."

Again Krystina ran her hands thru her hair, "Feel up to walking over to the hot springs? After today, I really could use a bath, and I'd enjoy the company." "Sounds good to me."
The next morning's inquest started shortly after breakfast, and took less than two candlemarks. Eponin had gone to the armory afterwards, hoping to spend some time working among the weapons. It hadn't worked. Silently she cursed the turn of fate that had made her queen. *was a time when I could fix a broken crossbow in peace, without everybody in the gods be damned village hunting me down with trivia.*

She had talked with Sophia about the previous days sparring with Cyrene and Hecuba. Even that had taken a sour note, as Sophia had pressed for information.

"Eponin, I don't know who those two really are, but their stories don't wash. You, me" She pointed from Eponin to herself. "We're trained warriors, we've been in more fights than I care to think about. A farm wife and innkeeper held their own against us?" Eponin had tried to side step the issue, "they were raised as Amazon's." "I talked to Niobe about them, she didn't remember much about Hecuba, but she tells me Cyrene was one of the best in her day."

Eponin was starting to get upset. "So what's the problem?" Sophia had spun around. "That is the problem. She may have been one of the best in her day, but her day was a long time ago. The bow is one thing, but she knocked you on your backside twice." Eponin started to pull away. "Maybe I underestimated her and she got in a lucky shot, maybe I was having an off day." Sophia snorted. "Once maybe, but not twice. And especially not when she dumped the next three comers as well." She fixed her eyes hard on Eponin. "Then, to top that, we have Hecuba, the farm wife, who held her own against both of us with a sword. Care to explain that one?" Eponin shook her head. "Now that was embarrassing."

Sophia pressed the attack. "Maybe you can explain to me how they traveled for several days, essentially naked." "Naked?" She looked appreciatively, at her scantily clad assistant's well muscled figure. "Sophia, I could have dressed half a squad of warriors, in the same outfit you're wearing, out of just one of those dresses." Sophia scoffed, "maybe more, but I've worked damn hard for this figure, and I happen to like showing it off ." "That wasn't a complaint, believe me." "That's about the first thing you've said that I do believe." She pointed an accusing finger. "And I wasn't talking about their clothes." "Then spit it out."

"They're trained warriors. They were raised as Amazons, and they aren't stupid. They weren't well enough equipped to have spent several days on the road." "I thought you didn't see them when they got here?" "I picked up their gear at the hospice, and took it over to their huts. They were each carrying a light pack, bedroll and staff." "So?" "Two archers, but not an arrow between them, how did they hunt? You told me they were traveling light, but no cooking pot and only one waterskin? That's a little too light if you ask me."

Eponin threw up her hands, "what do want me to say?" "Try telling me the truth about what's going on, with them, and this Raisa; a woman that's even more of a mystery than they are. No friends, no gear, no bunk, nothing but a note allegedly from Ephiny, a reluctance to answer questions, and an arrow in her chest. And all that follows a murder that by all rights couldn't have happened, except it did. My suspicious mind tells me one of these three was involved, and if I had to bet, my money would be on Raisa.

"Two days of secret council meetings to get ready for this trial, come on. Why is Xena so damned important anyway? Look, Eponin, I know you like to keep things simple and get them over with. Xena committed a crime. I don't begrudge her a fair trial, but she's not even the one fighting it, the council is, and that looks strange right there. She was half out of her head, and nobody got killed, so it's not like you've got to hang her. Why not just give her a whipping, or a couple of moons on the squad and forget it? If she wants to stay afterwards let her, if not put her on her horse and let her ride out."

The discussion had gone downhill from there.

Early that afternoon Eponin told Krystina of the discussion. "I'm sure she's not the only one asking questions." "Probably not, but she's got a better right than most to some answers. She's weapons mistress now, I need her help planning a defense, but I can't even tell her what the threat is. Then again," She threw up her hands, "just how are we supposed to fight a God anyway? Remember what happened the last time we tried?" Krystina replied, "Will we ever forget?"

Eponin head dropped, "so it's hopeless no matter what we do." Krystina banged her fist on the table between them, her voice dropped. "if it's hopeless why do you even care about a defense. Why don't we all just climb onto a nice big pyre and slit our throats right now?" Eponin's eyes flashed, and her hand started up. Krystina grabbed the hand and pinned it to the table. "don't even think about it." "Krystina." She tried to pull the hand back, but Krystina held tight. "It may be hopeless, but I don't think so." "Then what was that last crack about?"

She let Eponin's hand go. "I wanted to see if you had some fight left in you. Glad to see you do, because you're going to need it." She leaned over the table and stared at Eponin. "You want to give up and play Ephiny's game, that's your choice. Just don't take the village with you." "Leave her out of this, damn you. Or so help me I'll -" Krystina cut her off with a cold stare. "Or you'll what? I'm already a walking dead woman. (Points an accusing finger) but I tell you this, if I'm going down, it's going to be with a weapon in my hand. And before I die, whoever gets me, whether it's Velasca, bounty hunters, or anyone else, (Bangs fist on table) is going to damn well know they were in a fight."

The force of Krystina's words struck Eponin. She clasped her hands over her head, "Whoa, can we just back up a bit?" Krystina remained silent for a few moments, "You up for a walk?" Eponin lowered her hands, "Let's go."

They walked in silence for a bit, "Krystina look, I feel the same as you do, and against anyone mortal I'm not going down without a fight either. But we're not talking about anyone mortal here. We're talking about a god. Not just any god mind you, but one that knows our resources, people and tactics. She could throw anything at us, from any direction including thin air, and push comes to shove she probably will."

Krystina threw her head back, "Then think about this. Velasca wants us dead, but if that's all she wants, why hasn't she killed us already?" Eponin shook her head. "What are you getting at?" "She's greedy. She wanted her mother's mask, and I'd bet she wants her fathers throne." "So?" "So God of War is a pretty powerful position, and even leaving Aries out of it, there's still Athena with a prior claim. Based on that, I doubt Olympus would just give it to Velasca for the asking." "So you're saying she's got to prove herself?" "That's my guess. And if I'm right, how better to prove herself worthy of the mantle of war, than by staging a long bloody war?"

Eponin nodded, "Makes sense, and -." She shuddered, remembering Velasca's method of interrogating prisoners. "that one is just sick enough to enjoy it." Krystina thought for a moment, "I think her love of inflicting pain is almost sexual. If I'm right, we might be able to use it to our advantage." Eponin stopped dead in her tracks, "mind telling me how?"

Krystina folded her arms, "ever watch a cat with a mouse? My guess is she'll toy with us the same way." Eponin thought that over and drew a blank. "How's that help us?" Krystina explained patiently. "Walking in and killing us won't impress Olympus, but proving she can put together and run a real war might. That means she has to raise an army and that's going to take time. Especially one big enough to wipe us out on our home ground." Eponin's face turned dark, "you're right, and any army she musters will be made up of men, and men can be killed." "Exactly." "Which brings us back to where we started. How do we prepare when we're not sure what we're up against? Especially when we couldn't tell our key people if we were?"

Krystina said quietly, "I suggest we start preparing for a siege." "A siege? Velasca's always seemed more the action type." "I can think of a lot of reasons. Let's start with the simple fact that we don't have the numbers to defend the whole territory against a major army, Especially if she hits us from two directions at once." Eponin sat down on a log, "you're right, we can't." Eponin picked up a rock and began juggling it. "We can't afford to be chasing raiding parties around the border, while her main force attacks the village either.." Krystina sat beside her, "I agree. We'll have to give up the outposts, move everyone inside the walls and make our stand here." Eponin let out a breath and threw the rock, watching with some satisfaction as it bounced off a nearby tree.

After that they sat silently for a few minutes. Finally Eponin spoke. " Preparing for a siege makes sense, and we can do a lot quietly." "Reinforcing the wall, and increasing stores shouldn't alarm the village." Eponin picked up another rock, "No, but It's bound to set off Sophia. Especially when we step up weapons practice for non warriors." "She knows about Velasca, right?" "Just that she's loose, and that she likely killed Rhea."

Krystina thought for a moment, "It would be better if we could just tell her everything. You think she'd accept that we're strengthening our defenses in case Velasca goes on the warpath?" "It's worth a try."

Krystina stood up. "Would she be on the practice field this afternoon?" "She's supposed to be teaching basic sword after lunch. Has a staff class after that." Looking at the sun Krystina shrugged. "It looks like we missed lunch, so why don't we head over there. I'd like to see how Hecuba's doing anyway."

Sophia scowled as Eponin and Krystina walked onto the field. Calling a break she walked to the edge of the field and dropped to one knee. "Welcome to our humble practice field, your majesty. Might your insignificant servant inquire, as to what do we owe the honor of your exalted presence?" Inwardly Eponin cringed at the sight of her friend kneeling before her. The respectful tone of her greeting, served only to mask it's sarcasm.

She spoke softly, "there's going to be a whipping at the jail tonight, I'll need you there about two candlemarks after the evening meal." Bowing her head Sophia asked, "Might I inquire as to who's being whipped?" Eponin leaned forward, and spoke in a whisper. "A certain smart alecked assistant weapons mistress, if she's not on her feet and acting normal by the time I count to three." "Huh?" "One." "You wouldn't?" "Wouldn't I? Two" Sophia scrambled to her feet. "Uh, Eponin?" Eponin took a deep breath, "that's better. We need to talk."

Sophia looked behind her, "I'm in the middle of a class right now. Can it wait?" Krystina stepped in, "looks like basic sword, thrust, parry?" "Pretty much." "I can handle it." Sophia looked at her robe, "no disrespect, but are you sure?" "Yes, and I'll take the staff class too if you're not finished talking by then." Sensing Sophia's uncertainty, she went on. "Look, I'll probably enjoy it, and I'm sure it's important that the two of you talk." "Okay, but not in that." Krystina raised her hands in question. "It's either this or naked." Sophia smiled, "Krystina, if you weren't a priestess, I'd probably enjoy seeing that." Then putting an arm around the priestess's shoulder, she steered her towards the stables. "I keep some spare leathers in the tack room. You're welcome to change." "Why don't you show me where they are?"

In the tack room Sophia cringed as Krystina shed her clerical robe. Seeing her expression Krystina asked gently, "You've seen whip scars before, are mine that ugly?" Sophia sat down, "it's not that." "Then what is it?" Sophia hesitated, "It's just that for you, one of the kindest most gentle people I've ever known, to be marked by the whip like a common criminal. Well, it just isn't right."

Krystina smiled tightly. "Thank you, but to the world outside that's exactly what I am, a common criminal." She pulled the leather loincloth aside, and pointed to a white scar on her left flank, "This scar is a prison brand. It hurt like Tartarus when they did it. You heard my story at the trial, so you can probably guess that there's a price on my head." Sophia was embarrassed, "but whatever they say about you, it isn't true."

Krystina spun around. "How do you know? You can see the whip scars and brand. If you know where to look, you can probably still find posters that say escaped murderess, sentenced to hang, and wanted dead or alive. All you've got that says otherwise is me, and you've heard criminals protest their innocence before." "Your word's good enough for me." "Why, because you know me?" Sophia stood up, "Yes, or at least I think I do. So what's this all about?" "Why don't you sit back down and I'll tell you."

Both women sat down. Hearing the clash of swords Krystina nodded. "Sounds like Eponin's got them started." "Yeah." "Okay, I want you to just listen for a bit." Sophia nodded, "Most people wouldn't bother to look beyond the wanted posters, before they put a rope around my neck. And from one perspective they'd be right, because if those posters are all you look at, I'm guilty as sin." Sophia paled. "But if you do look beyond the posters, there's a lot more to me than they say I am. You'll take my word for that because you know me, and have for a long time."

Taking a leather thong, Krystina tied back her hair, "You've known Eponin for a long time too. You've worked beside her, fought beside her and I think you'd trust her with your life." Scowling Sophia rose. "I might have, back when we were friends." "She's still your friend Sophia, but she's also your queen, and right now she's in an impossible situation. She needs your help, because you're right. There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye."

Sophia interrupted, "that much I figured out for myself. I've been wondering when you were going to tell me what it is?" "I can't and neither can she, because we, like the rest of the council were sworn to secrecy by Artemis herself." "And you expect me to believe that?" Krystina threw up her hands up in frustration, "Sophia, I'm a priestess. Do you honestly think I'd be stupid enough to involve the goddess I serve, in either a lie or treason? I didn't like jail one bit, and I certainly don't want to hang. So what makes you think I'd be willing to spend eternity in Tartarus, just to twist your tailfeathers?"

Sophia shook her head. Settling back onto a barrel she asked. "Is it really that big?" "Yes. Hecuba and Cyrene are both part of it. I give you my word, they're both who and what they say they are."

Sophia held up a hand, "hold it right there. You're telling me that an inn keeper dumped Eponin twice. And that a farm wife held her own against both of us with a sword. To top that you're telling me that both of them, are good enough to get past the border sentries, and all the way here without being challenged?" "As far as the weapons go, yes they're that good. Don't blame the sentries, it's not their fault." "Either it's their fault, or the next thing you'll tell me is that those two sprouted wings and flew."

Krystina smiled at the image, "We didn't exactly fly, but you're on the right track." "We?" "Something I can't talk about happened just before Xena's trial started. That something made it necessary to get them here. As late as lunchtime that day neither of them had any idea Xena was even in trouble, much less that she was going on trial for her life that afternoon. We hadn't been able to get a message to them." Sophia again interrupted, "so what you're trying to not tell me is that you caught a ride with the first available goddess and went out to get them. And that when you showed up they dropped everything and came running." "Strange experience. I'll tell you that much." "I'll just bet it was."

There was a knock on the door, Eponin's voice called. "You two having fun in there?" Sophia opened the door apologizing, "Sorry Ep, I didn't realize how long we were talking." "I finished up the sword class." Turning to the priestess, she had to stop and catch her breath. "Nice outfit, Krystina." "It's borrowed, but thank you. Other than my formals, I haven't worn anything like it in a long time." Eponin handed her a polished metal mirror, "maybe you should, it suits you." Krystina looked at herself appraisingly, "bosoms still firm, legs look good." "They sure do."

Smiling Krystina handed back the mirror. "It's nice to know I can still turn a head or two. But" She folded her arms across her ample chest. "I should remind you that I'm still a priestess. So just remember you can look all you want, but don't touch." Eponin and Sophia took on hurt expressions. Krystina stood and picked up a staff, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd better get the class going before we lose it." Halfway out the door, she stopped to point an admonishing finger. "you girls play nice, or" She shook the staff. "Momma's gonna start busting heads."

When Krystina had gone, Sophia pointed to a barrel, "have a seat. Krystina told me about the vow of silence, and the mauling mothers." Eponin sat and smiled briefly at the image. Sophia folded her arms, "I don't like it Ep, not even a little bit, but I believe her. She says you need my help, so I'd guess we're headed for a fight." "We are."

Resting her hands on her knees Eponin leaned forward. "Sophia, if it weren't for the vow of secrecy, I'd tell you all of it. I can't, so however hard it is, we need you to trust us on this one. What I can tell you is this, Velasca's on the loose and she's gathering an army. When she's going to attack the nation, from what direction or with how many troops we just don't know." "What do you want me to do?"


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