And One Day, The Chick Will Take Flight
(or, Big Surprises in Grown Packages)
By The Uberscribbler
Disclaimers: I only disclaim the inspiration and the setting, which you can thank Pacific Renaissance and MCA for. The Queen isnt really mine, either, or the Northern Tribe, or the backstory, or really anything and everything. The Princess is hardly an original creation, so I guess she isnt mine either. Basically this is a bit of angsty fluff thats been sitting in the back of my mind for a few moons now. Im blocked on everything else, so I figured Id finish this. Im not making any material profit off this, anyway, so Im hardly worth suing.
If you havent guessed by now, this is the fourth in the "Big Surprises" series. You dont need to read those to figure out whats what, but it would certainly help my ego. A certain young Amazon Princess is all grown up now; you want to get technical about it, shes old enough not to have to worry about curfew, but way too young to have a mid-life crisis. You dont need to read the previous stories to understand whats happening, but it might help.
No sex here, though it qualifies as altfic. Quite a bit of violence, but strictly against those deserving it. Disturbing imagery ahead, and unpleasant possibilities about the future. Whether this goes on is strictly up to the Muse and you, the readers. Anyone want this to continue?
This one is for Danielle and JD, the absolute center of my life, and Adrienne Wilkinson, who inspired this one to begin with.
I watched the funeral pyre set the village clearing alight. Standing closer than might have been deemed safe, I allowed the heat of the fires wash through me. The Shamaness gave voice to the tribes great sorrow while the rest of the tribe watched from nearby, the eyes of many streaming freely.
No tears from my eyes however, the dryness having nothing to do with the intense heat generated by the fire before me.
Rather, I closed them for a moment, imagining myself in the fire, letting the flames burn away layer after layer of emotion and sensation, burning away all that covered my deepest, purest core. It was a core of steel, cold and immutable, now formed by a rage of loss that would cause all the heavens to tremble. It was this core that was my birthright, and the world would know this now
A small voice, quiet and shy yet a clear to my ears as a thunderclap, call me back to the there and then. "Mamma?" called the Princess, who stood several paces away, her Guard standing attentively behind her. The child was less than three winters old, though she was tall and strong as one twice that age. She stood alone, away from the rest and watched me with uncertain, shinning eyes.
I needed no other prompting to swallow my grief and turned from the fire. On unsteady legs I walked back to the Princess, who toddled forward to meet me. My arms were weak and shaking, yet still gathered my small daughter up to hold her close. The child returned the tight embrace with her surprising strength, her need to give comfort every bit as strong as to receive it.
"I miss " the Princess muttered into my shoulder, unable to say more as her entire form shook. I nodded and closed my eyes once again, this time seeking some respite from numbing ache that had gripped me since finding my mother, the tribes elder Shamaness and single greatest warrior, had passed on to Eternity. A rare, relaxed smile graced her lips, speaking of a peace she had not known in this life.
This was but two days past. I could only thank the spirits watching over us that it had been I, not my daughter, who found her thus. Normally it was the Princess who would rouse the old one from her sleep most morning, anxious as the very young are for more stories and entertainment. Both of these Mother could supply in abundance, all in the form of lessons from anything from staff-fighting to riding to herb picking to snatching fish and eels from the river even in the middle of winter. It was through these stories and lessons that the children of the tribe succeeded in becoming every bit as proficient in the thousand and one skills required of them to survive upon the steppes.
As she had done with my peers, and myself so she had done with my daughter and hers. Already the next generation of our tribe was better prepared for the trials awaiting them than I and mine ever were.
So was the legacy of Xena of Amphipolis, once the Destroy of Nations, now known as the Protector and Teacher of the Amazons of the Steppes.
Just thinking her name was like a physical blow to my core, nearly enough to cause me to collapse. Were my arms not filled so precious a burden, her heart every bit as fierce and fragile as her Grans, I might well have collapsed there in both body and spirit.
What a fine example for the Queen to set before her tribe that would be.
So I stood there, clinging to my daughter, gritting my teeth against the inevitable.
I, Eve, Bringer of The Twilight.
My thoughts drifted back, to just a few cycles of the moon, to how we had come to this moment.
Understand first that I had been Queen for only two turns of the trees leaves, and the first in generations not to take the sacred name "Cyan". Even Gabrielle, mother of my heart as Xena was of my soul, in time took the name as had Ortere, Si-yun, and all the others before. Whatever grumbling my decision on this count may have caused among the rest of the Tribe was quiet enough never to disturb the daily life of the Nation.
The few times I spoke these thoughts and feelings to my mothers they would appear neither surprised nor pleased. I at times suspected Gabrielle passed the role of Queen to me that I would not have time or opportunity to ask them such questions again.
Gabrielle was taken from us but half a turning before, in the late winter just days before the first breath of the first thaw. I took the opportunity to confront the Shamaness, to learn what had been hidden from me to that moment.
I had to all but threaten the young woman I had known since my earliest memory, whom I had grown alongside and played with as a sister, before she would cast charms and read the signs. Even then, she maintained her mysterious air and told me little.
"You are the Twilight," Osaku the Shamaness, my sister and peer, quietly declared without meeting my eyes.
My heart had gone still at the myriad possibilities within that simple statement. "Of the Nation?" I croaked, fearing the worst. Osaku raised her eyes to me then, here eyes aglow like the sun at its zenith. Her voice was not her own, but something infinitely older and greater. The tent and ground itself shook with each word.
"Of the World That Is. Of the Powers That Are."
I did not flee, despite being chilled to my very bones at the words, quick to catch Osaku as she collapsed. Her eyes returned to their deep brown, dark as the bark of the oldest tree, before they closed in deep slumber. I stayed with her until certain she was unharmed, cursing myself a fool and sensing deep within my bones that I would never know the same peace that was written across her slumbering face.
The days and moons following this revelation proved me right.
The scouts of the Tribe reported sighting falcons, bears, owls, and other great totems who left neither track or trace behind them. Fortunately none of the Tribe had been injured from these sightings, despite the spirits increasingly fierce behavior. Others had caught sight of shadowy figures, dangerous looking ones, who similarly left no track behind them when approached.
I had issued clear orders that no-one approach these spirits. There was no sense in risking any of the Tribe approaching such chimeras, particularly if they were harbingers of something greater.
Then there were the refugees slowly filtering in from the west. They were ragged men and women, even children, all but dragging themselves out onto the steppes with nothing more than what was on their backs. The first few were from Greece, followed in time by others from Palestine and Egypt, still others from along the Mediterranean coast and throughout the Roman Empire. They called themselves "Elijans", followers of a prophet from the desert lands, preaching a creed of peace and love, worshipping not the pantheon of Olympus but a single, nameless deity.
Somehow this creed had managed to take root and found followers among the so-called civilized world. As a result, they had been hunted, persecuted, even murdered for their new faith. They came with stories of family members disappearing in the night, their bodies returned the next night as though they were no more than garbage. Others told of whole villages being taken away, their citizens forced to fight each other in the arena for the amusement of the priests and soldiers.
The inhabitants of two towns in particular, Potedia and Amphipolis, were less fortunate. Their citizens were collectively crucified, the buildings burned to the ground, the land stripped of life. The few who could speak of it, very few as they were, could only wonder why it was those two settlements that suffered so.
With each re-telling of the story, what began as a vague suspicion became a cold certainty. I had made sure none of these stories reached either my mother or my child, though I suspect they heard at least rumors of them, my mother attending to all who required her aid. She might have considered this a cruelty, but a necessary one I felt. Was it not enough that she had lost her soulmate? Was it necessary she know what had befallen her childhood home as well?
I ordered the Tribe to make shelters for the refugees within our borders. Fortunately many of them were experienced hunters and framers, and so were able to provide for themselves. Even as the community began to swell, I sought to ignore the budding certainty in my heart.
Even sleep was no refuge during this time.
I was disturbed almost nightly by dreams where I was participant and player both, and still stranger ones that felt both to be memory and prophecy.
Often times I would find myself standing amid burning buildings, or bloodied battlefields, or some other scene of devastation. Marching through there were troops, their uniforms changing nearly every night. At times this army would continue its pillaging, others they would build crosses, still others the field would be silent as the grave.
There were but two constants: my presence, and that of another.
Always at the center of it would I see her standing there. I knew her to be the leader and cause of the death and destruction surrounding us. She was tall as myself, dressed in blood-splattered armor and finery. A sword was always in her hand, her head covered by a helmet and mask. Only her eyes, cold as the wind across the steppes yet brilliant as the full moon on a cloudless night, could be seen.
I have hunted the fiercest predators of the forest, seen battle with our Centaur neighbors against bands of Mongol nomads, even endured my mothers long lectures on the proper behavior of Amazon royalty. I have killed; sometimes so close I could feel my enemys last breath on my face. I have been bloodied, nearly been killed myself. I have endured the loss of my mothers and woman I have loved since childhood.
None of that equaled the soul-chilling, absolute fear that held me every time our eyes met.
And each time our eyes met, she would remove her helmet and I could not stop the scream of denial even as my mirror image screamed in reply with cruel, mocking laughter at my horror.
I did not fear for my life, no. She could not touch that.
But my soul that was within her easy reach. And no shield or weapon forged would or could stay her hand.
I always awoke then, sweating and shaken, hand half-way to my sword. My daughter, strong little Xenova, would likewise be awake, watching me with her large, expressive eyes. Though those same eyes were filled with fearful tears, never once did she shy away from my open arms, pressing herself tight against me when invited.
Sleep would always prove elusive afterwards. Just as well, given young Xenova always refused to return to her own bed. Even so, I couldnt escape my shades mocking voice.
"No escape." So declared Livia, warlord of Rome, whispering it into my ear like a lovers endearment. "There is no escape."
Xenova would whimper and press closer, as though she too could hear it.
"There is no escape from destiny."
The last omen, if it could even be called that, arrived upon great warhorses mere days after the last of the Elijans made their way to our borders.
I had the scouts watching carefully for more refugees for nearly a moon. They were quick to report the first signs of the war partys approach. They were a formidable band according to the initial report reaching me, their intent clearly one of war going by their arms and manner.
My mother was with the Elijans that day, taking Xenova with her, both of which I was grateful for. I quickly took my own mount to the border, outracing the guard that had somehow become my very visible shadow. Why it was so important I be there to meet these strangers, I could not readily say.
Perhaps the dreams had affected me more than I cared admit. Perhaps I already knew who these warriors served, and why they had come. I knew only that it must be I who confronted them first.
Perhaps it was simply pride; in honesty I worn the role of Queen as nothing more than piece of sparkling jewelry, and felt none of the weight the title and position should have dropped upon my shoulders.
Whether it was pride or destiny that spurred me on, the border was soon in sight, the few scouts and hunters who had raised the alarm too startled by my sudden arrival to even think of breaking their cover. No doubt they recovered quickly enough, having trained alongside them for so long I knew their abilities every bit as well as my own. They remained hidden, the better to react against a hostile move against my person. No doubt a dozen arrows had been notched and bows drawn, ready to let fly at the slightest move.
I dismounted at the edge of the forest and took a moment to size up these newcomers. They numbered ten in all, all atop large mounts that frothed so at the mouth they must have ridden a hundred leagues without rest. I could make out designs in their breastplates and shields, ones depicting scenes of slaughter in precise detail. Time and weather, along with a flaky sort of rust-colored dust, had dulled the gold and bronze metal. Their swords were sheathed, though their hands never strayed far from the hilts. Several were also armed with crossbows, others with fearsome battle-axes.
I remained where I was, hidden among the scrub and saplings, observing the warriors further. They were equally men and women, though this could only be seen by the way they moved, their leather and bronze armor and full head helmets obscuring any physical difference between them. Indeed, their vestments put me in mind of my dream-shade, so alike were they in both manner and dress. Their helmets even had built-in faceplates, completely covering their features.
Half the war party had dismounted and was searching the hard ground near the forests edge. Seeking out tracks of the refugees no doubt. A faint birdcall sounded off to my right; barely audible and not lasting even a heartbeat. I had to will myself not to react as I saw two of the warriors closest to the wood tense every so slightly, their ears evidently sharp enough to catch the signal the young scout had called to me. Hold or strike? A perfectly reasonable inquiry given the circumstances, and it couldnt have come at the absolute worst moment.
Without answering, I carefully slipped from my hiding place and stood boldly before the assembled would-be invaders. Their mounts whinnied in surprise at my sudden appearance and several swords were drawn, the metal sliding along the collars of their sheaths with almost musical harmony.
I feared for a moment that those hidden in the woods behind me would let loose then and there. Thankfully, they restrained themselves, holding back and not following my rash move.
The warriors and I regarded each other for a time. The air was pregnant with possibilities. None of the invaders made a move to approach me. And I kept my eyes in constant motion, watching and listening, attuned to their every move.
Crossbows were shouldered. More swords were drawn. Axes were hefted.
Still my Amazons restrained themselves.
I remained relaxed, every muscle prepared to spring.
The game of nerves continued.
In time, some silent signal circulated among the warriors, one of their number spurring their mount forwards to stand directly before me; presumably their leader or spokesman. I remained motionless, letting them think me awed mute. A foolish notion, as let my eyes clearly communicate, meeting this presumed leaders stare without either blinking or the least fear.
I had already guessed their purpose, but demanded it of them anyway. "These are Amazon lands. What is your business here?"
I spoke to them in Greek, another gift of my mothers. What I perhaps lacked in idiom I compensated with in precision. To reinforce the inquiry, I allowed the Chakrum to fall into view. It had become habit to display it so brazenly. The weapon had gained a terrifying reputation even before my mother consented to teach me its use.
My own exploits and battles had only added to the mystique, and often I had to wonder if the metal itself had not come to believe its own legend. At times I needed only let the weapon be seen and whatever dispute had called my attention was resolved.
How little I suspected. The leader of the war party saw the weapon, their eyes going wide at the sight of the Chakrum even as their mount whinnied once more. I heard a voice within the helmet whisper "The Twilight!" I had not even time to draw breath of my own before the leader cried "Kill "
In the blink of an eye, three arrows pierced the leaders breastplate and a fourth was lodged in the slit above their faceplate. The force of the impact pushed the large warrior out of the saddle, unbalancing the horse as well. I spared neither even a passing glance, already leaping into action myself.
First was a low somersault, using the collapsing horse and rider as cover to confuse the few who had their crossbows at the ready. There was the sound of more arrows being loosed from the woods behind me, each finding their target. I paid this even less mind than the leaders death, throwing the Chakrum towards the furthest of the warriors and parrying an axe strike aimed at my head with my sword.
The momentum of the block was enough to carry me further forward, into the thick of the surviving warriors. My Amazons arrows had already felled three of their number, and another pair stood wounded. The survivors crowded upon me, spurred forward by their leaders words and doubtlessly hoping to press so close I would be unable to swing my shortsword with any effectiveness.
Rather than oblige them, I issued my wild battlecry and vaulted over their heads from a short crouch. My muscles burned and I felt a familiar snapping in my back as I executed the move. Two more of the warriors fell as I swung my sword once, then twice upon landing, the blade finding its mark each time. The rest of the war party broke up and attempted to take me in singles and pairs. This was the worst thing they could do.
I began swinging by sword with what looked like utter abandon, my well-honed instincts taking over. Block followed strike followed parry followed strike after strike after block after kick after strike. Many found themselves disarmed before I dispatched them. At some point I reached out, again purely on instinct, and plucked the Chakrum out of the air and began swinging it as well.
My arms then became a blur, so the Amazons would told me later. They could only watch, holding back for fear of hitting their Queen as well as their enemy. Their blood soon coated my blades and clothes, their weapons it was said breaking themselves against my own even as the hands that held them were cleft from their arms.
The last of the war party soon died at my hand. We stood facing one another, our hands both clutching weapons, the dead surrounding us like a silent audience. I was winded, but swallowed hard and asked "Why?"
My opponents response was a clumsy-looking lunge towards me, which I easily dodged. This proved a deception, positioning me for an underhanded swing of the short axe he held with his other hand. I avoided the strike, but only just, feeling the breeze of its edge zipping past my cheek. This unbalanced me enough that I lost grip on my sword. Before I could fully recover, he lunged again, his sword nearly taking my head. Again he missed, though this time he had a few strands of my hair to show for his skill. I nevertheless managed to break apart the Chakrum into its component handblades.
His next try with the sword I blocked using both Chakrum handblades, then deflected his other hand with a kick, one hard enough to both crack the wrist and send his axe flying. Locking our blades together, I brought a Chakrum handblade across in a perfect slice, turning the warriors throat into a fountain spraying thick red. The warrior fell without so much as a gurgle.
I alone was left standing. I could feel hot blood cooling upon my face and skin. My sword and Chakrum felt heavy in my hands. The scouts and hunters approached with caution, clearly fearful of what they had seen. "Your majesty?" one of their number asked, as uncertain of the question as I was.
I shut my eyes to my handiwork for a moment, swaying as if about to faint. How I wished for that momentary oblivion, for eternal oblivion. I felt sick, both of my deeds and the utter rightness of it all.
But I did not faint. I was still Queen, and these were my warriors.
I searched out the leaders body, slightly amazed to find the warrior still breathing. Kneeling, I carefully undid faceplate and slid the helmet off. Save for the shaft sticking up out of the left eye, the face that greeted me was beautiful. No scars or missing teeth. Only the coldness of the remaining eye that bespoke a life of war and atrocity marred her sculpted beauty.
"Why?" I asked once more in Greek.
"Ha " the warrior breathed. "Hay " I squinted hard, watching her lips move. I didnt dare lean close to listen. "Hail Ooooo lym pusssss " With that, the life left her.
Standing, I ordered the bodies be taken ten leagues to the west. That they be beheaded and the bodies left for scavengers, stripped of both weapons and anything that might be considered of value. The heads themselves were to be mounted on crude poles wearing their helmets.
I hoped this would prove deterrent enough to keep their fellows from following their footsteps, or perhaps mislead them into thinking nomads had overcome them. Even if the deception failed, it would buy the Tribe time to prepare for more incursions.
I too needed time; time to think, to deny, to accept, and to cry.
I made my way back to the village, quickly stripping off my bloodied clothes and wiped the blood off, knowing deep in my heart I would never be clean again. Yet clean myself I did, determined to spare both my mother and daughter knowledge of these events for as long as possible.
It proved a vain hope.
Xena, upon returning, took but one look at me and shooed her small namesake to play with some of her sister-braves. Xenova, sensing serious things in the air, quickly shuffled off and left us alone.
It wasnt until Xenova was well away that I first saw the tears that had welled in Mothers eyes. I knew then all my careful efforts to shield her from the stories the Elijan might tell of her homeland had come to naught. No doubt she also scented the blood on me as well, putting the pieces together to form a clear picture of the days events.
There were no words for either of us, none that could comfort or erase the terrible truth now facing us.
Mother surprised us both by gathering me into her arms, holding me tight. I returned the embrace as best I could. She was stronger than I, in all ways I often thought. But at that moment I could not recall seeing her so vulnerable. It was infinitely more frightening than the days battle, and my nightmares, and all the stories the Elijans has told to me combined.
I told her then of my dreams, and confessed knowing the stories about Amphipolis and Potedia, and even about the band of warriors at our borders. I told her of Osakus reading and of the voice that spoke through her.
Her grip on me tightened with each confession, each story, each new detail, nearly to the point where I could no longer breath. I could feel her breathing become ragged as silent, powerful sobs coursed through her. Rarely had I know my mother to cry, and knew too well she never did so out of any physical pain.
Then and there, holding onto me as a drowning man might a piece of floatwood, my mother, the mighty Xena, shook like a terrified infant. I felt myself tremble as well, though more from the realization of her terror than from any real understanding of it.
I more felt than heard her muttering something into my hair where she had hidden her face. Straining to make it out, I myself nearly burst into tears when I realized what she saying, shaking my head in denial of her words.
"Im sorry," she sobbed, over and over. "Im sorry! Im sorry! Im sorry!"
Again, there were no words of comfort for either of us. I murmured what words I could find, assuring her with nonsense words of forgiveness and understanding. What else could I say? What was there to forgive between us?
Xenova found us like this when she returned, watching only a moment before racing over and grasping hold of my thigh. Her small arms held on with surprising strength, grabbing onto her grandmothers as well. No doubt she sensed the desperate, uncertain fear that floated between us all even if she didnt understand it; only natural she sought some small shelter from it.
Mother and I stayed up long into the darkness that night, nearly to the breaking of dawn. She told me of the prophecy my birth supposedly fulfilled and how Zeus himself, fearing the same prophecy, attempted to kill me himself literally at the moment of my birth. She told of how Amphipolis was laid siege to by the forces of the Olympian gods in a vain effort to capture me as an infant, and of our escape from Greece, then how she and Gabrielle decided to settle here, among the Amazons in order to hide me from Olympians.
In a broken voice, she related how she too had been plagued by nightmares of late. Livia did not appear to her, but rather scenes and vistas of the destruction of Amphipolis. She saw her mother and many she knew, strapped and nailed to crosses, night after night. Heard their screams and cries for mercy, for death, night after night.
I hadnt noticed how distracted and thin she had become, distracted as I was by my vain efforts to shield her from what Id learned. The realization of my inattention nearly making me sick. What else had I missed seeing that was obvious to any other?
"Mama?" I asked, voice cracking from emotion I sought to hold down. "Do you did you and Gabby "
"No!" Mother hissed, clearly hearing what I couldnt voice. "We never thought of returning. You were the only thing that was important to us!"
"More important than all the people of Amphipolis and Potedia?" I could have bitten my tongue off the instant I said it. I had only the vaguest memories of my grandmother, and none at all of the siege or the townspeople. Yet I couldnt keep my peace with such a decision.
But Mother didnt flinch, at least on the outside. I knew her well enough to catch the way her features darkened ever so slightly at my rebuke. As was her habit, she answered with a question of her own. "If it were Xenova they wanted, Eve, what then?"
I couldnt meet her eyes then. "I dont know," I whispered after a moment, even though I knew I was lying. I knew what I would do, what I would sacrifice to protect my child. I had lost my wife to fever last winter, before Xenova say her first full season. And Momma Gabby had passed on mere moons before. There was little I feared loosing anymore.
For my daughter, I would ransom my soul and all the world. I would hand over all the lives that ever were and would ever be, just to assure her safety for even one day. Even my Mother wasnt exempt in this regard. Nor I think would she wish to be.
Hence her strange-sounding statement that followed. "I have to go back."
"Mother " I began, only to be waved immediately into silence.
"I have to stop them, before they come back here " She was speaking it seemed more to herself than to me, and even then these were little more than random thoughts spoken aloud. "This had to be just a recon force main body back a few days "
"Mother!" I all but shouted, desperate to regain her attention. She stared at me with her brilliant blue eyes and I nearly panicked. I knew that unless I acted quickly, she would be gone by the morning, and quite likely be dead before the moon was next full. But what could I say that would pull the legendary warrior princess from her chosen course? A hundred arguments came to mind and were as quickly discarded. I knew of only one thing that might have stood a chance and she had passed on moons ago.
In the end, I could only sigh and say to her "Mother, its late and were both too tired to try making plans like this now." She tried to interrupt, but this time it was me who signaled for silence. I forced myself to hold her stare and not so much as blink, speaking to her as the Queen to one of her subjects. "You and I arent the only ones involved now. Theres Xenova and all the rest of our Tribe to think about. We need to think about them before doing anything, agreed?" When she didnt immediately agree, I leaned forward ever so slightly and demanded "Agreed?"
I could see the silent struggle rage within her for a moment or two before she sat back and lowered her eyes. "Agreed."
There was none of the triumph I felt in my heart at this. Rather I quietly added "Mother, youre the only one, the only one who can see us see our Tribe through whats coming. I need you here, not riding off to get killed."
She looked up sharply at this, denial on her lips. It died there, unspoken, my eyes clearly communicating my refusal of it. Again I softened the blow as best I could. "Id feel better if you stayed here tonight, Mother, on the off-chance something comes calling."
Her mouth quirked into an almost-smile. "I trained you better than that, your Majesty."
"True," I smiled, modestly and foolishly, but sobered quickly. "But still, Id feel better if I knew you were near Xenova."
"Ah, all right." Mother threw her arms up in mock surrender, dramatically rolling her eyes. I knew then she would stay, at least for that night. I resolved the same would be true for tomorrow, and as many days thereafter I could manage.
The next cycle of the moon saw our Tribe systematically prepare for the worst.
Our preparations were thorough, seeing everything from stepped up weapons and defense drills to mass evacuation of the villages to the mountains, where we established caches of supplies and defensive enclaves. Our centaur neighbors became involved and integrated into our planning, making sure they too had hiding places.
Mother of course oversaw many if not most of the planning and execution. Osaku prepared and spread protective charms across the border, charms that it was hoped would so discomfort intruders they would be vulnerable no matter how heavily armored they might be. The scouts patrolled the borders relentlessly while the hunters brought down more game than normally allowed, even going to far to push into previously unexplored regions. Mother herself led many of these parties, when she wasnt busy drilling the warriors half-into the ground, or organizing evacuation drills, or preparing and preserving meats and vegetables for storage in the mountains.
Soon she was gone from our house and sleeping among the warriors after drilling them mercilessly, or out in the forest with the scouts, or off in the hills with the hunters. It was to the point where she didnt sleep in the same place each night. One would blink when she was standing before you, and it was as if she were suddenly a hundred and one bodylengths away.
The days and nights blurred into one continuous sequence of planning, drilling, (occasionally) eating, and (even more rarely) sleeping. Despite this, I did not miss a meal with Xenova or an evenings duty: those important matters such as tucking her into bed and reading her one of her Gran Gabbys scrolls. I needed no more than see my child sleeping there, clutching a battered stuffed toy that had once been mine to her small chest with equally small arms, and my resolve was set.
The same it seemed with all the rest of our Tribe, who threw into these frenzied preparations with the same vigor yet without loosing sight of our other responsibilities. If anyone was dilatory in that respect, it was I. Many times I was reminded to see to Xenova, leaving details of the latest drill or such to others. Often it would take more than one of the Tribe to remind me of my responsibilities on that score; sometimes forcibly so.
No army materialized out of the west, even after nearly two moon cycles. There were the usual rounds of false alarms, excited scouts misinterpreting herd of game as cavalry and the like. Osaku stockpiled charms and remedies for all manner of mind-twisting ailments as a precaution all the same.
Even with no enemy to make good our fears, we continued on without pause.
Three moons on and nothing changed. Inevitably, nerves began to fray among the Tribe. Neither Mother nor I helped matters as our own tempers and nerves were strained, mostly by our own doing. Mother had not stopped moving in all this time, ever involved in planning and drilling and whatnot, hardly sleeping I was told even when she had driven everyone to exhaustion.
Had I not been distracted by the thousand and one things pressing upon me might have seen the signs and taken steps. To my shame, I didnt even think twice of such things. To all the Tribe, to Xenova and myself especially, she had never been anything other than a source of unending and irrepressible strength. Even when my mate Chalappa and our Gabrielle both passed, never once did she collapse into grief, even for a single heartbeat. If she did, as I long suspected, it was not where anyone might have seen.
It was easy to deceive ourselves that she could go on as she always had, that she would go on, as though she were but twenty seasons rather than three times that. And why not, when she could out-fight, out-ride, hunt and track every bit as well if not better than any other in the Tribe. Easy to deceive ourselves so, and so easy to forget that she was flesh like the rest of us.
Flesh, and mortal besides.
The moon was in the midst of waxing full when Mother passed.
By some small grace, we three had shared the evening meal the night before, it being a rare occasion that she was in the village with us. We spoke of trivial things over our food, the latest planning and news from the scouts. Only later would I think how paled she had become, how quickly shed taken to her venison and soup where usually she might have simply picked at it slowly. I hadnt noticed at the time, my thoughts far away as they always were of late.
She read Xenova to sleep that night. She had taken the scroll entitled "Sins of the Past", the story supposedly how she and Gabby met. Some bits Im sure were simple drama, the part about the lynch mob and blind Cyclops difficult to credit.
When the Princess was fast asleep, we drank some tea, not talking but simply sitting before the low-burning fire. I could see she too was far away, and so didnt disturb her thoughts with pointless questions. Naively, I believed that tomorrow would come and things would continue as they always had. I like to believe she was thinking of our lives here, recalling the happiness we all had found here.
I too found myself thinking of the past that night, recalling what a terror I was. I thought of my earliest memories, of slipping away from our house one morning and pelting the hunters and scouts who searched for me with acorns before being plucked out of a tree my Mother; of how I would scream and curse and demand to be allowed to go hunting in the forest alone before I was even ten seasons; of the many times loyal Mishraal would literally drag me back to the village by the scruff of my neck or even my diaper; and even of the many hundreds of lessons Mother imparted, sometimes gently and sometimes not, from jumping and vaulting to throwing the Chakrum. These and hundred other memories aside. I pray she too thought of such things that night.
We drank our tea in silence and then bid each other good night. Mother remained in our house, sleeping only a short distance from our pallets in her own.
When I awoke in the morning, I found her still and at peace.
Her final peace.
I had summoned Osaku as quietly as possible, not wanting to upset Xenova if it could be avoided.
The Shamaness took in the scene with a glance and quickly knelt beside Mothers pallet. Her examination was purely intuitive, drawing upon more subtle senses than mere touch or sight. My fear was that she had been stolen from us, now, when we needed her most. Whether it had been at the hands of the Olympians or the spirit hag Alti or some other enemy, my imagination had begun spinning wild and ever more terrifying scenarios.
"She passed quietly?" Osaku asked, standing before me so to block sight of the body.
"Eh yes. Yes. I heard I didnt hear anything."
The Shamaness nodded. "Look at me," she quietly demanded, a healer speaking to one wounded. I did as bade, fearing the worst but seeing none of it in her eyes.
"Her passage was natural. No evil here. My oath." I nodded once, not fully hearing the reassurances. "Do you hear me, my friend? She wasnt taken from us. Not by force. It was her time!"
"Time ?" I asked, still dazed.
"Yes!" my old playmate and friend insisted. "I was just her time to go "
"Go where?" a small voice behind us asked. It was Xenova, vigorously rubbing the sleep from her eyes with one small fist while the other clutched her stuffed monster.
"Come here," I crouched down and gathered my child to me. I looked hard into her eyes, normally brilliant blue dulled slightly by drowsiness, reaching almost desperately for explanation.
As was her way, the Princess surprised us all by asking "Is Gran go ta Gran Gabba?" She laid her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes.
"How " I stumbled. "Who told you she was ?"
A yawn. "Gran did."
"Las night, when she was reading ta me."
"She she told you " I held her tighter and whispered as urgently as I dared. "What did she tell you?"
"Tha she had to go and be wi Gran Gabba now." Another yawn. "An tha I suppo ta take care of you." She shifted slightly, prompting me to turn so she didnt accidentally catch sight of the body. "Tired," she muttered into my shoulder.
"Go back to sleep, Little Xe. Ill be here when you wake up." I should have said nothing, for I felt her small form tense up at my words.
This apparently proved enough for her. She relaxed and was quickly asleep. I nodded to Osaku, eyes flickering to the body nearby and giving silent orders that she taken away and prepared as custom dictated. I couldnt watch this being done, and so moved away and set Xenova back onto her pallet, then knelt there. I kept my eyes firmly upon my child, my future, gently stroking her hair and praying to whatever spirit might listen to give me guidance.
The future stretched out before me, in my minds eye nothing more than a path suddenly splitting and leading in two directions. I could see the choices left to me now so clearly one path leading to my Tribe and the forests the other to a wasteland of stark, immeasurably vast unknowns all surrounding the great heights of Mount Olympus.
I knew upon which path my destiny lay. I knew which path I would trod.
The only question before me, the only question that mattered as I looked down upon my sleeping child, was whether I would travel it alone.
By that nightfall, as my mothers pyre lit the villages center, my daughter clinging to me with all her strength I had my answer.
New preparations were set in motion the next morning.
A horse and supplies were readied for a journey certain to last many a moon. In recognition of the latter, the largest and strongest among the mounts was chosen. He was a feisty and fierce one named "Wildfire" in recognition of his temper and nature. It was judged he alone had the strength and stamina to make the journey ahead.
He was also untamable the stablemasters all swore; they kept him only because every time hed been set free hed returned to the stables of his own volition. This didnt stop him from nickering and shuddering and looking ready to pounce upon any who so much as tried to set a saddle on him. At least until I approached and attempted the same, that is. As I approached with saddle and bridle, Wildfire calmed and quieted, even going so far to lower his massive head so I could slip the reins over him.
The stablemasters, several of whom had taught me to ride, were simply amazed beyond words at this transformation; Osaku declared a good omen and kept her distance from the unpredictable animal. I was merely grateful that Xenova, who was nervous and uncertain around animals in general, seemed at ease near the giant mount. Not completely of course, but enough for our purposes.
The village all knew what was happening. The elders were fretful as I expected. So too were my many peers, also as expected. I was surprised when the Elijans, who had all been moved to safer enclaves in the mountains to the south, sent envoys into the village to seek me out and try convincing me against my chose course.
"We came here seeking shelter, Your Majesty," the lead envoy said, watching me nervously as I carefully sheathed my sword and rechecked the saddlebag I had packed only moments before. "We do not wish you to risk your life for our cause "
I interrupted at that point, not taking my eyes off the bow I was inspecting. "It is not in service of you or your god that Im doing this," I told them.
The man sighed and asked "Then why, Your Majesty? You owe us nothing "
"No," I quietly agreed, looking at him and his companions for the first time. "But the dead? Are they not owed something?" I held their eyes for several moments before returning to my preparations. "And I have no choice in this," I added, almost to myself.
The Elijans left me in peace, seeing I was not to be persuaded. Neither Osaku nor any of my sisters sought to argue my decision, knowing better than to even try. Only one other could have swayed me, and she was in complete agreement with it.
If only I could say the same for myself. The decision had come to me quickly and been accepted almost as swiftly, despite the complete absence of any enemy army coming from the west. The reasons Id given the Elijans were but part of the reason; how many had died, even if only in part, because of my very existence? The warriors who had come to our border were in the service of the Olympians, the very order I had been born to overthrow, brought to us by their hunting of the Elijans. That they changed their target so quickly, and upon little more than a guess, I didnt want to even try guessing whether there were others who had been less fortunate.
But there was more to it. My birth was clearly a matter of prophecy, it seemed by powers greater than the Olympians going by the reaction Osaku had gone through in revealing this to me. Even my own shade, the shadow of what-might-been that visited me every night, recognized the very decree of my birth and warned me of it.
She was correct on that score: there was no escaping the destiny to which I was born. This was greater and beyond meager concerns such as life and death. Even if no army every came marching to our borders for the remainder of my lifespan, and no more refugees came to us from the west, and I never again had another dream where my shade-self confronted me
I would remain Eve, the Bringer of Twilight.
If I were wholly honest with myself, I had never felt at home or comfortable within the Amazon Nation, either as a sister of it or as its Queen. Particularly the latter, and hence my refusing to take the sacred name of Cyan. I have ever honored the Tribes traditions, yet never truly felt bound by them, as though I were only an actor in a role of Amazon royalty. I now understood why no explanation ever came from my mothers whenever I spoke of these feelings, getting only a merely an indulgent nod and their urging that I find something to busy myself with.
This was the core of my decision then. It was time for me to leave the nest, as it were, to spread my wings and fly as I was meant to. As I was meant to.
I designated those who would rule in my absence, however long or short that might prove. I also left explicit instructions that until I did return or sent word the preparations we had spend the past three moons upon were to continue without interruption; a set of codes had been established so any false messages could be detected and countered.
As a last precaution, Osaku gave me a charm she and Mother had been preparing for the past two moons. It appeared as a simple shard of crystal hanging upon a simple strip of leather, at least until I touched it that is. The crystal then glowed from within, brightly for a moment, then softening to a steady if very faint pulse. Osaku held up a second crystal, not unlike the necklace I held.
"These are attuned to your life-pulse and each other," the Shamaness said in that perfectly calm voice I recognized as an attempt to cover wild emotions that threatened to bubble over. "The crystals have been blessed by the spirits, and so cannot be broken "
"Have they any other special properties or powers?"
The practicality of the talisman escaped me. "Then why give me "
"So long as your life-pulse beats, then they shall glow." She took a breath to steady herself. "But if you should should "
"Then youll know Ive failed," I finished for her, both pleased and slightly disturbed by the foresight involved in this. Covering my discomfort, I said "If that should happen, the Tribe is to flee to the furthest corner of the world."
"It wont!" Osaku whom I had known since birth, whom I had played with and teased and who had teased and tormented in return, from whom I had no secrets and who could hide nothing from me caught me completely unawares when she reached out and grasped my shoulders, pulled me forwards and covered my lips with her own. A lifetime of longing I had been blind to, that I had blindly denied in myself, was spoken without words. I couldnt pull away even if I had mind to. My shaking hands found their way to her damp cheeks as our tongues met for a moment.
It was Osaku who broke the kiss. She rested our foreheads together and whispered "Come back to us."
"Ill come back to you," I promised gently.
I put a gentle hand under her chin and tilted it up slightly so our eyes could clearly meet.
"Upon my life and spirit, we will return to you."
Wildfire was waiting the next morning, loaded with the gear selected for the journey. He puffed into the early thawtime morning and stopping his hooves in the hard ground, clearly as anxious to begin moving.
The entire Tribe turned out in total to offer farewells, even though no one spoke aloud. They said all that was needed with their eyes.
I climbed atop Wildfire, who stilled as I adjusted myself in the saddle. He remained still as Nachalla, the tallest warrior present, handed Xenova up to me. The Princess quickly settled herself in the carrying pack I wore upon my back, the only way I had been able to think she could accompany me in the saddle for our long journey. If she felt any discomfort from the arrangement, it was well hidden.
My decision to take Xenova with me was the hardest one to agree to; even more so than my decision to leave. Precisely why I chose to do so was based upon only a vague sense of necessity; I needed her with me in this, as though she, not I, were the axis upon which all things now turned. Another prophecy, or mere a mothers cowardly need for her childs reassurance? I had no answer.
Aloud, I insisted it was to protect her, to keep her close in the event a surprise assault were launched against the Tribe. While I had every confidence that they could protect the Nation, there was less guarantee they could stop a raid whose singular purpose was to kidnap the Heir. Better I declared that she accompany me on my journey. At least this way I was sure to keep her in sight and safe as possible.
The argument was thin even to my ears, but fortunately no one seemed inclined to oppose it. Even Osaku, who glowered at my declaration and looked ready to jump on a horse herself, remained quiet on it.
I looked back over the assembled faces, unsure what I should say, if I should say anything.
"You are Amazons," I called out. "Never forget that."
"You are our Queen," Osaku called out, her voice carrying throughout the village. "Never forget that." I heard what went unsaid in those words, grinning ever so slightly at her boldness.
I pounded my breast twice with my right fist and straightened my arm, giving the Tribe the traditional Amazon salute. To a one, it was returned, down to the youngest brave.
Nothing more needed be said.
I pulled Wildfires reins, directing him to the trail leading through the forest and away from the Nation. I tapped his flanks lightly with my heels and set a brisk trot. Xenova squealed with quiet enjoyment of the movement. I could only hope she found it as enjoyable a hands worth of days on. Otherwise this would prove to be a long, long journey.
Soon we were beyond the forests of our home, the first light of dawn only just reaching over the towering trees, casting long shadows before it.
We rode on, heading further and further west.
The dawn was at our backs, and the gathering Twilight ahead.
An End And The Beginning
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