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The Conqueror Series

Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand

LJ Maas

Chapter 39: In A Valley Of This Restless Mind…

"Aren't we done yet?" I called out to Ephiny.

She stood about twenty paces away, a melon in her right hand, preparing to toss it into the air. "How many times have you hit it?" she called out.

"I've nailed the damn thing about four out of every five times."

"Well, when you hit it five out of five times, then we can quit."

"I'm getting hungry," I replied.

"You just ate."

"Then I'm getting thirsty or tired, take your pick." I should have been ashamed for the whining tone my voice had taken on, but the real shame was that I felt none at all.

She dropped the melon to the ground, looking a little peeved and walked my way. "How on earth did you manage to conquer the known world with that attitude?"

"I was a lot younger back then. Plus, they gave me longer breaks and fed me more frequently than you do."

Ephiny tossed me a wineskin. I drank deeply, leaning my back upon a tree. We both slid to the ground, enjoying the shade the large tree offered.

"Don't worry so much," I said. I didn't know what else to say to help the situation. She continued to look as though she had just lost her best friend. I wondered if she was still brooding about Selene going off to see Prax.

"I have to worry. I'm sorry to be such a—a…I don't know what, but this is my responsibility, Xena, and it's a big one. If you don't make it the first time, cleanly, the tribe won't look on your marriage as a true one. They'll think Artemis hasn't truly approved of your union. If that happens, it will look as though I failed my clan…my entire tribe. Artemis only knows that I don't need to go through that again."

"Again?" I asked. "Sounds suspiciously like there's a story there somewhere. Care to elaborate?"


"Aw, come on."


I heaved an audible sigh in exasperation. Gods, getting her to open up was like tunneling through marble. I smiled to myself. Gabrielle must have thought that very thing over a thousand times in dealing with me. I was no good at touchy-feely sort of chats, especially with other warriors. Family was one thing, but Ephiny would probably look at me as if I had nine heads if I started getting sensitive. No, the only way to deal with another warrior was with humor.

"I'll let you toss melons at me again, and this time I'll actually concentrate."

"Does that mean you weren't concentrating before?"

"Um…I don't think I want to answer that. Oh, come on and tell me."

"I said, no."

I sidled over to Ephiny, much closer than was appropriate. I settled in slightly more until our shoulders pressed together. She looked at me and I plastered a huge grin on my face.

"What's wrong with you?" she asked.


She looked down at our shoulders. "Then quit touching me."

"Why? Does it bother you?"


I didn't move away, though. In fact, when she moved over a tad, I moved right along with her.

"Look, why are you doing this?"

I put my chin on her shoulder. "'Cause I like you," I answered in a singsong voice.

She sighed and closed her eyes. "This is your way of saying that you're not going to leave me alone and that you're going to humiliate me every chance you get until I tell you the story. Right?"

"Uh huh," I answered, nodding my head.

"Gods above. Are you sure Amira isn't your child? Okay, okay, but there's not much to tell."

I laughed at her comment and put a comfortable distance between our bodies again. She took a large gulp of wine before she began, which caused me to wonder. If she thought the whole tale so trivial, why did she need a drink to begin?

"I'm surprised you haven't heard it already what with the way this village spreads gossip. Maybe Gabrielle has, I don't know. It's not a big deal."

"Yea, you keep saying that. So, if it's not a big deal how come you're keeping it such a secret?"

"It's just one of those 'going against convention' sort of tales. An Elder of a clan is traditionally the oldest of the group. It always made sense seeing that with age comes experience, skill, you know."

"Makes sense to me," I interjected.

"Well, at one time I was the Elder of the Panther clan."

"I didn't know that." I didn't ask the question that I truly wished to. I figured she would get to why she was no longer an Elder in her own time. I silently waited for her to begin again.

"In some cases, rare occasions actually, a younger woman felt she had the skill to best the Elder of her clan. Of course, the Panther clan had young Elders, but that was the way of that particular clan. You can be the best basket weaver at eighty, but it takes a much younger woman to hold off the youngsters who think a big head and a few muscles qualify as experience.

It happened about twelve seasons ago. It doesn't mean a lot to some of the clans, but with warriors—well, you know how we are. I suppose we always want to show off what we know. Anyway, I was Elder of the Panther clan. Addie and I were pretty well matched when we were younger. I guess she took it into her head that she ought to make a run at my spot. Frankly, I think it had a lot to do with the crowd she ran with. Sort of like Prax's group."

"So, she won?" I asked.

I waited patiently, knowing this wouldn't be a simple yes or no answer.

"We never fought. I stepped down and she took over. End of story."

She started to rise, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back down. "Whoa, whoa. That's all there is to it?"

"Yea," she replied while avoiding eye contact.

"What a pile of centaur dung. Okay, now why don't you tell me the truth."

"That was the truth."

"All right, let me put it a different way. Why don't you go back to the part where she challenged you, and tell me the expanded version of the truth."

She looked over at me and then lowered her eyes. She seemed to find something fascinating about her fingernails, turning her hands over to examine them. I didn't prod anymore. I knew she would tell me the full story, if not, she would never have brought it up. Perhaps Amazon warriors had old demons to exorcise, too.

"I don't want this…you know, bandied about."

I looked at her and arched one eyebrow. "Just who in Hades do you think I'll be gossiping over tea with here?"

"Well, you never know. It's not that big of a deal, but it took a lot of seasons for Addie and I to get over the bad feelings. The truth is that I never showed up for the challenge. I resigned my position as Elder and let Addie take it."

"So, that didn't go over too well with her?"

"You know women and talk. Half the tribe thought I resigned because I didn't want to suffer the humiliation of my younger sister beating me while the other half thought I did it because I knew I'd best Addie and I wouldn't shame my sister that way. It didn't matter much what they thought, though. Addie had already made up her mind."

"Why did she think you did it?"

"She thought I did it to throw a cloud over her leadership. I could see her point. Until she won her first challenge, people questioned whether she had actually earned the right to be Elder."


"And what?" she asked.

"And what were you really thinking. Why did you do it?"

She shrugged and drew random lines in the dirt with a twig. "She's my sister," she answered as if that explained everything. "I couldn't see what beating the stuffing out of my best friend was going to accomplish."

"Apparently she felt differently."

"Two summers make a big difference when you're that age. I don't think she was old enough to see beyond herself and her own desires. She's changed a lot since then."

"It appears so. She acts like she's learned a great deal over the seasons."

"You should have seen her back then, though. We didn't speak for about half a dozen seasons. Between our feud and the talking behind my back, I chose to leave the village. Not permanently, but every time Melosa needed a courier or emissary, I volunteered."

"Why didn't you two just have it out and be done with it?" I asked.

"It seemed easier, I suppose. To just let it lie." She drew lines through the dirt, as if erasing what she'd drawn. "I've never told anyone this before, but…well, even though I'm sure I would have beaten her in the challenge, the real reason I just let Addie have the position was because I knew she was the better leader. She was just good that way, still is. I'm a warrior, Xena. I could never sit in some tent during battle and make plans and strategies for others to carry out. That's just not me. I could never have fought her with all my strength when I didn't really believe in what I was fighting for, and I couldn't have thrown the match. An act like that would have been an insult to Artemis, who blessed me with such skills."

"I can understand that. In fact, any good warrior would. The others can't figure our way of thinking, though. If you and Adara settled this seasons ago, why do you still seem as though you're still troubled by it?"

"I guess it comes back to haunt me a little every time I'm in Amazonia. People have long memories and some of them love a good piece of gossip. I hear the whispers, but that's not the main reason. I feel like it could happen again. Not in the same way, because Addie's not only a good warrior, but she has a wisdom I'll never have. No one knows that Gabrielle made me Regent before we left Corinth. I'm to rule Amazonia in her stead when she leaves."

"I see. I'd actually forgotten that. Gods, that seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?"

"More than one. I'm stuck in the same dilemma, though, as I was back then. I'm not meant to lead, not anywhere but on a battlefield. Addie has the skills for the job, but if I give up my claim as Regent, then Addie will always think that she was second choice. I don't want the tribe to think of my sister as a Regent by default, not when she alone holds the ability to rule in Gabrielle's absence."

"Maybe you should talk to Gabrielle and tell her how you're feeling. You know her. She'll come up with a way so that no one ends up feeling bad."

"I guess I better do it before she wants to announce anything to the tribe," Ephiny replied.

"Just wait 'till after the wedding, okay? I'm not sure she can handle one more problem to solve right now."

"Agreed. Speaking of weddings…you will keep practicing, won't you?"

"Look, I'll say two extra prayers that morning." I smiled and hit her shoulder when she gave me an exasperated look. Finally, I answered her in a more serious tone. "I know it will reflect on you, Eph. I won't let you down."


"I give you my word."

We walked down the path that led back to the center of the village. I couldn't help teasing her for she still had such a serious expression on her face.

"Oh, and did I say that my word isn't worth a dented obol?"

I laughed heartily at her groan. Yes, it was good to be the Conqueror.


"So, that's it? I mean--that was all?"

"Wasn't that enough?" Gabrielle asked, half turning in my arms to look at my face.

We sat outside of our quarters on the spacious balcony. High in the trees as we were, we enjoyed the breezes that could not reach the forest floor below. Reclining upon a couch of sorts, I actually half sat with one foot on the floor. Gabrielle rested with her back against my chest. She had done nothing but cry for some time, but afterward, she felt better for having experienced the catharsis her tears brought about.

A small midday meal and some refreshing mango juice helped to brighten her mood, but she was still a tad reflective over the incident with Prax. She had felt powerless to help the young woman and frankly, her description of Prax sobbing her heart out surprised me. I was not only taken aback, but it pulled at my own heart a bit…just a small bit, though.

"Oh, no," I apologized. "I didn't mean to trivialize it, I guess I expected more of a story is all. As it is, it turns out that this was something that the girl completely built up in her own mind."

"True, but in a sense, it was the way she handled her grief. In order to keep her relationship with Timara a secret, she only had a limited amount of options."

"And you feel responsible," I said.

"No…and yes. Look, I understand that I didn't consciously do anything to bring about Timara's death, but don't you ever wonder about things like that?"

"What sorts of things?"

"Well, what if you and I hadn't married for another moon or so? What if I'd guessed Prax's reasons for such anger before it came to a fight—"

"What if you and I had never met? What if you'd never been born at all? Gabrielle, you of all people know that looking back in that manner can drive you mad, and it never solves anything. What are you really thinking here?"

"You know me too well."

She sat silently as if thinking about what I'd asked. It was not unlike Gabrielle to examine her motives and see the light about her actions rather quickly, but in this case, I guessed that she'd thought about this before.

"I've been wondering what sort of Queen I'll make, Xena. I don't—I just don't know if I'm…well, if I'm doing it right."

"Doing it right?" I chuckled. "Gods, you're asking the wrong woman there."

"But you rule so well. You always seem to make the right decisions."

"Thank you for the compliment, love, but you should have seen me before you came along. I do believe I've gotten better at it, though."

"I suppose I feel as though I could be making better decisions. I think I'm doing the right thing at the time, but then it all falls apart and I'm not so sure."

I had been about to say something light, perhaps even a humorous response, but I realized that Gabrielle was quite serious. I thought her decisions had been fine, especially for one so young. Further thought brought me to an interesting conclusion. Gabrielle had never had to make decisions before…ever. Slavery had put her in a position where she had never made even the smallest decisions. She had never even been allowed to think for herself. Considering this, she had done miraculously well.

"There's no magic formula to making decisions, little one," I said, followed by a kiss to the back of her head. "Making the right decision is something only the Gods have forethought about."

"Then what do I do, Xena?" she asked after some time had passed.

"For the most part, exactly what you've been doing. You make the best decisions you can with the information you're given at the time. Most importantly, once you've made your choice, you let it go. Don't look back to where you've been, love, look ahead to where you're going."

She turned and smiled at me, followed by a gentle kiss. "I'm so glad I'm married to you."

"Are you love?" I smiled back. "That's good because I am, too."

A sudden rustle in the leaves brought me to attention, so much so that I almost dumped Gabrielle to the floor. A young girl hopped down from one of the outer branches and down onto the balcony. She took one look at Gabrielle and I, lying there together, and her mouth fell open to her knees. It was rather obvious that she had not expected to meet with anything but an empty terrace.

"Oh, my…I—I…Gods, I'm so sorry—"

She started backing up to go down the stairs, running into just about every piece of furniture on the way. The amusement I felt temporarily assuaged the anger at our guard. My first thought had been to reprimand them, but the Amazons knew Nakia, and the female Corinthian soldiers we had with us were stationed far below on the ground.

"It's all right, Nakia," Gabrielle said as she rose. We both chuckled lightly at the girl's extreme embarrassment. We hadn't meant to humiliate her, but I don't think that even if she'd purposely tried to kick everything in her way, she could have run into it all as successfully as she did on her way to the stairs.

"Nakia, stop," Gabrielle said loudly in a final attempt to keep the girl from breaking her neck. "It's really all right. We were just relaxing. Come back here."

"Oh," she answered. Her cheeks turned even redder as she walked back toward us.

"Xena, you remember Nakia?" Gabrielle asked. She gave me that look that I interpreted to mean that I should be nice to the girl.

"I do indeed. Lovely to see you again, Nakia." I rose and even inclined my body forward a small bit in a bow.

"Don't overdo it," Gabrielle whispered.

I laughed and sat down again. "Please sit and have some juice with us."

"Oh, no, I couldn't." She said, turning to look at me. As she turned, her hand swept a vase from the small round table beside her.

I leaned forward and my hand shot out, neatly catching the vase before it hit the ground. "I think perhaps you better sit down before you hurt yourself," I told her.

She sat obediently, placing her hands within her lap. "I'm not usually this…"

"Uncoordinated?" I offered to a look from Gabrielle.

Nakia laughed at herself. "I was going to say clumsy. It just gets a little more noticeable when I'm nervous. I guess you two just took me by surprise. I wasn't spying or anything!"

"We know that, Nakia. Don't worry," Gabrielle said.

"I just came by to see if you wanted to still see the archives. Um, of course, you're welcome to come, too, Lord Conqueror."

"Ahh, a trip to the archives," I said. "How exciting." This earned me another look from Gabrielle.

"I mean, I'd be happy to join you," I added.

Even though I made it sound like a hideous fate, it was merely one of those things I did to tease Gabrielle. She might have looked upon it as aggravating, but I did consider it only teasing. I was actually interested to see the archive of the Amazons. I had heard that the Amazonia tribe housed the largest library of all the tribes in the Empire.

Gabrielle still felt depressed about the situation with Prax. I could see it in her eyes, but those same eyes brightened when Nakia mentioned the archives. Since nothing could pull Gabrielle from despondency faster than a good scroll, I suggested we make the trip straightaway. I thought it would make her feel better or at least forget her worries for a time.

I don't really know what I expected to find in the place that housed the history, as well as information about the members of this tribe. What I found surprised me. The archives spread across four separate buildings. There wasn't one lonely old woman in charge of a bunch of dusty scrolls. Instead, an entire troop of young women went about cataloguing, copying, and organizing the thousands of pieces of parchment.

Your Highness…Lord Conqueror, may I introduce you to Lalia, Elder of the Sparrow clan," Nakia said with some formality.

"Yes, we've met a couple of times already," Gabrielle said. "We haven't had much time to speak, though."

"Your Highness…Lord Conqueror," the older woman repeated.

I remembered her now as the quiet Elder who always looked at the ground when she walked. I don't recall her having said one word during Gabrielle's initial meetings with the Elders.

"I'm so honored. Nakia said you might visit, but I—we—"

"We didn't believe her," a girl's voice emanated from a group near the back of the room.

"Why ever not?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well," Lalia nervously began. She looked between us and at the girls in the room, as if the answer should have come to us from looking about. "It's just that…well, no one ever comes here. Women don't…well, they don't exactly choose to join the Sparrow clan. Not unless they have to."

"I can't understand that," Gabrielle replied. "Such a splendid profession. I envy anyone who gets to work in such a place everyday."

My Gabrielle, how lovely she could be. It was no wonder that so many who encountered her walked away with changed hearts. Her innocent reply had been flattering and tactful, but I doubt she had thought of that ahead of time. She spoke from the heart and it made an impression upon the people in the room.

"Well…I—oh my," came Lalia's flustered reply. Her face beamed and the expression told me that she rarely received such a compliment.

Now, I do not believe there is such a thing as an ugly woman. I have seen enough summers to know that all women are beautiful in their own way and that the Gods have blessed only a few of us with exceptionable physical beauty. Women like my Gabrielle must have gotten in line twice when the Gods handed out looks to new souls, but those sorts of instances are rare.

Every woman holds a secret beauty inside and there are few of those who learn how to make it show. It's not always physical, but a thousand different attributes, and no matter what a woman looks like on the outside, there is someone for everyone.

Lalia was not exactly unpleasant of face, perhaps just a bit plain featured. The baggy dresses covering her slim frame and the tight way she pulled back her hair to tie it in the back only accentuated those rather ordinary features. She reminded me of the priestesses who worked in Athena's temple in Corinth. Many of them had resigned themselves to living either a celibate life or a single one, and so they never spent their wages on pretty clothes and the latest hairstyles. Their own choice, of course, but it depressed me to think of the women who resigned themselves to such fates because they thought they were destined due to their outward appearance.

I had been standing in a corner, thinking to myself as Gabrielle wandered around. She touched everything with an expression of wonder on her face. I watched her and Nakia stop to speak with some younger girls and women sitting at desks, quills in hand. I say young women, even though there were many adults present. However, once I had acquired a certain number of summers, young had become a rather a relative term.

I looked down to find an admirer staring up at me. She looked to be no older than Cor, my younger brother. "Well, hello there," I said.

"Hello," she replied softly. "May I touch it?" she asked, pointing her index finger at my belt.

"I beg your pardon?"

Her finger came closer and I realized that she pointed at the hilt of my sword. I pulled my vest to one side so she might fully see the treasured possession.

"Sure," I answered.

She touched the gleaming silver, running her finger along the open jaws of the lion, lastly, rubbing the glittering blue eyes. "Wow," she said when she'd finished.

"I still say that when I look at it. It's quite beautiful, isn't it?"

"I've never seen a sword so wonderful. I used to dream about being in the Panther clan and using one of those when I was little."

"What happened to that dream?" I asked.

"I joined the Sparrow clan," she answered, wearing a quizzical expression.

She looked at me as if I hadn't grasped something obvious. When she turned and walked away, I noticed that she limped. One of her boots had been built up as though she walked upon a block of wood on that one foot. I had seen such a thing before. A young man in my service in the castle at Corinth wore such a boot. He, like this youngster, had been born with one leg shorter than the other. I cursed my inability to see the girl's deformity before I had opened my mouth, completely unaware that my question might have been a reminder of something painful.

As I looked around the room, and dutifully followed my wife on her tour of the other buildings, I noticed that all of the workers in the Sparrow clan seemed…incapacitated in some way. I see no other polite way to put it. The girls and women were either painfully shy, some to the point where I suspected they were slow-witted. Others suffered bodily deformities that perhaps left them suitable only for the most limited of physical tasks. Others merely experienced scarring injuries or had even been born with marks from the Gods on their skin. I do not wish to make it sound as though only girls belonged to the Sparrow clan. I even noticed some older women who had the look of warriors about them. I suspected that battle injuries or accidents had left them in such a way. In any case, these were the sorts of things that, had I myself been afflicted with, I should not have wanted to live and work among many eyes, feeling and knowing that I could not keep up with the pack.

At first that angered me—that the Amazons should hide these young women away like disfigured runts of the litter. Most of them, when I could get them to say a few words, were perfectly delightful young women. I came to finally realize, though, that the tribe had actually done something amazing. Instead of integrating these girls into the many clans where their differences would be shockingly obvious and where many would have only been token workers, the Amazons had created a little sub-community where these girls could excel. These buildings had become a way for them to be productive members of their tribe. It offered them a pride and confidence in themselves that charity never could.

I didn't know at the time whether Gabrielle had caught on or not. My instincts said that, being as observant as she was, she had noticed. Being the woman that she was, however, she never gave any indication that anything was amiss. She walked around, looking, touching, and reading. She stopped to talk with anyone and everyone, pausing to give them all her undivided attention. Her enthusiasm for the written word was not only infectious, but also evident to those around her. Gabrielle was not only their Queen, but also a sort of celebrity in the village. The ladies all received Gabrielle's attentions as though they had come from Artemis herself. And, when Gabrielle told all present what envious and noble careers they had chosen, there wasn't an Amazon there who didn't feel at least twenty hands high.

I watched my wife with pride and realized that had Gabrielle noticed their differences or not, it wouldn't have mattered. She would have treated them the same. That was her way and one of the reasons I attributed to her exquisite beauty, for, as the Sparrow clan had discovered on this special day, Gabrielle was just as lovely on the inside.

"What a wonderful job you're doing here, Lalia," Gabrielle said.

We stood outside with the Elder, Nakia, and a few of the younger girls. They seemed loath to see Gabrielle depart, and she looked just as disappointed to leave. Gabrielle answered many of their questions, telling them about our home in Corinth and many of the lands that she had visited.

"Oh, but we should be writing all this down," Nakia said. "For the archives."

"It's okay," one girl answered. "Lalia will remember."

"That's a lot to remember," Gabrielle added.

"Lalia can do it." The girls all nodded their heads and their Elder looked somewhat embarrassed to have been placed directly under the torchlight.

"She remembers everything," another young woman added. "All she has to do is hear it or read it and she remembers it forever and ever.

"Amazing," Gabrielle and I agreed.

"It must be a gift from Artemis. It just goes to show that the best person for the job leads the Sparrow clan," Gabrielle said.

We took our leave and Gabrielle promised to return. As interesting as I had found the archives, she extracted no similar oath from me. Nakia walked happily between us.

"I really do envy you, Nakia," Gabrielle said.

"Me?" Nakia sounded surprised. "Why?"

"Growing up with a place like the archives right there so you could read whenever you feel like it. Reading the Amazon history scrolls is a great privilege. There aren't many people outside the tribe that know much about the Amazons as a people."

"I guess I never thought about it that way, but I bet you read a lot when you were my age, huh?"

"No, not very much," Gabrielle said after a slight pause.

"Didn't you like to back then?"

Nakia had obviously missed the rumors that even I had heard whispered through the village. I didn't see any malice in her statements. It wasn't as though she was baiting Gabrielle or trying to hurt her. My heart always ached when Gabrielle had to think about those past seasons.

"I would have liked to, but I grew up as a slave. I didn't always get to do what I wanted."

Nakia lowered her head as we continued to walk. I watched out of the corner of my eye, and when she raised her head, she appeared genuinely concerned.

"I didn't—I didn't think that was true. I mean I heard it but…"

"It is, or was. It's okay," Gabrielle said. She smiled at Nakia, but I could note a certain sadness in her tone.

"So, if you were a slave, how did you two meet?" Nakia asked, looking up at me.

"Gabrielle was given to me," I answered honestly.

"Oh, how romantic," Nakia replied.

Gabrielle and I looked over at one another at that same moment and simply smiled.

"It was a little more…involved than that," I said, giving Gabrielle a wink. She wisely shook her head, which I took to mean that we should let the young girl have her fantasies.

"Oh!" Nakia stopped abruptly. "That would make such a good story. I could write one. I wouldn't use your names, of course, but it would be like, oh I don’t know...this famous warrior meets a beautiful slave and they fall in love, and stuff like that."

Gabrielle laughed heartily. "Then I think you should write it. Now, tell us, Nakia. If you love reading and writing so much, why aren't you in the Sparrow clan?"

"Well, I guess I would be if things were different."

"What sort of things?" I asked.

"I guess…uhm…well, you were there. You saw what kind of people join the Sparrows."

"Kind?" I repeated, looking at Gabrielle once more, so she could see that I had intentionally feigned confusion.

"Well, yea. You know…they're kind of…"

"Different?" Gabrielle answered.

"That's one way of putting it," she muttered. "See, nobody actually joins the Sparrow clan. It's where they put people that can't really…well, do anything else."

"Ah, I see," Gabrielle said. "So, this is written down somewhere…this rule?"

"Not exactly written."

"It's just sort of common knowledge," I added in an agreeable tone.

"Yea, that's it." She breathed a sigh of relief, most probably thankful that she didn't have to elaborate any further.

"Well, then," Gabrielle began. "It looks as though you only have two choices. You can join another clan, making some other pursuit your life's work, but that has perils. You could come to enjoy what you do, even excel at it, but if that happens you would be quite lucky."

"Why lucky?" she asked.

"Because people who give up something they truly love, generally never forget it. Some of them even become rather bitter and more and more unhappy as they grow older, thinking of the choice and the sacrifice they made."

"What's my second choice?" Nakia asked. Her voice sounded as though she was none too excited about choice number one.

"You can defy convention. My guess is that it might be hard at first, but you'll eventually be happier."

I smiled to myself. That was the second time that day I had heard that phrase.

"I'm not sure I know what that means…defy convention."

"It means to go against the standard, to be the first to initiate change."

"I think my mom would call that making waves."

Gabrielle chuckled aloud. "She might indeed."

"So, you think I should join the Sparrows?" Nakia asked.

"I think you should do what your heart tells you."

I listened in relative silence to their exchange. This was Gabrielle's tribe, her people. It was her time to lead and that included the giving of advice. I was content to merely be by her side.

"I don't know if I'm ready—if I'm strong enough to do that," Nakia commented thoughtfully.

"You never really know how strong you are until that strength is tested," Gabrielle replied. "You may think you can't do something or that it's quite impossible, but when you find yourself before the dilemma, you may surprise yourself. What a person has inside of them can be most surprising."

"I guess having other kids make fun of me isn't the worst thing that could happen to me, huh?" she said more to herself than either of us. "I promise I'll think on what you said, Your Highness. Oh, I have to go up this path. Mother is expecting me home for an evening meal."

"Thank you again, Nakia. You've been very kind to take me all over like this," Gabrielle said.

"It really was a lot of fun for me and not like a chore at all. Actually, you two are very different from the—well, from the things I heard."

I smiled and offered my hand. "I'm glad you decided to make up your own mind about us instead of listening to the gossip."

"They were right about one thing, though. The Queen is beautiful and you're…" Her cheeks turned red as she looked up at me. "Um…they said you were pretty cute."

Nakia turned and ran up the path before I had a chance to respond. When I looked at Gabrielle, she wore a rather large smile, which she didn't even try to politely hide. I took her hand and we made for the center of the village.

"Why do some of you women insist on calling warriors cute?" I asked, which made Gabrielle laugh jovially, a sound I treasured.

To be continued in : Chapter 40: Like Flame Transformed To Marble…

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