I imagine we presented an odd party of travelers. I walked between Ephiny and Velasca as I continued to lead Argo by her reins. The other three Amazons stood as an honor-guard to Xena with one on either side of the coffin and the third and last one doubling as our rear guard.
I tried to strike up a conversation with Ephiny in order to catch up on all that had happened since the last time we had met. Velasca made her presence felt by interposing herself in our first dozen or so attempts - either answering questions I had distinctly asked my friend or interrupting Ephiny’s replies in order to correct certain points she believed to be mistaken or to add in portions that she believed had been overlooked.
The tension between the two women soon had me keeping silent - if only to avoid aggravating the situation. I thanked the gods that the distance to the village was short and nearly broke into song as we found ourselves on its outskirts.
One must remember that the Amazon way of life was one of hunting as well as reaping the goods gifted to us all from the earth. The warriors and their families traveled with the seasons, leaving behind the framework which would be used when once again they returned at Artemis’s bidding. When the moon once again had run through some mysterious number of cycles that only the shamaness knew with certainty, they would return to this place and continue their own unique cycle of life.
Thankfully, it wasn' much longer before I began to see signs of Amazonian civilization. The warnings they hung outside the area the considered to be Amazon land was a sight that had me silently give thanks to Artemis. It seemed only moments later that we ran across women and children searching for food amomg the area’s proliferation of budding life. The sight of my sister Amazons caused my heart to lift in a way I hadn't expected. It was almost like returning home.
Entering the community, I noticed many speculative looks turned my way and a great deal of whispering as we passed. If they had doubts, I couldn’t blame them; I myself was uneasy at this sudden turn of events. How could I, a young woman from Potodeia, be their queen? If I did indeed become queen, what kind of queen would I make?
Riddled with uncertainty, I turned to Ephiny in hopes that she might tell me what I needed to know in order to better understand the situation I was walking into and to use that knowledge to aid me in the choices I must make. I opened my mouth to ask whether we might talk in private, but my stomach beat me to the punch as it growled embarrassingly loud.
“Hungry?” Ephiny asked as she did her best to keep from laughing.
Grinning with a look that was part sheepish and part wide-eyed innocense, I asked, “How did you guess?”
“I have the gift,” she replied as she nodded knowingly. We shared a laugh then separated from the rest of the party.
Nodding to the four women who continued to act as Xena’s honor guard, she led me away. Velasca sent me a look that promised we would talk later then led Argo to some predetermined place where the dark stone sarcophagus would remain for the time being.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I looked around Ephiny’s hut with overwhelming curiosity. It looked much like the guest hut Xena and I had occupied when we last visited, but with a lived in feel to it. She removed her mask and set it on a stand, by the back wall.
I knelt by the side wall and wrapped my hand around the handle of a wooden short sword. I hefted it and arched an eyebrow at Ephiny. She colored lightly as she sighed out, “Xenan. He’s only a year old but his grandfather insists ...” her hands waving as she found herself at a loss for words.
I looked about only finding the occasional trace left in the wake of his passing. “Where is the little guy?”
“I left him with Tildus, his grandfather, when I went looking for you. I imagine they returned to pick a few of the toys he just could not do without.”
One side of my mouth quirked into the beginnings of a grin. “You sound like my mother,” I observed with a touch or two of mischief.
She arched an eyebrow as she folded her arms beneath her breasts.
“O Gods, now you look like her,” I added as I felt the beginning of a laugh trying to escape my throat. It finally did escape when she began to laugh. “Gods, but it is good to see you Eph,” I proclaimed as I wiped tears from my eyes.
It felt so good to laugh again. I hadn’t laughed since... I then closed my eyes in a silent and personal pain.
“I’m happy to see you too, Gabrielle,” she told me.
Was there more than friendly camaraderie behind her words? I didn’t know and refused to spoil the moment with the imaginings of a tired, mournful mind and a malnourished body.
“So,” I spoke with a some regret for breaking the moment’s camaraderie with my need for answers, “who is Velasca and why do you say that I am queen when she’s the one who challenged Melosa and won.”
Ephiny opened her mouth to answer when my stomach reminded the both of us that it had yet to be fed. Laughing anew, she suggested, “How about we feed the beast before we settle down and talk?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The meal was quite good as well as satisfyingly filling. I all but licked the platter clean to make certain that not one bit of the tender venison she had laid before me was gone to waste. After my sighs of repletion, Ephiny suggested that we take a walk as she explained the situation to me.
“Who is Velasca and why have I never heard of her before?” I queried once again.
“She is Melosa’s adopted daughter. They had a falling out some years ago and Velasca was banished for seven years,” she informed me. “Soon after she returned, she challenged Queen Melosa.
“But, Velasca forgot about, or chose to ignore, ceremonial tradition when she challenged Melosa. You see, when the queen has been defeated and after the challenge has been proclaimed ‘fair’ by the council, the queen’s mask is given to the next in line - in this case, you - would then pass it on to the challenger. It’s done to reinforce upon the entire tribe that, though a challenge was just fought, the transition from one queen to the next will be a peaceful one. That revenge for the previous queen will not be welcomed.
“The act of passing on the mask must occur before the next moon is full. However, you were nowhere to be found and she has assumed the mask as well as the position of queen of the Amazons for the last two moons.
Ephiny continued, “Now, however, though the queen’s mask must be handed to you - as second in line, the fact that she presumed to take Melosa’s and proclaimed it as her own allows you a certain latitude. You do not necessarily have to pass it on to her. By usurping the place of queen, she has unwittingly given you the power to become queen. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I nodded uncertainly. “I think so.” After a pause, I asked, “Why did she insist on reminding you that the tribunal ruled it a fair fight?” wishing to get a clearer picture as to why Ephiny appeared to feel so strongly against the woman.
Sighing, she answered, “Queen Melosa wasn’t well. I think that if Velasca hadn’t been so greedy for power, she would have waited for your next visit to the village to challenge Melosa in fair combat. Instead, she struck when the queen was not yet fully recovered and victory was certain.” She shook her head sadly, “Melosa never stood a chance.”
“What kind of queen is she?” I had to know whether the woman, whatever her scruples/tactics, might prove to be a good queen. I also needed to know what I might be up against should I, gods forbid, choose to become queen.
“Some say she’s a good queen. She talks of the old times and returning the Amazons back to their path of destiny. She talks about reclaiming what was once ours, of taking back centaur land.” After a short penetrating silence, she continued, “That would mean war and my son and I would have to choose,” Ephiny’s voice all too obviously holding back the emotion she felt in order to give me as impartial a view as she was able.
“A woman like that should not be queen,” I said in hopes of reassuring her. My hand reached out to squeeze her shoulder.
“She doesn’t have to be. You still have the Rite of Caste. She cannot deny you your rights,” Ephiny’s pent up emotion showing through as she urged in reply.
“I am sorry; but I have to return Xena to Amphipolis. I once promised her I would. It’s something I have to do,” I explained, pleading for her understanding.
“Gabrielle, I’m saying this to you as a friend. Xena is dead. Allow us to give her a proper Amazon funeral. Her spirit will be allowed to soar and you can...”
“... And I can let her go,” I finished for her.
She nodded, more than a touch of sadness and sympathy in those dark brown eyes.
I had a great deal to think on.
“GABRIELLE!!!” called a voice from the distance. I turned to find Velasca approaching. “A moment of your time if I may, Princess?” her question giving me the impression that it was more of a statement - one that I should heed - than a request.
“Of course.” I nodded to Ephiny, with a soft promise to return as swiftly as I might, before I walked away with this strange woman who currently held the position of Queen of the Amazons.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The area surrounding the village held a multitude of trails fanning out from their seasonal village and it was on one less traveled that we now walked in silence.
We had trekked for some time before the dark-haired warrior turned to me. I must admit that I was desperately curious about this woman. In some ways, she reminded me of Xena, or at least the Xena I had heard others tell stories about but had never quite seen in the woman I knew. Though I was certain I knew what Velasca wished to talk about, I wondered just how she would go about it.
Before speaking, I noticed that she looked about as though to make certain that we had privacy. With a nod to herself, she began to speak her piece. “Gabrielle, I’ll cut to the chase. Tomorrow, they will give you the queen’s mask. All you have to do to decline is give it to me,” Velasca instructed me.
Looking into those pale blue eyes - struck once more by how similar and yet dissimilar she and another blue-eyed warrior were - I asked for clarification “So, you want me to make you queen?”
“I’m already queen,” she corrected me, her voice sounding insulted at the idea of being made queen by one who had not been born of Amazon blood. “This is only . . . ceremony,” she informed me before waving it off as insignificant.
I had to admit that I felt a growing dislike for this woman. Perhaps it was her strong arm tactics. Perhaps it was the fact that she had killed Queen Melosa - my sister through Rite of Caste and her own mother through adoption. Perhaps it was the way she treated Ephiny who happened to be a dear friend of mine. Or, perhaps it was simply that she was an attractive, dark haired, blue-eyed warrior and I displaced some of my frustrations and anger at Xena for leaving me - however illogical I knew them to be - onto her.
Whatever the reason for my feelings, I admonished myself for them and did my best to hear her out fairly. After all, what kind of person - never mind queen - would I be if I allowed my emotions to rule my reason on something of this importance.
I nodded to myself, “I’ll think about it,” I promised her.
“You do that. Think very hard on it. I understand destiny and I am the one person who can lead the Amazons to theirs.”
If I didn’t know better, I might believe that I had just been threatened. Still, I nodded and said, “I promise. I will.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I walked along the outlying area bordering the village as I thought on my current situation. Velasca was already acknowledged by many as queen and it would be simple enough to decline the position - along with the power and responsibility that came with it - by handing her the mask. In my heart of hearts, however, I sensed that she would not do right by our sister Amazons.
The only alternative appeared to be for me to assume the mask of queen. Could I truly be queen? Was I worthy of the position or was it possible that I was simply searching for something, anything, to fill up the emptiness that seemed to grow within me with each successive each day?
How much simpler things would be if I could only give Ephiny the mask. However, I knew that this was not an option. Eph had even given me the impression that some few had turned their backs on her for marrying a centaur. The alliance Xena had helped Melosa form with the centaurs had not sat well with some who continued to feel loss from their most recent conflicts.
I stopped to leave the path I had been walking and entered a small opening within the trees. I looked about the area before lifting my eyes upwards as I prayed for guidance. Please, help me do the right thing. I was not born to these people and many do not likely even consider me to be a true Amazon. Please, guide me through this decision I must make.
A soft breeze blew through the trees and I could almost swear I heard my name spoken in that whisper of the wind. I looked about to see whom it might be that had called my name. I saw no one as I listened intently for some faint echo of sound that might hint from where the voice had originated. I heard birdsong, animals scurrying through the brush in the distance, children and the women in the village - vague and distant. I shook my head to clear it of such fancies as I returned to the path and walked the short distance remaining to the village.
The midday sun sent wave after wave of heat, announcing that spring had arrived with a full-bodied promise of summer. Even on such a day as this, the clacking sound of wood striking wood emanated from an area beneath the scorching sun - one which had been trodden by generations of women seeking to better their martial abilities.
Fenced off from the rest of the village by some invisible barrier that only the warriors seemed able to see, a group of young women matched their skill to another’s. One such pair, a curly-haired blonde and her ebony-haired opponent broke off as the taller and darker of the two managed to capture her opponent off guard, sending the other woman’s sword flying from her grip.
“Whatever it is, girl, you’ve got it bad,” Solari softly proclaimed to her friend, her words interlaced with laughter. She leaned on her wooden practice sword, absently wiping the sweat from her brow, as she watched Ephiny bend down to pick up its partner.
“What are you talking about?” Ephiny inquired, wiping the dirt from her hands upon the clothing about her waist as she rose, sword in hand.
“Eph, on a good day, I can win one maybe two; but, four out of four matches ...” The statuesque brunette shook her head at the likelihood of such an occurrence. “Girl, you’re either losing it or you’re in love. Come on. Spill. Who is it?” the dark haired warrior asked - leaning forward as though in hopes of catching the news all the sooner.
The younger woman swiped at her unruly golden curls, a gesture used more often than not when she was nervous. As she moved her sweat soaked bangs from her eyes, she saw her friend’s grin widen.
Solari’s infectious grin worked its magic and had the corners of Ephiny’s mouth twitching upwards. The blonde shook her head as she wondered at her friend’s ability to ease tension with a simple smile. With a sigh, she conceded, “Okay, you’ve got me.” Tilting her head slightly and with a twinkle in her eyes, she challenged, “I doubt you’ll be able to guess who it is.”
With a mischievously thoughtful look, the other woman nodded slowly to herself as though coming up with the one and only possible logical conclusion, “Velasca, of course.”
“Are you mad?” Ephiny asked with equal parts laughter and horror.
“Are you sure? I mean we all see your spats. We just don’t see you make up is all.” Solari held her hands out as though to shield her from the chocolate brown orbs that had simply stared at her but now seemed to hold some unholy menace about to be unleashed.
“Okay, okay, it’s not Velasca. How about that centaur I saw you talking to just before you left to find the princess? You know what they say, ‘once you’ve had centaur, you’ll always want more,’” she guessed as she twitched her brows with an expression somewhere between lewd and ludicrous.
“You are impossible,” Ephiny proclaimed. “Besides, you know that was Tildus, Xenan’s grandfather.”
The guesses became more and more outlandish until Ephiny had to stop the woman before her gut burst from laughing. “Enough,” Ephiny pled.
Solari allowed the other woman mercy as she ceased her speculations. However, she refused to let the subject go without one last entreaty, “You can’t leave me like this. I need details. I’ll drive myself crazy trying to figure out who this mystery lover is. I won’t be able to sleep, my duty on guard will suffer and the increased danger to Amazonia will be entirely your fault.”
With sudden seriousness, Ephiny spoke the name softly so that none but Solari might hear the name, her mouth forming it as though treasuring the combination of sounds, “Gabrielle.”
Solari grinned and began to laugh, “Yeah, you and about half the Amazon Nation,” her voice carrying amusement at her friend’s attempt to distract her. “Come on, I know...” her words stopped when she saw the look in the other woman’s eyes, all thoughts of laughter ceased. “You’re serious. Sweet Artemis, you never make it easy on yourself, do you? First you married a centaur - our on-again, off-again enemy and now Gabrielle. I wasn’t kidding when I said a healthy portion of the Amazon Nation, or at least those of our tribe, likely entertain hopes of being chosen as her consort should she choose to become queen. Besides, the woman seems certain that she loves Xena and shows no signs of letting go.” A hint of speculation crossing her features, the dark-haired warrior asked, “You don’t think Xena and Gabrielle ever ...?”
With a self deprecating smile, the blonde replied, “No, she and Xena never ... Gods, Sol, I don’t know when it happened. It’s all blurred in my memory to the point that I think I loved her from the first time I saw her. It was obvious, even then, for anyone who looked that she adored Xena, loved her. What chance would I have had? Instead, I found love with Phantes. Now, both he and Xena are gone and I don’t know if I can dare to risk the friendship Gabrielle and I have now - especially when she continues to love Xena. What can I do? What should I do?” her voice, first wistful, ended on a pleading note.
Her countenance suddenly serious and sober, Solari laid a hand on Ephiny’s shoulder and gave her a firm squeeze. “Court her. Be there for her. She’ll need all the friends she can use just now and she’ll need your advice often until she comes into her own. Where’s the tactician I know so well? Win her love. Be her love. If anyone can do it, it’s you,” she encouraged.
“Gods, I hope you’re right,” Ephiny softly replied even as her heart took strength from her friend’s words of encouragement.
“Care to make it five for five?” Solari smiled as she gave Ephiny a show of over-confidence. She noticed her friend’s back straighten as a glint that had been missing for all too long reappeared in the other woman’s eyes.
“You wanna bet?” Ephiny returned as she raised her practice sword to the ready and settled into an easy stance.
Upon entering the Amazon village, I set out to find Ephiny. With a little help from some of the children I found her on the practice field as she laughingly helped Solari to her feet. The dark-haired warrior dusted herself off as they shared some inside joke about a bet.
The scene brought a smile to my face. It was good to hear laughter again. Solari made a show of rubbing her posterior as though horribly wounded.
“You should be ashamed of yourself Ephiny, setting me up for that all the while,” Solari jokingly accused.
“Well, it’s not my fault that you fell for it ... rather hard, I would say,” Ephiny returned.
I had to admit that I found Ephiny’s bantering to be somewhat surprising. She had always seemed so serious whenever she and I were around one another. It was nice to know that my friend could also joke around. They caught sight of me and the bantering stopped as first Ephiny then Solari turned my way.
“So, what did I miss?” I asked, looking rather pointedly at Solari dusting herself off, once again paying particular attention to her backside.
“Oh, nothing much,” the brunette began to answer, “just Eph kicking my -
“Ask and you shall receive,” the blonde interrupted, her face straight but a twinkle of mischief in her eye. “And she did ask for it, believe me.”
Looking at the two of them, I sensed that there was something they weren’t telling me. I made a note to find out what this was about, I have an insatiable curiosity that would likely have me wondering on it for some time to come. But for the moment, I had a much more pressing matter to deal with.
“Solari, I hope you don’t mind if I steal Ephiny from you for a bit?” looking to both of them to make certain that both were included in the question.
“Not at all, Gabrielle,” she replied. Was that a wink she gave Ephiny? Could it be that the two women were more than merely sword-sisters? I shook the my head to clear my mind and focus on what I needed to do.
Turning to the golden-haired warrior, I asked, “Could we talk in private?”
She arched a brow at my request, but readily agreed as she led the way back to her hut.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Gabrielle, you don’t know what you’re asking,” Ephiny cautioned as she paced about the hut in agitation. “No males are allowed to observe our ceremonies.”
“But, he’s only a boy. Besides, he wouldn’t be here for the mask ceremony; he’d only be here for Xena’s funeral fire.” She still looked ready to argue the point, so I shared Xena’s secret and the reason I wished to have Solan at my side at that moment. “Ephiny,” I softly confided, “he’s her son.”
She stopped dead still and simply stared at me. If matters weren’t so serious, I might have laughed at the utterly stunned look on the woman’s face. She opened her mouth a few times as though to speak, only to close it again with nothing said. I reached out and placed two fingers of my right hand under her chin to raise it until her mouth remained closed.
“You should be more careful, Ephiny,” I chided. “You might just catch a few flies like this.”
“Her son? But, how?”
“While she didn’t tell me the specifics, I imagine even Xena must have had to do it the way everyone has since the beginning of time,” I told her as I found a corner of my mouth rising in a grin.
Ephiny appeared to have been thrown for a loop with the knowledge of her true relationship to the boy. “I plan to write a letter to Kaleipus and I leave it up to him to decide whether or not to tell Solan that Xena was his mother. But, I want him there with me when her funeral pyre is lit. It is only right to allow the boy his chance to say his final farewells to the friend he knew, and perhaps the mother he never did.”
“Even so Gabrielle, it won’t be easy. He was accepted by a colt and he’ll now be seen as a centaur,” Ephiny explained.
I remembered all the stories I had heard of centaurs. They spoke of a being that was half man and half horse. Seeing a centaur from a distance away had indeed caused me to believe the myths. They moved as a single being and were remarkable to behold. It was only later when I saw one such up close that I realized that it was, in fact, a paired man and horse. Centaur, I came to find, was in fact a title given to men who had been chosen by a special and rare breed of horse to be bonded for life - the bond of course being spiritual rather than physical.
I was happy for the young man, and though I knew some of the women would be less than thrilled to have one such pair at an Amazon funeral fire, I needed to feel him standing beside me as his mother’s - my friend’s - body was burned to ash before my eyes.
“Ephiny, I’ve thought long and hard and after the funeral fire, I plan to go on to Amphipolis to see Xena’s remains brought to rest beside her brother. Then I will return to Amazonia to rule as your queen. Just please do this thing for me.
She hugged me with feeling, “Yes, My Queen, I’ll send a messenger to the centaur village within a candle-mark.”
“Hey, I’m not your queen yet, and unless I tell you otherwise, call me Gabrielle, okay?” I warned her in a teasing voice.
“Yes My Queen. Whatever you say, My Queen.” she returned with obvious enjoyment.
Looking up to the glimpse of sky I caught through the hut’s smoke-hole, I beseached the gods, “Please, don’t make me regret this.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once the decision had been made, whatever sanity had remained in the world seemed to evaporate as events combined into one large blur of action. From talking to the girl Ephiny had chosen to deliver my message to the centaurs to the women who prepared me for the queen mask ceremony taking place the following day. The time seemed to stretch infinitely long and yet somehow simultaneously compress amazingly short. Throughout the resulting chaos, Ephiny was the sole voice of reason and perhaps acted as an anchor to what remained of my own sanity.
“I don’t know that I have what it will take to be queen, Eph,” I confided in one of our few respites. “You would do so much better. I doubt I’ll even remember half of what you’ve just told me that I need to know for tomorrow.”
“You’ll do fine, Gabrielle,” she reassured me. “I know it in my heart.”
Looking into her eyes, I believed her. Perhaps all one ever really needs, especially in times of difficulty, is someone that believes in them. It was definitely something to think on as well as something I desperately needed right then.
I smiled my thanks and found myself sitting straighter and holding myself with greater self-assurance.
“Thanks Ephiny,” I said softly as I heard the women returning to continue the torture that would ready me for tomorrow’s ceremony. Patience is a virtue, I told myself as I became the focus of their attentions once more. I reminded myself in that brief eternity that I would at least get a reprieve when darkness reclaimed the sky and night fell.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The night was punctuated with nightmares in which I saw Xena dying before me, time and again. No matter how I tried to help her, I felt her life slip away like sand through my fingers. “Gabrielle,” she said to me, “you’re not to blame.” But, I was having none of it.
I watched on as she walked between two rows of an army’s soldiers as they flogged her. She made her way down the aisle of punishment given to her to walk until she finally fell as she reached the end. They brutes continued to strike her, and though I tried to interfere, I might as well not have been there.
I wiped the tears from my eyes only to open them to find myself on some unknown beach littered with crosses. One man with two of his subordinates stood before one as he spoke up to a woman it held. It only took me a short span of time to recognize Xena. But even as I ran to her, the stranger turned away from her and nodded to one of his men. “NO!” I cried out as I saw him raise a club to crush her legs in one swift swing. “Blessed Artemis, what is happening?”
I shut my eyes as if to shut out the pain that must follow such a blow. When no sound came to me, I peeked through my lashes and saw her once again on that fateful day as she rushed to push a child from a trap sprung by the sun-worshippers. A log swung from an overhanging tree as I witnessed, yet again, its impact and the force with which it hurled her body back against a nearby tree like some plaything a child had tired of.
I watched as she suffered wound after wound and though I tried to help, I found myself unable to do anything but witness as she suffered pain after pain.
I watched as she cried, her shoulders and back shuddering with deep pain as she held a young man who looked remarkably like her. “Lyceus, I swear I’ll make him pay. I’m so sorry.” She looked up from the body and straight at me, her eyes glittering in a way that made my blood run cold.
She looked at me, her eyes sorrowful, and said, “Gabrielle, it’s a dream. Wake up.” Her voice began to sound strange as she gently shook my shoulders, “Wake up, Gabrielle.”
It seemed like an eternity in which I had reached out to her only to feel her melt away, only to be ignored. Now, I held her face in my hands and leaned forward. I closed my eyes as I lightly touched my lips to hers as tears ran unchecked down my cheeks. Our embrace soon strengthened in feeling and intensity. I opened my eyes briefly and held an image of deep brown eyes, wide in surprise, and disheveled curly blond hair. Letting out a deep sigh, I fell into untroubled sleep for the remainder of the night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I awoke, my mind clear and keen. Xena had been in my dream-scape and from what I recalled, I believed I knew some portion of the meaning but needed discuss it with someone knowledgeable in such matters. Rising into a sitting position, I looked to Ephiny’s bedroll and was surprised to find her sleeping deeply - almost as though she never intended to awaken. The area around her eyes spoke of a long night with little sleep. The hint of a smile told me it was unlikely that she would enjoy being awakened from what appeared to be a pleasant dream to talk with me about my own less than pleasant dreams.
“Sleep well, my friend,” I whispered as I rose from my bedroll and searched about for a change of clothing. I then slipped out of her hut to make my morning ablutions.
After relieving my bladder, I walked to the nearby stream that had been pointed out to me earlier as a place for cleaning and quickly set about washing myself. Doing little more than rinsing off the dirt of the road and the sweat from my nightmares, I hurriedly rubbed and scrubbed until I judged myself to be somewhat presentable then returned to Ephiny’s hut.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” I teased - the gods only know how many times I had earned that title - as Eph looked up from the fire and her preparations to break her fast. The title only got me a smirk and an arched brow.
“You snore,” she accused. “Why else do you think I slept in as late as I did?”
I had only teased her - she had made this personal. It was now a matter of honor, “I do not!” I exclaimed.
A knowing smile and a twinkle in her eyes spoke otherwise as she dropped the subject entirely and bent to the food she was preparing.
“I do not snore,” I repeated. In response, I heard her humming as she continued to cook. “I don’t snore,” oh gods, I sounded doubtful even to my own ears. She merely looked up with a face as innocent as a newborn child. “Well, I don’t ... do I?”
She broke out in laughter. “What?” my voice raised in righteous indignation. “What’s so funny?” And to my bewilderment, she just lost it right then and there.
When she finally caught her breath, she managed to confirm my original beliefs, “No, you don’t, Gabrielle. I was just playing with you.”
“I’ll never understand Amazon women,” I mumbled to myself. Sometimes it seemed that being one just made it all the more confusing. “Well, now that I’ve made your day, what’s for breakfast? It smells delicious.”
Still chuckling and mentioning something about the look on my face, she added a few finishing touches and evenly divided it between us. “I usually call it, Mom’s Mystery. Trust me, it’s better not to know.”
I stopped chewing my first mouthful as I heard her reply. It tasted amazingly good in fact; but then again, I hadn’t eaten much in the past few days. At the sound of her renewed laughter, I decided she was teasing me again and attacked it with gusto.
As I swallowed the last of breakfast I reached for the waterskin and followed it with a swallow of water. Setting the waterskin down, I looked at Ephiny puzzled by her strange behavior. “Is there something I should know about?” I asked. When my question only received a puzzled look, I elaborated, “You are acting a bit different than you normally do.” She blushed and turned back to her food. “Is something the matter? Are you nervous about today?” I asked yet again.
Monosyllabic answers just seem to challenge me. Suddenly, where I had only been slightly curious, I now needed to know.
“You’re not nervous?”
“You do appear to be cheerful. Good news perhaps? A new sword? You learned a new move while on the practice field, yesterday?” I went on and on guessing at what it might be. Some, I admit were nonsensical. Others, fair and actual guesses. Finally, I hit the mark. “You’re in love?” The look in her eyes said it all. “Aha. So that’s it.”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Who is it? Do I know him?” I asked as I cursed both my curiosity and her single worded answers.
“Not a man,” she mumbled.
“Is it one of the Amazons?” When she nodded, I pleaded, “Don’t tell me it’s Velasca.”
“No, it most definitely isn’t her,” the horrified look in her eyes affirmed her answer.
We were progressing, I was now drawing entire sentences from her. I remembered the blink Solari had sent her earlier and thought that I had now found its cause. “Well, if she’s a woman worth her salt, she’ll appreciate all that you have to offer.”
Ephiny’s smile returned and we talked about the ceremony to come. I suppose it would take some time to get used to her teasing, but it was a side of her I had never really seen and was happy that she felt comfortable enough to show me. I now felt that I was not alone and that Ephiny would be by my side through thick and thin. After all, what were friend’s for if not to help one another through tough patches and to join in celebration when things went well.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
There was a scratching sound by the hut’s opening at which we both turned our heads even as Ephiny called welcome and gave permission to enter. The girl I had entrusted my message to the day before, ducked her head and entered.
Her eyes glowed as she informed me that my guest/s awaited just outside our village.
I looked to Ephiny for guidance, since I had no idea what taboos might be involved with my coming ceremony. I already knew that a fair number of the Amazons would find it difficult to accept a centaur into their midst to observe one warrior’s funeral rites. I didn't wish to alienate the women altogether.
“Wait until after the Ceremony of the Mask,” she cautioned, “then you can give the young man your welcome and your personal assurance of his guest status as queen of the Amazons.”
I returned my eyes to the young girl - I believe her name was Janseia - and gave her further instruction. “Janseia, please return to Solan and tell him that I will be with him as soon as I am able. Tell him also to stay where he is until I come to him, that his very life, as well as my own, may depend on it.” Having heard Ephiny’s warning of the night before, I didn’t dare chance that he might catch the barest glimpse of the rite about to take place.
With a light squeeze of her shoulder and a heartfelt smile of gratitude for what she had already accomplished, I walked her to the entrance then softly said, “Thank you.”
Before she left, the young woman turned her gaze on me and I was greatly discomforted by what I saw there. Hero-worship. I stared after her, my thoughts uncertain.
“She is your woman to the death. I knew you had it in you to be queen,” Ephiny said as she rested her own hand on my shoulder. “Now, I know you have it in you to be great.” And with those words, guided me back to prepare for what was to come.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The drums had started with the beginnings of the day’s sunrise as Artemis slowly retreated from sight to return once again to Olympus. They would continue, I was told, until Artemis ruled the sky once more - looking down upon us as she reached her zenith to give her blessing to the new Amazon queen.
I believe I was understandably nervous when I was led through the collected Amazons and toward a raised platform. The last time I had approached it was as a young woman from Potodeia and left it as an Amazon princess. Now the queen’s mask was going to be offered to me. Gabrielle of Potodeia - Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons? It was a bit fantastic to actually be true and yet it was - or would be.
Ephiny’s steady presence was all that kept my nerves from getting the better of me. I looked from left to right taking in the faces of those gathered together on this day as they parted to let us through. Some of the faces and expressions held encouragement and support, others held a hint of doubt or uncertainty, while yet others looked at me as an outsider, some of these showing a hint of hostility for the change that I represented.
With each beat of the drum, I took another step. I took a deep breath as I finally arrived at the base of the platform and let it out slowly before setting foot on the bottom step. Each step had taken an eternity to manage and yet, as I arrived at the top, the short journey was a blur in my mind.
I turned to look upon the crowd of women gathered about. The beating of the drums softened as I watched two masks brought forward. The mask of Melosa, the former queen, as well as the mask of the future queen. I watched as Melosa’s mask was placed upon a small collection of dried wood and the other mask was brought to me.
“The mask of the future queen!” the shamaness announced as she held it aloft for all to see before bowing and placing it in my hands.
I held the mask in my hands as I fought down my nerves and held it steadily before me. Though I had already decided to accept the mask and all that it stood for, a few doubts resurfaced as I looked down upon it. I looked out over these people and did my best to settle any uncertainties. I knew one group wished for me to take the mask and the position of Queen of the Amazons; while yet another appeared to support Velasca, an Amazon who would undoubtedly claim that I was unworthy of the position and that a strong warrior of Amazon blood was needed.
While I believed myself a capable woman, I wondered if I might make a good queen. The words of the ceremony fell from my lips and with each syllable spoken, I felt a great burden of responsibility settle upon me.
I raised the mask up above my head for all to see. Closing my eyes, I prayed to Artemis asking her guidance. Was I truly worthy? If not I, then whom could I trust to do what must be done?
As though from the very mounts of Olympus, I heard a woman’s voice speak to me. ‘You are worthy. You have asked for guidance and you question yourself. These are two things any good Amazon ruler must do. Always think of your people first and you shall not fail. YOU. ARE. AMAZON.’
With sudden clarity, I knew. Every fiber of me being sang with the truth of the last three words. Though I had not been born such, I was Amazon. Perhaps Tereis had seen it as she lay at death’s door, but I had not truly acknowledged the fact until this very moment.
I straightened my shoulders, standing tall and proud to look out upon these faces - these marvelous women with all their strengths, as well as their faults - and know each and every one as sister. It was a moment that stood outside of normal time as in an instant I looked upon each and every Amazon gathered here today and gave thanks to Artemis for allowing me to understand this wondrous realization.
My eyes held on to the image of Ephiny, her face flushed with excitement as she waited with bated breath. Her eyes sparkled with something I could not put a name to, but which gave me added strength to continue on my path. With a deep breath, I braced myself for the added weight of mask and all that it stood for.
“NO!!!” I heard exclaimed as a knife flew through the air and snatched the mask from my grip then pinned it to the wooden totem pole that stood by the stage I was standing upon.
My head turned quickly to find the source of the threat and I cannot say I was surprised as I watched Velasca crying out to the crowd, “This is ridiculous. She doesn’t have the right to wear the mask of queen. She wasn’t born of our flesh. She says she received the Right of Caste. But, did she?”
I held my words, that’s not as easy to do as it is to write. I silently debated her accusations. ‘Hmmmm... If they just handed me the queen’s mask and don’t believe that I received the Right of Caste, that doesn’t say much for your time as queen now does it Velasca?’ I arched an eyebrow at the thought.
Ephiny turned to the irate Amazon with a look one used on spoiled children. Her voice, however, was as serious as a naked sword blade and with twice the edge. “I was there Velasca. I saw Tereis give her, her right of caste.”
“Are we to believe a woman who married the enemy, bore his child and left us for a time?” she asked the assembled women. She opened her mouth to continue her diatribe on Ephiny’s character.
“QUIET!” a voice called out with authority. I could scarcely believe it was my own voice that had silenced the women. I stalked across the platform to the mask and, with a yank, pulled both the throwing knife and the queen’s mask free.
If this was some test of the gods, I would let them decide. I held both items out to Velasca. “Go ahead, take it,” I voiced the soft invitation. I knew warriors tended to themselves before anything else. Unless Velasca was willing to put the good of the tribe before her own ambition, she would not reach for the knife first. Come on, the knife or the mask - yourself or the tribe. Which comes first? If you take the mask, I’ll defend your right to wear it if I have to use your very own knife to do it. Choose.
Velasca reached out and sheathed her knife then reaching for the mask found that I had pulled it out of her reach. “You’ve made your choice,” I told her as I pulled on the mask.
Though the mask was light, I now carried the unseen burden of a ruler. I looked out from the eye-holes and saw my people. I watched as the assemblage of women came to realize and recognize me as their new queen.
“All hail, our new Amazon Queen! All hail, Queen Gabrielle!” the shamaness cried out. I listened and heard the words repeated as if from one loud voice - the voice of my people.
To be continued...
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