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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 37: Within Heaven’s Circle I Had Not Guessed At This..."Good morning, sunshine," I said, brushing mussed blonde hair from Gabrielle's eyes.
"Ohhh," she groaned as she tried to rise. She gave up and lay back down. "By the Gods. I don't remember even having muscles in this many parts of my body."
"Here, sit up a bit and drink this."
"What is it? Something magical, I hope."
"Nothing mysterious. Mostly willow bark for your headache."
"How did you know I had a headache?" Gabrielle asked as she sipped the hot brew.
"Any warrior worth their salt would know." I smiled and lightly touched the bruised area along her jaw. "Getting hit in the head a few dozen times will do it."
"Mmm, it tastes good…feels good, too."
"On my throat. Hope I'm not coming down with a chill. I feel all right otherwise."
"It's not the chill and it's not uncommon. The dust and dirt you breathe in while fighting makes your throat pretty raw the following day. How do you feel besides sore? Any spots hurt unusually bad?"
"You sound like a mother hen."
"Perhaps." I smiled and sat down beside her as she sipped her tea. "I'll never be able to impress upon you what it was like seeing you in there and not being able to interfere."
"I think I know what that's like, at least in part. You did very well, love, and thank you for stepping in when I needed you the most."
"It meant a lot to me, Xena…that you let me do what I had to do."
"And what was that?"
"Well, stand up for myself, I suppose. Be a leader. What? You look like you want to say something else."
"Xena, are you telling me the truth?"
She looked at me and I knew I couldn't keep my thoughts from her. Gods, I was so much better at lying before I let her into my heart. I took a deep breath and looked at my hands, turning them over to buy time.
"Xena…have I done something wrong?"
"No!" I answered quickly. "It's…I should probably just keep it to myself—"
"Xena, if I've done something you question or—"
"I don't want to judge you, love, and that may be how you see it."
"Well, I'll certainly try not to do that."
I looked at my hands again, stalling once more. How could I be anything but honest with her? After all, if I was wrong, then we could just laugh at my paranoia.
"It's just that—well, when you said there was no other way to handle the situation with Prax…I was wondering if—not that you would purposely lie, mind you. I just wondered…"
"You think there was another way?" she asked in confusion.
"I guess I've been wondering whether, deep down, you didn't want there to be another way." I cringed inside once the words were out. I waited for her wrath or at least some condescending tone. What I did see surprised me.
Gabrielle sat there contemplating my words. I imagine she was letting them sink in. The funny thing was that she didn't immediately deny my accusation, for it could be called little else. That caused me to wonder even more. I remembered the strange look on her face after they had carried Prax away to the healer's residence.
"I should be angry, you know, or even indignant," she replied.
"I know, and you would be within your rights, but I—"
"I said I should be, Xena, not that I was."
"I—um, I don't understand."
"Actually, neither do I."
"Okay, I'm thoroughly confused." I had been so sure that Gabrielle would yell or laugh that I hadn't thought of any other scenario, least of all, her being agreeable about the whole thing.
"I—I don't know how to explain it, but you could be right…oh, Gods, Xena! I could have killed that girl yesterday. I nearly did." Real tears filled her eyes and I could see not only concern, but also confusion.
"What I don't understand is why, Gabrielle? It isn't like you. Hades, it's more like me."
"I think it has something to do with what I've been feeling ever since meeting Prax. It started the night of the coronation, but I can't explain it."
I furrowed my brow, as I watched Gabrielle rise and uneasily pace the room. She stopped before an open window. Folding her hands together, she brought them up and pressed the knuckles to her lips.
"Gabrielle, tell me what you mean. What kinds of feelings have you been
" I don't know what it is. It feels so…so out of control. That's the only way I can describe it. It's as if I'm not in charge of my own thoughts and emotions." She covered her face with her hands and I felt rather helpless. I hadn't anticipated this reaction.
I rose and came up behind her just as she lifted her face. There were tears running down her cheeks.
"Oh, Xena, when I hit Prax so hard that I broke that staff, it wasn't just a random blow. It was deliberate."
"I would expect as much," I said to soothe her. "It was a fight, after all." Neither my words nor my arms wrapped around her shoulders seemed to offer her any comfort. Her tears continued.
"What did she say to you, love? What did Prax say before you hit her?"
Gabrielle's shoulders stiffened. I couldn't tell if she held back from me or if the truth of her action was unknown even to her own mind.
"She told me that I was never meant to be a Queen…that I could never outrun my past. It was in my blood. She said I was a slave…and that's all I would ever be."
I bit the inside of my cheek in an attempt to hold my anger down. She didn't need to deal with my behavior just now. I wrapped my arms around her even tighter. I held her that way in silence for a few moments trying to understand how Gabrielle's rabid emotions and her behavior in the sparring arena tied together.
"You don't understand," she said, suddenly shattering the stillness between us. "I hated that girl, Xena. I wanted to hurt her, to—to even…kill her."
She broke down in tears and at that moment, I understood. How blind I had been. I don't know why I hadn't yet realized what Gabrielle was going through. It would have been so easy to reassure her, to allay her fears.
"I don't really feel that way now, but I did, and it scares me, Xena."
"Ssh, love. Gabrielle, you know what's been going on with you—I mean, your head knows, but I don't think you've ever let your heart truly accept it on all levels."
"I don't understand what you're trying to say," she said softly, turning in my arms to look at me with such an earnest expression, tears streaking her cheeks.
It was easy to see that she honestly had no idea what the feelings were all about that she had experienced of late. Of all people, however, I should have anticipated that she might experience something like this.
"I'm saying that you are not a slave any longer, my little one. It's all right to feel anger, Gabrielle."
She pulled away from me, pausing in mid-word. Not so much pulled away as took a step backward. I'm not sure if it was out of surprise, indignation, or merely in order to see me more clearly. Whatever the reason, I could tell by the expression on her face that she stood there in the process of examining herself and her motives. If she was anything like me, she was most probably reliving each moment since she met Prax that had previously made little sense to her. Exploring her previously unfamiliar emotions didn't lead to enlightenment, however. The look in her eye turned to one of confusion.
"I don't—that can't be it," she said.
"It's my best guess, love, and I happen to think that it's straight on."
"Can it be that easy?"
"Well," I began, wearing a smile. "If you call the agony you've gone through easy. This feeling…your behavior appears almost typical of such an emotion. You said yourself that you felt almost hopeless against the strange need to hurt, Prax. I believe your exact words were 'Out of control.' There's also the fact that you said you don't feel that way right now."
"I don't. But, Xena, I've been angry before."
"Have you really? Since being free?" I asked. I hoped I wasn't pushing her too far, too fast. She didn't appear as though she was going to break down, though. Actually, she stood there rather silent, deep in thought. She had the uncanny ability to do that, to examine her own psyche while in the midst of it all. Me, I always thought about that stuff after the fact, when I had some quiet time alone.
Suddenly she turned and went over to stand before the window. I looked on as she gazed through the branches of the trees.
"It wasn't a luxury afforded a slave…anger." She spoke in a distracted fashion, still looking at the activity in the village below our window.
I waited patiently as she collected her thoughts. She spoke as though reminiscing, and I knew that a million scenes must have been passing quickly by her mind's eye. Perhaps all the times she would have liked to be able to feel anger, to express it.
"I thought I'd been angry, you know, since I've been with you. I know I've written the words, thought to myself that was how I'd felt. I really thought—I mean, I just didn't know…I didn't know it was hanging over me; that it could affect me like this without me realizing."
"There was nothing you could have done, little one. Unfortunately, I think you had to go through this to realize it. Maybe it would have all come to you in a less violent way, but I doubt it."
She turned around and rushed into my arms. "I don't know what I would do if you weren't here for me."
"I pray we'll never have to find out, little one.
I kissed her forehead and crossed the room to stand before a tall, waist-high chest of drawers. I grasped the pitcher of water resting beside a wooden basin and lightly wet a clean towel. I moved to stand beside Gabrielle once more and tenderly wiped the tears from her face with the damp cloth.
"What do I do about this, Xena? How do I handle such a thing?" She asked.
"I think there's only one thing you can do, love. Give yourself permission to experience your anger instead of swallowing that emotion."
"You make it sound so simple."
"I suppose I do, but I believe you're strong enough to do it. It's a
matter of training yourself to do something a new way. Knowing you, I have
every confidence that you'll be able to do that more easily than even you realize.
It may take thought at first, but I imagine that someday soon it will come
as easily as breathing to you."
" You make it sound like anger is a good thing." She took the cloth from me and pressed it against her closed eyes.
" In a way, I think it can be. Look at those around us. I think I did much of what I had in the past because I was an angry young woman. Solan behaved the way he had because of anger...Selene when we first met her. The list goes on forever. I'm no philosopher, but I think there must be some key between how we let out our anger and what kind of people we are. I think there must be a connection between all these things we feel inside and the way we act on the outside." I stopped to look up at her nearly open-mouthed stare. "What?" I asked.
" I'm sorry." She sort of shook her head to clear her mind. "That was such a profound statement coming from a warrior."
" Hey," I said with a toss of my hair. "I'm not just another pretty face." We both laughed and the sound lightened our hearts considerably.
"How do I look?" She asked as she handed the towel back to me. "Too terrible? Are my eyes all puffy?"
"Mmm, to me you look as beautiful as ever."
She smiled and I received my wish, that she would triumph over this small incident with her customary grace. It wasn't anything that couldn't be overcome and hadn't caused any real harm. I truly believed that Prax brought her injuries upon herself. The girl would have pushed, and the outcome would have been the same, even if Gabrielle had been aware of her feelings.
"And to the rest of the world? How will I look to them?"
"Um…" I hedged for a heartbeat too long. After all, she did have a large bruise on her jaw and a blackened eye. She moved somewhat stiffly and underneath her sleeves, her upper arms were a mass of bruises.
"I see. Say no more."
I pulled her to me a little tighter. "You look like a Queen who has earned her stripes in battle."
She chuckled in reply. "Very diplomatic reply, my Conqueror. Rather fast, too."
"Thank you, I am rather proud of myself—" Gabrielle cut my quip short with a poke in the ribs.
"Oh," I groaned. "You are indeed becoming quite the warrior, my love."
Gabrielle chuckled and rested her cheek against my chest. It was good to feel her body relaxed once more.
"Know what I feel like doing right now?" she asked
My mind immediately tuned in to my libido. I also remembered the tray Gabrielle had hidden in the cabinet in our bedchamber. I had kept my word and hadn't taken so much as a peek.
"What do you feel like doing?" I asked.
"Having a great big meal. I'm starving."
I laughed aloud at my own thoughts and how they ran contradictory to Gabrielle's own desires of the moment.
"What?" she asked, lifting her head. "Did you have other plans?"
She looked so innocent that it was easy to forget what sort of life she led before. To me, she would never be a seasoned body slave. I would always see her as that young innocent girl who handed me a rose.
"No, little one." I smiled and kissed her forehead. "That's exactly what I was thinking, too."
I paused and watched as she went off to the bathing chamber. She would never cease to amaze me, one moment, shy and reserved, naïve as a child. The very next heartbeat, Gabrielle could turn into a Queen, regal and strong as any warrior. How my life with her had and would continue to change me. For the first time in many a season, I thought about happiness…my own.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
I gamely walked along, Xena at my side, as we left our treetop residence. I say gamely because it took everything in me to merely walk and not go back to bed for the day. I took a hot bath and Xena massaged my sore muscles, but with every heartbeat of the early morning that passed, my injuries grew more painful and my muscles a bit stiffer.
"Hail the Conquering Queen," Selene's voice rang out. She wore a large grin and her mother gave her a look.
"Very amusing and thank you," I replied. "Good morning, Cyrene." I gave her a hug and pretended to ignore Selene. "How was Amira?" I asked and looked around, expecting our bundle of energy to appear at any moment.
"She's already out with the children. I hope you don't mind, but they said she's gone for games and lessons since she's been here, so…"
"No, of course it's all right. Thanks so much for watching her. I know she can be a handful."
Cyrene laughed. "I managed to raise this one," she squeezed Xena's arm. "I find it truly amazing how much Amira is like Xena when she was a youngster. All go, all the time."
"How cute," I said as a tease, which earned me an arched eyebrow from Xena.
Cyrene and Selene walked alongside us, and suddenly Atrius, Anya, and their children walked out of their quarters. Scylla trailed behind having been invited to stay in their quarters. Along with attending to Xena and me, Scylla helped Anya with the children. In turn, Anya taught Scylla her ways with a needle and thread. I was most envious. I didn’t have the time to learn Anya’s craft, even though I longed to do so. While in Corinth I had discovered I had no real aptitude for working with the needle and Gods, the loom. Anya whisked away at the large wooden contraption. I had always considered myself quite graceful, but twice I got my hair caught in between the threads.
We must have made an interesting group, all deciding to break our fast in the dining hall instead of privately in our quarters as we had since arriving in Amazonia. The village had been up since before sunrise and now it hummed with activity. Everyone we met along the way greeted me politely, some quite enthusiastically. Xena and I had both assumed rightly. My wining in battle had gone a long way with these women and I had risen in their eyes it seemed.
"Your Highness." A young woman stopped before us and bowed. Her eyes managed to avoid mine.
"Yes?" I questioned.
"Um, I'm Nakia, Your Highness.” She looked at me as though I should have known her, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall her face.
Xena and I exchanged a quick glance and I shrugged.
“I—I’m not sure I—” I had no idea where to begin. Thank Athena the girl saw my confusion and rescued me.
“I’m Nakia,” she repeated. “Ephiny said I was to spend the day the day with you...as my punishment?”
The poor girl must have thought I’d taken one too many blows to the head yesterday. It came to me that she was one of the girls involved in the gossiping incident.
“Nakia! Oh, I’m so sorry. I just didn’t recognize your face." I quickly explained to Xena and introduced her to the girl. I then, in turn, introduced her to the rest of my family.
They were all quite friendly to her, but I feared that I had suddenly overwhelmed her. I'm sure Nakia believed the numerous rumors about me. I supposed that had been the case with most of the girls, hence the form of punishment. I hoped the girls involved would see Xena and I both for the people we were and not from the wild tales they had heard.
"We were just on our way to the dining hall, Nakia. Perhaps you could show us where we should go and your routine for taking meals there?" I asked.
"Of course," she answered. "Please follow me." I was certain that she breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps she had been dreading the horror of spending time alone with me. This way, she earned some small bit of reprieve.
As I anticipated, nearly all activity came to a standstill when we entered the dining hall. I cleared my throat self-consciously and looked at Xena. She shrugged and took my hand, infusing me with a bit of her ever-present self-assurance. Just as suddenly as their actions had ceased, they began again. I took note of a few expressions of discomfort among those present, as though they had been caught prying.
"The Queen's table is that long one over there, Your Highness," Nakia said, indicating a large table that was empty save for two individuals. Ephiny and Adara sat together, surprise registered upon their faces when they saw us.
"You've caught us unaware," Ephiny said. She wore a large grin and offered me a chair at the head of the table.
I indicated instead a chair to the right, on the long side of the table. She nodded in understanding. Xena winked at me as a sign that she, too, saw through to my intention. Seated thusly, Xena and I would be beside one another. It was a picture I wished these Amazon women to become accustomed to, one for them to remember.
"It seems you come as a group this morning," Adara said cheerily as she offered her own seat to Selene.
I thought it most interesting when Ephiny did the same at nearly the exact moment. It was quick, so much so that I nearly missed it, but I thought I saw Ephiny toss her sister a perturbed glance. Even more interesting was the look on my captain's face when Selene, wearing a rather shy smile, sat down in the chair Ephiny held. I almost laughed aloud when Ephiny gave Adara a wink and quickly slipped into the chair her sister still held in invitation. Adara seemed to chuckle under her breath. Once again, the two sisters reminded me of Xena and Selene and that made me smile.
Xena, also, saw the exchange. I could very nearly tell that the hairs on the back of her neck bristled, and I placed my hand upon her leg, under the table so as not to be noticed by the others. She looked down at me and shrugged, as if to say that she simply couldn't help her protective behavior, but that she had grudgingly resolved to allow Selene at least a bit of her own life.
This was the first moment I had to look around the massive room. I had only peeked in quickly during my tour of the community hall two days previous. Adara had told me at that time the larger dining hall had only recently been added on to the community building. She indicated, with some little pride, that the size of their tribe had necessitated the project. I smelled the newly cut cedar and olive wood that mingled with the tantalizing odors of freshly cooked food.
The dining hall was longer than it was wide. Long, narrow tables rested in uniform rows. The high walls held numerous windows along its length, and the wooden shutters had been opened to let in the early morning sun. I saw steam and smoke seeping through the slats in the many doors that separated the hall from what I assumed was the kitchen area. Finally, along one wall I spied the longest table I could ever have imagined. In fact, it had actually been built into the wall. The food sat upon it and created a most tempting buffet. A number of women came and went through the kitchen doors bringing fresh steaming bowls of hot food. Meats, cheeses, fruits, all were in great abundance on the table.
"A bright day to you, my Queen."
I turned and looked up at the large woman standing beside me. She wore a crisp, clean linen apron, so long that it almost touched the floor. She had light brown hair pulled back from her face. Her shoulders were broad and her arms muscular. If she hadn't worn the apron, I would have taken her for a warrior.
"Good morning," I replied.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness. I haven't had the pleasure yet of meeting you, or the Lord Conqueror." She nodded in Xena's direction. "I am Breena of the Snowy Mountain clan and head cook here in the village's dining hall."
"You are well met, Breena," I answered in the fashion that I had heard most of the Amazons greet one another. "May I say that the dining hall is as impressive as the table you've laid. If it tastes near as good as it smells you may have to bring out quite a bit more to feed this lot," I said as I nodded toward our table.
"Many thanks, Your Highness." She appeared to puff out some at the praise. I'm not sure what these women expected me to be, but nice must not have been on that list of expected traits. Either that, or they simply didn't compliment one another very often.
"Shall I have some girls bring food to your table?" she asked.
"Is that how everyone else does it?"
"Well, uh, no. We usually just grab a plate and help ourselves at the food table. It's very informal.
"Then I see no problem with us fitting right in, eh everyone?" Nods and verbal assents came in response.
"I think that Nakia here can help us find everything."
"Then I'll leave you to your meal," Breena said. "Don't hesitate to ask if there's anything at all you need. All the girls who work in food preparation are of the snowy mountain clan. You can tell them easily enough by the blue armbands." Breena pointed to the leather band that circled her upper arm. It had been dyed the color of a summer sky.
"Thank you, Breena. You've been most helpful."
Nakia proved a useful companion to have, especially in identifying foods with which we were unfamiliar. Ephiny and Adara also joined us in our meal. I had extended an invitation, but I suspected it would have been hard to tear them away from Selene in any case.
I think we all felt a little self-conscious, aware that all eyes looked our way, even if they were only quick glances. I greatly appreciated Ephiny and Adara. They talked and joked in a fashion that I had previously thought uncharacteristic of either of them. Their lighthearted banter was infectious and soon, we all laughed and spoke loudly just as though we enjoyed the meal in the privacy of Cyrene's inn.
As we made our way back to our table, I touched Ephiny's elbow and bid her lean in closer. "Can we speak in private after our meal?"
Questions had risen in the last day along with some ominous innuendos. I had not forgotten what Lexa said about being sure Ephiny had told me of the talk about Prax. I had hoped that Ephiny's not telling me had merely been an oversight on her part, but I couldn't forget the looks I had seen Ephiny exchange with Adara. The expressions between them held an air of secretiveness and I needed to know exactly where my captain stood. Suddenly, I asked myself if Ephiny was indeed as trustful and loyal as I had previously thought her.
Among the things I wished to speak of with Ephiny was the fact that I had made her Regent when we had been in Corinth. I wondered if that act would stand now that we were in Amazonia, or if Ephiny even wished for such a position. Something had happened to cause her to stand down as Elder of the Panther clan, at least that is how Prax had related the event. There were simply too many questions roaming my head with too few answers.
"Of course, but you have two pressing tasks ahead of me," Ephiny
" I do?"
"You asked me to remind you that you still need to go through Melosa and Timara's possessions. There's also Prax."
"Gods, yes. Two tasks I don't hold any enthusiasm for."
"I agree that it's not going to be cheerful work. Shall we meet in the afternoon then?"
We continued with our meal and even Xena appeared relaxed. I tried to ignore the pain my stiffened muscles caused me, which started to come easily once my belly grew full and people began to speak to us. Actually, they weren't much more than greetings, but it was quite apparent that I had risen somewhat in their eyes. I thought it sad that the reason had been that I pummeled another woman, but that was something I tried to become more understanding about, too. This was their way. Some of their manners I could change, but I could not, nor would I attempt to change their culture.
After our meal, I told Xena of the duties I had to fulfill. She was more understanding than I expected. I suppose I grew more proud of her every day. She still had moments when she struggled, but here in Amazonia she had made a great effort to recognize that I was the ruler and final say. A hard concept for me to become accustomed to myself, so I know it could not have been easy for her to accept.
Ephiny cornered Xena about plans for our upcoming joining ceremony in the village. My captain had explained that there would be things Xena needed to know. Ephiny dragged Xena off, my spouse rolling her eyes at me, as if begging for mercy. I sent her off with a chuckle and a wave, and had Nakia show me the way to the Healer's lodge.
I thought I would rid myself of the most unpleasant of my tasks first. One of the Healer's, Danae, had sent me word the previous evening that although Prax had a good number of injuries; she was strong and would eventually heal well enough. She also hinted that they wanted the young girl in the hospice no longer than necessary.
Following Nakia through the maze of forest that actually made up the village, we ventured farther into the woods than I had yet been. I don't think outsiders would ever believe the technology and creativity that existed high among those trees. As far upward as I could see Amazons made their homes within the twisting branches. Elaborate structures, they caused me to wonder why I had never known of such secrets before. I tell you now only some of what I saw during my time in Amazonia. Many sights remain undisclosed, known only to the Amazons and those fortunate enough to read the historical archives in Amazonia.
"Um, Your Highness?" Nakia's voice abruptly jolted me into the present.
"I wonder…do I have to—do you need me to go in…with you?"
She actually looked afraid. I furrowed my brow trying to discern what I had done to frighten the girl so. It took only heartbeats to realize that it was not I, but Prax who upset the girl. It was as I suspected, anyway. Prax had brow beaten most of her peers, practically intimidating them into friendship, if such a thing was possible.
"No, Nakia, you don't have to go inside with me. I don't think I'll be too long. I have to visit Queen Melosa's home. Would you mind waiting out here for me and showing me where it's at?"
She heaved a large sigh as if in relief. "No, Your Highness--I mean, yes—I mean—"
"Take another breath," I said with a smile. "There's no need to be nervous around me."
"Thank you. It's just that you've been so nice to me today. After what we said about you I—"
"Don't worry about that, Nakia. It's over and forgotten. Now, will you wait for me or should I have left a trail of breadcrumbs to get back?"
She laughed. It was that young girl giggle that they give in to when embarrassed or without words. "I'll wait under the big Ailanthus tree over there." She pointed to a massive tree that children played around, the women watching over them sitting on benches that circled a trunk the size of a barracks tent.
"Excellent." I made a move to go and looked back while she was still turned toward me. "Wish me luck. I think I'm going to need it."
"Oh no, Your Highness," she answered earnestly. "I saw you fight Prax. You need no luck. Everyone knows that Artemis smiles on you."
"Everyone does, eh?" I whispered to myself as I walked the steps to the hospice.
"Danae," I called out quietly.
"Well met, Your Highness. An honor to see you again, even if it is under such trying circumstances."
"Indeed. Speaking of which, how is she today?"
"Why don't we go out on the balcony to talk."
She walked ahead of me and out a set of narrow double doors to a small balcony, an area made only large enough for two chairs and a small table set between them. The hot, late- summer winds seemed so much cooler and refreshing under the greenery of the trees. I had thought more than once that I could sit here and write forever.
"Between us, Your Highness--" Danae started, lowering her voice.
"Please, Danae, call me Gabrielle. I insist."
"Of course, thank you. Well, I'm the only one here that will care for Prax."
"Why doesn't that surprise me overly much," I replied.
"I've dealt with troublesome patients before, but this girl…sweet Artemis. There's not an apprentice or a helper in the Carob Tree clan who hasn't been berated or had something thrown at them by Prax in the last half day. I noticed that even Lexa's patience has begun to wear thin. I finally ordered her home for some rest of her own."
"I wasn't even aware Prax was in any condition to throw anything."
"Well, throw might be an embellishment of the truth, but she certainly tries. Gabrielle, if that girl would just put as much energy into healing as she did mistreating those around her, she could walk out of this hospice tomorrow."
"Can you give me some idea of her injuries?"
"Well, her jaw is broken, right shoulder was dislocated, but we fixed that up easily enough. You must have a hard jaw yourself…she has two broken bones on one hand and three broken on the other. I can't be certain, but I think she might have a cracked sternum, along with a broken collarbone."
"That would be my fault then. I hit her in the chest quite hard."
"Yes," she answered rather dispassionately, not alleviating my guilt one bit. "I do believe it was from that last blow. There's really no way for me to be sure it's broken, but then again, there's not much a Healer can do for such an injury. We set her collarbone in place and immobilized her arm, but as for the breastbone, if it is broken, it's just a crack. All we can do is encourage her to tolerate the pain she'll have as she heals and to take the medicines we've mixed to promote bone growth."
"Gods. She has a long road ahead of her."
"She's young, Gabrielle and she has the constitution of a Minotaur. Sorry to say, her attitude will probably pull her through. Of course, it's that attitude that is driving us wild. If I didn't think she needed the expert care, I would have already asked Lexa to take Prax home."
"That bad," I muttered to myself. "I'm so sorry for putting this on you, Danae. I feel responsible for the whole thing, her being here and all."
"Oh, pssh," she made a sound that I'd heard Delia make a hundred times.
Danae waved her hand in the air in the exact manner of my friend, and I suddenly missed Delia and her no-nonsense approach to life. I dearly would have liked her counsel just then.
"I was there, as was most of the village yesterday. I saw what Prax did and neither you nor the Lord Conqueror were to blame. Prax brought it all on herself. I honestly don't know what has gotten in to her. I mean, she's always been something of a hothead, but this anger…the rage…this is new."
"When did all this start?" I asked. I don't know why, but it interested me, Danae's observation. She had been the first to hint that Prax hadn't always been this way.
"In fact, I was just thinking of that this morning after my last go-round with the girl. I remember it started about the time we got word of Queen Melosa and her daughter. Prax had always been an excellent warrior and she looked up to Melosa quite a bit. Probably some such hero-worship that girls get at that age. She took the news of Melosa's passing quite hard, as I remember."
"I imagine it was hard on everyone. I know it wasn't easy on us in Corinth."
"But," she smiled and patted the skirt covering her thighs. "We look forward to a prosperous age with our new Queen."
"You're very kind, Danae. I only hope I live up to the expectations the tribe has of me."
"I have every faith that you will. Artemis does not choose unwisely."
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, turning my face into the slight breeze. "Do you think I might see Prax?" I said when I opened my eyes again. "I don't want to interrupt her rest, and I especially don't want to get her upset, but I feel it's my duty."
"It will do her good, as long as she doesn't get too upset. You see, since she won't do anything I tell her to move around, I'm afraid that getting her annoyed is the only way to get her blood pumping, if you know what I mean."
I couldn't help but laugh. "I do indeed."
On our way to see Prax, Danae gave me a quick tour of the hospice upon my request. I learned that the women who served the tribe as Healers were a part of the Carob Tree clan. They were the only clan to actually have a sort of exchange program with other Amazon tribes across the Greek Empire. Danae said that apprentices often came from tribes some distance away. In turn, our own girls, those who wished to travel, learned the methods of the Healers in other parts of the Empire. In that manner, knowledge of innovating healing techniques spread among all of the Amazon peoples. Once an apprentice became a Healer, she also had the option of traveling to, and residing with, a tribe that had fewer Healers than others.
I peeked into some of the rooms that were actually classrooms full of young women. These young women preparing for their final exams were apprentices. The much younger girls who were too young to apprentice were helpers. They did all the cleaning, laundry, and the tasks too menial or time consuming for the apprentices. Apprenticeship in the healing arts was not one entered into lightly. I was amazed that it took a full eight seasons before an apprentice could take her final exams to become a Healer.
The hospice stood at the base of the tree. The ground floor building was long, but many of the beds remained empty. Danae explained that Amazons, as a rule, were a healthy lot. All youngsters took classes in herbology and first-aid, allowing them to treat themselves with teas and salves most of the time. The Healers worked as midwives a great deal of the time. In times of peace, such as they experienced currently, the worst cases to fill the hospice beds were injuries and broken bones from working accidents, too-enthusiastic sparring sessions, or careless children.
"Shall I go in with you or would you like to speak to her on your own?" Danae whispered outside a room at the end of the building.
"I think I'd sort of like the moral support," I replied. "If you don't mind."
"Not at all. Ready?"
I nodded and followed her into the room. Danae had explained earlier that they didn't usually place patients in separate rooms, but Prax's behavior had made it a necessity.
I don't know why I hadn't prepared myself better for the way Prax might look. The once proud and arrogant jaw was gone in a mass of swelling and discolored skin. Bandages around her head held her jaw shut tightly with only enough room to speak through her teeth. Danae had explained that Prax would have to eat through a thin reed for some time.
"I know you're in pain, Prax, and that you can't talk well, so please don't feel the need to speak. I wanted to come by and check on you."
"Get…out," she hissed from between her teeth. With her free hand, she knocked over a cup in my direction. Even such a small movement caused her some obvious pain.
I wasn't sure how to treat her. I could have been loving, ignoring her intolerable behavior. On the other hand, I could have given in to the feelings that took me whenever I was in her supercilious presence. I though fleetingly of the conversation that Xena and I had earlier that morning and how I would handle my anger.
"I didn't really expect much of a reception, so you're not really hurting anyone but yourself with this behavior," I said.
"Come to…gloat?" she asked.
"Would you believe me if I said no?"
She made a sort of snorting noise in reply.
"Actually, I felt rather badly about the injuries you suffered."
"You should. Ought to keep…" she swallowed painfully. "Keep that animal…on a…chain."
My patience came to an abrupt halt at the mention of Xena in such a way. The girl knew exactly where to dig in her daggers, I'll give her that. I felt the now familiar emotions rise up as bile into my throat. I looked down at my hands to see them clenched into fists. I would have been justified for any scathing and hurtful remark I wished to utter, but I knew more now than I had yesterday. I may not have had much experience in handling these new emotions, but at least I now recognized them.
I took in her bandaged and splinted hands, and the sight reminded me of one from a time not so long ago. I remembered how Solon had lay in that bed after Xena had nearly beaten him to death. In an instant, my rage dissipated into pity. I had unwittingly given Prax the satisfaction she desired with my anger. As my facial expression eased into one of compassion, her eyes narrowed. I felt only enmity coming from her and that caused my heart to grow even softer.
"If you need anything at all, Prax, just ask Danae to contact me, and I'll try to make it so." I turned to leave, but her hissing voice drew my attention back.
"Could you…possibly…drop dead?"
"I'll think about it," I answered. "But, don't hold your breath."
I felt lighthearted, even though heartbeats ago I had felt an uncontrollable anger. So quickly had I learned one thing about this unreasonable and unmanageable emotion. When faced with it, I had a choice. Of course, it would always be easier to give in to the anger. Harder it would be to face it full on and strike it down. I smiled upon realizing that I rarely did anything the easy way. After all, if something was worth having, wouldn't I feel I had accomplished so much more by working for it rather than having it simply come to me?
Danae smiled and nodded at me as I passed her by. I turned back to face Prax once more.
"Remember, no going out dancing tonight," I said. I smiled and left the room followed by a sound that must have been half cry, half growl. It was not a happy sound.
"What are you reading?" I asked Nakia. I had walked all around the large tree she had indicated would be our meeting place earlier, but my young escort had seemingly disappeared. Finally, I discovered the girl tucked in among the giant roots at the base of the tree. She appeared engrossed in whatever writings the scroll in her hand contained.
"Your Highness!" She jumped up awkwardly, and the scroll dropped to the ground as soon as she caught me watching her.
"Easy, there's no fire." I picked up the scroll and handed it back to her. "It must be interesting at least."
"Oh, it is. I love reading the histories of the tribe. We have the largest archive of all the Empire’s Amazon tribes."
"A library here in Amazonia?"
"Yes, Your Highness. The Sparrow clan is in charge of the library."
"I admit I love a good library. I find it easy to get lost when I'm reading and writing. I'd forget to stop for a meal if I was left alone."
"Me, too," she responded with a smile and a surprising amount of enthusiasm. She went on and on about the areas of the library she most preferred, her own precious scrolls, and her favorite stories. She became so animated and we laughed and talked for a while so pleasantly that it was difficult to remember why she was with me in the first place.
"I know you're busy today, but I could take you there tomorrow if you'd like," she eventually added.
"That would be wonderful. Wait a heartbeat. Your punishment is only to spend one day with me."
"Oh, that's right. Well, I could just come by…sort of on my own...if you still wanted me to, of course."
Her expression was easily readable. The excitement for the parchment gleamed in her eye, much as it did in my own. Perhaps that was why it was so simple for me to recognize. All in all, I found Nakia quite enjoyable to be around, and her words told me that I would have a hard time finding anyone who knew more about the tribe's archives.
"Well, if you wouldn't mind…I do rather like having you around," I replied.
She lit up at the compliment. It made me happy in more than one way. Nakia reminded me a bit of myself. She walked with her eyes cast down most of the time. She was a pretty girl, but acted as if she was unaware of the fact. Watching her greet others showed me that she was painfully shy. That, of course, could explain how she had become one of Prax's followers. Acceptance among peers was a difficult thing. For adolescent girls it could be pure torture. I wondered if compliments were something uncommon for her to receive.
I suppose what also drew me to her was that she wore no clan marking, unusual for one her age. By the teen seasons, most girls had some idea of which clan they wanted to be affiliated with. With such a passion for the written word, why didn't Nakia wear the mark of the keepers of the archives, the Sparrow clan?
"Why don't you come by our quarters sometime in the morning and you can show me the splendor that is the library."
She laughed at my tease and nodded her head quickly.
"As for now," I said, rising from my spot on the warm grass. "I'm afraid I must deal with my most unpleasant task yet. Can you show me where Queen Melosa lived?"
"Of course, Your Highness. Follow me."
I walked up the wide staircase attached to the outside of the tree, somewhat envious of the small girls who could hop from branch to branch within the trees that grew so large and close as to block out most of the bright midday sun. Balance and wending my way across the interlocking branches had a place high on my list of things I wanted Ephiny to teach me. It was just then that I realized Ephiny probably wouldn't be with me once we returned to Corinth. That fact saddened me immensely, but she was a warrior and even though we had become friends, babysitting me would probably be her last choice for a career. However, the Amazons had made it clear that even though my home was in Corinth, the Royal Amazon Guard would remain with me. We had also arranged to house a small garrison of Amazon warriors within the city walls. That decision made the Elders, while not entirely comfortable, somewhat at ease.
I would not have known that this place, highest among all its neighbors, had belonged to the Queen of the tribe. Melosa had evidently been the woman I had given her credit for being. She believed in a simple life and put on no airs because of her position. From the outside, it looked as though someone still occupied the quarters. At the very least, someone still kept up the place. Boxes of plants and flowers, such that would grow in the low light of the forest, hung under the windows. I had never seen such a thing before, these wooden boxes. Throughout most of Greece, our outdoor plants grew in large marble planters beside the portico.
I lifted the latch on the door and it swung open without a sound. There were only two rooms; undersized compared to the expansive quarters that Xena and I shared here. One of the rooms looked to be a study of sorts, but it also held a long bed. I easily guessed this to be Melosa's room, a combination of office and bedroom. The small house stood empty save for the basic household furniture and two wooden chests.
Two crossed short swords lay atop each chest, and a woodworker had carved the royal insignia into the lids. All of Melosa and Timara's personal possessions had been carefully packed away, waiting for me, as the next ruler, to dispense them according to Amazon tradition. Ephiny had informed me that every Amazon old enough to decide upon a clan made a will and housed it within the village archives. Changes and codicils were often made, but the Sparrow clan took efficient care of such work. It was the Queen's duty to see that an Amazon's will was meted out.
Dragging a medium-sized wooden table near the chests, I pulled up a chair and pulled two scrolls from the cloth bag that Ephiny had given me the previous day. Each had been sealed with a reddish-brown wax, the shape of a small sparrow pressed into the wax when it had still been warm. With a sigh, I sat down, spreading the parchment of Melosa's scroll out on the table. I used two silver scroll-weights, laying one down at the top and one at the bottom, I had found in the bag to keep the parchment from rolling together again.
The chests had also been sealed, but I did not recognize the impression of the stamp. It was the head of a panther over a clenched fist. The cat's head hinted that it might have been Adara's mark as Elder of the Panther clan. It was with a heavy heart that I opened the chest marked as holding Melosa's possessions. A small number of baskets had been carefully sealed and arranged within. I lifted them out of the container and began my task.
The job took no time at all, but that didn't mean it was easy. Perhaps the Fates had been responsible in declaring that I should perform this chore. I thought how much more difficult the task would have been had I really known or been closer to the two women. The lists were rather straightforward. I wrapped each item in parchment, enclosing a simple note to the recipient. I tried to think of a few of the happy times I had spent with each woman and that did make the time go by faster.
I had finished with Melosa's belongings, completing her list first since she had much more to go through than Timara. The princess only had a few personal possessions; in fact, she had only recently made a change to her will. I noted the date added at the bottom of the parchment. There was nothing odd about the fact that Timara had changed her wishes just before she left on the trip to Corinth. Travel was never completely safe, even in the Greek Empire. Anything could happen on the road from sickness to accident, and it looked to me as though the young woman had simply planned ahead.
I smiled at some of Timara's requests. They were simple items that probably meant more to her, and perhaps friends her age, than to anyone else. The final item lay at the bottom of a small basket. A small wooden box, smelling of aromatic cedar, with a lid fastened around with cord.
Now, as I write this, I recall the moment and think that if I had but glanced at the scroll, to see the name written there before grabbing the item, I might have decided against opening it. Funny how life happens, or how the Fates arrange it. My job was to see that each person in Melosa and Timara's wills receive what had been allotted to them, however, and so I unfastened the cord and lifted the lid.
I could do no more than stare at the contents. I knew what it was from my studies with Ephiny and the rest of the Amazons. A few of the women who traveled with us had even worn them. The markings were frighteningly familiar, and as the breath caught in my throat, it reminded me to swallow and keep breathing. I turned it over and saw what I was rather afraid I would. I leaned over and looked for the last name on the scroll that Timara had written. There it was and it all came together.
I opened the small note tucked underneath the object. Perhaps it had been wrong to read the words Timara had written, but I needed the confirmation. I sighed as I replaced everything and slowly retied the cord around the box. It all made so much sense, in a distorted sort of way. My heart broke, but what saddened me the most was thinking that Ephiny had known about this and had hidden the truth from me.
"It doesn't make sense," Xena said for perhaps the tenth time. "Why would Ephiny deliberately try to deceive you?"
I had been sitting alone in our quarters for a good two candlemarks before Xena found me. She listened to my story and, as was her way, she immediately wanted to beat the truth out of Ephiny. Once I calmed her down, we sat to think of a reason. Much of what had happened in the last two days suddenly made sense, at least seen through the eyes of a girl who had seen only sixteen summers.
"Too many times I saw Ephiny and Adara exchange looks, as though keeping something from us," I said. "It began to make me feel strange. Now I wonder if this wasn't the secret they kept."
"I thought I was being overly cautious or even a touch paranoid, but I noticed those same exchanges between them," Xena replied.
A knock on the door silenced us.
"Ephiny is supposed to meet with me this afternoon," I said before Xena opened the door.
An Amazon that neither of us recognized stood there waiting to speak.
"Yes?" Xena asked, looking past her suspiciously. It must have made the woman uneasy because she, too, looked behind where she stood.
"I, uh, forgive me, Lord Conqueror. My Captain, Ephiny, sent me. She asks if the Queen would like to gather with her in the Community Hall for their meeting."
I could see the stranger from where I still sat. She looked from Xena to me, seemingly undecided as to whom she should address.
"No, go tell Ephiny that the Queen wishes to meet here," Xena said.
The Amazon looked unsure. She looked back to me, but before I could agree, Xena shook her from her idle stance.
"Don't stand there looking as though I've two heads on my shoulders!" Xena snapped.
"Aye, yes, Lord Conqueror…of course." She rushed off in a hurry.
"You don't really think Ephiny is the enemy?" I asked once Xena had closed the door. I was worried and disheartened all at once. I had come to think of her as a close friend. Now, I didn't know what to think.
"I don't know anymore, but I'm certainly not taking any chances. Don't look at me that way. I don't plan on standing next to you while you two meet, but I'm not going far."
I smiled at her overprotective nature, of which I had become rather accustomed. "I would expect nothing less, my Conqueror."
It seemed only moments before Ephiny appeared in the doorway. She stepped inside wearing a pleasant look, but her brows furrowed together as she looked between Xena and me.
"What's wrong?" she asked as she continued to glance between the two of us.
"I think I'll wait outside while the two of you talk," Xena said. She walked over to where I sat and leaned down, kissing me on the cheek.
She saw that I had placed my short fighting sticks on the seat beside me, hidden from view. I don't know what I'd been thinking when I placed them there. Did I honestly fear betrayal from Ephiny? My heart refused to believe it, but my head told me to prepare myself anyway.
"That's my girl," Xena whispered into my ear. "I'll be right outside," she repeated, as if for Ephiny's benefit.
I noticed that Xena refused to even look at my Captain. Ephiny, also, noted the slight.
"Have I done something I shouldn't?" She asked with an uneasy laugh.
I was in the mood for neither smiles nor jokes. "I don't know," I answered. "Have you?"
She was not a stupid woman. My expression told her more than my words. Shoulders slumping a bit, Ephiny placed her hands on her hips and looked at the floor. She sighed heavily and looked back up at me.
"So, someone's told you."
I leaned forward in my seat as though I hadn't quite heard her correctly. "It's true then. You knew about this?" I was dumbfounded. She didn't even try to lie.
"You have proof that it's true?" Ephiny took a step closer and I believed that the look of concern, or perhaps it was disbelief, on her face was genuine.
"I saw the betrothal necklace."
"Sweet Artemis! I can't believe it. Gabrielle, you have to believe me when I say that Addie and I were the only ones who ever believed there to be even the slightest bit of truth to the stories. I swear by my sword that we eventually believed it to be rumor."
"I can see the truth of what you say in your eyes, Eph, but…" I looked out the window, searching for the right words. "That you didn't make me aware. If I had known it might have changed everything. I never would have let Prax push me into that fight."
Her eyes jumped back and forth and her brow drew together once more. "I—I can't see where that would have changed anything, Gabrielle."
"You don't see—Perhaps that is why I should have known!"
"I didn't like keeping silent, truly, but what you say confirms what Addie and I felt. You would have treated her differently had you known. Perhaps you would even have refused the mask of the Queen."
"Of course I would have treated her differently. Prax deserved better than what I helped to put her through!"
There was a silence between us for a few heartbeats. An expression of sheer puzzlement took control of Ephiny's features.
You mean Lexa," she said at last.
"What? No, I mean Prax."
"Okay I—I think I'm confused." She looked and sounded just as Xena always did each and every time I bested her in a game of King's men. "Why do you keep saying Prax? What does this have to do with her?"
"Because that's who I'm talking about! Wait—who are you talking about?"
"Lexa and Melosa."
"Lexa was betrothed to Melosa?" My mouth hung open at this unexpected remark.
"Isn't that what you just told me?" Ephiny asked. "Isn't that why you're upset?"
"Okay, now I'm confused. I can't even remember why I was upset. What in Hades is going on in this village?"
"All right, let's start over. You found out that Lexa and—"
"No, no, no! I found out about Prax and Timara."
Ephiny sunk into the nearest chair. Her expression had gone completely blank. "Prax and—I had no idea."
"But you just said—Gods! Ephiny, we are both talking about two different things, aren't we?"
"Damn right we are. Sorry," she looked up, realizing whose presence she was in. "Gabrielle, the rumor that Addie and I kept to ourselves was that we suspected Lexa and Melosa were having an affair. We thought they might have wed if Melosa had returned."
"Gods above! Is there any truth to that?"
"Rumors were all. Lexa and Melosa spent quite a bit of the last few months, before the trip to Corinth, together. They were always talking and spending the evenings together. If what you say about Prax and Timara is true, then that makes sense."
"They were discussing their daughters?"
"It's understandable. A royal betrothal is something that takes some planning. I'm sure Lexa spent every one of those candlemarks talking Melosa into thinking it was a great idea. It’s no secret that Lexa has always wanted a part of the throne."
"I can't imagine Timara falling in love with someone like Prax let alone that Melosa would approve of the match," I commented.
"Well, Prax has always been a bit much, but in her defense she was never this bad. When I came back, Adara told me what it's been like, since Melosa died. We both figured that Prax was throwing a tantrum, acting hideous because her mother wouldn't be royalty."
"I’m afraid it goes much deeper than that."
"It does make sense now that I look back at it all. Timara was younger than Prax, but they hung around with the same friends. I suppose we just didn't see anything out of the ordinary there. Melosa did like Prax's warrior skills, but I can see why she took her time about announcing the betrothal. Prax was…well, Prax. Perhaps Melosa held off, even hoping the trip to Corinth would mature Timara."
"Or make her forget about Prax," I replied. "I think Prax and
Timara felt a lot more for one another than those around them knew." In
Timara's chest, I found a betrothal necklace. It was a polished piece of wood
containing Prax's family mark along with the royal crest. Their names had been
etched onto the back."
" That's a betrothal necklace all right."
" There was also a letter from Timara to Prax. It left no doubt in my mind that Timara would have been promised to Prax upon her return from Corinth. Their feelings, at least on Timara's part, were quite real."
"I had no idea about any of this, Gabrielle," Ephiny said.
"I can see that now. I guess what disappoints me the most is that you did try to keep something from me."
"But it was only a rumor—"
"That doesn't really matter. Eph, if I had heard that rumor, I might have discovered the truth before now."
"I know. I'm sorry, Gabrielle, not only because you're my Queen, but because of our friendship. Like I said, Addie and I thought that you being such a compassionate woman, if you'd known about the rumor you might have wanted to see Lexa take Melosa's place as Queen. I was wrong to hide anything from you, but I was afraid of what you would do, how you would react."
Her words echoed within my mind, and I was certain I'd heard them somewhere before, been in this exact situation before. It came to me after a moment and I realized that I'd once committed the same offense as Ephiny had. I recalled hiding the truth of Solan's attack from Xena. Atrius, Xena's trusted captain, even assisted me in my lie. I had done it all because I was afraid of how Xena would react… afraid of what she would do. Xena not only forgave me, but she gave me sound advice about being a ruler.
"Ephiny, do you want to be Queen?" I asked.
"Wha—? What do you mean?"
"I mean, do you want to rule the Amazons in my place?"
"No! Gods, no. I don't—"
I held up one hand and she abruptly stopped. "Are you sure you don't want to be Queen?"
"Gabrielle, I'm a warrior, not a ruler. I could never do what you do."
"Then you're going to have to let me rule." I chose the same words Xena had leveled at me that day. Just now, it seemed an eternity ago.
"Right or wrong, Ephiny, for good or ill, I will be the one to decide what happens when and to whom. I understand the reasoning behind your actions, you and Adara, but as ruler, I must be kept aware of all things. There can only be one commander, one ruler, and whether by fate or fortune, I am that one. Only one can rule, but I can't be in all places all the time. Most importantly, I need to know that I can trust those closest to me. I need to know that I can count on those friends who I hold dearest."
Ephiny truly looked distressed at my words. I could tell that she understood my meaning. I not only still considered her my closest advisor, but also a friend. How could I have tendered less compassion to her than Xena the Conqueror had offered to me?"
Ephiny rose and crossed the room, suddenly kneeling before me. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle…forgive me, my Queen."
Her bowed head and supplicant posture reminded me that I would always have to balance myself upon that fragile line separating ruler from friend. I hoped that Athena and Artemis would both forgive me for always choosing friendship over the other.
"You don't have to kneel to me, Eph. Friendship is the only oath of loyalty we ever need between us."
When she looked up, she had tears in her eyes. It was the first time I believe I had ever seen her openly display such emotion. Xena knocked and walked into the room. Ephiny quickly rose, sweeping her feelings away and back into place, but not before Xena had at least seen her on one knee.
"Have you settled things then?" she asked of no one in particular.
"It was a miscommunication of sorts. I'll tell you all about it over our evening meal," I answered.
Xena closed the distance between herself and Ephiny. I almost thought they would embrace, but I should have known better. They grasped forearms in a comradely sort of way.
"Good," Xena replied in an offhanded manner. "I've…well, become sort of…accustomed to having you as a sparring partner."
They were the only words the two women said about the incident. I shook my
head as I watched them. If I lived to be a thousand, I would never understand
To be continued in : Chapter 38: Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines...
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