Melys' took the news with surprising calm. The priestess looked intently into Xena's eyes. Xena had an uncomfortable moment when she knew that Melys' saw everything, but the priestess did not protest. With pain in her dark eyes, Melys' nodded her assent, then started getting the children ready for their trip. Xena recalled Aryn' and Tecmessa from the search and told them they would be escorting the family to the Tavern in Amphipolis. Aryn' looked puzzled for a moment, then Xena told her everything.
"Why didn't you tell me this before, <tanti-meia>," asked the young warrior. "Won't I be needed here to help fight the Destroyer?"
"No, I think that will be my task. Why else would I have the power to kill gods again?" said Xena. "Besides, you are needed more to protect your little sisters, 'Ryn. They are the hope of the Amazon Nation. At least according to Hekate."
"Well, I can't argue with the Goddess," said Aryn', with a sigh. Xena chuckled.
"Why not? I do it all the time," she said.
"Xena, your ... disdain for gods is well-known," said Aryn', grinning at her foster-mother. "But I was raised by a priestess, remember? And I quite like Hekate - she's always been pretty fair. Not like the Olympians."
"True," said Xena. "I do respect her - although I'm not thrilled about her latest command."
"I know, Xena - and I'm sorry," said 'Ryn, sadly. She looked up at Xena, thoughtfully. "What if Tecmessa and I were to take the babies? Someplace far away. We could raise them and they'd be safe. We could even maybe take them to Avalon with Selen' and Ephiny."
"'Ryn, that's incredibly sweet and I appreciate it and so would your mother and Gabrielle, but that won't work," said Xena.
"I guess not - Hekate wants them away from the Amazons, doesn't she?" said Aryn' with a sigh.
"Yes, but not out of this world, as Avalon is," said the warrior.
"Alright, Xena - just tell me this - if the babies should ... um ... 'disappear' from Amphipolis, should I go looking?" asked Aryn'.
"I trained you too well," said the warrior, dryly.
"Well enough to screw up your plans if I go looking for children you don't want found," replied Aryn'.
"Alright - then you already know the answer to that question, don't you Warrior Princess Aryn'?" said Xena, one eyebrow raised.
"Yes, I guess I do," sighed 'Ryn. "Alright, Xena, Tecmessa and I will be ready before the kids. I'll meet you and Mother at the Lodge."
Xena walked quickly to the messenger bird cote. She was beginning to think too many people already knew what she had planned and if that was the case, she would have to think of something - and fast. But the important thing was to get the children out of danger. Already she was beginning to think that Anaxilea would not be found in time to keep her away from the cave in which Dahak had been imprisoned. If she managed to release Dahak before the children were out of AemetzainL and on their way to safety ... Xena shook her head. <No time to doubt now - and no time to think of another plan - better just forge ahead and hope for the best,> thought the warrior.
Lucina paced in the guest cottage, regretting her haste in calling out an alarm over Anaxilea's disappearance. <I have to remember things are different here,> she thought. The young woman was in turmoil. The Amazons had been nothing but kind to her and she couldn't understand her mother's animosity towards the women, especially since Xena was Eve's own mother.
That was another thing. Eve. Her mother had essentially exiled her from her own people. That just didn't fit with the rest of Eli's teachings. Her talk with Melys' the previous day had made her think hard about just what her mother was doing. Lucina knew it was wrong, no matter what excuses her mother made. She had no doubt that Eve had only the best interests of the group in mind, but still it was wrong to change Eli's words around. For the first time in her life, Lucina began to doubt much of what she had been taught; the Book, for example, the one her mother had said was Eli's messages, spoken through her. So many of them were strange.
"Eli is dead," said Lucina to herself, shaking her head. She sat on the bed and put her head in her hands.
Startled, Lucina looked up to see a shimmering apparition. A man, with long dark hair and a beard, clothed in a brilliantly white robe stood before her, smiling.
"Eli?" Lucina whispered in awe.
"Yes," said the apparition.
"You're not ... dead?"
"None of us ever die, Lucina," said Eli, gently. "We just move on to new life. Like the life you are carrying within."
Lucina looked down.
"I am so sorry for the things I said, Master - " she began.
"No, never call me that," said Eli, gently placing a hand on Lucina's shoulder. It was a warm, comforting hand and Lucina felt peace flowing over her troubled mind like oil on water.
"Eli, why does Mother want everyone to fear you?" asked the young woman.
"She doesn't," said Eli. "She wants everyone to fear <her>."
"But why?" asked Lucina, wanting to weep at the sadness in Eli's blue eyes.
"I'm sorry, Lucina," said Eli, gently. "I know that even among the Elisians, there are those who must have their wine everyday - even to excess. There are even those who must have their poppy juice. It is like that with your mother and power. At one time, many feared your mother and she grew accustomed to that power. She was able to put that aside for a time, but now ... another voice speaks to her and calls to that desire within her. She cannot help herself."
"How can I help her?" asked Lucina, tears welling in her eyes.
Eli smiled and reached out to gently caress Lucina's face, wiping away the tears which spilled from her eyes to her cheeks. "There is so much love in your heart, Little One," he said. "Even now, when Eve has hurt you so deeply - even abandoned you, and you seek to help <her>. Truly you are a credit to my message - and that is why I chose you to be my new Messenger."
"Me? I am not worthy, Eli," said Lucina, looking down. Tenderly, Eli lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.
"You are worthy of much more than this, Lucina," he said. "I also choose you to bring my soul back into this world - if you will consent?"
Lucina looked startled for a moment, placing a protective hand over her swollen middle and considering the child she carried. "What? But ... what happens to the soul who already resides there?"
"Ah, that is a mystery," said Eli. "It has been said, 'The two become one and the one becomes three; and the third is the sum of all parts.'"
"I don't understand," said Lucina.
"The souls will unite into one, Lucina - this child shall be me as well as who he already is, but we shall be the same being," explained Eli.
Lucina frowned. "Forgive me, Eli, I still do not understand, but I know that no harm will come to my child with you."
Eli smiled again and placed a gentle hand on Lucina's abdomen before fading from her sight.
Eve was having a very bad day. Her son-in law, Darius, had been harping on her to bring Lucina back into the fold. The voices were getting louder, too - Eli's and that other one. For a time, Eli had stopped talking with her, then he had begun to scold her, in his ever so gentle way - which only made the scoldings worse, since the very gentleness made Eve feel guilt. That was when she had started to wear the veils. And just so no one would suspect, she had made it part of the Elisian "scriptures" that all the women in the commune wear them, too - not to mention the fact that the last thing Eli had said to her was that she was no longer his Messenger and that he must now find another strong woman to take her place. Eve knew that if the women all wore veils as she did, they would not be able to hear Eli, either.
She missed her daughter. That night with Ares had been a mistake, but for the fact that Lucina had come of it. Eve regretted it only slightly - she had backslid, if only a bit, reverting to what had worked in Rome. Using her body to try and get Ares to convert to the Way of Love - if only it had worked! To have the god of war become a god of peace - there would be no more war, then the message of Eli would spread itself. She should have known better. That had been the beginning of her downfall. Sick with remorse, Eve had declared that Eli's will was that no one was to share his or her body that way except within the confines of an Elisian marriage. Then she knew she was pregnant with Lucina and desperately had to cover herself. She had married hastily, but her husband didn't live long afterward. As luck would have it, he died while trying to fell a tree while building a house for them.
Eve relocated the Elisians here, settling in and building a community for her people. She had also made sure her daughter would not follow her on the path to sin, marrying her off to Darius as soon as Lucina was of age, despite the fact that she did not trust Darius' ambition. Eve had hoped that marriage to her own daughter would satisfy that ambition, but it was not to be. Darius took over the leadership of the Elisians in all but name. Now he was pressing her to be allowed to go and bring her daughter home.
As much as Eve missed Lucina, she realised that her daughter would be the natural choice as Eli's new messenger and Eve wasn't quite ready to give up her position. The visit from her mother and Gabrielle - and that other Amazon - had left Eve feeling very unsettled. She had known that there were other gods out there, of course - Ares, for example - but her goal was to make the god of Eli the one and only god worshipped in the known world. That would make her position very secure indeed - and as the leader of the world's only religion, Eve would wield power over more people than she would have even if she had become Empress of Rome. For their own good, of course - never would Eve entertain the intoxication of power in and of itself - that was Livia, not her.
Eve raised the veil slightly. Silence. Eli was silent, which was frightening - what if he had already chosen his new messenger? But so was that other voice that terrified her even more than Eli's silence. It was that voice which had led her to let her daughter go that morning. It made so much sense on the one hand, yet still Eve thought that letting her daughter out of the realm of her own control may have been a mistake even though that other voice had assured that with Lucina among the Amazons, their defeat was close at hand ...
Xena returned to the cottage to escort Melys' and the children to the Lodge to meet Aryn' and Tecmessa. Melys' had been crying, but smiled bravely when the warrior entered the youngest girls' bedroom.
"Romy, take the babies in the other room and ... entertain them, please," said the priestess.
"Okay, <Meia>," said Neiromei, taking her little sisters by the hands and walking them into the common room.
"Xena, I'm sorry," said Melys'.
"For what?" asked the warrior, gathering Melys' into her arms.
"For this morning, in the council chamber," said Melys'. "I shouldn't have ... scolded you - especially not in front of Romy and Gabrielle. Or, really, at all. I'm just sorry." Tears again sprang into her dark green eyes and she laid her dark head against Xena's shoulder.
"Hey, it's okay - you're right," said Xena, stroking Melys''s long hair. "I undermined your authority and that was wrong. I'm sorry, 'Lys'. We have to stand together - especially now."
"It's just - everything is falling apart - spinning out of my control and I ... don't know what to do," said Melys', sniffing.
"I know," said Xena, soothingly.
"Xena, the babies aren't coming back from Amphipolis, are they?" asked the priestess, looking up at the warrior with her tear-stained face.
"No," said Xena. "I should have told you, but ..."
"No, the fewer people who know, the safer they'll be," said the priestess. "So, how were you going to keep everyone from raising the alarm when the babies were missing?"
Xena frowned. "Never mind, 'Lys'," said the warrior, recognising one flaw in her plan - were there anymore? Xena had never before lost her focus, no matter what the situation and she certainly couldn't afford to do so no, yet there was no time to re-think this plan. The Warrior just hoped 'Ryn could pull off her part of it. "Just trust me, okay? We'd better get going - the sooner these children are safely away, the better. The Destroyer could be here any time now."
The two mothers packed their little ones off to the Lodge. Xena left them there, slipping quietly and unseen off to the Temple. She looked around for any novices or junior priestesses who would be sure to tell Melys' they had seen the Warrior Queen there - Xena wasn't a frequent visitor to the Temple, despite being Joined to the Priestess Queen. It wouldn't do for Melys' to know that Hekate hadn't been part of Xena's plan from the beginning.
Xena knew Melys' kept an office in the Temple building and she made her way there now. She had been there with the Priestess recently, so if she was questioned, she would simply say that she had left something there that day. Xena entered the quiet room and closed and locked the door behind her. The room felt so peaceful in its silent, cool dimness. The scent of the Temple incense mingled with the scent of parchment and beeswax candles and Xena breathed deeply, taking in the solitude and quieting her mind. Finally she spoke.
"Alright, Hekate - I guess this is just as good a place to talk with you as the sanctuary," said the warrior.
"Better," said the goddess, appearing with a smile. "Melys' often finds it so, at least."
"Okay - you got me here," said Xena. "I need your help."
"I can see how painful that is for you to say, Xena, so just tell me what's on your mind," said the goddess.
"The babies - for now," said Xena.
"Ah, yes - your plans for taking their 'disappearance' into your own hands," said the goddess.
"You knew about that," said the warrior, not really surprised.
"Naturally," said the goddess. "Very, very clever, my Child. However, I have made other plans."
"What other plans?" asked Xena.
"Never mind, - you know that the childrens' safety - and the safety of the Amazon Nation depends upon this. Xena, do you think I <want> this?" asked Hekate, shaking her head, sadly. "This wasn't what I intended to happen when I gave you these children in the first place."
"Then why ...?" began Xena, frowning.
"I can see the fates of all the world's inhabitants unfolding before my eyes, all the time," said the goddess. "Since humankind has free will, the future is not set in stone. I can only see what is happening and what will come out as the result of all the billions of choices humans make every moment of every day.
"I knew we made our own destinies," said Xena.
"Yes, you did know that - and you are quite correct," said Hekate. "I cannot tell you exactly what the future holds because every second it changes, based on all of the choices everyone makes all the time. I can, however, anticipate certain events and trends. And that is why I know that these children must now leave you. I am truly sorry that it must be that way, my daughter."
"So am I," said Xena. "But I still need to know where these children will end up."
"Xena, do not test me," said the goddess, suddenly growing very cold. "I am the mother of all - including these children. I know you - and I have known you since before you were born - the first time. This is one time I will not indulge you. Too much is at stake. This is one time you have no choice but to bend to <my> will."
"That will never happen, Hekate," said Xena, quietly, but there was steel in her voice.
"This is one time I cannot offer you a choice, Warrior," said the goddess.
Suddenly, Xena felt a strong wind blowing. The room grew very dark and the wind screamed in her head. "Hekate! What are you doing?" Xena cried. She looked at the goddess and saw a terrible being, so beautiful, it hurt her eyes to look.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but you must learn respect for the Mother of All Living," came the voice from the being.
"Other gods have tried," said the warrior through gritted teeth.
"Still you remain stubborn," said the goddess, sadly. "And so you shall remain here, in the Land of the Dead until your children are safely away where you cannot find them. I'm sorry it must be so, my Child."
With that, the goddess left and Xena looked around at the barren landscape. She was alone.
Melys' watched as Aryn' hoisted Neiromei upon her horse, Amnia, then mounted behind the little girl. That had been a battle; Aryn' had brought Romy's pony, suggesting that Romy could ride it all the way to Amphipolis. Romy, feeling very proud that her adored older sister thought she was "big" enough had insisted that she <would> ride herself, despite Melys''s insistence that she ride with an adult.
Finally, 'Ryn, seeing the look in her mother's eyes, told Romy that maybe the <pony> was too small to go all the way to Amphipolis and perhaps Romy had better ride Amnia with her after all. Neiromei, who loved her pony, decided that was best after all. Tecmessa, CyrenL, and Meg each took one of the babies with them, strapped to their chests, although the toddlers were almost too big for the baby carriers in which they rode. Joxer was driving the wagon with the other children safely tucked inside and Melys' told him to guard them all well, causing him to puff up with pride for but a moment. The he looked into her eyes and saw sincerity there. He became serious and gave her an Amazon salute.
"With my life," he said, solemnly. Melys''s dark eyes welled again with tears and she smiled with effort, waving good-bye as her family rode off to Amphipolis. She had looked at Aryn' and Neiromei on Amnia. The two sisters looked more like mother and daughter to the priestess.
"Where's Xena?" asked Gabrielle, fighting back her own tears as they rode off.
"I don't know," said Melys', frowning. "You know how she is, though - she probably just couldn't bring herself to be here."
"Hm," said Gabrielle, nodding. "Either that, or she's following them at a discreet distance."
Melys' smiled weakly. "Yeah, that sounds like her, too," said Melys'. "But she knows we need her here when the Destroyer comes."
"True," said Gabrielle. "Maybe she's in the forest, beating up a tree or a something."
"Or looking for ..." Melys' began.
"Maybe," said Gabrielle. "She wouldn't want us to know that, though."
"No," said Melys', smiling. "After all, it's just a myth, right? Still, I think I'd better go and check."
"'Lys', do you think it's safe?" said Gabrielle. "I mean, remember the woods are where the Centaurs were attacked."
"I'll be fine," said Melys'. Already the priestess felt an emptiness inside which she attributed to her family being gone from the Village. "I need to, Gabrielle."
"Do you want some company?" asked the Bard.
"Yeah," said Melys', smiling. "That'd be nice."
The two queens made their way into the forest, under the watchful eyes of the village sentries. The sentries were posted throughout the woods, except in the areas deemed forbidden by Melys'. It was into one of those areas the two queens ventured.
"Have you seen him yet, Gabrielle?" asked Melys'.
"Only a brief glimpse," said the bard, feeling excited despite the day's sadness.
"Gabrielle, why do you think Xena has the power to kill gods again?" asked Melys'.
The Bard frowned. "The Destroyer," began Gabrielle, her voice quiet and sad. "Would be part Dahak and possibly part Ares - after all, he was chosen to father the first of the Destroyers. The last one was very hard to kill. In fact, I don't think Xena killed him at all."
"What do you mean?" asked Melys'.
"I think he died of a broken heart when he killed his mother," said Gabrielle.
Suddenly, Melys' put out a hand, motioning the Bard for silence. The women stopped walking and Melys' listened carefully. The two women heard sounds of a battle. They ran towards the sounds.
"How did you - I didn't hear anything," said Gabrielle.
"Neither did I," said Melys'. "I felt it."
She had felt the disturbance in the earth under her feet and in the trees. Moments before, she had been wondering about her place in the world to come - now, as natural as breathing, the world, the earth itself had re-claimed her; she was as much a part of this earth and it of her as the very soil beneath her boots and Melys' would fight for that place for as long as she lived - which, if Hekate had her way, would be about forever.
They arrived at a clearing in the forest to see Michael battling Anaxilea. The warrior's eyes were flat and dead - they were like polished onyx with absolutely no light in them at all. The Unicorn was struggling in a rope snare. Gabrielle grabbed up a fallen limb and entered the fray. Michael grinned at her, then resumed fighting. Melys' ran up to the Unicorn and pulled the ceremonial dagger she always wore from her belt, slicing the ropes which tethered the magnificent creature. The unicorn ran deeper into the forest, escaping.
At the movement of the priestess behind her, Anaxilea turned and howled with rage.
"You will pay for that!" she said. Her voice sounded deep and somehow unnatural. She advanced upon the priestess, while Michael tried to get between them. Gabrielle shook her head at the swiftness Anaxilea displayed and simply called out to Melys', tossing her the makeshift staff. Melys' caught it neatly, nodding her thanks to the bard.
"Come on then, and make me pay," said Melys', her voice low as she took her stance. Anaxilea came at her with a speed Melys' knew couldn't be humanly possible. "So, you <are> the Destroyer!"
Anaxilea laughed. "No, not me - I am only the door through which they will arrive!" she said, lunging. By sheer luck and momentum, Melys' evaded the sword and came back with a swipe, knocking Anaxilea's feet out from under her. In one smooth motion, she was back on her feet, almost as if she had never fallen, but Melys' had managed to put a little distance between herself and her opponent while Michael circled, looking for a place to jump back in.
"Blessed Goddess!" said Melys' through gritted teeth as she barely avoided another swipe of Anaxilea's sword. "Where is Xena?"
Silently, the priestess berated herself for that thought - she must stand and fight her own battles - and this was one of them. She was still holding her own and again managed to put some space between herself and her opponent. <She's so damned fast> thought the priestess as again Anaxilea was again nearly on top of her. Suddenly, Melys' had an idea. Again she strove to distance herself from the Fury flinging the sword, but this time, she whispered a chant and made a swift gesture, effectively casting a spell which removed the supernatural speed with which her opponent moved. Now she could hold her off and breathe at the same time.
Michael managed to get closer. He moved between the combatants, motioning Melys' out of the way. The priestess nodded gratefully and stepped away from the battle. She walked over to where Gabrielle stood, tense and ready and handed the makeshift staff back to the Bard.
"Thanks," said the priestess. Gabrielle nodded, debating to herself whether or not to jump in. Suddenly, she was startled by two figures approaching the clearing.
"It can't be," she said, her voice a mere whisper. Melys' looked to see a man walking towards them.
"Gabrielle, who - ?" began Melys'.
Perdicas ... but he's dead," said the Bard, tightening her grasp on her staff.
(To Be Continued)
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