Part 2: Water
The light was beginning to fade and it was getting cooler. A white mist was rising thickly from the river. The sky glowed with an eerie bluish tint as evening drew on. They paused for a moment in front of the door to their quarters. No one else was assigned to the hut just now, so it was just the two of them; by unspoken mutual consent they paused for a moment before going in.
Paladia looked across the compound, and said to her shorter companion, "I never thought I'd miss this place. But sometimes, in that cave, it was all I could think about. I'd picture you here, and imagine you doing chores; wonder how you were doing.... It sounds crazy, but I used to talk to you in my head all the time. It helped keep me sane I guess. I don't think I'd ever been alone, really alone, before."
"It doesn't sound crazy, because I did the same thing. Talked to you, I mean. It was really awful, with the healers and everybody trying to get me to talk about stuff, and then telling me I felt something else, something different, or insisting that things happened differently from what I'd just told them. Eventually I stopped trying. It was awfully hard to keep my head straight, sometimes. But when I talked to you, there was something...."
"I know. There was... it was like you-- someone else was there too."
Cait ignored the slip. "Now that you mention it, yeah. I never felt really alone this time. I mean, where it hurts."
"Hey, you had that too? That place inside that's always empty, no matter how many people are around?" Paladia twisted the ties of her pack around her fingers.
"Yeah. Gosh. I didn't know you felt like that."
"Except when I'm drawing. Then I'm... I'm connected to something else. It's kind of hard to explain."
"Hmmm. It's getting dark. Shall we go in? Hey, you're trembling. C'mon. It's been a really long day. I think we're both a little worn out. I'm starving. Do you want to go get something to eat?"
"Um. I don't-- I can't quite face everybody yet. You go, if you want."
"I'll bring us both something, how's that?" Cait asked as they entered their hut. "Just let me drop off this pack.... Hey! Don't faint on me now. Look, just lie down here a sec, Ok? This quilt is nice and warm. I'll be right back. But you might want to eat this in the meanwhile," she suggested, handing her friend a few strips of dried meat from the pack.
"Ok." Paladia dropped limply onto Cait's nicely made bed and let her cover her with the quilt. Her own blankets were still packed in their travelling gear.
When Cait returned Paladia was sound asleep. "Hmmm. Should I wake her? Or should I just... ? Nah. Bad idea, Cait She thinks you are pushy enough as it is. Let her be. You can't make her feel anything; if she does, great. If not, you are just going to make it worse by pushing..." Cait munched a bit of food reflectively, and then made up one of the cots and settled in for the night.
She woke to the sound of thunder; wind was howling around their hut, and rain was beating hard on the roof. It had gotten warmer, and a wild storm had sprung up. Paladia was awake, leaning quietly against the doorpost, staring out at the weather. There was a bolt of lightning, swiftly followed by a loud crash. "Good one," Cait commented, sitting up in bed.
"Yeah. I love storms. They just do what they need to do and then they're over. Nothing personal in it."
"I love them too. Oh! That was beautiful." Cait got up to stand next to the taller woman; hesitantly she put her hand on her arm, and was rewarded when Paladia slipped it around her shoulder. She slid her own arm around Paladia's waist and they stood together watching the lightning show them the village in brief, brilliant flashes. The air smelled of rain, just rain and a hint of ozone, without the vegetative lushness that made her want to run out in summer rains. In contrast to her companion's stillness, the atmosphere was electric. When the storm began to slack off, Cait found herself yawning.
"Um. Want your bed back?"
Cait considered a moment. "That depends. Do you come with it?"
"Er. You. mean... what?" Paladia dropped her arm and sagged against the doorframe.
Cait leaned against the opposite side of the door and regarded her companion. "I mean, I'd like being close to you.... but... um... I mean... If you are tired; or you just want to stay friends.... If you don't care about me that way, I understand."
'Crap,' Paladia thought. 'I didn't even really believe she thought of me as a friend, now this? What do I do?' She let out the breath she'd been holding. "Unh. ah, I, uh... really? Nobody ever wanted to be with me before. I.. even my mother told me nobody ever would. I'm-- I'm n-- not used to the idea. You really are crazy, you know that?"
"Nobody--- what do you mean?"
Paladia hung her head. "You know. M' too ugly. Just a strong arm, y' know. No one would want to be w-w-- with me. Buh-- bad person."
"STOP that! Stop it right now. I don't care who said it, they were wrong. You are NOT ugly. You are NOT a bad person. And there is a LOT more to you than a strong arm; a lot more than two strong arms, one of which hurts like Hades in bad weather, like now."
"How do you do that?"
"Know when my arm hurts?"
"I don't know. Doesn't it?"
"Yes. It does."
"I dunno, it seems--- well--- I can just feel when it hurts, I guess. I mean it's logical. There's lots of Elders can tell the weather by the way their old wounds feel. Stands to reason. Look, relax, Ok? I didn't mean to upset you. I don't know--- Gosh. This is hard. I mean I've never-- I haven't ever--- I haven't been...."
"Um. Me neither. I mean, not really. I just.. you know. Stole it. Not the same thing." Paladia sighed.
"Oh." Cait thought that one over. "So... so that's why you were such a--a-- pig to Ephiny, wasn't it? You thought no one would ever want you for yourself..."
"Um. I guess. I thought, you only get what you can take, because no one will ever give you anything. But that's not true, is it? I mean...They could have given me a lot worse punishment... And you... You saved my life. You didn't have to. And I never even thanked you. "
There was a pause.
"All those goopy stories you like so much...they are always about people who belong together, Cait. They don't say what happens to people who don't belong to anyone."
"Nonsense. Everyone has someone."
"C'mon. How do you know?"
"Well, alright, I haven't asked every single person in the world... maybe some people lose their chance, or the Fates intervene. But you.. Look. There's probably lots of people who'd find you attractive if you let them get to know you. You just don't let people see who you are. You know, show your drawings and stuff...." Cait gathered herself together. "Did I offend-- ? Have I..? I mean. Do you like me at all? I know I go on at you all the time, I'm sorry. I've been trying to be better."
"No. You didn't. I don't mind. I..do... like you. I-- look, I'm afraid, ok? Don't want to hurt you."
"That probably proves you wouldn't. I'm sorry I pushed you."
"Hey, relax, ok? I didn't mean to dredge up painful stuff; I'm sorry. Even if you did do bad things, you aren't that person anymore. You shouldn't take in that crap about being a bad person. It's not good for you. And I wasn't just flirting with you to pass the time; I do care about you. The real you. C'mon, I know your arm hurts. Let me put some salve on it at least."
Paladia went over to the bed and sank down, holding her head in her hands. What was wrong with her? She ought to feel happy, but she just felt strange, kind of excited and frightened and sick all at the same time. It was as if something were very wrong somewhere, but she just couldn't find it. Cait sat down next to her and gently began to rub some salve into the arm Xena had broken. Then she moved on to the taller woman's neck, gradually feeling the tension ease up as she stayed neutral. When she finished, Paladia sighed and leaned back on the bed.
"How do you feel?" Cait asked.
Briefly, Paladia tried to think of what she might be expected to say, then gave up. Cait wanted the real person, might as well give it to her. Better drive her off now than later, when it might really hurt. "Um. Like I might throw up. Weird. Scared."
Cait took her statement at face value. "Here. Try drinking a little water. Let me get a basin, just in case."
"Thanks. That's better. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"It's Ok.... can I give you a hug?"
"NO! Wait. I didn't mean that like it sounded. Don't go. Please. You can lie down, just-- just hold my hand, Ok?"
"I don't understand exactly, but, Ok."
"I can't explain it myself. Sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Shhh, It's Ok. It's Ok. Forget about it. Just go to sleep now."
"WHAT did you say??" Paladia sat bolt upright in bed, every nerve quivering.
Carefully, Cait repeated herself exactly.
"Hades balls I AM going to be sick, " Paladia choked out, before she was as good as her word, fortunately managing to hit the basin Cait had put down by the side of the bed earlier.
Cait cleaned up, brought her more water, and said "I take it back. Don't be quiet, it's not Ok, It was never Ok, remember everything, and stay awake." That got her a shaky laugh. They looked at eachother for a moment, when an indescribable expression crossed Paladia's face. She looked as if she were being torn apart from the inside out. Her face crumpled and she began to voice a sort of keening howl, not loudly, but with great intensity, diving into Cait's lap as if she wanted to crawl back into the womb. The noises she made were so unearthly that Cait was frightened, but she hung on, absorbing the sobs, which came in waves, gradually subsiding against her. Eventually, from sheer exhaustion they fell asleep that way: Paladia clutching Cait as if she were drowning; Cait holding her as if she could protect her from all the torments of the Furies.
Paladia woke, feeling disoriented. Her mouth tasted like crap, her eyes were glued together, but she was in a warm nest... oh. Gently she tried to disengage herself, but Cait sighed, wrapped her arms closer, and woke up. They regarded eachother.
"Good morning," Cait said. "How are you feeling?"
"Um... I don't know. Tired. Sorry that I---- I'm sorry, it's just too much right now. Don't wanna get started again."
"Right, then. How about a wash and some breakfast? And then I'm sure they've got weeks and weeks worth of chores for us to catch up on."
But they were not destined to go placidly about their chores. Overnight the rain had turned to sleet, and dropping temperatures had created an ice storm and frozen them in. The door wouldn't budge, nor the window. They were encased in a thick glare of ice.
"Bother," said Cait. "what a strange thing. Do you think we should break the window?"
"Oh... be trouble, no matter what we do. I could try taking the hinges off the door."
But the door proved to be frozen about its circumference, the wind having shifted and driven water into the cracks. They wrestled with the window for a bit before deciding to try pulling up a couple of floorboards.
"Odd no one's come to look for us."
"Maybe alla thems frozen in too. Almost there... Ok. You ought to be able to squeeze out under that."
"Right," Cait said. I'll be back in a moment."
She slipped out into the cold morning. Everything was glazed with a layer of ice, which had become quite thick in places. She slid to the dining hall, falling twice. Gathering up a couple of her erstwhile trainees and some tools, they set out to free Paladia. After chipping and prying the door loose, they began checking the other huts. They liberated a couple of Elders, and found others taking up the task, so they headed in for some breakfast, laughing as they slid into eachother, trees, and huts as they tried to keep their balance on the slippery, uneven ground. The sun made rainbow sparkles out of every twig, encased in its blob of ice. Paladia struggled to catch the shorter woman as Cait's feet went out from under her and they both went down, the larger woman's bulk sending them tobogganing down the slope toward the river. They scraped through bushes, hardly slowing down until they came to an abrupt halt against a rock where the boats were turned upside down on the bank. Cait noted how Paladia had wrapped protective arms around her and swung herself around to take the impact, and was now looking a little dazed. Her face was scratched, but not bleeding badly. Cait held on for a moment, then brushed the hair out of her eyes and sighed.
"Er. um. Sorry," Paladia mumbled.
"Nonsense." Cait touched her cheek lightly, looking at the stress in the face above her. "It's not your fault I fell down and knocked you over. Thanks for protecting me. Again."
They crawled back up to their laughing companions, who were holding their sides, and made it to the dining hut without further incident.
Paladia was quiet at breakfast, and since she never said much to begin with, that was saying a lot. It was almost as if she were absent while her body went along on its own; and Cait noticed that although she pushed the food around in her bowl, she wasn't actually eating any of it. Cait got up to take a second helping as the healer's apprentice, the one she liked, was getting her own breakfast. Keeping her back to their table, she muttered in a low voice to the healer, "Sit with us and take a look at Paladia, Ok? Something's wrong."
"You could just come and bring her by after breakfast?"
"No. I'm not sure-- I don't exactly-- I can't put my finger on what's wrong, and I don't want to nag her anymore, I just..."
When the assignments for the day were being made, the healer requested both Cait and Paladia be assigned to her. Paladia looked a little suprised, but went along without question. They moved supplies around for a little while, when the healer interrupted Paladia's work.
"You aren't moving easily. Stop a moment and let me examine you."
Paladia looked surprised, but didn't object, which confirmed Cait's feeling that she had done the right thing.
The healer dragged Paladia off to an alcove in the back, and made her remove her shirt. Bruises were forming where she had taken the impact and there was a bump on her head. Under the healers gentle hands, Paladia began to tremble. The healer directed a few calm questions at her in a low voice; she began to sweat and mumble, looking in different directions and becoming confused. But nothing happened and the healer continued to calmly wash out the scratches, talking about ordinary matters, so she began to relax a little. The healer was removing thorns from her back when Cait looked in.
"The Elders want to know when they can have us to shift the hogsheads of ale in the storeroom. What should I tell them?"
"Tell them it will be about six weeks--- never mind, I'll tell them myself. What were they thinking of, not to ask me to check you out after all you've been through? Warrior attitude is one thing, but blatant disregard for common sense is another."
Cait and Paladia looked at eachother. Voices drifted back.
"...too many injuries.... Concussion, for one thing. Improperly healed compound fracture... That's not my problem... Trauma.... Stress.... Being abandoned in a cave for weeks and then put on trial the moment they returned... Longer recovery period..... I won't risk the possibility of permanent damage when there's no need.... Good of the Nation is to have healthy citizens.... Well then why not just sentence torture and be done with it?... It IS the same thing.... Well, you can't. And that's final... I don't care if you send all the way to Amphipolis to Queen Gabrielle herself....."
The healer returned, muttering to herself. "Idiots. Hades be damned nincompoops... Sorry, you two. Paladia?"
"You have a concussion. You have to rest. I mean, completely. the instant you feel the least bit tired, you have to lie down, preferably in a dark room. No stress. Nothing that requires any decision-making. You'll probably feel a bit jelly-headed for a few days. Don't worry about it, it will pass if you rest. But you have to rest, and to make sure no one takes advantage of your vulnerable state, you," she motioned to Cait, "will have no other duty than to keep an eye on her. Make sure she is not stressed in any way, and that she rests. She should drink water this morning, and if the nausea passes by lunch time, she can eat lightly then. Here is some salve for the bump on her head.... Are your quarters frozen or are they alright?"
"They are frozen," Cait responded. "We don't have heat, so--"
"Well, that won't do. Alright. I'm going to put the two of you up here. Not the main room, the one off my office. Paladia, you have to lie down. Now. Cait you stay with her. Later, if you can, start sorting some of these herbs out, alright? Everything is still messed up from our last invasion.... I don't want any more accidents like what happened to you. For now, just keep her quiet. If you have any questions I'll be out front."
"Gosh," Cait said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know... Let's get you settled. Do you want me to get your art stuff? Never mind, silly question, of course you do. I'll be right back."
"Wait... um... get it later, ok? I... um.. could you....?"
"Could you tell me a story? Not that one. I mean, something else?"
Cait was so floored by the request she could hardly get her voice out. "Gosh, you are ill, aren't you? What... well, you are always complaining about the mushy stuff... what do you want to hear about?"
"Like, how did you meet Xena?"
"Oh, that. Super, that is a good story. Well...."
A winter storm howled through the Amazon Village. The ground had frozen and thawed several times, and was now thawing again under lashings of cold rain. The piles of snow were turning to slush, and little rivers of chilly water ran between the huts. Cait was making her way back to the healer's hut after supper. She had Paladia's dinner squirreled away under her cloak. While Paladia was much better, too much stimulus still made her "jelly--headed" and a dining hall full of gossiping Amazons fell into that category. Thalesia had spent the afternoon with her so Cait could do some hunting. They tried to keep Paladia from being restless or lonely without making her head hurt. It was interesting to note who came to see her and who didn't. Paladia did some portraits of her visitors, and they talked while she drew. It was probably the closest thing to a normal social life that Paladia had ever experienced, Cait reflected. She had had a long talk with the healer about stress, but she was still unsure exactly what had happened the night of their return to the village. She thought that something more than simply stress was involved, but she didn't know how to go about understanding it.
She hung her wet cloak up in the healer's front room and shook herself. Wiping away the rain from her face, she went back to where Thalesia and Paladia were poring over diagrams. Thalesia had discovered that if she described an idea, Paladia could translate it into an image, which led to further ideas. They were completely involved in argument over a theorem, cups of tea forgotten beside them.
At Cait's entrance Paladia looked up. She smiled, somewhat shyly; this was something she had just recently started to do. It transformed her. She was very very different from the heavy scowling presence that Cait had led into the Village in chains some months before. Cait smiled back and went to make up the fire. This was a luxury the Amazons seldom needed, but this winter was dealing out some peculiar, extreme weather, and Cait was glad to enjoy the indulgence Paladia's illness had earned them.
Thalesia yawned and stretched. "I should go get some dinner myself, I guess," she said. "Thanks for the diagrams. I'm going to have to think further about this... How's the weather, Cait?"
"Absolutely rotten, Thalie. I'm glad I got those traps in before it started. Dinner's not bad; I brought some dessert, too."
"I'd better get going before it's all gone, then," Thalesia grinned. "See you tomorrow, Paladia."
"Sure. I'll work up a synthesis maybe. Look at everything at once... Hey. What's for dessert?"
"Ah, ah, ah, you have to eat the stew first."
"No I don't."
"Yes you do."
"Wrestle you for it."
"Not unless you want to end up wearing it. Come, do be sensible."
"What's in it for me?"
"If you want we can wrestle later. Felden taught me some new holds. If you eat in the proper order I might show them to you... deal?"
"Deal.... Um. Not as bad as I expected."
Cait chattered a little about daily affairs as Paladia ate. When she was done Cait went on to describe Felden's new strategies. Paladia was so much taller that sheer height and weight gave her the advantage, but with so many smaller opponents coming to the village from other tribes the rules and techniques were being changed often to accommodate them.
"You know," Paladia was saying, "Thalie has a similar theory about weight and mass... maybe they should get together on it."
"Um. So, want the demo?"
Cait had to be very careful doing anything physical with Paladia. She was still not supposed to do anything very strenuous, but she got bored, and practicing new holds gave them the opportunity for some contact without the scary emotional parts. Cait showed her the moves in slow motion; they could feel eachothers strengths and weaknesses. It was a little like a dance; more about weight and balance than speed or aggression. Cait had made her friend promise not to jar her scrambled brains or put any stress on the mostly healed arm. It was tricky, but they managed to work up a good sweat, ending up collapsed on the hearth rug, Cait sprawled across the other woman's torso.
Paladia wiped a trickle of sweat off her friend's face, and they looked deeply into eachother's eyes. She saw something there that both frightened and reassured her: an invitation. Without any thought or volition of her own, Cait was sliding her breasts against Paladia's. Paladia rolled them both up into a sitting position and leaned in; they kissed. Once again weight and mass disappeared, leaving them floating and breathless. The former renegade hesitantly began to touch the body that leaned trustingly against her. The connection they shared sharpened and intensified, as Paladia's movements began to acquire focus and direction. She made herself slow down; there was no rush, no need to force anything, no need to demand. Cait stayed right with her, opening her clothes ahead of her hands, teasing her a little. Paladia alternately moved forward and held back, playing, teasing in her turn, letting Cait match her. With each caress, Cait felt trails of sensation shooting out from each nerve center like small slow furry lightenings. She had never experienced her own body this way. She just let herself open up as Paladia touched her, letting her breathing deepen, not bothering to try and hide the desire showing nakedly in her eyes.
Paladia was astounded at her responsiveness. Nothing had prepared her for this. She wasn't just exploring a body, she was being given something else: Cait's soul. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. Suddenly she knew just exactly how clueless she had been. The next thing to hit her was the realization that this feeling was going to tear down all her walls and rip her own carefully guarded, heavily armored identity to shreds. With a sense of inevitability, she made her choice and surrendered to it. They moved together, merging in some infinite space where together they made one body and one heart, one soul. At last, speechless, they fell asleep tangled together, warmed by the fire.
Paladia woke some time later to find the fire burned down to faint coals, and Cait deeply asleep in her arms. Tenderly, carefully, so as not to wake her, she picked her up and carried her over to the bed, sliding in with her and pulling the covers over them both.
Cait woke in the morning, thinking she had had the most marvelous, vivid dream; she opened her eyes and realized it was not a dream at all. She and Paladia were wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, skin to skin. The taller woman was smiling in her sleep. As Cait watched she woke, met her eyes, and the smile widened. Unmitigated delight shone there, and a vulnerability that came from being so open to her lover. Paladia had, at least for the moment, completely ceased to hide. There was no separation between them, only joy and warmth.
"Wow." Cait commented, her fingers moving against the soft skin of Paladia's side, feeling the bones beneath.
"Yeah, wow is right."
Cait stroked Paladia's face. "I had quite the most incredible time," she said. "Thank you."
"I never knew it could be like that," Paladia agreed.
"No, Cait," Paladia said. "I never had a clue. I didn't know what it's like to love the person you do that with... I thought it was just something , well, physical, I guess."
"Isn't it? Felt pretty physical to me."
"Well, yeah, but.... listen, I .. I didn't hurt you did I?"
"No, of course you didn't."
"There is no of course about it, Cait. You of all people should know that. You know what I was. What I did. How can you know that and give yourself so--- so--- you gave me so much... I don't understand it."
"I don't know. It's not so hard. I never thought about it."
"Well, no, I used to wonder how the-- the woman I was falling in love with and the screwed up mess who ran a gang and beat prisoners could have inhabited the same body. But you aren't like that any more; it's like you are two different people."
"Maybe I am..." Paladia hesitated. "I.. something happens to me. Er--- hey. You fell in love with me? Really?"
"I sure did." Cait spent few minutes elaborating on that theme. When they came back up for air she gazed thoughtfully into the lightening sky, her weight still resting on the larger woman. She turned back to look into the softened eyes beneath her. "What do you mean, something happens?"
"I can't explain it." Paladia looked deeply into herself, searching for the answer. "Sometimes this... rage fills me. Takes me over completely. Not so much lately. But when it happens it's like it cuts me off from everything. Separates me from everyone. I can't see; I can't hear; I can't feel anything. I try and try, but nothing comes through." She focussed back up at the eyes above her. "Look, Cait, promise me something, Ok?"
"Er-- alright. What?"
"If that-- that other me comes back... Don't let me hurt you. You have to kill it--- me-- first. Will you promise?"
"Look. I'll promise to defend myself, if I need to. If I don't want to do something, I'll tell you. But I can't promise to do anything that might harm you. You know I can't, and it's not fair to ask me."
Paladia considered this for a moment.
"I can take care of myself, Paladia," Cait went on, "you know I can. But I can't be the one to punish you. For one thing I don't believe it's right anymore... whatever you did. I know I felt differently at the time; but I've changed my mind. And for another thing, you have to be responsible for your own actions."
"Unh. My actions. Right. I can do that. Yeah."
"And if you want to know how I feel, ask me, ok?"
"Right. So, er, how DO you feel?"
"Pretty gosh darn happy, you big goof. I just had the most amazing night. You made me feel so wonderful, for a moment when I woke up I thought it was a dream. Then you woke up too, and I knew it was real. I can hardly believe it. I feel really lucky."
"Not half as lucky as I do."
They snuggled for a little while, until sounds from the compound began to filter in. The sun was struggling to break through the clouds, when Cait sighed and said, "Guess I better get up. Hungry?"
"Yeah, come to think of it. Shall I come with you?"
"Do you want to?"
They dressed and went to breakfast. Cait felt naked, as if what they had been doing must be sticking out all over her, but no one paid them any mind, beyond a few greetings. She guessed they were all so used to seeing them together that the change in their relationship was invisible under the daily proximity. Thalesia came over and immediately launched into a technical discussion with Paladia. Cait's mind began to drift a little when she felt Paladia's hand reaching for her under the table. She grasped it and smiled to herself. Life was good.
Ephiny reviewed Solari's reports. They were a little lacking in detail, but it was just fine by her; less to read. She was quite pleased that her extended visit to Amphipolis had not resulted in any disasters, and that things appeared to have gone well even with her-- and Eponin--- absent. There was only one outstanding bit of unfinished business; sending a messenger to the Priestess of Artemis about that blasted temple Cait had found. There were legends, of course, but she had never paid them much attention. Trust Cait to find some trouble to get into. In the meanwhile, the village had been too busy coping with the cleanup from the festivals and the weird weather to have messengers to spare. Not to mention the extra time they were spending on Eponin's new training schedules. They were training more now than in the days when they'd been at war with the Centaurs. There was no way they'd be caught with their guard down again. But now... better bite the arrowhead and get on with it. The priestesses could get quite nasty if they thought they'd been slighted in any way. She opened a fresh parchment, then hesitated. Perhaps she ought to interview the culprits herself. She'd been avoiding Paladia long enough. She called a guard and asked her to find the two and send them over.
"Whatever it was, we didn't do it!"
Ephiny regarded Cait with some amusement. "How do you know I sent for you because of trouble? What exactly did you not do?''
"Er... nothing really. Just a stupid gag."
"Well, just as long as I don't have to hear about it later. I sent for you because I need to hear about this abandoned temple you found. I'm going to send word to the Sisterhood about it; thought I should hear the story from the horse's mouth first.
Cait launched into the tale. Ephiny watched Paladia, who maintained her usual silence, but wasn't scowling; if anything, she looked embarrassed. She had changed a lot over the past few months, and not just physically. But how deep could the change be, in such a short time? What would happen without Cait's watchful eye on her?
When Cait reached the end of the story, Ephiny nodded. "Thank you, Cait. Paladia? Do you want to add anything to that?"
"No? Are you sure?"
Paladia wondered if that was some kind of trick question. They hadn't mentioned her paintings; they hadn't talked about her vision, or the dreams... she glanced covertly at Cait, who shrugged. She thought for a moment. "That's all."
Ephiny decided to let it go: she needed time to think; although she wondered if she should have questioned them separately. She hadn't been alone with Paladia since the night in the cellar when she had tried to teach the renegade a lesson. The raw wounds of her captivity had healed a lot since then, but she still couldn't look at the woman without a lot of unpleasant memories coming up. Oh, yeah, she made her decision; Eponin had supported her, and so had Gabrielle. Cait had been a good watch dog, but now... she seemed to have softened up to the tall renegade. It was as if she almost unconsciously assumed Paladia could be trusted, and Ephiny was far from sure that was possible. As for having her in the village...ugh. This whole mess might just work out fine if she could send Paladia off to the priestesses of Artemis; let them deal with her. Yeah. That idea had a lot of appeal; better than turning her loose on an unsuspecting village... Why not? She got up to go when a sudden movement in the doorway startled her. It was the ex-renegade, lurking in the shadow, back in the hunched stance Ephiny remembered all too well.
"What do you want?" Ephiny barked out more sharply than she'd intended.
Paladia hesitated. Damn, this was hard. But Gabrielle had said, 'apologize, and you have got to mean it,' that was the condition of her staying. At least now she knew what she was apologizing for; but that just made it a thousand times worse. Slowly, she came into the room, not realizing that her struggle with the difficulty of the task made her seem threatening to the older Amazon.
"I... I want to apologize. I.. I.. now I know, I know what I did to you was wrong. I'm sorry. I can't tell you how much I regret wha.. what I did to you. I just wanted to say how sorry I am. And, and, to ask you to forgive me."
Ephiny didn't know where it came from, but a sudden surge of rage at the cringing woman took her over and she growled out, "To Hades with you, you damned bitch! No, I don't forgive you. And if you think you are going to settle into a nice cozy hut eating your head off all day you are mistaken. I'm sending you to the Priestess of Artemis. Let them figure out what to do with you. I don't know what you are going to be, but you'll never be an Amazon! Now get out!"
Paladia turned a shade of colorless, pasty white that Ephiny had never seen before in a living human, spun on her heel, and vanished into the night.
'Oh, Hades balls,' Ephiny thought. 'Why did I just beat up on that stupid kid? What came over me?' She sighed and scrubbed a hand through her hair. Not that the bitch didn't deserve it, but.... Well, she'd fix it tomorrow. She was exhausted; she'd had enough trouble for one evening.
The door of the hut closed behind her. Before her the sky flashed and turned bright red, flaring and then darkening at the edges. There was a roaring in her ears. Something bad might have happened to someone, somewhere? Who? Where was that person? It was dark, but the darkness was separating out into islands. There was a tree--- part of a tree, a pine tree--- silhouetted against the sky, which was an unpleasant purple shade. The islands of visible light began to shrink. Then the tree was swallowed up in darkness. The colors disappeared, leaving only flashes of light. Someone was trying to walk, but it was as if a tiny ant were trying to maneuver a huge cart; the spaces were just too vast. The ground was moving; it was not where it was supposed to be. There was nothing solid any where... only a tiny pinpoint of consciousness.... Coolness, and something like an embrace. And then it was gone. Everything vanished in darkness, and silence.
Cait fidgeted in their quarters. She probably should have stayed, but Paladia had just motioned her on, she'd wanted to speak to Ephiny by herself for a moment. The tall woman hadn't said anything, but Cait figured she wanted to make some kind of apology; she was improving so much that she almost didn't have to be prodded to do the right things any more. Cait wanted to give her the space to do things on her own. But the sickening feeling in her guts suddenly became a sharp nausea. She paced their quarters. Where was she? How long did it take to apologize? She didn't want to be one of those partners who fussed and fussed, but...
When she could stand Paladia's absence no longer Cait went out into the night. It was quiet. There was no moon, but the stars shone overhead; cool, but the bitter bite of winter was over. She retraced her steps to Ephiny's hut. To her surprise, it was dark. She looked around for someone, anyone, who was awake, but the compound was unwarrantedly peaceful. She went to the nearest sentry post. "Have you seen Paladia?" she enquired. But no one had. She hesitated before the door of Ephiny's hut. She didn't want to wake the Regent; Hera knew what trouble she'd be bringing on; she was supposed to be watching the woman afterall. Most likely if she just went back to their quarters, Paladia would be there. But she wasn't. Cait fidgeted. At last she bit the arrowhead and knocked on Ephiny's door. It took a while for her to wake the sleeping Regent, but at last she succeeded.
"Paladia's... missing. I wondered if she might have been here."
"She was, earlier this evening, after you left, but only for a short while; why? where have you been?"
"Looking for her. It's not like her to just vanish."
"Since when? Don't worry, if she hasn't stopped sulking by morning I'll send a couple of trackers out with you and you can bring her back. Ok? Now go get some sleep."
Sleep was impossible for Cait: she spent a very restless night, filled with formless worries. At first light she was out looking again. Unfortunately, by daylight, Paladia's trail was all too clear. Her footsteps led from Ephiny's hut in a straight line; she had bounced off a tree, tripped over some rocks, leaving some bloodstains and her cloak, and walked straight into the river. No further tracks were visible on either bank. Cait was standing up to her knees in the foaming water when Ephiny, Eponin and Solari came up to her.
"Still no trace of the outlaw?" Ephiny asked.
"No, Eph. She was here alright," Solari answered. "I'd recognize those extra wide size-thirteens anywhere. But there aren't any boats missing. No sign of a fight, either. What I can't figure is why she'd just take off like that. You've been gone all winter, so you haven't seen the changes like I have. She's gotten so much better you wouldn't know her. Cait's done a super job with her; and she's made a lot of friends, believe it or not. She's starting to be a real asset to the community. I think she's fitting in really well now... I can't believe she'd just toss that all away."
A deep, thick fog of misgiving settled over Ephiny. She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "Ah, she didn't, actually. I... I, er, banished her."
None of them ever forgot Cait's scream. "Whaaaaaaaat? WHY?" she stared at them in shock.
"Eph? You what?" Solari couldn't believe her ears.
"I... she came back to my hut, after I'd heard Cait's report. I thought she was... I'm not sure what I thought. She said she wanted to apologize, and I refused to accept it. I told her I was sending her to the Sisterhood of Artemis."
"I told her she'd never be an Amazon," Ephiny agreed uncomfortably.
Solari jumped to try and grab Cait, but the younger woman was too quick for her, and before any of them could stop her, she had taken a boat and pushed off into the middle of the river. It was in Spring flood, and rushing with unusual speed and force. None of them could catch up with her as the roaring waters carried her away.
"Was that so terrible?" Ephiny asked with a sigh.
"Not the most tactful way to suggest a motive for suicide, Eph. Particularly right in front of her lover."
It was Ephiny's turn to stare at Solari. "WHAT?"
Solari heaved a breath. "It was after they got her out of that cave, I think. That experience changed her.... It changed Cait, too. She... she got really protective of Paladia; I think she felt responsible that she'd almost caused her to starve to death, trapped all alone there, even though it wasn't her fault. Then Paladia got hurt again, and they weren't ever apart for more than a couple of hours at a time after that. The healers were really concerned about Paladia for a while; they said she'd suffered a lot of trauma. They felt Cait was the best person to take care of her; nurse her without letting her know she was really badly messed up. I figure one thing led to another; if they weren't intimate they were so close it'd hardly make any difference."
"It makes sense, Eph." Eponin put in. "Gabrielle told me she'd made apology to you one of the conditions for staying in the village. If they were lovers she'd have all the more reason to want to stay. Probably thought if she gave you the apology there'd be time to have a ceremony at summer solstice."
"And I blew it. Again. Agggh! I'm not fit to rule this place." Ephiny stared at the mud and then looked up to find them all watching her. "Well, what are you waiting for? We've got to go after them. Maybe find one of them alive, anyway. Get going."
"I'll go for the grapples," Eponin agreed.
The old miller straightened up painfully, and prepared to go about his day's work. The spring floods brought debris downriver and he had to clear it before he could work. There wasn't much to grind at this time of year, but if he removed the logs from the millrace every day they were less likely to build up into a jam that was impossible to clear. His wife smiled sadly at him as she began washing the dishes. They had been alone for many years, after raiders had killed first their son, and then their daughter. The old mill was almost too much work for them to manage, now, and there was no one to whom they could pass it on.
Corin stood a moment in the sun, letting his bones warm. He had resisted turning the mill over to either of the two villages who depended on him. That could only make for bad blood, and he didn't want to be responsible for starting another asinine, petty, worthless feud. Enough people had died already for senseless causes. But he was reaching the limits of his strength. In this dark mood he went to the river and found the naked body of a young woman floating by the paddles of his mill. His gloom deepening into grief, he snagged the body with his pole, and began pulling it toward shore. The least he could do was give the stranger a proper burial.
Cait pushed the hair and the tears from her eyes. From time to time she used her oars to slow the skiff down, scanning the river for clues to the fate of her lover. She had gone many miles downstream when she spotted something hung up on a branch. Sure enough, some broken scraps of what could have been Paladia's leathers were caught there. Securing the skiff and taking a line with her, she dove beneath the snag. Finding nothing she dove, and dove again. At last she was forced to conclude that there was nothing to be found here, and resumed her drift downstream.
The miller hoisted his sad burden up on one shoulder. Weedy blonde hair dangled, dripping. As the point of his shoulder came into contact with the girl's abdomen, a gush of bloody water came from her mouth and nose. With a shudder, the body he'd thought a corpse drew in a breath. He almost dropped her in surprise, but caught her up and advanced on the cottage, calling for his wife.
The old couple worked over the body of the young woman for a long time. At last she was breathing on her own; presently her eyes flickered open. They remained blank, however, fixed on nothing, although the couple could not see anything wrong with them. The girl groaned; some sounds came from her mouth, but they could not understand her. They concluded that perhaps she did not speak their language.
Several days passed, and the stranger seemed on the way to recovery, but they were forced to conclude that she was blind, deaf, and dumb. She was not unappreciative of their efforts on her behalf; She could, and did, squeeze their hands in thanks for their attention. When she could stand, and walk, she felt her way on Celia, the miller's wife's arm, and took the heavy basket from her, carrying it from the garden to the cottage. She could help the miller with the turnstiles in his mill, when he led her there, and showed her how to push. They never let her work very hard, but they let her help them in little ways, and treated her tenderly. Wordlessly, she thanked them, and rendered what assistance she could. She seemed grateful for the smallest things: warmth, food, human contact, sunlight; the scent of flowers in Celia's garden. She could spend hours there, just feeling the sun and the nubby texture of the homespun they'd dressed her in. Celia's clothes were too small for her, so she was wearing Corin's old clothes, soft from years of washings. The miller's wife had also trimmed and combed the blonde hair. She treated the nameless woman with the sad passion of a woman whose children had died. She required a lot of care, but nonetheless with her youth and strength, she made the couple's life easier in many ways, and cheered their hearts as they resisted the threats and wheedling of the villagers. Corin stood firmer than ever when one village grumbled that it had proprietary rights, and sent the whining burghers firmly on their way.
Cait was lost in seemingly endless marshes. She had drifted down over a wide space of shallow open water, and was having trouble finding the current. Now she was lost in walls of reeds, in the stillness of the fog. Only an occasional croak from a wading bird kept her company; she had not seen any people for days. She leaned on her oars for a moment in despair. She thought of the first time she had slept in Paladia's arms, and whispered a simple but deeply felt prayer to the Goddess. She drifted slowly in the stillness, watching the sun struggling to break through the mist. From somewhere beyond herself the energy to resume her search surged up, and she pulled against the oars once more.
It was a day or two more before she encountered people. She had eaten the tender shoots of flag and reeds, and a few eggs from bird nests, but without more gear than the few items in her belt pouch when she'd taken off, an extended search was going to be difficult. She needed to trade for a few things. The people she encountered, women doing washing by the riverbank, were peaceful enough. They could offer no information, but they were willing to accept some help in exchange for a few supplies. It cost her a few days more than she would have liked, but perhaps it was worth it just to show the peasant women who had small knowledge of Amazons a different way of being. In any case, if Paladia was still alive, a day or two at this juncture was probably not going to make a difference.
As she renewed her search, Cait reassured herself that Paladia had survived a lot; there was a good chance she could have survived this too. Their bond was strong; she was sure she would know if Paladia was dead. She watched the waxing moon, finding her thoughts drifting again and searching for the formless connection they shared in its light. "Artemis," she begged, "Draw me a path to her. Please. Let me find her." She rowed on, eventually falling asleep at the oars. She woke in the morning to find her boat bumping the stone dam of a millrace.
Looking downstream, she could see a small garden near the banks, and in it two figures. One was old and stooped, one tall and blond. "Paladia!" she shouted. The shorter figure raised its head, but the other did not respond. She pulled up her skiff and ran to meet them. As she drew closer she realized that the tall woman was indeed Paladia, but something was wrong. Her lover, standing in the garden with an old crone on one arm and a basket of vegetables in the other, was not aware of her approach.
"Do you know this girl?" the old woman asked, as Cait ran up.
"Yes," Cait gasped out. "she's from my village. She-- she disappeared; I've been searching for her. Paladia? Pal?"
"She can't hear you. Has she not always been deaf and blind, then?"
"No. Never. What happened?"
"She washed into our sluiceway, and gave Corin quite a shock when he realized she was still alive. She has been this way-- blind, deaf, speechless--- since we found her."
"Let me-- here, let me see if she remembers me."
Cait took the basket gently away and set it down before taking Paladia's hands in her own. The woman before her looked like a parody of herself; the eyes were blank, the features a little empty, slightly puffy. It was as if some of her personality had been erased. But when Cait took her hands, Paladia's expression immediately changed. In a strange combination of surprise, hope, and fear, she began to shake. Cait took the trembling hands and brushed then first over her leathers, and then up to feel her face.
"Paladia--- if you can hear me. It's me. Cait. I'm here, it's Ok, I'm here."
Paladia gave no sign of hearing, but tentatively slid her hands around Cait's neck. That was all the encouragement she needed: Cait threw her arms around the shaking woman and hugged her hard, tears running down both of their cheeks. She stood on tip toe and gave her friend a long, thorough, passionate kiss; it was returned with interest, and she was picked up off her feet. Whatever darkness Paladia was in, she knew Cait, and their relationship.
Only subliminally aware of the shocked gasp behind her, when Cait came up for air she found the strange old woman staring self-consciously at a clump of flowers to her right.
"Oh. Sorry. Unh, my name is Cait, and this is Paladia, my, er..."
"It is nice to meet you, Cait. And to learn the name of our guest. You two are Amazons, aren't you?"
"Yes. Do you know the Amazons?"
"Aye. That is a long story, but you have nothing to fear from us. My name is Celia, by the way. My husband's name is Corin, and we run this mill. Corin found your partner and thought her a drowned one; but when he picked her up she began to breathe again. She's able to get around with help, but as you see her, without her senses. We thought perhaps she was always blind, and had been cast away by her village when hard times struck."
"She was cast out, but she was never blind. In fact she was a wonderful artist. Do you have any idea what happened to make her lose--- everything?''
"No. But there is a fine healer in a village not far from here. Perhaps she will be able to help. In the meanwhile, are you hungry?"
The healer concluded her examination.
"Organically, I can find nothing wrong. She has some minor injuries, but nothing that would explain the damage. There are two possibilities. One is that she suffered brain damage from being in the water too long. If so, she will never have more function than she does now. The other is that she received some sort of traumatic shock, which caused her body to shut itself down. If that is the case, she may recover on her own."
"She could recover completely?"
"That's a possibility, yes."
"How long before we know?"
"Impossible to say. She simply has to be kept free of whatever traumatized her and given enough rest. If she has the will to live, she'll pull through. I knew a man from another village who fell through the rafters of a very high barn. He caught himself part way down on a beam, so all he had were cracked ribs, but he went blind from the shock, even though his eyes were fine. It was just his body's way of telling him he had to calm down. His sight came back in a couple of moons. Your friend may very well regain all or part of her senses. Are there any other symptoms you can think of?"
"Well.... she trembles, sometimes."
"Hum. Before the accident, whatever it was?"
"Yes. She got trapped in a cave, by herself, for several weeks. Then she had a concussion. She was definitely getting better from that, but sometimes she just started to shake. Is that important?"
"It does seem to indicate trauma, rather than brain damage. Don't regard it as a bad sign. It's part of the healing. Just keep her comfortable, give her as much rest and pleasure as you can, and be patient with her. Don't assume that she can't hear you, even if she can't respond, and above all, don't give up hope. If there are no changes in a moon or two, and you don't mind the journey, you could take her to the temple of Asclepius, and ask the god for a dream. Good luck with her. You can send for me if there is any change."
Cait thanked the healer, who refused payment, saying that she had only given an opinion, not performed any work, and turned to Celia. "I don't know how to thank you for---"
"No need, Cait. We are happy to have you-- both of you-- here. You may stay with us as long as you wish. Corin and I lost our children many years ago. It's a pleasure to us to have young people here again. And I think you'll be safe enough that your partner has her chance of recovery. There are some in these parts are narrower minded, but no one interferes with Corin, of that you may be sure."
Ephiny sighed, as the delegation from the Sisterhood walked up to the platform. She was not looking forward to this. She was giving their visit the whole pomp and ceremony thing; but she wished she had better news for the women who had arrived back with the messengers she'd sent. They certainly hadn't wasted time; they'd insisted on returning immediately with Bellona and Thalia. She steeled herself to meet the eyes of a tall, silver-haired woman who strode up to greet her.
"Are you the Amazon Queen?"
"I am Ephiny, the Regent. Our Queen is elsewhere. Welcome to the village."
"Thank you. My name is Enomalie. I received your message. I wish to meet with everyone involved, and examine any... evidence you may want to produce."
The woman locked eyes with the regent, and Ephiny felt as if everything she had ever done or said was being weighed in a very fine and sensitive balance, without the slightest hint of emotion. But it was without prejudice, as well, she realized. She drew a deep breath and met the Priestess's eyes without fear.
"There is very little to show you, Priestess. The two who discovered the temple are missing from our village. Two other Amazons who were with them and know the location are still here, but they are scheduled to depart soon for their own tribes. As far as I know, nothing was removed from the place they found. We are all at your service whenever you wish, but in the meanwhile would you like to eat and rest from your journey?"
"How do the most important witnesses come to be missing?"
"Through my fault. I lost my temper with one of them. She ran away-- we think-- and the other went to seek her. We have warriors out now, searching for both of them."
The Priestess paused, a hint of respect showing in her eyes. There was a lot more to be said, but the Regent had given her a truthful answer. There might be many in the village who were evasive, or puffed with their own importance, but this one, she was pretty sure, she could trust.
"Thank you Ephiny. We would like to remain here for a few days. We accept your hospitality."
Ephiny got up and she and Eponin, who had stood tightlipped by her side the whole time, escorted them to the best hut the village had to offer, while some of the others brought food and drink. Enomalie was silent, although the others in her delegation talked freely enough among themselves. When they reached the hut, Ephiny paused.
"Priestess-- Enomalie-- "
"I... I'm sorry about what happened. If there's anything..."
"I wish to talk with you privately. May I?"
Ephiny heaved a sigh. "Yes. Whenever you wish."
The tall gray-haired woman regarded her with unexpected compassion. "Don't blame yourself too much, Amazon. Come here around the hour of moonrise. We'll speak then."
"You don't have to do this, Eph," Eponin reminded her as they walked back toward the dining hall. "It's not your fault, and you don't have to answer to them."
"I know, but I want to. I'm not proud of what I did to Paladia, or of how I handled what she did to me. I'm not much into the religion thing, but maybe it'll help. Listen, Pony, you've been great through the whole thing. You've put up with my moods, and hung in with me. I really appreciate that. But I know I haven't been the easiest person to get along with... if there's a chance this can make things better, I'd like to try it."
Eponin nodded. But she made a silent resolve to keep am eye on things, just in case.
The Miller and his wife had settled into a routine with their guests. Cait led Paladia about, and did the tasks that required vision to complete, like the weeding in the garden. With Cait or Celia's guidance, Paladia helped where only strength was needed; she carried water, pushed heavy stones, and dragged the light plow. They did not work particularly hard, or for very long each day, but the healer had assured them that activity was good as long as they didn't over-do it. In the heat of the day they napped or swam; in the evenings they either sat with the elderly couple after supper, went for a short walk, or just sat together enjoying the end of the day.
Cait had helped the Miller clear out what had been the woodshed and convert it to living space so that she and Paladia had some privacy. For the first week or so they had slept on the hearth in the mill cottage kitchen; there were rooms upstairs, but the way up was too steep and dangerous for a blind woman to navigate. With her typical thoughtfulness, Celia had brought up the subject with Corin and insisted that it was necessary to Paladia's recovery. "And that's not far off the truth," Cait said to herself, as she sat on the stoop. It was certainly more comfortable this way. She was sure that Celia's "long story" involved Amazons; perhaps she'd even been one herself--- but she was waiting to ask, hoping that Paladia would recover her hearing and be able to listen to the tale with her.
She leaned forward and wrapped her arms about Paladia, who was sitting on the step below her. Paladia let her head fall back against Cait's shoulder, and got a nuzzle on her collarbone in return. She leaned back further, and felt lips exploring the cords of her throat. Cait never ceased to marvel at the way Paladia allowed herself to be vulnerable when she touched her. It was such a contrast to the heavy dullness of the renegade; that person would never have exposed her throat. The Paladia who'd become her lover had surrendered completely, and continued to do so, even in the prison of her illness.
The evening was particularly pretty: small puffy clouds were catching the last light of the sun, and the flowers in the garden beside them released their scent; it was, for the first time, a really warm evening. Birds sang in the trees on the opposite shore of the millpond. They were together, and they were at one with their surroundings. It was so peaceful... Cait took her time, snuggling with her lover. Bearing the healer's advice in mind, she spoke to Paladia just as if she could hear, and shared all the little events of the day, her thoughts and dreams, and the colors of the sunset.
When it was really dark, she hauled her friend to her feet and they went to bed. It was a somewhat improvised mattress, but springy and smelling of pine and herbs. As the frogs sang in the pond outside they moved together, hands slipping on skin, tongue meeting on tongue and weight on weight, just as they had wrestled together in the Amazon village--- well, not quite. They spent a long time pouring out their affection, which spiraled into passion. Deep in the still, silent, middle of the night, when the last possible syllable of touch had been uttered between them, Paladia's heart spilled over into a whisper breathed against the ear that rested below her lips.
"I love you," she said.
"Umhum" was the only answer she received.
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