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Chapter 31: Five Years Have Passed...
"No," I said.
"Xena," Gabrielle implored.
"Aw, Xena, I can't have any fun," Selene complained.
"Welcome to my world," I countered.
We had been going around like this for nearly three days. It seemed that somewhere along the path, Gabrielle had joined forces with Selene. My sister wished to travel along with us to the Amazon village and then back to Corinth for a long holiday. Not only would Gabrielle be meeting her daughter for the first time, but Ephiny had informed me that an official joining ceremony between Gabrielle and I, before the Amazon Nation, was expected. Unbelievably, my mother had agreed with Selene's plan.
"Mother said--" Selene attempted to explain.
"If I hear that one more time--"
"All right, we don't have to get all worked up," Gabrielle said. "Let's stay calm and discuss this, okay?"
"Fine," I said.
"Maybe if you just think on it for a while," Gabrielle said.
"Okay," I replied. I paused for a moment as Gabrielle and Selene exchanged relieved looks.
"I thought about it and the answer is still no."
"Aw, Xena," Selene said again.
"Xena, you did tell Selene that she could learn more from the Amazons," Gabrielle said to me.
"I think she's learning plenty from the Amazons she's already met."
Gabrielle and I both knew what had caused my stubbornness over this situation. I stomped about, thinking of my sister's virtue more than anything else and looking, I suspect, like a blustering fool. My mother told me that Gabrielle made a great deal of sense and I should listen to her. Ah, yes, just the thing the Conqueror of the Known World wished to hear.
"She needs to learn things sooner or later," Gabrielle said, pulling me from the ranting inside my head.
"That's exactly what I don't want happening! Let her learn about that when she's married."
"Actually, I meant as in how to be the sort of woman who can take care of herself. Strong...confident."
"Oh," I said.
"Besides, how am I ever going to get married if I don't meet people?" Selene chimed in.
"You'll meet plenty of new people when we get to Corinth. And, don't look at me that way, they won't be men. I think we've established that."
"But, they won't be Amazons," she muttered.
"Precisely my point."
"Xena, you can't order me around. You're not my mother, you know!"
I believe I sputtered a bit, unable to come up with a suitable reply. I finally threw out the only card I could play in such a circumstance. "I'm the ruler of the Empire and that's just as good as your mother!"
"All right," Gabrielle physically stepped between us this time. "Let's retire to opposite corners of the room. Shall we?"
"Gabrielle!" Selene and I said in unison. We looked at one another and then back at Gabrielle.
"See how stubborn she is!" Once more, we said in tandem.
Gabrielle's hand rose to her mouth, but it was apparent that she was attempting to hide her smile. If I hadn't been so obstinate, I would have laughed at our infantile behavior, too.
"Well," Gabrielle picked up the scroll bag that contained her clean parchments and writing instruments. "I'm leaving."
I made a move to follow her and she quickly stopped me with a commanding look.
"Oh, no you don't."
"Well, you don't think I'm going to stay here and argue with her all day, do you?"
"I most certainly do," she answered. "You two can yell, fight, beat the Tartarus out of one another if you think it will do any good, but I don't want either of you to step foot out of this room until you've made some sort of a compromise that you both agree on."
"But, I'm getting hungry," Selene said.
"I'll ask your mother to send something up," Gabrielle replied.
"What if I have to...you know, relieve myself?" Selene asked.
"All the more reason to be sensible and finish it up in a hurry." Gabrielle turned and made her way to the door.
I chuckled as if Gabrielle had been teasing with her words. "You don't really think you can keep me a prisoner here," I said as though it was the most asinine thing I'd ever heard.
She turned and gave me a glance that would have withered a rose. I swear it would have felled a lesser person. I stopped dead in my tracks.
"You don't want to test that statement, my Conqueror, do you?" she questioned.
"Um...no?" I answered with some hesitancy, backing up a step. For that one moment, this small girl before me was an Amazon Queen, co-ruler of the Greek Empire.
"That's why you're such a wise ruler," she said as she stepped forward and gave me a kiss. Her face had returned to its usual sunny expression. She kissed Selene on the cheek and left the room without another word.
I looked at Selene, who stood with her arms folded and a rather superior smirk on her face. I mimicked her body posture and glared back.
"Whipped," Selene said.
"Brat," I replied.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I do not feel like writing about unhappiness or pain today. I refuse to set down in prose any of the agony of my remembering, for today is a day of such joy for me. I can barely keep my feet on the ground. I feel that if I let go of the world around me, I will float into the air, so light is my heart. Granted, there is much to think about, but children are born and raised every day, in every part of the Empire and under every circumstance. Surely, Xena and I can do no worse than others.
I have just left Xena and her sister. Gods only know what they are about at this moment. They each think the other unreasonable and bullheaded without recognizing the same behavior in themselves. I certainly hope that they come to their senses before too much time passes. I'm not sure that Xena even sees it yet, but she's merely being a big sister. I hope that Selene will see it also and realize that her sister's actions come from love and not a whim to control.
I sit in the near empty tavern, tucked away at a corner table with my pot of freshly brewed tea and my scrolls. Others bustled through the tavern, working, visiting, or just mingling in the townís most popular meeting spot. Upon coming downstairs, I found Delia in the kitchens. She happily whistled and hummed, teaching two of Cyreneís young female workers how to stuff grape leaves with just the right mixture of lamb and seasonings. I tried to offer my assistance to Delia who promptly shushed me out of the kitchen. I ran into the same sort of reception nearly everywhere I offered to lend a helping hand.
Having set my mind at ease, knowing my energies werenít needed anywhere else; I sat down to write. I had gone through nearly an entire pot of tea when Cyrene walked up to my table, a most curious expression on her face.
"Hi, Cyrene. Are you all right?"
"I'm on my way to get my spare room keys."
"Did someone lose theirs?"
"The strangest thing," she sat down beside me. "I went by your room and I heard voices shouting at one another. Once I realized they belonged to Xena and Selene, I tried to open the door and put a stop to their bickering. The door was locked and when I finally got those girls to quiet down and answer me, they were as surprised as me that they were locked in. Xena said the door must have locked itself. I looked all over the floor, but I couldn't find the key to your door. I can't imagine what happened to it."
I smiled and reached into my skirt pocket, producing an aged, discolored metal key. "No mystery, Cyrene. I have it."
"Youóyou have the key? How did youóI mean, why did you?"
"Don't get mad at me, Cyrene, but I purposely locked them in there."
"Well, I'm not mad, child, but what possessed you to do such a thing?"
I explained the disagreement that Xena and Selene seemed to be having and my solution to the problem. Cyrene laughed.
"My child, you are truly Athena's chosen. Only the Goddess of wisdom herself could have come up with such a wise solution."
"I'm certainly no Goddess, but it was good, wasn't it?" I laughed along with her. "I just hope they haven't escalated toó"
I froze, leaving my mouth open in mid sentence. Cyrene followed my line of site to the tavern's front door. I could scarcely believe what I saw. Cyrene appeared to be in as much a state of shock as I was. All we could do was stare open-mouthed and listen to them as they walked into the tavern.
"I can't believe you fell on me. Gods! You need to quit eating so much. It was like a centaur landed on me." Xena brushed small leaves from her hair and craned her neck to look at the abrasion that had torn away the elbow of her shirt.
"It's your fault! You said that trellis would hold us both." Selene tried to close the long rip in her skirt. She limped along, having lost one shoe and sporting a large abrasion on one knee. "Just follow me," Selene mimicked Xena's low alto voice.
"It would have if you would have listened to me, smart ass. Just once if you could just do what I say without an argument. I said toó"
They both stopped and looked up at Cyrene and I, straightening their clothing in some small attempt at salvaging their dignity. I wasn't certain what to say. Never, in my wildest imagination, did I think the two women would try to escape out the window. I simply stared at Xena in a dumbfounded fashion.
The gaze that Xena leveled in my direction told me not to say a word. "You didn't tell us that once we had settled things you'd never be coming back."
She held her head high and she and Selene walked up the stairs in a most indignant manner. Once I could no longer hear their footsteps, I turned to look at Cyrene. We laughed so hard that we cried.
"I think I may be sleeping in the barn tonight," I said.
"Those two!" Cyrene said between fits of laughter. "I guess I should have gone back with that key a little sooner."
"Well, the good news is that at least they came to some sort of agreement."
"That means all of you will be leaving soon," she said.
Even if I had been blind, I could not possibly have missed the forlorn expression on Cyrene's face. I wasn't certain, but I would have wagered that she would actually be sorry to see the lot of us go. She had regained her daughter and just as quickly, Xena would be gone again before they'd even had time to learn about one another. I tested those waters with some innocent teasing.
"You'll be happy to be rid of us and get back to normal, I suspect."
Cyrene didn't answer, but smiled sadly. She lowered her head and examined her hands, which rested atop the table. How alike she and Xena were. I had a suspicion that I would have to use all my might to drag the truth from the woman. Before I had a chance to investigate any further, Delia walked into the room, drying her hands with a clean towel.
She came directly to our table and smiled brightly. She was in her element, here at the inn, and it was easily apparent that she could be no happier. It didn't surprise me that she and Cyrene got along so well. They chatted, laughed, and shared secrets like two sisters. In getting to know Cyrene, I learned how much alike she and Delia were. So, it was no wonder I found Cyrene as easy to care about as our own special friend. Delia had always been somewhat of a mother, while managing to walk the slender line of friend, as well.
Am I interrupting a private conversation, ladies?" Delia asked.
I didn't want to be rude, but just as I was about to give Delia a subtle hint with my eyes; Cyrene quickly pushed a chair toward the standing woman.
"Not at all. Please...sit," Cyrene said. Her face didn't express her customary open kindness and I could tell that Delia noticed that fact.
"I think maybe I did interrupt a private conversation," Delia said.
Delia started to rise, but Cyrene reached out with one hand to stop her.
"No, honestly," Cyrene began. "I think it's just something I wasn't quite willing to admit."
"Cyrene, what could be making you so sad?" Delia asked.
"We're leaving soon," I answered for her.
"You knew?" Cyrene asked.
"I guessed. I suppose it would be how I would feel."
"I see," Delia answered. "And you've grown rather accustomed to having your long-lost daughter as a part of your life?"
"Not just Xena. All of you, I suppose." Cyrene smiled hesitantly, as though she was embarrassed.
I wondered if such displays of emotion were unfamiliar to her. It didn't seem so, at least as compared to the Cyrene I had come to know, but I thought about how she had been before we came into her live and the lives of her children. We knew that she was a loving mother and instilled her family with such virtues as honesty, integrity, and a strong work ethic. Had she been reserved in her outward displays of emotion?
"I'm sorry for the reason, but it's rather wonderful to hear," I admitted.
"I know it sounds foolish. I understand that you have an entire Empire to run, but I will miss you. All of you." She smiled sweetly at Delia. "It's been a long time since I had a woman my own age to talk with. It's been a pleasure, Delia. The only good thing about all of you leaving is that at least I'll know they're in good hands with you in their home."
"I think you give me entirely too much credit, my dear," Delia said in between her good-natured laughter. "I'm certain they would listen to you much more often. I hate to admit it, but these girls do quite well without me, not perfect, mind you, but quite well."
We all laughed at Delia's attempt to lighten the situation, but it gave me an idea.
"Cyrene, why don't you come with us?" I asked.
"Excellent suggestion!" said Delia.
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," Cyrene responded.
"Why ever not?" I asked. "It doesn't have to be forever, just a visit. You could go with us to the Amazon Village. I understand we're to have an official joining ceremony and Ephiny said they're usually quite spectacular. I'd love for you to see our home in Corinth."
"My child, nothing would please me more, but I have a business to run. Beside that, Cor can't leave because of his apprenticeship. Who would mind the boy? It just seems impossible right now. Maybe someday..."
I felt dejected and powerless to make the situation right. I could have marched in a hundred workers to run the inn, but Cyrene would never have approved. This place was her life. She had built the establishment by herself and worked it nearly all her adult life in order to pay her family's way.
"I understand. It does seem rather hopeless, doesn't it?" I finally said.
Cyrene remained silent. I took her bowed head and sad face as her answer.
"One never knows what the Fates have in store for us," Delia said.
As if her answer hadn't been cryptic enough, the expression on her face changed from gloominess to simply mysterious. I seriously thought I saw a wicked little sparkle shimmer in her eye for just a moment. I passed it off as my own imagination. Before I left them sitting at the table, I vowed that I would someday find a way for Cyrene to visit with us for a spell, a plan that would somehow appease her more proprietary nature regarding her business.
I peeked my head into the room before entering. I don't know if I expected Xena to toss lightning bolts in a Zeus-like fashion, but I knew the temperature was bound to be a little frosty. She sat at the desk in her dressing gown, her hair still damp from the midday bath she must have taken after her adventure. Of all the things she and Selene might have thought to do, scaling the wall of the inn would have been dead last on my list of guesses.
The desk had been an impromptu item that Cyrene had added upon Xena's request. Since we'd arrived in Amphipolis, Xena had diligently sat just opposite the window, answering the messages that the Royal couriers had delivered.
I tiptoed in, but even with my light tread, she heard the slight creak in one of the floorboards.
"You don't have to sneak in, Gabrielle."
I looked up to see a dark eyebrow raised at a distinctly sharp angle, disappearing into dark, glistening bangs. "If you laugh, so help me, Gabrielleó"
"I would never!" But, I could not manage to keep the curve from my lips. I kept seeing that image of her picking leaves and twigs from her hair, desperately trying to hold together her dignity.
She shook her head as a reluctantly small grin emerged. "I swear, I should take you over my knee."
"Hhmm," I paused to place a thoroughly suggestive look upon my face. "That sounds like it has definite possibilities," I added shamelessly.
Both eyebrows buried themselves in those same bangs. I liked that I could still surprise her that way. Her tongue suddenly knotted, and I watched as a lascivious glaze obscured her vision. My love was nothing if not predictable. Once she realized that I knew what she was thinking, she had the decency to look embarrassed, her cheeks going pink. For a woman of her age and experience, I found it a most charming expression of her love and respect for me.
I moved closer and slipped into her lap. We kissed and snuggled close for a while before I asked the inevitable question.
"Are you still mad at me?"
"Well, if you'd come in here about a candlemark ago you would have interrupted my thoughts of how high the tower that I would eventually be locking you into would be. Now that I've had time to think on it a bit..." she grinned at me as she trailed off.
"Well, I'm rather glad you're not the sort of woman who holds a grudge."
"Actually, the very milk of human kindness running through your veins."
"You're pushing it again."
"Sorry," I said. I kissed her cheek to hide my smile.
"You're incorrigible, Little one, but I don't know what I'd do without you. You're the sanity that balances my craziness."
"I take that, and your little escape, to mean you and Selene came to an agreement?"
"I hate to admit it, but I realized that I was acting like an old fool."
"Oh my. And, what did your sister think of this startling discovery?"
"She agreed wholeheartedly."
We both laughed in the knowledge that Xena was quite serious.
"I can't believe you forgot about us, though," Xena added.
"It's not that I forgot. Well, okay, I admit that I did sort of forget, but there were extenuating circumstances."
"Mmm," she muttered.
I took that as a verbal request to continue. "I was actually trying to solve a problem for your mother."
"Gods above! What did this family do before we came here?"
"Oh," I slapped her lightly on one arm. "It's not that kind of a problem. I was trying to convince her that we would welcome her company if she should decide to join Selene and accompany us. I wasn't wrong about that, was I?" Suddenly, I thought about the offer I'd made without even consulting Xena. "How do you feel about that?"
"I'm not sure, actually. I guess..." Her face took on a faraway expression. "I guess I'm all right with it. Yes," she smiled. "I think having mother along would be great."
"There's only one problem. She won't leave the inn. Well, make that two if you count Cor."
"Ah. That doesn't surprise me about her. She must be to that point where she thinks the roof would cave in without her here to hold it up. I know because I've got the same lovely qualities."
"I remember how long it took us to finally get out of the courtyard back in Corinth. You kept yelling that you had just one more instruction for your advisors."
"Very funny," she said before joining me in laughter. "So, did you come up with some sort of solution?"
I shook my head. "No, and I hate that. I can't believe there isn't some way to solve the dilemma."
"Well, we have a few more days. I promise I'll search my brain for a way."
"Now," she waggled her eyebrows up and down. "About that spanking..."
Two days had passed and I was still no closer to arriving upon a solution to Cyrene's quandary. I couldn't devote all my time to the predicament. I had been practicing with a new weapon upon Ephiny's suggestion. The staff and short sword, she said, were weapons that every Amazon mastered at a young age. If I were to command the respect of the older Amazons in the Village, I would have to prove myself in a number of arenas, not only with weapons, but also in regards to tradition, ceremonies, and Amazon law. I had been studying such aspects of Amazon life since we first arrived in Amphipolis, but now that the time for me to officially take on the title of Amazon Queen had drawn near, we concentrated even more fully on the lessons.
"We leave tomorrow." I told Cyrene as we sat together in the kitchen.
I needn't have reminded Cyrene for the look on her face told me that she, too, realized the time had come. The young girls who worked in the inn's kitchen bustled about around us, but Cyrene and Delia easily kept track of all that the young women did. Never would I have thought that the day's savior would be our own Delia.
"Cyrene, I think you should start packing," Delia said.
The remark seemingly came from nowhere and Cyrene looked at me, to which I could only shrug.
"And how am I supposed to do such a thing?"
"Well, first you take a bag, put a few clothes in itó" I sort of chuckled over my own wit, but stopped short when both women looked at me as though my hair had suddenly turned blue.
"Sorry," I said. "Delia, what do you mean?"
"Just that Cyrene can't, or won't," she winked at me. "Leave the inn to a stranger to care for while she's gone. I have a solution to that dilemma."
"Well?" Cyrene and I said, almost in unison.
"I shall stay behind and man the ship, so to speak," Delia replied.
"What?" I said.
"Delia, that's ridiculous," Cyrene responded.
"I don't see why. You admit that I do a wonderful job around here. It really does make sense. I've seen the girls joined in their ceremony in Corinth. I have time in my life for plenty of travel and adventure and I dare say this visit won't be Gabrielle's last to the Amazon Village. So, I thought I could stay here at the inn, mother Cor, and you could go on a sort of holiday."
"IóI don't know what to say. I couldn't possibly agree to that," Cyrene said.
"Why not?" Delia asked.
"Well, it's too...I mean...Gabrielle, surely you see what I mean."
"I sort of understand how you're feeling, Cyrene, and as much as I love having Delia around, I have to agree that it's a very good solution," I said.
It was apparent that Cyrene's bluster was simply for show. She wanted to go with us more than anything, and Delia's solution was one that Cyrene could live with. I knew that Cyrene wanted to spend more time with Xena, but Delia throwing in our joining ceremony had been the perfect touch.
"I'm just not sure what to say," Cyrene hedged.
"Say thank you," Delia replied with a smile.
"Thank you. Oh, thank you, my friend," Cyrene jumped up to wrap her arms around Delia.
As arguments go, Cyrene didn't put up a very good one. It was all over rather quickly, but was simply because Cyrene was looking for a way to come along with us. Cyrene couldn't hide her excitement as she immediately rushed off to make plans and give lists of orders to all the workers. Sometime later, I saw Cor nodding his head dutifully to his mother's directions. The moment she turned her back, however, he winked in my direction. I silently laughed as I thought of the one moment of wildness, our impromptu picnic at the lake, Cor and I would always share.
As I said, I would dearly miss Delia's company, but I enjoyed the way she said that she might travel with me again someday to the Amazons. I thanked her heartily for giving us more time with Xena's mother, but in a way, Delia was as delighted as Cyrene. I suppose that as much as we relied on her, she still wished to contribute more to our family. As far as contributions went, this one would stand out in my memory for many seasons to come.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
" Are you all right, love?" I asked of Gabrielle.
"Oh, just peachy," she responded, as she wiped her face with a damp cloth that Scylla had provided.
I didn't believe Gabrielle had anything left in her stomach to lose. As was her habit under times of extreme duress, she had been sick to her stomach since the moment we left Amphipolis. I don't know which wore on her nerves more, meeting and being accepted by the Amazons or meeting her daughter for the first time.
Whichever frightened her worse was moot, since no amount of discussion or comforting could make Gabrielle's physical body believe that the world wasn't about to end. The odd, or amusing, however you looked at it, thing was that Gabrielle was fully aware of all of this. She knew it was simply her mind twisting her stomach into knots, but try to assimilate this information as she might; it just didn't help.
If we don't get there soon, I'm afraid what shape I'll show up in," Gabrielle gamely joked.
"What can I do for you, love?"
"Hit me over the head and knock me out until we reach the village."
"Okay, if you say so," I answered.
Gabrielle laughed at my jest and it made me feel slightly better, knowing that for a few moments, I could cause her to forget her worries. I wasn't sure how to make any of this better, but thought some time on solid ground might help. I ordered a halt for a midday break. The troops were extremely thankful. The heat had grown unbearable as the summer wore on and today was no exception. If it became much worse, we would have to travel by night and rest during the extreme heat of the day.
Storm clouds rumbled off in the distance, and as much as we prayed for the rain to cool us off, the bad weather stayed just northwest of our position. Gabrielle and I took a walk along a small stream by which our party had decided to stop. We held hands and eventually stopped to sit under a large olive tree. I spread a blanket on the sparse and heat scorched grass, for the overripe olives had started to fall onto the ground around the base of the tree.
"How many?" Gabrielle asked, trying not to be obvious about the fact that she gazed all around us.
We played a game among ourselves. Since Gabrielle's easy escape from the eyes of her personal guard, Atrius and Ephiny both had decided to add a few more guards to the Royal detail. They were men and women who had a bit more skill at remaining inconspicuous. Since Gabrielle and I had been told of the extra guards, which I completely agreed with, we played the 'how many are?' there game.
"How many do you think?" I asked.
"Hhmm, well...including the one in the high grass to our left and the woman in the tree just past your right shoulder, I say eight."
"You're off by half."
I pointed the remaining guards out to her, but she steadfastly refused to believe that I told the truth about seeing some of them so far away. I settled myself against the tree and bid Gabrielle to lay her head in my lap. She did as I requested, but I could feel the tension in her body.
"Mmm, I'm so tired," she said.
"I'm not surprised. You've hardly slept a full candlemark without fidgeting in your sleep or dreaming in the last three days."
"I'm sorry if I've been keeping you up. I think it's just my time of the moon coming up."
"Gabrielle, are you telling me the truth," I asked. I slowly ran my fingers through her hair in an attempt to soothe her frayed nerves.
"No," she replied slowly. "I'm sorry, Love. I should know you can see right through me."
"That isn't quite the point, Little One. I don't want you to hide your fears from me, no matter how you think I'll react."
"But you'll think it's foolish for me to act this wayó"
"No matter how you think I'll react, Love."
I already knew what the problem was. In some matters, Gabrielle was completely transparent to me. She was a strong woman who'd lived a life that few could have come through unscathed. She had developed fears based on the way she had been treated, but she grew stronger every day that we were together, slowly becoming better able to handle the flaws that life had foisted upon her.
The one development that Gabrielle still suffered with was her fear of people. Not some innate fear of people in general, but Gabrielle had a need for people to like her. She had played the part of pleaser for so long that this consequence seemed natural.
She sighed deeply and curled into a ball beside me.
"Talk to me, Love," I requested.
"I'm afraid, just nerves I suppose. The Amazons, Amira...I'm nervous about meeting them...all of them."
"Why so nervous? You usually love meeting people."
"Xena, what if they don't like me? They're all sort of stuck with me. I mean, I'm a Queen and a mother. It's not as if they can just chuck me out and get another one."
"True, I see your point there, but you're being more emotional than usual. I know it's hard for you to change what you are, Little One, and how you are, but I want you to try to believe what I'm going to say to you."
"I believe everything you tell me, Xena."
"Promise," she replied.
"I'm going to hold you to that. Okay, let's look at this rationally, all right? First, there's your daughter. Amira is going to love you. You're her mother, the only one that she's ever known, so it's sort of a given that she'll think you're wonderful, plain and simple. You may have to get to know one another and she may be a handful at first, but that should be fun, a good time in your life, not one to dread. Right?"
"I guess that makes sense," she answered with some hesitancy. I couldn't tell if my words were sinking in or if she was just sleepy. Her words came slowly, with just a touch of a slur at the end.
"Then there are your Amazons. Gabrielle, I know my words may not convince you, but if you think hard, you'll realize what I say is the truth. Artemis chose you to lead her people. Goddesses don't make mistakes. She knows, just as I do, that you're the best choice the Amazons could have made for a leader. You're an intelligent, loyal, and more compassionate woman than about any I've ever known. When it comes to them liking you, well, most of them will. Some may be reluctant, but that's simply because change isn't easy and this caught them off guard. Granted, some may have to be convinced, but I believe some time with you should cure that. There will be some, though, that won't like you."
"That's exactly what I don't want to hear. What do I do about them?"
"Nothing. Because there isn't anything you can do. They'll be the ones whose minds can't be swayed. They'll dislike you for a variety of reasons. Some may be angry, not with you, but over Melosa's death. They may not like the fact that you married me. They may think that puts them at the Empire's mercy. I think the most likely reason is that some of them will be jealous of you. It may be because of your talent or your abilities. They won't like that you're a strong, independent woman. They won't like that you can do things they cannot. And, there's not one single thing you can do about people like that. You'll make yourself sick trying."
I paused to give her a chance to think about what I said. My words were merely an obvious observation, but I hoped that, coming from me, they would hold more import to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle?" I said at last to her continued silence.
She stirred slightly and I heard that slow, deep breathing, punctuated occasionally by a light snore. I leaned my head back against the tree and smiled. I figured if she had finally relaxed enough to fall asleep, then she must have taken my words enough to heart to convince her.
I motioned to one of the guards. "Tell Captain Atrius that I want to camp here for the night. We'll start out again in the morning," I commanded the soldier. He rushed off to inform my Captain.
We stayed there, under that tree, for some time. I listened to the thunder, far off over the mountains. Some time later, I rose to my feet and gently lifted Gabrielle into my arms. I walked back toward our camp, easily carrying Gabrielle's slight form, hoping Atrius had already thought to raise our tent.
"They're an advance welcoming party come to officially greet you," Ephiny said to Gabrielle.
"Welcoming party? They look more like a lynching party," Gabrielle muttered.
I almost laughed aloud, and I noticed the slightest hint of a smile playing on Ephiny's face, as well. Gabrielle's observation had been more than accurate. We had spoke of that very thing over our morning repast earlier in the day. I warned Gabrielle of the adversarial relationship that existed between the Amazon Nation and the Greek Empire. I explained that chances were good the Amazons would be uncomfortable welcoming armed soldiers onto their land. Not to mention that the last time many of them had seen me had been in battle, when the Amazons surrendered and I gave them their freedom for fealty to the Empire. I had thought of little else, since we broke our fast that morning, but that day fifteen summers ago. I warned Gabrielle not to expect too much from these women in the way of cordiality toward me.
Gabrielle learned that up until the day Melosa had shown up for our joining ceremony, the Amazons and the Empire had always teetered upon a fine line between ally and enemy. The friendship that now existed between someone like Ephiny and I would definitely be something new to the Amazons. The looks on the faces of the women who now presented themselves to us made that much apparent. I shuddered to think what they would think if they knew that their sisters, who traveled with us, had actually made friends with a few of the centaurs.
Ephiny broke ranks to move ahead and greet an Amazon warrior. The stranger was evidently a high-ranking officer. She wore a thin leather armband died a scarlet color, indicating her rank. Warriors alone wore the armbands, the color system identifying their rank. Grunts wore plain, undecorated leather; middle officers wore a pale blue tinted armband, while high-ranking officers, such as Ephiny, wore purple. I remembered that the scarlet color put this woman just below the elders of the village.
The stranger rather looked the part of someone of import. She sat aside her horse quietly, yet with a regal bearing. Blonde hair, cropped close to her head and brown eyes were strangely reminiscent of Ephiny's features. She appeared to be a good five to ten summers older than Ephiny and I wondered if they were kin of some sort.
She and Ephiny exchanged a few private words as the rest of us waited patiently. Ephiny didn't take long about returning, leading the Amazon officer to stop their horses before Gabrielle and I. Ephiny briefly looked at me, but she addressed Gabrielle, which is rather what I expected.
"Queen Gabrielle and Lord Conqueror," she said formally. "Let me introduce you to Adara of the Panther Clan. Adara, Xena the Conqueror, and her Royal Highness, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation."
Adara bowed her head low, even though she remained seated upon her horse. "Your Highness," she said. She smiled and her eyes reflected nothing but goodness. I thought such a disposition slightly out of place for a warrior.
"Please, Adara, I lean toward familiarity. Call me Gabrielle."
Adara smiled again. "Then you must call me, Addie. It is what I am called by all my sister Amazons."
Adara's inclusion of Gabrielle as a sister Amazon had not been lost on those Amazons close enough to hear the conversation between the two women. Everyone seemed to relax slightly. It was obvious, to me at least, that this woman had just sized Gabrielle up and found my wife's first impression acceptable. I felt rather certain that this was why she came out to greet Gabrielle.
"With your permission, Gabrielle, allow me to introduce you to our fellow sisters of the Panther Clan."
I watched and waited as Gabrielle spurred her horse ahead and toward the waiting welcoming committee. The Amazon Nation was made of many tribes; each with their own Queen, but each tribe also split themselves into many factions or Clans.
The Amazons tended to be an equal sort of people, meaning that the Clans were not set up as a caste system. One Clan did not have more say or power over another. Rather, the individual groups were simply comprised of women with an expertise in one particular area. The Panther Clan, I knew, contained strong warriors, perhaps the best the Amazons had to offer. Ephiny herself was a member of the Panther Clan. One woman, usually the eldest, or most respected from each Clan then comprised the Elder Council. The Queen obtained most of her advice and guidance in running the Nation from the Elders.
The Clans contained women from every region of life from basket weavers to weapons experts. Even cooks had their own Clan. The whole idea behind the groups, as Ephiny had explained it to us, was that young Amazon girls who had strong ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives, trained, and sometimes lived, with the other women who excelled in that area. Most girls did not leave their homes or anything as Spartan-like. The system worked quite well and I often wondered if the lack of fighting and backbiting, politically, wasn't because being women in the first place, they already knew what a caste system was. They lived in a male dominated world and Gaia had already placed them in a natural sort of social order.
I must admit, Gabrielle's choice of clothing today had been a smart one. She didn't care for the heavy gold traveling armor. It made her hot and uncomfortable, but she had come to realize its necessity. Of course, now it simply created an impressive sight. To the Amazon warriors, it made Gabrielle look as one of them. Her compassionate and courteous demeanor would then appease those who were not fighters. Her beauty helped too, I thought as I smile to myself. Amazons were not averse to the effects of a beautiful woman.
Adara introduced Gabrielle to the welcoming committee comprised mostly of warriors from the Panther Clan. I hung back beside Ephiny. She had spent the last few days explaining what would probably happen upon our arrival. I knew what to expect, which made it all a little less nerve-wracking.
We had decided earlier that the bulk of our army would camp just outside the borders of the Amazon territory. A number of soldiers had already left early that morning with Solan and Yu Pan when they made for Centaur land. Solan had wanted to say hello to his centaur family and friends before meeting up with us at the Amazon village. The Amazons became considerably friendlier knowing we entered their land with only our friends, family, and personal guard.
I was to play a secondary role to Gabrielle here among the Amazons. True, I was the ruler over all these lands, but this time was for Gabrielle. I knew and understood that. In the past, such action would have made my blood boil, so it was with some little surprise that I actually felt comfortable in the role of inactive participant.
We rode into the village, which had obviously prepared for some time for Gabrielle's arrival. I watched Gabrielle more than anyone or anything else. She had begun to play her role, much the same way she did as when we rode into Athens. It was not in her nature to appear imposing and regal, but when the moment called for it, such as now, she played her role impeccably.
Additional introductions were made all around, not only between Gabrielle and the Amazons, but also between our family and our hosts. Gabrielle introduced Cyrene as he mother in law, and Cyrene beamed. The Amazons treated my mother as royalty herself, since they held a great deal of respect for their elders.
We watched as different Clans presented their colors, followed by music and dance. The center of the village, which was actually the size of a large town, overflowed with Amazons among the fringes. It appeared that everyone wanted to see the new Queen, besides witnessing history. Once Gabrielle accepted the Queen's mask, the Amazons and my Empire would unite in a way they never had before.
Finally, Adara introduced Gabrielle to the Elder Council. Gabrielle, in turn, introduced me. It was all rather stiff and formal, nothing like the cheering and shouting we experienced upon entering Athens.
"The ceremony to pass over the Queen's mask will be held this evening," Adara explained as the onlookers slowly dispersed throughout the village. "We hope that you and your family will stay with us here in the village instead of your soldiers' encampment."
"We would be honored," Gabrielle replied after looking at me for agreement.
It would be different, to be sure, but I imagined that it wouldn't kill us.
"Ephiny told me that she has already explained the need for the two of you to be joined before the Nation. We don't mean to prolong your time here unnecessarily. I hope you are agreeable to this Lord Conqueror?" Adara asked.
"I have no wish to go against tradition. Whatever your people request, I'm sure can be accomplished without too much trouble. Time isn't a consideration when it comes to keeping the customs of my wife's people," I responded.
My reply seemed to satisfy those around us immensely. I knew that recognizing the Amazons as Gabrielle's kin would go a long way with these people.
Adara assigned each of our families a couple of Amazons to act as guides. They would be our liaisons while in the village, but I understood that they would watch what we did and said just as much as they would assist us. Ephiny exchanged a few words with Adara out of earshot of the rest of us. I wondered what they said until they approached Gabrielle and I.
"Ephiny has expressed a wish to act as your escort during your stay," Adara said. "Is that acceptable Gabrielle...Lord Conqueror?" They always seemed to add me as an afterthought.
"It's most welcome," Gabrielle said, and then looked to me.
"I believe our friend will make a superior guide," I answered.
Much as she tried to hide her surprise, Adara's face gave away her emotions. I was certain that she couldn't wait to speak with Ephiny in private.
Each of our escorts, as Adara had called them, led us away from the center of town and back into the trees. I knew the homes of the Amazons would surprise the majority of our fellow guests. Few of us had ever seen the Amazon living accommodations before.
The heat of the day immediately eased as soon as we entered the lush, green forest. It was humid, yet cool in the shade. Gabrielle's eyes sparkled as she turned her head this way and that, looking upward into the trees. Her eyes reflected the same verdant color surrounding us. In all her scrolls and stories, I was sure she had never known of this. No one knew how the Amazons lived, but their own people. It was an unusual honor for Amazons to even invite strangers to stay inside the village proper.
Gabrielle's awe was over the tree homes that filled the ancient trees of the forest. Amazons had perfected the art of living high up in the trees. Walkways connected their homes yet were hardly used, the Amazons preferring to hop from branch to branch, a skill learned at a very tender age. They were not small, childhood forts. The Amazon homes were large, each family having many rooms to call their own. Staircases of wood, vine, and bamboo encircled the outside of the tree trunks. They had not fashioned the stairs for strangers alone, but for small children and those too elderly or injured to scramble among the tree's numerous intertwined branches.
The trees were enormous and went so high up as to touch the blue of the sky. The area bustled with activity. Women cooked, cleaned, and visited with one another. Children laughed and played, all to nature's music of the forest. It reminded me of a time past, and my heart instantly felt at peace. Perhaps, given my history here, that should not have been so, but there had always been a sort of cleansing feel to entering the forest of the Amazons.
I looked at my companions, and I could tell that they felt it, too. It lingered in the air like a pleasant odor and could be felt as though it emanated from the very ground beneath our feet. I knew what the others traveling with me did not, that if we had continued walking further into the forest, to its very core, we would come upon a tree so large that it put the others to shame. Here is where the feeling would be at its strongest. The ancient tree was hollow, carved out long ago after one of Zeus's thunderbolts ended its lifeline. It was far from a dead tree, however. It was the temple of Artemis, patron Goddess of the Amazons, and the feeling emanating from its center was the power of the Amazons.
"I'm absolutely...well, I'm in awe," Gabrielle said.
Ephiny smiled broadly, rather uncharacteristically I might add. She usually held her own counsel and her face was usually a mask. Pride in her homeland became evident in that smile.
"That's why I didn't tell you ahead of time. Nothing can prepare someone for the sight, and I wanted you to enjoy it without any preconceived notions at all."
We strolled along the walkways, meeting people as we went. Everyone wanted to see Gabrielle, more out of curiosity at first. By the time we had arrived, and settled in the guest homes, those women who had traveled with us began telling their stories. I would guess that two candlemarks after we entered the village, word had spread of Gabrielle's exploits. I heard some of the whispers and smiled to myself. They talked of how Gabrielle had defeated Queen Melosa in a fair fight and how the small Queen had risked her life to save the former Queen and her daughter. The Amazons, who saw more of Gabrielle in action in Athens than I, told of how Gabrielle's trick of darkening the harbor and ordering the warships there under cover had effectively ended the Persian attack. Before we had touched the final stair down to the ground, Gabrielle had earned nothing short of Goddess status in Amazon eyes. Try as she might, however, it was almost impossible to get them to forgo formality and call her Gabrielle.
Once I landed upon firm ground, I turned to give a hand to Gabrielle. The last stair was slightly higher above the ground than the space between the other stairs. Just as I grabbed onto Gabrielle's hand, something hit my legs and bounced off as if hitting a wall. I looked down at my feet and so it must have felt that way to the small girl lying dazed at my feet. Gabrielle narrowly avoided stepping on top of her. Moments before I had seen the child racing along with a stream of other children playing with a ball.
The youngster shook her head and looked up at Gabrielle. "Hey, watch where yer goin', huh?"
I believe I heard the entire village make one collective gasp. One of their children had just treated the Queen as if she was a dockworker. I nearly fell to the ground in hysterical laughter.
Gabrielle, too, smiled down at the girl. "Why, pardon me," Gabrielle said.
Ephiny picked the girl up by the back of her leather top, a disapproving glare on the warrior's face. "Is this the way you talk to your Queen?" She took a better look at the girl's face. "I don't know you. Who do you belong to?"
Before the girl could answer, one of the many young women assigned to our family as escorts rushed forward.
"Amira, shame!" she said.
"Where does this girl belong?" Ephiny asked the young Amazon unknowingly. The rest of us heard the name and froze.
The young woman looked up at Gabrielle and I, then over to Ephiny. She did that a number of times as she stammered. "Iósheówell, she's...she's Amira...the..." she paused and looked Ephiny straight in the face, rolling her eyes in our direction repeatedly.
"Oh!" Ephiny finally realized what the young woman was trying to say. "Gabrielle, I'm sorryóit..."
Gabrielle dismissed Ephiny's apology with a wave of her hand, but she never took her eyes off the girl at our feet. Amira looked up at the adults around her with curious eyes, but no fear. She seemed to take it all in stride. I bent and lifted her off her feet in into my arm. I stood so we could all get a good look at her.
She smiled at me and I recognized her in an instant. Dark hair, the color of my own, and skin darkened from time in the sun. What stood out were her eyes. Just as Acasia said...as green as Gabrielle's own.
She sat there swinging her legs back and forth and looking at everything below her. "Wow...just like bein' in a tree up here."
"Tell me your name again?" I asked.
"Amira," she replied.
"Your mother gave you a beautiful name," I said, glancing between Gabrielle and the girl. Tears rolled down Gabrielle's cheeks, but her smile was a happy one.
"It means, princess," Gabrielle added before her voice broke and she couldn't continue. She seemed unsure of what else to say even if she could have calmed herself enough to speak more.
"Really?" Amira's eye open wide.
My heart went out to her, but I knew she was simply experiencing the greatest joy of her young life, and the encounter overwhelmed her. The daughter whom she had thought dead for these past five summers had suddenly come to life. The child had not simply materialized, but she appeared happy, healthy, and the very image of her mother. I knew for I had met Gabrielle at the same age.
"Who are you?" Amira asked, pointing at me.
"My name is Xena and this is Gabrielle."
"Uh oh," Amira responded, looking down at the ground and wearing a rather guilty expression.
"Uh oh what?" I asked.
"She's the new Queen," Amira leaned toward my ear, yet whispered loud enough for all of us to hear. "I was supposed to be good around her today. I forgot."
"I think you're being very good," I whispered back.
"Why is you so sad?" Amira pointed a tiny finger at Gabrielle.
It was as if I went back in time. There was that smile, the open, honest expression, and those eyes. At that moment, I was sitting in a meadow and a youngster had just given me a rose, so I would no longer be sad. The child had been Gabrielle all those summers ago, but this girl was unmistakable as Gabrielle's daughter.
"Gabrielle isn't sad. She's very, very happy," I answered for Gabrielle.
"But, she's cryin'."
"That's just her way of being happy."
The youngster didn't look quite convinced, but accepted my words as the truth.
"Maybe if you're good, Gabrielle will tell you all about it later."
Amira beamed. Gabrielle reached over and brushed dark bangs from the girl's face.
"Are you going to the ceremony this evening or is that past your bedtime?" Gabrielle finally composed herself enough to ask.
"I get to stay up special. All us kids do."
"Well, how would you like to sit with us and the rest of our family at the ceremony?" Gabrielle asked.
You would have thought Gabrielle had placed a bag of gold in the girl's hands. Amira appeared exuberant. "Yes, please." She turned to look at the young Amazon woman who had scolded her earlier. "Shauna, is that okay?"
"Absolutely," Shauna replied.
"So, it's all settled then," I said.
Amira tugged on my sleeve and again whispered loudly. "Are they gonna make you take a bath, too 'cause of tonight?"
I couldn't help laughing this time. I had a feeling Amira and I were going to be good friends
To be continued in : Chapter 32: My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird...
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