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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 35: When Push Comes To Shove...
Gabrielle sat down heavily on the bench beside Selene and I. "If I have to kiss or hug one more woman I think I'm going to scream," she said. "What are you two up to? Having fun, Selene?"
Selene looked as though she had just bitten into an unripe fig.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
To her credit, my sister refused to speak until Gabrielle threatened her.
"Every time someone talks to me Xena glares at them until I think they're afraid she's going to just lop their head off."
"I have no idea what she means," I said.
"I'm sure you don't," Gabrielle replied with that knowing expression of hers.
I felt guilty because I knew what I had been doing had been purposeful.
"Selene, be a dear and fill my cup up with cold water, will you?" Gabrielle asked. "Not from one of the pitchers on the table, but the barrel of spring water that's at the end of the food tables."
Selene looked as though Gabrielle had turned her into slave labor. Suddenly, though, her eyes grew large and she snatched the mug from Gabrielle's hand. "Sure thing! Do you want something to eat?"
"Oh, that sounds wonderful, but wait around by the table till cook brings out the fresh lamb skewers. Those are just wonderful."
"Anything you say, Gabrielle!" Selene responded and ran off.
Gabrielle had sent Selene over to the spot where at least two-dozen young women, all around Selene's age, lingered.
"You don't really think you're fooling me, do you?" I asked.
"No love," Gabrielle chuckled in reply. "But, she deserves a little fun tonight and she really is a smart girl. I don't picture Selene letting anyone take advantage of her."
"You're right, I suppose, as usual. Hey, you look a little flushed. Need a break?"
"I think two cups of wine is my limit. I can feel my brain swimming around inside my head. How is it you can drink so much and still look clear as ice?"
"Sleight of hand," I responded. "I pour half a mug of water before adding any drink. It works with wine and ale, but it makes port taste terrible. I've found that mead tastes the best watered down. An old trick I learned when drinking with my men. It comes in handy when I need to keep my wits about me."
"Why don't you take a few moments for yourself, love?" I suggested.
"I think I will. I'm going to go over to the community hall. Maybe splash my face with some cold water and sit in the quiet for a few moments"
"Want some company?"
"You mean aside from the twenty or so Empire and Amazon Royal guard that follow me everywhere?"
"Does seem like you can't throw a stick without hitting one of them lately." I laughed, but knew that the protection gave me a sort of peace of mind.
"Besides," she added as she rose. "If you leave, who will guard Selene from all the fierce predators about." Her laughter as she walked away caused me to smile at my own infantile behavior where Selene was concerned.
"If I'm not back shortly it just means I fell asleep," she called back.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I truly did feel as though I could have fallen asleep had I let myself relax enough. After rinsing my face and accepting an invigorating cup of berry tea from one of the cooks, I made myself scarce and rested in one of the chairs in the large community hall. Most of the hall was empty due to the celebration outside, but Ephiny told me that the community area was usually awash in activity in the evenings. It became a way for the women to live independently within their homes, but still enjoy a communal atmosphere.
The darkened building held a large hall and numerous smaller, cozy rooms. I chose a chair facing an outside window, the warm breeze gently blowing in. The chair had been fashioned so that its deep cushions nearly swallowed me whole. I would have to finish my tea and make my way back to the party. Otherwise, they would find me curled up and asleep there in the comfortable seat.
A sudden rush of voices, laughing and talking, entered the room I sat in. Because I had tucked my legs underneath me, and I faced the wall, I was quite certain I remained unseen. My initial desire to remain unnoticed had been selfish, I know. I had met so many people, and I had finally begun to come down from the excitement of the evening. I think I just wanted to hide for a bit longer.
I could tell by the sounds of their voices that they were young women, still at the giggling stage, yet not childishly so. A few sounded as though they might be warriors-in-training, the objects of the more feminine girls' affections. There seemed to be the same sort of posturing going on that groups of young males performed when around girls. The warriors sounded like the ones trying to top one another, to sound tough. I suppose that was attractive at a certain age. Hopefully, however, they would learn that sort of behavior could very quickly become unattractive.
I suppose eavesdropping wasn't what the new Queen should have been doing, but old habits are so hard to break. I'd spent so much of my life as a piece of furniture, having less attention paid to me than the hounds at the master's feet. Actually, I had hoped the young women would take a moment's rest from the party and return the way they had come. If I had made my presence known things would have turned out so differently. I would have spared someone a great deal of pain, but alas, the Fates had already set her feet on another path.
"So, you were actually a part of their team? The Weapon's Master picked you two?"
"Sure, we took turns at them. It wasn't anything much. "
"How can you say that? I would have been terrified."
"That's why you're in the sparrow clan, Tia." They all laughed. "They had to pick Prax, of course, she's as big as a centaur."
"Watch your mouth, Rhea." I suspected that the speaker had been Prax. "They say that Conqueror bitch is a tough broad, but that must have been when she was young. I took care of her easy enough," followed by more laughter.
"Hey, you saw the black eye she had tonight, didn't you?"
"It wasn't much of a shiner."
"I didn't see you with enough backbone to call her out, big mouth."
"You called the Conqueror out? You're full of it, Prax. More likely you cold cocked her and then she kicked your butt."
"No, really. I saw it all," a new voice added. "Prax didn't sucker punch her at all. It was after the round of fighting was done. Prax stood right up to the Conqueror and punched her."
"And the Conqueror did nothing?" someone asked.
"She hauled back like she was gonna waste Prax, but she must have got scared or something because she just turned and walked away."
I didn't have to be Hypatia or Socrates to realize what they were talking about or who. I had noticed the bruise under Xena's eye as soon as she had returned from the sparring field with Ephiny. For a mere youth to have blindsided Xena was unthinkable. For one to have stood toe-to-toe with my wife and punched her without Xena so much as raising a hand…I thought that impossible.
"Bet Eponin dressed you down good."
"Not her so much as Ephiny. Man, I didn't know she could yell that loud."
Prax laughed and the sound caused my blood to turn into ice. It certainly felt that way, anyway. There was more going on there than good-natured teasing. This sort of talk was vicious and meant to belittle and hurt. What little Ephiny had taught me of Amazon culture didn't include this. Why had Xena walked away from a fight? More importantly, why had she hid it from me?
I had no idea what I was going to say or do, but in my anger I was only completely cognizant of two things. I wanted these young women to know that they were out of their league in picking a fight with me and mine. Even more, I wanted them to know I had heard every word. Unlike me, true, but it must have been some sort of instinct.
I chose the moment when their laughter was at it's loudest to rise from my chair. I turned and stood facing them until there was only the sound of their own panicked breathing. Had it been wrong of me to enjoy the way the blood drained from their faces? The anger I felt and the satisfaction at their fear, it wasn't like me. I wondered if it had been the way Xena felt when her darkness took control.
I noticed that at least one of them glanced at the door out of the corner of her eye. Just a flinch really, but I read her mind. "Don't even think about it," I commanded.
Every one of them immediately dropped to one knee, hanging their heads low. All but one.
"Please, Your Highness—we didn't mean—" The girl's words stopped abruptly when she saw the look in my eye.
"No, I believe you did mean it," I responded.
I never broke eye contact with her, the one they called Prax. I knew her as soon as I had turned around even though I had never met any of these girls before. She stood there with her arms crossed, a belligerent, almost smug expression staring back at me. She was extremely large for a young woman. I believed her to be as tall as Xena and even more muscular. Metallic gray eyes glared at me without attempting to camouflage their contempt. She had short blonde hair with one long braided lock at her temple that fell past her shoulder. She looked strangely familiar, but I had no idea why. Where had I seen those eyes before?
I wanted to force the smile from her face. Again, the feelings weren't a part of my customary realm of emotions, and so they took me by surprise. I attributed the feeling to it having been the first time I had been forced into a position to protect my own. Whatever the driving force behind my feelings of anger and rage, they startled me, but I couldn't seem to put them aside.
I didn't like experiencing such a loss of control, which only served to anger me more. In my mind, and at that time, I felt my wrath and indignation justified. As I sit here now, some moons later, and write of the entire sequence of events, I wonder if I truly was or if I had been reacting to nothing more than hurt feelings. I am only human after all and far from perfect. I accept my mistakes and hope that as a ruler, I will not make too many.
Her expression had been bad enough, but when the kneeling girl beside Prax hit the tall girl in the thigh with her fist, as if to remind her that they were in enough trouble already, Prax's comment hit me like a slap to the face.
"It's not like she can actually do anything to us," Prax said.
Her kneeling friend blanched. "Prax! You go too far."
She should have listened to her friend. She had indeed pushed me beyond what my emotions could possibly tolerate. I did the only thing I could do short of walking up to the girl and striking her.
"Guards! Help!" I shouted at the top of my lungs.
Never had I seen so many soldiers rush to my defense. My Amazon escort looked slightly confused at seeing their own, but understood that I had been involved in some sort of confrontation and, swords drawn, they took a protective stance around me. Being strangers there, my Empire Guard appeared slightly less tentative. Noticing me in a standoff of sorts with the largest Amazon in the room, they quickly drew blades. Two of them literally pressed their sword points to Prax's neck, and finally, I saw some sort of emotion from the girl. Her face drained of color, but her expression of contempt for me remained.
Xena burst through the growing crowd of onlookers only moments later. Her lion's head blade held dangerously ready. Ephiny appeared mere heartbeats later.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked breathlessly. The stricken look on her face made me sorry that I had made such a dramatic outburst.
"I'm all right, I think."
"What are you—" Xena turned to look at my captives and the words froze on her tongue when she saw Prax there, surrounded by my armed guards.
"What did she do to you?" Xena asked in a voice that dripped venom. I still hadn't known the circumstances, but it was obvious that Xena had indeed had dealings with Prax.
"Nothing, Xena, really. It was more of a—" I looked around and realized how foolish my explanation might sound. "Ephiny, can we see about clearing some of these people out of here?"
She didn't question. Ephiny gave a quick nod to Adara and the older woman barked a few orders to the soldiers in her command. It took only moments for the crowd to disperse. The group of young women I had caught gossiping still kneeled upon the floor. Most of their parents, at least I took them to be so from the worried expressions on their faces, stood nearby.
Lexa burst through the doors in her usual fashion. "What in Hades' name is going on here? Someone said—"
As soon as Lexa spoke, I realized where I had seen Prax's eyes. The cold gray color stared back at me from Lexa's face. That one long lock of braided hair held the same design of feather and bead hair clip at the end, too much a coincidence.
"Your daughter has been involved in a confrontation with the Queen," Adara explained.
No one questioned the circumstances. I was unaccustomed to such absolute belief in my word from anyone aside from Xena.
Lexa just stood there, speechless for the first time since we had met. She turned her head to glare at her daughter. "What have you done?" Lexa looked as though she didn't really expect an answer, which was just as well considering Prax's behavior.
"Adara, do we have a place where we I can meet with these girls and their parents?" I asked.
"Of course. We can use the staging area of the community hall. It's where all court matters are held."
"Very good. I want these young women to remain in their homes until tomorrow morning when I can meet with them and their parents. I'd like to meet with the Elder Council sometime before that."
"Aye, Your Highness," Adara replied. "I'll alert the other members of the—" She paused as her eyes fell upon Lexa. I could see that Adara didn't know what to do. Lexa was a member of the council, but the mother of the accused. Evidently, they had never run into such a situation.
"I believe Lexa has a conflict of interest where the council will be concerned. Please accept my apologies for finding it necessary to ask you to step down from the council on this occasion," I said.
Lexa inclined her head slightly. What more could she do other than accept my request? She acquiesced in silent embarrassment, that much had been plain.
My head had begun to ache something fierce. I rubbed my temples, closing my eyes as the young women and their families left the building. I quickly explained to Adara and Ephiny what had happened as we walked back to our home. The village had quickly gone quiet and with so little information available, the rumors must have been flying.
We invited Adara and Ephiny inside and we all sat at the table.
"I feel a fool now," I said.
"Whatever for, love?" Xena asked. "You acted in a more restrained manner than I ever could have." She covered my hand with her own.
"Or I," Adara added. "Gabrielle, what those girls did was deplorable. You know they don't speak for the majority of our tribe."
"It was that little bitch, Prax again," Ephiny said between clenched teeth.
"She did that to you, didn't she?" I indicated the darkened bruise under Xena's eye.
"You heard their version already," Xena replied.
"But it actually happened a little differently," Ephiny added.
"So, what did happen?" I asked, looking between them.
"Prax acted like a little snot that's what," Ephiny explained. "She's always had an attitude, well, who wouldn't with Lexa as a mother, but ever since—"
I watched as Ephiny and Adara exchanged a brief glance. As I said, it was quick. Nearly too quick to notice, but I merely happened to look across the table at the right moment. Ephiny had paused, but only slightly. She quickly recovered and continued.
"I mean, lately Prax has been rough to live with. Lexa doesn't help, filling her head with all sorts of notions. Anyway, we chose teams for steal the flag, just a team sparring exercise. Our team won, but I noticed Prax had taken a number of cheap shots at Xena, which she fended off easily. I think Prax got a little frustrated at just how good Xena really is. Next thing I know Prax is picking herself up off the ground. She said something to Xena that I couldn't hear. Xena shrugged and turned to walk away, and that's when Prax reached out and popped her in the side of the face. Xena grabbed the girl by the throat and damn near lifted her off the ground. She drew her arm back to hit Prax, but all of a sudden pushed the girl away and walked back over to where I stood."
"So? What happened, Xena?" I asked.
It was obvious that she didn't want to speak of the incident, but I truly needed the information. She looked at me and sighed in resignation.
"She was being an ass, but I run into a lot of new recruits like that on the training field. The all want to knock the Conqueror on her ass. Like Eph said, at the end of the teams game, Prax was on the ground and I offered her a hand up. I didn't even say anything smart-ass, which is what I usually do."
"What did she say to you?" I asked.
Xena looked uncomfortable and it didn't take me long to realize that I had been the subject of Prax's comment.
"She asked me if I taught you all my moves," she replied.
"That's it? That's why you walked away and she hit you?"
"I guess it was the words she used."
"What were her words…exactly?"
Xena sighed once more. "She said, 'Did you teach your slave—er, Queen all those moves, too?'"
"I am going to beat the crap out of that kid!" Ephiny said with more vigor than I would have anticipated ever hearing.
I chuckled slightly. Yes, the situation was serious, but the manner in which my friends were willing to defend me amused me. "I don't think we have to go that far, Ephiny."
"She has indeed crossed a line, Gabrielle and—" Adara started.
"Addie, if you apologize one more time," I warned in good humor.
"So, what did you say back?" I asked.
"What makes you think I said anything?"
"Because I know you, My Conqueror."
"Actually, it was a pretty tame reply by my standards. I figured her being just a kid and all. I started to walk away and then I sort of tossed the comment over my shoulder. I told her to keep dreaming…that it was the closest she would ever get to having an Amazon Queen for a wife. Two heartbeats later, she acted like she had a death wish by hitting me. I saw it coming, but I think I was just plain amazed she had the nerve to do it."
There it was again. A brief glance shared between Adara and Ephiny. Once could have been my imagination, but could my eyes have played tricks on me a second time?
"I think it sounds like Prax has some sort of a grudge against me. It would make sense if Lexa spread her whatever you want to call it at home, but she looked as surprised as everyone else tonight by her daughter's behavior," I said. "Am I right in assuming that Lexa is a bit perturbed at my coming into the tribe?"
Adara smiled. "You could say that. Lexa's always been more interested in attaining power within the tribe. I believe she thought that her family had a chance."
"For people here to dislike me for such reasons or so much…it makes me wonder if I did right accepting the mask. I'm not an Amazon and yet I expect people to accept me as such."
"Don't talk like that, love," Xena squeezed my hand. "Artemis chose you. She could have selected from Greek Amazons in Macedonia and Thrace or from the tribes in lands in Dalmatia, Moesia, Lycia, and Mesopotamia." Xena counted off the lands on her fingers. "But, she chose you. If the Gods see the greatness in you, who are we to argue?"
She winked at me and I couldn't help but smile. "When I think about it like that, it helps."
"Please, Gabrielle. Don't allow anyone here to sway you from your belief that Artemis chose rightly. Prax speaks only from her own arrogance and hurt. You reflect the true heart of an Amazon, and the fact that you weren't born in this village means nothing. There are many here who don't stand nearly as tall as you."
"Theoretically speaking, of course," Ephiny added with a smile.
"Gee, with encouragement like this…" I responded and we all laughed. A great deal of the tension over the situation had disappeared.
"So," Xena began, cracking her knuckles for effect. "Which one of us gets to pound the kid?"
"Get in line," Ephiny replied.
"I do hate to dampen your warrior spirit, but there will be no pounding," I said. "They are just girls, after all."
"Old enough to fight in battle and marry, though," Adara added. "I don't suppose to make your decision for you, Gabrielle, and even though they are young, they will very soon be considered adults within the community. Will these be the sort of women we want our future Amazons to be?"
"I understand, and I agree, Addie. I don't want my first official act to be punishment, but I can't very well back down for only that reason. I'll think on it and we can talk more with the other Elders in the morning. I'll be more than happy to listen to their suggestions."
Both Ephiny and Adara took my words as a dismissal. I hadn't meant them that way, but it was late and we all looked a little worn. I thanked them both for their help and loyalty, and Xena and I walked them to the door. We stood in an embrace for long moments after we had closed the door. I reached up and lightly touched my fingertips to the bruise on Xena's face.
"Xena, why did you try to hide it from me…that she did this? Were you embarrassed?"
"To tell the truth, I hadn’t really looked at it that way. I just didn't want to repeat what Prax said about you. I can't stand to see you hurt."
"Those kinds of words only hurt if I let them, my love. They anger me more than anything else. Tonight I got so incredibly angry at those girls' gossiping. I'd never really experienced anything like that before. It was nearly difficult to control."
"If that's what that is, I don't think I like it."
"It's a difficult beast to contain. It can become anger laced with fanaticism."
"Speaking of containing our emotions, I'm rather proud of you."
"Me? Why?" she asked.
"You could have pummeled that girl senseless, especially after she hit you. The old Xena would have. It's good to see that she doesn't live here anymore." I placed the palm of my hand on her chest.
"Oh, she still lives here. She's just on an extended holiday. I never know when she'll be back. I could have hit her, I certainly wanted to. In all honesty, it's probably what they expected of me…from the Conqueror."
"Then what held you back?"
"You. I know, that sounds so pathetic, doesn't it?"
"I think it sounds romantic, very loving."
"Oh, please," she said, but I could tell that my pride in her had touched something inside.
"I suppose I didn't want to cause trouble, and not because I thought you'd be unhappy or anything like that, but because I thought it was important…what these people think of you. I knew anything I did would reflect on you, and you don't need the Conqueror bashing people's heads in your first day in the village."
"Have I told you recently how much I love and adore you?" I asked.
"I bet you Amazons say that to all the girls," she responded.
We cleaned up and prepared for bed slowly and rather quietly. When we entered the bedroom, Xena immediately spied the tray on the bed.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Oh," I quickly grabbed the small tray I had covered with a piece of cloth and set upon the bed earlier. "I forgot…I had…oh, Hades! I had plans for tonight, all right?" I finished in exasperation.
"Really?" Xena brightened. "May I see?"
"No you may not," I replied with a sly smile, as I placed the tray into the cabinet beside the bed. "It would ruin the surprise."
"Xena, did you notice Ephiny giving Addie any kind of a look tonight?"
"I thought I was just being my usual paranoid self. You saw it, too?"
"Yes," I slowly drawled in response. "Do you think it had anything to do with what we discussed or might it have just been random?"
"I don't know. Those two seem to share a lot of secrets. I wonder if they're lovers?"
I laughed, thinking she was joking. Her glare told me otherwise. "You're serious?"
"Yes, why are you laughing?"
"Honestly, love, I thought you were joking. I thought you knew."
"Xena, Ephiny and Addie are sisters."
"What? I mean, I thought they were related at first, but…why would they hide it?"
"I don't know. Besides, it's not as though they hide it. They just don't advertise it."
"Oh, and there's a difference?" she asked rather sarcastically.
I pulled back the sheet and slipped into bed beside Xena. My body suddenly felt so tired. "Do you mind postponing our private party, love?" I murmured against the skin of her neck as she pulled me close, our usual position for sleep. "That's a stupid question. I mean, do you mind too much?"
We both laughed and Xena kissed my forehead followed by a gentle and lingering kiss on the lips. "Will my wait be worth it?"
"Need you ask, My Conqueror?"
While I was certain I would toss and turn most of the night, at least Xena fell asleep with a smile on her face.
We broke our fast the following morning with our entire family. Our entire extended family. It was a unique event. Actually, the first time we had ever accomplished such a feat. It was loud and animated, and quite wonderful. It was something I had dreamed of for so long.
The chatter around the table at least allowed me to hide within myself for a while. Surprisingly, I had fallen asleep immediately and felt solidly refreshed. I was still no closer to a decision about our gossiping young women, however.
"It seems as though I missed all the excitement last night by going to bed early," Cyrene said.
"To say the least." I smiled and that surprised me. I was still undecided as to what I would do with the girls, but the anger of the previous evening had melted away. Now, I was simply more concerned with how to handle the whole affair.
"I could have told you that Prax was bad news right off," Selene said. "She goes around as though she's the Queen."
"Yep," Amira answered around mouthfuls of her breakfast.
"Amira, do you know Prax?"
"Uh huh. She's a butt."
Xena and Selene both laughed loudly. I cut their merriment short with a raised eyebrow. "Amira, sweetheart, don't say butt. It's not polite."
"But, Xena said it. She said if I touched her sword again, she'd kick my butt from here to Cormith."
Xena shrugged and gave me an embarrassed smile. "What I meant to say, princess, was backside."
"Oh," Amira answered.
I tried to hide my smile. "Why don't you like Prax, Amira?" I asked, curious as to what sort of run-in Amira could have had with Prax.
The youngster stood up on her chair and folded her arms across her chest, widening her stance until she just reminded me of the way Prax had stood defiantly against me.
Amira tried to deepen her voice, obviously imitating Prax. "You guys can't swim here, this is our pond. You guys can't play ball here cuz you're too little. Go back home and play with your dollies little babies."
"So our Prax has a reputation for being a little bit of a bully," I said in a low voice, so only Xena and Cyrene, who sat on each side of me, could hear.
"Am I out of place in asking what you intend to do with these girls, Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked.
"Of course not, Cyrene, and if I knew, I'd tell you. I was a great deal angrier last night than I am now, but Adara reminded me that these girls are young women and will soon be contributing to the tribe as adults. I don't think this is the sort of behavior we want to condone."
"That's true. Chances are the fear of being caught will be enough to cure a few of them."
"That's what I'm hoping. I'm thinking that some sort of community work and an apology should be sufficient."
"Very wise, my child. You're making a very good Queen."
"I don't know about that, but thanks. I wish I didn't have to do this on my first day, though."
"If it was easy, everyone would want to do it." Xena grinned over at me and then winked. "Okay, she said loudly, clapping. Why don't we all take a walk down to the lake and give Gabrielle a chance to compose herself."
They quickly made themselves scarce. The better part of me wished I could have gone with them, but alas, rulers cannot go and play anytime they feel. I dressed for the day in one of the Amazon-style dresses Teema had created for me and sat down for another cup of hot tea. It felt as though only moments had passed when Ephiny came for me.
"The Elders are waiting for you in the Community Hall. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be, I suppose. Any helpful suggestions?" I asked her as we walked through the village.
"I'm glad I'm not in your shoes."
"Sorry, I couldn't resist. I think that no matter what you decide, it will be the right thing."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because I know you. I had my doubts about you at first, Gabrielle, but you've proved yourself through deed and not just words. That goes a long way with someone like me. No matter what you decide, I'll have your back."
"Thank you, Eph. You're quite a stand up woman, and that goes a long way with someone like me."
It appeared as though my outburst the previous evening had little effect on my reputation. If anything, those who had wondered about me now looked at me with slightly more respect. I received many friendly greetings, which made my upcoming task a little more bearable.
The Elders greeted me most respectfully upon entering the Community Hall. Adara showed me to a seat at the head of a long wooden table. Everyone rose until I seated myself then they followed suit. Some of those present had been absent last night, but I assumed that, by now, they had heard. I quickly brought them up to speed on how I had been present upon hearing my spouse and myself the subject of their conversation.
"I agree that it was most inconsiderate of them, if not actually ugly," one of the women said.
"No offense meant to our new Queen, but they were just being children."
"Closer to adults than children," Adara pointed out. "I told Gabrielle last evening that they were young women and soon to be active participants in our village."
"A point well taken," Venora said. "Is this a character trait that is prevalent in our young women? If they are our future, then what sort of tribe do we become?"
"So, Your Highness, what do you propose? Certainly there should be some sort of punishment?"
"Punishing them all, though? Is that fair when it was only a few doing the talking?"
"They're not five-season-olds," Adara spoke up. "Encouraging them all to say who the culprits were won't be easy, if not impossible. Oh, I'm sure a few are so afraid they'll talk. I'm not sure how you feel about this, Gabrielle, but I'm not sure I feel entirely comfortable encouraging the girls to…I don't know how else to say it, to tattle or snitch on one another. I see it causing more problems than we realize."
"I agree with you, Addie," I said. "These girls have to co-exist together for the rest of their lives in this village. Also, I lean more toward a punishment for all simply because no one spoke up to say that what they did was wrong. They could have, but didn't. I understand that peer pressure probably made that difficult, but they did what they did and they should suffer the consequences of those actions."
"Agreed," Adara said.
One by one, the women went around the table. Some added their own opinions and voice, but in the end, all agreed that punishment, of some fashion, should me apportioned. I explained to the Elders what I had in mind and once again, they all agreed.
"Are the young women and their families present, Ephiny?"
I believe that those present thought I had appointed Ephiny as a personal bodyguard of a sort. She remained at my side during the entire morning, even when the Queen's meetings with her advisors was supposed to be private. I didn't say anything since her presence did provide me with some little comfort. It was rather like the feeling of security I felt when in Xena's company.
"Aye, Your Highness. They are seated in one of the common rooms."
"Well, let's make this a little less intimidating and meet with them there, shall we?" I said, rising. "What's the climate like?" I whispered to Ephiny.
"Most of the parents are embarrassed and mad at their kids. A couple feel like their child would never have done it if it hadn't been for Prax. Most agree she's trouble."
"And is Lexa there?"
"With bells on. Especially quiet, in fact. I think she's actually embarrassed this time."
Everyone rose and bowed as I entered the room. One of the women rose and offered me a comfortable seat, which I gratefully accepted.
"Ladies, and when I say that, I refer not only to the adults in the room, but to you young women, as well. I don't much like being in this circumstance my first day as your new Queen anymore than you do. Because of the versions of what happened last night that I've heard floating around the village, let me explain from my perspective."
I told all present what had happened, without adding any emotion or personal reflection to the narrative. Once I'd finished, every single parent glared at their child.
"Would anyone like to add or contest any of the details?" I asked the young women.
They slowly shook their heads, most too embarrassed to raise their eyes to mine. I looked over at Prax and she sat their, her eyes boring into me. A small, rather superior smile fixed on her face. Lexa didn't look pleased with me, but her next words nearly left me speechless.
"Your Highness…Gabrielle… I think I speak for every parent here when I offer you a most heartfelt apology and to tell you how humiliated we feel over our children's actions. As adults, we may not always get along; believe in the same things, or even like one another." She looked around the room and I could see that Adara wasn't the only one Lexa didn't get along with.
"However, we are all Amazons. We have our disagreements out in the open. We stand up for one another against outsiders and always fight beside each other. There is no place for sniping comments made behind a sister's back."
"Well said," a number of women said.
"Thank you, Lexa. I know we haven't seen eye to eye on everything since I've been here, but to hear you say that helps immensely. Having said that, I'll put it to all of you. What I wish for is for an honest apology from each of the young women. I also think that a form of punishment is in order. As the parents, do you think I'm out of line in demanding such?"
Nearly every woman shook her head. "Not at all, the others answered."
"Very well. I'll leave it up to each girl, then. If you feel you can honestly apologize to me and mean it, then we'll forget the matter ever happened. For the most part, perhaps you spoke unkindly because you don't really know my family or me. For your punishment, each one of you will spend time with me, by my side, assisting me in learning more about the Amazon culture and your tribe."
Some of the parents smiled and nodded approvingly at my choice of punishment. I had actually thought it up while sitting quietly by myself earlier that morning. I realized that the reason most people believed in gossip was that they didn't truly know the person the gossip was about.
"So, what do you girls say?" I asked.
One by one, they offered me apologies along with a few tears. I could see that none of them had actually meant to hurt me. I felt that way until the last young women rose, or rather, had her mother pull her from her seat.
"You must be Prax," I said.
"Praxithea of the Panther Clan," the girl said. Again, that defiant stare and familiar stance, arms folded across her chest and legs wide apart.
I waited patiently until it looked as though she had no intention of continuing.
"Do you have anything to say?" I inquired.
"Prax!" Lexa said sharply.
"I'm sorry, I was under the impression that she said she would leave it up to us. If that's the case, I don't feel it necessary to apologize."
"Forgive her Your Highness, she—" Lexa began.
"I know exactly what I'm saying, mother! I don't care what she's pulled over on Artemis; I don't owe her my allegiance."
"You go too far, Prax! Do you want to be banished?" Lexa demanded.
I sighed deeply and leaned back in my chair. As I listened to the mother and daughter's exchange, I knew that I had no more control over the girl than her mother had. For some reason Prax thought me a fraud. This was obviously personal, but I was at a severe loss. Had I met this young woman before? Where had she developed such a hate for me when those around her felt differently?
As I said, I was at a loss and I told them all so. "Prax…I honestly don't know what to do with you."
"Then I guess you'll have to do nothing at all," she replied.
Ephiny stepped forward, one hand tightening upon the hilt of her short sword. "Here's an idea. Why don't I beat some sense into you?"
"This is still my daughter we're talking about," Lexa said. "Prax, what is wrong with you?"
"There will be no beatings," I said loudly.
"Oh, please mother," Prax said. "You don't believe she deserves to be Queen any more than I do."
"She earned the right," Lexa responded.
"Earned? She's not even an Amazon!"
"She was given the right of royalty, you know that."
"And what proof is there of that? Did any of us hear it? Was Melosa in her right mind at the time or stricken with grief?"
"I was there," Ephiny said through clenched teeth. It appeared as though she tried hard to keep a hold on the reins of her temper.
"And we're to believe the woman who won't even stand up to the challenge of her Clan?"
That remark sliced the restraint that Ephiny had upon her temper. She lunged at Prax and it took three women to stop her.
"Stop!" I ordered, rising from my seat.
Ephiny took one look at me and immediately backed down. Obviously, Ephiny had a little more history here than I knew of. A Clan challenge happened when one member challenged another for the role of leadership. Usually the position of Clan leader, or Elder, came with age and experience and most accepted that fact. I had learned that occasionally, younger members would challenge their Clan leader in fair combat. It was rare, but it happened.
Prax now looked at Ephiny with the same gaze filled with contempt that she had earlier leveled at me. How could I deal with a young woman so passionate, yet misinformed?
"Prax, I do understand your reservations. Even I questioned my ability to hold this position, but Artemis has assured me that I am her chosen, therefore the correct person for the title."
"Then perhaps Artemis doesn't realize what her people need."
I thought I heard a few gasps from those around me. Even Lexa silently looked on. It was obvious to me that the woman hadn't a clue about how to deal with her daughter's sudden behavior. The problem with Prax was that she was a trained warrior, and good from what I had heard. She was a big girl with an even larger chip on her shoulder. I worried that this argument might escalate into something physical. My guards weren't about to let anyone harm me, which meant that it wouldn't end well for Prax.
"And you would know better?" I asked. My own temper rose slightly, and I wondered if the others heard it in the new edge my voice took on.
"I know that a strong warrior should lead the Amazons."
I grinned, but my smile wasn't a mirthful one. "So, you believe that you're strong and I'm weak, is that it?" I asked.
She laughed, not a very nice sound. "I think that's easily apparent." She looked down at me as if to enforce her opinion.
"Don't be so easily deceived, Prax. With age will come maturity and wisdom. You'll learn that size doesn't always equal strength.
"Then prove it. Prove that you deserve to rule, that you're as strong as I am."
"Strength doesn't have to be physical. I have no desire to fight you, Prax."
"I figured as much."
"Please, Your Highness," Ephiny interrupted. "Allow me to be your champion and kick this child's ass."
Prax practically snorted in contempt.
"I have no need of a champion, Ephiny."
"Especially if she's as gutless on the battlefield as the Conqueror." Prax laughed, perhaps unaware of the dangerous ground upon which she now tread.
That was when I did something so insanely stupid that I will never understand it. Frankly, if Xena had done it, I would have been mad at her for at least a fortnight. What prompted me to throw all reason out the door is something I wonder about to this day.
"Then perhaps I should meet you on the training field myself and we’ll decide this once and for all," I responded.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Chapter 36: What Rabid Emotion Is This?…
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