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Deeper Waters Than Most Think
If anyone had told me, all those winters ago, I'd be here today... well, let's just say, I would never have believed them. That's probably a cliche, but I'm a weaponmaster, and unlike my buddy Thraso, I'm not a bard as well, so if it's a cliche, it'll just have to do. Of course, we can't really expect anything that comes in the future, because we just don't know what it holds. But there are usually a few constants we expect. My original expected constants flew away like so many sparrows. The beginning goes a ways back, before all those winters ago, even. Tell you what, instead of starting in the middle, I'll start at the beginning. I'd sooner start in the middle, but I'll tell most of the whole thing anyway. One day maybe Gabrielle will see this, and she'll understand where some of my ways come from. Maybe.
She's a good person, but she really doesn't understand the whole weaponmaster thing.
Before I go any further, for the record, my daughter, named for my old friend whom I still miss after all these years, Ephiny... asked me to write this. She is absolutely convinced I must have had the wildest coolest life, because she thinks I've got a pretty cool life now. Even though I am old, and her mother. My Ephiny is quite a kid. Between her and her two sisters, there's no time for me to get old and decrepit.
My mother told me that I was a wonderful, calm, no nonsense child for the first while that she knew me. Doesn't that sound wonderful? Then she added, 'That is, during the first six moons of your life.' Meaning, literally, six moons during which I was still in the womb. As she told it, she was out for a stroll with her partner at that time, and they were enjoying the cool evening, one of the few in that hot, muggy summer. Six moons, not too vigourous a walk, perfectly safe for a pregnant woman. Apparently I had other ideas, and got it into my head to come into the world early. I have no idea why, but that seemed to be what happened. Of course, I was so small... and coughed a lot, at first. My poor mother. Luckily she was a healer and possessed of plenty of good old folk knowledge, and she had her partner find the first mare who had recently foaled.
So for the first four moons of my life outside of the womb, part of my meals always included mare's milk. That's how I came to have my name, 'Eponin.' It comes from the name of the Celtic Horse Goddess, Epona. My mother is from the Celtic lands. She got dragged here in a slave ship, barely old enough to walk. I never knew my grandmother, but she was an amazing woman. She watched, and waited, and taught Mom as many survival skills as she could. Mom never knew why, until the day she turned eight winters old, and got wind that her so called 'owner' fully intended to 'deflower' her. The same night, grandmother got her to a priestess of Artemis, and my mother escaped for good. To this day, I don't know what happened to grandmother. Maybe Mom left it written somewhere... probably, I still haven't made it through all her scrolls, and it's been seven winters since she died.
No one expected me to survive... no, I should say... sorry, Mom... no one but my mother expected me to survive, but I did. And barring the first while, I was healthy. I was active and always into everything... not a social butterfly, not that sort of everything. I mean, I was always climbing trees, and getting into creeks, and picking up small animals to bring them home, or poking at Mom's herb jars. Or tossing around her pestles, trying to figure out how she got them to fly so far when she chucked them at people. Some of my best memories are from when I was still fairly small, and running around the healer's hut, seeing if I could escape her quick hands. She always caught me. It was fun. She would even laugh, and most people don't think she does that, or smile.
Well, okay, she doesn't smile, at least, not with her mouth. For some reason, she can't smile with her mouth, but Mom smiles with her eyes. I'd get in trouble for slugging some bully in the nose, and Melosa would be giving me crap, and Mom would be sitting quietly, apparently agreeing. But if you knew her, really knew her, you also knew her eyes were smiling as wide as one of Xena's thousand Sun type grins. She loved it when I stood up to rotten jerks. Melosa figured out the eye smile thing later.
Memory is a peculiar thing. I know my mother had a partner when I was born, but I have no memory of that woman at all. If she lived in the village when I was growing up, I never recognized her as the woman who had been my mother's partner when I was born. In my memory there is only Melosa. Somewhere along the line she and my mother became lovers... shocking it may seem, but my mother wasn't as old as she looked when Gabrielle first came to the village to stay. In fact, if you didn't let her white hair and those wild eyebrows blind your eyes, you'd soon realize she wasn't that old, at all then. And Melosa herself was older than she looked, when she died. There were those who thought she must carry a little divine blood, to look so young. It was Melosa's death, and the mess with Velasca, that turned my mother's hair white so soon. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As I said, in memory, the woman who was with my mother is Melosa. In my mind's eye, she was always not quite so dour, not quite so grim, as later struggles made her. There was one special morning a week, when I was always allowed to tumble straight out of bed, down the half hearted space between the hearth room and the sleeping rooms in our hut, and straight into their room. Mom would already be awake, and I'm sure Melosa was too, but it was part of the tradition that she would pretend to wake up only after I had hurled myself onto the bed. Then it was games and eventually getting chased out to get dressed. After that was breakfast and a day by the river, fishing and messing around.
Generally, I was a happy kid, but I guess I leaned to the serious side. Even then, I tended to think and listen more than I spoke. Also, at first I was a very poor runner, because for whatever reason my body was completely uncoordinated. End result, I was an awkward kid who tended to get teased, a lot. Ephiny and Solari were two of my closer friends even then, and sometimes they were just as bad for running around me in circles with some thing of mine or other. No blame to them... kids have no idea they're being cruel until later. Sometimes I'd get told how grumpy my two mothers were... this was such a confusing thing to be told. After all, my Mom smiled with her eyes instead of her mouth, that's all, and I knew that there was at least one morning a week when Melosa let her guard down and tickled and teased me just like any other mother.
No, I don't know if Melosa ever made that official, the whole being my mother thing. It wasn't a point I concerned myself with, and it didn't matter later.
At thirteen, already showing an aptitude for learning the weapons and techniques that would prove to be my calling, I sat through the lessons with the lorekeeper about Amazon history, and how Artemis gently guides most of us in Arboria to our proper calling. Some Amazons here do worship other Goddesses, and this accepted and respected because by all accounts Artemis and the other Goddesses are a sort of divine over all Amazon council. Kind of a neat idea, really. So I didn't feel uncomfortable at all, even though Mom and I actually worship Hera. She's wonderful, you know. Not evil at all. That's another story all together though, and you'd be best set to ask the lorekeeper in Themiskyra about it. I'm too old to start running around, explaining all that stuff.
The lessons stretched over more than history and spiritual matters. There were the practical lessons, about bleeding with the Moon, maintaining the integrity of our bodies and so on. It takes awhile, but it does finally begin to dawn on you that the reason you are being taught such things is because you are expected to bleed with the Moon for the first time, soon. It seemed like an abstract thing, that had almost nothing to do with me. But, the information was quite practical, and kept me from being scared about it, and it actually sounded sort of neat, to have such a tangible proof of moving towards adulthood as that.
So the night I woke up and realized this whole once with the Moon thing had started going on, I didn't panic. In fact, I was a little irritated, because it hurt. A thump out of bed and much quieter padding over to Mom's room. She was already awake, and I don't know how that could be... surely I wasn't that noisy on the packed dirt floor?
"Hey." she said.
"Hey." I replied. "Guess what."
"Yeah... it's okay, I guess, except for the cramps."
"The cramps are a bit of a drawback." my mother agreed. Suitably kitted out and finishing one of those nice smelling and vastly relieving teas, I was starting to feel pretty tired.
"Traditionally, I'm supposed to go make a fuss right now, and brag about my daughter who is now becoming a woman in all eyes... and don't get me wrong, I like bragging about you." she gave me a nudge. "But you look like you're going to drop off where you sit. So let's make a big fuss tomorrow, okay?"
Why all these details, you're wondering. Because it's my story, first of all. There's lots of details, and I'm supposed to be telling this on the parchment here, which gets around the fact I don't care to talk a lot. I'm beginning to realize I don't like to writea lot, either... but I finish what I start. And Ephiny is sitting across from me, watching me with that intent, flashing gaze that means she's absolutely dying for me to get on with it already.
Second of all, I'm giving all these details because these are the way things came together, for me. A weaponmaster explains things as they are... it has to be that way.
The next day was really cool. I got to wear a set of fancy new leathers, and presented with a new pendant by Melosa in front of the whole tribe. Each girl who comes of age receives a pendant from the queen like that, by the way. It's part of our way of recognizing it, and making things official... so I wasn't getting treated extra special because I was Melosa's lover's kid. Then instead of going to lessons, I got the day off, and got to have fancy food and the run of the library. Most times I prefered to run around outside skinning my knees and elbows then, or beating my students up now, but I do like to spend some time poring over the scrolls each night. Have to keep the brain sharp in the warrioring business, after all.
After Mom was sure the cramps weren't going to give me too much trouble, she took me to the priestess of Hera a day and a half's journey from Arboria. The old lady lived by a hot spring, prophesying for a couple of candlemarks each day. You could always tell when she was prophesying, because she would sit cross legged outside of the cave she lived in, beating a bronze drum rhythmically, usually with the flat of one hand, but sometimes solidly, with a fist. The day Mom and I arrived, that's what she was doing. Beating on the drum with one fist, eyes unfocussed, looking off into the future with an accuracy unnerving to even the most stout hearted, her white hair blowing gently in the wind. Her verses stuck in my mind, and I remember them as clearly as when I first heard them. Not sure why, because as a rule, I don't like poetry.
that Zeus will force the Great Queen
to take him for a consort.
And some say,
she will have no choice.
Who can she be waiting for?
I tell you, the one she has
waited for has been here,
and came long ago,
a limping smith who persuaded
her heart by beauty,
and aught else.
This smith will arm the
Destroyer of Nations,
and disarm her.
And arm her again.
She will mend the broken circle.
And the Great Queen, she shall
perform the wonder that is
somehow homely, and yet great.
She will heal the heart that fails,
and send the Healed One on to
Many things, great in wonder and
power has the Great Queen done,
and so shall she again.
Is it not a great wonder, that she
does the greatest of all things,
through that which is somehow
homey, and yet great?"
Everything about that day remains in my memory, as crisp and clear as the chill water you can taste from a mountain stream. It was summer still, and the trees were full of rich green leaves... wasn't too far from my birthday, either. You could smell the evergreens, and the tangy poplars. The cloying, sticky smell of the trees that drop stringy pods full of tiny flowers was everywhere. The reddish brown loam cushioned my growing feet, and tree roots snaked around the path. Tiny flowers poked out in unexpected places, white and yellow and very occasionaly blue. At the hotspring, the stone was stout and often grey, but sometimes reddish and brown where the water flowed. The cave had a peculiar, round mouth you had to climb up to get through, more like a round tunnel than the usual opening. It unnerved me, and I shrank behind my mother, watching in alarm as the priestess clambered to her feet, gripping her bronze drum.
"Brings back memories, I see. Nevertheless, you must climb through it, and pass out again the same way."
Mom gave me a squeeze. "It's all right, nothing can hurt you here. Maybe scare you a little, but never hurt. That isn't Hera's way." So I got moving, and managed to scramble through the opening. The priestess must have gone through while Mom spoke to me.
At first, everything was dark, and my eyes hurt from looking so hard, and my ears hurt from listening harder. Pausing, I got my breathing under control at least, steeled myself, and kept moving until I could find enough room to stand in. A little further on, a weak, flickering light caught my eye, and I followed it deeper into the cave.
It came from curious stuff that stuck to the walls. I rubbed some of it off with my fingertips, and couldn't repress a fascinated laugh when it glowed on them just as it had on the wall. "Cool." I declared, jumping a little when echoes began to fill the narrow passage.
The racket convinced me to haul butt to wherever the end of the tunnel was, which turned out to be a little set of steps. I fell down all of them and onto a bed of dry rushes at the priestess' feet. "Everyone falls down the steps, so I got into the habit of putting those there." she explained. There were oil lamps burning in several places set on little tables or tripods, lighting up the cave a bit, and allowing me to really see her for the first time.
She was... a giant, I was sure at first. Then I realized she was simply very tall, and built like a centaur, amounting almost to the same thing. Seven feet tall. Great Hera... and now I was wondering how she got herself into the cave, because there was absolutely no way she could have got through the passage, and I couldn't see any openings. A glance up yielded nothing promising in the ceiling, either. So, I went back to looking at her. Her hair was stark white, the type of white that seems to glow in the dark. The type of white that comes from going white headed young and under stress, I would learn later. Her eyes were a peculiar silvery green under dark eyebrows. Every movement was smooth and graceful, even the limp that made me think of a friend of mine the time she hurt the tendon in the back of one of her legs, but her body and face were almost all angles. Planed cheekbones and a clear, incongruous rounded divet in her chin. A widow's peak in her hair.
"Weird looking old bat, aren't I?" she chuckled, making me blush. "It's all right... I don't mind being stared at given the circumstances. You have been impressively brave. Ordinarily, if a person doesn't come screaming down that corridor they bawl like a newborn at the bottom of the steps."
"Gee... umm, thanks. I'm sure those other people cried because they fell awkward. That can really hurt." Bad mouthing people has never really been my thing. Takes too much work. Mangling the language I speak is quite enough to keep me occupied.
The tall priestess sat down. "A good point." now she smiled, giving me a look at a great many white teeth. "I like you, Eponin. You're honest, and you don't chatter like a squirrel. Old geezers who live away from other people like me don't care for too much talk or any falsehoods." A pause, while she set several things on a little table, then pointed for me to sit across from her. "And you defend others, even if they seem to be mainly the source of taunting and teasing. That's good."
"My Mama taught me that. She said if you let rotten people or rotten things make you rotten... well, you'll just be rotten." I finished lamely. Dammit even looks lame in ink... but somehow, the way Mom put it really made sense to me. Still does.
"Your Mama is very wise." the priestess declared gravely. "My name is Kyklonis. You may call me that. Or Ky."
On the little table were three cups, three small balls, two mugs, and a pitcher. I knew what the cups and balls seemed to be for, the sleight of hand tricks magicians and thieves are good at. The other stuff had an obvious purpose too... chances were good the obvious would be the actual thing, because as a general rule Hera isn't as big into confusion and riddles as Artemis is. Not that it's bad to like confusion and riddles. Artemis likes to play, and she likes it even better if you play along. That's why she's such a big part of the whole Solstice thing, probably.
Kyklonis pulled the balls and the cups towards her. "We could go through a bit of a magic show, I suppose." I nodded as gravely as I could, and she laughed. "So serious. We won't go through a magic show just now. Do you know where these balls are from?"
She rolled them over to me, and I managed to corale them before they fell off the table and bounced across the floor. They reminded me of the time when I was much smaller, and had accidentally knocked over a basket of berries during a bit of a foraging expedition. Being hollered at by the old Amazon leading us to hurry and pick them up, my five winters old brain came up with the irrational idea that if I didn't do so as quickly as possible, the bouncing, rolling little things would get away and I'd never be able to catch them again. Now with the balls, there was actual potential for that to actually happen, what with the cave not seeming to have any walls, barring the wall with the opening I had come in by in it.
The balls were made of wood, carved from some species I couldn't recognize from heft or looking at its grain in the now fitful light. You learn about wood and metals as a warrior and especially as a weaponmaster so as to avoid wooden pieces that were likely to break with one solid hit, that sort of thing. The balls were painted, one red, one black, and one white, with two opposing symbols on top of that. The black one had... a silver skull... running a thumb over it showed the skull was an inlay, and a crescent Moon. The red one had a horse and a copper Sun, the latter an inlay, of course. The white one had been carved instead, with a galloping white mare and a labrys. They were beautiful.
"These balls come from one of those sets... whatchacallem... Ama-gi, 'the Way of the Mother' right?"
"Precisely. Everyone loves messing with these, because they are so fine to look at. The smaller sets contain thirty three balls, for divination according to the Greeks, but that's not quite true. In a larger set, like the one I have here, there are ninety nine. They are fine tools for examining the self, or simply seeing what the symbols seem to say." she stacked the cups, first upside down into a little pyramid, then upside up into a little pyramid. Those were trick cups, apparently. Finally, she put them aside, somewhere on the floor, and picked up a battered wooden bucket.
Picking up the three balls, she tossed them into it, and I heard the clatter as they nestled in among the ninety six others. "I like to keep my great collection in here. Originally, I had a fancy, velvet lined box that I kept them in. But I kept knocking the lid down onto my fingers. So I stuck them in this bucket and now I use the box to hold scrolls." Kyklonis grabbed a lid from under her chair and popped it on top. "Hang in there, this gets noisy." With that, she stood up, got a solid grip on the top and bottom of the bucket and proceeded to shake the damn thing until her teeth must have rattled inside her head.
"There!" she declared a bit breathlessly after a few moments. "Trust me, that's the hardest part." She set the bucket on the table again, which effectively blocked my view of her. "Hmmm. That won't work." Pushing aside the table, another chair was stuck in its place, and the bucket set on that. "Right, now shut your eyes and pull out three balls for me." I must have looked pretty doubtful, because she added, "It's okay, really."
So I dug around in the bucket, and hauled out three of the balls, feeling sort of goofy about the whole thing. I mean, I didn't even know why I was supposed to do it. When people mess around with divination using them, the smaller sets are smaller in all respects, size of the balls and the overall number of them. In fact, then they're usually called marbles, and the pattern they make when you toss a few of them into a specially drawn circle on the ground is supposed to be informative. Most of us kids used to just play with them because it was fun.
Anyway, Kyklonis gazed intently at the things I handed her, then put the bucket and chair out of the way and the table back. "Now," she pulled a lamp from somewhere and placed it on the table. "Look here."
Two of the balls were red, and one was black. One of the red balls was marked with a rearing mare and a snake. The other with a mountain and a fish. The black ball was marked with the emblem of the still heart and the all seeing eye.
It was the creepiest thing I ever saw, and Kyklonis patted me gently on the shoulder. "There is no need to look so frightened. None of these things presages doom, you know. Nothing really does, because the only thing doom truly is is a state of mind. If you believe you are doomed, why in time you will be. But if you don't, you'd be surprised how much you can get done." She paused, and tapped one long finger gently on my left shoulder. "You are the first I have seen in a long while who did not draw a white ball. Most do, and of course the white is the colour of youth, red of middle age, and black of cronehood. This doesn't mean you have had no childhood, of course," now, curiously, she tapped my other shoulder. "rather, it means that your soul is old, and you have more remembered wisdom than is typical."
"This one, with the mare and the snake, refers to your birth, symbolically speaking, of course." she winked at me. "Do we agree, that the snake is associated with reincarnation, and the mare with the Goddess for whom you are named, the very Goddess whom many call Hera?" I nodded. After all, the loremaster had said as much about the snake, and Mom had said the stuff about the mare, and it all seemed quite plausible to me. "The mountain is a curious thing, standing for both struggle, and triumph. Very much a spiritual triumph... you my young friend, seem to have deeper waters than most think. The fish... it is associated with water of course, and changes. You will help someone change, shift from a state of youth to a state of adulthood."
My eyes got sort of big at that. Here I was, hardly more than a kid myself, being told things like that. No way I could do that, I figured. Furk, I was having a hard time figuring out that whole becoming an adult thing for myself. On one hand, I'd do something and the adults would go, 'Oh, that's so precocious.' apparently because it was very mature. Then I'd get in trouble and they'd say I was a lost case, and would never grow up.
"Hard to believe, isn't it? When I passed through this ceremony, the priestess told me that I would become a Seer into all that Is, all that Was, and all that Will... among other things. I just couldn't belive it." Kyklonis shook her head wryly. "This black ball is very different again. You will begin the time of cronehood earlier than most. The still heart is very literal, and yet, I do not see an early end to your time on this plain. I see rather, a stopping and a descent, and a return. The all seeing eye..." now she held up the ball to her own face, lining it up with one of her own, pointing it's eerie blueness at me. "You will see the truth, always after the time of still heart. That, and the all seeing eye of She Who is Great will see you." putting the ball down. "Don't worry, that's not permanent."
"Oh. Okay." True to my adolescent state, I had been having the alarmed visions of never having privacy again, and having to suffer the Goddess noticing whenever I got a new pimple, or some more of that funny hair that Mom said I should relax about.
"Very good. Drink?" and with that I found myself drinking a cup of wine with this very peculiar priestess, who after a moment began to sing soft little songs about a beautiful queen who owned many horses. After awhile, it became clear she was singing about Hera herself, and I began to wonder about her. She sang, not like a priestess at all, it seemed to me, and not like a daughter, the way a worshipper would, but a lover. At last I couldn't keep my big mouth shut anymore, and said,
"You're not exactly just a priestess, are you?"
Kyklonis' eyes were sad. "I was once, a very long time ago. And now it is different. One thing is still constant." Her eyes brightened. "Hera is always there."
Getting out of that cave was one of the rottenest experiences ever. It was tight, and I scraped my knees, my elbows, my shoulders... whacked the outside of my hipbones and accidentally thumped my ribs into rocky protrusions. Then I scraped my chin and began to feel really put upon by the entire experience. Finally I emerged and dragged myself onto the green grass, and made a mental note to avoid caves with wormy entrances like that in future.
Mom winced a little when she saw me. "You grew a bit fast and got a bit big for that to be comfortable." But like every good healer, she had salve for scrapes and all sorts of other useful healing stuff in her pack, and barring the fact that I now had a collection of scrapes and bruises, soon things were good as new.
Back at the village, I was allowed to run and do my own thing for the rest of the day that we got back, and I soon picked up a couple of partners in crime. Ephiny promptly installed herself on my right side, those curls of her bouncing around like crazy.
"So come on, Pony, where'd you go? What didja do? You look like you scrapped with a centaur!"
And from my left, Solari. "Nah, she's such a clutz, I betcha she fell down on the way home." Ah Solari. Always my sometime friend and sometime not quite enemy. "Probably fell out of one of those trees she's always climbing."
"I thought you said I couldn't fall out of trees, because I've got long fingers." this had been a turn around statement from the day Solari caught me walking to lessons from home, looking curiously at my hands. Foolishly, I had explained when asked that Mom had said I had quite long fingers for such small palms, and I was trying to understand what she meant. Solari is the sort of person, who as soon as you say something about yourself absolutely must either disprove it to herself in some way, mock you, or say she's better. To Solari, everyone is lying or competing. Needless to say, she compared me to a monkey.
"And obviously you can't take a joke." she snapped. She was always doing that too. One minute at least sort of friendly, next snapping like a trap... she tended to present a friendlier face to the general public. Solari has always been acutely conscious of appearances, and self promotion. Me being the opposite, almost completely oblivious, it used to be truly a wonder to listen to her schmooze.
"Whatever." I replied, shaking my head in bewilderment.
"Never mind, Pony." Ephiny interrupted kindly. "Soli's parents had a big fight yesterday, and she's sort of crabby. You know how it is."
"Oh." I guess I always sounded sort of slow and stupid, talking about this sort of stuff... mainly because, I have a really hard time dissembling... ooh, betcha you thought I didn't know big words. Just because I'm not good at lying doesn't mean I didn't try. I simply discovered I couldn't keep track of what lies got told to who, a necessity for getting away with it. So when I was clueless about something in my younger days, I tended to be good at showing it.
"So come on! What did you do?"
"Well," I scuffed my toe on the ground, drawing a couple of omegas. "Mom took me to visit the priestess of Hera, and the priestess talked to me for awhile. Then I had to climb out of her cave, and it was sort of hard so I got all scraped up, and then we went home." There. That was enough detail. I started walking again.
"Pony!" Solari and Ephiny managed to shout in unision behind me.
"What? Would you two quit callin' me that... I've got a proper name. You don't gotta call me some animal instead." This is a long standing argument that hopefully, I will win someday with my nieces, at least.
By then we were at the area of packed dirt that us kids sat around to listen to the loremaster. Lessons start out with her telling a story or two, usually history, then various Amazons came up and took us by age to do whatever lessons were appropriate. Since I was a few winters older than Ephiny and Solari, when they went to literature lessons, I went to weapons practise. When they went to weapons practise, I went to help Mom at the healer's hut. And when they went off to learn woodcraft, I did literature lessons. I was finished woodcraft, so my literature lessons actually went longer than theirs. Now I was stuck doing philosophy as well as writing, and philosophy is mostly learning about the various ways Greek men try to claim the only important world is the one they imagine in their heads.
The loremaster wasn't in good form that day, as she had a bad cold, but she made it through, and once we realized 'Hib-oh-leet- ya' was Hippolyta, we caught up with what she was saying. Then I trotted off to the practise ground, because I was sure that today, finally, I would get to begin sword lessons. I had been doing wrist exercises for weeks, and trying to get my arms stronger, so I could do real stuff right away. Of course, I didn't get to skip ahead, but my sword lessons did start that day.
I walked quietly home, practising that thing with setting your feet so you don't make a ton of noise. Ephiny and Solari's huts are along the way to mine, as you can already tell since we could go to lessons together. Ephiny was trying to get out of helping make dinner... she hates cooking, even though she's good at it. But Solari's hut was nothing so pleasant. Her parents were fighting, loudly, and from the sound of it they were starting to throw things or punches at each other. The front door flew open, and I hurriedly got behind a big tree, and made myself as small as possible, while keeping an eye on things. Solari's one mother, Astya, will slug anybody she sees when she comes stomping out of that hut. Ephiny found that out one day, and her furious mother knocked Astya senseless. Then it got worse for Astya, because our law is quite clear about hitting a child like that. Ten lashes.
Astya stomped by, and I could see by the list to her walk she was very drunk. This was bad. She would probably start picking fights with the watch.
Mara, Solari's other mother, was now pretty audible. "What do you mean, you don't want to be a weaver?"
"I tried Mama, but I'm not very good at it, and I don't much like it." Goddess, was that Solari? The cringing, wheedling tone bore almost no resemblance to the girl I knew.
"What? You want to be like that Eponin? She's not even a real girl... just one more woman trying to be a man. Like most Amazons. You know I'm only here because of your mother, because she couldn't get on without me. I gave up purity and happiness, for her, for you, and look at how ungrateful you both are. And now you tell me you want to act like a man. I see now the only light of my old age has been lost too... obviously you won't be giving me any grandchildren." I swallowed. Mara's words made me feel sick, especially because at the end her tone was like Solari's when she's making a nasty comment.
"I never said that, Mama... and I'm doing my best, I really am." Solari was crying now. I didn't want to hear anymore, but I couldn't seem to move.
"Don't you tell me that! I'm not stupid. That's what being one of these weapon toting Amazons really is. Cutting off your hair, and walking around like you own the place." she was beginning to rant now. Until that day, I had no idea about any of that. None. Yes, Mara had always walked around with an expression of mild disgust, but some folks just have unhappy looks on their faces, and they don't take it out on everyone.
Finally Mara stormed out too, apparently to go fight with Astya some more. Solari came out and watched her go, a livid black eye testament of just how far the hitting had spread. Coming from behind the tree, I called softly, "Solari?"
"Get out of here, Eponin, I don't want to talk to you." And she didn't. For moons. Made her angry I guess, to realize I knew her family was in pretty rough shape.
Walking home I was really upset. Mom could see it as soon as I walked in, and she put away my dinner and asked me what was wrong. Melosa walked in while I was still talking, and her expression got angry and alarmed. "Mara went after her?" she asked. Nodding, I scrubbed at my eyes. Even then I didn't like to cry.
"Dammit, what is the woman thinking? They're going to do something seriously dangerous at this rate." Melosa rubbed her face with both hands. "I can't leave Solari in an environment like that. And I need to get someone to find those two damned women before they do something foolish. Best to ready the healing hut I'm afraid, Cer." My mother nodded soberly.
"Pray our Goddesses nothing has gone greatly wrong."
It took all night. But the searchers did find them. They had argued again, a ways outside of the village. Astya, never a thin woman and long plagued by a drinking problem, had burst a vessel in her brain, and was long cold when they finally found her, sprawled in a pile of leaves where she had fallen. It was finding Mara that took the longest. Apparently she had become hysterical when Astya collapsed, and had run away, terrified at how the other woman had died. It was dark, and she couldn't have watched where she was going, even if she had tried in the state she was in. She fell down the river bank, but in a small mercy looked to have been unconscious when she hit the river.
Solari was beyond consolation. The world her parents had created hadn't been a pleasant one, but looking back, I can understand how that was the world she understood. They were the people who were familiar, and once, they had been wonderful and kind, like most parents. Now they were gone. She had to go live with someone else. Everyone was sorrowful and commiserating, and all she felt was furious and abandoned. Suddenly, she buried herself in sports and weapons, and nothing would draw her out. Ephiny and I were greeted with cold looks, and occasional snipes. It was as if she believed we had taken her parents away.
Especially me, because it didn't take long before she learned that my story had convinced Melosa to have them searched for.
Ours was, a very... difficult, relationship. When it was good, it was incredibly good. So good, the snipes, and the subtle indications that she was sure I was lying to her, or trying to one up her, floated by my awareness with barely a ripple. It was so intense, I hardly knew what was happening between us, sometimes. Ephiny has told me since, that her time with Phantes was a little like that, especially at first, because he had to overcome strong personal prejudice against Amazons. Solari never managed to get over the prejudice she had, against any Amazon who wasn't feminine enough by some peculiar standard she kept to compare people against in her head. I knew in my heart it would never work out between us because of that, and so many other things.
Sometimes, you try anyway. I wanted to believe she'd be like Phantes, and throw away that standard.
Ah Hades... I'm way ahead of myself, but it's too late, I already wrote all this stuff down. Guess I'll never be a storyteller, but it's worth trying out. Been trying to figure out Gabrielle, just a little, purely for avoiding rotten jobs, of course. Still trying to find the knack of it, after all these winters.
Time seems to go by so fast. It seems like only a moment before I was twenty two winters old, and the apprentice weaponmaster. Every weapon was at my command. I could make a weapon out of almost any object. There were fewer taunters, because in the main they were a bit scared of me. Except Solari, who no longer taunted, but had taken to watching me with unnerving intensity during her times at the practise field. She was training to become captain of the general guard now, and looked well on her way to meeting her ambition. Some days she seemed almost as uncomfortably driven as Velasca. Velasca dove into things like somebody with a red hot poker was right behind her, ready to jab her upside the feathers at the least hesitation. A stark contrast to Tereis, who had to be a bit prodded on occasion to do her best, because she was such a relaxed person and tended to want calmness and familiarity.
Melosa had chosen her as her her successor, making more than a few people look at my mother and I funny. But Mom trusted her judgement. And I had had a chat with her about being the queen. "I don't think I'm the queen type, exactly. A queen has to be... umm... polite even when she's being rude, an awful lot. Me, I'm pretty lousy at that sort of thing." Melosa laughed, the last time I would ever hear her do it, as it turned out.
"Ah Eponin, a truer description of diplomacy was never made."
By looks alone, Tereis might have been thought part Celt somewhere along the line. Red hair, green eyes. As junior weaponmaster, I was also her bodyguard. No easy task, as she tended to throw caution to the wind. She believed the best about everyone, even the centaurs. Her charm was such that she could even draw out Solari, who was gradually becoming more light hearted at least outwardly, and making a bit of a stir by having a steady stream of blonde, intimate friends. All except Ephiny, who simply refused to sleep with her.
"We're good, just the way we are." she told me one day, in regards to her relationship with both Solari and I. How fervently I wished we could have been something else to each other, in my somewhat awkward way in those days. She was so gorgeous, even after the grey had crept into her hair, and the crow's feet gathered at the corners of her eyes. Time was mightily kind to the regent of Arboria, even if fate wasn't.
Officially, I hung around Tereis to keep her safe. Yet where Ephiny would always be a gentle, perhaps even regretful wish for a could have been, Tereis was becoming close to something else. It was getting to the point we both were unable to concentrate properly in each other's presence, so Melosa gently set me on perimeter duty and gave Tereis more paperwork. "Just until the worst of the hormones wear off." she told my mother wryly one night at dinner.
I was glad and angry at the same time. To me Melosa was my mother, remember, and this felt like one of those irritating mother things instead of a sensible course. Especially now that I was on my own, in my own hut, carrying my own weight in the village. But glad too, because I had noticed my heart doing these uncomfortable speed up, slow down things for no obvious reason. They weren't panic attacks or anything, just my heart behaving oddly. Sometimes being around Tereis, because the emotions and the hormones were doing wild things, it got much worse, and my chest started to hurt. I was afraid to tell Mom, even though I should have. I was afraid that if I did, I would have to stop being a weaponmaster, and the very idea of that was too terrible to contemplate. It was a job that kept me busy and happy all day, and I was good at it. There didn't seem to be anything else I could do. So I gritted my teeth, and concentrated on slowing my heart down when it acted up, and tried to ignore the times it was so bad my breath got painfully short.
Three moons, things went on like that. And then one day, I got half way back to the village, most of the way up the steep hill on the way to it, and fell over strangling, my chest feeling like someone had nailed me with a spear. Terrified, the others rushed me to the healing hut. For five awful candlemarks, I was absolutely convinced I was going to die. It hurt, I couldn't breathe, I kept passing out. Finally, finally things settled down. Then Mom gave me supreme Tartarus. "A heart condition isn't something to mess with, damn it!" she hollered at me. Then she wrapped her arms around me and cried for a long time. I felt so bad, and tried to explain how I never meant to make her so upset, and it just seemed like I'd have to stop being a weaponmaster, and the rest.
She listened to my chest, and told me that when she did, she could hear a sort of, swish noise each time it beat. "You've got a heart murmur," she explained. "And it looks like what happened is it began to beat very irregularly, and some other nasty stuff, a painful thing after a point." She chewed at a fingernail absently. "You say you noticed your heart misbehaving before?"
"Yeah." I muttered sheepishly.
"All right... you'll have to rest for awhile, and ease your way into things, but I don't think this need to stop you from being a weaponmaster... I've seen this before, and it's controllable. There's some herbs here you're going to have to take, and some relaxation techniques you're going to have to learn. From the sound of it you've actually happened on how to control your heartbeat to some extent already. There's nothing wrong besides mumuring and getting out of synch... I don't hear constriction in your chest."
From weaponmaster to half assed yoga freak. Most people never know it, and just think I have weird taste in tea. But it all worked, and I found myself feeling better than ever, with better endurance now that I knew how to work with my tricky heart instead of against it. Ephiny took to teasing me.
"Oh great guru, tell me the way." she laughed. "You know what it really is? You've got such a big heart Pony, it needs a little help."
The day I was inducted as the weaponmaster for the tribe, Solari was also sworn in as the leader of the regular village guard. We had a big party, and I drank a little too much and danced a bit too hard, and seriously felt it in the morning. Solari had taken to practical jokes, and set up a bucket of water to fall on my head when I left my hut. Changing my soaked leathers afterwards and getting ready to dash to the practise field, and hoping to avoid looking harried or late, I smiled happily all the same. My buddy Solari was back, unfortunately with a few new favourite things that would probably get her in trouble. Didn't matter, though. It'd be me, Solari and Ephiny again. Just like before that awful night.
As full weaponmaster, I was now too busy to be Tereis' fulltime bodyguard. Most of the time, a younger woman by the name of Oigme did the job with stolid competence. Tereis and I were still patiently negotiating the 'Will we, or won't we' part of things. It was a day in high summer, and I was standing under the Sun correcting chobo weilders when the alarm hit the village. Within moments, the entire regular and Queen's guards had been mustered. Solari took the regular guard and was off, the Queen's guard followed the Queen. In all the hustle, and while I had to take care my charges were out of harm's way, everyone seemed to have forgotten about me. Hurrying after the others, I discovered I was a warrior with no assignment and no reasonable spot to slip into. So I went into ranging mode, and was soon signalling back distance between us and the intruders, and how many.
You can imagine how surprised I was, to discover that all the fuss was over two people, one mounted, one walking behind prattling like a girl just old enough to start harder lessons. Melosa ghosted out of the forest to stand behind me for a moment. "Hmmph. Over reaction on Larissa's part. I'll take most of the guards, regular and mine back with me."
So. This was the warrior princess. Built solid with years of hard fighting, chakram and sword well at the ready. Flashing blue eyes reminding me disconcertingly of a black sphere marked with two symbols I had seen long ago. Seeing her armour, I shook my head in disapproval. Too much chest and back left unprotected. Looked like she depended on speed and just plain bitchiness to serve where the metal wasn't. Long dark hair, of a colour like the loremaster tried to describe and attribute to Hera and Artemis. The chakram was quite a piece of work. There was a weapon I hadn't learned to use yet. The mare looked fully trained, and probably knew just how to use hooves and teeth in the middle of a fray. That I approved of.
The little... well, from what the top she wore showed off, she had to be a woman, not a little girl, had finally quieted, and was gripping a staff that she was doing the disservice of treating like a walking stick. With a staff that fine, a good length, and surprisingly straight, an air of being able to use it would have been more what I expected. Instead, the great warrior princess, who was rumoured to have changed completely, had a helpless barely more than child trotting after her like an Athenian tourist. Maybe that was why she was here, to drop off the helpless thing where she could at least learn to fend for herself.
Xena turned slightly, scanning the woods. Somehow, she picked me out where I perched, silent as the barely moving leaves, still as the tree trunks. She nodded her head slightly, and gestured with one hand, where no one else could see it. Well met. She had almost missed me.
When they held up their arms in the gesture of peace, and then spoke to Tereis and the others, I moved off to look around some more. The forest felt wrong, there seemed to be other intruders. Periodically in my castings about, I saw Solari doing the same, eyes puzzled. It was our misfortune to be much too far away when the arrows struck Tereis.
And so, when I got back to the mournful, furious village, already feeling the fierce gnawings of regret over chances never taken, I found Ephiny, eyes sullen and angry, even as they kept straying back to Xena. "This one has Tereis' right of caste." Rolling a shoulder at Gabrielle, who was some distance away, chattering with Xena, hugely excited, the shock of the death of a person all but in her arms coming out in her loud voice and almost wild gestures. Winters later, she told me how at first, there had been so much to take in, there was hardly time to react to the reality of the death of another human being. That had hit her later, sitting in Tereis' hut, staring at the few things Tereis had collected during her short life.
And the silver armband, a lover's gift, she had meant to give to me.
"Great." was all I said.
Gabrielle was clumsy at first, but determined and willing to learn. Within a very few days she picked up a solid grounding in some basic defensive moves. Her incessant chatter made me grind my teeth in frustration, because sometimes, Goddess, all I wanted was for the princess to just shut up. She grew on me, and I rather liked her... I just wanted her to talk, less. Xena, in her rough way, told me to give it up. She couldn't get the kid to shut her mouth for long either. Gabrielle wanted to be a bard, and a hero, and have adventures, and see the world. Xena actually told me that. With the oddest, most wistful expression on her face. We were about of an age, and both disinclined to talk much. Where Ephiny wanted to scrap with her, I found I liked her sobre presence, even though she was prickly as a hedge of thorny roses.
Watching them leave, I felt another one of those damned regrets that I seemed to have so many of lately. I wanted them to stay. With Xena, it was easy to tell whether you were coming or going, and she'd give these little flashes of humour. Even Gabrielle had settled down and stopped talking for at least a little while at a time. Besides that, neither of them ever called me Pony.
A half moon or so later, I was packing to head North for awhile. A vacation was in order, and the great temples of Themiskyra were calling, as well as a five moon learning stint at the weaponmaster school there. Giving both my mothers a hug and a kiss goodbye... yes, I did that. Don't be so surprised. There are a very few people who get that sort of thing from me. It felt good to get away. So many things had changed, what with Ephiny leaving with Phantes, and Solari making a pass at me every second glance. She was going out with all sorts of blondes still, which was beginning to burn my ass. Don't flirt with me and then go out with every woman who'll drop her skirt for you.
Sorry. That's not pleasant of me. It is the truth of how I felt at the time. And a bit of how I feel now, even so far along. Mixed messages make me irritable.
Six moons later, I made it home in the middle of a wild, hideous storm. Ther had been no safe shelter where I was when it hit, and a desperate run in hopes of making it before the lightning got me was all that could be done. Entering the village proper, for a few moments I thought I had gotten lost, and come upon the wrong place. Every building was different, new, lit up in its strangeness with each flash in the sky. Even my hut was unfamiliar looking. Going inside, it turned out most of my furniture was gone, and my cot had lost half of its original frame, and the gaps had been filled in with odd pieces looking like they came from a table from the foodhut. All of my things were neatly put away, but still disordered, because they were where I would never have placed them. Setting down my pack, I looked around in complete confusion. What had happened? It was as if the village had been knocked down and rebuilt.
Braving the storm again, I ran across to the healing hut, where I could see a lamp burning. Mom must be at work. The door came open with an effort, as the wind was blowing against it, and another effort proved necessary to keep it from slamming loud enough to drown the thunder.
"Great Hera, girl! What are you doing travelling in this?"
Great Hera indeed. It was her alone who kept me on my feet in that moment. Her alone, because my mother, my dark haired, dark eyed mother whose eyes so often smiled even if her mouth couldn't, was utterly changed. Never had she been one to care much for her leathers. She kept to the principle of, if her butt didn't hang out, and her breasts never had a chance to fly around, they were fine. These leathers looked tattered, never having suffered a long round of patching that before had rendered her leathers colourful before they were finally handed in to the village leatherworker in exchange for a new pair. Lines of grief and anger clustered around her eyes and made her mouth look even more forbidding. Worst of all was her hair, no longer rich brown, but shocking, glow in the dark white.
The shock of it must have shown, of course. Mom hurried me to a chair, and pushed a mug of tea... ah, the stuff good for my heartbeat and made me drink it all before she would explain.
"Velasca went rogue. Somehow she got ambrosia and became a Goddess. Before that, she killed Melosa. She flattened the village." she stopped, collecting herself. "Gabrielle is the queen. Ephiny is her regent."
Everything was wrong. Many Amazons reproached me for not being there. Ephiny was exhausted and shattered from her own mourning, having lost Phantes as well some time before. I felt shiftless and unhappy. During the long run through rain and hail, wincing when the lightning flashed, the sleet beating down on occasion, the motivation had been the prospect of home. In one great act of arrogance, Velasca had destroyed it. One mother she had killed, the other she had left irrevocably changed. She had flattened my hut, and killed half of the older students I had left and three of my friends. Worse yet, I laboured under the cloud of 'you should have been there.' Even Ephiny seemed to feel that way, because in everything I should have been her second in as the weaponmaster of the village, it was Solari she set beside her, even after I had been home for several moons, and should have been moving progressively into my regular duties.
This was no mere question of a hit to my pride, and I won't deny it was that too. A weaponmaster who is not allowed to serve in her full capacity is in danger of repeated challenges for her position, being demoted by the council, and even sent into exile at a different village. How a working vacation had led to the destruction of everything I had striven so hard for, I don't know. And Solari had taken to a superior, 'Only if I let you, my dear' attitude that ground salt into my wounds.
One morning, as I combed my hair after dressing, I stopped short. There in the small copper mirror, the streaks of white ran unevenly from my temples and speckled my eyebrows. Sitting down on my cot, I held my head in my hands miserably. There seemed to be no end to it. Things were getting worse and worse, not because I was greying, but because the stress was bad enough for me to begin greying like my mother. Feeling more shaken than I cared to admit, my sword belt took a little longer to buckle. The boot daggers a little longer to settle properly. The walk to the practise field a little longer.
Heading to the foodhut a few candlemarks later, unsure if I would eat because I had no appetite, the sharp smell of smoke hit my nostrils. Immediately I ran to get together a firefighting detail. Fire was one of any village's worst enemies, what with all the wooden buildings. Be damned if I could get anyone to help me. Most Amazons looked at me like I was from another place. A stranger who spoke some unknown language. As I hurled myself around a corner to find the fire, I saw it was my own hut ablaze, already mostly gone. With it, everything but the clothes on my back and the weapons strapped to me and tucked in my boots. I don't know how long I stood there.
I don't remember the walk to the hut Ephiny used as an office. I do remember digging my fingers roughly through my hair , before I opened the door to Ephiny's office. Funny, that.
Ephiny looked up at me, eyes exhausted and full of pain from her own problems.
"Your majesty." I said stiffly.
"Pony, you don't have to call me that, of all people."
"I do. You have no confidence in me. My ability to work is in a shambles. You must agree with those who would see me gone, to leave me aside like this."
The words stung, and Ephiny flinched. "No, Pony... Eponin. Things are just so unsettled right now, I don't have time to ease you back in." she fiddled with a quill. "I'm beginning to see this was the wrong decision."
"If you don't give me my discharge, I'll just leave. I've had enough of fighting."
Grey eyes bleak as I felt stared back at me. "Give me time, Eponin."
"What time? After I've become as white haired as my mother? After the little I have left is stolen? My hut was burnt down today, and not an Amazon would lift a hand to help me."
"Yes. Yes, yes, Goddess damn it... furk, where has your spine gone, Ephiny? What the Tartarus is going on here?"
"I don't know!" Ephiny shouted back helplessly. "I don't know what's wrong. I don't know why things have stayed so bad." She flopped back in her seat. "Dammit, I don't know." Her eyes filled with tears. "For weeks, I've been working against... intransigence. Sniping. Behind the scenes dealing that has frozen the council into uselessness. Suddenly, talk of going to war just to go is rising. Everything, I've tried everything. Eponin, I'm at my wits end."
There was nothing left to say, except, "Three days, Ephiny. Three days, then I'm leaving."
"Three days for what?" she asked tiredly. She understood as well as I did that without the respect of the village, there was nothing I could do.
"I don't know. Maybe a miracle."
Two days later, as I scrubbed off the muck from a day in the practise field, someone stole my sword, scabbard, belt and all. The one thing I had left from Melosa besides my memories.
I've already said I don't like to cry. On that day of all days, there was nothing else to do. The next day, I wandered out into the forest, gazing for what felt like the last time at all the old haunts. The places now shrunken, although what had happened was I had grown. The old spot by the river where Melosa and Mom and I used to fish and play once a week without fail. The tree I sat in, and actually got a bit of a drop on the warrior princess. The place I stood with Tereis when I kissed her for the first time, only three days before she died. The slope I slipped down and broke my arm one summer. The long path I jogged up and down, morning and night, without fail, warm or cold. The places I culled the herbs I used for my heart. All the places I was sure I was going to leave.
The sky had grown muddy, and now when I looked up and put aside my preoccupation, I saw it was becoming greenish. Great. Here I was, out in the middle of what looked like the worst possible potential weather. Unlike the last time, there was some reasonable shelter not far away, and I made for it. The wind grew violent and cold, and big drops of rain began to splat down. Turning onto a twisting little path, I began to labour upwards. And that's when I felt it. An ugly, icy pain crawling across my chest. The last time anything even remotely similar had happened, a whole posse of friends had been there to carry me back home. There was no one now.
My legs began to feel rubbery, and I staggered to the ground, sprawling awkwardly on my side, the rain pouring down on me. Not the way I had ever wanted to go. But honestly, it could have been worse. It wasn't. Small mercies had to be appreciated.
Then it got worse.
A person I had never expected to see again, even in my nightmares, strode out of the shaking, swaying forest.
Velasca, her eyes inhuman and white. Laughing maniacally in the wind.
"Poor, poor weaponmaster Pony. No one believes her, no one likes her... and oh, it's all Velasca's fault."
"Wh... what?" I choked out.
"Being a Goddess has its benefits. For instance, I'm not lying on the ground, dying like a dog. Oh, by the way, I'm helping that along. You've come far too close to spoiling my plan. If you'd dissemble more, and notice less, I could have let you live. You've ruined my grip on Ephiny... I was hoping to bed her, now I'll have to destroy her on my way to taking over the village."
"Your plan?" Why was I trying to get her to tell me anything? At the very moment of laying in the mud dying, I had no idea. No sense of why. It wasn't buying me time. It wasn't helping the village.
"Oh yes. The strength of any group of people lies in their unity. The village was unified against me. So I lost. But now, now, with a bit of rumour mongering, a few uses of my divine powers to make a few people more selfish, more intractable... why, the entire village is all but frozen by angry bickering. Some subtle tendrels of influence. The council is powerless. No fewer than eight Amazons are convinced I am Artemis herself, and they are doing the vast majority of the work. Whipping up ill feeling against you. Burning down your hut. Keeping your mother isolated and Ephiny under pressure." Velasca laughed again. "Soon they'll be ripe, the lot of them, desperate for me to lead them out of misery. Even Solari, who has become overfond of the wineskin, all on her own."
"Damn. I always thought you were a bitch... had no idea the word was too good for you." Hey, if you're dying anyway, what is there to lose? And if Velasca got crazy angry the way she used to, she might be tempted to use her powers more openly, and give herself away.
"The gullible losers of the world like you always call names." sneered Velasca, booting me in the ribs. "It's Amazons like you who have ruined the Nation." Then she disappeared in the flashy whirling light trick she liked.
The mud was seeping into my leathers. My limbs refused to move. Blood was coming out of my nose, and I could almost hear my heart struggling to do its job. What a mess. A crack of lightning hit the oak tree nearby, and its trunk nearly fell on top of me, and by luck not only did it miss me, it shielded me from the wind and heavy hailstones. My eyes drifted shut. Sleep seemed like a good thing. I was so exhausted. If there was a way for me to get up, and keep going... the thought trickled away.
Distantly, I became aware of another woman, with strange, blue-grey eyes. She moved closer. "What one Goddess can do, another can undo." She lifted her eyes. "That cloud will do excellently."
Logically, I know, something, something must have physically hit me, because when my eyes opened again, I was a long ways from the mud bed by the tree. Every muscle was cramping fiercely, yet my heart was finally beating steadily, my chest unconstricted by the pain that had gripped me before I spoke to Velasca. In fact, it seemed to feel just plain different somehow. For some reason, where before I couldn't move, now I kept twitching. Realizing I smelt smoke, looking around made me realize, there was a smoking spot on my leathers, and a peculiar burn on my shoulder... no actually, not a burn, more like a scald, as if the mud had suddenly gottten boiling hot. Yet only in that one small spot.
"Eponin!" my mother slammed into me, nearly knocking my newfound wind out. "Eponin, are you all right?"
"Yeah, Mom. Look, we have to get back to the village."
"I know, that idiot Velasca is causing trouble. Has to be her, because this backstabbing and powergrubbing is exactly the way she works." She held me at arm's length. "What happened to you? You look like you rolled in the mud, then got hit by lightning."
"Ummm... I don't know?"
"Oh, great Hera... come on, there's a cache of gear up here. Much as I'd like to pelt that dumb woman with mudballs, that's probably not gonna be enough to get rid of her."
We ran into the village only to find it being flattened again, by the weather and Velasca, and the surging mass of Amazons who were beating on each other. Suddenly, from out of the very black mud of the Earth it seemed, Kyklonis, whom I hadn't seen in over ten winters. Hair wild and starkly white in the wind, face painted around eyes, down cheeks and around her mouth deep black. Her forehead was painted black too, a single red eye painted into it's centre. Instead of the robes you might expect, she wore black leathers with midnight blue armour, a long black cloak whipping about her in the storm. A wild, wild grin spread across her face. She threw her arms wide.
"Isn't it magnificent!?" she roared at us. "Artemis is coming and the Great Hera herself clears the sky for a road."
Okay, who enjoys a violent, dangerous storm and a terrible fight?
I found out this made perfect sense for Kyklonis only much, much later.
"Eponin, things I have for you." A sword. And better yet, a longbow and one arrow. "Use the arrow. I now have tasks of my own." Her piece spoken, she drew her own sword, leapt onto a black horse that again seemed to have come from nowhere, and rode off through the forest. The very storm seemed to follow her, and the force of the wind and shear viloence of the ice and water it carried with it drove the fighters to shelter, except for Velasca, who was now completely revealed.
"Amazons!" she shouted. "You have wandered far from me. But I have come to save you from the destruction you have wreaked upon yourselves. Know that your Goddess has come to save you."
"So she has." A figure, looking like nothing so much as a piece of night in the shape of a woman that walked, slipped from the forest. Where before the wind and the thunder had filled our ears to near deafening, now all was eerily silent. "My friend Hera cleared my way here. It suits Zeus that the Nation die, destroyed from within. Such is not the Way." She drew an eery, silvery blue blade from the scabbard shape at her side. "Why did I not come before? I did, though you do not understand it. I sent one who carries my own blood, even though I could not come myself. But now I am here. Will you fight, Velasca?"
Instead of answering, Velasca hurled a fireball at her. It was just as well the village had already been ruined. Their fighting would have flattened it if hadn't already been wrecked. Still, all was eerily silent. The storm was gone, and a sliver of the waning Moon hung grimly in the sky. Every Amazon knew, with the setting of the Moon, Artemis' powers would be weakened as she was called to serve in the underworld for the three days of the Dark Moon. The Moon began to slip from the sky, and Velasca managed to knock Artemis against the stone cylinder of the well. We all heard the hideous sound as her shoulder snapped. Velasca stood over her, and I could see the gleam of metal as Artemis drew a dagger from her boot, ready to throw it into the mad Goddess' heart.
In the moment, just then, I could see, Velasca was doomed. But just as a mortal had allowed her to have the ambrosia to become a Goddess, it would have to be a mortal who destroyed her, if that destruction was to be complete. How I knew this to be true... I don't know. Even now.
"Use the arrow."
The only Amazon better than me with the bow some of the time in the village then was Ephiny. The string twanged, and Velasca's side suddenly sprouted a shaft of wood and feathers. Fixing her eyes on me, she howled in rage. Then the inhuman whiteness bled from them, and the unearthly glow indicating her immortal powers at night disappeared. Knees buckling, she dropped into the dirt, and she ground out, "You'll regret refusing my guidance. The Nation will only survive if I lead it... I should have been queen..." Maybe she said something else.
Slowly, Artemis rose to her feet, holding her injured arm tightly to her side. "Well met." she approved, before vanishing back into the shadows. Then a gentle rain began to fall, cleansing away the anger and negativity that had been pulling the village apart. First, we all got together and made Velasca's funeral pyre. Then, by it's light, we started to clean up.
"Pony, that was an amazing shot!" Solari declared. Her face fell. "Goddess, what an awful mess."
"Yeah, the mess is pretty awful." I agreed. "But we're still here, and we'll be able to fix things up again."
"Since when are you an optimist?"
"Since when do you care, brat! Get your feathers in gear!" hollered my mother.
I was enjoying a rare day off when the runners came roaring into the village, calling excitedly that Queen Gabrielle was coming home, to stay. Setting aside a scroll all about Arabian scimitars, I grabbed my boots and went to greet the queen. The time to grow up had changed her a lot, giving her poise and a certain worldiness. Some of it was good, some not so good. During a bad fight outside of Drama, she had been forced to choose between her blood innocence and saving Xena's life. They were together, holding hands, obviously far more than just friends. The responsibility of being a warrior was added to Gabrielle's shoulders now, yet she was at peace. Love hadn't visited me on a permanent basis. Still, I could see, from a thinkng, logic sort of view, why the choice had been what it was.
Great Hera... then Aphrodite and Artemis, and Athena plopped into the midst of the village. Between the three of them, and Thraso, they brought some much needed joy and silliness in. Maybe I'm a dour, stoic sort, but still, I appreciate those things. Watching Artemis duel with her sister, I rubbed at my shoulders in sympathy as she struggled against the lingering trouble with the shoulder Velasca had broken. Old injuries are a warrior's grimmest foe, because for each one, if there's no way to work back to the original strength and range of movement, then you must live with the loss.
I could tell the whole story of how Solari and I came to have our short, fiery, doomed, love affair, if you can call it that. But I won't. It has been told elsewhere. We never moved in together. In fact, Solari refused to sleep with me in my bed. A barn, the woods, her bed was fine, but not mine. It was peculiar, and gave me the first strong hint something was amiss. Before I get to the end though, I must record the Great Practical Joke of all practical jokes, and who suffered it.
It was before Ephiny and Callisto's joining ceremony, and things had gotten nervy. Solari and I had been sent to Ankitheas to pick up the weaponmaster Thraso and her partner Eumache to attend the regent's joining ceremony. Before we even made it out of the village, Solari had taken the opportunity to string Thraso's trews up from a tall tree in the village. Thraso seemed to have mostly forgotten about it, but Eumache was still smouldering, and had clearly determined that revenge would be hers, even if her lover had stopped thinking about it much. I was keeping a careful low profile, because Eumache was crafty and quick, and it was clear she'd be more than a match for Solari's joking.
At that time, things were still fairly good, and I was enjoying the bedsports and fond looks Solari and I were getting around the village. The relationship felt like a nonstop battle all the same, especially since Solari had gotten it into her head to try to beat me every day on the practise field, and when that failed, which it often did, after all, effectively I practise all day every day... it was our sex life that shifted into competition. It had gone too far, several times, and my body had simply quit. Rolling into a blanket to doze off for a couple of hours leaving a furious and frustrated Solari wasn't the best solution, but the only one left. After a couple of weeks, she began to realize thumping around and trying to physically toss me around meant Eponin dumped her on her butt and went home to bed. Be damned if I'll ever take a beating the way her parents did. That kink worked itself out, and soon we were about as happy in private as public again, or so it seemed.
One day, walking by the foodhut, I noticed the big barrel of stunningly strong mint syrup was gone. "Wow." I muttered. "Somebody needed a footstool, or they finally used that crap."
"Hey gorgeous." Solari strode up to me, a square of linen slung over one shoulder and a bar of soap gripped in one fist. "Whaddya say to a little... good, clean, fun?" snapping her linen at me a bit.
"Actually Soli, I have to stay out on the practise field. Unlike you, I don't have the day off." Her face fell.
"Yeah, really. Weaponmaster is a euphemism for security geek, remember."
"Nah. You're just a geek. See you tonight then.?"
After that comment, I almost said no. I had begun to notice how many unflattering names she called me. "Maybe." I replied stiffly.
"Ah come on, Pony! What did I do now?"
"You have no idea what you're saying sometimes, do you?"
"Huh? Geez, who knew you were so sensitive." Waving a hand at her in frustration, I moved along to the practise field. She'd apologize later, and promise not to be so loose lipped with the name calling again, then concern herself with making me feel like putty.
Arriving at Solari's hut that evening, I was nearly bowled over by the smell of mint. By the Great Goddess, my sinuses had never been so clear. My eyes watered, and I made my way slowly to the window, pushing up the cover. "Solari?" Only the sound of scrubbing greeted me. "Are you all right?"
"Does it smell like I'm all right?" she snapped.
"Well, starting out by saying, gosh, you smell like you took a dip in that barrel of mint syrup hardly seemed like a good idea." I walked around and into the hut.
Solari was standing by a basin of water on a table, scrubbing her skin almost raw, struggling to get the mint out of her pores, and of course, actually working it in further. "Can't believe it. Can't furking believe it." she growled angrily. "That Eumache, I oughtta..."
"If she set this up, maybe you ought not." Blue eyes glared at me furiously.
"I was in the tub, having a nice soak, when the damned barrel of mint syrup we can't use for anything, it was lashed to the roof, the bottom falls out and half fills the tub with glop. I looked like the green bog monster from Tartarus." I snickered in spite of myself. "And gosh, it feels great." she spat angrily, throwing the rag she had been using at me. "Funny how you got by all right."
"I didn't string up Thraso's trews."
"You climbed the tree."
"Uh huh. And that's all." Those blue eyes glared at me again.
It was days before people stopped teasing Solari about being minty clean, everywhere. They wanted very badly to tease me the moment I showed up smelling like I'd been with her for awhile, but she refused to do anything, understandably, since her skin had to be awfully sensitive in an unpleasant way. Enough of the mint came out of her skin by Ephiny and Callisto's joining for her to participate comfortably, and things settled down after that.
One day, sitting at my favourite spot by the river, she asked, out of the blue, "Would you ever marry someone, Pony?"
"I don't know." An honest reply. The thought hadn't ever really crossed my mind. "Possibly." Why was she asking me this? What was going on? The sea was deep, and I was at the bottom.
"Once, I almost did it." she took a swig from a wineskin. Recently, she had begun to drink a lot again. Some days, she smelt like something else besides alchohol, and I was beginning to worry about her. She put on a great public front, yet I could see the old claws of dark problems were still there. "She left me."
"Oh. Well... I'm not planning on going anywhere just yet. In any case, regardless of whether we're always lovers or not Soli, you're one of my oldest friends. Friends are people you love forever, whether you ever sleep together or not." I felt a bit proud of that speech.
"Don't!" Solari said sharply, jerking away from me.
"What?!" I blurted. Dammit, what was wrong now? We went back and forth like that, one or the other of us unsure what was happening. Thank Hera my communication skills seem to have improved.
"Don't say you love me. Don't say that."
"Just don't." she stomped away. My jaw lay in the leaf litter on the forest floor for a few moments. Later I realized, it was then that things ended. Endings are things you only truly recognize later, maybe.
In the evening, I looked for her in the foodhut. Stopped by Ephiny and Callisto's place to see if she had stopped by, pushing down my mistrust of the reformed Goddess. Try as I might, there was nothing she could do to convince me she was above board. Maybe it was simply because she had these inhuman powers gotten by improper means, and I was reacting to that. All the same, my mother taught me to be civil and give credit where it's due. So I did.
No Solari. Hoping against hope, looking toward my hut, wishing, desperately maybe, she was waiting there to talk things out, or something. No Solari. Turning around I made my way to her hut. I wish I hadn't. I wish, I hadn't been impatient, but instead, had gone home and left it there, left the illusion in place for a little while longer. It's still hopeless to wish. In my heart though, the wish is there, because then, then maybe, the Solari who appears in front of most Amazons, and the Solari I know would still match. Instead, standing by the hut, fist raised to knock on the door, the unmistakable sound of Solari groaning in pleasure hit my ears. After a few more moments, the woman she was with spoke. A younger Amazon, well younger than both Solari and I. A well endowed member of the regular guard.
The next morning, picking over my breakfast, morose and silent, more than a few people stared at me.
"Gods Pony, stop... you look so much like Cervexa just now it's weirding me out." Gabrielle tried to joke.
"Of course I look like Cervexa, she's my mother." I growled in a rather more unpleasant tone than I intended. You could have heard a straw drop between us.
"Oh. Wow. I ah... had no idea." the poor bard was scrambling to find her bearings again. "She looks, sort of old, and..."
"Okay, yes, you're right. Actually, I picked up on that when Xena was in the healing hut, that time."
Solari strutted into the room, being breezy and joyful. "Hey babe," she sang out. She sat on the bench beside me. That could be handled if it had to be. When she tried to throw an arm around me, that I couldn't allow.
"Don't touch me." Looking at the cereal made me feel nauseous, and I pushed it away.
"Whoa, Pony. What gives." some snickering, and I felt my face begin to flush with rage.
"This isn't the place to discuss it."
"What are you talking about? Get over it. What tiny infraction of the code have I done now?"
"Would I was the sort of nag you're suggesting." I took a swig of my fruit juice, struggling to calm down.
Feeling more settled, I replied, "Tell you what. Let's discuss it where almost the entire village won't get an earful."
"Wow, Pony, somebody has your leathers in a knot." snorted Solari. "Just tell me."
"Fine." So much for being settled. "I know you were sleeping with someone else last night. You got what you wanted. You made a fool out of me. Have a nice life." Not quite correct... but I guess something nasty was bound to come out of my mouth at some point.
"Right. It's sure like that. You're such a martyr." sneered Solari. A tone I hadn't heard in a long time.
"Nope. Just a bit unhappy. Oh well." The mug was empty when I tried to take another drink. "Win some, lose some, I guess." It was actually a relief.
Those things happened long ago. I'm still a stubborn old bat of a weaponmaster, cheerfully enjoying my white hair, vigourous eyebrows and ability to bully anybody from twenty paces, incuding a certain little Amazon queen, who complains on a regular basis how unjust it is my mother gave me so many extra pointers before she died. Someone has to keep the village in line, I tell her, and she laughs, wiping away many of the years and making the white in her own hair hard to see for a moment. "Eponin, between you and your daughters, this village will walk straight in a windstorm."
Which leads at long last, and don't let that fool you, she's one of the most important people in the world you know... to my partner Morgan. It was the damnedest thing... there was a huge storm, and the ship she was on was wrecked not far from Poteidaea. She hooked up with some Amazons there, and travelled up to Arboria. From the moment I first saw her, I knew I was in trouble. Red hair, green eyes. When it comes to that description in a woman, Xena and I are the same type of mushball, excepting, she was blissfully married to a woman of that sort of description already. All the same, after the bust up with Solari, I didn't hurry. In fact, syrup outside in winter was faster than me.
Morgan, true to her fiery temper, was ready knock every Amazon who had ever hurt my feelings on their butts over my dawdling and hemming and hawing. You won't believe what finally won me over. I caught this stupid stomach bug, and I was so sick. Half way through a staff session it was all over, and I barely made it to my hut. Next thing I knew, a certain pretty lady had bustled in, thrown open the windows, cleaned things up, put me to bed, then settled into a chair beside me.
"How are you feeling?"
"Please don't ask me that. I'm trying very hard not think about it." She nodded, and took my hand in one of hers, using her free hand to take a cloth and wipe my clammy forehead.
"How about I tell some stories about Epona, the Goddess you're named for. That should help keep your mind off of things."
"Okay." I managed a weak smile for her.
"Good." she smiled back.
Not to say it was then a quick easy, happily ever after thing. It still took awhile, and we had our fights, and the times we made each other miserable, and times when Ephiny or Gabrielle helped us patch things up. Other times, at least twice for sure, Xena simply beat me up good on the practise field to earn me some sympathy points. There were more than a few nights laying in bed with my groin aching, wondering why it was so much work doing the whole getting into a relationship thing. Seriously, just wondering why. You'd think it'd be a bit easier, because when there's a simple mutual lust thing going on, it takes hardly any time at all.
You'd think it would be the other way around...