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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 32: My Heart Is Like A Singing Bird...
"What do you think?" Selene asked as she twirled her body around so we could see her from all angles.
"Oh my," Cyrene said. "It's very…Amazon, isn't it?"
"That the whole point, Mother. I sort of wanted to blend in, you know? Xena…Gabrielle?"
We all sat together in the large guest quarters afforded to Gabrielle and I. We shared a midday meal with our family and friends, but most of them had left to look around the village and to give Gabrielle some quiet time before the ceremony. Gabrielle was to meet with the Elder Council first. They would actually approve her right to the Queen's mask. If they did indeed approve of Gabrielle's bid for Queen, the official ceremony to hand over the Queen's mask would then take place.
Gabrielle cried for a long while once we returned to our quarters. They were tears of happiness and perhaps some frustration. It took everything in her not to scoop Amira up and tell her who her mother actually was. She held herself back, knowing it was best for her daughter to learn of Gabrielle in a subtler manner. One good cry later and Gabrielle became much more animated. The pride in her daughter came out in her voice, even the expression on her face.
We all sat back during the meal and listened to Gabrielle with amused grins. She went on and on about Amira; how pretty she was, and wasn't she smart? Every other sentence started with Amira's name. It never became tiring. Everyone here loved Gabrielle dearly and each of us thanked Athena for blessing Gabrielle with such a gift. Actually, the reason Gabrielle was even in Amazonia took a secondary position, so thrilled was she upon meeting her daughter.
Just now, we sat with my Mother when Selene burst in to show us her new garb. Funny how seeing strangers half clad in leather didn't bother me in the least, but seeing my sister dressed that way made me want to beat the Tartarus out of the Amazon who had suggested such attire in the first place.
I felt Gabrielle's hand go to my shoulder and squeeze lightly. She sat on the arm of my chair and I could see that the smile on her face was a little strained. Even she thought Selene's clothing somewhat sparse, she also saw what I saw in my sister's face. Selene was happier than I had seen her since first meeting her. She finally found a place where she felt accepted for who she was. Perhaps that was why my mother acceded to Selene's wish to 'fit in'.
"There's not much to it," I couldn't keep myself from saying.
Gabrielle squeezed harder, but her smile grew larger. "What she means is that what's there is beautiful, Selene."
"Thanks." Selene smiled and looked down at herself. "I know there's not much to it, but it's the way all the women dress here. I just wanted to…you know…Xena, you're not going to be ashamed to be seen with me, are you?"
Suddenly my sister sounded like a frightened child. I, of all people, understood the need to fit in, to feel accepted by one's peers. All at once, I felt very ashamed at the way I had treated her, as though she didn't have a brain in her head. On the contrary, Ephiny and Gabrielle already had Selene reading philosophy scrolls by Socrates.
I woke from my musing to see everyone in the room staring at me. I knew that the next words out of my mouth might very well spell out how the rest of our lives would be lived, Selene and I. The relationship with my new sister was important to me, and even though heartfelt chats were not my forte, I decided that we needed to speak alone.
"Would you two mind leaving Selene and I alone for a moment?" I looked to my mother and Gabrielle.
"Of course not," they both said in unison. They jumped up far too quickly, and I found it slightly reminiscent of rats leaving a sinking ship.
My mother had given me free reign in helping to raise my younger sister. It was an honor of sorts and I didn't want to disappoint Cyrene. We had talked in Amphipolis and Cyrene decided to become much more lenient in raising Selene. Since the girl would be my ward while visiting Corinth, Cyrene had said that I could set down as many or as few rules as I thought best. Unfortunately for Selene, I had been accustomed to running an army of undisciplined men. Rules by the bucket load were my choice.
"What?" Selene drawled, looking at me suspiciously.
I rose and walked near to where she stood.
"Don't come any closer, Xena. I'll tell mom," Selene said, backing up to the wall.
"Oh, please. Where do you get all this paranoia from? Come on, let's sit over here." I led her to the back balcony of our quarters. It was quiet and peaceful there, facing the rest of the forest instead of out toward the bustle of the village.
I sat down on a stair, Selene warily taking the spot beside me. "Why are you acting that way?" I questioned her cautious behavior.
"Well, I figured you were setting me up for something. You're usually not this nice to me."
I chuckled. "I guess I'm not, am I? Sorry about that."
"Did Mom make you do this?"
"Will you stop. Mother didn't make me say anything. I just thought…I know I treat you like…"
"An idiot," Selene finished.
"Yea, well, I'm sorry about that. Hades, I guess I am just an old…what was it you called me? Yea, an old crabapple I just…you know there are things in the world, Selene, people that will hurt you if you let them."
"I know that, Xena. It's not as if I'm a child. I may not have been out of Amphipolis, but I do know some things. Plus, I know that you wouldn't act that way if you didn't care about me."
I smiled. Like Gabrielle, Selene had said the words that I had been unable to speak aloud. I had to prove to her that I could act like an adult, too.
"I do care, Selene. You're my sister and I love you. I think that sometimes I look back at my own life when I see you. I grew up much too fast, learning adult things long before I was mature enough to handle the knowledge. I want to make sure that doesn't happen to you."
"I guess I understand that, but you can't protect me forever, Xena. I know you mean well, but I've seen seventeen summers. Most of the girls my age are married and have children already."
I thought about her words and realized the truth in them. She was a young woman and I looked upon her as a child.
"I suppose I wanted you to stay as a child. I never had a sister before I met you. I guess I just wanted you to be my little sister for a bit longer."
"Hey," Selene said, nudging her shoulder against mine. "No matter how old I get, Xena, I'll always be your little sister."
"I guess that's true, huh?" I gave her a hug and we finally laughed at ourselves. Knowing my family and my own inherited temper, I knew this was far from the last disagreement Selene and I would have. There were sure to be many more fights over the seasons, but it had not been that long ago when I didn't have a family to argue with.
"Now, about that outfit," I said at last.
"You hate it, don't you? What? I look terrible in it, don't I?"
I couldn't help but smile to myself. The girl's paranoia put mine to shame. I wondered if it was something we inherited from Cyrene.
"It's a bit revealing, but you look rather beautiful in it."
"Really?" She beamed over at me.
"Really. Now, if anyone touches you inappropriately, what do you do?"
Selene held up her right hand as though swearing an oath. "I slap her face and scream your name."
I laughed aloud. "Atta girl."
Sitting comfortably at my appointed place within the sparsely
quarters, I watched as Adara introduced Gabrielle to the Elder Council. Adara
made it clear to me, in her rather easy going and subtle way, that
I was there
simply as an observer and because of my relationship with Gabrielle. I took
no offense, smiled, and tried to be as even-tempered as possible.
This demeanor would have been impossible in days past, but I was a different woman now. Besides, I knew everything I did and said here would reflect upon my wife. Gabrielle took her position among these women quite seriously. We spoke numerous times about it, talking and planning how we would handle her Amazon reign. It would not always be easy, but Gabrielle had explained to me that she felt a sort of bond with these women. And, after having distanced herself from her own blood family, a people she could call her own became that much more important.
The afternoon's meeting with the Elders of the tribe was a test of sorts. I was uncertain as to how they planned to go about it, but Ephiny said that the Council had to validate Gabrielle's claim to the Queen's mask. Unfortunately, Ephiny and Velasca had been the only Amazons truly close enough to hear both Timara and Melosa when they gave over their right of royalty to Gabrielle. A great deal rode on Ephiny's honor among these women, considering that she was the only witness left alive. If the Council didn't believe Ephiny, I didn't know what we would do.
I saw the Priestess, Satena, was also present. Ephiny had obviously garnered Satena's testimony as one in Gabrielle's favor. The priestess had traveled with Melosa's party when the Amazons presented themselves in Corinth. Satena had confided some time later that the reason she traveled with Queen Melosa had been a series of visions she had revolving around a new Queen who would take the Amazon race to new heights. Everything told the Priestess that she would find that new Queen in Corinth.
A part of me felt as though that time had been ages ago. Satena had indeed found her new Queen and she stood before all of us just then. The Elders, twelve of them in all, each held a place at a large, curved table. Gabrielle stood before them, standing nearly in the center of the giant emblem painted on the wooden floor. The circular design held a separate image, one for each of the Amazon Clans.
"Queen Gabrielle, first we would like to make it clear that we call you by this title as a courtesy. You are indeed Queen of the Empire, but whether or not we will offer you the Queen's mask has yet to be determined," Adara said.
"Understood, and I thank you," Gabrielle replied.
They began, then. The council spoke individually to Ephiny and Satena, and the women of the Royal Guard. They even asked a question or two of me. Lastly, the council spoke collectively to some of the Amazon warriors who had been present in Corinth.
Looking on, I saw one or two of the Elders taking occasional notes upon flat pieces of parchment, while others nodded thoughtfully at the testimonies. In fact, most of the women seated on the Council did a rather outstanding job at hiding any emotion they might have felt. Their faces were as impassive as stone. I could not tell one way or another how Gabrielle fared in their eyes.
Eventually the time came for them to speak to Gabrielle. I wondered what she would say. In fact, up until the moment we had left for the Council room, Gabrielle wondered what she would say. How could she convince a race of women, to whom she was a relative foreigner, that she should be Queen, that they should obey her every word without question? Even I waited on the edge of my seat to see what words she would utter.
The Elder, Venora, spoke first. "Your Highness…Gabrielle," she smiled. "We have heard from all present about what kind of a woman they think you are. Besting Melosa in a fair fight tells us of your skills as a warrior. Your actions in Athens during a time of war certainly speaks highly of your ability as leader and strategist. We have also been told of your willingness to risk your own life in order to save the life of Princess Timara, which shows us all that the stories of your heroics are quite true. These, however, are merely tales to those of us not present at the time. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to let your character speak for itself. So, I ask you, what kind of a woman are you?"
Gabrielle looked around the room. She paused when our eyes met and I smiled slightly, nodding my head a small bit in encouragement.
"Well, I was there, and even I'm impressed by the way you've made me sound." She chuckled and most everyone in the room followed her lead. With that nervous, but oh so human gesture, everyone relaxed just a bit more.
Gabrielle bowed her head and looked at the floor. She stood still, her hands folded loosely in front of her. When she looked up again at the women before her she appeared more at ease.
"I have to say that I'm honored to be among you. I'm very glad that I'm here, no matter what your decision may be. I admit that when Melosa offered me her right to the mask, I don't think I realized all that it entailed. That was before I had taken on the duties as the Queen to the Empire in earnest, however. I'm a much more learned woman in those areas now, and while I'm flattered at the words my friends have used to describe me, I need to add a little clarity."
"Are you saying that someone lied?" Adara sat up straighter in her chair.
"No," Gabrielle responded quickly. "Absolutely not. It's simply that…well, perspective is a funny thing. What you see depends on where you're standing at any given moment."
"So you think our sisters simply see you differently than you see yourself?" Venora questioned.
"Exactly. Let me say again that considering me for such a role honors me immensely, but I don't want to mislead you in any way."
"Gabrielle, you rather sound as if you're trying to talk us out of considering you for the Queen's mask. Actually, you talk as though you don't want to be Queen of the Amazons," Lexa, another Elder, said.
"Part of me certainly doesn't want it."
Nearly everyone in the room held their breath, their eyes bouncing between Gabrielle and the table where the Elders sat wearing curious expressions.
"Let me explain," Gabrielle hurriedly continued. "There is a part of me that wishes I was off living a simple life on a small farm somewhere, far away from the cares and responsibilities of royal life. That, however, is not my life and most of me wouldn't have it any other way. Being in positions of power yourselves, I think most of you can understand what I mean. Those who lead carry such accountability upon their shoulders."
As Gabrielle talked, I noticed that one or two of the Elders nodded in agreement.
"I am living the life I have been fated to live," Gabrielle began again. I love what I'm doing and who I am. I am no hero, nor am I a famous warrior. To be honest, I have lived most of my life, since I was seven, anyway, as a slave. I'm sure most of you have heard the stories.
"I'm a simple woman, contrary to what my position within the Empire implies. I have lived a life that's been both blessed and cursed, and I existed by doing whatever was necessary in order to survive. I suppose that's what my new friends speak of. I believe we all have the potential to act with compassion, strength, or even heroics. I live my life now just as I did when I was that slave, doing whatever I need to in order to survive.
"When you ask me what kind of a person I see myself as, I can only say that I am what you see, no more and no less. I am no Goddess, no super human, only a woman who tries her best. If you approve of me as leader of your people, I will do exactly the same, whatever has to be done in order to see the Amazons thrive as a race."
"And do you see any conflicts arising given that you would be Queen over two realms, so to speak?" a different Elder, Onyeka, asked.
"Please, don't think that I have or would enter into this situation without much thought. Xena and I have discussed that very thing, but in all our talk, we could not conceive of a circumstance where I would ever have to choose one people or domain over another."
"But, if you did have to?" Lexa prodded.
"Lexa, you ask her to answer concretely regarding an abstract scenario. It is impossible to answer," Adara responded in Gabrielle's defense.
"Very well," Lexa continued. "Gabrielle, if the need to choose between the Amazons and the Empire arose, who would have your loyalty?"
There was silence as Gabrielle thought exactly how to answer. I knew, however that unlike others in the same position, Gabrielle would be completely honest.
"I won't lie to you. My loyalties will never waver nor change. My first allegiance will always be to my wife, and I could never betray Xena. Rather than ever have to choose, I would like to think that intellect and a cool head would be beneficial in arriving upon a compromise instead of an ultimatum."
"Well said," Adara responded.
I could see that many of the Elders were impressed with Gabrielle's sincerity, but there were still a few, among them Lexa, who looked unconvinced.
"So, you're telling us that when it comes right down to the quick of things, you will side with the Empire against us," Lexa said, proving my suspicion of her attitude.
"I don't look at it as standing with the Empire, I see it as standing beside my wife."
"Perhaps, but how can we know what will happen for certain?" Lexa said.
"Again, Lexa, you condemn her for an action she may never commit," Adara added.
"Or an action that she may."
"I am not a Goddess, I cannot see the future, but I feel from Gabrielle's words that your scenario will never come to pass. At the very least, I see her doing everything in her power to avoid such a thing."
You're right, Sister," Lexa began. "Perhaps to be safe, we should consult with Artemis."
"You know that could take moons for Satena to receive an answer."
"Then, maybe we move too quickly."
"Satena has made it clear, Sister, exactly when the Queen's mask must be accepted," Adara replied firmly.
No one else in the room spoke, but some of the Elders looked at the floor, self-consciously aware of the tension between Lexa and Adara. Their conversation and the strained tone in their voices told me that this wasn't the first time the two women took the opposite sides of an argument.
"Um, excuse me," Gabrielle addressed Adara and Lexa.
They paused to look at Gabrielle.
"I don't pretend to understand everything you're talking about, but if you have questions as to my legitimacy, why don't we simply ask Artemis?"
Gabrielle looked at me and I nodded, thinking it a most sensible suggestion.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle, we should have made you more aware. As you know according to Satena's visions, the mask ceremony must take place before the new moon. What you probably are not aware of is the amount of time it would take to contact Artemis. There would have to be ceremonies, prayers, fasting…it could be moons before Satena feels the spirit of Artemis contacting her."
"The spirit of Artemis?" Gabrielle repeated.
She looked at me, and I shrugged my shoulders, just as unaware of what Adara was talking about.
"I was thinking more along the lines of just asking her. You know…in person," Gabrielle added.
The Elders must have found Gabrielle's question amusing because all of them chuckled lightly. Most were polite enough to cover their smiles with their hands.
"And, how do you propose we go about doing this 'asking'?" Lexa asked as she looked around the room at her sister Amazons, seemingly encouraging them to humiliate Gabrielle with more laughter.
"Well…I…I mean," Gabrielle looked nervously from me to them. "The last time, she just appeared when we needed her," Gabrielle said.
I nodded my head in agreement, which caused every person in the room to look at Gabrielle and I as if we'd both lost our minds.
"You've met…actually spoken with the Goddess, Artemis?" Adara asked.
It was evident that she wanted to believe Gabrielle. I realized then that none of these women had ever seen their patron, which wasn't very unusual. Some people lived their entire lives, serving one God or Goddess, without ever meeting them in mortal form.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered. "You see it was actually Athena who introduced me to them."
"Them?" Adara asked.
I knew where Gabrielle was headed, and I could see that, to these women, her story was about to go from ludicrous to completely unbelievable in a matter of moments.
"Well, there was Athena, Artemis, then Aphrodite showed up and I—"
Suddenly Adara laughed. "She's joking, of course. Gabrielle, for a moment I actually believed—"
"I'm not joking at all."
Silence, which is supposed to be no sound at all, filled the room with a deafening crescendo.
"I'm not sure I know what to say," Adara responded.
"I do," Lexa added. "If the potential Queen actually talks to the Gods, why doesn't she simply summon Artemis for all of us to see?"
Adara looked over at Lexa and I saw what the Amazon warrior saw. It was a look of triumph in Lexa's face, but there was something more. Lexa had been giving Gabrielle a Hades of a time for another reason. Obviously, Gabrielle had split open some sort of political power struggle within the tribe with her nomination as Queen.
Adara sighed silently when she looked up at Gabrielle. Lexa had beaten her and she could do nothing more than rely on Gabrielle. "Is this possible, Gabrielle?"
"Well, I—" she looked over at me. Actually, the entire room now stared in my direction, which made me extremely uncomfortable. I was in a position where I had to speak up.
"As we all know, the Gods are not ones to jump at our bidding. For some seasons now I have had a…well, a more in depth relationship with Athena than most mortals. I have always found that making an offering in the local temple a way of requesting her presence."
"Artemis is our patron, as you know, Lord Conqueror, but do you suppose the temple of Artemis would suffice?" Adara asked me.
"I dare think so."
"Are you aware that only Amazons may enter the holy temple? We can allow Gabrielle inside because the Princess Timara willed her rights as an Amazon to your Queen."
"I am aware," I answered. "I have faith that Gabrielle will have no trouble in summoning either Athena or Artemis."
Gabrielle continued to stare at me in much the same way the rest of the room had only moments earlier. Once the Council decided that we would adjourn to the temple, we filed out of the building and Gabrielle and I walked side-by-side into the deep of the forest.
"But, Xena, I've never summoned any of the Gods' before. They just…show up."
"Don't let them know that," I indicated the Amazons around us. "You make an appropriate offering, you know the deal with that, and you ask Artemis to show up. If she doesn't show, try for Athena."
"Sounds easy," she grinned, but the sound of her voice told me it was a facetious reply.
We must have made an odd site, but not one woman or child followed us. I suppose the strained, maybe even fearful expressions on the Elders' faces discouraged any followers. I did notice that once again Ephiny and Adara whispered to one another as they walked.
We stopped before the massive wooden doors of the temple. Stained a deep, dark brown, they looked rather forbidding, closed and barred as they were. Satena directed two of the guards to remove the heavy wooden piece that served at lock. It seemed no wonder to me that Artemis never appeared to these women. In Corinth, Athena's temple stood open every moment of the day or night so patrons could enter the sacred building and worship whenever they wished.
Satena directed the same two women to arrange a suitable offering. The women rushed off and returned less than half a candlemark later.
In the meantime, Adara looked to me. "Again my apologies—"
"No apologies are necessary, Addie. I understand the necessity for tradition and ceremony to be kept among your people alone."
She looked relieved and I had to remind myself that she and I had most probably fought against one another in seasons past. These Amazons had as skewed a current view of me, as they had about the centaurs. She could have thought that I might lose my temper and start lopping off some heads if she hadn't given me my way.
The two Amazons sent off by Satena returned, and Gabrielle and I watched as they deposited a fresh hind at the Priestess's feet.
"I'm beginning to understand why you don't see a lot of Artemis around here," I said aloud.
"You find our offering lacking?" Satena questioned in an obviously offended tone.
I looked to Gabrielle to answer, since she had been completely aware of Athena's wishes regarding offerings in her temple.
"Not lacking, just…well, imagine if someone threw a hunk of raw meat before you and expected it to be your dinner," Gabrielle answered. "Or look at it as though someone really was setting this before you as an offering. Would you feel honored if another living creature lost his life just to pay tribute to you?"
"Are you saying that Artemis would be offended at our offering?" Lexa asked. It seemed as if she constantly tried to trap Gabrielle with her own words.
"Offended is rather strong. I'm simply saying that there might be more encouraging ways to entice your patron to make an appearance."
"Such as?" Satena asked. Gone was her affronted expression. She sounded genuinely interested now.
"Well, I do know that Athena prefers silver in order to provide for her priestesses who care for the temple. She also enjoys flowers and living plants on her altar."
"Interesting, but I and my novitiates are cared for by our tribe. We have no need for money," Satena replied.
"I see. What do you do then with the game, such as this hind?"
"Our food is provided by the hunters of our tribe, so we give the meat to those less fortunate who live along the borders of our land. The gold and silver we do acquire is kept in the temple, unused."
"Very admirable. I suppose—I mean I'm not an expert by any means—but, perhaps appropriate sacrifices should come from within."
"Within?" Lexa questioned.
"Such as a personal offering or sacrifice. Lexa, what sort of role do you hold within the tribe, aside from serving on the Council?"
"I fashion staves. In fact, I carve some of the best staffs in all of the Seven Tribes."
"Perfect, but you don't just give them away, correct?"
"If I did, I'd go hungry."
"Exactly, so a sort of personal sacrifice would be for you to give away one of these staffs."
"I see exactly what you are saying," Satena said while nodding her head. "Extraordinarily simple, yet I could see it being much more effective."
"Well, now that we've learned that new step, perhaps we should enter the temple," Adara said. "Are you ready, Gabrielle?"
"I suppose it's as good a time as any," Gabrielle said.
I gave her a strong hug before she turned away, quickly kissing her on the forehead. "Just remember who you are and why you want to talk to them, and they'll appear for you."
Gabrielle nodded her head and smiled. Perhaps I had been the only one who knew her well enough to see that it had been a front, a good one, but that might have been because she had been trying to convince herself, as well. When Ephiny walked past me, I realized that I hadn't been the only one to see through Gabrielle's false bravado. Ephiny looked at me with an expression that said she hoped Gabrielle knew what she was doing.
I hoped she did, too.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I suppose I should have known that I couldn't hide anything from Xena. She looked as nervous for me as I felt for myself. Ephiny had stayed by my side, even once we entered the temple. I noticed the same knowing expression on her face as Xena had cast in my direction. I hoped I could make the best of the situation. There had actually been no sense in worrying about something I didn't have the power to change. I could do no more than request. Everything else lay directly within the power of Artemis and Athena.
I paused as we made our way toward the altar at the front of the temple. I'm sure that I appeared as a farm girl visiting Athens for the first time. Looking upward with my jaw hanging open, I searched the blackness above me. I had expected to see the sunlight sparkling through the branches, but the forest's ceiling appeared nowhere in sight. Our soft booted feet caused echoes, lost somewhere high above our heads.
From the outside, the tree looked massive indeed. It had been at least twenty paces across. Once inside, I stood in awe. Everything had been kept as natural looking as possible. In some spots, roots as thick as my legs had pushed their way through the dirt floor when the tree had been alive. They had since been polished and fashioned into seats and benches. The walls looked polished smooth for as far up as I could see.
The absolute quiet had surprised me. I expected to hear sounds from outside. After all, this had only been a tree. I heard some muffled noises, but nothing I could distinguish. At the very front of the temple sat the altar. The altar had actually been a large slab of wood, sliced across the grain, and polished until it shone. It sat upon a grouping of tangled roots that came out of the ground like legs.
I guessed that a total of twenty or so women had entered the temple. The majority stayed back, sitting on the floor. It seemed apparent by their expressions that they hadn't known what to expect. They looked around as they slowly sat, looking in the direction of the Elders, who, in turn stared at me. I hadn't known how to tell then that I knew about as much about what would happen as they did. Instead, I kept that sense of outward confidence and turned to smile at Ephiny.
Ephiny stopped about six paces away from the altar. "I'll wait here," she said. I assumed to give me some sort of privacy.
I continued on to the altar and bowed respectfully to the beautifully carved likeness of Artemis. The artisan had been very generous in regards to some of the Goddess's physical attributes. I wondered if the Amazons would be disappointed when they actually met her. My confidence level in her or Athena appearing had been relatively high. I worried more about the technique I would use to request their presence than whether they would actually show up. That surprised me sometime after the fact, but at the time, I had been much too caught up in the drama of the whole event.
What hadn't surprised me had been the look on Lexa's face. I had known from the start that she would be trouble. It had simply been the way she had looked upon me. I couldn't fathom what she had against me, but it became clear that I hadn't been the only person in that room with whom she had issues. My guess had been that some political tension existed within the Amazon tribe, and I just happened to walk into the middle of it.
I knelt before the altar, which had been customary for me. Xena had never been able to understand my reverence for the Gods, but then again, I'd never had them intrude and affect my life in quite the same way she had. Well, at least not in person as they had with Xena.
The good news had been that I'd been sure I looked as though I knew what to do. The bad news had been that after spending so much time discussing the correct sort of offerings to present to a Goddess, I had forgotten one myself. I had some obols in my pocket, but that seemed so impersonal and I hadn't wished to offend, especially at a time when I very much needed someone to put in an appearance. I took a chance and offered something as personal as I could think of…my prayers and thanks.
They hadn't even been prayers really. I had simply decided to talk to Athena as though she stood before me. Of course, recently enough good happenings filled so it hadn't been hard to give thanks. Then, I thought about Amira.
How easy to think good and happy thoughts when I knew that not a hundred paces away, my very own daughter lay napping. They had tried, all those men. From the Persians to the barbarous pirates of Greece, including Ares, the God of War, they had all taken their turns at me. They had tried to defeat me and they failed, Athena had seen to that. She would always have my never-ending loyalty, but for saving my daughter, for that I had no gift large enough to offer her.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
" I can't tell you how long I've been waiting for you to request my presence."
Athena's voice took me so much by surprise that I spun around and drew my sword out of sheer reaction. I felt rather embarrassed when I realized it was the Goddess. The Amazons standing near me also drew swords, but I made them step back and pause with a wave of my hand.
"What are you doing here and what in Hades are you talking about?" I asked.
"You—you didn't call on me," Athena replied, realizing something had gone wrong. "But, I felt something."
"That wasn't me," I said through clenched teeth. "That was Gabrielle."
"How odd. It felt just like you. Where is she?"
"She's in there." I jerked a thumb toward the temple in exasperation. "Gabrielle is the one summoning you."
"What's Gabrielle doing in Artemis's temple looking for me?"
I slid my blade back into its scabbard and rather ungraciously took Athena by the arm and led her a few paces away from the still-amazed Amazons.
"I would think," I began, my teeth still clenched tightly together. "That being a Goddess and all, you might already know."
She pulled her arm out of my grasp. "You forget your place, Xena," she snapped. "Look if I went around listening to every mortal's thought, I'd quickly go insane. It doesn't work like that."
"Well, just try for a second. It would save a hell of a lot of explaining on my part."
Her gray eyes took on a vague, far away sort of expression. It only took a heartbeat for clarity to express itself in those eyes.
"Oh," she said, embarrassment clear in her face. "I guess I should—" She shrugged toward the temple.
"What a good idea."
"Do you think—I mean, should I go in the front or just pop in?"
She left in a sort of huff. I couldn't blame her. I'd acted a tad exasperated with her. Although I tried to show some deference for Athena, the Gods just naturally got on my nerves. At the time, I think my poor disposition had been mostly due to worry for Gabrielle and what had been happening inside Artemis's temple.
I turned around to find about half a dozen Amazons staring at me. I knew I needed some sort of explanation.
"Uh…she just needed directions."
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I admit that my mind had wandered a bit. My thoughts had begun to revolve around my daughter. The train of my deliberations grew longer and longer until I barely remembered what I'd come there for in the first place. I worried about how I would tell Amira that I was her mother. That notion had been overshadowed by the complete and utter joy I felt at first seeing her. She was so perfect, so intelligent, and utterly beautiful. Gods! Had I become one of those mothers? I didn't want to be one of those women who doted on a child who wasn't anywhere near as gifted as her mother thought her to be.
I had asked a few of the young women who had been in charge of caring for Amira since she'd been in the village, and they found the girl amazingly resilient. I hoped that some of that came from me, from my blood flowing within her body. My other wish had been that she had enough spirit to forgive me for giving her away. Xena saw it differently. She said that I had saved Amira from death on that day, but it would always be hard for me to view the experience that way. I suppose my guilt wouldn't let me. I said a quick prayer asking Athena to give me the words to tell Amira. Athena!
With a sudden flash of clarity, I remembered what I was supposed to be doing at that moment. Athena's presence helped to remind me.
"I wasn't sure you'd come," I said, remaining on my knees until she bid me rise.
"Yes well, that's a long story." She looked uncomfortable for a moment, but the expression didn't last. "I'm here now and I understand you need a little one-to-one with Artemis."
"I sure do. You see…" I stood closer and spoke in a volume that only she could hear. "The tribe seems to have some little political games going on and there are some who hope that I won't be Queen. In fact, I think that they put me in a position where I had to call on you just to prove I couldn't get you here."
"Women!" Athena crossed her tanned arms across her golden breastplate.
"I 'm just glad you made an appearance." I looked over my shoulder and caught Ephiny staring at me oddly.
"Oh, they can't see me."
"What?" I lowered my voice to a sort of hiss. Actually, I whispered between clenched teeth. "Won't they just think I'm nuts now—standing here talking to myself and all?"
"Not for long, little one. I'll find Artemis and drag her butt down here. She's probably off hunting somewhere, so it may take a little while, but I'll be back."
"Okay." I know I sounded a bit unconvinced.
She cupped her hand against my cheek and suddenly my doubt vanished. I don't know if it was some sort of godly power or if it was the look of compassion those gray eyes displayed. Either way I mustered up a confident smile for her.
"That's my girl. Artie doesn't mean to ignore these gals, but she's extremely shy. I know mortals don't think that about Gods, but we have our traits, too. My sister hates crowds and people seem to frighten her for some reason. Besides, have you seen the offerings these guys give?"
I chuckled. She was right. I'd never thought about the Gods as being afraid of anything. Perhaps, like Xena, Artemis just didn't excel at small talk and that made being around people a rather frightening prospect.
"I've sort of spoken to them about the offerings. I think they're willing to work on that."
"Thank goodness. Okay, Gabrielle, wait here and…well, just stall them, I guess."
She disappeared leaving behind her customary gold shimmers of light. Her last words hadn't exactly filled me with confidence. I still felt wonderfully trusting that she wouldn't let me down. What I lacked confidence in was what I was going to say to Ephiny, who stood staring at me just then.
"Are you okay," Ephiny asked under her breath once she'd moved closer.
"Sure," I answered. I tried to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, that I hadn't just spoken with an invisible Goddess.
"Are you sure?" She just stared at me.
"Oh, all right. I can't lie to you anymore than I can fool Xena."
"Where you talking to yourself?"
"No, I was not. I'm not some sort of lunatic, thank you very much. Athena was here. She's gone to get Artemis."
"I couldn't see her."
"She was invisible to everyone else."
Ephiny couldn't have made her disbelief clearer than if she'd simply come out and said she thought I had lost my mind. We spoke low enough so as not to be overheard, but our expressions had obviously made Adara aware that something had gone amiss. She came closer and bowed her head in close to ours.
"Is everything all right?"
Ephiny looked at me with that infuriatingly patient look she had, but remained silent.
"Oh, fine! Go ahead and tell her," I answered.
"Athena showed up and told Gabrielle that she would get Artemis," Ephiny responded.
There was a long pause before Adara spoke. "I didn't see anyone, Gabrielle."
"She was invisible…Athena," Ephiny added.
"Really?" Adara asked. "Can I ask you a question, Gabrielle?"
I wasn't too certain I wanted to say yes. I could see what was coming. Adara wore the same expression as Ephiny had.
"Sure, go ahead," I finally said.
"I—well, I feel sort of stupid for asking, but—what was she wearing? What did she look like?"
I almost laughed aloud at the childlike quality to her voice and her wide-eyed expression. She may have been a battle-hardened warrior, but there hadn't been a trace of doubt in her voice. She simply accepted my words as truth.
"Well, let me paint you a picture…" I began. I proceeded to give her a very detailed image of the Athena that I knew, while Ephiny rolled her eyes in apparent embarrassment.
When Athena told me that it would be some time before she returned, I took her at her word. I hadn't realized remembered that time was a rather abstract concept for immortals. Time didn't pass for them as it did for us, and so, it lost a little something in the translation. So, when Athena and Artemis appeared behind me after only a short while, I shouldn't have been surprised.
I knew immediately what I would see when I turned around. The temple went eerily silent, more than mere quiet. Not one Amazon in the room looked past me without her mouth hanging open and a stunned expression on her face.
"I told you I wouldn't let you down," Athena said, followed by a bright smile.
"I knew you wouldn't," I replied.
"Gabrielle." Artemis stepped forward and took both of my hands, kissing each cheek in turn.
Artemis looked beautiful, her auburn hair cascading down her shoulders and back, green eyes alive with an emerald fire. She wore leather, hunting attire, however, which said that Athena had been correct about her sister's whereabouts.
The Goddesses looked past me and I turned to begin introductions. I did wonder if I was required to introduce anyone. After all, wouldn't a God already know each person? I didn't want to appear rude, though, so I prepared myself to speak. I couldn't resist the quick peek I took at Lexa's face. Yes, it was rather childish of me, but I suppose human nature to have puffed my chest out a little more. I admit I enjoyed that the woman's attempt to cut me down had failed. I didn't understand Lexa's motivations, but I had seen that expression she wore before, the look of defeat.
I introduced Satena, Ephiny, and Adara first, then the members of the Elder Council. No one said a word. If they hadn't nodded their heads upon hearing their names, they could have been mistaken for statues.
"What's wrong with them?" Athena lowered her voice and asked from behind a smile.
"They're just a little…nervous." I struggled for the right word. "They've never seen a God before, but they're sort of in awe, since Artemis is their patron."
"Artie, you've never even been here?" Athena admonished her sister.
"I have so! I just use a spell of invisibility."
"She's shy," Athena whispered.
"Don't you have somewhere you have to be?" Artemis glared at her older sister.
"Not at all. In fact, I can spend the whole day here with you."
"How did I get so lucky," I heard Artemis grumble.
It made me smile, the interaction between the two. They reminded me of Xena and Selene. They each stopped talking when they realized all eyes stared in their direction.
"Yes, well…where were we?" Artemis asked of no one in particular.
"Perhaps Satena can explain best," I said.
I didn't want to tell this story. It felt too much like being a child and tattling. What was I supposed to say? You told me I could be Queen, but these ladies won't let me? Having Satena explain things was a good idea. She was one of the few people present who I felt would give a completely honest and unbiased account of the impasse we experienced.
"Your worship—" Satena began.
"Please, Satena, Artemis will do," Artemis replied.
"Thank you. I don't know how far back to start. Actually, I have done all that I felt you instructed me to do."
"You translated my wishes to perfection."
"I'm honored. Gabrielle has come to stand before the Elders so they might ascertain whether she is the rightful heir to wear the Queen's mask. That seems to be where we ran into a little…I suppose the term would be difference of opinion."
"I'm not sure I understand where trouble could have started," Artemis walked around the semicircular dais as she spoke loudly and to no one in particular.
I wondered if it was my imagination when I saw her glare for a quick moment in Lexa's direction. I do know Lexa had decided to hang her head and examine the tops of her leather boots. It could have been coincidence, but I had my doubts.
"Satena and her novitiates are my emissaries. My wishes for my people go through them. Now, it appears that Satena understood that I selected Gabrielle as my chosen. Gabrielle is here to accept the leadership of this tribe. She is not here to have people test her, people who have no understanding of what it means to lead people, what concepts like integrity, compassion, and loyalty mean."
Artemis had obviously grown angry as she spoke. I looked over at Athena and she looked at me as though she wished she could intervene. Perhaps I was the only one there, aside from Athena, who understood that Athena would have humiliated her sister by intervening in front of us.
"I am disappointed in the Elders, thinking their wishes take precedence over mine. Let me ask, were my wishes not clear?" Artemis continued.
I knew what I'd been about to do might be a huge mistake, but nothing, especially being Queen, could be worth turning my back on these women. With the exception of Lexa, I truly believed they hadn't done anything to deliberately disobey Artemis. Actually, I didn't even really think Lexa had that in her to do. So, I decided to speak up.
"Um…" I stepped forward and raised my hand as if requesting permission to speak. Frankly, the look on Artemis's face frightened me. "To tell the truth I—um they—well…I don't think it was…very clear, I mean."
Satena lowered her eyes. "It's my fault, Artemis. I must have misinterpreted the dreams you sent me."
Suddenly, everyone wanted to take the blame.
Perhaps it had been my willingness to step into harm's way, I don't know, but Athena decided to back my cause.
"Artie, did you actually tell the priestess of your temple here what you wanted?" Athena asked. "Tell her that Gabrielle was the one and that she was a lock for the job?"
"I—I…well, I—" Artemis looked around at everyone, at Satena with her bowed head, the Amazons practically on their knees, and my frightened expression.
She looked at Athena, but couldn't quite meet her sister's gaze. She mumbled something out of the side of her mouth.
"What?" Athena asked.
"I said it's my fault!" she shouted.
I knew instantly that Athena was the older of the two sisters. Artemis didn't want to admit her fault, but she gave in under her big sister's rebuke. I couldn't help smiling. Artemis looked around and saw my smile. Looking down sheepishly and back up again, she smiled along with me.
"Okay, so the whole message in a dream needs a little work," Artemis added.
"Artemis, couldn't you meet with Satena in person when you have certain wishes for the tribe?"
"What? In person?" Artemis replied. If she had been mortal, I would have thought that expression she wore had been fear. "Oh, I don't know about that."
I noticed that a number of the Amazons looked thoroughly disappointed. "You know I—I certainly don't mean any disrespect, but I…"
"Gabrielle, I chose you to lead my people because I thought playing coy wasn't in your repertoire. Spit it out."
"Sorry. I could be wrong, but isn't it sort of…well, an insult to your people not to want to ever talk with them?"
I believe I heard a few people actually gasp. I felt as though I should maybe close my eyes tight and wait for Artemis to lop my head off with the golden short sword she wore on her hip.
"Of course it is and meeting with them right now is the place to start to clear things up. What an excellent idea, Gabrielle," Athena said as she slapped her sister on the back. Artemis blanched at Athena's remark.
The Amazons present were in shock, followed by awe. At first, they didn't know what to say. Moments later, they all decided to speak at once. I think that was simply too much for the Goddess, whom I just realized actually was painfully shy, so much so that it bordered on a fear of mortals. Athena silently nodded to me and indicated the Amazons closing in on us.
"Ladies!" I turned on my commanding voice, the one I rarely used. Everyone stopped in mid-thought.
"Let us remember that this is our patron and a Goddess. Artemis does want to become more accessible to her people, but she is also due the respect due a God. I think a little decorum is in order, don't you?"
The silence didn't last long.
"You are absolutely correct, Gabrielle. Our apologies, to you as well as Artemis," Adara bowed her head after speaking.
The women surrounding her nodded their heads as if offering their own apologies for overwhelming Artemis. Their actions convinced me that these women were indeed a people that I wanted to become a part of. They had a nobility and honor about them. They appeared to have a deep respect for others as well as themselves. I appreciated their behavior and certainly toning it down had calmed Artemis a small bit.
"Perhaps we could all take a walk around the village?" Athena suggested happily.
Artemis glared at her and leaned in closer. Only a few of us were close enough to hear her remark.
"Wait," Artemis whispered. "Don't I hear father calling you?"
"Nice try," Athena said just as quietly. "Shall we go?" she asked loudly to us all.
"Addie, would you mind giving us a short tour of the village?" I asked.
"It would be my extreme honor, Your Highness."
Adara squeezed my hand gently. I didn't bother to admonish her for using my title instead of my name. I understood why she had done it and I felt just as honored by her vocal acceptance of me as her Queen.
We filed out of the temple just as we had entered, in single file. Satena stayed near Artemis and I believe the familiar face comforted the Goddess. When I caught Athena's eye, I mouthed the words thank-you. She simply winked at me.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
" Well, I see there'll be two more for dinner," I said as I hugged Gabrielle.
She looked different somehow. Perhaps only a candlemark or two had passed, but I felt as though I had sent a girl into that temple and a woman now greeted me.
"I see Athena finally found you," I said.
Athena glared over, pretending to ignore my comment.
"What do you mean, finally?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll explain later," I replied with a chuckle. I simply couldn't ever let Athena think she'd gotten away with something.
Whatever Gabrielle had done or said inside had impressed the women sufficiently. We walked along with the Elders, Athena, and Artemis led by Adara. My keen hearing picked up snatches of conversations from the women surrounding us. They spoke of how wonderful Gabrielle was, how smart, compassionate, the list went on and on. I smiled to myself. Had these been the same women who joined with Lexa in laughing at Gabrielle so short a time ago?
Adara stopped occasionally to introduce Gabrielle to some Amazon or another. She then left it in Gabrielle's hands to say something to the Goddesses. Athena was her usual confidant, smiling self. Artemis, on the other hand, looked as though she would lose her morning meal at any moment. I must admit, though, that by the end of our tour through the village, Artemis had lightened up considerably.
"The women here are more amazing than I ever gave them credit for," Artemis said.
"I'm glad to be a part of them," Gabrielle answered. "Will you both come back this evening for the mask ceremony?"
"Oh, I don't—" Artemis began.
"Wouldn't miss it for anything," Athena interrupted, nudging her sister in the back.
Artemis looked suitably chastised from one look by Athena. The Amazon patron smiled and touched Gabrielle's cheek. "I suppose if you can change as much as you have, then I should be able to do the same. Of course, we'll be there. In fact, I want everyone to see me place the Queen's mask in your possession."
The Goddesses left in their customary, leaving behind their essence that hung in the air as shimmering pieces of light. The Amazons around us, actually, the entire village seemed to pause in amazement. I thought I saw Athena wink at someone just past me, but when I looked, there was no one there and too fast, they were gone. Gabrielle and I exchanged a look as though trying to substantiate what we'd both just seen, but we shook it off, being there were more important things at hand.
"Well, is anybody else hungry? I sure could do with a meal." I put my arm around Gabrielle and grinned.
The Amazons just stood and stared at me for a moment and then returned to looking at one another. I laughed aloud at their expressions. These women just had no idea how their lives were about to change.
To be continued in : Chapter 32: Dost Thou Know Who Made Thee...
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