Posting Chapters 6 and 7 on Sunday March 13.
ALL DISCLAIMERS IN CHAPTER ONE OF THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER
THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER - Part 2 of Trilogy
by Patricia and Xanjaa
by Patricia and Xanjaa
CHAPTER 6 - TRIBAL SISTERS
Emerging from the dining hut after her small noon day meal, the seamstress, Marana, looked up as Pony rode hurriedly into the village center followed by another rider and two Amazon youngsters running along trying to keep up. Coming to a stop in a cloud of dust, brought other women out to see about the commotion.
This younger generation, always in a hurry, Marana thought to herself as she began to turn away. Her head might have been on a swivel, she jerked back around so suddenly, when she recognized the other riders were her niece and grand nieces. In a flash, she too ran forward to see what was happening.
Full of questions, Marana pushed into the center of a quickly forming crowd of women, "Let me through; let me through. Adara, why are you here? Are you alone? Where's Tynet? What's happened?" her questions fell like rain.
Seeing her mother's treasured sister, Adara threw her arms around the older woman's shoulders. "Oh, Aunt Marana, our village was attacked … so many killed… Tynet sent us to safety… I think Mama's alive… some were taken prisoner, but so many killed… so many dead… " she trailed off as her tears flowed freely; tears of rage, of grief, of loss and of desperation were finally released.
Holding her niece, patting her shoulder, rubbing her lower back, Marana whispered soothing words, allowing the younger woman to empty herself of the pain that she'd carried for too long.
After a while, Adara's sobbing turned to whimpering and then to sniffling as she strove to regain her center. This is not over, she admonished herself. I still need to try to save the women taken by the evil ones. I need to be strong for a while longer before I can grieve for you, My Love, she thought.
More women poured into the center of camp drawn by the ever growing crowd. Listening intently to Adara's anguish, one of the women reached to pick up Ursa and the child cried out loudly.
Coming to her small sister's defense, Thaddea pushed the larger woman away, yelling as she did, "Leave her alone."
At the outburst, Adara immediately straightened and looked around for her children. Ursa was standing under her stalwart sibling's arm with her thumb planted firmly in her mouth and tears streaming down her round baby face. Looking around alertly for further danger, Thaddea stood between the two Amazon girls that had befriended her the previous summer.
"Come're," she said to them. As she picked up Ursa, the child buried her face into her mother's shoulder. It tore at Adara's heart that Ursa and Thaddea had seen more horror in their young lives than most adults.
"You remember Aunty Marana?" She asked her younger daughter.
Shyly, Ursa reluctantly peeked out spotting the older woman she remembered from last year's visit. As soon as Marana held out her arms to the toddler, Ursa fairly flew into them. She did indeed remember this sweet smelling, full figured woman. Marana had hardly allowed the baby's feet to touch the earth when they'd all visited last summer as a family. Both Tynet and Adara had complained that the seamstress was spoiling the child, but Marana had steadfastly maintained that two weeks holding a baby would not spoil her. And besides, having had no children of her own, she relished the opportunity to cuddle a little one.
Hugging the toddler comfortingly in her arms, Marana returned to the subject at hand.
"Now, what in Artemis's name has happened?"
Taking a deep breath and expelling it through her mouth to steady herself, Adara began again. "It was at mid-summer. An army of huge soldiers with magical powers and devastating weapons swooped down on us, slaughtering and burning everything in their path."
She stopped and put her arm protectively over Thaddea's shoulders, drawing the child nearer to her side, using the close proximity to reassure herself that her own children still lived.
"They even killed children…" she whispered.
Pony moved closer placing her hand on the distraught woman's arm and squeezed gently, hoping to add her strength to this lovely vulnerable creature that some how now held her heart. If there is any way I can take away your pain, I'll do it. I will gladly lay down my life for you she thought, even while conflicting questions arose. Where is this coming from? I can't ever recall an ache like this in my heart for any woman.
Thaddea didn't miss the movement and glared at Pony catching her eye. Stay away from my amma was the clear message in the child's expression.
The weapon's mistress chose to ignore the implied threat. I'll win this kid over some way; if it kills us both, Pony ruefully thought to herself.
"I don't understand. What's their purpose? Are they slavers? Thieves? A Warlord?" Marana said.
"I don't either. They took some captives, but it seemed like they were more bent on destruction than anything else. One minute we were all celebrating, the next, death everywhere. I do know this. They must be stopped. They traveled under an evil banner, red scorpions scattered across a field of black… its meaning clear… death. I saw Hafsa's body among the fallen and, and my Tynet." Here she broke again, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
Pony tugged Adara into a comforting embrace. For a few precious moments, Adara allowed the solace of being held. Tynet, I can't do this, I can't live without you… Oh goddess, help me, please help me, she prayed silently.
Then drawing in a shuddering breath, Adara called upon her inner resolve and stood straight. Holding her hand across her mouth to stifle any further anguish, she expelled a huge sigh, before continuing.
"They took great pleasure in killing women and children, but they also took some captives… I think, I saw mama among them… we must do something, they have to be stopped. They will come here… I must speak with your queen." Finally empty, she stopped.
Without any further hesitation, Marana took charge speaking with authority, "Get the queen… where's Queen Gabrielle?"
The queen's own honor guard who had gravitated to the disturbance now looked at each other with their eyebrows plastered to their hairlines. Each of the royal guards wished she was anywhere but here. They glanced at each other thinking, no way in Hades, am I going to interrupt the queen and her consort!
Finally, one of them said, "Ummm, the queen and Xena are at the hot springs…"
Shifting from foot to foot, she continued, "Ummm, Xena said they are not to be disturbed…"
Marana was having none of this reluctance and interrupted the poor woman, "Oh she did, did she? Well, if you three think facing Xena is worse than facing me, you better rethink that notion because Xena doesn't live here year round, but by the goddess, I do and if you think…"
Having heard the continuing disturbance from her hut, Ephiny arrived at that very moment and pushed her way to the center of the women.
"What's going on?" she asked of no one and everyone even as she noted the new comers in their midst.
"My niece and her children have traveled from the east, riding for fourteen days with little food and no supplies because their tribe and her mate have been massacred and these three refuse to get the queen."
Ephiny recalled when Adara and Tynet and their children had visited Thrace the summer before with Marana's sister, Isaura, and her mate Hafsa. Ursa had been barely able to toddle, but Thaddea had been very precocious and athletic just like her very formidable mother. She recalled the big warrior woman and how gentle she had been with all things smaller than she, which was most things and most people.
They had stayed with Marana for a full half moon before resuming their trip to the coast to trade their horses. Tynet, Adara and their family had quickly fit in. Many standing there remembered them, especially Tynet who had gifted the tribe with two mares that she herself had trained. Those two horses were stand outs in their own herd being quick to anticipate the needs of their riders and responding almost unasked to any task required. A Tynet trained horse brought a high price in Corinth and Athens. The Thracian tribe had been sad to see them go. Ephiny could hardly believe that the incredibly strong and kind woman had been taken from this world at such a young age. It tore at her heart.
Ephiny looked at the guards in question and said, "Go! Get Queen Gabrielle".
When they continued to hesitate, each of the guards still fearing the warrior in the hot springs, she shouted "NOW!"
Turning on their heels, they ran, sprinting toward the secluded spa.
Being a tribal elder by virtue of her age and imposing personality, Marana was used to being obeyed without question. Now, she began seeing to the needs of her family.
"There is food in the dining hut. Let's get all of you something to eat."
Ephiny readily agreed, then began issuing orders of her own.
"Bring the queen and Xena to the dining hut as soon as they arrive." She said to one of the women standing there.
"Go find Yakut and bring her as well. This time of day, she'll be in Artemis's temple meditating. Go now." She ordered another.
To a third woman standing near, she said, "I want the rest of the council members to join us in the dining hut. Will you see to it?"
Then Ephiny spoke to the rest of the assembled women. "Now, I'm sure the rest of you have things to do. As soon as we figure out what's going on, you'll all be informed. In the mean time, go about your business."
As the women dispersed there was much discussion about the scourge of this red scorpion army and the chances of the same tragedy befalling their own tribe. Snippets of conversations could be heard as the Amazons went back about their daily chores.
"The Caucus Mountains are a long way from here." One said.
"How far is a long way, if a lone woman and two small children can make the trip in under half a moon, I ask you?" The other answered her.
"What about these magical powers? How does one fight that?"
"Artemis will save us," said another.
"Don't be so sure…"
The sounds of the various conversations died away as the women moved away from the village center and went back to their work.
As Marana and Ephiny led Adara and her children toward the dinning hut, Pony trailed after them. Seeing this, Ephiny stopped, motioning Marana and the others to continue.
"Shouldn't you be on guard duty?" Ephiny inquired of the weapons' mistress.
Pony hemmed and hawed as she looked longingly at the retreating figure of Adara. She was determined to stay by Adara's side. If the beautiful newcomer who'd captured her heart had any needs what so ever, Pony meant to be the one to fill them.
Unable to take her eyes off the dining hut, even after the leather flap had fallen back over the door blocking her view, she finally said, "Ahhhh….. uhmmm…. I uh, I'd like to stay, Eph, maybe I can be of help."
Cocking her head to the side, Ephiny looked questioningly at Pony wondering why the Amazon continued to stare at the dining hut. What's wrong with you? Eph wondered to herself, and then recalled that Pony had never met Adara and Tynet. She and Solari had been away hunting last year when the family had visited. Ephiny decided to write it off as curiosity and was ready to send the weapons' mistress back to her post when she rethought her decision. Pony's insights might be valuable, Ephiny reasoned.
"All right but send someone to the perimeter in your place… if the ones who destroyed their tribe come here, we'll need plenty of warning."
Spotting Odessa, her best weapons apprentice, among the remaining women, Pony called her over. After a few moments of discussion, Odessa jogged off in the direction of the guard post.
Everyone crowded around a single long wooden planked table. Adara and Thaddea sat midway with Ephiny and Pony directly across, Marana next to Adara holding Ursa on her lap. Same as last year; nothing changes, thought Eph, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips as she observed the normally austere seamstress become a wet piece of leather wrapped around the little girl's finger.
For her part, Ursa luxuriated in the attention from Marana. She held a shapeless blob of sticky cheese in her grubby little hand, sucking on it occasionally between bites of fruit and bread that were hand fed to her by her aunt. Seeing the smile of contentment on her younger daughter's face, Adara's heart swelled witnessing this small act of normalcy.
To her right, Thaddea sat picking at the food in her wooden bowl. Adara could hardly reprimand the child, when she herself was barely able to swallow past the growing lump in her throat. She struggled to push back the darkness that a lifetime without Tynet would be. Without the daily struggle for survival of the past fortnight to keep her mind occupied, the full force of her loss fell on her like a pall. She only wanted to rend her clothing and cover herself with ashes as she howled out her anguish.
Pony's hand touching hers brought her back to the present. "Adara, I'm so sorry for your loss. If there's anything, anything at all I can do… I mean it… my sword is yours, my hut, my life even, to avenge your family."
The sullen Thaddea merely looked on distrustfully, while Adara gave her a weak smile, "Thank you, Pony. I appreciate your kind offer. It will take all of our skills to defeat this enemy." She knew the force and fury of the hideous army.
Pony's a kind woman, Adara thought, as she reminded herself again to hold on. We have much work yet to do. I will grieve for you soon enough, my sweet Tynet.
The leather curtain at the hut entrance was pulled back to show two dark figures framed against the brilliant sun light outside. Until the covering was dropped back into place, each person entering appeared as a featureless outline in the dimmer lighting of the dining hall.
First a short woman entered, stopping just inside the threshold to allow her eyes to adjust. Immediately behind her a much taller, larger warrior scanned the room for danger.
It was Ursa who reacted first by calling out, "mama!" and holding out her small arms to the big woman in the entrance way. Adara's head snapped up and her heart missed a beat at her daughter's exclamation. By the goddess, she thought joy filling her, Tynet's alive! Even as her rational mind told her there was no possible way that Tynet had survived and followed her here, she began to stand.
Before Adara could gain her feet, Thaddea was up and running toward the new comer. Skidding to a halt just inches from the booted feet of the tall warrior, she soon realized her error. You're not my mama she thought as her small heart broke in disappointment.
Pulling in a gasping breath and trying desperately to hide her regret, Thaddea choked back the burning in her throat that portended a flood of tears as she stared up at the tall warrior so like her mother.
Xena recognized a kindred spirit in the small proud child standing before her, one like herself, who lived by the warrior's code, 'never show weakness'. Seeing the play of emotions, from hope to disappointment to determination, flit across the girl's face, compassion engulfed Xena.
Attempting to minimize her formidable size, Xena knelt down in front of the child. With the girl struggling to maintain her composure, Xena knew intuitively that this was not the time to pull the child into a comforting hug. No matter her age, to a warrior, keeping that vulnerability hidden was paramount. Instead, she introduced herself to the child.
Offering the youngster a warrior's handshake, Xena made a fist holding her arm out in front of her so the child could respond. She'd been right in her assessment. Relief flooded Thaddea's face and the child responded by extending her own forearm, crossing Xena's.
"I am called Thaddea," the child said, explaining proudly, "it means brave One."
"Ah, I suspected that's what it meant. I'm happy to meet you Thaddea."
Now the smaller blonde woman leaned down and spoke to the child. "I'm Gabrielle."
Having listened to the adults talking, Thaddea knew that was the name of their queen. With eyes wide, Thaddea remembered her manners, "You're the queen." Making a fist she struck her chest and bowed her head.
Gabrielle chuckled, "We don't stand so much on ceremony around here, Thaddea. Is this your family?"
The girl, still uncertain on proper protocol in the presence of a foreign queen, nodded instead to the tall warrior kneeling beside her.
Xena stood placing her hand on the child's shoulder. "Let's join them then, shall we?"
Before taking their seats, Xena and Gabrielle introduced themselves. It was obvious the dark exotic woman was the center of attention.
Marana made the introductions for her family as the queen and her consort seated themselves across the table from the newcomers.
"This is my niece Adara and her children, Thaddea and Ursa, from the Caucus Mountain tribe. They've just arrived after fourteen nights traveling alone to get here. An evil army with supernatural powers attacked their home just a fortnight ago during the mid-summer celebration. The village was destroyed and most of their tribe was killed or captured. They were the only ones to escape."
Having recovered from the brief glimmer of hope that the worst had not happened, Adara offered a nod and small smile to the warrior and queen.
Filled with compassion for this woman and her two young children, Gabrielle offered their condolences. "Adara, we're so very sorry for your loss. Xena and I are ready to help in any way we can."
Taking the seat next to Xena, Thaddea pulled her bowl across the table, pretending to eat as she covertly listened to the adults. Xena knew well the feelings of utter helplessness and aloneness that comes when a child's world is suddenly torn asunder. She squeezed the girl's shoulder before talking.
Looking to Adara for details, Xena asked, "What else can you tell us?"
At this point Ephiny interrupted, "Wait Xena, I've asked Yakut to join us. There's no point in Adara telling this more than once. We can all ask our questions then."
Leaning forward Xena glowered at the regent at the other end of the table. Don't push me Ephiny; you are just about this far from getting your butt kicked. Though unspoken, the threat hung in the air.
Ephiny flinched from the force of the look sent her way.
"It sounds like something we're gonna need to move on and fast. But if you're content to sit and wait, we'll wait." Xena replied sarcastically crossing her arms over her chest.
Under the table, Gabrielle's hand gripped her thigh, squeezing none too gently. "Eph's right about one thing, Xena. If we're dealing with something unnatural, we'll need Yakut's help. Eph's just trying to save Adara further grief. Okay?"
Xena nodded acquiescence. But she continued to glare daggers at the regent.
I need to get a grip. This isn't the time to spar with Ephiny. The woman was drunk that night… it's not like I've never been blasted out of my head and tried to put the moves on some cute little thing myself… of course, Gabrielle is my cute little thing… Hades Balls, I need to get over it! Gabrielle's mine, how much proof do I need, the warrior remonstrated herself.
Watching the curly haired blonde squirm under her intense stare, Xena smirked but decided to give her a break. "Sure we'll wait. You're right, Eph."
The regent seemed confused by Xena's change of heart, but she and the others relaxed a bit.
Just then the leather covering parted and in walked Yakut. Quickly scanning the room, she located the group moving to join them.
Standing across from Gabrielle, Yakut dipped a small formal bow. "My Queen."
Realizing the tribal shaman would forever stand on ceremony, Gabrielle replied in a like manner, "Yakut. Please, won't you join us? We seem to have a situation of some concern before us."
Still maintaining her formality, the Shaman bowed to Ephiny and then Xena. She remained standing looking expectantly at the small family group.
Once again, Marana introduced her niece and children.
When she had finished, Gabrielle went to Marana and whispered something to the older woman who nodded. Rising from her seat, Marana pulled Ursa to her bosom and spoke softly to Thaddea.
"Come with me now child. It's time to let the Queen and the council decide how best to proceed." The seamstress said.
Thaddea was prepared to argue her case for staying, but Xena intervened. "You've been through enough for today, little warrior. Go rest now. We need to hear this story. You were there. You don't need to hear it again."
Then Pony spoke up. "I believe you'll find your two friends, Cleese and Thalia, right outside. Ask them about their white horse."
Thaddea gave Pony a withering look as she reluctantly departed with her aunt.
After the three had departed, Pony moved around the table and sat near Adara. Gently touching Adara on the wrist, Pony indicated that she would support her in all ways. "Tell them your story" she said in a soft whisper wishing she could take this woman's pain away.
Taking a deep cleansing breath, Adara began relating all she could remember in as much detail as she could recall. She told of the joyful celebration of their tribe's solstice festival, of the laughter and song. Then she recalled the sudden eruption of fire in the camp center, of giant soldiers swarming through the village killing all in their path, no matter given to their age.
She spoke proudly of her mate, Tynet, fighting one after another of the huge marauders while pushing her and the children to safety. She told of climbing to the guard's post in the rocks above the village and from there watching the final moments of the annihilation of her sisters. She spoke with anger of the cowardly, mace-wielding soldier who struck Tynet down from behind. And lastly, she spoke of the evil, fireball throwing general who had laughed at the destruction and spewed vile threats to all Amazons and any who would dare stand in his army's way.
Several times while relating the story, her voice cracked. Each time, they waited patiently until she could go on again. Every time, Pony would take her hand, lending her strength to this woman who in a matter of a few candle marks, had conquered her heart.
Spent, Adara sat with her head bowed, weeping silently. Pony silently pulled her into an embrace in an act of comfort.
Despite her sympathy for the grieving woman, Xena had questions and Adara did her best to answer them.
"Tell me about these fireballs. Do all the soldiers have them or only some? What about the size of the soldiers? Were they all bigger than normal men? How many did you see? How many women survived? Did you see the direction they went? Have you heard of this army in either your area or in the desert before they attacked you?"
Firing them off one after another until she had all the information hidden in Adara's memory, Xena finally sat back satisfied.
"Well, there was an army working in the Persian desert years ago. They were commanded by a cruel madman who fancied himself a general. But this can hardly be the same group. They weren't superhuman in size or strength; had no weapons but the usual, swords and maces and certainly no fireballs. That I would remember. They were merely low-life slave traders and thieves." Xena explained.
Feeling protective of the beautiful dark woman in her arms, Pony was ready to kill someone.
"Well, if it's a bunch of damn slavers, let's go kick their butts and bring back the surviving women. They must have gotten the drop on the tribe, attacked em in a vulnerable moment."
"Well, we'll need a bit more planning than that, but I'm inclined to go after them too." said Xena antsy after sitting in an Amazon camp for over a half a moon.
Gabrielle had been watching the Shaman throughout Adara's discourse. The healer had been in her own world of visions and mysticism. Now, Gabrielle wanted her advice.
"What do you make of it, Yakut?" she asked.
Her formality pervaded her speech as well as her mannerisms. As if in a trance, Yakut began speaking.
"I was in Artemis's temple this morning, when a vision of great darkness and power came over me. I walked through a desolate land, where nothing lived, not an animal, not a plant, not a human. Everywhere I looked I saw burnt out shells of buildings; women, children, men laying dead, their blood seeping slowly into the desert sand. Then I saw the blackness begin to spread, flowing to the west. Inexorably it moved, devouring all in its path until it reached the sea and then into the Aegean it poured like thick red blood. At first the blue waters resisted its force, but soon it was overtaken, turning first red then as dark as a moonless sky and finally black. When the screams and cries of the innocent reached my ears, I awoke. That is when I was summoned."
Slowly, Yakut looked around the table taking in the eyes of each person and holding them.
"We face a very grave danger. We will need more than mortal help."
Now she looked to Gabrielle. "My queen, you must confer with the goddess."
Xena groaned quietly, but still loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.
CHAPTER 7 - VISIT TO ARTEMIS
The tribe began dispersing after the tale as Adara's exhaustion had become evident to everyone. Otere, Yakut's mate, offered to take the tired woman and settle her in the healer's hut. She prepared a potent sleeping tea hoping its magic would rest her aching heart and her weary body.
Marana, after silently thanking Xena for intervening with Thaddea, had taken them outside to the children's lodge. She made a mental note to find Thalia and Cleese so they could entertain the little warrior and perhaps take her riding on the white horse.
The decision to remove them from the adult conversation turned out to be a good one. Ursa, surrounded by others her own age, began to settle down and play, forgetting the ordeal she'd witnessed for a while. However being older, Thaddea had a better understanding of their loss and didn't settle in quite as easily. It wasn't until the arrival of her friends of the previous summer, Cleese and Thalia, that there was a noticeable lifting of her sorrowful expression.
The council members remained in the dining hut, discussing the best course of action following Adara's grim news. The women had difficulty comprehending the reported size of the horses and men. As most if not all of their Eastern sisters had perished, they wondered what would become of their own tribe should this army move in their direction.
Ephiny, Xena and Gabrielle remained with their sisters in the dining lodge aware that the conversations among the elder amazons and the council were reaching crisis proportions.
"We have to do something, Gabrielle. Our sisters have been massacred. We can't ignore what's happened." Ephiny was impassioned in her statement to the Queen.
"I know, Eph. But we don't even know where to begin. This army is like none the world has ever seen. Nothing seems capable of stopping them. Xena, what do you think we should do?"
"From everything Adara has told us, this army is intent on annihilating everything in its path. I never heard of anything like this Red Scorpion or its banner in all my wanderings in the East but I want to find out. I think it's time we leave and go East."
"Xena, before we go anywhere or do anything, I want to talk with Artemis. She promised she'd be there when any Amazon queen called."
"You know how I feel about calling any gods into the discussion. The gods only care about themselves. We can do this ourselves."
"Xena, she's the patron of the Amazon nation. She may be able to help us. We need all the help we can get right now." Ephiny dared to address the warrior directly, siding with the queen on the topic.
Xena once again glared at the regent looking now for any excuse to pummel her and that last comment seemed a good reason.
At that moment, Yakut said, "My Queen, I feel you must go quickly to the temple of our patron. Artemis will help you."
"Yakut is right. I need to invoke the goddess." Gabrielle replied.
Xena respected the Amazon spiritual leader, but turned to Gabrielle saying. "You know how I feel. But you're the Queen and I'm pledged to defend you as your Champion. I don't like this, but I'll do whatever you want."
Xena loathed the idea of getting the goddess involved, but she had to respect Gabrielle's position and she didn't want to undermine her authority in front of the Amazons.
"Thank you. I know how hard this is for you." Gabrielle placed her hand tenderly on the warrior's and squeezed it.
"Ephiny, I need to take an offering to the Temple. Do you remember the beautiful flowers Marana brought to my lodge? And what about those Eastern herb sticks, can we get some of them? Perhaps that might entice Artemis when I call to her."
"That sounds like it might. I'll get them and meet you at the doorway." She left, sprinting towards the Queen's hut.
The few remaining women in the dining hut who were not part of the council realized something was afoot and two of them ran after Ephiny to find out while the others waited to hear the Queen's words.
"I'm going to the Temple to invoke our protector" Gabrielle addressed the women. "She's always been the protector of the Amazons and I believe we're going to need her help for whatever lies ahead."
"She didn't seem to do too much for Adara's tribe" one woman remarked.
"We don't know what evil is at work here. Let's please restrain ourselves until the goddess has spoken. Ephiny and Yakut will go to the temple with me and I'll call the council together afterwards. All right?"
The women's murmurs were the only response as the Queen walked towards the Temple.
"I'm going to wait nearby" Xena announced when they reached the entryway.
"I know you will. Please be patient, okay?"
The warrior rolled her eyes, impatience already evident. She fully intended to go into the Temple and wait in the shadows to hear what Artemis had to tell the Amazons. I don't like any of this and all we're doing is wasting time, she thought.
Ephiny retrieved the flowers and the pouch of the Eastern herb sticks from the Queen's lodge for the offering. She ran to the Temple, arriving just as Gabrielle had entered.
"Did you get it?" the Queen asked.
"It's all here." She handed the offerings to the blond woman as the three Amazons walked together to the altar.
Yakut intoned a chant, lighting one of the sweet smelling sticks from the east as Gabrielle lit a candle, and said a silent prayer for her sisters and the entire nation. She placed the remaining offerings in a large alabaster bowl next to the candle, bowed her head and prayed earnestly that the goddess would hear her plea, remember their conversation of two weeks prior, and come to help her.
Standing in front of the flaming candle she said, "Gabrielle, Queen of the Thracian Amazon nation summons you, Artemis! By the gift you bestowed on me as Queen, I call your name." Yakut's soft chanting continued unabated.
The women stood in front of the altar waiting in the flickering candlelight. Xena stood in the shadows in the back of the Temple listening and didn't care whether or not the goddess ever showed her face. We need to be doing something more productive than this, she thought to herself.
Ephiny leaned over and whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "How long do you think it will take?"
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulder, admitting she didn't know. She wondered if she should begin the invocation again. Maybe the gifts aren't acceptable, she thought.
She was about to open her mouth to speak again when a gust of wind flickered the candle flame and silver shimmering sparkles of light announced the Goddess as she materialized in front of the three Amazons.
Ephiny bowed her head and fell to her knees, hardly believing that for a second time, she'd had the privilege of seeing their patron. She knew now that this young woman standing beside her rightfully deserved the caste and the mask of Melosa. She also hoped that she would be able to save their tribe.
Gabrielle also bowed her head but before she could kneel, Artemis reached out and touched her shoulder.
"Gabrielle, you honor me with your offerings. How may I help the Queen of my Amazons?" She smiled at the young woman as she spoke.
Her words and demeanor told the Queen that the goddess did indeed hold her in some regard and would honor the promises made at their last meeting at the Solstice.
The younger woman smiled back at the Goddess and struck her breast with a closed right fist, saluting her.
"Artemis, we need your help. An Amazon from the East, her name is Adara - she's come to tell us about her homeland… an invasion by a Red Scorpion army - all the Eastern Amazons were slaughtered - she escaped on horseback with her two small children." The words tumbled out now that she had the goddess' ear.
"I know Gabrielle. I've seen the slaughter but was powerless to do anything."
"You saw it and you did nothing? I thought you were protector of the Amazons." Gabrielle yelled as she interrupted the goddess not sure she'd heard her correctly.
The loud outburst stopped Yakut's chanting.
"You don't understand everything. I protect the Amazons in Greece only. My jurisdiction doesn't extend to Persia. There are sister goddesses that protect the different areas. I can't extend my reach too far beyond Greece. The further away from the source of my power on Olympus that I go, the more my strength is diminished. It's the way it's written in our laws."
"You mean there's nothing you can do? All we can do is let them die and wait for the Red Scorpion army to arrive in Greece before you do anything?"
"I know it's hard to understand. All Olympus has been discussing this scourge. My father continues to consult with far off gods to ask for information and to try and understand what's happening. We've never seen a power quite like this. It's dark and ominous."
"So what's that mean? The Olympic gods are powerless? We have to do something! Xena wants to leave right away for the East but I thought we should ask your help first. And now you're telling me there's nothing you can do?" The young woman was flabbergasted.
"Of course Xena wants to leave right away," she shot back.
"Artemis, I know your feelings for Xena. But you promised to protect her."
"Yes, I did. On Amazon lands as I recall."
Xena moved from the shadows when she realized the conversation had begun to get heated. She knew she could take care of herself and Gabrielle, she didn't need help from anyone on Olympus. But summoning the gods was new to her lover and Gabrielle needed the assurance that the goddess would be there and would continue to support all the Amazons when the Queen left.
The movement caught Artemis' eye and she addressed the warrior. "Ah, Xena. Of course you'd be here! Trouble does seem to follow you, doesn't it!"
"Artemis!" she replied coldly. Then turning to Gabrielle she said, "Come on Gabrielle, let's go! We're wasting time as you can see. We don't need her help!"
"Xena, we do need her help. Didn't you hear her? Even Zeus is concerned about this Red Army."
"You'd be wise to listen to her, Xena. After all, aren't you the anointed Queen's Champion?" She sneered as she said the words.
"Let's have it Artemis!" she spoke the words slowly, enunciating every syllable. "You know something, so why don't you make yourself godlike and share it?"
Her sarcasm hit the mark as Ephiny lowered her head expecting thunderbolts to fly.
"You're so predictable Xena! Then again, so am I. Besides, I promised Gabrielle to protect you. The truth is this will require every skill you have, as well as those of the Amazons that go with you as you attempt to defeat that army. And I'm not hopeful you'll be successful."
"Then what are you suggesting we do?" Gabrielle asked.
"I told you there's nothing I can do from here and I can't go far from Greece anyway. But there is a sister goddess in Persia who is the patroness of all women. Her name is Anahita. I'll intervene with her on behalf of the Greek Amazons but Gabrielle, as Queen of the Amazons, you must go with Xena and you have to personally plead your case to Anahita."
"Who is she Artemis?"
Her name means "immaculate one". She's also the Persian water goddess and the goddess of war. She is most powerful but reaching her will be very difficult. She's the only one who might be able to help."
Xena interjected at this point. "So, lemme see if I understand what you're telling us. We go to Persia and we meet up with a hard to find goddess who's a combination of Poseidon and Ares? And she's the only one who can help us? Thanks Arte, but I think I'll just make my own plans on this one. Thanks for the help, anyway."
"Xena, don't be a fool! You've never met an enemy like this before." Artemis was losing her patience and wishing she'd never made that promise to Gabrielle. This woman was so aggravating to all the Gods.
"Xena, let's get all the help we can." The bard pleaded.
"Gabrielle, I'll raise an army. I've done it before and I can do it again."
"An army won't help you. In this battle, it will take everything all of you have to offer. I've never doubted your skills, Xena. They are impressive. But you will be tested as you've never been tested before. This battle is bigger than any you've ever fought, and this foe is like none you've ever seen. You might slow the army, but only a pure soul like Gabrielle's can stop this menace.
Xena looked at the goddess, her head cocked to the side with a quizzical look. She didn't think she liked the sound of this, especially the part about Gabrielle. It sounded like Gabrielle would be too near the heart of the action and she wasn't about to put her in that kind of jeopardy.
"What are you saying? Only Gabrielle can stop this menace?" Xena yelled the words.
"That's right. When you get to Anahita, if you find her, she'll explain it to you." Artemis responded.
"Forget it! I'm not putting Gabrielle in that kind of danger." The warrior was about to turn and walk from the temple when the goddess stopped her.
"Xena, you're letting your emotions run your plans. I told you your every skill will be called into use. But Gabrielle must play an integral role."
"Not a chance!" she fired back.
"You cannot win this battle on skill alone. And you won't win the battle with a large army. You will need Gabrielle and five of the best Amazons in this tribe."
"Oh sure I understand this perfectly. We can't win with an army but we can win with seven of us? You make me laugh, Artemis!"
The goddess continued as though she were dealing with a recalcitrant child. "You and the other warriors you select will only interfere with the army and if you're lucky, slow it down a bit. Gabrielle however is the only one who can stop this army."
The warrior hated the gods, especially when they spoke in riddles. That's why she preferred to do things her way. This new information was even more troubling as it appeared Gabrielle was the key to defeating the enemy. I'm raising an army she thought, gods be damned with using five warriors. And I'm not putting Gabrielle into any danger.
A strong grip on her forearm brought her attention to the bard standing at her side.
"Xena, please listen to her. Please?" The bard drew out the word 'please' a second time and looked deeply into her eyes.
Ephiny smirked when she saw the display knowing Xena was going to fold at any moment even while Artemis marveled at the power this beautiful young woman had over the formidable warrior.
Xena saw the smug look on the Regent's face and unable to lash out at the goddess she turned her rage on Ephiny. "What's so damned funny?" She exclaimed.
Realizing that the dance of a fortnight ago still irked the warrior, Gabrielle said only her name, "Xena?" with a questioning look.
"All right, Gabrielle. All right." She turned to Artemis. "Where do we find this Anahita?"
"Don't make light of it Xena. It won't be easy. Anahita lives in a cave near the desert oasis. I'll tell you how to get there. But the way will be treacherous before you come face to face with her. The cave is underwater and you will have many obstacles to overcome to reach her."
"Just tell us how to find the cave. We'll take it from there."
The goddess shook her head but knew the warrior was not going to change. Holding out her hand palm up, sparkling dust swirled there finally settling and forming itself into a parchment map. Using it as a reference, she explained to them the secret entrance to the Goddess, Anahita's lair. She handed Gabrielle the map, touched the top of her head in blessing, "I wish you safe passage Gabrielle. I pray Anahita can help. She is your only hope."
She glanced with a smile and nod towards the shaman who visited her daily, then disappeared in a silvery shimmer of stars.
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org - Any feedback is welcome. Thank you for reading.
Continued in Chapter 8
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