The Persian Encounter
by: Patricia Wiseroostr and Xanjaa
Disclaimers: The standard disclaimer. To those who own Xena we mean no copyright infringement. This is simply a continuation of the fan fiction fun. The song "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" by Loreena McKennitt was used without permission. Her song is copyrighted and we respectfully do not infringe on that. If you are interested in her music, you can purchase it online. The lyrics to the song can be found on the CD, The Book of Secrets.
XWP Fanfic - Classic
Violence: Yes, quite a bit. Xena battles a mythic Persian army during this adventure. There is implied rape of the women enslaved by this army and some of the women are beaten severely.
Subtext: Of course – some graphic. This is XWP ALT Fanfic. Women loving women. If this offends your sensibilities, you might want to read something else and probably should.
Spoiler Alert: This story is our own creation. It takes place late in season two.
Summary: In this sequel to Powers of the Queen, Xena and Gabrielle have fallen into a routine at the camp of the Thracian Amazons. But, that is about to change. The Persian Encounter, Part Two of a Three-part Trilogy, begins two weeks after the Solstice Festival. A sister Amazon from the Caucus Mountain in the east, arrives in camp, and begs her western sisters for help. She tells them the story of her Eastern Amazon tribe which was decimated by a mysterious army with supernatural abilities. This army has been destroying everything in it's path, taking only a few female prisoners from each conquest, before moving on to the next target. She fears the future of the known world is at stake as the army is unstoppable.
Seven women, led by Xena and Gabrielle, set out for the Caucus. They take the blessing of Artemis who cannot help them by crossing into the geography of any other Gods in the east. It's a law among the Gods not to interfere in one another's territory. But she introduces them to her sister Goddess not knowing if she can or will help.
So unfolds the adventure to the east. They meet and find lost Amazon sisters as seven women try to stop a marauding army with supernatural skills. And, within the adventure itself, love stories emerge, passions are kindled and the true meaning of love, reveals itself.
Who are the eastern Amazons?
What is the nature of this supernatural army?
What is the threat hiding deep under the desert sands?
Will the eastern Goddess Anahita prove friend or foe?
How can a small band of Amazons survive against this horde?
Will hearth-mates be re-united and will their love survive?
What is the meaning of sacrifice and of true love?
Join us as we begin part two of the trilogy. The Persian Encounter.
Feedback is always welcome. email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
Acknowledgements and Thanks: To Deb, for doing the tough job of beta reading this story, we wish to express our gratitude. Thank you for not only catching our grammatical errors, but also our misuse of modern terminology and teaching us about horses. To Sage, Frenchie, Annie and Kerry of The Bard's Village, thank you for all your feedback and thank you for fixing the thousands of dialogue problems. We are most grateful. This story was made better because of your feedback.
Part One is Powers Of The Queen. This story, The Persian Encounter, is Part Two of a three-part arc. Each part is intended to stand on its own merit as an individual story.
Powers of the Queen can be found at http://www.academyofbards.org/fanfic/p/pw_xanjaa_powers1.html
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Prologue - Eastern Amazon Solstice Celebration
Running full out, the woman pulsated with the thrill of a victory that was within her grasp. The flickering flames of the ceremonial fire loomed ahead as she careened with a seeming death wish towards the conflagration. With her feet pounding the beaten earth, and her lungs heaving with effort, she never wavered in her path. At the last possible moment, before crashing head-long into the inferno, she planted her right moccasin hard and leapt high. Tucking into a ball, she executed a triple summersault, landing unscathed on the far side of the fire pit.
A deafening roar of approval went up from the women crowded around the fire. As her sister Amazons clapped each other's backs and cheered, she bowed in deference to the elders of her tribe. Only then did she turn to the other competitors, a grin splitting her brown face, transforming the otherwise plain warrior into a striking woman.
In fact, Tynet was not pretty in the physical sense of the word. Her heavy, coarse, jet- black hair perpetually tied into a braid was her most attractive physical attribute. She had a square face, wide set dark brown eyes, a determined expression on her too thick mocha-colored lips. Her nose, once straight, but now broken many times, gave her a fierce expression. Of above average height, she was close to six feet tall, with a solid, hard, muscular body made strong from years of swinging a sword, and herding the tribe's horses. What the twenty-seven year old woman was; was impressive and a bit frightening. Yet, as she looked toward her family group sitting in front of their hut, she graced her loved ones with a tender smile that belied her savage countenance and stature.
With many slaps of congratulations on her shoulders and a new wineskin shoved into her grasp, she made her way through the throng to her hearth-mate and their two children. Before actually making it to her destination, a small dark haired bundle of energy grabbed her legs and held on, exclaiming, "Mama, you did it! I want to jump the flames."
Laughing, Tynet snatched up her precocious five-year-old daughter, holding her high over her head, tickling the exposed ribs. Peals of laughter from the young, raven haired warrior-wanna-be rang through the camp merging with the other festive sounds of rejoicing. The child's laughter blended easily into the cacophony of loud conversation, games, and music as the tribe celebrated mid-summer.
Pulling her daughter down to her breast, Tynet whispered a promise into the child's ear, "One day, Thaddea, my brave one, I'll teach you, but first you must grow some more."
"Teach me now," groused Thaddea.
"Soon, little one."
After setting the disgruntled child down on the bear furs on which the rest of the family lounged, Tynet folded herself into a cross-legged position next to her beautiful hearth-mate.
Aptly named, Adara meant beauty in the Greek language. Her birth mother, Isaura, was originally from the Thracian Amazons and had chosen her daughter's name from her native tongue. Adara was a gorgeous woman by any standard and provided an interesting contrast to her partner. Of medium height, she was also dark, as was most of the tribe; her dusky complexion graced a clear, open, oval face with striking golden eyes, high cheek bones and lush full mouth. The color of her silky hair always took Tynet's breath away, as it was the deep blue-black of the obsidian stone they used in their arrowheads. Going well below the surface, Adara's true beauty glowed from within. A gentle soul, she was one of the tribe's healers. Her gift from the water goddess at her birth was a touch that saved lives and brought comfort.
"Here, both of you have some honey cake. Thaddea, you'll grow up soon enough," said Adara as she held out the sweet offering to the pouting child.
As Adara doled out the small treats, Tynet's heart warmed. Having no illusions of her own looks, she'd heard the remark made more than once that a beauty like Adara could have had any woman in the tribe or a wealthy male outside the tribe if she so desired. So it was with gratitude to the water goddess, that Tynet sent a loving look to the woman who had come to mean life to her.
Perhaps it was inevitable, she reflected as she nibbled pensively at the sweet treat. After all, they had grown up together and were inseparable from the time some older children had teased Adara until she cried. Unable to stand the sight of the child's tears, Tynet, only two years older had waded into the fray and rescued the younger girl, bloodying a few of the other children in the process.
From that point on, Adara had adored Tynet. The affection and loyalty had always run both ways. More than once, when the other children had taunted Tynet for her plain looks or imposing size, it was Adara that rushed to her defense, shouting at the other children. None of you has one half of her beauty, she would scream in their faces. You're all too stupid and blind to see. Tynet smiled as she recalled her mate's words of so long ago.
In Tynet's seventeenth summer, Adara's fifteenth, they had become lovers. Smiling now at the memory, Tynet recalled their first tentative touches and kisses that had quickly grown into a raging inferno of passion. They had formally pledged their love and joined as hearth-mates during midsummer of Tynet's twentieth year. So, this night was their seventh anniversary. In fact, it was a landmark anniversary, as they had plans to renew their joining pledge tonight before the tribe.
As was the custom among the Amazons, joining was stipulated for a specific period of time, usually three or seven years. There was wisdom in this practice. Often times as the first fires of passion began to grow cooler, a couple would come to realize that they had little in common. Many times, the joining pledge was not renewed and both women went without recrimination to other relationships or no relationship.
However, when children were involved many times the young couples requested the longer joining period of fourteen years in order to secure the raising of their offspring. Usually it was granted without question, but almost never at the first joining. Tonight, Adara and Tynet planned to request the full fourteen-year time frame. Not only had they both given birth, but they knew in their hearts there were no other hearth-mates for them. They both believed they had been chosen for each other before their own mothers had conceived them.
Among the Amazons, the decision to have children was well thought out. When two women were joined as were Adara and Tynet and they planned on remaining with the tribe, then much preparation was needed in order to insure the conception of a daughter.
Having grown up as Amazon children, they'd each witnessed the difficult decision of mothers when their male child reached puberty. She either sent the boy to his father or left the tribe with him herself.
The Amazons still spoke in hushed whispers of the tragedy of the queen's sister, Carine. After taking her son, Darin, to his father when the boy had turned twelve, she'd returned home to the village and simply wasted away in grief. Even though Tynet and Adara had only been young children at the time, they knew the story well.
The Amazons were a matriarchal society and the unbendable rule regarding this had been laid down in the mists of time. It was a law unto itself. As neither had wanted to have to face such a heartbreaking decision, they had opted to have a daughter.
The healers had a disgusting herbal drink that was nearly infallible when it came to insuring that a female child was carried. For months prior to the spring fertility rites, the women wishing to conceive would drink the concoction daily. Tynet nearly gagged whenever she thought back to her time of preparation. After that drink, she barely noticed the morning sickness so common with early pregnancy.
When the first budding of the trees announced the impending spring, the tribe would migrate to the site of the annual rites. More than the conception of children was celebrated at the vernal equinox; the tribe gave thanks and prayed for a successful harvest, fertility among their horse herd, and good hunting in the coming summer months as well.
Spring festival rites occurred well away from the Amazon camp. It was a secluded place down in the desert surrounded by many great sandstone cliffs where Amazon guards were posted for the duration of the celebration. Men, anonymous desert dwellers, would come every year to the festival, whether for the free food and drink or the chance to lay with a woman, the Amazons never asked nor cared. Ample protection was provided for the young women by the guards and by the herbs slipped into the men's drinks, which rendered them both docile and very amorous. In the history of the tribe, there had never been any problems, but it virtually insured all the offspring of this particular tribe had the dusky skin, dark eyes and ebony hair of the desert dwellers.
Even with so many precautions, Adara and Tynet had been terrified at what might happen during the coupling and so had chosen Tynet, the larger of the two to be the birth mother at their hearth. If she hadn't been so frightened, Tynet might have laughed uproariously at the picture she presented during the fire ceremony and dance that preceded the actual fertility rites.
A special lubricant, designed to ease the mating process was provided to all participating women. Although every Amazon was fully informed as to what to expect, Tynet took no chances. She had not only applied it to the designated places, but also completely covered her body in it. Her skin, slick with sweat and oils, glowed with a copper burnish in the fire light as she danced wildly about the flames. She had virtually picked a man at random. Eyeing her hapless victim until his own sweat ran freely down his face, Tynet had carried him bodily into the stone shelter for the rites. Adara was one of the guards on the cliffs above and had stood sentry for her lover below.
When Tynet's bleeding did not arrive by the next full moon, they knew they'd been successful. Thaddea, whose name meant brave one, had been born at mid-winter.
A few years later, it was a much easier decision for them to allow Adara to participate in the spring festival. Even so, with Tynet standing guard, not on the cliffs above but just outside the stone shelter and threatening the poor man with death should any ill befall Adara, it was a wonder that she had conceived, as the man had done his duty and run for his life all in under a quarter candlemark.
Licking the sticky honey from her fingers, Adara lifted up their younger daughter, Ursa, whom Adara had born three winters prior. The youngster was beginning to fuss and although she was essentially weaned at two and one-half, Adara still provided the comfort of nursing when the child was overly tired as she was this evening. Tynet smiled, feeling a deep peace, as she watched the tableau before her.
Adara's eyes met Tynet's above the nursing baby and she smiled. Unable to resist, the large dark woman leaned in, placing a gentle kiss on her lover's lips, licking at the honey glazing the soft full mouth. Pulling back, she smiled at her mate as she ran a large hand over Ursa's chubby thigh and dimpled knee.
Returning the look, Adara said, "Hmmm that was very impressive."
Unable to resist the non sequitur, the large woman replied, "The kiss? Or the leap?"
As Adara was anything but a fool, she replied, "Both."
"Right answer." They both laughed.
Leaning closer to her tall lover's ear, Adara whispered, "Amma said they'd take the children right after our re-joining pledge."
"Isaura and Hafsa give us a gift of great price then, a whole night alone." Tynet raised her eyebrows suggestively.
"Really Tynet, is there some reason you'd like to be alone with me?" Adara teased.
"Oh, my sunrise eyes, I have very big plans for you. Tomorrow when you can barely put your legs together to walk through camp, your sisters will know that you were well loved on your joining night."
Blushing mightily, Adara playfully slapped her mate on the shoulder and nodded toward the intently listening Thaddea. Leaning close, she whispered, "Well, I have some plans of my own and that's all I'm going to say on the topic."
"Mama, what's wrong with Amma's legs?" Concern sounded in Thaddea's voice.
Rolling her eyes at her snickering mate, Adara addressed her child, "Thaddea, I'm fine. Mama is just teasing me. You and Ursa are going to stay at Oma's tonight."
"I don't want to stay with Oma. I want to stay with you." The child retorted.
Poking her daughter in the ribs, Tynet cajoled the child into better humor, "You know you love to go to Oma's. They let you stay up late and eat all their honey."
Taking a sip from the wine skin, Tynet offered it to her mate, who nodded her acceptance and tilted her head back for her lover to pour it. The sweet wine flowed faster than expected from the overfull skin and Adara choked, pulling back. The motion unceremoniously ripped the nipple from Ursa's mouth, who then howled her displeasure.
Laughing, Tynet held out her arms for the baby as Adara went for some cloth to blot her mouth and chin. Holding the child over her shoulder, she gently patted the toddler's leather clad bottom in a soothing rhythm. Soon contented breathing could be detected and she lowered the sleeping child to her lap. Raising the baby's foot to her mouth, the dark warrior planted a light kiss on the child's sole.
"You want me to take her?" Adara asked as she returned and resituated herself on the furs.
"No, she's fine."
As with any five year old, Thaddea hated sharing center stage. Vying for her mothers' attention, she yelled, "Look at me!" as she tossed a piece of sticky cake high over head and then leaned back, her mouth open like a guppy as she attempted to catch the morsel.
Both women turned to the child just as the cake landed squarely in the middle of her forehead, sticking there. Their laughter did not please Thaddea.
With a huge pout on her full lips, she eyed her two mothers disdainfully.
Another of Tynet's unlikely characteristics, belied by her size and fierceness, was her gentle easy way with the children. Never missing an opportunity to teach their daughters the many skills needed to survive in their harsh environment, Tynet explained the finer points of catching a nugget in her mouth. As small a thing as it was, learning hand eye coordination was an invaluable tool to a warrior.
"Thaddea, throw the piece straight up first, not over your head."
The child looked at her quizzically, waiting for further enlightenment.
"Go ahead and just toss it up a small ways in front of you and catch it in your hand at first."
The youngster complied, repeating the exercise until she was throwing her piece of cake straight every time.
"Okay, now, this time when you toss it, make it go up straight and open your mouth moving under it; and Thaddea, keep your eyes open."
Reaching into a small basket next to her, she retrieved a handful of nuts and demonstrated what she meant. Handing a small kernel to her daughter, she said, "Now, you try it."
With extreme concentration, her tongue poking out the side of her mouth she attempted the feat.
"It worked!" she crowed with her mouth open so the adults could share in her success.
"That's wonderf…" Adara's praise was left unfinished as a burning fireball exploded in the central fire pit drowning out the response. Dimly, it occurred to Tynet that some green wood had popped, but she knew this was much too loud for that. No sooner had that errant thought passed, than another fiery sphere erupted and in succession, more fireballs rained down on the women, setting some on fire. The blazing missiles were followed closely by the appearance of huge armored soldiers with raised weapons yelling loudly. Within moments, the entire camp erupted in pandemonium as a hundred armed men swarmed into the village. Screams pierced the night air.
Instantly, Tynet was on her feet and in one fluid motion grabbed her long sword from its resting place. She thrust Ursa into Adara's arms and turned to do battle with the first raider who'd just breached their hearth. Thrusting her sword point high into the man's neck, he went down with a crash at her feet, spurting bright red blood across her legs. Hearing little Thaddea's battle cry, one she had taught her to use, she turned just in time to see the youngster engage an enormous soldier with her tiny wooden practice sword. The world slowed and stopped as she watched with complete disbelief. She saw him raise his own weapon, casual malice in his eyes, as he brought his sword down with the intention of killing her daughter. Her instincts galvanized her and furiously, she leaped to her child's side slashing the man's blade away at the last possible moment.
Adrenalin coursing through her veins, she attacked with inhuman strength and beat the intruder back, pulling her brave child behind her and screaming for her mate.
"Adara, take Thaddea!"
She backed away, forcing her daughter into the relative safety of her own hearth. As she battled the relentless intruders, she noted that half the village was ablaze, the smell of burning hides and worse made breathing difficult. The sounds of clashing swords, and the screams of dying women assaulted her ears. As more men poured into the circle, the outcome became undeniable. They were clearly outnumbered and about to be overrun.
Coming quickly to a decision, Tynet pushed Thaddea under Adara's outstretched arm, as she called out her instructions, her sword constantly in motion.
"Get the children to safety! Quickly, run for the woods."
Instead of bolting, Adara ducked inside their hut just as a flaming ember embedded itself into the fabric. Within a few heartbeats, she'd return with a rope draped over her neck and shoulder, the water skin and her medical pouch in her hands. As their family home burst into flames, she grabbed her staff and Thaddea. With complete despair, she looked to her lover one last time speaking only one word, "Tynet."
"Go Adara, I love you forever, go! Run to the Thracian tribe, go!" Their eyes locked momentarily as she said the words. Tynet knew this might be the last time she would see her heart mate. "Go!" she yelled finally.
Spinning on her heel, Adara ran, dragging the resisting Thaddea along and carrying Ursa in her arms. Everywhere she looked she saw deathand destruction. Many of her sisters lay dead or dying; many of those were very young, as young as her own children. This realization spurred her on. Besides her staff, Adara had only a small knife in her belt; not much in the way of weapons to fight such a well-equipped army.
Reaching the edge of the forest, she quickly herded her small charges to higher ground. Desperately needing to see what was happening, she ran up hill Adrenalin and exertion caused her breath to come in gasps. Nevertheless, Adara climbed quickly to the jumble of boulders overlooking the camp. It was from this spot that the guards were usually posted to prevent just such an invasion. She couldn't understand why their encampment had been attacked so easily until she rounded the immense granite rock and came face to face with two reddened and bloated corpses. By the goddess, what could have caused this? She thought.
In one swift movement, she turned Thaddea away from the grizzly scene and retraced her steps down one level, positioning her children behind a large rocky outcropping. Placing Ursa on the hard pan with the rocks to her back, Adara turned to her older daughter.
"Thaddea, I need you to stay here and watch Ursa for me. Will you do that, while I see what's happening?"
The fear was clearly etched in Thaddea's expression, but she was every inch Tynet's daughter and stoically nodded her head in acquiescence.
"Good girl. I won't be far. I'm just climbing up here to see. Okay?"
Adara squeezed her small shoulder, and then turned and began to climb. She mentally cursed the long silk skirt that she'd donned for this evening's re-joining ceremony. That mental digression caused her heart to clinch in agony. She'd traded herbs for the rare silk from the Far East. In secret, she'd sewn the soft lavender colored fabric, designing a slit up one side to her hip as a special enticement for her hearth mate. Not that Tynet ever needs much enticement, she thought. The smile quickly faded as the reality of the situation slammed into her. This is not the time to grieve, she chided herself, I need to see what's going on and then get help.
Carefully avoiding the gruesome bodies of the guards, she crouched behind the biggest boulder and then crept up slowly, just enough to peer over the edge without being spotted from below. From the high vantage point, she could see the entire camp below. It was chaos. Every hut was ablaze if not already turned to cinders. What causes such immediate destruction? She wondered. Her mind could not comprehend, let alone accept what she was seeing.
Eyes never stopping, she scanned the scene below for signs of Tynet. There were bodies laying everywhere. It tore at her soul when she spotted her own hearth-mother, Hafsa, among the fallen. Finally, she saw her mate amidst a small group of women putting up a brave last stand. Her lover was, of course, in the forefront, her sword a blur as she fought desperately to save the small band of women and children. There were perhaps a dozen women, mostly adults, but at least two older girls.
By the Goddess, was Adara's fervent prayer, please help them, Anahita, please save them.
It seemed that every soldier in the invading army was a giant, not one of them appeared to be less than seven feet tall. As if in a trance she watched her lover battle one immense swordsman after another, but she was surrounded and badly outnumbered.
Finally, a huge ugly soldier, larger even than his comrades, appeared behind Tynet. The evil looking man sported an angry red scar running from his hair line through his left eye to his jaw. With great deliberation, he raised his mace and brought it down with force towards Tynet's head. Her instinct for survival was all that saved her, because she pulled her head to the side at the last moment, but it wasn't enough, the blow caught her over her right ear. As Adara watched in horror, her teeth clamped down hard on her hand lest she scream and give away their hiding place. A dark red stain blossomed on Tynet's head, and then as if in slow motion the proud warrior fell. As her body hit the hard earth, the dust rose slightly and then settled on the Amazon's dark skin.
As the hideous mace wielding soldier slowly raised his weapon again for the kill, Adara turned away. She could not bear to watch her soul mate die. Sliding down the rough rock face, a desert curse flashed through her mind, by the goddess, may the one who killed my Tynet, reap his destiny. No sooner had that thought passed, than there was another disturbance below. The sounds of galloping horses and the loud shouting of orders, prompted Adara to peek over the rise once more.
Into the center of camp rode another giant on a warhorse. The beast was huge, at least 20 hands at the withers and as black as midnight during the dark moon. All fighting stopped as the man upon the majestic animal came to a halt in front of the beaten women. With two other horsemen on either side of him, the general surveyed the scene before him.
Massive black banners trimmed in red were carried by his honor guard. Snapping smartly in the evening breeze, the flags displayed the army's heraldry, hideous crimson scorpions scattered across a field of ebony. Although, she did not recognize this insignia; Adaracould hardly fail to miss its evil symbolism.
The dust from the horse's hooves, and the soldiers who had gathered round them, made it all but impossible to see the women cowering before their captors. She thought she had recognized her own mother, Isaura, among the captives but could not be sure, having only caught a glimpse as the woman bent down for something on the ground.
The big man on the black stallion eyed his prisoners with disgust, as one would look upon rubbish. "Is your Queen among you?" he asked as if inquiring for directions.
Finally, one of the prisoners answered in a voice chocked with emotion. "She's dead. That's her over there lying next to her daughter."
The general looked in the direction indicated and said, "Pity. What of her sister? She would hold her right of cast."
There was shuffling among the women before someone else answered. "The queen's sister died over twenty summers ago."
This seemed to surprise him and he looked hard at the prisoners trying to determine the veracity of their words. Finally, he nodded and then shouted his orders, "Take them," he pointed at the women. "And burn the camp and all the corpses."
Without any hesitation, the soldiers gathered up the fallen Amazons and began tossing their bodies in a heap in the center of what had been their village, their home. Try as she might, she could not distinguish Tynet's body among the jumble of dead and dying women.
Stunned beyond belief with the horror before her, Adara could only stare as the surreal vision below her unfolded. As she watched, the general on the black war horse raised his hand high. A blazing blue fireball suddenly materialized there. Laughing madly, he threw the fiery orb into the middle of the bodies. A deafening explosion followed and immediately the dead erupted into an inferno before her eyes. There were some brief screams of agony as not all of the victims had been dead.
Adara nearly vomited as the horror of it squeezed her heart and tore at her soul.
Hideous maniacal laughter filled the air, as the general observed his handiwork.
"Let this be a warning to all who would stand in our way! And especially to you Amazons, learn your fate. We march over and through any who resist us. No one can stand before my army of death!" He yelled his curses and threats to the heavens.
Her eyes now filled and spilled over onto her cheeks, as she said farewell to her lover, her best friend and her soul-mate.
Oh gods, Tynet, Tynet... her thoughts were anguished as she clutched at the constriction in her chest threatening to strangle her. Gut wrenching sobs spilled out as her heart shattered with the realization that her lover had fallen. How will I ever live without you? How can I go on? In complete despair, she allowed herself the luxury of this emotional torrent. For a few moments her tears flowed freely, as the sounds of hideous laughter below and the smell of the awful smoke assailed her senses. Finally, she expelled a ragged breath and composed herself. She had to for their children.
Tynet, no one can ever replace you in my heart. You are the other half of my soul. Goodbye, my love.
Her normally dusky complexion looked a ghostly white as she uttered those final thoughts so much like a prayer.
Gathering her wits and calling on her inner strength, Adara surveyed her surroundings.
"Anahita, help me!" She whispered.
She could not mourn yet. Until she and the children reached their Amazon sisters in Thrace, they would not be safe. Scanning the area, her eyes passing quickly over the remains of the two Amazon sentries, she spotted their supplies tucked in a small crevice of the rocks. Kneeling in front of the opening, she pulled out her find, a pouch containing a mixture of dried fruit and nuts, an old wooden cup, a wine skin, a bit of lariat and an old blanket, for warding off the night chill as the guards had stood watch over the camp below. This will have to do, she thought; these are gifts from the goddess. Standing, she fastened the pouch at her waist and then stowed the cup and lariat inside it.
"Amma?" A faint call came from below, interrupted her thoughts and brought Adara back to the situation at hand, a situation that was by no means over.
Gathering up the remaining treasures, she descended to the landing below. Rounding the outcropping where she'd left the children, she noted with pride the defensive posture Thaddea had assumed. Her smaller sibling was tucked against the rock face, thumb firmly planted into her pudgy mouth, while the baby warrior stood guard with her wooden sword held out before her.
The sight brought more stinging tears to her eyes as she thought, Tynet my beloved, you will never see this brave daughter of yours become a warrior. How will I tell her?
Instinctively, Thaddea turned at the noise of the pebbles Adara had kicked loose.
"Amma, where's Mama?" She asked; the fear evident in her small voice. Somehow, the child already sensed her mother was lost to her.
She knelt in front of her older daughter and looked into chocolate brown eyes swimming in a sea of misery.
"Thaddea, my little one, I'm so sorry." She hugged the little girl tightly to her bosom, but the child was having none of it and twisted out of her grasp.
"No, my mama isn't dead. She's a warrior. She's the strongest warrior in the world" she stated emphatically.
"Sweet heart, I know. I saw her fight them. Your mama was very brave. She fought many men. But there were too many. I saw her fall."
"No," the little girl exclaimed. "You're wrong. Mama is alive. You're wrong." With those words, the youngster made to run back to camp, but Adara had been expecting it and grabbed her around the waist holding on tight.
"Nooo!" she wailed as Adara pulled her firmly against her breast, muffling the sounds. Will the world ever be the kind of place where children can grow up in safety and love, Adara wondered as she comforted her child.
Holding her closely, it was several minutes before her daughter finally stilled. Only the child's occasional silent shudder against her chest, told her that Thaddea still lived, so quietly did she stand. Near the rocks, still sucking on her thumb, tears streaming down her sun darkened cheeks, little Ursa too grieved, though she didn't know the reason, only that her sister was distraught.
Letting out a huge sigh, Adara finally pulled back. She smoothed her daughter's raven hair back from her tear streaked cheeks and offered her a small supportive smile. Speaking so softly that it would be inaudible to anyone more than a few feet away, Adara offered the only reassurance she could.
"Thaddea, Mama would want you to be strong now. She's with the goddess and watching over us. The best we can do is to honor her by our strength. Can you do that for her? She taught you how to be a warrior. Can you be our little warrior and help me get us to our sister Amazons? We must warn them."
Thaddea's eyes were riveted on the bare dirt at her feet, but she nodded gravely in assent. I will help Amma, then I will come back and find you, mama, I promise. She sent this solemn pledge out to her warrior mother.
"Good girl. I need you to help me protect your sister. Sometimes, I will need to hunt as we travel." Adara paused. She couldn't believe what she was asking of a five year old, but the truth was; if they were to make it, Thaddea would need to grow up very fast. "Will you do that for me?"
Without answering, the young girl-woman went to her sister. Reaching down, she pulled Ursa to her feet, dusting off the leather britches the youngster wore, and then in a sweet moment that was so like her mother, she pulled the baby into an embrace with her chin resting on her sister's head. "It's okay, Ursa. I'll take care of you." With those words, she looked up to meet her mother's eyes.
Oh Goddess, help us, was all Adara could think. With her throat closed, burning with unshed tears, she put on her brave face and said, "All right, we need to get away from here before we can sleep."
They had been walking less than a quarter candlemark, when the burden of carrying Ursa in her arms made it impossible to take another step. Her biceps burning like fire, Adara paused placing her small daughter on the ground. They had made little progress. At this rate, it'll be mid-winter before we reach Thrace, she thought. Massaging the aching muscles, she glanced around.
They were following a ridge westward. With the aid of the full moon shining its silver light, she could make out the trail that switched back and forth down into the heavily wooded valley below. That was her destination for tonight. They were entirely too exposed on the boulder strewn grassy highland. Within the thick forest below, they would be able to rest a few hours and sleep in relative safety.
Ruefully, she again regretted the long silken skirt she wore. Kicking her foot out in disgust, the fabric swirled out around her legs like a morning mist. Even though it did not restrict the length of her stride, several times she'd nearly tripped on the long skirt, when they had needed to climb. Pretty as it was, the skirt was totally impractical for a cross country trek. The attributes of the silky soft material were well known to the Amazons whose village lay very near the Chin Silk Road. Both warm and cool, the eastern fabric was also strong as iron. She recalled that it was almost impossible to tear. Sighing, she looked down at the small figure leaning against her legs. What use is this reminiscing, she thought disgustedly.
Her eyes fell upon Thaddea, standing quietly with the blanket and wine skin tied into a sling which she bore across her small shoulders. Almost instantly, a plan formed in the Amazon's mind as it occurred to her just how useful strong fabric could be. Yes, maybe I can make use of this gift after all.
"Thaddea, come help me; hold Ursa out of the way."
Still wearing the blanket sling, Thaddea took the toddler's hand in hers, and the two girls stepped back a pace watching their mother intently.
Drawing her knife from her belt, she began cutting into the skirt at mid thigh. Working quickly, she soon had a long wide piece of the lavender silk. Stretching it out in front of her, she noted it was longer that her arm span.
Kneeling on the ground between the children, she drew the fabric behind her back, laying it on the ground.
"All right, Ursa, I want you to get up on my back, like climbing a tree."
Beyond tired and certain that her mother had gone over the edge, Ursa hesitated.
"It's okay, Ursa, Amma wants you to ride on her back," Thaddea said, grasping their mother's intent.
Drawing her sister forward, she boosted the small girl up; situating the youngster with her arms around Adara's neck and legs around her waist.
"Good, that's good. Now Thaddea, I want you to run the fabric, under Ursa's bottom and give me the ends."
Soon, with the help of both children, she had fashioned a carrying pack. Ursa riding comfortably on her back and the weight more evenly distributed, they moved off into the forest. With her legs free to move, they made better time.
Even so, with the passing of another candle mark, both she and Thaddea were flagging badly. It was time to stop.
Standing in a small clearing in the center of a copse of pine trees, Adara decided this was as good a place as any to rest for the night. Having Thaddea move behind her, she squatted down and lowered a sleepy Ursa to the ground. Gently, the older girl supported her sister, while her mother finished releasing herself from the confines of the sling.
The only good thing about this evening was that they had feasted earlier and wouldn't be desperate for food for a while.
Evaluating the trees in the immediate area, she chose a nice broad pine, with thick foliage that would make a nice comfortable bed for them. Ducking under the lower limbs, she noted it would be an easy climb.
She backed out and turned to the children smiling. Seeing two small lost faces, consumed with shock and feeling the loss of their mother, she knelt before them holding out her arms. "Come're little ones."
They didn't need a second invitation and both flew into her arms. Holding them close, she breathed in the sweet scent of her children and sought to reassure them.
"We're going to be all right. Mama is watching over us right now. And the Goddess, see her?" She spoke as she nodded to the full moon over head. "They are both guiding us. We're going to sleep in this tree. There're lots of flat branches. We'll be safe. All right?"
Two sleepy children nodded at her. She noted sadly how subdued they were, not like her children at all. Striving to keep up a positive attitude, she gave them each one last hug, before holding them at arms length.
"Okay, then, let's get ready for bed." She spoke as she herded her small charges away from their sleeping area to the bushes.
They relieved themselves and returned to their chosen tree. Each of them sipped from the water bag and then Adara hung the skins from a branch and looped the blanket over her shoulder.
Soon they were scaling the broad lower branches. Amazon children were accustomed to climbing trees and were at home in the foliage from a very young age. Neither of the girls thought anything out of the ordinary about sleeping in the branches ofa pine tree.
In the crook of a big bough not too far from the ground, she settled them, Thaddea next to her and Ursa on her lap, where she could nurse, if needed. Wrapping the rope around, to protect them against falling, she tied the free end to an opposite branch and sighed deeply as Thaddea snuggled under one arm. Then she covered them with the threadbare old blanket. Almost immediately, the older girl's breath attained the rhythmic pattern that indicated sleep. The only noises were the soft sucking sounds of Ursa taking what small comfort she could at Adara's breast. Finally, she too quieted and the nipple pulled free from her small rosebud mouth, a tiny trickle of milk at the corner.
Smiling sadly down at her daughters, Adara readjusted her top and rechecked the rope. Through the upper limbs the silvery light of the full moon shone down on them. Oh Tynet, why was our time so short? A small sob escaped her lips as she had these thoughts. Listening intently for any sign that her life mate had heard her prayer, she finally succumbed to much needed sleep.
Running through the forest laughing, Adara dodged between the tall birch trees, her lover, Tynet in hot pursuit. Glancing back over her shoulder, she couldn't see her mate any where but she sensed her close by. Turning forward intending to run again, she plowed straight into Tynet's waiting arms. Joyfully, the tall Amazon threw back her head and whinnied loudly…
The incongruity of it startled her awake as the horse's call followed her into consciousness. Sitting perfectly still, straining her ears, Adara tried to regain her equilibrium and identify the source of the noise that had wakened her. What was that sound? No sooner had the question formed in her mind, than the horse's whiny came again.
Carefully untangling herself from the rope, she gently shook Thaddea to waken her. With her hand over the child's mouth to prevent her crying out, Adara spoke in a barely audible whisper, "Thaddea, shhh, it's all right. Keep quiet, okay." When the girl nodded her understanding, Adara removed her hand.
"I hear a horse nearby. It might be a soldier so keep still. I need to climb down and check." Shifting the sleeping baby onto Thaddea's lap, she retied them to the trunk. "Keep very still. I'll be right back."
With those instructions, she slipped quietly from the limb and dropped silently to the ground below. The lowest branches concealing her, she crouched down and peered out into the clearing. Light from the full moon gave the scene a surreal quality as she surveyed the open area before her.
There, not more than twenty-five feet away stood a fine Arabian horse. It nosed the grass and then raised its head listening. No doubt it was a grey, but in the ethereal light from the moon, it seemed to glow with a shimmering silver cast.
Remaining completely immobile, Adara allowed her vision to soften in the way of hunters. The technique allowed her to see the clearing and surrounding trees as a whole, making anything out of place stand out like a candle in a darkened hut. After several minutes of scanning and listening, Adara felt confident they were alone with this animal.
Moving cautiously out from under the tree, she stood unhurriedly so as to not startle the beast.
With great care, she walked toward the animal, which danced away from her with each step, matching her pace. Adara stopped to consider the situation. Tynet was mistress of horses in their tribe and over the years, Adara had acquired a few skills of her own. The first thing she noted was that this animal did not seem wild but only frightened. Calmly, she spoke in soothing tones barely above a whisper as she had heard Tynet do on many occasions. Assessing the animal's condition as she approached, Adara kept up a steady stream of meaningless talk.
"Come're baby… it's all right… that's it… it's okay… so you're a young lady… are you… well, girl you're okay… you're with friends now…"
With great care and deliberation, she moved toward the skittish animal, all the while coaxing it, gentling it, never stopping the continual calming words of comfort. The mare snorted, but made no move to run as Adara finally reached its side.
"You belong to someone don't you baby? Let's see how you're doing, shall we…"
Reaching into her pouch she retrieved a small bit of dried fruit and held it out in her hand. Sniffing the offering and finally deciding it was acceptable, the animal gently nibbled the gift from her palm. At the same time, Adara ran her other hand slowly over the soft hairs along her neck. Unsure, the animal watched Adara suspiciously but allowed the stroking to continue. Heartened, she continued her examination in the moon light.
The thought that there was something very familiar about this animal niggled at her mind as her hands moved over its coat and through its mane, where she found a piece of leather tangled in a knot.
"What's this then?" she thought.
Carefully, she untied the leather strip holding it up in the moon light to identify it. What she saw caused an involuntary gasped as she recognized Tynet's own colors, purple and blue, dyed into the soft leather piece. Among the Caucus Amazons, horses were raised for trade as well as transportation for the tribe, and were generally kept in a common pasture. Usually, an Amazon had a favorite which she would mark with a bit of colored leather braided into the horse's mane.
Tynet, as mistress of horses, had three mounts that she rode regularly and this animal was one of them, a fairly recently broken grey she'd acquired in the spring and was training. Thinking back, she remembered Tynet saying that she was pleased with the new five year old mare. Impressed with her gentle disposition and fine conformation, Tynet planned to breed the animal in the coming year. Her unique coloring so like the hue of the full moon, caused Tynet to name her new steed Mahtab, meaning moonlight.
"Mahtab. Is that you, Moonlight?"
The horse nickered in response and nuzzled Adara's neck as she realized she'd found her family. Tynet, did you send Mahtab to us? She wondered.
Now Adara made a more thorough examination of the mare, finding many cuts and scrapes.
"Oh, poor baby, you've been hurt, haven't you? Don't worry, Mahtab, I have just the thing to fix you up."
Shaking her head vigorously, the horse agreed.
Turning, she moved back to the tree where the children waited. The pouch, where her herbal remedies were stored, hung from a branch close to Thaddea. Mahtab kept pace with her as she walked, bringing a smile to Adara's lips for the first time since the attack. Ducking under the low branches, she looked up to Thaddea.
"It's an injured horse, honey. Can you reach my medicines?"
"Okay." She said as she handed the kit down.
"Thank you, sweetheart. I won't be a moment."
Working quickly, Adara applied some of her salves to the worst of the abrasions, noting as she did so that most looked worse than they actually were. After anointing most of the wounds, she fashioned a hobble from the piece of rope she'd found with the supplies at the sentry post.The animal would still be able to graze freely, but not wander too far away.
It was with a much lighter heart that she climbed back up to her perch. Settling back into her sleeping place with the slumbering Ursa on her lap, she drew Thaddea back close to her side.
Holding out the small bit of blue and purple leather, she said, "I have a gift for you, Thaddea."
The exhausted child looked at her with glazed eyes and then focused on the leather strip. When she realized what she was looking at, she too sucked in a startled breath.
"Is it Mama's?"
"Yes. She sent us her horse, Mahtab, so we can ride to Thrace. This proves she is with us, honey."
Taking the child's hand in hers, Adara looped the leather around the girl's wrist tying it securely.
Holding her arm out where she could see her new bracelet in the moon's light, Thaddea nodded and said, "Thank you, Amma."
Looking up at the moon through the pine needles, she whispered, "Thank you, Mama. I miss you."
"I miss her too, sweetheart. But she's with us always. We carry her in our hearts."
"But we can't see her any more."
"No baby, we can't, but I can see her in your eyes and you know what?" The child shook her head, no. "She can see us." She pulled the young girl to her chest lest the child see her own newly flowing tears.
"Now we better sleep. We've got a long way to go tomorrow." She dropped a light kiss on her child's forehead.
Snuggling in close to her mother and sister, Thaddea realized she could only hold her Amma in her arms now; her mama was truly gone. With large silent tears snaking down her face, the young girl cried herself to sleep.
"I know, baby, I know." Blowing out a heartfelt sigh to ease her tears, Adara's eyes drifted closed. Her Tynet was gone. But their daughters were safe for now. She would deal with things tomorrow. Good night, my love, good night, my heart, was her final conscious thought.
* * * * *
CHAPTER 1 - MORNING HAS BROKEN
The sun was rising over the Greek Amazon village, filling it with tranquil sounds of the unfolding day, when the early morning peace was pierced by the shrill voice of a young Amazon.
"God's be damned! That's my horse!" She yelled, quickly aware that the curse would be heard by the adults and bring unwanted attention to them.
"No she's not. The brown one is yours!" The second voice was softer but no less animated.
"I don't want the brown one! I want the white one. I roped it and caught it. It's mine!"
"That's enough! Thalia, Cleese, both of you stop this argument now!" The more authoritative voice of an older Amazon intervened.
"Naolani, it's my horse. I roped it and claimed it. It's mine not hers!" Thalia, the older of the two, announced the horse hers.
"No it's not. She took the brown one. This one is my horse!" Cleese, the younger girl, held the white mare tightly, refusing to relinquish her hold.
"You are disturbing the Queen's rest. I want this argument stopped now." She pulled on the arms of both girls as she spoke.
Seeing the approaching regent, the guard outside the Queen's hut, stood a bit straighter, the movement catching Naolani's eye.
"What's going on?" Ephiny approached the disturbance.
"Those two. They continue to argue about the white horse! I was afraid they would wake the Queen." Noalani replied.
"Regent, this horse is mine. Please tell her!" Thalia, brown hair askew around her head, demanded the regent intervene.
"You deal with them, Ephiny. I have a stack of arrow shafts I need to fletch this morning."
The Amazon walked off in the direction of her own hut, leaving her friend to manage the two young girls.
"I think a little work is a good idea for you two. Both of you get away from here and take that energy to Pony in the practice field." A slight hesitation on Thalia's part caused her to exclaim loudly, "Now!" She emphasized the point glaring at both of the young Amazons.
"What about…?" the older girl began to challenge the Regent but stopped short when she saw the expression on her face.
"Stop! Enough! We'll take it up in council. You're going to wake the Queen. Leave now!" Her sharp tone of voice told the two young women the discussion was closed.
"The Queen is awake thank you." a muffled voice in the hut spoke out. "Come in Ephiny. I can't sleep anymore with all this noise."
Ephiny entered the hut, smiling good naturedly at her friend. "Good morning! You sleep well?"
"Well, I was sleeping well. I love sleeping in, Eph, you know that." She stretched, not yet ready to get up and snuggled further down into the soft furs.
"Yeah, I do. But we have things to talk about that need the Queen's undivided attention." The regent gathered the leathers she knew Gabrielle would don that day. "So, get up sleepy one!"
"I'm sure you have things for me to do. But can't we talk about it later? You're so much better at this than I am, Eph. I feel like I'll never learn all the rules. There's so much to read." The weight of responsibility for the tribe fell about her like a shroud. She wanted to close her eyes, return to sleep and forget about her obligations.
"It will come, Gabrielle. It will come. Your openness and sense of justice, not to mention your love for this tribe is much more valuable than the actual rules."
"Well, we'll see about that. Have you seen Xena this morning?"
"She's on the practice field with Pony." Ephiny held up a leather skirt for approval.
"Again?" She nodded to her friend that the leather skirt was all right.
"You know those two warriors. They spar daily and I think Pony gets the worst of it. She's determined to win one sparring match against Xena and she wants her to help train the younger women in weapons and in the art of stealth."
"Hmmmm! She does know that. But, who were those two yelling outside my hut? What was that all about?"
"There's some dispute between them about who captured a white mare and who should own it. I told them we'd take it up in council."
"Do you know who captured the horse?"
"I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think there's an attraction between them that's clouding ownership of the horse. You know how attraction between two people can twist you into knots." Ephiny winked as she said the last sentence.
Gabrielle looked up with a responding smirk on her face. She was not rising to the bait.
"Okay, so what other issues are we facing today?" The queen rose from the furs and moved to the large gourd filled with water that had been placed across the hut. She washed her face as her friend continued.
"There's a hunting request from the people of a neighboring village that we need to look into. They've asked to hunt on our northern borders but some of the council members think we should not allow any incursion into Amazon lands as it will only lead to problems later on."
"What else?" TheQueen dried her hands on the soft cloths left by the seamstress, Marana, and changed into the leathers Ephiny had placed on the trunk next to the furs. Already she was working solutions in her mind to both problems.
"Why don't we go to the dining lodge? I'm sure you're hungry and we can talk more there? Yakut suggested I bring you so we can discuss the issues the council must rule on." The regent knew food would appeal to the queen and Yakut's lessons would be easier for her to understand on a full stomach.
"Eph, I have so much still to learn. I'm still overwhelmed so I need you beside me as we discuss everything. You've had so much more experience than me." The uncertainty in her voice was heartfelt.
"Gabrielle, you're Queen, not me. I'll stand with you, but the final decisions are yours. The council will advise you well. Don't be afraid." She paused then added, "You know, I sense something else is troubling you. What is it my friend?" She put her arm around her friend's shoulder.
The younger woman sighed and looked across the hut. "We've been here two weeks and Xena and I have never stayed anywhere this long before. Ever since our return at the Solstice festival, it's felt like a home to me." With a faraway look in her eyes, she remembered the festival,the dance with her warrior that the Amazons still spoke about, and her confrontation with the goddess Artemis.
She continued. "I don't know how long she's going to want to stay. I know her. Training the Amazons will only keep her busy for a while, then she'll be ready for us to move on."
"What about you, Gabrielle? What do you want to do? What about your tribe?" Ephiny's words cut to the core of the matter. She knew the question was genuine and she'd have to face her decision sooner or later.
She thought about the question. True, the Amazons were hers and she was their Queen. But Xena was her life and her heart. If Xena wanted to leave, then she would leave with her. Where Xena went, she went too. She'd lost her but now that she'd been brought back from Tartarus, and they had finally spoken the words that had been silent for so long and declared their love for one another, she knew she was going to remain with the warrior.
"I'll go with her when she's ready, Eph. My heart is pledged to hers." The words were spoken softly.
The Regent studied her friend for a few moments, her expression passive. "Come; let's go to the dining lodge. We'll talk with Yakut and try to make sense of all this, all right?"
The younger woman nodded knowing her friend was hurt but she knew when the question was asked there was no other response than the one she gave. She turned to retrieve the Queen's Staff.
"Why are you bringing the staff?" the regent inquired.
"Won't I need it when I talk to Yakut?" The reply was sincere and brought a quick chuckle from the Regent.
"No, you won't need it. We're just going to talk with Yakut about the council. It's nothing formal."
"See, I told you I had a lot less experience than you." She punched her friend in the shoulder and received a hug in return.
"Come on, the food is getting cold."
They walked arm in arm from the Queen's hut to the dining lodge chattering amiably. The sounds in the camp were more defined now. The younger woman looked towards the training field as she heard horses galloping, swords clashing and women cheering. In the distance she saw the warrior sparring, the sweat glistening off her bronzed muscled arms and back as she parried with her opponent. The sight caught her attention and brought a smile to her face as a tight sweet sensation in her lower belly reminded her of the night before.
"Just Xena and Pony" the regent said, breaking the libidinous thoughts. "Let's eat. Yakut is waiting."
She followed the regent with a backward longing look at the warrior.
* * * *
CHAPTER 2 - PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
The morning sun beat down fiercely on the two women pacing towards each other. They were stripped to the barest coverings and their taut muscles rippled with the tension of sparring and parrying the heavy weapons.
"Come on, old woman, I let you win the last match. Let's go again."
"Old woman?" Xena wanted to wipe the slippery smile off Pony's face. "Old woman?" She repeated closing the distance between them. "I've thrown you to the ground twice without breaking a sweat."
"You're winded old woman. I let you win. And as for not breaking a sweat, look at yourself. You're soaked and out of shape." Pony, the younger weapons mistress laughed as she taunted the older warrior. She, however, remained respectful and cautious as she continually moved sideways, watching her taller opponent, knowing a sudden thrust or sweep could level her again.
She and Xena had become friends and both of them enjoyed the thrill of competition, especially the strenuous matches against each other. The good natured taunts and heckling had always been a constant in their relationship and belied the depth of their friendship.
"Come on you fat sow. You're going down!" Xena yelled. She lunged towards the shorter warrior who quickly sidestepped the attack, turned and landed the butt end of the staff into the taller woman's ribs.
"Ugghhh!" the warrior groaned the air momentarily expelled from her lungs.
"Give up?" the weapons mistress asked.
"When centaurs take flight!" she moaned, the morning's exercise beginning to tire her.
"Ya can't make love all night and still expect to fight by day, old woman! The Queen is making you soft. She's got you tied up and locked down." Her laughter lit up her sweaty face as she continued the jibes.
"Your day will come, Pony, and I want to be there when the great Amazon weapon's mistress falls flat and hard." She swung her staff towards the woman's knees but she jumped over the sweep.
"Never! It will be snowing in Tartarus when that happens. You know me, warrior, bed them and move on. I don't need one woman turning me into mush and knots."
She flipped forward, turning a somersault as she said the words, expecting to take the warrior by surprise but was instead punched in the back and sent reeling. She recovered her footing quickly knowing the warrior would close in and claim the advantage.
Pony's usual boasts sounded a bit different to the older warrior. As she mentally examined the words, she blocked the overhead blow she knew was coming.
"Too predictable, Pony, I could feel your movements before you swung the staff."
"You're feeling too much, warrior. I'm telling ya, the Queen has you roped and tied."
The older woman stepped backward with a far away look in her eyes, her smile revealing the fact that the young blond woman she'd fallen in love with had in truth roped her and tied her. She thought of the early morning, as she held the sleeping bard in her arms her golden hair softly falling across the warrior's arms and chest. The younger woman's leg was thrown over hers, casually entwined with her own. She still didn't believe all that had happened to them in the past month. She'd returned from the dead, declared her love for this woman, and knew she was forever changed. Now, in the middle of a sparring match, all she wanted to do was to go find her, wrap her in an embrace, and take her back to their hut.
Pony saw the change in the warrior's bearing, saw the distant look in her eyes, and pressed forward intent on taking her down. She spun twice, flipped, and brought her staff in a fluid sweeping motion towards the back of the warrior's knees. She connected but didn't anticipate Xena's reverse kick which landed in the middle of her belly and sent her staggering backwards. Xena brought her own staff into a sweep and while Pony was off balance, swung it across her back, putting her on the ground for the third time that morning.
"Hades balls! You've done it again, Xena." She laughed good naturedly as she hugged the pain in her belly. This one is gonna bruise badly she thought.
"Wanna go again you tired, fat cow or do you agree I won?" This time it was the older warrior's turn to taunt as she offered an arm to her fallen friend.
"I thought I had you, but I give up. Three times is enough for one morning." She laughed as she continued rubbing her belly. "Besides, I gotta go on guard duty. How 'bout a rematch tomorrow?"
"You're on, but right now, I'm going to find Gabrielle and see if she wants to join me in the hot springs."
"Like I said, you've gone soft. You only have one thing on your mind these days. You won't even be able to hold a staff before long, much less a sword."
"Meet me tomorrow, I'll show you who's soft." The challenge was issued.
As they gathered their weapons they watched the Amazons practicing in the field. Xena studied one group intently. "That bunch is better than the others. They should make fine warriors."
"I hope so. We need all the able warriors we can train. Many train naturally and develop the skills as though born to them. Others never get it."
"It's like most things, Pony. We all have skills. Some of us have many skills." She winked at her friend. "Then something happens, that shakes your foundation. When that happens, all bets are off cause none of those skills matter." The warrior realized she'd said too much.
"Is that what happened with you and Gabrielle?"
The question was asked innocently and the warrior knew she could choose to ignore it and there'd be no further discussion. But her respect for the weapons mistress made her realize she owed her a reply.
"Yeah, Gabrielle happened."
"Wanna talk about it?"
"Not really." She laughed as she said the words, but knew she'd talk about it. Pony knew it too.
"How'd you know, Xena?"
"It's hard to explain. Just a feeling. You don't know it at the time, but when you look back on the events, you understand when it happened. And nothing is the same ever again. Your world is changed forever."
"So it's a feeling that just comes out of nowhere when you meet someone?"
"Yeah, kinda like that. You just know inside."
"I don't know if I'll ever feel that about any woman."
"You will, Pony. And you won't be able to control it. It'll just happen. And when it does, it'll change everything about who you are."
"It changed you for sure. You fight like a girl now." The warrior received a punch in her bruised belly for the statement.
"Yep, it did. The problem is I now worry more about Gabrielle than I do for myself and that takes my edge off. I need to work much harder on keeping that edge. If we're in a threatening situation, I have to be sharper than I was before I admitted my love for her."
"Was that hard? Telling her you loved her?"
"Hardest thing I ever did, my friend. Still is."
"Why? Why was it so hard?"
"Because it leaves you open and vulnerable. Everything you've spent your whole life trying to keep under wraps is out there. Once you say the words, it changes everything."
"Well, I don't have to worry about that. I haven't met anyone around here that makes me want to proclaim my love. Like I told ya, I just enjoy the chase and the bedding. Surely you remember those days, warrior." She laughed as she said the words.
"I'm going to be around when you fall, Pony and I'll watch ya eat those words." She took another swing at Pony's belly, but this time, the younger woman was ready for it and dodged it easily.
The sounds of companionable laughter were heard as the two dirty sweat covered and weary warriors left the field in opposite directions, one heading for guard duty, the other towards the Queen's hut.
To Be Continued in Chapter 3
* * * *
CHAPTER 3 - TRIBAL ISSUES
The two women entered the dining lodge together, the smells of various foods in cooking pots assailing them.
"That smells so good and I'm so hungry." Gabrielle said.
"You're always hungry" Ephiny responded. "Let's get eating bowls before there's no food left."
They moved to the cooking pots, ladling out the warm stew and broth into the wooden bowls.
"There's Yakut. Let's go over to her table." Ephiny gestured in the direction of the Amazon healer who was eating far away from the other more boisterous Amazons in the hut. Yakut always retained an air of quiet dignity and calm even in the midst of chaos.
"Good morning, Queen Gabrielle," she said as the young woman and Ephiny approached. She moved down on the wooden bench to give both women room to sit.
"You don't have to be so formal, Yakut. You never say my name though we've been through so much together. Won't you just call me Gabrielle?"
The healer just gave her a smile in reply.
The blond woman looked over to see what the healer was eating and declared, "Hmmm, that smells good," as she and Ephiny took their seats and began eating.
"Our cooks prepare very good meals."
"Ephiny said you had something to discuss with me?" The queen ate heartily much to the amusement of both healer and regent.
"We may need to convene the council to discuss several issues facing us. But there's one thing that's more important right now and it shouldn't be put off."
"What's that, Yakut?" She used hardened bread to scoop the stew from the bowl, relishing the taste and aroma.
"Your succession!" the healer said without hesitation or preamble as she stared directly into the eyes of the young queen.
Gabrielle choked on the mouthful of food she'd just begun to swallow. Ephiny, sensing that Yakut's direct approach to most issues might upend her friend, handed her a mug of cool water to help her clear her throat.
"What do you mean my succession? Where am I going?" she choked out.
"When you leave the tribe, you must appoint a stand-in. If it's to be Ephiny, then a second stand-in for her must also be appointed. It's our tribal law. And my feelings tell me that you will be departing soon."
Gabrielle recovered enough to study the healer. She'd traveled with her in spirit to try and find Xena and knew her devotion to the tribe governed her behavior above all else. She also knew she trusted this younger woman without question.
"Xena and I haven't talked about leaving, Yakut."
"You'll be leaving soon, my Queen. We must formally appoint your stand-in." The statement was said matter of factly. Yakut has developed the powers of mind reading. It's possible Gabrielle thought. No, it's probable she clarified to herself. She decided to be as direct as the healer.
"What do you want me to do and when?"
"You must decide who is to be your stand-in and she'll be formally declared Regent. If it's Ephiny again, then you must also name her stand-in. As soon as you decide, I'll convene the Council and we'll present it to them. Then we'll pass the mask and staff to both women and you will record it in our scrolls." She had stopped eating as she outlined the formal rules of succession.
"I want Ephiny to remain as Regent. But Yakut, I would like you to be her stand-in. You're the only one besides her I would entrust this tribe to. Will you honor me by accepting that?"
"I am a healer first my Queen, but if it is your wish, how can I refuse you?"
Gabrielle placed her hand on the healer's arm and squeezed it. "Thank you, Yakut. This tribe needs you."
The young woman bowed her acceptance as a disturbance was heard at the entryway of the dining lodge.
The warrior always created an entrance. Her tall frame and long strides commanded the room as all eyes turned to watch her, some with more than admiration on their minds. As her eyes grew accustomed to the dimmer light, she scanned the room, looking for Gabrielle. It was still early enough in the day so she knew the younger woman would be eating her morning meal and saw her across the room with Yakut and Ephiny.
"There you are" she said as she placed a kiss on the bard's head and hugged her.
"Ewww, Xena, you're all sweaty and dirty." She pulled away from the embrace.
"I'm all hot, not just sweaty and dirty," she teased.
Ephiny rolled her eyes at Xena who smirked at her in return. Ever since the dance at the Solstice Festival, Xena kept her at a watchful distance. She hadn't liked the suggestive way the regent had danced with Gabrielle and was still not over it, much to the amusement of her partner.
"You're looking well, Xena. How was the practice session?" The healer addressed the warrior.
"Pony went down for the count" she laughed in response. "But I need to bathe. I'm filthy."
The warrior bent over the younger woman and whispered in her ear, "Finish eating and come with me!"
"I'm still eating, Xena" Gabrielle replied out loud already anticipating what the warrior was thinking.
"I got something else in mind" she responded with a raised eyebrow.
The warrior leaned over again ignoring the bard's feigned outrage and whispered in her ear, "Wanna go to the springs with me?" Her blatant suggestive tone was not lost on the younger woman who felt the warrior's warm breath against her ear and felt a responding tingle down her chest, across her stomach, and into her groin. She blushed at the thoughts that rose unbidden.
Yakut had the discretion to continue eating and ignored the display. Ephiny on the other hand, again rolled her eyes at Xena who ignored her this time.
I really have to do something about Ephiny Xena thought. She liked the woman very much, but there was always the memory of that dance that clouded her thinking. The regent and Gabrielle were dear friends and sisters; she needed to get past that suggestive dance. It was probably the effects of too much alcohol she thought. Oh well, she decided, she'd think about it tomorrow.
"Come on, let's go!" She pulled the bard to her feet and guided her towards the doorway with her arm draped over her shoulder, a gesture that made it clear they belonged together.
"Yakut? Ephiny? We'll talk more later?" The Queen asked over her shoulder as she was maneuvered away from her seat.
The two women nodded in reply.
Several Amazon women watching the display wished they were going with one or the other as the two women walked pointedly out of the dining area and towards their hut.
* * * * *
CHAPTER 4 – HOT SPRINGS
"Xena! Can't you be a little more discreet?" Gabrielle issued the statement as a challenge but her gentle laughter belied her displeasure. She gathered the soft drying cloths they would need from the chest.
"What do you mean little one?" The warrior knew exactly what she meant but hugged her to disarm whatever rebuttal was coming.
"You couldn't have been any more obvious, you know?"
"What do you say we continue this conversation at the springs? It's still early and we'll have it to ourselves for a while. Besides, I need to bathe after the sparring match and I sure could use your help." Her sly wink left nothing to interpretation.
"OK, let's go." She took the cloths and several herbal sticks to add to the water.
The guards stepped forward crisply as they emerged from the hut intent on following the Queen.
"It's all right. I'm going to the springs with Xena. I don't think I'll need any additional protection."
"Queen Gabrielle, our weapons mistress would never allow…" one of the guards began.
"She doesn't need any guards! Got it?" Xena's forceful words had their desired effect.
* * * * * * *
The two women walked hand in hand in the direction of the springs which were located deep in a protected area of the Amazon encampment.
"Xena, do you know you frighten the Amazons when you talk to them like that?"
"They frighten me, Gabrielle. They always hover around you. Queen this, Queen that. If something ever happened I'd have to fight them to get through to protect you. They're in my way."
"Well they're not now oh big protector! Catch me if you can!" the bard said as she darted ahead of the warrior laughing as she looked back to see if she was being followed.
"Oh you think so? I can outrun you any day!" the warrior said as she sprinted towards the retreating woman. She caught her near the base of a large tree and tackled her to the ground, as the cloths and the herbal scented sticks she was carrying fell in disarray around them.
They rolled around in the mossy grass as Xena mercilessly tickled Gabrielle worried that their screams of laughter might bring back the guards they were so desperately trying to evade. Xena put her hand over Gabrielle's mouth to keep her from laughing. The young woman squirmed under the weight of the other. Then the friction against each of their bodies made them stop the frolicking. They lay on the grass, one straddling the other, and time stopped for a while. Then Xena lowered her head to Gabrielle's lips kissing her tenderly. The kiss was returned just as sweetly.
Then the warrior placed her weight on her elbows and forearms, and her hands cupped the face of the woman under her as she gazed solemnly into the green eyes.
"What?" asked the younger woman.
"Nothing." The reply was quick.
"I know it's something. Tell me." She crinkled her nose trying to ease the warrior's taciturn response.
"You love me!" It was a simple statement expressing her bewilderment. She lowered her head after saying the words that still gave her trouble to express.
Gabrielle reached up and tilted the warrior's head back up so she could look into her face.
"Yes. I love you! Are you so unsure of my love?" She asked.
The warrior didn't respond and tried to evade the question by shifting her weight as if to get up, but the bard wouldn't allow it clamping her legs around the larger woman's back
Please don't let her ask me again she thought. I'm no good at expressing these feelings.
"Tell me. Why are you so unsure?" The bard pressed forward.
Knowing she wouldn't get away without an answer she replied, "Because I can't believe you're lying here in my arms. I can't believe how much I love you or that you love me back just as much." The words tumbled out and she hoped it would be enough.
She tried to lower her head again but the bard stopped her. "Look at me" she said. When the warrior complied, she said, "You are my life. You always have been and you always will be." Then she pulled the dark head towards her own and kissed her deeply.
The loud sound of a bird's call whistling through the forest broke the kiss.
"We shouldn't stay here." The warrior hissed. "It would never look good for the Queen of the Amazons to be seen making love in the open like this."
"Aaaah, is that what you had in mind this afternoon, my love? I can accommodate that at the hot springs you know?" she teased as they got up disentangling themselves.
"Yesssss! It's what I had in mind."
They gathered the cloths and sticks of herbs and began walking through the dappled sunlight hand in hand. They heard the distant sound of water and steam before reaching the springs.
"I'm looking forward to spending an uninterrupted and private afternoon with you. No Amazons, no Gods, no guards, no one but you and me." Xena exclaimed.
Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "It will be nice for a change, won't it?"
"We'll stay there as long as we like. Maybe when they come looking for their Queen, you can order them to bring hot food and go away?" She laughed at her own joke.
The pathway became less sure-footed with the occasional large rocks and boulders strewn about. The smell of sulfur permeated the air as they approached a deeper rocky passageway. They knew they were getting near when they heard the high pitched hiss of the steam and the roar of the springs The heated springs interacted with the cooler air and gave the surrounding area a misty feeling.
Then they were upon it. The spring itself was hidden deep inside a cavern in the rocks. It was a deep dark green pool nestled down below surrounding rocks; its privacy was guarded by a large boulder in front of the pool's entrance. The pool was hot and inviting after long days of working in the fields, the cook house or the practice field. At this time of day it was deserted.
Xena held out her strong hand to Gabrielle as they descended the rocks towards the deep green pool.
"I love this place, Xena. It's so beautiful." The young blond looked appreciatively and with admiration at the natural outcropping and the springs below them.
"So are you, Gabrielle." The words came from the heart as the normally taciturn warrior stared openly and lovingly at her companion.
The bard turned and looked deeply into her companion's eyes as she heard the words and she quietly offered a blessing of thanksgiving to the gods for sending her this woman.
Xena's eyes turned a smoky blue-gray in response to the bard's penetrating gaze. She took the soft drying cloths from the younger woman's hands and placed them on the flat rocks beside the pool. Then she bent down and placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
The bard responded to the kiss in kind, softly and gently. But as Xena's hand touched the side of her face, the kiss grew in intensity and their bodies pressed forward towards each other. Xena's mouth opened and her tongue played across Gabrielle's lips, demanding entry. She obliged the warrior willingly. Her mouth opened and she touched the tip of her tongue to the warrior's.
There was a soft groan from Gabrielle as she felt warmth race through her from the intensity of the kiss and the escalating passion. The warrior pulled her closer and tighter and with one hand, fumbled with the clasp of her leather halter top.
With a sharp tug, the top came off easily and the warrior stepped back to admire the young woman's bare breasts. The smoky eyes were now glazed as she bent and took the nipple of one breast in her mouth.
"Unngghh!" the bard moaned as a tongue lazily rolled the nipple in her mouth and gently bit down on it.
"You are so beautiful, Gabrielle" the warrior repeated.
"Xena… Xena…" The bard was breathless and was ready to give in to her passion but a small voice reminded her of her role in the tribe, so thinking logically with the last bit of composure she said, "Maybe we should get in the water. If anyone comes in here, we're giving them quite a show." She pressed the warrior's head into her breast even as she tried to stop the attention with words.
"Ya know, Gabrielle, the only place I'll have you to myself will be on the road" the warrior said as she pulled back from the bard looking gently into concerned green eyes. "Maybe it's time we think about leaving."
Not about to give up what they'd begun, the bard ignored the words and said, "Let's get into the springs where we can continue this." She reached for Xena's hand and said, "Come on, take off those leathers, you said you needed a bath didn't you?"
Gabrielle took off the rest of her clothes and slipped into the hot water as her sly grin ignited the warrior to action and she quickly unbuckled the leathers she wore.
"You can be such a tease. I like that side of you."
"Come show me how much, then" the bard replied as she watched the warrior strip off her leathers hurriedly.
A clean knife-cut dive, barely disturbing the face of the water, was her answer. Xena surfaced behind the blond woman pulling her against her own body tightly and wrapping her strong legs around the middle of the smaller woman. She nuzzled the back of Gabrielle's hair and neck, breathing in the familiar scent that she loved so dearly.
Xena's hands slipped down the bard's wet arms and her fingers softly touched Gabrielle's breasts. The Warrior heard the intake of breath and pulled her lover even tighter to herself. She pushed off from the side of the spring and settled backwards against the smooth rocks opening her legs and positioning the bard between them. Her fingers never stopped exploring the bard's breasts.
"Xena," she purred, "I can stay right here forever." She leaned her head back against the hard muscular area between the warrior's neck and shoulder enjoying the hot water and the attention her body was receiving. She moaned as a fingernail raked her nipple.
The warrior smiled as she heard the words knowing she could interpret them two ways. Gabrielle could stay with the Amazons forever, or she could stay like this with her lover forever. She'd been wondering how to bring up the subject of leaving the Amazons. She was used to keeping her own counsel for many years and often acted quickly and decisively based on her own intuition. But, things had changed. She faced the reality that she was now committed to this woman in heart and soul and any action she now took resulted from their joint discussions and what was best for both of them. She realized how different her world had become in the short time loving this woman who had become a part of her and who lived in her heart. She knew leaving the Amazon family that her bard had come to love would be a major upheaval. I wonder if this is a good time to bring it up, she thought.
The hot water covered them to just below their shoulders. She knew she had the bard at a disadvantage if she brought up the subject now - even as her thoughts warred with her hands. The bard squirmed and moaned under her touch and realizing the effect she was having on the smaller woman and wanting to please her, her hands won. She moved them slowly but firmly down across the younger woman's stomach, the direction in which she was moving, clear. She felt the muscles tighten beneath her fingers and she lingeringly traced their contours. She heard the bard's breath hitch as she moved below her rib cage.
Gabrielle turned her face upwards to the warrior's intent on kissing her deeply to match her rising passion. As she turned her body slightly Gabrielle's foothold on the rocks gave way causing her to slide with a big splash under the water. She stayed under the clear green water and seeing Xena's toes, kissed one of them. The warrior reached under the water and abruptly pulled her up to her chest, holding her in a tight embrace.
The change in the warrior's behavior was clear so she asked, "Xena? What is it?"
Her reply was to hold the younger woman tighter, fearful of broaching the subject now that the passionate mood had been interrupted.
Gabrielle struggled out of the embrace and looked up into the sky blue eyes seeing hesitation and confusion and something waiting to be said.
"Xena, talk to me! Tell me!"
"I uhmmm" she stammered a bit before Gabrielle again interrupted her.
"It's all right. Just tell me." She softly stroked the side of the warrior's face, watching her intently.
"I want to…I think we should" She started and stopped. "We're never….. I mean…" she paused again. Then just when it seemed she'd stopped talking completely, the words tumbled out. "When do you think we should leave the Amazons?"
After several false starts, the words had finally been said. Xena held her breath waiting for an answer as she looked into the green eyes searching her own.
"I thought you were okay here. What happened? Why do you want to leave?"
"Gabrielle, I've lived my whole life on the road. I can't stay here forever. I want to – no, I want us to move on. I want us to be together. You have so many obligations here as Queen, we seldom have time for us. I've done all I can with training. I want to leave and I want you to go with me."
The bard continued studying the warrior's face. She'd heard the words and weighed each sentence. Her reply needed to be equally measured and weighed.
"Xena, I'm so new and inexperienced in this role as Queen. I don't know what's expected of me or how to act. I've got to ask Ephiny or Yakut what to do about everything. I don't know the Amazon rules or their history and there's so much to learn. The fates stuck me into this role. It's not one I would have chosen. I left Potaedia and met you. Soon after we met, I knew that you would always be my path and I would always walk yours." Her words were impassioned.
She continued, "Can't we stay just a bit longer? There's so much to do. And besides, before we leave I need to name a successor to act on my behalf. Can't we stay a while longer, Xena?" She pleaded with the warrior, her gaze intense, and then threw out the one word the warrior could never refuse. "Please?" The entreaty was heartfelt as she put her hands on either side of the tall woman's face stroking her lips with her thumbs.
Xena had prepared an answer for everything Gabrielle had said until the final word. She knew she couldn't refuse her. And that little gesture with her thumbs was quickly breaking the warrior's concentration. The thumbs slowly and sensuously glided over her lips entering her mouth and softly touching her tongue.
She sucked on the thumbs, then smiled at the bard and took her smaller hands into her larger ones. She leaned over Gabrielle at first brushing her lips with her own then pressing her body and lips passionately against the younger woman. The pressure was returned and instantly heat erupted between them. The bard put her hands behind the warrior's head, drawing her down as Xena's mouth opened and her tongue sought entry into her lover's.
Gabrielle mumbled, "Does that mean yes?" even as her body responded to the sudden fires building between them.
"I'll do whatever you want, Gabrielle" Xena thought, but she was beyond talking. All she wanted was to make love to her bard in this quiet and private hot springs setting. She pressed her hand against the younger woman's breast and squeezed it hearing her breath quicken. Then she pulled hard at the nipple between her fingers hearing the responding groan. The sound drove her releasing a raging desire within her. She wanted to touch her everywhere to drive her to ecstasy over and over. Her other hand determinedly moved down the bard's body stopping only long enough for the bard to shift and open her legs straddling her.
She moaned into her lover's open mouth their bodies waiting to ignite just as the sound of crashing tree branches and screams of "Queen Gabrielle! Queen Gabriell!" split the sensual afternoon air. The urgency of the yells matched the urgency in their bodies.
"By Hades' balls I'm going to kill somebody today!" Xena swore an oath as she pulled herself away from Gabrielle.
"Oh gods Xena, something has happened." The bard said rising up from the water.
"No, Gabrielle, nothing has happened. Not yet. I'd love for something to happen and it still might." She pulled the Queen into an embrace and kissed her deeply, her tongue gliding over Gabrielle's. It was very clear what she wanted to have happen. "Get rid of them, will you? Then I promise something nice will happen." She gently bit down on the Bard's tongue rolling it between her teeth.
Before Gabrielle could respond, three out of breath Amazons with tangled leaves and twigs in their hair and frantic expressions on their faces raced into the clearing from the woods.
"Queen Gabrielle, come quickly!"
Not exactly what I had in mind, thought Xena there was nothing quick about it. She watched Gabrielle get up and begin to hurriedly dry off.
* * * *
Continued in Chapter 5
CHAPTER 5 – EAST MEETS WEST
As Pony left the practice field she noticed two Amazon girls standing uncertainly near the tree line. They giggled and nudged one another, each pushing the other one forward.
Gods was I ever that young? Pony thought as she made to walk past them. Feeling the force of their gaze run up her back, she realized she was the center of their attention and turned to face them. I know these two, they're inseparable… even though they'd rather bicker than talk, she thought.
Hands on her hips she struggled to recall their names, ah yes,she remembered, the one with brown hair is Thalia and the younger one is Cleese her shadow.
"What are you two doing standing around?" Pony asked looking from one to the other.
"Ummm, the regent sent us to you to, ahhh, practice with our weapons." Cleese ventured as she held up her practice staff.
"Oh, she did, huh. Well, I'm done on the practice field for today."
The two girls visibly brightened. It seemed they were off the hook and could go back to camp and pursue their favorite topic, the great white horse debate.
"Great" they said in unison and turned back toward the main camp.
Pony watched the two retreating forms for a brief moment knowing that if Eph had sent them to her, it was probably for some minor infraction. She'd be remiss if she didn't exercise a little adult authority. Centaur crap,she mentally cursed her luck. I don't really want to deal with a couple of giggling girls.
Then she remembered where she'd been headed. As the reality of guard duty penetrated her consciousness, Pony's lips drew up into a knowing smile.Ah, but my young friends, I have just the sort of 'practice' that precludes too much mirth.
"Not so fast." She called out. "If the regent thinks you need to sharpen your skills, you can come with me and practice sentry duty for a few candle marks."
Halting in mid-stride, the two turned slowly to face Pony again. It was all the older woman could do to stifle her laughter as she spotted the startled rabbit look they both wore.
For a youngster, guard duty was the most boring and tedious task there was. It demanded absolute quiet and stealth. Communication with each other was accomplished through bird calls. For endless candle marks, they'd stay hidden in the trees and constantly scan the horizon. In truth, most of the adults didn't care to draw "the duty" as it was called among their tribal sisters.
In Amazon culture, young women were eased into adult chores under the watchful eye of accomplished elders. Today, it would be the weapons' mistress who would oversee these two.
Twisting the regent's intent to her advantage, Thalia made an attempt at rescuing them. "But we were only told to practice our weapons."
Clearly recalling being a teenager seeking to avoid some unpleasant task, Pony challenged them. "Is that a fact? Well, now I'm telling you, you can practice guard duty. Do you have a problem with that?"
Casting a sideways glance at each other, they shrugged their shoulders in defeat. "No ma'm." They said.
Pony groaned internally, Gods, but I feel old today. First Xena puts me on my butt three times in a row and now this.
"Fine; I'll get my horse and then we'll go."
Ever hopeful that they might get to ride this morning, both girls' heads shot up at hearing those words. But they were soon disabused of that notion when Pony put two fingers to her lips, emitting a high pitched whistle. An Arabian grazing nearby raised his head, nickered once and trotted to her side.
Nudging his mistress with his graceful head, he begged for her attention. She smiled and scratched his neck. Having hand trained the horse herself from a young colt, she loved this spirited animal. He had the courage and reflexes of a bird of prey, so Pony had called him Ajax, which meant eagle.
After positioning a light blanket across the horse's back, she grabbed the reins and a handful of mane, and mounted the gelding. Preferring to ride with only a blanket or nothing between her and her mount, Pony loved the feel of the powerful muscles as they bunched and stretched under her when she rode.
Casting a glance at her charges, she said, "All right, are you ready?"
Knowing the futility of resistance, they stood tall like the proud young Amazons they were and struck their chests with closed fists.
Mentally rolling her eyes at their youthful enthusiasm, Pony clicked her tongue twice and Ajax, moved off at a slow walk. The two girls could easily keep up with the horse as they chattered away. For the most part Pony chose to ignore them and just enjoy the warmth of the sun on this clear summer day. But her thoughts were soon interrupted by an outburst between the two.
"Thalia, she's my horse."
Suddenly, Pony knew why Ephiny had sent these two out of camp and mentally plotted her own revenge against the regent. "Okay, you two, enough. I don't want to hear it."
"No buts. You are about to stand sentinel. Even in peace time 'the duty' is an important job and the number one thing I insist on from my guards is silence. Got it?"
Turning Ajax into their path, she looked sternly down at them until the daggers from her eyes forced their eyes to the dirt at their moccasins. She spoke slowly, each word taking on a power of its own, "Not… another… word..."
Amazon lands were protected by two perimeters, one inside the other.
On the extreme edges of Amazon territory were four other sentries. Each one of these was on horse back and rode the tribe's boundaries alone in search of any sign of intrusion. Every day one would meet another and exchange information. Usually working in week long rotations, they covered a lot of ground during a tour. It was always the older and more skilled trackers who were assigned this job. Their primary job was to note the passage of travelers through the outer borders of tribal land and raise an alarm if a threat was perceived.
The inner picket line was positioned within a mile radius of the main camp and was where Pony and the girls were headed.
Security there was provided by sentries stationed within hearing distance of each other. Generally, the women were posted high up in the tree limbs where the foliage would provide cover, while the height afforded them the best possible field of vision. Working in four hour shifts, there were two teams of lookouts on the inner defense line all under the watchful eye of one commander. The observation posts ringed the entire camp.
In the event of an attack, the village would be alerted by drums. Periodically, there were simulated attack drills to test the Amazon readiness to defend their lands. All Amazons from the oldest to the youngest knew drums sounded from the sentry posts meant a call to arms. Due to the need to be battle ready at all times, every woman kept her best weapon close by even while performing the most mundane tasks.
Between the two lines of defense, it was virtually impossible for anyone to approach the camp unnoticed or to catch the women unaware.
Making good time, Pony and the two girls reached the inner perimeter guard post. Stopping at the edge of the forest surrounding a small meadow, Pony dismounted.
At the same time, three other Amazons, the relief guards for the afternoon shift, arrived on foot from the direction of the camp. Pony acknowledged them with a nod of her head, then turned and trilled out the clear notes of a mating song bird. Almost immediately the call was returned from across the clearing and Solari stepped into the open. Leaving her team behind at tree line, Pony followed suit walking directly over to her counterpart.
Observing the formalities, each commander faced the other and struck her chest with a closed right fist, then broke into smiles.
"How was your morning?" Pony asked.
"Not bad. Stephene reported seeing a mama black bear and two cubs. They're a ways out but we might want to alert the camp. Wouldn't be good for the younger ones to stumble on her."
"Yeah. Anything else?"
"Nope, pretty quiet. Saw a doe with a couple of youngsters, might be good hunting in the fall." Solari said.
"Youngsters? They'd be pretty puny for a camp our size, maybe we can flush out papa?" Pony grinned at her own joke.
"Yeah, that'd be nice. Well, I'll call my team in so we can exchange masks. I'm hungry."
"Solari, you're always hungry. You don't look like you've missed too many meals."
"Give it a rest Pony, there's not an ounce of fat on me."
"Yeah, well, keep eating like you do and there will be my friend, there will be." Pony said as she poked the fit Amazon in the ribs.
"Hey, cut it …" Solari's reply was broken off by the sound of a raven's call splitting the still morning air. It was the alert signal that meant an intruder had been spotted.
Immediately Solari and Pony were all business. Solari trilled the answering acknowledgement. With the rest of the relief force following behind, they started running in the direction of the alarm.
Pony reached the base of the large tree from which the guard had called. Using hand signals, she gave silent orders to her team to spread out amongst the other trees and hide until she gave the all clear. Then the two leaders scaled the trunk. Soon they stood in the upper branches next to the sentry, who indicated with her chin a small cloud of dust in the distance.
As they watched in silence, a lone grey horse approached their position. Soon details became easier to discern. Shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight, Pony made out the two figures.
"Looks like a woman with a child." She said.
Still, the Amazons made no movement, warily watching the approaching riders.
The inner perimeter was clearly marked with fur and feathered masks displayed on tall poles stuck into the ground at regular intervals. No stranger could fail to miss the symbol of Amazon land. As the horse approached the mask below Solari and Pony's position, the rider looked up into the trees and then pulled her mount to a stop.
Leaning over the shoulder of the dark haired child in front of her, the stranger whispered into the girl's ear. The child nodded her understanding and slipped off the horse's back landing on the ground. The girl looked up at the woman, who then swung her leg over the horse's neck and dropped down to stand behind the child. As the Amazons in the trees watched, the child and the woman clasped their hands over their heads in the universally recognized Amazon sign of peace. A moment later, a small pair of hands appeared behind the woman's head, also in the sign of peace.
Pony and Solari shot each other a brief bewildered look.
"A baby?" Pony questioned in a whisper.
Solari and the sentry began to slip on their masks, but Pony grinned and touched Solari's arm shaking her head no.
"That's not necessary. Let's not scare the kids."
Solari shrugged in agreement and signaled her sentry to remove her mask.
Grabbing onto the ropes that were always left hanging in the branches, the Amazons swung to the ground to stand in front of the woman and her children. The three sentries returned the salute of peace to the strangers.
Overcome with relief and exhaustion, the strange woman's knees buckled slightly as she said in a husky voice, "Thank the goddess, we're home."
In a flash, Pony was at her side catching the collapsing woman. Quickly, Solari moved in and released the baby from her mother's back.
Struggling out of Solari's hold, the toddler ran to the older child and hugged her about the waist. Without taking distrustful eyes off the woman holding her mother, the older girl put a possessive arm around the younger child's shoulders, but said nothing.
For the first time Pony was able to see what she held in her arms and the sight took her breath away. As her belly tightened, her pounding heart plummeted into her stomach, where it seemed to melt into a puddle of warm tallow.
Helpless to stop herself, Pony allowed her roaming eyes to travel over the devastatingly beautiful woman in her arms. Beginning at the dusty, leather, calf length boots, where perfectly formed long brown legs rose upward only to disappear beneath a tattered lavender skirt, Pony visually devoured the exquisite creature she held. Her intense scrutiny traversed over flat abdomen, between full breasts captured in matching lavender halter to stop finally at the most beautiful face she'd ever seen.
Oh Goddess, who are you?And where have you been all my life? Pony thought. It was more than the physical beauty of the woman that had captured Pony's attention. She'd seen more than her share of beautiful ladies and bedded many of them and couldn't recall having had quite the same physical reaction to any.
There was a presence, an aura about the woman that was mesmerizing. Her bronze skin glowed in the summer sun. Even though the newcomer had only spoken five words, the sound of her voice had caressed Pony's senses like warm furs on a cold night.
With mouth was as dry as the northern streambed at summer's end, Pony looked helplessly into eyes the color of a morning sunrise and she felt something inside break loose.
The sound of a voice finally pried Pony free of the hypnotic trance which held her spellbound. She became aware that the beautiful woman in her arms had spoken.
"Whaaa… ?" Pony stammered out, wishing to Artemis she could sound less like a complete dolt. Clearing her suddenly tight throat, she tried again, "I mean; what did you say?"
"Please, help us." The woman repeated.
Quickly scanning the perfect body again, Pony asked, "Are you hurt? Where?"
With her arm firmly around the younger girl, the stoic child became the family spokeswoman. Speaking simply in broken Greek, she said, "My amma is not hurt. She has not eaten in two days."
Looking with concern at the dark child, Pony asked, "Why not?"
"She gives most of the food to Usra and me."
Glancing up at Solari, Pony said, "Get food and water quickly."
For reasons she couldn't fathom, Pony wanted to care for this woman. Children had never held much interest for her and yet, she was ready to look after this woman's youngsters.What's happening to me? I haven't even met you and all I want to do is protect you and yours. She wondered at her reactions.
Struggling upright, the attractive woman began speaking in flawless Greek, interrupting Pony's thoughts.
"Please, let me up. I can eat later."
"Rest a minute," was Pony's reply as she continued to support the woman in a protective embrace.
"No, please, I'm well. I was only overcome with relief." The woman said as Pony held her firmly.
"How do you and your children come to be alone on our land?" Pony asked, completely ignoring the woman's clear desire to stand on her own. Right now Pony longed for nothing more than to touch this exotic woman.
"I am Adara of the Caucus tribe… Please, take me to your queen at once. Our camp has been attacked … my mate and most of our people were killed… some taken captive, please, I need to speak with your queen…" She pleaded, quickly pouring out the rudiments of her story in a rush, her words tumbling over each other.
As Adara finished her brief account, Solari handed Pony a water skin.
The five relief sentries arrived from hiding and surrounded Pony and the beautiful stranger. Except for Thalia and Cleese who nudged each other, the rest stood motionless, watching and waiting for further orders.
Pony's hands shook as she offered the woman the water bag.Hades Balls, what is wrong with me? I'm like a teenager around this woman,she thought.
In an attempt to conceal her nervousness, Pony asked, "how is it you speak our tongue so well?"
Inside, Adara was in turmoil. She wanted nothing but to gather an army and go after her sisters who had been taken prisoner. And much as she knew revenge would not bring back her soul mate, her grief demanded the ones who did this, pay. Tynet, my love, you're in my heart always. I will stop these vicious animals who took your life. These thoughts had become her silent mantra and had given her strength.
Realizing these women meant well, Adara resigned her self to answering their questions. She tried to compose herself, but her words fell from her mouth in a rush.
"My mother, Isaura, taught me… she was from this tribe… she's sister to Marana. Please, take me quickly to your queen…I will explain it all to her… we must hurry if we are to save any of them."
Adara stopped speaking hoping the urgency in her voice had conveyed the need for haste. Looking first to Pony and then around at the others, she took a deep swallow of the cold spring water and waited for their response.
Before the leaders could reply, young Cleese timidly stepped forward. She spoke to the dark child who was glaring at Pony whose hands had not been removed from her mother's arms.
"Hi Thaddea. Remember me? I'm Cleese and my friend, Thalia, you remember her?"
Slowly, dragging her glowering eyes from Pony and her mother, Thaddea's face softened as she finally recognized someone familiar in this sea of strangers.
"Yes, I remember. Will you help us?" Thaddea said.
Pony looked from Cleese and Thalia to Thaddea and back to the gorgeous creature sitting on the ground next to her and tried to make sense of any of this. How is it these children know each other and I don't recognize a woman such as this? What am I missing? She asked herself, wanting nothing more than to soothe this woman's pain.
Breaking into Pony's thoughts, Adara said, "Will you let me up now?"
"What? Oh, sure… can you stand?"
"Yes, of course… it was just relief that caused me to falter… I'm fine; really." Adara added when Pony hesitated.
Pony stood intending to help Adara to her feet, but Thaddea rushed forward and pushed between them.
"I can help my amma." She stated flatly, leaving no doubt that she considered Pony an interloper.
Pony raised her eyebrows and looked over at Solari who shook her head.
Adara stood with both her children next to her, arms protectively around them, speaking quietly to them in a foreign tongue.
Reluctant to go too far from Adara, Pony moved off a couple of feet with Solari to discuss this turn of events.
"Do you recognize them?" She asked Solari quietly.
"Never saw them before. But Cleese and Thalia seem to know em."
Casting a glance at the group of Amazons standing around waiting for her decision, she spoke again to Solari.
"I'm taking them back to camp; can you stand watch a while longer? I'll leave my relief guards and send a replacement for you when I get there?"
Solari nodded her agreement.
Turning back to the beautiful woman, Pony gently said, "If you can you ride a little further, I'll take you to camp."
"Yes, of course. Thank you."
"Okay, then." Bending down and interlacing her fingers, Pony offered a foothold for Adara to remount her horse. The scent of the woman sent her senses reeling. . What's come over me she wondered to herself?When she was astride the gray, Pony lifted Ursa up placing the youngster in front of her mother.
Turning to Thaddea, she said, "Come ride with me, your horse looks tired."
Thaddea hesitated and then shook her head emphatically, "No, I can walk."
Exasperated, Pony blew out a solid breath through her mouth, but before she could argue further, Adara spoke in Greek to the child.
"Thaddea, this is no time for stubbornness. We need to get to the queen quickly. Ride with the Amazon sentry as she asks."
To her horror and embarrassment, Pony realized she hadn't even introduced herself. Goddess, what must she think of me, she wondered? She wanted this woman to think well of her, but it seemed the harder she tried the more tongue tied and stupid she felt.
"I'm Eponin… but everyone calls me Pony…" she stammered, "I'm the weapons' mistress." She added miserably.
A small smile gracing her full lips, Adara acknowledged Pony with a nod, but spoke firmly to Thaddea.
"Ride with Pony."
Mounting her own horse, Pony extended her arm to the taciturn child wondering what she'd do if Thaddea continued to refuse.
Saving everyone further discomfort, the irrepressible, Cleese spoke up once more.
"Go with Pony, Thaddea. Thalia and I will come too."
Looking from Cleese to the mounted Amazon, the reluctant Thaddea finally accepted the offer and was hoisted up behind Pony. With relief evident on her face, Pony mouthed to the two girls, "Thank You".
I don't know how these young ones know each other, but I bless you, Artemis, for sending them along today, she thought.
"Solari, I'll send relief soon, my friend… Let's go" she said to the rest.
Riding quickly through the forest with Cleese and Thalia jogging behind, they arrived at the camp only minutes later.
* * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter 6
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