Part 2

Reed blew a breath into her hairline, her bangs tickling her forehead as they settled back into place. It was the most effort she could make after the intensive work she and the others had just endured. But finally, finally, they had reached a point where she could bear to be in the same room with Gwen and by extension, Randi and even both of them together. That wouldnít be tested for a bit though, and the seer was more than glad for that. They could all use a break. The whole process had taken far more exertion and strength than any of them had anticipated.

She looked down at the bard, still curled up into a ball as though trying to shield herself from pain. Aphrodite, still unseen by all but Gwen watched Reedís actions carefully. The goddess understood Reed was not there to hurt Gwen, but there were many different kinds of hurt and Gwen had already suffered more than her share for a while.

Reed sat down on the edge of the bed and let her hands gently run over Gwenís face and through her hair. She smiled when Gwen relaxed under her touch, especially as her shield seemed to be holding. That in itself was a huge relief. Reed was more than a little tired of having her senses bombarded by the skewered auras of both Gwen and Randi, and she was enjoying the reprieve. She was fairly certain the rest were as well.

Slowly, Gwen came to wakefulness and Reed watched with a slight smile. A smile that turned to concern when Gwenís eyes opened and she launched herself into Reedís arms.

For a long moment, they stayed that way, Reed providing the comfort Gwen needed to regain her equilibrium. After a bit, Gwen eased away from the seer though Reed kept her hands wrapped around
Gwenís biceps even as the bard looked into gray eyes with a sheepish smile.

"Um... sorry, Reed. You all right?" trying to move out of Reedís personal space. Gwen had observed the pain Reed had been in with her estrangement to Randi, and couldnít imagine how the seer was suffering with so much personal contact between them now.

Reed gave Gwen a reassuring smile. "Iím fine, my friend... really. Weíve done some serious work and built up my barriers. I can still see things are wonky, I just canít feel it."

"I wish I couldnít," Gwen murmured. Before Reed could reply, she continued, "How long?"

Reed blinked, her mind having gone off the track with Gwenís whisper. "Huh? How long what?"

Gwen chuckled. "How long will the barriers last?"

"Oh... I dunno. I guess weíll find out though. The good thing is here I have a support system to bolster it anytime I feel the need. But for now, things are good. I think we have finally found a good balance." She sighed. "I know I feel better, and I think the rest of the tribe does too."

"The rest of the tribe? They could feel...?"

"Only that things were off, and I think they were picking it up from me Ė not from you. Now that Iíve found my equilibrium, everyone has settled down."

"And Rosie?"

"Even Rosie. Sheís been a lifesaver, and sheís gonna stay around for a while. Sheís already made some good friends here."

"But...."

"Her choice, Gwen. Sheís glad to be here." And Iím glad she decided to stay. I think she and her power are the reason the barrier finally worked. Gwen nodded her head and Reed patted her hand in return. "Donít worry, Gwen. Weíre gonna get through this... all of us, together."

"You listen to her, Cutie," Dite said as she shimmered into view. "Everyone is on your side you know." She cleared her throat when Gwen cut her eyes at the deity. "Okay, all the totally cool people. Ares is just a radical ass," Dite said, responding to Gwenís look. Reed stood up from the bed and goggled for an unguarded moment, then swallowed her surprise. Obviously Gwen was accustomed to godly visitors and took it all in stride.

Gwen had to smile at Diteís words. "Yeah, well, when I get done with him, heís gonna be one sorry sonofabitch."

"Whoo hoo!" Dite cheered. "You go girl!"

For the first time in forever, real laughter rolled from Gwenís belly and she felt like she could conquer the world. Both Reed and Dite felt the change, and they joined in her laughter. It was an unusual enough occurrence that when Sky heard it, he and Rosie looked at the ceiling then exchanged smiles of their own. Finally, things were falling their way for a change.

 

 

Chapter XIV

"How do you feel about dinner?" Reed asked when their laughter finally stopped.

Gwen didnít have to answer as her stomach chose that moment to announce its extreme displeasure with her lack of attention to detail as far as it was concerned. She looked down at it askance before catching the gleam in Reedís eyes.

"I guess that answers that question," Gwen joked.

"You girls rock on," Dite said. "Iíve got radical places to be and major things to take care of." Her expression turned serious and she looked directly at Reed. "I would appreciate if you would keep my appearance here quiet."

"I understand, maíam. My lips are sealed."

Diteís brows hiked into her eyebrows. "Maíam? Did you just call me maíam?" She turned to Gwen in outrage. "Did she just call me maíam?? Iíll have you know that...."

Gwen put an arm around Diteís shoulders and gave her a hug, drawing the goddessí attention away from Reed. "She didnít mean anything by it, Dite; itís a sign of respect from her."

Dite raised an eyebrow and cast a look back at Reed who stood casually at ease. Her posture reminded Dite of Randi and she suddenly understood. "Gotcha. All righty. Got things to do, babe." She kissed Gwenís cheek. "Set her straight about the maíam thing, will ya? Later, Cutie!" Then she shimmered out of sight, leaving only a few rose petals in her wake.

"Címon, Gwen. My belly hasnít started rumbling yet, but itís only a matter of time."

Gwen took the hand that Reed extended to her and they made their way down the stairs to join Sky and Rosie in the kitchen. It promised to be an interesting evening.

 

 

"Good morning," Lorac said as Gwen stepped into the training room. After her conversations with both Randi and Lenore, the weapons master had decided to wait for Gwen to join them before setting some ground rules, including finding out how the bard preferred to be addressed. She had no desire to tick Randi off for any perceived dishonor or mistreatment of her consort and she suspected it would be to her advantage to make sure Gwen was comfortable in her new learning environment. She was surprised that Gwen was up and about so early, though she wasnít sure what she really anticipated either. She had an idea, however, that this was going to be a lot different from her original expectations.

"Good morning, Lorac. I want to apologize for yesterday. I am not normally so rude at a first meeting."

The weapons master held up her hand and offered Gwen a tentative smile. "No apology is necessary. I understand, mostly, and what I donít...." She shrugged. "First though, I need to know what youíd like be called."

Gwen smiled. "Most folks just call me Gwen."

"Gwen. Okay... I can work with that. Much better than consort, at any rate," not seeing Gwenís face harden at the term. "Now," Lorac continued, "Iíve set up a pretty comprehensive training schedule. If youíd like to look it over and make sure it meets your needs.... I thought weíd spend the first part of each day concentrating on a single discipline. Then we can spend the afternoon brushing up on each of the others."

Gwen spent a moment looking over the schedule, her eyes widening at the number of different martial arts she would be studying. "It looks okay to me, Lorac. I would also like to keep up my daily staff work if possible."

"Absolutely, Gwen. We expected as much, and Cheyenne has been practicing for just such an opportunity. Of course, that was before Randi told us of your skill level, so if you like, weíll make the playing ground a little more level for Cheyenne and little more interesting for you."

"Whatever you like," Gwen said with fiendish delight, her insides just a little warmer for hearing Randiís praise of her skill... even secondhand.

Lorac cleared her throat. "All right then. Iíd like to start around seven every morning and finish up around three in the afternoon. Then your evenings will be free to do... um, whatever it is youíd like to do in the evenings."

"Do you think... is there someone here who would be willing to spend some time in the evenings teaching me Amazon traditions and customs? Iíd like the chance to learn if anyone is willing to share."

"Iím sure I can find several volunteers," Lorac commented as the other masters stepped into the room at her direction. "Let me introduce you to the women you will be working with during your weaponsí drills and then we can get started."

Gwen nodded and Lorac went around the room slowly, introducing each Amazon warrior and giving a brief summary of her qualifications in her chosen field. When they reached the last woman, Gwen was surprised to find a woman not much taller than herself and slight; most of the others had been nearly a head taller, much closer to Randiís size.

"Coop here is a scout. She will teach you stealth and tree walking."

"Um, tree walking?"

"Yeah. Hope youíre not afraid of heights."

Gwenís head dropped and she covered her eyes. "I am so doomed."

Lorac just chuckled and signaled to Cheyenne. "Why donít we start with staff work today just to sort of get into a groove? Then you can choose what youíd like to learn every morning before we get started. That sound all right?"

"Sounds like a plan, Lorac," Gwen replied. "Let me go get my staff."

 

 

"Oh my God," Lorac groaned to Lenore. Lenore just laughed and offered the weapons master a glass of ice water. Lorac gulped it like a man dying of thirst in the desert.

"Randi didnít lie about her skill, I take it?"

"No. And if she is that proficient with learning the staff, teaching her almost everything else should be easy. Sword and hand to hand might require a little more time since they are offensive and not defensive skills, but I expect her to pick up the rest fairly quickly." Lorac shifted in her seat and accepted the plate of food Lenore placed in front of her. Then she waited for the queen to take the chair across from her and begin eating before she picked up her fork and did the same.

Quiet reigned for a few minutes while the two of them ate, then Lorac cleared her throat. "She wants to learn about us Ė our customs and traditions and stuff. Do you think...?"

Lenore nodded. "Iíd like the chance to teach her. Invite her to dinner tonight." She paused and took a deep breath. "On second thought, Iíll come down for the afternoon session and invite her myself."

"As you wish, my Queen. I think you will be impressed."

Lenore smiled. "I remember hearing about her skill from my sister. I expect to be."

More quiet before Lorac unexpectedly chuckled. "One thing," waiting for and getting an eyebrow raised in question. "Sheís afraid of heights."

"Oh my."

 

 

Lenore watched silently as Gwen took on all comers with her staff. Each of the instructors had decided to go easy on the newcomer until they had seen her skill that morning. So the afternoonís exercise was a joint effort and Gwen was taking all of them on at once and it looked like a deadly ballet. Finally, Gwen was the only on left standing and Lenore started clapping.

Groaning, the Amazons scattered around on the ground rose to unsteady feet and Lorac came to stand next to Gwen.

"One request?" The bard nodded. "From now on we do staff work at the end of the day only. I wanna be able to go from here right to soak in a hot tub."

Gwen chuckled. "Deal."

"Good. Then I think we are done for the day. Will you come and meet my queen? She volunteered to be the one to teach you traditions and customs."

"Iíd like that, Lorac. Please," gesturing her to lead the way.

Lenore extended her hand as they approached and Gwen accepted it naturally as she and the queen were introduced by Lorac. The two studied one another, each liking what they saw in the other, and hoping they had found a new friend.

"Itís delightful to meet you, Gwen. I have looked forward to this since Randi contacted us." She watched the barriers go up in Gwenís green eyes and wondered what sheíd said to merit that response from someone who only a moment earlier had been open to her.

"Thank you, your majesty. Itís an honor...." She stopped speaking when Lenore held up a hand.

"Please, Gwen, Iíd like for us to be friends. My name is Lenore."

Gwen hesitated, having realized again with the queenís words about Randi that though she wasnít a prisoner here, there was more than behind this visit than simple desire to be in this place for all of the players involved. She had recognized it in her brief meeting with Lorac the day before, though something fundamental had obviously happened to change the weapons masterís attitude. She focused her attention on Lenore and understood her desire for friendship was sincere and would have been offered under any circumstance.

Gwen nodded and Lenore breathed a sigh of relief. She had watched the thoughts and emotions chase across Gwenís face before finally settling on acceptance. Lenore really did want to be friends with Gwen, but she understood all too well the bardís hesitation. She was glad Gwen had decided to give them a chance.

"Lenore," Gwen said softly. "I understand you have volunteered to be my Amazon tutor."

Lenore smiled. "Yes. The weapons master wonít allow me to participate in your weapons training," giving Lorac the evil eye. "So I jumped at the chance to be involved intellectually. Iím glad you asked to learn."

"I think itís only fair to study the customs and traditions of the people who are teaching me to defend myself. Besides," ducking her head to hide her slight blush, "I hope to be able to learn enough to become a card carrying Amazon."

"You already are one by default because of your marriage to Randi, but I admire your desire to become one on your own merit." Lenore turned her attention to Lorac, completely missing Gwenís expression. "Weíll make sure youíre ready whenever you are ready to take the test." Lorac nodded her agreement.

"Thank you, Lenore. Shall we get started?"

"I thought perhaps you might join me for dinner and we could get you some books to begin. A lot of our history and such can be learned through reading and discussion."

"That sounds great. Iíd like the opportunity to clean up and then perhaps we could meet?"

"Excellent! I will have Lorac escort you to my quarters about seven? And would you like to invite your friends Reed and Rosie? They are both such interesting women. Iíd like the opportunity to talk further with them if you are comfortable with it."

Gwen swallowed the angry retort that had been on her lips when Lenore suggested an escort and nodded her agreement. This whole situation was awkward and would take a bit of getting used to. No reason to make it worse because the woman was doing her best to look out for Gwen. It wasnít her fault they were in this mess in the first place. A hand on her arm brought Gwen out of the dark thoughts she had fallen into.

"Gwen, are you all right?" Lenore asked. She was fairly certain where Gwenís reflection had led her and she hated that she was an unwitting part of that. She started to withdraw her offer when Gwen spoke up.

"Iím fine, Lenore," patting the hand on her arm. "Thanks for your concern though. Just a little out of shape, I guess." She looked up when Lenoreís laughter rolled across the room. "What?"

"Gwen, if youíre a little out of shape now, my Amazons may not survive when you finally get there." A groan from Lorac only backed up her words and now Gwen laughed.

"Go ahead and invite Reed and Rosie to dinner if youíd like. Who knows? You may end up with a whole class of women to teach."

"Well, we could always end up with an exchange of new ideas. Last time that happened, Randi turned our culture upside down."

Gwen didnít respond, but simply turned away and headed back to Skyís. Lenore and Lorac watched her walk away before they turned to face one another.

"I see what you mean, Lorac," Lenore whispered as Gwen entered the house without a backwards glance. "Something is terribly wrong between them. Weíll have to tread lightly around her until this is resolved."

"I hope it is soon, my queen. Teaching her would be fun if it werenít for what was hanging over us."

Lenore sighed, knowing more of what was to come than Lorac did and feeling the weight of it come to bear heavily on her shoulders. "That is truer than you know, my friend. That is truer than you know," the last muttered too low to be heard. "Now," Lenore continued, raising her voice. "Contact the kitchen and let them know we are having guests. Letís begin Gwenís introduction to the Amazons with some good food and wine."

"Heh, wait til she hears what Amazon food *used* to be like."

"At least she wonít have to eat it." The peal of their laughter made a pleasant sound as it rolled across the courtyard. It caused more than one head to turn and watch their progress across the yard until they split up to take care of their own various tasks before dinner.

 

 

Reed followed Gwenís progress into the house, but did not stop her as she made her way immediately upstairs. She would do a little investigation first to find out what, if anything, had caused Gwen to have issues with the Amazons. Reed cursed Randi roundly in her mind for putting her, and all of them, in this position.

A knock on the door halted her train of thought and Reed moved to answer it. She was more than a little surprised to find the Amazon queen standing on the porch. She had agreed to give them all a few days to get comfortable with one another before attending Gwenís training; she certainly didnít expect to find the Amazons coming to her and so soon.

"Lenore? Is something wrong?"

"No, Reed. I stopped by to invite you and Rosie to join Gwen and me for dinner tonight. I have agreed to tutor her in the ways of my people and I thought you might be interested as well. Besides, Gwen is not really comfortable with me yet and I hoped you might be willing to help ease some of her discomfort... give her a friendly face."

Reed stood thoughtfully for a moment, then motioned Lenore inside. "Would you like to come in?" Lenore hesitated, then read the apprehension in Reedís eyes. "Iíd like to talk to you privately if you have a few minutes to spare."

Lenore came in without another word and followed Reed into the small study Sky had turned over to her for the duration of her stay. Reed gestured to a seat and Lenore took one on the small settee, hoping to set a more confidential tone between them than the big desk would have allowed. Reed smiled to herself at the choice and took the side opposite Lenore.

"What can I do for you, Reed?"

"You can tell me why Gwen came in here looking like the weight of the world rested on her shoulders." A pause. "Lenore, Iím gonna be right up front with you. Randi has charged me with Gwenís well-being, and if sheís not happy...." Lenore grimaced. "Yeah, exactly. So what happened today that made her unhappy, Lenore? I need to know if I can fix it."

"No, but I probably can. I mentioned something about Randi and she just walked off. Apparently that subject is taboo."

Reed ran a hand through her hair and nodded. "Yeah, I think it probably is. You might want to pass that along to your people and Iíll have Sky do the same for the warriors here. They didnít part under very good terms and I think it will be a sore spot for Gwen until it gets resolved. Unfortunately, unless Randi grows some brains quickly, it could be a while before that happens."

"Should I even ask?"

"No, because I really donít know the details Ė just that their aura together was so skewed it took us a very long time to set up a barrier capable of keeping it contained. It was physically painful to see."

"I see. And now?"

Reed blew out a breath. "Well, with Randi gone it is much easier to control, but the aura between them is still totally out of whack. That means Gwenís personal aura is out of sync as well, though not nearly as badly as theirs together is."

"So what can we do to help? I donít want to make things worse, but I feel like Iím flying blind here."

"We all are, Lenore. My best advice is to let Gwen dictate the direction things go for at least a little while, until we all have a better handle on the situation. And whatever else you do, DONíT, under any circumstance bring up Randi unless she does so first."

Now it was Lenoreís turn to sigh heavily. "Any ideas on how long this might last?"

Reed shook her head. "Nothing definite. If I were a betting woman though, I would say it will be over sooner rather than later. I donít think they will be able to stay apart for any length of time without it tearing them apart completely." A pause while Reed turned her attention out the window behind the big desk. "Personally, I think it will be settled one way or another before summer is over."

She didnít mention her opinion on what would happen if it ended badly between Randi and Gwen. She had nothing to go on but her own fleeting impressions of darkness and pain. But Lenore wore a look that showed she understood more than was being explained to her.

They sat in quiet contemplation for a while before Reed turned to Lenore again. "So what time is dinner?"

Lenore smiled. "Seven. I told Gwen Iíd have Lorac to escort her over, but if you and Rosie are joining us, that should be escort enough, donít you think? I think the offer of an escort upset her as well."

Reed sighed. "Iím sure it did. Gwen is being forced to accept a lot of behavior she really doesnít understand or necessarily agree with. Rosie and I will bring her, and weíll see if we canít find some sort of medium ground to work together in. It will make things a lot easier on all of us if we can."

"Agreed." She rose from her spot on the couch and Reed joined her immediately. "Thank you, Reed. I feel better knowing we are allies on this little project."

"So do I Lenore. I just honestly wish there wasnít one... not like this anyway." She opened the study door and led her guest back to the front of the house. "Weíll see you at seven. Is there anything you would like us to bring?"

"No. We would like to show you all true Amazon hospitality. You just come prepared with good conversation and weíll take care of the rest."

 

 

Gwen heard the door close behind Lenore and turned her attention back out the window. It was obvious to her that the village had been infiltrated by warriors and Amazons to protect her. Instead of making her feel better, it made her angry and the tension she had released during her sparring returned with a vengeance.

Taking a deep breath to center herself, she put her anger aside. It wasnít the fault of anyone here that Randi was being ridiculous and absurd; she wouldnít take it out on them. She pulled out her diary as a substitute outlet and began to write in it furiously.

She was still scribbling away frantically when a light knock at her door brought her attention back to her immediate surroundings. She looked up and realized that it had gotten quite dark in the room since sheíd sat down, and several pages of her journal were now covered in fine writing. Gwen marked her place and set the diary to one side. Then she turned on the small light by the bed, blinking against the sudden brightness and called out, "Come in?"

Reed poked her head in the door. "Hey, Gwen, you ready to go to dinner?"

Gwen looked around at the clock, surprised to see it read five minutes of seven. "Oh shit!" she mumbled. Reed covered her mouth to hide her smile. Gwen didnít curse often and it usually caught people by surprise when it did. "Um, I need to clean up. Can you call Lenore and let her know Iím going to be a few minutes late, please?"

"No problem, Gwen. Rosie can go ahead and Iíll wait for you to do whatever. Just come downstairs when youíre ready." Reed was out the door with it closed behind her before Gwen could open her mouth to reply. The bard shook her head, then scrambled off the bed and ran into the bathroom for a quick shower.

After the fastest shower of her life, Gwen jumped into clean clothes and literally skidded down the staircase to find Reed watching her with widened gray eyes. "Gwen, take it easy. Lenore knows weíre running a little behind schedule. I got the feeling from Rosie that the queen was glad for the extra time... something about a small fire in the kitchen."

Now Gwenís eyes widened and she came to a rather abrupt stop. "Oh my."

Reed nodded. "Uh huh. So you have the time to tuck your shirt in and tie your shoes if youíd like." She said it with a completely straight face but Gwen could hear the smile in her voice. She looked down at herself.

"Good idea. I donít know what is wrong with me."

Reed suspected, of course, but there was no way she was going to give voice to that particular suggestion. Instead she gestured to Gwenís still wet hair. "Would you like me to braid that for you?"

"Do you mind? Iíve been letting it grow out since... since the wedding and itís just completely unreasonable at the moment."

Reed smiled. "I was thinking today that I need a trim." Gwenís eyebrows went to her forehead, given how short Reedís hair actually was, but she simply nodded her head. "Maybe we should find someone here to take care of it. Lenore might have someone in her crew who could take care of it."

"Maybe Iíll just let it grow long and shaggy until I get completely fed up and shave myself bald."

Reed actually hesitated a moment to blink the visual image the words created out of her mindís eye. "Well," she started, clearing her throat. "That would certainly make some sort of statement."

Gwen looked up at Reed with a wry smirk. "Yeah, and probably leave me with a really nasty case of sunburn followed by a peeling head."

"Ew!" Reed slapped Gwenís shoulder. "Thank you so much for *that* visual. Youíre done."

Gwen twisted her head back and forth. "Thanks, Reed. I think Iím presentable enough for dinner now. At least I wonít scare anyone," with a wry look at Reed.

The seer held up her hands and backed away in self defense. "I didnít say a word."

"I know... I did to save you the trouble. Címon... weíre late enough."

 

 

The room was still a little smoky when they entered, but the table was set when Gwen and Reed arrived. The bard tried to apologize, but Lenore held up a hand to stop her.

"Please, Gwen. You did us a favor." She flanked around. "We had a little, um, mishap in the kitchen, so we didnít mind the extra time, really. However, weíre glad you could join us. We thought weíd treat you to a traditional Amazon meal tonight, which as Lorac will be happy to tell you, is much better now than it used to be."

"Oh?" Gwen replied as she took a seat. "Thank you. Why is that, Lorac?"

"Well, our civilization is based on ancient texts written... well, honestly, no one is quite sure how long ago they were written. But letís just say they were written a reeeeeeealy long time ago Ė long enough that there are some authentic parchment scrolls involved. And for a really long time, we followed every single precept and dictate the law laid down. Every single one."

Gwen nodded and swallowed the mouthful of exceptionally tasty food she had been enjoying. "Okay."

"Well, you see, the texts included recipes and stuff, and naturally, they were followed like gospel." She grimaced. "It wasnít pretty." She took a deep draught of her wine then spoke again. "It wasnít... bad... per se. It was just bland."

"So what happened?" Rosie asked. "This is very good," motioning to her plate, "and definitely *not* bland."

"After the last great war, the Nation went through a whole reorganization. It was decided that to keep the Nation alive, we would split into smaller tribes ruled by regents and spread across the continent. The elders felt it was the most prudent course of action to preserve our way of life. We came together one last time and together we started copying our histories and traditions so that each tribe would have their own copies for their archives."

"In the process of going through the archives, we found a sealed box that had been pushed to the back of...." She gestured a square with her hands. "I dunno... what had apparently served as a safe. Anyway, when it was opened it, what we found was... Nation changing."

"How so?"

Lorac chuckled. "Well, for one thing, there was a cookbook of sorts Ė hundreds of recipes written in the long dead native tongue of our people. It took several teams of translators months of work to interpret the scrolls and when they did... wow!"

"Wow?" Gwen pushed back her plate and picked up her wine glass to wait for an answer.

"Wow!" Lorac said emphatically. "Suddenly our food was given flavor and spice. It was wonderful."

"So how do you know about the bland food if you have had this wonderfully flavored food since the last Great War?"

Lorac grimaced again. "Well, to keep the <ahem> tradition alive, and to make the Amazons thankful for all their many blessings, when an Amazon goes into her into training to attain her status in the Nation, she is put on traditional rations. We have one set of cooks who do nothing but cook for trainees. It is probably the best motivating force we have to insure that apprentices succeed in their education the first time out, because they lose the food quality we had tonight to go back to bare bones basics. Itís quite a shock to the system."

Gwen shivered. "Iíll bet."

Loracís eyes sparkled in delight. "But as an added bonus to the scrolls we found, there were stories... amazing stories of some of our forbearers. Real heroes, if any of the tales are even remotely true."

"Can I read them?"

"Oh yes," Lenore affirmed. "They are part of our histories."

"Iíd like to read them as well, if I could," Rosie asked.

Lenore smiled. "Of course. Youíre all welcome to read them if youíd like."

"I have a question," Reed spoke suddenly. All eyes shifted to her and Lenore gestured for her to continue speaking. Reed cleared her throat. "Um, Lorac said you that when the Nation divided into separate tribes, a regent was named for each tribe. But you were introduced as the queen. So are you the queen or the regent?"

Lenore smiled, though the painful reminder didnít allow the smile to reach her eyes. She didnít give anyone the chance to notice since she turned at that moment and picked up the wine bottle to refill the glasses at the table. "I am the queen of my tribe but a regent of the Nation. We are waiting for the true queen to return to assume her throne."

Rosieís eyes widened at the implication, but neither Reed nor Gwen showed any sign of understanding the deeper meaning of Lenoreís words.

"Why would that happen, Lenore? If the Nation was split into tribes to protect it, why would it be brought back into a single entity?"

"Though itís not the original reason we split the Nation, if... <ahem> if the eradication of the rebellion is successful, we feel confident about bringing the Nation back together. It will be time. The other regents and I have already discussed it... itís why I was unable to greet you until this afternoon, Gwen. I was on a conference call bringing the Nation up to date."

Gwenís lips tightened, but all she did was nod. She wasnít going to take her residual anger out on these women who were only doing their best to help her. And part of her was looking forward to both the defense training and the history. She especially found the idea of reading the scrolls intriguing.

"So, how would you like to set up our study time, Lenore? Lorac and her staff are going to do defense work with me until three every afternoon. Would you like to pick up immediately afterwards, or...?"

"Iíd like to keep it as informal as possible. Here," getting up from the table and moving into the living area. She picked up a small stack of books. "I thought you could start reading these," she smiled wryly, "since they are the only books I have with me at the moment. I am having more brought up from the village tomorrow," she continued to forestall Gwenís protest. "Then we can talk about them as you get into them and have questions. I donít think we really need to do anything formal, but that is totally at your discretion."

Gwen nodded. "I like that idea. And you said the scrolls were available as well?"

Lenore nodded. "Yes, though they are bound copies and not the original scrolls of course. Those have all been put away. I havenít actually seen them Ė no one has since the copies were made."

Gwen nodded. "Of course." She opened the first book reverently, looking down at the page. "Thank you, Lenore. Iím really looking forward to this. Iíve been interested in the Amazons since Randi...." She broke off and turned her attention to Lenore. "I will take very good care of your books, Lenore. Youíre very lucky to have so many."

"Yes, we are, and youíre most welcome. Iím looking forward to discussing them."

Reed and Rosie stood back and watched. There were some things they couldnít do anything about. For now, Gwen had to find her own comfort zone with the circumstances she found herself in. All they could do was keep an eye on her.

 

 

Chapter XV

"Lenore?" Gwen asked a short time later after she had gently examined each and every book. She had been so absorbed, the rest had shifted away for conversation to allow Gwen some time alone to study. Now everyone looked up and Lenore moved back over to the chair where Gwen still sat appearing a little shell shocked.

Lenore patted her hand in a friendly gesture and sat down on the ottoman at Gwenís feet. "What can I do for you, Gwen? Are you all right?"

Gwen shook her head to clear it. Books... real, printed and bound books... always did this to her. They had always been so rare in her world, and even now, they were considered such an anomaly that they were a collectorís item though there were precious few of those.

"Gwen?" Lenore leaned down to catch her eye.

"Sorry." She blinked and smiled shyly. "Books," gesturing to the copies that were currently residing in her lap, "have a tendency to render me speechless."

Lenore nodded her agreement. "They do they same to me. Itís why we decided to have the scrolls hand copied and bound. We have electronic copies of course, but somehow, our history seems much more vibrant when reading the written words as they were given to us. I wish... I would like to have been around when the scrolls were found. That would have been...." She sighed.

"Phenomenal," Gwen finished for her. "At least I think so. What a precious gift. There is so little true written history around any more these days." She smiled sardonically. "And itís not like we pass it along through our storytellers anymore either."

"Oh, I donít know," Lenore replied. "Iíve heard you. You do share history in your stories; yours is just of a more personal nature. Tell me... do you keep a journal? A log of the stories you tell?"

Gwen bit her lip. "Sort of. I do keep a journal, but itís not of my stories; itís more of a diary. I keep the log of stories that I have told here," rubbing her forehead. "I know which ones I have told and which ones are still waiting as well as those that will never see the light of day for one reason or another. I do have a collection of written stories that have been passed down through my family for generations Ė those are the personal histories I sometimes tell."

Lenore smiled broadly. "Perhaps you would consider sharing some of your stories with us while youíre here. I know there would always be a willing audience to listen."

Now Gwen smiled. "Iíd like that. And I did promise Tommy Iíd try to do some more childrenís sessions while I was here as well. Have to keep up the skills, you know."

Lenore clapped her hands together in excitement, causing Gwen to chuckle in sympathy. The Amazon blushed just a little but she couldnít keep the smile off her face or the twinkle out of her eyes. "I know I sound like a kid, but I donít think you understand how exciting that is." Now her blush turned beet red and she dropped her eyes to the floor. "The chance to actually see you perform...."

Gwen blushed almost as fiercely, though she accepted the compliment gracefully. "Thank you, Lenore. I enjoy it so much I sometimes forget that others get something from it as well. I hope you wonít be disappointed."

"I suppose I shouldnít tell you that the queen is a huge fan, hmm?" Lorac teased as the rest made their way over to take part in the conversation.

"You know, Lorac, I can find all kinds of ways to eliminate your free time," Lenore growled.

"Heh heh," the weaponsí master chuckled nervously. "All right, no sharing your secret or the fact that the entire Nation feels the same way. Weíve got enough to concentrate on trying to keep up with the warrior side of the bard," sketching a bow in Gwenís direction. The room broke into laughter. It was a nice way to end what had been a comfortable evening.

 

 

"Are you sure about this, Randi?"

He felt the growl more than heard it; it was just a low rumbling that pulsed through his chest. But when he turned and saw Randiís ice blue eyes glaring daggers at him, he realized that the sound had come from her. She put her hands on her hips and he took a reflexive step back.

"Tiny, I am only going to say this once and then I donít want to hear about it ever again. Are we clear?" He nodded. "Good, now understand this well Ė the Sabres are going to destroy the rebellion, and I am going to lead the Sabres. If you have a problem with that, let me hear it."

Silence.

"Tiny, I need you with me on this, but if you canít do it, I need to know now."

He stood quietly a moment, then straightened and faced her squarely. "I told you I was with you, Randi, and I meant it... we all did. All of us believe that the rebellion has to be destroyed once and for all." He took a deep breath. "My concern here is you specifically. Youíre putting yourself out there, becoming someone I never thought to see again, someone I donít even recognize sometimes."

Randi waited, sensing there was more and she had given him the floor. She would let him finish speaking before she responded. They needed to settle this once and for all.

"Randi, Iím afraid... not *of* you, but *for* you. Youíre giving up so much, and I donít want that to be something you live to regret. Randi, please... let us do this. You can lead without going in. You give the orders and we will follow them, but...!"

"No, Tiny! I told you... this is personal for me now! The rebellion has deliberately targeted me Ė they attacked Gwen. And for that, I will obliterate them...wipe them off the face of the planet. If I have to do it by myself, killing them one by one, I will, but they will be destroyed."

Tiny hung his head, knowing by her words there was no way to bring her back... not until this was over. "Aye, sir."

Randi released a breath. "Now, are you with me or do I need to...?" She stopped when Tiny held up his hands.

"Iím with you, sir. We all are."

"Very well. Go prepare. We have a lot to do before the end, and I want this over with. I have better things to do and a life to live that doesnít involve this anymore."

"Yes, sir. The Wizards expect me at their encampment in two days. We are still trying to determine if this is a meeting of everyone or just our region. But I do know for certain that they are angry with Bradís failure and your subsequent execution of him."

"Well, it just sucks to be them, doesnít it?" She moved from behind her desk and together they crossed the office. "I will be at the rendezvous point in a week, maybe a little less. Everyone has their assignments?" Tiny nodded. "Good, then letís get outta here. Weíve both got work to do."

Tiny extended his hand. "Good luck, Commandant," deliberately putting a professional barrier between them. Randi blinked, then adjusted her attitude as quickly as that action took. She straightened and accepted his hand.

"The same to you, Chief. I will see you shortly."

When they released their brief clasp, Tiny stepped back and saluted. Randi acknowledged the respect with a nod of her head, then turned and walked off without another word. Tiny watched her go, then let his shoulders slump before he turned in the other direction and headed out.

 

 

It was quiet in the beach house when Randi arrived home Ė an unnatural stillness that she actually found unnerving. It was as though the spirit of their life here had fled, leaving nothing but an empty shell behind. It reminded her a little too much of what her life with Gwen had become, and worse, what it had been.

Randi resolutely put that out of her mind and walked into the bedroom, ignoring the surroundings to walk directly into the weaponsí closet. She looked at the uniform hanging so casually and predominately at the front.

Without thought, she pushed it aside and moved on to the weaponís locker. Slowly and methodically, Randi pulled out the weapons she wanted to have for use against the rebels. She had to be prepared for any and every contingency, and she doubted once things started sheíd have a chance to return. Randi fully expected to move from one sect to another until they were all eliminated Ė whatever it took for her to get back to Gwen as fast as humanly possible and get their lives back.

Randi took her choices and laid them on the bed in an orderly fashion. She trekked back into the closet and removed her armor and placed it carefully beside her cache. Then she went into the bathroom to take a shower before she prepared for battle.

She shouldnít have been surprised by the knock on the door when it came, but she looked in the bathroom mirror and sighed when the sound reached her ears. Sheíd hoped to avoid this until after the rebellion was taken care of, but apparently Tommy had other ideas.

She snagged her robe from the back of the door and wrapped it around her, then went through the bedroom and into the foyer. A second louder banging only served to work her nerves but she was thankful that at least he wasnít using his key codes.

"Randi, I know youíre in there! Open the damn...." He stuttered to a stop when he met ice blue eyes. "... door. ĎBout damn time," he muttered, pushing past her. She allowed him entry, knowing they needed to resolve the issue between them.

"Something I can do for you Tommy?"

He turned back to her, a look of total disbelief on his face. "Youíre kidding me, right? You gutted a man in my office - right in front of me... right in front of Gwen! You took pleasure in it! And then you disappeared, just took Gwen and left without a word."

"What did you expect me to say, Tommy?" her voice calm and controlled. "Hmm? What do you expect me to say now? You made it clear you werenít interested in anything I had to say."

"Well, forgive me for being human... for feeling some sort horror at what had just happened! How exactly did you think I was going to react?? My God, Randi! Unlike you, this wasnít a normal occurrence in my life!"

He hadnít realized her eyes could get any colder, but he watched the light drain out of them until they were completely lifeless and almost clear. She straightened and he could feel the controlled rage flowing from her in waves. Still, the only outward manifestation of her anger was the flaring of her nostrils and a slight flexing of her fingers.

"Be thankful, Tommy," her voice a hoarse whisper. "Be thankful you havenít had to see the things I have... you donít have to live with the things Iíve done." Then she moved right into his personal space and poked a finger hard into his chest. "But understand this well Ė I would do it all again to keep Gwen safe. I donít like who I am most of the time, and I donít like what Iíve done. But youíre right about one thing Ė I did enjoy gutting that pig. He deserved far worse for what he tried to do! And Iíd do it all again in a heartbeat."

She straightened and took a step back, inhaling deeply before she spoke again. "Now, if you canít accept that... if you canít live with the knowledge of who and what I really am, then I am sorry. But Iím not gonna change... I canít."

"Canít? Or wonít?"

She sighed tiredly. "Does it really matter, Tommy? Now you understand the truth of why I never let anyone get too close Ė why I never shared all of myself."

"Not even with Gwen?" he dared to ask.

"She is the only one who does understand, Tommy. The only one who tried and the only one who succeeded, and look what it got her." She walked back to the door and opened it. "Go home, Tommy. Go home to your wife and son and forget about me and what you saw. Youíll sleep better."

Tommy gasped as the words hit him like a punch to the stomach, and he had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak, finally realizing what his reaction had done to her.

"No." It was barely a sound, but Randi heard it.

"Excuse me?"

"No," he said more confidently. "I will not forget about you. Youíre part of my life, part of my family. And I donít take that lightly." He walked over to where she stood. "I donít understand Ė youíre absolutely right about that. But that doesnít change the fact that I love you and if you need me, Iím gonna be there for you. Iím sorry it took me so long to tell you that." He paused, then grasped the other door handle. "Iím gonna go for now because it is obvious you need me to. But one day... one day soon, you and I are going to sit down, and youíre gonna help me understand all this. Because I think itís important. Now, you go off and slay the dragons and save the world. Just remember youíve got family waiting anxiously at home for you to return, all right?"

Randi nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Then Tommy walked across the threshold and pulled the door shut behind him.

Randi stood in silence and watched from the windows until he was out of sight. Then she shook her head and walked back into the bedroom to begin dressing, putting the encounter and everything not relevant to the coming mission out of her mind.

Tommy stood just out of sight in the line of trees, watching as the warrior he didnít actually recognize strode out of the house and into the garage. A moment later he heard the full-throttled roar of her motorcycle, and he watched as she sped off and headed across the bridge that extended just ahead of her progress.

Tommy shook his head sadly at her recklessness and sent up a prayer for her safety. Then he turned and finally headed home.

 

 

Aphrodite stomped a foot in frustration. This was not going well and it didnít look like things were going to improve anytime in the near future. She turned as Artemis and Athena walked into the room, one with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and the other with a carafe of hot chocolate. Despite the seriousness of the situation around them, Dite couldnít help but smile at the scent that wafted into the room with them.

"One of the true gifts humanity has shared with us," Athena said, putting the still warm cookies down on the table. "How do things look?"

The disconsolate look returned to mar Aphroditeís lovely features and she plopped in a chair gracelessly, picking up a cookie to munch on. She shook her head. "From my perspective, this thing just totally sucks piggy wonks. They are so far apart now Ė not just physically, but emotionally Ė and itís so bogus!" she said, slapping her hand on the chair arm for emphasis. "Makes me wanna gag Ares with a spoon or string him up by his toenails or something equally disgusting."

Artemis couldnít stop the chuckle that bubbled up at Diteís colorful speech. "Well, on the plus side," she said, clearing her throat when Dite glared at her before the look gave way to a grudging smile from the love goddess. Artemis returned the look and handed her a cup of cocoa. That got her a real smile and she handed one to Athena before taking a seat. "Gwen is learning about the Amazons and will be ready to be the queen when the time comes. And she is doing well in her weapons training as well. Randi is going to be very surprised I think."

Athena nodded. "She makes a good chosen... for all of us," chewing thoughtfully.

"Yeah, but they make a much gnarlier chosen together," Dite pouted. "I hate this!!"

"We all do, Dite, but what can we do? We have interfered more than the rules actually allow. This has to be their choice... their desire... or it all becomes pointless, and Ares wins anyway. At least this way, when Randi chooses Gwen, Ares loses for good."

"You really think she will?"

Athena blinked, unable to believe that Dite of all of them had doubts. "You donít think so?"

Dite shrugged and reached for another cookie. "I want to. I just donít... I donít know what to think anymore." She paused and sighed. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite everything, I really thought it wouldnít come to this. Iíd hoped...." She got up and walked to the window, looking out at the landscaped garden that held every type of rose known to man, and some not yet discovered. "Iíd hoped that their love would have been enough...."

Artemis stood up and crossed the room to wrap Dite in a hug. "It will be, Dite. You got to have faith in that... in them and in you. Itís just going to take the long, bumpy route to get to that happy ending."

Dite snorted. "It always has with those two," she huffed. "Gods, they are enough to give a goddess gray hair!" throwing her hands up in the air. "Do they realize *they* are the reason we are so high maintenance?!? Iím gonna need another manicure after this is over!!"

Athena and Artemis exchanged glances and snickered. Dite whirled at the sound and put her hands on her hips. Then her lip twitched and her eyes crossed. The three of them burst into laughter.

Once it got quiet again, Dite looked at them seriously. "So you both think this will work out then?"

"Damn straight!" Artemis said decisively.

"What she said!" Athena confirmed. Her sisters turned in unison with identical raised eyebrows. "What??" then covered her eyes with her hand. "Oh no... Iím turning into Aphrodite!"

"Gnarly, babe. Iíll make a radically cool chick outta you yet." She wrapped an arm around Artemisí waist and extended her other towards Athena. "Címere, The. We need a group hug."

"Aw, Dite," Athena whined, but stood up and went to her anyway. The sisters shared a hug and felt better for the support the gleaned from one another.

"I really do love you guys. Thanks for sticking with me through this."

"Feelingís mutual, Dite," Athena said and Artemis nodded her agreement. "Now, letís get back to work. Weíve got other things to do. We can worry about them in the interim." And they turned their attention back to the scrying bowl, watching as time continued to pass with a majority of the world still unaware of what was coming.

 

 

Randi rode for a while with no particular destination in mind. She wasnít scheduled to meet with her team leaders for seven days, but the thought of staying in their home without Gwen was unthinkable. So instead, she decided to tour around a little and see what she could see. She had always learned a lot by being able to blend in and walk among people unseen.

She drove by Rosieís and felt a twinge of sadness to see the barbeque stand closed up. Randi felt like something was slipping through her fingers and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Then she resolutely turned her thoughts and her bike away from the past and towards the future.

 

 

The rendezvous was in the middle of nowhere. It was the most central location to where all the different rebel groups were gathering. Things had moved swiftly once word of Bradís execution had made the rounds. That coupled with her slaughter of the Fringe Amazons and the destruction of one of the Skinheads cells had rallied the rebellion.

So now each segment was meeting in preparation, the Sabres believed, for another unification meeting between all the rival factions. Only this time, they expected all out war.

Originally, to find a way to defeat their enemy, the Sabres had infiltrated each group of the rebellion with an operative of their own. Even after Randiís death during the elimination of the rebelís leader Ghost Rider, they continued to maintain their status within the rebel factions. It wasnít too difficult Ė a majority of the rebels had lives outside the rebellion. They had hoped that Jerry would use their knowledge to destroy the rebellion once and for all. When that didnít happen, the five remaining operatives continued their undercover work mostly out of a sense of duty with only a small hope for an eventual resolution, but knowing it was what Randi would have done to ensure their ultimate success. Now, finally, they were going to get their payoff.

The rendezvous was high in the mountains, surrounded by what, with time, had become re-grown virgin forest. Randi was careful to take only what she needed to survive from the land surrounding her. She had found the cave that would serve as their meeting point and she had gathered enough brush to make some comfortable beds. Then she set out to wait for the rest of her team to arrive.

Strangely, they almost managed to arrive as a group. They would have had they not been coming in from six different scattered directions. As it was, they walked into the camp within minutes of each other.

After the first initial greetings, each of them scattered to collect supplies. Randi had made a start but more would be needed before they were through. What they had found out had not been encouraging, no matter how anticipated it was.

"Whatís the verdict?" Randi asked bluntly once the fire was built out of sight and they were standing in the main chamber of the cavern. The six looked at one another, each waiting for the other to speak first. Randi glowered and put her hands on her hips. "Donít make me have to start guessing."

They all took seats on the ground and Tiny cleared his throat. "Well, itís similar to what happened before, except this time it will be a much smaller gathering. Only the faction leaders will meet the new leader of the rebellion Ė no aides, no guards Ė nothing but the six faction leaders and the rebel leader. Then they will get their marching orders and the fighting will start in earnest."

Randi blew out a breath and ran her hands through her hair. "Dammit! When and where?"

"We donít know; they havenít been given their orders yet. This was just to put everyone into the loop and let them know whatís coming down the pipeline so preparations can be made."

"Goddamnit!! All right, when do they expect to hear the details?" Five sets of shoulders shrugged. Only Jess remained still. Randiís attention focused on her immediately. "Jess?"

"I donít know the details on the meeting, but word in the Amazons is it will be after Gwen is... taken care of."

"WHAT?!?" Randi jumped up from her spot. She crossed the cave and jerked Jess up from the floor by her elbow. "What did you hear??"

Jess jerked her arm out of Randiís grasp, meeting Randiís glare stare for stare. "What the hell are you trying to do, Randi? You coulda pulled my arm out of the socket like that!"

"Tell me," Randi growled, dropping her hands and doing her best to keep her temper in check.

"Thatís all I know, Randi. Basically, the Fringe Amazons here bear the responsibility of taking care of Gwen. They know where she is and itís only because sheís in this region that I know that much. Theyíve been told to eliminate her immediately; once thatís done, everything else will move forward."

No one had to look at Randi for a reaction. They could feel it in her body language, though there was nothing overt in her response. Her eyes paled to pure white fury and her nostrils flared. Other than a rhythmic clenching of her fingers, there was no other outward manifestation of the fury they could feel rolling off her in waves.

After several long minutes of complete silence, Randi took a deep breath and turned her attention back to the Sabres who waited patiently for her next instructions. "All right, I want everyone but Jess to go back to your surveillance duties for now. Whatever it takes to get that information. Thereís nothing else we can do until we have a date and location," she continued before anyone could protest. "Jess, I want you to go to the village...." She stopped speaking when Jess shook her head. "Whaddya mean NO? Itís not a request, Jess. You *will* go and protect Gwen. Thatís an order."

"I canít, Randi." Jess swallowed hard. "Iím supposed to be part of the strike team that takes her out."

"When??"

"I donít know, but itís gotta be soon. Everything else hinges on it. Theyíll send word when a plan has been worked out. Weíll be given our assignments and transported immediately to the village or somewhere nearby."

"How did you manage that?"

"Luck of the draw? Actually, I think it has to do with my marksmanship skills. Everyone who was chosen is at the top of their game in something... tracking, marksmanship, hand-to-hand, whatever. This is supposed to be the best of the best from the rebellion. They want to make sure it gets done right the first time."

"And how do they know about your marksmanships skills?"

"Easy, Bren. Part of being a Fringe Amazon means attending their festivals, and one of those was some sort of game tournament they hold every year. It encompasses everything they do Ė sports, weapons, arts & crafts, all of it... even cooking. Anyway, I won the marksmanship contest. I never realized it would play into this, but Iím so glad it does."

"Yeah, but we wonít know whatís coming ahead of time," from Cam. "Are we just going to storm the place and wait for them to attack? Or are we just going to take them out now?"

"No," Randi said. "If we do that, theyíll know we know and theyíll try something else when weíre not aware. I want to destroy them all at once. Iíll alert the warriors and Amazons already there. Theyíre trained... they know what to do. And the villagers know the area well enough to be able to defend it with the advanced warning. Good work, Jess. See if you can get a list of those involved and what their specialty is."

The woman nodded.

Randi knelt back down and slapped her legs. "All right. I want each of you to go back to your regular duties. I want yaíll to come up with every possible scenario for getting the information we need and then I want ideas and solutions from each of you on how to use it. Weíre gonna start moving on this as soon as possible."

"What are you going to do?"

"I donít know," surprising everyone but Tiny. They had all assumed her first action would have been to go to Gwen. However, they were all bright enough not to let the reaction show. "I need to get back to the capital to coordinate things. And I need to talk to Geoff," an unexpected idea tickling at the back of her mind. She wondered what part of her psyche had germinated it and why it popped up now, but it was an instinct she had long ago learned to respect.

"All right," Tiny said with some authority. "You heard the boss lady. Letís get some chow and some rest. Weíve gotta get back home and get to work."

Randi had set up a sleeping area just slightly apart from the others. She figured as commandant, it was expected of her to separate herself from her people. But all she felt was isolated. She could hear the whispers and soft chuckles of the others and became aware of the silence around her. It made her chest ache. So Randi sat down and pulled her knees into her chest and moved her mind into a place where only she existed.

"Whatís up with her, Tiny?" Brenda asked sotto voce. "Sheís almost like the Randi I remember from before, except...." She chewed her lip worriedly.

"Except sheís lost her compassion," Hernandez commented as he set the regen unit to repair the small tear Randi had caused in Jessí rotor cuff. It would have gone unnoticed and unmentioned except for his chancing to catch her wince when she tried to spread her bedroll.

Tiny shook his head. "I think she just finally reached her limit," not willing to delve into Randiís personal life and unable to fully explain Ares involvement. "Donít forget Ė she died to keep the peace and then came back to find the job still undone. And the rebels have made it intensely personal for her and have put the focus of their attacks squarely on her and Gwen."

"Thatís another thing." Jess commented from her pallet. "Since when does she not want to be with Gwen... especially at a time like this??"

They all looked at Tiny who remained silent, though the sadness in his eyes told a story all their own.

Camís sigh was echoed around the cavern by each of them. He dug in his pack for the heat sticks they would need for the night. It was still cold up here and they couldnít risk a bigger fire. Tiny and Brenda were going to have their hands full trying to cook the fish Randi had caught over the small flame. There was no way it would provide enough warmth for all of them. They only wished it could warm the coldness they felt settling over Randi.

For her part, Randi moved into the darkness of her mind, putting away the hurt and anger she felt towards Gwen. What she needed now was focus.

 

 

"They knew," Randi whispered, leaning back and clutching her chest in physical as well as emotional pain. "They knew and yet they followed me anyway."

"Yes, they did," Gwen affirmed.

"Why? If what I did was so horrible you felt you had to leave me, why didnít they stop me? Why let it go on until it became unbearable?"

Gwen smiled and brushed Randi bangs off her forehead. "The reason I left has to do with *us*, love. It was a culmination of everything, personal as well as professional. They followed you because they had sworn their allegiance to you; they are still loyal to you." Gwen took a deep breath and cover Randiís lips with her fingers. "What you did had to be done, Randi. They knew that and so did I. The hatred the rebellion was stirring up had begun to destroy the peace. My biggest problem, aside from the fact that you went back to the Sabres at all, was because you seemed to revel in the power this whole situation brought you. I understand why you did, it... I do. I just donít always understand the harshness. Thatís not the woman I know and love."

"But it is."

"No, it is *part* of who you are, but it is definitely not all. But for a while, it was all there was. I felt like I had lost you... even though I knew that Ares was directly responsible for the change, it was hard to watch you allow that to become you." A pause. "I realize now that you have been fighting that; I should have realized sooner, given the actual outcome. But at the time, all I knew was that it was happening, and you didnít seem to care."

Randi reached out a hand to cup Gwenís cheek. "Oh I cared. I cared so much - but all I could feel was the anger."

Gwen took Randiís hand and clasped it in her own. "I understand that now, love. Iím sorry for my lack of faith." She swallowed hard, seeing the love she felt reflected back to her in those blue, blue eyes. "Are you ready to continue?"

"Yep. Letís do it."

Gwen curled around Randi, and Randi relaxed into the bardís body. Then Gwen took up the book again, and found her place to begin reading.

 

 

Chapter XVI

"Randi!" Jill exclaimed as she opened the door. "This is an unexpected surprise!" She looked around for her conspicuously absent daughter. "Whereís Gwen?"

"Tucked away safely. Can I come in?"

Jill blinked and swallowed her questions when it became obvious Randi wasnít going to elaborate. Maybe Geoff would be able to get more information, but for now.... Jill blushed when Randiís raised eyebrow reminded her that she was standing there blocking the doorway staring.

"Sorry... thinking does that to me sometimes," Jill smiled. "Please, come in. Geoff?" she called out. "Can I get you something to drink, Randi? Geoff? Sweetheart, where are you?" She turned back to Randi again. "He was just here."

Randi smiled. "How did you know I was looking for Geoff? I didnít ask to see him."

"Easy Ė youíre here without Gwen. As much as you care for both Geoff and I, and I know you do," holding up her hands before Randi could speak, "the only time you come here alone is when youíre on military business. So, youíve got to be here to talk to Geoff."

Randi nodded her head in acknowledgement, though her eyes held a hint of shame at the veracity of Jillís statement. "Youíre right, Jill. Iím sorry...."

Jill held up a hand to stop the apology, wondering what had happened to make Randi go back to calling her by name instead of by mom. "Itís all right, Randi. I do understand. It isnít like we havenít had a rocky road. Iíd actually be more concerned if you acted a little more comfortable than you really were. It would mean you were lying and Iíd rather you be honest. It gives us a chance to grow comfortable together. Now," Jill continued with barely a pause for breath. "Come sit down and let me get you some lemonade. Then Iíll go find Geoff."

"Iím right here, hot stuff," Geoff said as he eased his chair into the room. He grabbed Jill around the waist and swung her into his lap, relishing the squeal she graced him with. Then Geoff stole a kiss. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Goldman? I heard you screaming all the way out in the workshop. You feeling that frisky??"

Randi bit her lips to keep from laughing out loud and Jill flushed six shades of red. "GEOFF!!" slapping him lightly on the chest. "Weíve got company!"

Geoff looked around her shoulder and saw Randi sitting there stoically, though she couldnít hide the devilment that sparkled in her blue eyes. He had the grace to blush, but he kept his hold on Jillís waist as he cleared his throat. "Hello, Randi."

"Hi, Geoff. You got a minute?"

"Absolutely. Um, Jill...."

Jill patted his hand and slid from Geoffís lap. "I was just going to make some lemonade. You two go...." She shooed her hands in the direction of Geoffís workshop. "Do whatever it is you need to do. Drinks will be ready when you come back in."

"Ooo, I love fresh squeezed lemonade," Geoff commented. "Címon, Randi. Come see the new workshop. I had one built here when it became obvious therapy was going to take longer than I planned for it to." He held up his hands. "I know the doctors say Iím ahead of schedule, but I really didnít think it would take so long. I guess Iíve gotten too used to our quick fix technology."

They were silent until they got into the workshop and Randi closed the door behind them. Carbon rose from his place by the workbench, ruff standing out from his head. The dog growled before leaping to put himself between Randi and Geoff, then he barked viciously at Randi. Geoff snatched him up and put the shepherd out in the small enclosed yard. Then Geoff closed the door firmly and became all business. "Whatís wrong? And how can I help?"

Randi clasped her hands behind her back and walked slowly around the room, taking in the smell of new. Scattered throughout the workshop were projects in various stages of completion Ė some of them related to the Sabres and others completely frivolous. She smiled at the hover bike propped in the corner; she hadnít seen a working one of those in years. Then she turned her attention to the weapons laying neatly on the bench or hanging on the walls.

"I need something new, Geoff. Something different."

He motioned her to a seat and leaned back in his chair, clasping his hand together in an attitude of attentive listening. "What are you looking for, Randi?"

Randi took a seat and dropped her clasped hands between her knees, looking at the floor. "I want something to incapacitate the rebels... a pulse weapon of some kind that will allow us to take them into custody but wonít do any harm to the Sabres."

"Randi? Weíve never tried to incapacitate them before; weíve always destroyed them."

"Oh we will. I just want to do this with as few Sabre casualties as possible."

"And taking them into custody will do this how?"

"I can use them to make a point," Randi said shortly, but she didnít elaborate. Geoff sighed. He knew pushing her on this would do nothing but make her angry. And somehow he had the distinct impression that her anger directed at him was not in his best interests.

"When do you need it?"

"How soon can you have it ready?"

Geoff cleared his throat. "That soon, hmm? All right... let me get started. I have a couple ideas. Let me draw up some rough sketches and weíll go from there."

"You gonna be all right to do this Geoff?"

Geoff chuckled ruefully. "A little late to be asking me that, donít you think? Gíwan back to the house and have some lemonade. Iíll be in shortly and then I want to hear full details about Gwen."

He saw the almost imperceptible flinch, but let it pass without comment. Then he shooed her out of the workshop and turned his attention back to his desk, his mind already busy with possibilities. Randi observed him for a moment longer, but Geoff was already so lost in his work he never noticed her. Randi left him to his work, and she headed back to the house.

Jill had just finished mixing up the lemonade, so she poured it over ice and handed Randi a glass as she walked in the door. Randi accepted it gracefully and nodded her thanks. The silence went on until it became a little awkward and Randi decided to make an effort at conversation.

"So, are yaíll settling into the capital all right? I was surprised to see Geoff had had a workshop built here. I didnít think yaíll expected to be here that long."

"We didnít. Geoff was certain weíd only be here until you and Gwen got married Ė that heíd be able to walk by then and we could go home." Jill motioned Randi to a seat and took on for herself. Then she blew out a frustrated breath. "I guess you can imagine how well it went over with Geoff when he found out it was going to require *months* more of therapy and pain-filled work." She and Randi exchanged knowing glances.

"Jill, I want you to know how sorry I am...."

Jill held up her hand. "Randi, itís okay. What happened is not your fault Ė Geoff was having problems with his back long before he went on that mission. What happened would have happened sooner or later because of damage done to him years and years ago. Besides, you know and I know that Geoff would have gone on that mission regardless of what you wanted."

Jill paused, but Randi waited, knowing instinctively that Jill wasnít finished talking. "I think," she continued softly, "he would be happiest if he was to die doing something like that. Sometimes I think he wanted to die then; I think that is why he is so... frustrated over his progress. It would have been very circular for him to have died as a Sabre for Gwen, and since that didnít happen, well...."

"Iím sorry, Jill. I wish there was something I could do."

Jill waved her hands. "No, Randi. I donít want you to feel guilty Ė that was my reason for sharing that with you. If there is any guilt here, it belongs to Geoff and it is something he has to live with and work through. All right?"

Randi looked doubtful but allowed her head to nod slow agreement. She felt it was the only way Jill could let it go and regardless of their less-than-stellar history, she thought Jill deserved that much peace.

"So you decided to build him a workshop?"

It was Jillís turn to nod. "Um hmm... for his sake as well as mine. It keeps him busy during his down time and occupies his mind with something besides physical therapy... kind of a mental therapy for him. Carbon helps, but he can only handle so much attention without wanting to play and that is pretty physical. Training takes a lot out of Geoff too. But the workshop Ė that is his haven. He can always find something there to occupy his hands and mind."

"And this is completely selfish of me, but in a way, I am thankful you are back in the military. I know Gwen hates it and why, and I agree with her on that score, but Iím glad for the distraction itís given Geoff in his off hours. Because he has been out there working furiously since you rejoined or took over or did whatever it was you did. So thank you."

Randi sat quietly considering Jillís words. She certainly hadnít taken over the Sabre unit for Geoffís benefit, though she certainly didnít begrudge him or Jill the fringe benefit it had provided them. She was frankly glad for any good that came from it, considering what it was costing her personally.

"Iím glad," was all Randi said and turned her attention to the kitchen door, looking out and watching Carbon run around and chase bugs. It brought a smile to her face when he caught one and then shook his head as though wondering what to do with it. Jill followed her attention and chuckled at Carbonís antics, then lifted her chin in his direction.

"Heís been a godsend as well. I know it was hard for you to give him up, especially with what happened with Ditto, but you have really helped Geoff by letting us raise Carbon. As much as it takes out of Geoff to train him, he looks forward to it and has set time aside every day to commit to it. So thank you for that as well. Youíve given so much. I hope...."

Jill stopped speaking and clasped her hands together tightly. She looked up in shocked surprise when Randiís hand covered hers. "What do you hope, Jill?"

Jill swallowed and unclasped her hands until she could hold on to Randiís hand. Then she looked into Randiís eyes, seeing for the first time the pain and confusion that lingered at the back of them nearly hidden by the steely resolve. She squeezed Randiís hands and smiled at her. "I hope that whatever happened between you and Gwen gets resolved really soon. You deserve to be happy together... you both do."

Randi didnít respond, but she didnít pull away either. Instead she turned her eyes back out the window unseeing, her mind in turmoil.

 

 

Gwen took advantage of the break and copped a seat on the floor as she guzzled the bottle of water she had snagged from the ever-ready cooler the Amazons kept filled in the room that served as their training gym. After just a couple weeks of work, she was already showing definite signs of improvement in several disciplines, particularly those that focused on the defensive aspects of her training. It was when it came to offensive training that Gwen was having the most problems.

Lorac and the other instructors bowed their heads as Lenore crossed the threshold. Gwen smiled when she looked up and met the twinkle in the Regentís eyes. "What?"

"You look a little worse for the wear, Gwen," motioning to the bruises on her arms and torso. "You going to be all right for your performance later?"

Gwen nodded and leaned her head against the wall. "Yeah. Weíre gonna cut out early today so I can regen and get a little rest. With Tommy coming up tomorrow for the childrenís presentation, I wanted to be sure I didnít resemble the punching bag I feel like."

Lenore laughed. "You have not heard my warriors moaning and groaning in their barracks. I assure you that you dish out at least as well as you take it. Lorac is especially pleased with your progress in defensive maneuvers."

"Yes, but offensively is another matter entirely."

Lenore gestured to the open space beside Gwen. "May I?"

"Please," waving her down.

"Why do you think that is, Gwen?" smiling sympathetically when Gwen looked at her in confusion. "Sorry Ė why do you think it is that you excel at defense but seem to have trouble acting offensively?"

Gwen shrugged. "Probably because Iím not a warrior. I donít see things the way you or Lorac or especially Randi does," turning her face away from Lenore at the last. "I just am not the type to go out and start a fight for the sake of fighting. Itís not my nature, Lenore. It never has been, even before Randi started teaching me."

"What did she teach you?"

"To wait for the other guy to attack. To defend and protect myself by disabling my opponent."

"Thatís all?"

Gwen nodded. "Yeah, thatís all."

Lenore chewed her lip, then waved Lorac over to them. "I think we have been going about Gwenís training all wrong." She turned to Gwen. "Do you think you could attack if it was a matter of defense?" sighing at the scrunched up look of confusion on Gwenís face. "If you were defending someone other than yourself, could you Ė would you Ė protect them by attacking your enemy? Even if attacking meant they would die?"

Gwen stared off into space. "I donít know," she answered honestly. "Iíd like to think I could, but I have never been in that sort of situation before. When Randi and I would spar, I always knew it was just that Ė sparring... no real danger, and set up for me to learn defense. Any real threats, Randi has always taken care of. Offense is something she excels at."

Lenore nodded, understanding the truth of that statement far better than Gwen realized. Hers had been the tribe Randi had visited with Jess when the skinheads had attacked them. She had seen with her own eyes just what happened when Randi went on the offensive Ė people died.

"I would like to try something in the next few days, if you are willing," waiting for Gwen to nod her agreement. "Okay... Iíd like to make this more real for you by using holo technology first and then eventually bringing in real warriors."

Gwen blinked. "Do you realize what an oxymoron that is?"

Lenore smiled. "I know it sounds that way, but hear me out and I think youíll understand what Iím not saying very well here."

"All right."

"Well, I think if we could put you into an environment where you had to go on the offensive to protect yourself and others, it might force you to learn to act instead of react."

Gwen thought about it. "You donít think I need to know how to fight offensively first?"

Lorac answered. "Gwen, it is my opinion that your body already has the knowledge and understanding to attack an enemy you perceive as a threat. There is a warrior inside of you, even if you donít feel it within yourself yet. Your hesitation seems to be in making that knowledge work for you Ė like you have some sort of deep-seated barrier keeping the knowledge from translating into physical ability. If we put you into a safe environment, I think we might be able to break through that."

Gwen sat contemplating Loracís words, finding a certain sense in them. She finished the bottle of water in her hands then shrugged and gave Lorac a nod. "I suppose it couldnít hurt to try."

"You donít seem very enthusiastic," Lenore noted.

"Honestly, Iím not. But I promised Randi I would try, so if thatís what yaíll think will work...."

Lenore and Lorac exchanged glances. "Gwen, I donít think it will work if you donít believe in it."

The expression on Gwenís face hardened so quickly, the two Amazons flinched in response to the fire that burned in her eyes. "Frankly, I donít give a good goddamn what you want me to believe in." She stood up with a jerk and pointed a finder at them. "I said I would give it a try... thatís the best youíre gonna get from me. I donít want to be here doing this, so donít push me, all right??"

Dead silence met her words and Gwen stalked from the room, fury radiating from every pore in her body. The Amazons let her go and waited until the door slammed shut behind her completely before they turned to look at one another. Then they all faced Lenore.

"Well, that could have gone better."

"I donít know, my queen. I think, given her true feelings about being here, it could have gone much worse. And in fairness, I canít blame her. She is a warrior, Lenore, but her best weapons are her words, and they always will be. Forcing her to play a role she is not meant for is going to make her miserable. We just have to try to give her enough space to avoid any nasty fallout."

Lenore chuckled and put an arm around Loracís shoulders. "How did you get so smart?"

"Watching you?"

Now Lenore laughed so hard she nearly doubled over. "Ah, Lorac, my friend, you should have gone into politics. You could rule the world with that slick tongue."

The other instructors tittered and Lorac cast an evil glare in their direction before poking Lenore in the side. The queen jumped and returned Loracís glare. The weaponsí master just shrugged before the two old friends smiled at one another.

"All right, ladies... it looks like weíve got the rest of the day off. However, I will ask that all of you remain extra vigilant. Given Gwenís current state of mind, I wouldnít be surprised if she tried something unexpected... even with her friend Mr. Steele due up here this evening."

Just then, Rosie came rushing through the doors. "What happened?" she demanded without preamble. "We saw Gwen leave. She went right to the stable and saddled up Lance. It was all Reed could do to get the transport out in time to follow her once we realized she was leaving."

Immediately the Amazons went from relaxed to warrior state so quickly Rosie nearly got whiplash watching the transformation. "Does Reed know where Gwen is going?"

Rosie nodded. "We believe she is headed out to the small cabin she and Randi have nearby." A pause. "Itís where they spent their honeymoon."

"All right. Let Sky know we need whatever warriors he has available and Lorac, you go round up the rest of the sisters. Donít sound the alarm; just get everyone here quickly and quietly. We," motioning to the instructors now standing at her back, "will go with the warriors that are already ready to go. You will come with the rest and lead the second wave in. Donít," she commanded, holding up a hand to forestall the argument she knew was coming. "Lorac, do as I ask, please. We donít have time to argue."

The weaponsí master nodded, though she had grave misgivings. There was something about the whole thing that she just didnít like aside from the fact that Lenore was going out without her. Lorac knew her sistersí strengths and weakness and Lenore was not one to go off half-cocked. She had a reason for rushing out after Gwen, and Lorac respected Lenoreís gut instincts. They had rarely steered the Nation wrong. But this was giving Lorac the heebie jeebies.

Nevertheless, Lenore was still her queen and a regent of the Nation and Lorac had sworn a duty to both. So she nodded her head and raced out the door. Lenore turned back to Rosie.

"Do you know where this place is?"

The shamaness nodded. She had made sure of a great many things upon their arrival in this place and as much as it had pained her to venture into Gwenís privacy, the location of their secret home was the first thing she had ascertained from Sky. She had already gone to the area with Reed, though they stayed out of the house itself, scouting it out. She had discovered that it held the karma that bound Randi and Gwen together and knew it would be useful when it came to the final battle. At this point, Rosie planned to use every advantage they could find, and this was a big one.

For now, though, it was time to fulfill another destiny.

 

 

Lance was happy to be out of the stables, even if his preferred rider wasnít on his back and Gwen was a much lighter jockey. He had a grudging respect for Gwen, even without Randiís admonishment. But the fact that Gwen had saddled him up and now was riding him for all she was worth made him run like the wind. It was good to be out and about, even if only for a little while.

For her part, Gwen let the smooth, even cadence of the horseís gait blow the turmoil from her mind. Though she was enjoying her time with the Amazons, Gwen was so tired. And it was a physical tired as much as it was a mental and an emotional one. She wasnít sleeping well, her dreams haunted by images both real and imagined until she couldnít tell the difference between the two.

Gwen hadnít spoken to Randi since the Sabre had left the village a little more than two weeks prior. She had determined that since Randi had placed her here and cut off their interaction, it was up to Randi to decide when to resume contact. It made perfect, logical sense, but her heart and soul felt it was just so much bullshit. However, they had embarked upon this path Ė there was nothing to be done now but to see it through to the end.

Worse than Randiís pointed lack of communication with her was the fact that Gwen knew for a certainty that Randi was in almost daily contact with Reed. Even if it was only for a status report or an update on things, Reed spoke to Randi everyday, and never once had she asked to speak to Gwen directly. Oh, she inquired after her naturally, checked on her progress and such, but it wasnít the same as having Randi care enough to talk to her personally.

Pain ripped through her and she screamed. Lancelot reacted by running faster, and Gwen let the sting of the wind pull the tears from her eyes and dry them on her cheeks.

Reed felt her heart break at the sound. She had caught up with Gwen enough to keep her in sight but stayed back far enough to insure the bardís privacy. She hoped that Rosie and the Amazons were close behind her though. There was far too much open space here, and Randi had been very clear about the threat the Fringe Amazons posed to Gwen. That thought made Reed speed up just a little bit.

When Gwen arrived in the meadow, she jumped from Lanceís back and tied the reins to one of the low tree branches then walked down to the spring, never once glancing in the direction of the cabin.

It was beautiful in the spring. The fruit trees were in full blossom and the air was perfumed with their scent, much as Gwen had imagined it would be. The meadow itself was covered in an array of festive flowers and the bees seemed quite happy with the bounty that was spread as far as the eye could see. Gwen didnít see it, though; her mind was in chaos.

Reed pulled her transport up to the small house and shut it down, looking around frantically when she couldnít find Gwen. The sight of Lance calmed her considerably, and she started searching the meadow and riverbank.

Almost immediately, two transports pulled into the lane. Reed motioned them towards the house and continued to track swiftly across the meadow until she came across Gwen. Then she stood waiting for the Amazons and male warriors to join her so they could set a perimeter. Reed kept an eye on Gwen, noting the rigid posture. Even without being a seer, Reed could sense Gwenís pain. She was glad the barrier they had erected was in place and still holding.

Lenore and Rosie led the group that approached her silently. With just a few whispered instructions, they managed to set a perimeter round Gwen. Then they settled in to wait.

 

 

Gwen didnít move for a number of hours. She sat perfectly still unseeing as the wind riffled through her hair and the creek rushed and tripped over and around the rocks that made up its bed. She didnít allow herself to think or to feel. She was compartmentalizing everything, trying to separate herself from the pain. A part of her in the back of her mind wondered what had set this off here and now, but the larger part of her didnít care. The fact was it had happened and there was nothing to be done for it but to work through it to the best of her ability.

Another part of her, her creative center, knew doing this was going to crucify her muse, effectively rendering it dead. But she had decided it would be worth the cost if it would give her some peace from what her life had become.

And if she was to be quite honest, without Randi she didnít want to tell stories anyway.

"How long do you think sheís going to sit there, Lenore?" Lorac asked in a whisper. She and the rest of the Amazons had arrived shortly after the regent and her group and had served as reinforcements around the perimeter. Personally Lorac wondered if Gwen planned to move at all; she had been so angry when she slammed out of the training room that morning.

"I donít know. Maybe I should go talk to her. I certainly didnít intend to push any hot buttons with her," Lenore sighed. She watched as Rosie approached Gwen, wondering if Gwen would even acknowledge her. "But I think Iíll wait until Rosie is done. We donít want Gwen to feel like she is being ganged up on."

"Let me go instead, my queen. After all...."

"After all, Lorac, this is my responsibility. Even if I hadnít been the one to push her, I am still accountable to Randi for her well-being." She held up a hand, knowing Lorac would place the responsibility for Gwen squarely on Randiís shoulders. "Donít go there, my friend. It is our duty, and you more than the rest understand why we need to do this Ė not just for us, but for everyone."

Lorac nodded, biting her lips to keep from speaking out against the roiling in her guts. Then she turned her attention back to the tableau playing out in front of her.

"Sheís not lost to you, child," Rosie said as she sat down beside Gwen. "At least not completely." Gwen didnít move, but she did open her eyes slowly. That and the slight tremor that traveled through her body were the only signs that Gwen was aware of Rosieís presence, but the shamaness didnít mind. She knew Gwen was grieving; she just wanted Gwen to know she wasnít alone.

"Reed shared her vision with you, didnít she? You have to have a little faith, child. It will all work out in the end."

"Rosie, faith is not the problem, and neither is the end. The problem I am working on is the here and now and the pain it is causing me. I have to get through that first, anyway I can. Then I can worry about the future and how this ends."

"But at what cost, Gwen?"

The silence was long and ominous and when Gwen looked at Rosie, there was fire in her eyes. "Whatever it takes, Rosie. Whatever it takes."

Rosie reached over and took her hand, pleased when Gwen didnít pull away from her touch. "Just know that you donít have to endure this alone Ė neither of you do."

Gwen didnít answer; her attention had returned to finding a place of calm in her own mind.

Rosie sat there for a moment longer, until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and nodded at Lenore, letting the regent help her to her feet. They exchanged silent glances before nodding in unspoken understanding, then Rosie went back to wait with Reed.

"How is she?" the seer asked when the shamaness reached her side, unwilling to intrude on Gwenís emotions at this point for purely selfish reasons. Reed knew all too well that the path they traveled would be long and bumpy, and this was just another pothole in the road. She would maintain her barrier until necessity dictated otherwise.

Rosie shrugged. "Itís rough. These things pop up unexpectedly and she keeps getting blindsided by them. It would be so much easier of we could see this stuff ahead of time and deal with it before it erupted." She waved her hands. "I know the future is too fluid for that. Iím just saying it would be nice to be prepared for a change." She paused and looked at Reed, and Reed returned the look with all seriousness.

"What?"

"Have you seen the end yet? Do we have any clue on what, when and how?"

Reed blue out a breath and her gray eyes flashed silver in thought. "The what and how are still unclear, but I have reason to believe that the when will be by Celebration. One way or another, I think everything will be settled by then."

Rosie sighed. "Well, at least that is only a few weeks off. Does Randi...?" She would have said more but Reed held up a hand for silence.

"You all right, Gwen?" Lenore asked as she took a seat beside her. "Iím sorry I spoke out of turn earlier. I didnít mean...."

"Itís all right, Lenore. It wasnít you or anything you said, really. This is just me having a bad day." She shrugged and gave Lenore a half-hearted smile. "Happens to the best of us."

Lenore chuckled. "No kidding. You should be around every month when PMS hits the Nation. Imagine *everyone* having one of those days all at the same time."

Gwen shuddered and made a face. "Oh, my. That would be...." She shuddered again and Lenore laughed.

"Exactly."

"So since weíve established Iím just having a really bad day, why are all of yaíll out here with me? I know youíre supposed to be protecting me and all, but this is our private hideaway. No one knows about this place... or they wouldnít have if yaíll hadnít followed me out here." Gwen hid her face behind her hands. "Randi managed to keep this place a secret for years. She shares it with me and within months the world knows about it."

Lenore patted Gwenís shoulder a little awkwardly. She wanted to provide comfort but it felt more like an intrusion. "Gwen, the Nation has known about this place since it was given to Randi in her vision quest. And Iíd be willing to bet the People have known about it since she first arrived. Weíve just respected her privacy much as she respected our traditions and out ways." She paused. "As for why weíre here... youíre right Ė weíre protecting you. I know it seems ridiculous, but itís not. We have reason to believe...."

Whatever Lenore had been about to say was cut off when she pushed Gwen over and covered her body as a hail of arrows rained down around them. Almost immediately, Amazons and warriors alike scattered to find the Fringe Amazons that were perpetrating the attack.

Not having seen the attack start, Gwen was at something of a loss to understand why Lenore was suddenly deadweight on top of her, though it wasnít hard for her to figure out given their conversation only moments before. Still, she knew she would be more comfortable if Lenore would at least give her the opportunity to breathe.

"Lenore?" muffled from where she was being pushed into the ground. "Lenore, please... I know youíre trying to protect me, but I canít breathe here. Can you lift up just a little?" When she got no immediate response, she realized that Lenore wasnít simply covering her, but was actually Ė deadweight. A moan caused Gwen to wiggle out from under the regent enough to see that she had two arrows embedded in her spine... one near the base and the other close to her neck.

"Oh, God... Lenore!"

"My Queen," Lenore rasped. Gwen didnít have the chance to ask what Lenore meant because the Amazon regent closed her eyes and stopped speaking.

"Queen?? Lenore?? Lenore!!"

 

 

Chapter XVII

"What the fuck happened?? Goddamnit, Reed!! We were supposed to have warning!! We were supposed to know they were coming!! Where was Jess?!?"

Randi was furious and it was clear not only in her tone, but in her controlled movements and clenching jaw. Reed strained to keep her expression and her voice neutral. She knew there was more frustration than accusation, but it still cut to have Randi go off on her like that.

"I don't know, sir. Jess is one of the Amazons we managed to capture, but she is still unconscious at the moment. The doc has her in regen right night and says she'll recover, no problem, so we expect her to come around in the next couple hours. Then we'll be able to get some answers."

Randi nodded once so hard Reed could hear the bones grind together. "I expect some," Randi said flatly. "There is no excuse for this kind of fuck up... especially this close to a major offensive. Let me know immediately what you find out. Now, recap for me."

"They came out of nowhere, showered us with arrows. Fortunately, they were hoping to overwhelm us with numbers instead of skill so we suffered a lot less damage than we could have. We have two injured Amazons and three injured warriors, but we managed to subdue a majority of the renegade Amazons."

"How many?"

"Six dead, nineteen captured, seven of those injured."

"Kill them."

Reed sputtered. "Excuse me, sir?"

"I did not stutter, Reed. Find out who the leader is and keep her for interrogation purposes. Kill the rest. The only purpose they serve at this point is to send our message to the rebellion."

"What about Jess?"

"Find a way to make it look like she dies. Then have her report to me here. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, sir. Is there anything else?" Reed asked, knowing there was, but wanting to make Randi ask for it. Randi turned her seat away from the monitor so Reed could still hear her, but was unable to see her. Not that Reed needed to see Randi to feel the emotions that rolled off her like water. Personally, the seer appreciated the barrier between them Ė not being able to see Randi made it easier to keep her personal barrier intact. She waited patiently.

"How is Gwen?" whispered so low Reed nearly missed it in spite of listening for it.

"Sheís...." Reed blew out a breath. "Sheís all right, physically speaking. She was completely covered; the warriors and Amazons know their assignments and take them seriously. As for the rest... well, thereís a reason she went out to the cabin, Randi."

"DONíT," Randi growled. "Donít go there. Weíre all having to make sacrifices we donít like. Keep me posted." The screen went dark. Reed shook her head and went upstairs to Gwenís room.

As soon as they had the attack under control and had rounded up the Fringe Amazons and all the injured, the entire entourage had immediately returned to the village. Surprisingly, it had been Gwen who had taken charge of the entire proceeding and gotten everyone back safely. More surprisingly, the Amazons and warriors both followed her directives without question. Reed wondered if Gwen realized how unusual that was.

 

 

"Did you?" Randi asked. She leaned back into Gwenís embrace, biting back a groan. Instead of getting better, the pain in her chest was suddenly becoming worse. Gwen tilted the dark head back until she could look into pain-dulled blue eyes. She didnít say anything; she simply shifted their positions until she was spooned behind Randi. It took some doing and Randi was at something of a loss when Gwen slipped out from behind her... until she understood what Gwen was doing. Then she just settled in and absorbed the change in position Ė it allowed her to curl up a little more, which eased the pain in her chest considerably.

"Better?" Gwen asked when she finally got enough pillows settled so she could not only curl up behind Randi, but could also see over her to continue reading aloud together.

Randi took a cautiously deep breath, then nodded as she exhaled. "Yeah, thanks. That took some of the pressure off." She breathed in again gently, and turned her head enough to catch Gwenís eye. "You avoiding the question or did you just forget?"

"Hmm? What question, sweetheart? Oh... you mean knowing about the Amazons and warriors? Sorry, I was trying to make you more comfortable and forgot, I guess. Hmm, well... I didnít really think about it at the time. My only thought was getting everyone out of there and getting some help for Lenore." She shivered in memory at the remembered blood. "I didnít even stop to wonder why they would follow me without question... my mind was on overload. I guess I figured everyone had the same objective in mind."

"How long did it take before you realized it?" Randi asked, nuzzling into Gwenís neck for comfort.

Gwen smiled wryly and returned the affection, easing her fingers along Randiís ribs where it wouldnít hurt. She started to pull away immediately when Randi flinched, only to find her hand trapped between long fingers and warm skin. Randi gave Gwen a shy smile. "It tickled."

Now Gwen chuckled. "Sorry, I was trying to be gentle." She stroked a little harder. "Howís that?"

"Better," Randi said, relaxing back until they were touching along their length.

"Now to answer your question, when did I realize it? When Lorac kept calling me queen. When did I actually believe it? About the time they all started kneeling and calling me ĎQueení."

"Yeah, I guess that would do it. Is that what the next part is about?" turning the book ahead a few pages.

"Among other things."

 

 

"Gwen?" Reed asked as she knocked on the door. "May I come in?"

"Please, Reed."

Reed opened the door and crossed the threshold, a little surprised to see Lorac there instead of at Lenoreís side. Gwen was quick to interpret the look.

"The doctor shooed us out while they took care of the injured. I told Lorac she could wait with me."

"I figured it was best not to leave the que... Gwen alone," Lorac said with a slight stutter, and Reed nodded her approval. "I have sent for the royal guard. They should be here," looking at her watch, "in about an hour. They had to make some arrangements to accompany the elders here as well. The doctors, both of them, said they would come here to give us a report once they were finished. It was either here or the restaurant, and this is more sec... more comfortable."

Gwen shook her head. "Lorac, you donít have to act like I donít know this entire thing is my fault. I donít like it but I do understand it. Five more people have been hurt because of me. Six died."

"At least they were the enemy," Lorac muttered, but Gwen still heard.

"Yes, they were the enemy, but they were still human beings." She ran a hand through her hair and turned towards the window as she blew out a frustrated breath. "Iím sorry, Lorac," Gwen apologized, still facing the window. "I know this is not your fault and I shouldnít be taking it out on you. Itís just that so many people have died directly because of me, and that doesnít even count those who have been injured. I really think there should be more that I personally could do about it." She didnít mention Randi nor her seeming lack of interest in what had happened.

Reed had already put reflective glass in place to keep anyone from seeing in while still allowing light into the room, but it still made her nervous to see Gwen that close to the window. Still, Gwen was on edge enough without adding to it, so she stayed quiet, well aware of the extra vigilance in the village now. She wasnít going to share with Gwen about the influx of security Randi had sent in.

"My que... Gwen... itís not your fault. This was going to happen whether you had been guarded or not." Two heads whipped around so quickly, Lorac felt herself getting whiplash in sympathetic reaction. The question in Gwenís eyes was clear, but the glare in Reedís was burning. Lorac swallowed hard. "Your being here was divine provenance Ė according to what I have *now* been told," said with not a little irritation in her voice. "The time has come for you to reunite the Nation and make us strong again. You are the queen we have been waiting for."

Gwen just blinked at Lorac, but Reed moved to wrap a hand around her throat. Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but Reed held up her free hand for silence. She didnít squeeze; she didnít need to. The threat was enough to make her intentions perfectly clear. "Did you know there would be an attack? Did anyone?? Lenore??"

Lorac shook her head. "Not that I know of. Lenore knew that the queen was coming. That was all she saw in her vision Ė that Gwen would be our new queen and would bring the Nation together once more. I think she expected to die, but if she knew more than that she never said." Lorac gave Reed a wry grimace. "I didnít find out that much until we got back here. It is how I knew to send for the guard and the elders."

"Wait just a damn minute," Gwen ground out, forcing the two of them to face her. "What the hell is going on here exactly? You donít get to decide my future like that! No one does. I am no oneís queen, you got that?? I donít care about your prophesies or your visions or anything else! Iíve got more than enough on my plate without having to deal with that as well!"

Lorac swallowed hard, at something of a loss to deal with this side of Gwen. Privately she wondered how the Nation was going to survive her mood swings; Gwen appeared to be much more volatile that the entire nation cycling at the same time, and that thought was just downright scary.

Reed released her hold on Lorac and looked at her directly. "Lorac, why donít you wait downstairs for the reports from the doctors? They should be done shortly, and I need to speak to Gwen alone."

Lorac nodded, happy to have an excuse to escape the room, and left as swiftly as she could gracefully manage. Reed and Gwen exchanged long glances before Gwen sighed and looked away. She crossed the room and fell gracelessly onto the bed. Reed sat down beside her and brushed the bangs back from Gwenís closed eyes, but she didnít speak.

"Iím screwed, arenít I?" Gwen said softly with her eyes still closed. She missed Reedís forehead scrunched in confusion. But she heard it when she spoke.

"How so, Gwen? I mean more than you thought you were before?"

Gwen sat up so swiftly she nearly cracked Reedís chin with her head. "Youíre kidding me, right?" Gwen said with disbelief. "Címon, Reed. Donít patronize me. Things were bad before, but this... this just takes the cake. I canít be an Amazon Queen Ė Iím not even an Amazon!!!"

"But you are."

The soft voice wasnít Reed and it wasnít Gwen and it caused both of them to look around the otherwise empty room. Finally they met each otherís gaze with widened eyes.

"You did hear that, didnít you?" Gwen whispered. "Please tell me you heard that."

"I heard that," Reed said with a nod.

"Thank God," Gwen muttered. "I donít need to add losing my mind to the rest of my day." She slid back down onto the bed and covered her head with a pillow. "I should have stayed in bed today."

Reed couldnít stop the wry chuckle... she felt the same way. She started to speak when a clattering from the stairs resonated in the room and she turned her head towards the door. She gently slapped Gwen on the legs. "Hey... I think something is happening downstairs. You think we ought to...?" She was interrupted by a knock on the door.

"My queen? Um... Gwen?"

Reed felt the groan more than heard it, then Gwen slid the pillow off her face and slammed it into the bed. "Come in, Lorac."

The weaponsí master opened the door slowly and stuck her head in. When she was sure she was welcome, Lorac crossed the threshold. She bowed in Gwenís direction then she stood and met both sets of eyes. "The doctors are downstairs. I think... theyíve asked to speak to you, my queen."

"Lorac, my name is Gwen... GWEN, got it?? I am no oneís queen!" Loracís eyes widened, but she nodded. She wasnít about to say anything else if she didnít have to. She was torn between loyalties and had her own mixed feelings about everything that was going on.

Gwen looked completely frustrated. But she slid from the bed and ran a hand through her hair before blowing out an exasperated breath. Then she motioned to Lorac. "Címon. Letís go." She turned back and looked at Reed. "You coming?"

"Absolutely," the seer answered. She had enough to answer for without choosing to miss out on anything else. Besides, she had a good idea how Randi was going to react when she got the news and Reed wanted everything available to her to give to Randi when the time came. It might make the information go down a little easier.

Lorac held the door and waited for the other two women to go in front of her. This day was just going from bad to worse, and she didnít see it getting better anytime soon. She sighed when she closed the door and followed Randi and Gwen down the stairs.

The Amazon healer was pacing quietly across the small living room while both the village doctor and Sky watched helplessly. There was nothing either could do or say at the moment, so they alternated looking between her and the staircase. It wasnít long before their patience was rewarded.

Gwen came into the room, calm and composed, assuming an air of authority almost unconsciously. The mask faltered when the Amazon healer knelt at her feet and bowed her head. Gwen looked around the room in startlement. "Rise, Dalia, please. You shouldnít be kneeling at my feet."

"My queen??"

Gwen shook her head and blew out a breath. She didnít have the time or the patience to deal with this right now. She would ask Lorac to call for an assembly once the present crisis was over. It wasnít right for everyone to continue to believe she was something she was not. For now though....

"Dalia, Lorac said you and Nim needed to see me. What can I do for you?"

"My queen, Dr. Darkhorse and I have done everything we could for the Amazons and warriors we brought back with us, but...."

"But?"

"Queen Gwen," Dr. Darkhorse picked up the thread. "There is nothing more we can do for them except make them comfortable."

"Excuse me?" Gwen wasnít being deliberately dense, but she really didnít want to accept what it sounded like she was being told.

"My queen, the Amazons who attacked us werenít content to simply kill us. They wanted to ensure that everyone suffered." Dalia paused and sighed, forgetting the Ďqueení business and returning to the healer she was. "Their arrows had some sort of poison on them that steals a personís life step by step. We tried the regen unit, but it simply sped up the process. One warrior and one Amazon have already died. Regent Lenore is asking to speak to you."

"Dammit," Gwen mumbled, running her hand through her hair again. "All right, look. I want you both to get back to work. See if you can physically isolate the poison and find an antidote. Find some people to keep your patients as comfortable as possible, but I want you two working together to find a way to fix this. Donít tell me it canít be done," she commanded, holding up a hand to halt their protestations. "Reed, can you please call Lacey and see if she can come help?" Reed nodded and moved off to the small office Sky had given her.

Gwen turned back to see Dalia and Nim still standing in the living room looking at her with mouths agape. She clapped her hands together. "I wasnít talking just to hear myself speak, people. Letís move. Go, go, go!"

Surprise as much as anything else made them move and they scampered out the door like they were on fire. Gwen rubbed her eyes. "Sky, will you gather the village, please? Maybe together they will be strong enough to see... I donít know... something Ė anything that can help us out with this mess."

"Iíll get right on it, Gwen," moving into the kitchen.

"Lorac, I need you to get the Amazons together, please. Those with any medical training, get them over to help Dalia and Nim. The rest, get together with Reed and rework a schedule to make up for the losses until we can get some reinforcements in here."

"You think we will, my queen?"

"Lorac, I may not be an Amazon, but Iím not stupid either. I know very well you sent out an all call around the Nation as soon as Lenore decided to call me queen. And I am fairly certain that there will be a large military contingent headed this way as soon as Randi hears about this... although I am hoping to put a stop to that before it happens."

"Why?" Lorac blurted out before she had time to censor herself. "We can use all the help we can get."

"No," Gwen stated clearly and firmly. "Not this kind. We really donít want the military in here. They will take over and this place will become unbearable for everyone. Trust me on this, Lorac," when the weaponsí master failed to look convinced. "If Randi sends in the troops, itís not going to be the ground pounders youíre used to. They will be a lot like Randi in the way they do things."

Lorac nodded. "I see your point, my queen. Let me go take care of it." Then she bowed and made her way swiftly over to the inn where the remainder of the Amazons were waiting to get the ball rolling. Lorac knew she had enough problems without adding gung-ho military minds to the mix. She blinked in surprise when she realized how easily Gwen had slipped into the role of Queen, then stopped dead when she figured out how natural it had been to follow her. Her steps became a run as she allowed the physical activity to push out the confusing thoughts. She would worry about them and her conflicting loyalties later. For now, there was work to be done.

 

 

"Lenore?" Gwen tapped on the doorjamb as she stuck her head into the room where the regent lay unmoving. She stepped into the room and crossed over to the bed, clasping Lenore's cool hand in her own. "Lenore? Dalia said you wanted to speak to me. What can I do for you?"

Lenore blinked her eyes open and looked at Gwen with a smile. She tried to squeeze Gwen's fingers, but it was more of a reflex action than a genuine grasp. Gwen reached for the water that sat on the small bedside table and offered it to Lenore who accepted it gratefully. She sat back with a relieved sigh. "Thank you," she said softly.

Gwen smoothed the hair back from Lenore's face, biting her bottom lip. "Oh, Lenore. I wish I could do more. You saved my life. Thank you."

"There is something you can do," grimacing in pain.

"Anything, Lenore."

"Accept the mantle of queen; become the ruler you were born to be. The Nation needs you. It's your time."

"Lenore, I'm not even an Amazon. I can't be the queen you want me to be." She pulled the cover up a little further and tucked it in more tightly around Lenore's body. "C'mon. You need to rest. Dalia and Nim are working on finding an antidote for the poison. You want to be ready to resume your regency when they do find it."

Lenore winced and drew as deep a breath as she dared. "Gwen, why are you fighting so hard against this? Most people would be thrilled to have that kind of power handed to them on a silver platter. Trust me... I have been shown Ė you are the chosen one. You are the queen of the Amazon Nation."

"This is not something I want, Lenore; it's not something I ever even considered wanting, much less having. Can't I do something... anything... else for you? I'm not queen material."

"Oh, I beg to differ, my queen. You are Ė you just haven't had a real chance to practice yet. But don't worry Ė I think you'll have plenty of opportunity to work at it."

Gwen groaned. "You're not gonna let this go, are you?"

"No. It's important to me that you accept this, and it's important to the Nation."

Gwen blew out a breath. "I'll make a deal with you. I'll work on this queen thing, but you have to stay alive. I think they will be able to find a cure and you have to live so it can work." Lenore flinched again and gave Gwen a wry smile.

"Deal."

"All right, then. Let me go see about doing some sort of queen thing, and you get some rest. I'll be back later. You just remember your promise, all right?" Lenore nodded slowly, her eyes starting to close again. "Can I get you anything before I leave?"

"No, thank you, Gwen. Go practice being a queen."

Gwen would have answered, but Lenore's breathing had already deepened into the even rhythm of sleep.

 

 

"Thanks, Lacey. We'll see you in about an hour then?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna bring a couple folks with me." She was boarding the shuttle and talking to Reed even as they prepared for take off. Her compatriots had already loaded their equipment and taken their seats. The door closed behind Lacey as soon as she cleared the threshold.

"Not Sabres?"

"No, folks from the hospital... internists. They're researchers." She paused. "Wait, why?"

"Long story, but let's just say if Randi sends any more Sabres in, Gwen is liable to go postal, and I don't want to be here for the fallout."

Lacey chewed her lip. "That bad, huh?"

"Oh, you have no idea. She is running on overload at the moment. Among other things, the Amazons are trying to make her their queen." Dead silence met Reed's pronouncement and she moved the comm unit to assure herself there was still a connection between them. She hated that the comm link was only vocal, but it was the best they had. "Lacey? You still there?"

"Uh huh," drawled out so slowly Reed chuckled silently to herself. "Did I hear you right? Did you say the Amazons are trying to make Gwen their queen?" Reed could hear the engines whine as the shuttle lifted off.

"Yeah... Iíll fill you in when you get here. But just be prepared... the Gwen you know is not the Gwen that is here. This whole business is really taking a toll on her."

"All right. Maybe I can help make it better. Iíll see you in a bit."

"Thanks, Lacey." Then she hung up and placed the call she really wasnít looking forward to.

 

 

Randi rubbed her forehead and turned back to the screen. "You wanna repeat that for me, Reed?"

This time Reed wished for no video connection, but she knew Randi would never go for that. She also knew Randi would never accept no as an answer. She sighed and saw the blue eyes glaring at her in impatience. "The Amazons have declared Gwen to be their queen, sir. They say she is destined to reunite the Nation."

"Uh huh... and they know this how?"

"I didnít ask for specifics, sir. I havenít had a chance, actually. I just thought you would like to be notified as soon as I became aware of the situation."

Randi nodded her head curtly. "Good job, Reed." She turned the chair and looked out the window. "Iíll be sending in a squad...."

"NO!"

Randiís head whipped around and Reed swore she could see the flames in the eyes that met hers. "Excuse. Me?" Her voice was low, flat and deadly. "Since when do you...?"

"Since you charged me with her well-being, Randi. Youíve pushed her as far as sheís gonna go; sheís riding the edge."

"She doesnít have to know."

"She will though, and I wonít even have to tell her." Reed blew out her own exasperated breath. "Dammit, Randi. Give the woman some credit. She knows you. She knows exactly how you would react to any sort of perceived threat to her. And letís face it - you see her becoming the Amazon Queen as a huge threat to both of you. Sir."

Reed swore she could feel Randiís teeth grinding in her mouth. But she knew if Randi took the time to think it through completely, she would not only agree with Reed, sheíd know why she was right in what she said. Finally, though, Randi gave a little growl.

"Fine. Itís not like I actually have the troops to spare right for that now. Youíre sure that the Amazons are sending in reinforcements?"

"Yes sir. According to Lorac, all the tribes will be sending in representatives as well as their council of elders. They will want to swear her in before the entire Nation, but that wonít be for a while. She hasnít actually accepted the position."

Randi rubbed her forehead. The day hadnít been going well in the first place, and now she was just getting a headache. To top it off, the pain of being separated from Gwen, not sure where they stood, was agonizing and it made her irritable. All her Sabre leaders were keeping their distance except when it was absolutely necessary to come into her space. Just as well, they were leaving for their first assignment very shortly, and she wanted them focused. Now she just had to find her own focus to take care of Sabre business. If Reed was sure about Gwen, Randi would have to put that aside until later.

Randi nodded. "All right. See to it, Reed. Iím going to be out of communication for a while," knowing Reed understood full well exactly what she wasnít saying. "If something comes up, you will need to handle it until I get back."

"Aye, sir. I understand. Iíll take care of everything," Reed agreed, anxious to cut the communication short as it was starting to become painful. Randiís aura was so screwed it was a horrible drain on Reedís barrier and she was looking forward to some reinforcement of her own.

"Do that," Randi agreed. "Iíll be in touch."

The screen went dark before Reed could respond. Things were spiraling out of control and she had work to do to keep ahead of the chaos.

 

 

Tiny and Brenda were gearing up in silence. They were the last part of the final team to be preparing for the mission except for Randi. The rest had already arrived at the rendezvous in staggered increments to avoid arousing suspicion. It was different than the way they had done things before, but Randi had a plan, and it looked like they might finally have a chance to defeat the rebellion once and for all.

However, the two of them still had work to do before the assault started, and they wanted to be well on their way before Randi arrived. She had been a bitch on wheels since sheíd left Gwen in the small village that was home to Reedís people. They would all be glad when this was over... for a multitude of reasons.

"You think this will work?" Brenda said softly to Tiny as they boarded the shuttle. It was a fairly safe place to talk without being overheard.

Tiny looked at her. He couldnít blame her for her doubts. Randi had been all over the map from what they knew of her and even knowing her motivations didnít always make it easy to understand her choices. However, knowing her motivation made it easy to believe in her success.

"Yeah, I do," he answered easily, though Brenda knew he had given the question the deliberation it was due. Heíd never been one to rush his answers when it came time to go to work. "I know why she is pushing, Bren... hell, we all do. But I think there is some merit to this. Why wait to take out the leaders if there are pockets we can destroy now? Less we have to deal with later."

"I agree. Iím just not sure I understand this whole roundup idea. Why not just obliterate them?"

"I dunno. Iím sure she has a reason though."

"I guess. Just wish sheíd share. I hate being kept in the dark like this."

"So do I, Brenda... so do I."

 

 

Chapter XVIII

Randi looked around her office. She was tired of this; she missed home and the beach and most especially, she missed Gwen. She hated this... this whole thing had spiraled out of control. It wasnít how things were supposed to be. But responsibility came first and that meant being her alone for the time being. Randi rubbed the side of her face. It was aching badly today and it was giving her a headache on top of everything else.

She watched as the shuttle lifted off carrying the last of her team members. They were going to try something different this time, bringing a majority of the rebels back to the capital city to stand trial... of a sort. But first....

Randi walked out of the office and through the corridors of the military building. She shook her head; that was one of the things she was going to have to finish fixing when the rebellion was taken care of. It was time the regular military started pulling its own weight in the world and took care of some of the dirty work and this operation would be just the beginning. Maybe then the burden would become more bearable... for everyone.

A quick transport ride took Randi to the accommodations she had arranged for during her time in the capital. She keyed in the gate code and waited for them to open completely before piloting the transport through and under the portcullis. It was a large house Ė something left over from another era, but it suited her needs admirably in this time and place.

She opened the door into larger foyer and went straight up the stairs to the large master suite she was using. It occurred to her to get a decorator in to furnish the house; having a bed as her only piece of furniture was going to become a problem as time went on, especially if things played out the way she expected them to.

A vid call later, and things were all set up. Fortunately, Sabres covered a number of occupations in their outside lives, and Yuri knew exactly how to set things up to give the intimidating impression Randi wanted. Even better, he wasnít assigned to any of the teams she had out in the field at the moment, so his plate was clear to make this house his priority.

Randi went into the closet and removed her uniform, laying each piece out precisely on the bed. Then she removed each weapon she wanted to take with her and did the same with them. Satisfied with her choices, Randi went into the bathroom and took a shower, knowing the mission might take longer than she planned for it to and wanting to start out clean at least.

She was glad there were no memories in this place; otherwise, being here alone would be unbearably miserable, and it was bad enough as it was. Her shower was brief but very hot and Randi got out of it glowing from the heat and the brisk rubdown drying off. Then she moved into the bedroom and began to dress with swift efficiency.

With her armor in place, it didnít take Randi long at all to add her weapons to her person, and only a few minutes more than that to prepare her duffle. When she was set, she sat down to wait for the shuttle she had ordered. It didnít take long.

Yuri stepped off the shuttle and they exchanged a brief word before she boarded. He had his orders, and she had her mission. With a little luck, she would be back before he was finished. And if not, well, he knew what to do.

Randi stepped onto the shuttle feeling an unexpected wave of nostalgia when she realized Reed wasnít her pilot. She knew it, of course, on a conscious level, but they had shared any number of assignments and Randi had always been able to count on Reed for an honest assessment of whatever situation they were going into. But Randi knew Reed was serving where she was most needed and she turned her focus to the upcoming operation, knowing it was going to be quite a different undertaking that the Sabre unit was used to. She only hoped she could make it work to her advantage.

A huge detention area had been built in the shadow of the city, out among the ruins of the previous civilization. Randi wasnít completely convinced it would hold the number of rebels she suspected were going to be rounded up, but she gave a mental shrug. Her intent wasnít to make them comfortable.

Randi spent her time on the way to the rendezvous studying the latest reports sheíd received from the teams in the field. Things were coming together better than she expected. The principals of the rebellion had gotten a bit paranoid after Randi had destroyed the previous leaders in what was supposed to have been an impenetrable fortress. Even with her people in place, it had taken them a while to learn about the safe houses. Only now, when all the sects were slowly moving all their people to their respective hideaways, were they able to finally get a bead on them. Randi vowed to make sure this was the end. It was time for this to be over.

She would have preferred for the Fringe Amazons to be first; she owed them a great debt she was more than a little anxious to repay. However, the Reds were the first to arrive at their designated safe place, so they would be the first to fall.

Cam was in place, just waiting for the Sabres to move in. The regular military was on standby under the impression that they were simply part of a military exercise. Now they were waiting for the go ahead... waiting for Randi to give the word.

The shuttle landed with the barest whisper of sound, and Randi was off and headed for cover before the pilot could even power down the engines. Her primary team, the leaders of each of the sub-teams she was utilizing for this mission, was waiting for her and they came to attention as she crossed the threshold. She waved them to an Ďat easeí position and they relaxed slightly.

"Report," she barked softly. Tiny stepped up to reply.

"The sensors are in place. No one will be able leave the area once they are activated, not even the regular military... except us. We have the chips ready to implant, and oh... here. Geoff sent these along with the sensors. They will protect us when we send out the pulse."

"How long will it last?"

"Thatís the only thing we donít have specifics on, sir." The ice in her glance caused Tiny to shiver and rush on with his explanation. "Geoff gave us parameters Ė he said between four and eight hours. A lot will depend on the individual people themselves." Tiny shrugged, trying to convey an air of nonchalance. "Itís just something we will have to keep an eye on while we work, but weíve got it covered, sir."

"Can we send out the pulse more than once? Without too much damage?"

"I donít see why not, sir. Geoff didnít mention anything about it either way. But we have no real way of knowing until we try. This is all new technology weíre using, sir." A beat. "He did say it the sensors would continue to let people in to the area once they are activated, but he thinks we will need to render them unconscious individually. Hopefully we wonít need to worry about that, though... if the Red leader is worth his salt."

Randi snorted and lifted an eyebrow. "What about the medics? Do we have enough to take care of this within a reasonable amount of time?" Randi waited for an answer, then realized Lacey wasnít with the team. She turned her attention back to Tiny, her voice calm and controlled... and completely terrifying. "Where is Lacey?"

Tiny actually had to clear his throat, though he was careful not to emulate any other behavior that would signify any sort of guilt. The only reason he knew was because Reed had called him once Lacey had arrived to give him an update on how things were going. Some days, he just hated his life Ė this was fast becoming one of them.

"Sheís in the village with Reed and Gwen."

Silence. Then, "I see. And why wasnít I informed?"

Tiny blinked, walking a very fine line. "We didnít know you werenít aware until now."

Randi looked at him hard, trying to detect any deceit in his answer. The rest of the unit stood perfectly still, unwilling to jeopardize either Tinyís life or their own by fidgeting. Finally, she nodded, accepting his words for truth and everyone released a relieved breath. Then they stiffened again when she asked, "On whose authority did she go? Who gave the order?"

Tiny swallowed hard and spoke softly. "Gwen did."

Now it was Randiís turn to go completely still, not even blinking for a very long moment. "I see," she repeated more slowly. "Guess sheís got that queen thing going on," muttered mostly to herself, though the entire unit heard her loud and clear. "All right," Randi continued, raising her voice to be heard. "We donít have time to fix this right now. Iíll deal with Lacey later. Bendara," recognizing Laceyís immediate subordinate when she looked around the small group. "You have point with the med teams. Make sure things are handled. You report directly to me. Understand?"

"Aye, sir," the young man nodded briskly. Bendara hadnít been thrilled to find out that he was the medic-in-charge of this particular operation, and now he was less so. However, he was also a good Sabre and would do his duty well.

Randi nodded her acceptance of his assurance and looked around more carefully at the remaining members of her team. She didnít want any more unpleasant surprises, and finding out Lacey had bugged out on this mission, regardless of the reason for it, was a downright rude sensation.

"All right, people. Where do we stand on everything else?"

She went around the room, checking with each leader to ensure everything else was as she had planned it to be. Though adapt and overcome was part of the Sabre creed, Randi would be happy not to have to scramble to alter her plans for a change.

Surprisingly, everything else was in place exactly as she had set forth and soon they were ready to take their places around the perimeter. Each leader would check in with his or her respective section and send a readiness report to Randi. Cam was to give Randi a high sign when the Red leader signaled the completion of the gathering.

Then they settled in to wait.

 

 

"Howís it going, Lacey?" The Sabre and her two civilian compatriots had settled into the area of the small village hospice that Sky had graciously set aside for their use. It hadnít taken them long to set up a lab area, and since the Amazon and village nurses had already taken blood samples, they had gotten straight to work upon arrival.

Now here it was several hours later, and Gwen was finally able to take the time to come say hello and check on everyone. She had been busy setting things up for the arriving Amazons. She had been flabbergasted by the sheer influx of Amazons that had been arriving in steady numbers since Lorac had sent word out to the tribes. Already the population of the village had tripled and Amazons were still arriving. Even doubling and tripling up, they had already spilled into the countryside for miles surrounding the village on both sides.

Gwen was more than a little concerned, though both the Amazons and the villagers had been extremely charitable about the whole thing, especially considering how awkward things could have been for everyone. But Gwen was even more apprehensive about the expectations the Amazons were putting on her. They all seemed to be assuming that Gwen was going to be their queen. Period. No choice. No debate. End of discussion.

Gwen, however, wasnít so certain.

But regardless of her feelings about becoming the Amazon Queen, she did assume the responsibility of making sure the women coming into the town were taken care of. It was just part of who she was. So it took her awhile to get to Lacey.

For her part, Lacey took a long moment to study Gwen. At first glance, there wasnít any visible change, and without Reedís warning, she probably wouldnít have noticed for a while, if ever. But since she was looking for it, Lacey was able to see the difference in Gwenís bearing and attitude. She wondered briefly how Randi would adjust to the new Gwen.

She smiled and opened her arms, pleased when Gwen responded with a brief, though enthusiastic, hug. Then Lacey turned back to her work and gestured to her two companions. "Gwen, meet Locha and Jed, my colleagues from the hospital. Locha is a disease specialist and Jed is our top researcher."

They reached out a hand and exchanged brief pleasanries with Gwen, then turned their attention back to their work. In some respects, medicine and medical research hadn't changed much. It was still a long, tedious process that required a meticulous attention to detail, and once they had a rhythm established, it was difficult to turn the focus onto anything else... even the politeness of society.

Gwen smiled. That kind of focus she well understood. She used it a lot when she got into a storytelling groove. She turned her attention back to Lacey. "So?"

"Well, the good news is we have high hopes of being able to isolate the poison and eventually find a cure."

"Eventually?"

Lacey nodded. "Yeah. Thatís the bad news... we donít have a timeline to give you yet. We have every faith that weíll be able to do it Ė I just donít know when."

Gwen sighed and rubbed a hand over her face. She was exhausted and this complication was not making life any easier. Coupled with the Amazon Queen situation and it was downright ugly on several levels. "Um, Lacey? I donít want to put anymore pressure on you," she said, blowing out a breath. "But I think we are under a deadline here."

"We are," Lacey said, "and weíre doing our best Ė weíll keep doing our best - to find a cure. I know thereís a lot riding on this, Gwen. Aside from the Amazon issue you have, the fact is that if one rebel group has this, odds are they all have something... if not the same, then at least similar. Since Randi has begun the Sabre offensive against the rebellion, this could give the rebels an unexpected advantage if we donít find some way to defeat this... soon."

Gwen blinked and took a deep breath. "Oh, I see," was all she said, but her tone conveyed a wealth of meaning. She cleared her throat. "All right, let me leave yaíll alone to do your work. Is there anything I can get for yaíll? Anything yaíll need?"

Lacey shook her head and patted Gwen on the upper arm. "No, Gwen... weíre fine here. Reed has made sure to take real good care of us."

"All right," Gwen nodded and walked towards the door. "Let me know if I can do anything for yaíll."

"Will do, Gwen, and thanks. Weíll figure it out."

Gwen nodded, but she didnít reply. She simply walked out the door, and Lacey watched her go, then shook her head as she returned to the workbench and picked up the computer pad with her notes. Then she reread them and resumed her work.

 

 

Gwen crossed the village slowly, taking in the immediate changes having so many people in such a small space. She made a mental note to make sure that the Amazons were able to sustain themselves without becoming a burden to the local community. The last thing she needed was a war breaking out here, especially among people who were allies.

"How are you doing, Gwen?" Sky asked as he caught up with her halfway across the compound. He took the time he had waiting for her answer to study Gwen. He could see by her posture she was carrying a great burden, even more so than right after Randi had left her alone here. The business with the Amazons was stressing Gwen, and Sky was hoping he could do something to help ease the situation. He knew there was nothing he could do to relieve the shadows of sadness in her eyes.

She scrubbed a hand through her hair and shook her head before squaring her shoulders. Then Gwen looked at Sky and gave him a wry little grimace that could almost have passed for a smile had Sky not known the difference.

"Iím okay, Sky." She had to sigh when he gave her a knowing look. "All right, Iím a little tired. Itís been a rough few days."

Master of understatement, Sky thought with a grim smile. Never expected that from a bard. Aloud he said, "Come. Let us go to the house and get some tea. It has been an exceptionally tiring day, and itís not over yet. Iíd like to take a little break, and Iíd like for you to join me."

Gwen blew out a breath and nodded. "Iíd like that."

Sky ushered them both into the kitchen, putting on the kettle and removing from the refrigerator the tea sandwiches he always seemed to have on hand. He set them on the table while Gwen went to the cabinets to take out the plates and cups Sky used for tea service. He smiled; it was nice to see Gwen relax a little bit. Gwen was just happy to be doing something normal.

The kettle whistled and Sky poured the water into the pot he had prepared and waiting. He motioned to Gwen and they took a seat. They didnít speak for a while, simply enjoying the companionship and the variety of sandwiches.

Just when Sky felt Gwen had relaxed enough to be willing to talk a bit about what was really weighing so heavily on her, a knock sounded on the door, followed by Reedís voice. "Sky?"

He sighed silently, wishing heíd had a little more time with Gwen before this interruption. "In the kitchen, Reed. Please join us." Maybe this would actually help.

Reed poked her head into the kitchen, then smiled at the domestic picture in front of her and how much more relaxed Gwen appeared. Then she scooted into the room, followed by Tommy. Gwen squealed and leaped from her seat right into his arms.

"TOMMY!!" She squeezed his neck hard and he gladly returned her fervent embrace, casting a worried look in Reedís direction. It hadnít been that long since theyíd seen one another, relatively speaking, and yet she was acting like it had been months. He held onto Gwen and rocked her gently, rubbing his hand up and down her back.

Eventually, Gwenís grip loosened and she stepped back with the slightest hint of a blush. "I didnít expect you until tomorrow morning. Oh... where are my manners? Would yaíll like to join us?" she asked, gesturing to the table where Sky was adding plates and cups. "Weíre just taking a little break."

Reed took a seat with alacrity and motioned Tommy to the seat beside her. "Have a seat, Tommy. Sky makes his own special blend of tea; trust me when I tell you youíve never had anything like it."

Tommy looked at Sky with an apprehensive expression on his face. "Um, itís not illegal, is it?" He was so earnest Sky and Reed looked at one another and burst into laughter. Even Gwen chuckled and Tommy couldnít help but grin ruefully as he ran a hand across his blood infused features. "Sorry, I know better, really. Iím not sure where that came from actually."

Sky let his chuckles wind down so he could speak. Heíd known Tommy had had a rough time just from the bits Reed had shared. Though it had been an unexpected question, Sky couldnít help but see the humor in it.

"No worries, my friend," Sky answered, still smiling. "And no... there is nothing illegal in my tea. That would dull our senses too much and we need them now more than ever," Sky continued as he poured Tommy a cup of tea. "Honestly, it really is just tea. I just mix a variety of flavors to create my own."

Tommy took a small sip and his eyes got wide. He took a second, longer sip, only just stopping from gulping in deference to the heat. "Wow! This is great. Can I get the recipe?"

"Um, no. But I will be sure you have a supply to take home with you."

Reed patted Tommy on the shoulder and helped herself to several sandwiches. "Donít feel bad, Tommy. He hasnít shared his recipe with anyone... even me. Itís a closely guarded secret. Weíre just lucky he sees fit to share tea time with the rest of us," she added in a teasing tone, jabbing Sky gently with her elbow. Sky just chuckled and shook his head at her.

Gwen decided now would not be a prudent time to admit that Sky had shared the recipe with her. Some secrets were better kept.

"So," Tommy turned to Gwen, anxious to deflect the conversation away from himself. "Whatís the deal?" motioning in the general direction of the village. "Why are so many strangers hanging around here? They look like Amazons, but Iíve never heard of them gathering in such large numbers in a single place before."

Gwen groaned and put her head down on the table despite the bad manners. She was glad Jill wasnít around to see it, knowing her mother would have given her grief. That thought brought a smile to her lips and Gwen realized it had been a long time, figuratively speaking, since she had talked to her parents. She made a mental note to call them soon. Her thinking kept her head down on the table long enough for the other three to exchange glances and Tommy understood the unspoken message from Reed and Sky loud and clear.

"Oooookay... next subject."

Gwen lifted her head from the table and brushed the hair from her eyes. Then she propped her face on her open palm and looked at the other three. "No, itís all right. Iím gonna have to figure out what to do about this whole mess sooner or later."

Tommy cleared his throat. "Um... do I dare even ask?"

Gwen smirked at him, but he could read the fatigue in her eyes and wondered what had happened to make such a big change in such a short time. "Depends... do you really want to know?"

"Yep, I really do," he said seriously before allowing a cocky grin to overtake his expression. "Because youíre the only person I know who could attract trouble on a scale of this magnitude." He didnít have to say it, but all their thoughts went automatically to Randi and it brought wistful smiles to their countenances for different reasons. Tommy cleared his throat again. "So what gives?"

Gwen chuckled and shook her head. "What gives is that those are Amazons, and they want to make me their queen." Her chuckles turned to outright laughter at his flummoxed expression. "Yeah," she said, her laughter winding down on the edge of tears, "that was pretty much my thought."

"All righty then. Should I ask how it happened?"

Gwen shrugged. "Iím really not sure. I mean, Randi arranged for them to tutor me in self-defense, and I asked if I could learn about their culture. I figured I should, ya know? As much as my own desire to learn about them, it seemed like sort of a courtesy... a sign of respect and appreciation that I could give to them in return for their teaching me. Especially since it was clear, at least at first, that some of my instructors were there under duress."

Tommy nodded, understanding very well Gwenís thirst for knowledge. It was one of the things that made her such an excellent storyteller. Then his brow furrowed. "Under duress? What do you mean, Gwen?"

Gwen gave him a wry smile. "Letís just say they had other things they would have preferred to have been doing besides teaching me."

"But it changed?"

"Yeah, it did. Once they realized I was willing to learn, not just the mechanics, but the reasons behind it as well as their history and traditions, things settled down pretty quickly."

Reed chimed in. "It didnít hurt you could kick their asses with your staff work either."

"Very true," Sky agreed. "Donít sell yourself short, Gwen. *You* are the reason they accepted you."

"Maybe, but it still doesnít make sense that they would choose me as their queen. I mean... címon. Iím not an Amazon. There are certainly a lot of women *far* more qualified to become this queen to reunite all the tribes into a single nation again, and they are ALL Amazons."

Tommy looked thoughtful, and Gwen pounced on him. "What?!? What are you thinking??"

He grinned unrepentantly at her. "What makes you think I am thinking anything?"

"I can see the smoke coming out of your ears. Means somethingís gotta be working hard in that head of yours."

Tommyís mouth dropped open and his eyes bulged as he realized heíd walked right into that one and been gotten but good. But secretly, he was glad to see the teasing side of Gwen. It had been far too long and she had gotten much too serious in recent days.

Reed and Sky chuckled in sympathy with the outraged look on his face. Gwen simply laughed at the Ďgotchaí factor involved. "So, you gonna share before all the gears burn up in there?"

Tommy shook his head. Gwen was on quite a roll. "Yeah," he finally said. "I was thinking that there is a legend about this whole scenario. At least I think there is. Iím trying to remember the specifics; itís not like I.... I donít remember much, but I have a very clear memory of my great-grandmother telling me stories about the Amazons when I was really little."

"And...?"

"And they were waiting on the return of their queen." He paused and pinched his lip between his fingers trying to remember more detail. "I think... it seems like... the legend said that one day the queen would be brought back into the fold by a rogue Amazon warrior. And that when she returned, the tribes would unite once more."

"Why?"

"Excuse me?"

"Why would this supposed queen return and unite the tribes? I know what Lenore told me... she said if the eradication of the rebellion was successful, the Nation would be brought back as a whole. But what you are saying is that the tribes would reunite simply because the queen returned."

Tommy rubbed the crease in his brow. "Iím not sure what to tell you, Gwen. Iím sure Lenore, if sheís an Amazon, has a far greater knowledge of this legend than I do. Iím just trying to tell you what I remember of the legend Granny shared with me."

Reed and Sky remained silent, yet observant. Gwen pulled at her hair in frustration. "I know, T; Iím sorry. Iím starting to feel a little frustrated, among other things. Do you remember anything else?"

Tommy shook his head. "Not really... just feelings and impressions. I remember that Granny always got a little excited when she shared this story. Itís why I remember it. It always made her happy to tell it."

"Your Granny was an Amazon?" Reed asked before Gwen could speak again. Tommy nodded. "If you are willing, we might be able to help you remember exactly what she told you. Rosie is a shamaness," she continued at his unasked question. "She might have the knowledge to help you regress to that point in your life again."

"Do you think it would help Gwen at all?"

"I donít know, Tommy. I honestly canít say for sure one way or another."

"I doubt a regression would tell you why they decided to choose me, Tommy, but it might be nice for you to be able to have that memory whole and intact instead of the bitsy pieces you have now," Gwen said. "So please donít make your decision based on what it might or might not do for me. Do it because it is the right decision for you."

"Iíll think about it," he replied after a long moment of silence. Then he turned back to Gwen. "So what do you want to do about recording? Iím not sure bringing kids into this situation is a bright idea on any number of levels. Personally, I donít think you need the added stress of performance right now, and I doubt weíd get what weíre going for at any rate."

"Iím inclined to agree," Gwen said without much hesitation. "To be honest with you, I completely forgot about it until you walked through the door. There has just been so much going on here, especially lately. However," she paused a moment. "I am supposed to do a storytelling session for the Amazons. I promised I would when Lenore agreed to teach me about the Amazons. We havenít really set a new time after what happened today, but I doubt it would be a problem."

"I know it wouldnít," Sky rumbled softly. "I hear a lot of comments you donít, especially now that they consider you their queen. You were already quite popular among them as a bard, and the Amazons that have been training you have been spreading the stories both of your prowess in weaponsí training and your desire to delve into their culture as well."

Gwen put her hands over her eyes. "Nothing is ever easy."

"Well, that should keep anyone from challenging the throne for now," Rosie said as she stepped into the room. "No one wants the complications *that* particular action would cause." She took the seat Sky vacated for her.

"Especially since Randi is a named Amazon champion," Lorac added as she slipped into the kitchen. Sky shook his head and brought in two more chairs, wondering where his quiet tea time with Gwen had gone. He put the kettle on to heat more water and removed two more cups from the cabinet. All the while, he kept his ear on the conversation going on around him.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Gwen asked Lorac. "I guess I havenít gotten to that yet."

"Youíve shown you have a true Amazon spirit and skill, and those are things the Amazons respect and would be less likely to challenge. If you were challenged, regardless of where Randi was or what she was doing, it is safe to assume that she would make the time to be here and take care of it."

"But if it was my challenge...." Gwen trailed off when five sets of disbelieving eyes turned her way. She waved her hands. "I know," she said, imagining the repercussions if Randi swept into the village to answer a challenge to Gwen Ė or worse, to exact revenge. "Talk about a no win situation...."

"Exactly," Rosie said. "But first you have to accept the throne."

Gwen stood from her place. "I donít know that I want to do that, Rosie. Iím not convinced it is the right thing for me and Iím certainly not convinced it is in the best interest of the Amazons. I refuse to be pushed into this, just because it is something other people have decided they want for whatever reason."

Without another word, Gwen walked out the door and into the yard at the back of the house. It was one of the few open spaces left in the town for more than a mile in any direction, and right now, she needed the peace it afforded her. She was going to have to have to make some hard decisions... very soon.

 

 

"I would have, you know," Randi said softly. "If someone had challenged you, I would have dropped everything to have defended you... even if it had meant wiping out the entire Amazon Nation." Randi took Gwenís hand in hers and lifted it to her lips. "Despite Aresí curse, despite everything that was between us then, I would never have let them... any of them... hurt you."

"I know, love. That was one of the main reasons I accepted the title. I knew if you knew that I was part of them, you would also know they would protect me... because they knew we were a package deal. And you donít poke a bear with a stick."

Randi chuckled, then moaned in pain. "Well," she hissed. "I know a few who would."

"Yeah, but youíd be first in line. No problem there."

Randi tried to glare, but the twinkle in Gwenís eyes was contagious, and Randi gave her a grudging smile instead. "Youíre so lucky I love you," growling.

"No kidding," came the very serious reply. Then they took up the book again and started reading.

 

 

Chapter XIX

Gwen took a seat in the garden. She drew a deep breath and let the scent of the flowers and the drone of the bees lull her into a peaceful non-state. She watched the clouds slowly trek across the sky, occasionally covering the tops of the mountains that surrounded the tiny village. Eventually, she found her attention caught by the butterflies that were attracted to the colorful blossoms Sky nurtured in his garden.

They flitted gracefully from bloom to bloom, caring for little beyond the bright colors and doing their part to propitiate the flowersí continued existence. Gwen watched them with a wistful smile, wondering how her life had gotten so complicated.

She sat quietly, thankful for the peace and quiet of the garden. Sky had surrounded the yard with tall, thick poplar trees and a solid wall of shrubbery. Together they were successful in damping the sound that came from the village, and Gwen could imagine she was alone with nothing more pressing to worry about than what to wear to meet Randi for a romantic dinner together.

Gwen let her thoughts wander along the pleasant paths of her imagination for a while before realizing she was no longer alone. She felt the smile fall from her face as her attention turned to the person who had taken the chair beside her.

"Good thoughts? That was an interesting smile."

Gwen gave a silent sigh, but turned to her visitor with the most pleasant smile she could muster. "What can I do for you, Rosie?"

"I thought perhaps there was something I could do for you, child. You seem to be carrying the weight of the world, Gwen. Isnít there any way we can help you?"

Gwen reached over and patted Rosieís hands. "Itís not that I donít appreciate the offer, Rosie, but I really donít think there is anything you can do... any of you. This is something I have to figure out for myself."

"Can I play devilís advocate for just a minute, Gwen?"

Gwen shrugged. "If you think it will help, Rosie." She sighed, aloud this time. "Iím sorry, Rosie. I donít mean to seem insensitive or ungrateful. There are no good solutions for me here. No matter what I decide Iím gonna be screwed."

"Do you really believe that, Gwen?"

Gwen pushed her hair off her forehead and rested her hand on her fingers. "I know it, Rosie. There are no good choices here. Only lesser degrees of evil."

"Well, then... for what itís worth, I think the lesser degree is for you to accept the mantle of Queen."

"Can I ask why? Iím not saying I disagree with what youíre saying. Iíd just like to hear your reasoning behind that decision."

Rosie smiled. "A couple things, actually. First of all, I think you would make a fantastic queen. The Amazons would do well to have you leading them. Secondly, I think it would be good for you Ė not only for the experience it would give you and the experience you could share, but Gwen, if you became their queen, the Amazons would die to protect you."

Gwen jumped to her feet so fast her chair flew backwards and tipped over with a clatter. "Dammit, Rosie! I donít want anyone else dying to protect me! God, thatís what started all this in the first place!! This whole situation is because Randi wants to protect me. Quelling the rebellion will be a really great side benefit, but that is not why sheís doing this, Rosie. This is personal for her!! My being Queen of the Amazons is not going to change that one way or the other."

She stopped moving and talking, her back to Rosie and her hands on her hips. Rosie didnít move from her place. She could feel the tension radiating off of Gwen even from this distance. Instead, she spoke in a calm, rational manner.

"Gwen, I know itís personal. It always has been since you became a part of her life. And right now, that is all that is keeping her from giving in to the fire that burns in her blood. Your accepting the title might put her mind at ease and allow her to focus on her mission."

"Or it might cause her to get angrier... she might see at as me choosing the Amazons over her. And I would never do that, Rosie. Despite the troubles weíre having right now, in spite of everything Ares has done, I will always, *ALWAYS* choose her first. Randi comes first, last and always for me. Is it fair to the Amazons to give them a queen that puts them a distant second?"

Rosie sighed. "What do you want to do then?"

"What I want to do is to put Ares in the deepest part of hell to burn for eternity for what heís done to Randi. What I am going to do is another thing entirely."

At that moment Lorac stuck her head out the door. "My queen, the Amazon regents are here to see you. They say they need an answer."

Gwen shook her head. "If they need an answer this quickly, then the answer is no. I will not be bullied or pushed into taking this. Theyíve waited this long; they can wait until I make a decision or they can take no for my answer. Now if you ladies will excuse me...." Gwen eased past them and went up the back stairs to reach her room. Lorac and Rosie watched through the screen until they heard Gwen close the bedroom door behind her before turning towards one another.

"Well, I guess the queen has spoken," Lorac commented to Rosie. The shamaness simply nodded.

"Perhaps you would do well to ensure the regents and the elders understand what will happen if they push Gwen too hard." Loracís cocked eyebrow prompted further comment from Rosie. "Gwen is tough and she wonít let them push her into any sort of decision, but Randi is standing behind Gwen and she wonít tolerate any sort of perceived mistreatment or disrespect." Rosie held up a hand when Lorac took a deep breath to speak. "Think about it, Lorac. Randi is focused on destroying the rebellion now... destroying it... because they made it personal for her. They targeted Gwen. We really donít want to draw that kind of attention for whatever the reason."

"Iíll make sure they appreciate that little fact. They just donít understand Gwenís hesitation. Any one of them would give their first born for the opportunity sheís being offered on a silver platter."

Rosie turned thoughtful eyes towards Lorac. "Then maybe Gwen is right to be so hesitant. Any people who are so power hungry leave much to be desired as a nation."

"I donít know if it is the power aspect or the chance to be seen as a legend... a real, live hero. Weíve waited a very long time to be a united nation again. Everyone is very excited about the prospect of it happening now... in their lifetime. And to have the Chosen One be someone like Gwen...."

"What?"

Lorac sighed, trying to find a way to express herself that would make Rosie understand without making the Amazons sound petty. Finally she shrugged. "Itís complicated."

Rosie laughed out loud at the plaintive statement and clapped Lorac on the shoulder. The discombobulated look the weaponsí master spared her only made her laugh harder, until tears were running from her eyes. Lorac crossed her arms over her chest and gave Rosie her best glare. The shamaness took a deep breath to contain her laughter.

"Iím sorry, Lorac. I was not laughing at you or the dilemma the Amazons are faced with. Itís just that, with Gwen and Randi involved, it has to be complicated. It always is with them, and has been in every lifetime they have shared together."

Rosie could easily see the twinkle lurking in the back of Loracís eyes and a smirk teasing her lips. "Youíre kidding me... really?"

"Absolutely the truth. Gwen has even shared some stories about them."

Loracís face grew expressive and she dropped her arms and reached for the screen door. "Címon. I have an idea."

 

 

"Line them up," Randi said precisely in a deceptively calm voice. Rebel and Sabre alike shivered at the coldness of her tone. It didnít take much effort on the part of the Sabres; the Reds had already been beaten into the ground. Still scattered around the area were the dead bodies of those that had resisted when the Sabres had moved in.

Randi sat in a throne-like chair, surveying the carnage. They had lost more rebels than sheíd expected, though they still had a majority of this faction to return to the capital for incarceration. With any luck, she would only need to make examples of small parts of each rebel group. She was looking forward to that... at least, if it worked. If it didnít, well, it wouldnít be pretty, but it would be taken care of.

Twelve rebels stood in front of her, having been singled out as the leaders of the Red faction. For them, there would be no mercy. The regular military had surrounded the compound; their orders were to ensure no one went in or out. They would be used to escort the rebels to their new prison home. Slowly, Randi was going to incorporate the regular military into pulling their weight. It was time *everyone* served and not just the few.

"Kneel." Again, cold and hard. The only people in the room were the Sabre teams and the twelve rebels. The tone of her voice was enough to make knees bend willingly and they hit the floor hard together. Most sets of eyes followed the same path; only one remain belligerent for seconds longer before dropping to the floor with a glare.

Randi sat thoughtfully rubbing her hand on her chin. Now she had the answer to at least one question. He would suffer the worst and he would suffer last. He would see the others die first and Randi had given a lot of thought to making sure they all suffered long and well before granting any of them the absolution of death.

"Back off," she said quietly, motioning the Sabres away from the kneeling rebels with a wave of her hand. They exchanged glances with one another before they each stepped back several healthy paces.

Randi waited, wanting to see them sweat before the killing began. She really had no regrets about the whole situation and was, in fact, relishing this first victory. Eventually, she rose gracefully to her feet, her manner that of a ruler about to pronounce sentence on the accused. In that regard, she succeeded admirably. Even the Sabres watched her with awe and respect.

Kill them.

The voice echoed in her head and Randi looked around to see who would dare presume to give her orders or try to make that decision for her.

Show no mercy... KILL THEM. Slaughter them like the dogs they are.

Randi walked behind them slowly, smiling as each rebel tensed as her body passed behind them. She closed her eyes and focused, pushing the voice out of her mind. Then she opened her eyes and drew a deep breath to speak.

"I have decided to give each of you a far more honorable death than you deserve. You will each be allowed to fight me, one at a time, and I promise to make it relatively quick, if not painless. So which of you wants to be first, hmmm?" Randi waited.

She wasnít surprised when no one volunteered. Randi kept a close eye on the line, noting two, neither of them the pseudo-defiant leader, who flinched and clenched their hands into fists. She tapped one on the shoulder, then blocked the shot to her belly as the rebel turned on her swinging. Almost negligently, Randi popped the man in two nerves in his neck and watched dispassionately as he fell over clutching his neck.

"Next?" she drawled with a hint of a grin in her voice.

They would have rushed her, but the Sabres around the room made it clear that wasnít an option. One by one she ripped them apart Ė a severed head, a snapped neck, a bleeding jugular, a blade to the heart Ė each death different and more creative than the last, until only the leader was left.

"Any last words?" He opened his mouth and she backhanded him before he could spit. "Bad choice," she said, beating him to death with her bare hands. Then she looked at the Sabres who gazed at her with the oddest expressions Ė a mixture of awe, respect, disgust and pain. She shrugged; sheíd done what sheíd needed to and nothing more.

"Burn them," she ordered flatly. Tiny motioned to a number of the Sabres standing around the room and instantly they sprang into action to clean up the area. The rest moved into formation and awaited further instructions, knowing Randi was anxious to get back to the capital city.

"Tiny, divide up the squads. We need two units to supervise the regular military as they escort the rebels to the holding facility. The rest need to get back to the city and prepare for the next mission. Somethingís gotta give with someone else soon. You and Brenda need to get back to your groups. You need to be in place when the last of your factions arrive in their respective gathering spots."

"Aye sir."

"Jess should be waiting for me when we get back. And I expect to hear from both you and Brenda fairly quickly."

"As soon as we know anything, sir." Tiny waited for her to dismiss him and he took the opportunity to study Randi. She looked tired and in need of a friend. He opened his mouth to speak again when she cut him off.

"Thank you, Tiny," said softly. "Dismissed."

He hesitated, then snapped to attention and gave Randi a salute. Then he ran back to the Sabres who were still waiting for instructions, barking out orders and causing people to move with alacrity. Randi watched for a moment longer before she headed to the shuttle that was waiting to take her back to the capital city.

Tinyís eyes followed Randi until she was out of sight. Then he went back making sure Randiís orders were carried out, wanting the whole thing to just be over.

 

 

Gwen was scribbling furiously in her diary when the gentle knock came on the door. She blew out an aggravated breath, unconsciously pushing her bangs off of her forehead with the motion. She hesitated, then resumed her scribbling, her mind moving faster than the pen could keep up. The second knock was a little louder and caused Gwenís pen to stutter to a stop. She glared at the door, intent on ignoring the interruption when a voice called out to her softly.

"My queen?"

Gwen sighed. She knew Lorac meant well; Gwen just needed some quiet time for herself and didnít understand why people didnít seem to get that. She lay across the bed for a long moment contemplating being rude to Lorac regardless of the circumstances, then dropped her pen into the crease of her journal and closed the leather bound book. Sometimes, having good manners was just a pain in the ass.

Lorac knocked once more. "My queen?" she said again quietly, her voice barely audible through the thick door. Gwen rolled over onto her back and covered her eyes with her arm and sighed.

"Come in, Lorac."

The Amazon opened the door slowly and stuck her head in. "Um... is this a bad time?"

Gwen sighed again and slid her arm up to peek at the weaponsí master. "Lorac, all things considered, I donít think there is going to be a good time for a while." She sat up on her elbows and looked at Lorac compassionately. "What can I do for you?"

"I came to apologize." She handed Gwen a cup of hot tea which was received with a brief smile of thanks. Gwen hadnít gotten to finish hers downstairs. Lorac spoke again. "I didnít mean to push you earlier. Itís just...." She stopped speaking at Gwenís signal.

"Donít worry about it, Lorac. I have a feeling youíre between a rock and a hard place and not by your own doing either. Iím sorry you got stuck there. Iíll take care of the regents, all right?"

"I already did," came the calm retort.

Gwen sat all the way up. "Excuse me?"

"I said, I already took care of the regents. I explained to them they needed to chill. Trying to force you into accepting something you donít want isnít going to be good for you or for us. I actually came up here to ask you a favor."

Gwen gave Lorac a smile. "Considering the favor you just did me... what can I do for you?"

"I was hoping maybe youíd be willing to tell some stories tonight. So many of the visiting Amazons are big fans and I think it would go a long way to soothing any ruffled feathers. They arenít trying to be pushy; they just honestly donít understand why you... why anyone... wouldnít jump at an opportunity like this."

Gwenís smile turned wry and she rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Iím sure they donít. I doubt anyone besides me would... understand it, I mean. ĎCause youíre right Ė most people would jump on a chance like this. I canít even explain my hesitation. I just know I wonít have anyone deciding this for me."

Lorac nodded. "So will you?"

"Do you really think they want to listen to me tell stories, Lorac? Especially if they are that angry with me right now?"

Lorac grinned. "Gwen, I think their pride is hurt more than anything. Some of them are taking this like a personal rejection. But you havenít heard them talking either... they are totally infatuated with you... with your storytelling. Everyone here is a huge fan to hear them tell it. One reason they feel like you are rejecting them is because of your celebrity status. I know, I know...." Lorac said, raising her hands. "It doesnít make sense to me either, but I think it helps them feel better knowing youíre not *not* choosing the Amazons because you have something else more important."

Gwen closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. "I do, Lorac. Thatís one of the problems." She removed her hands and looked Lorac directly in the eyes. "Randi will always, *always* be first in my heart and in my life. Even if I was to accept the mantle of Amazon queen, the Nation would always be a distant second to what Randi and I share. Is it fair to ask the Amazons to accept *that*?"

"I donít know, Gwen. Thatís not my call to make. However, would you still be willing to tell stories tonight? It wouldnít take us long to set everything up if you say yes."

"This is important to you, isnít it?"

Lorac nodded. "Yes. I was wrong when I jumped to conclusions about you. I donít want them to be guilty of the same. And I think this might keep them from making the same mistake."

Gwen studied Loracís earnest expression for a long moment before nodding her agreement. "All right, Lorac. I did promise Lenore I would tell some stories, and if you think it will help...."

"I really do."

"Okay then. Give me a couple hours. I know that will make kinda late, but...."

"Nope, that will be perfect. "Iíll get things set up and come get you in two hours."

Gwen wanted to protest the escort, but bit her tongue. Her leaving the village alone earlier in the day had had all sorts of unforeseen complications. She would deal with having a bodyguard if it would make the Amazonís responsibility to her a little easier for them to bear. They shouldnít have to suffer because if her anger towards Randi.

"All right. Thanks, Lorac."

"Thank you, my queen," automatically switching back to Gwenís title with ease. "I really do appreciate it." And before Gwen could say another word, Lorac was out of the room and the door was closed firmly behind her.

"Well?" Rosie asked as Lorac crossed the threshold into the kitchen. The rest waited patiently for her answer. Lorac nodded her head as she took a seat. She gave Sky a grateful smile when he set a glass of iced tea in front of her and she took a healthy swallow before speaking.

"She agreed. But I hope she gets some rest; she looks exhausted."

"I imagine she is," Reed commented. "Itís been a hell of a long day."

"It says a lot about Gwenís character that she is still willing to perform for the Amazons tonight after all sheís been through today... especially given the way the regents were pushing her earlier."

"Sheís a professional, Sky," Tommy chided gently. "Storytelling is her life."

"Not anymore," Lorac said with conviction. "Randi is her life, her heart, her home. Everything else - storytelling, Amazon title, whatever Ė is a very distant second. She said as much to me upstairs just now."

Reed blinked. Sheíd never expected Gwen to share something so private and wondered what had brought it on. Then Lorac shared the context and Reed understood perfectly, as did the rest of the group seated at Skyís small table. And it made them understand her dilemma even more. Reed made a decision and turned to Lorac, who was just getting up from her seat.

"Lorac, I want you to go tell the Amazons that while Gwen was willing, and absolutely agreed to do a storytelling session for them tonight, I have decided it is in her best interests to rest for the remainder of the evening, given the stress she has been through today."

"But...."

"Instead, she will perform tomorrow like she was scheduled to. But instead of telling stories to children, she will be telling stories to the Amazons instead."

"Um, Reed? Donít you think Gwen might like to have a say in all this? Not that I disagree with you, because the toll this day has taken is written clearly on her face. I felt really bad asking, but it seemed important. Somehow, I donít think your giving a unilateral order like that without even consulting her is going to go over very well with Gwen, even if it is in her best interests."

"Sheís right, Reed. I know the commission Randi gave you," Sky commiserated sympathetically. "And quite frankly, nothing you do is going to be completely right. Randi is going to find fault with everything. Thatís a given. But I donít think pissing Gwen off it the way to go either. At least if she is... well, not happy, but content, it will go a long way towards assuaging whatever concerns Randi has."

"Thatís true, Reed," Rosie agreed, clapping her hands on Reedís shoulders and rubbing out the knots with strong, firm kneading. "And you know it."

Reedís chin dropped to her chest and she moaned. "God, that feels good," feeling the tension melt and the bones in her neck realign themselves with Rosieís sure touch. "I know youíre all right. I also know Gwen will do what she thinks is necessary to keep the peace for everyone... even if itís not best for her. Iím less afraid of her being angry with me for trying to look out for her than I am of Randi thinking Iím not."

The sound of a throat clearing broke the stillness that had fallen over the room with Reedís pronouncement. All eyes turned towards the doorway that led to the back stairs, not surprised to see Gwen standing there smiling wryly at all of them. Reed cursed silently for allowing her senses to be overrun by the sensations of serenity Rosieís hands had been creating on her psyche instead of focused outwardly, though she rationally admitted to needing the downtime to fortify herself for what was coming.

Reed had been honest about her feelings in the matter. Still, it didnít mean she wanted a knock-down, dragĖout fight with Gwen about things either. She and Gwen had come to a tentative understanding after their disagreement at the beach house, and she didnít want to jeopardize that to argue about this. On the other hand, Reed did have her orders, and she was, first and foremost, a Sabre. So, she waited silently, watching as Gwen crossed the short space between them and taking the chair Sky offered with an appreciative smile. Then the rest of the room faded away.

Surprisingly, Gwen took Reedís hands in her own. Usually, she tried not to, knowing her touch was sometimes quite painful for Reed to endure. But this time, Gwen needed the connection and she felt confident that the support system Reed had currently in this room and in the village would be more than enough to protect her from anything unpleasant.

"I appreciate you looking out for me, Reed. I really do. I think you probably would have even if Randi hadnít issued you orders to do so. But this is something I need to do. I need for the Amazons to understand that while this queen thing is just not personal to me, I am not snubbing them or their way of life. Especially since they want me to be a part of their culture... even if it is only to fulfill an old legend. I, of all people in the world, canít discount old legends, can I?"

Gwen smiled and Reed couldnít help but smile back as she shook her head no. Gwen had more reason than most to believe in old legends Ė she was a living one. She sighed. "I understand that, Gwen... I honestly do. But does it have to be tonight? Itís already been a long day. Youíre exhausted... hell, we all are. Wouldnít it be better to wait til tomorrow?"

"Probably," she answered wryly. "But it needs to be their decision. They have to feel some measure of control here, and since Iím not going to let them dictate to me about becoming their queen, itís easy enough to do this for them."

Reed chuckled. "When did you get so smart?" Then she jumped when Gwen pinched the back of her hand. "What did you do that for?"

Gwen snorted. "As if. Iíll have you know I have been smart for a while. Just ask my mother Ė sheíll verify I am a genius Ė absolutely certified." She was doing her best to keep a straight face, but the twinkle in her eyes gave her away. It was Tommyís muffled guffaw that caused laughter to ripple around the room, cutting through the tension like a hot knife through butter.

"Absolutely certifiable, you mean," he commented.

The room howled and Gwen slapped at Tommy. "Iím gonna certify something in a minute!!" It took a few more minutes for everyone to settle down, and even then they couldnít look at one another without someone breaking into another round of giggles. Finally Gwen took a deep breath. "That felt really good."

"Yeah, it sure did," Tommy agreed. "I needed that."

"We all needed that," Reed commented. Gwen turned back to the seer at her words.

"Yeah, we did. Now, Lorac, if you want to give the Amazons the news and let them make their choice...." Lorac nodded and slipped out the door, thinking how nice it had been to have seen a more human side to Gwen, even if it had been a little odd. Despite the feelings of sisterhood throughout the Nation, Lorac couldnít recall a time when the Amazons just sat around laughing for laughterís sake. She almost envied that.

Gwen blinked at Loracís rapid disappearance, then refocused on Reed. "You let me worry about Randi. Sheís not gonna take anything out on you; I wonít let her."

Reed smiled. Given the precariousness of the whole situation, it was almost funny. But it did her heart good know that Gwen still believed... in herself and in them. "All right," she agreed. "Iíll look out for you, and you can cover my back."

"Deal."

 

 

"Jess... in my office, now!"

It was late and Jess had hoped Randi would wait until morning before calling her in for a briefing. She was exhausted and still healing from her encounter with the Amazons and village warriors earlier in the day. It had been a vain hope. With a sigh, she got up and followed the Commandant into the office, assuming attention immediately and letting her senses absorb the tension she could feel rolling from Randi.

"What happened?" Her voice was calm and completely unnerving. Jess clamped down on the chill that wanted to skitter up her spine. "Why didnít you alert us to the attack?"

"I tried, sir. I did, but no one answered my call, and I only had time to try once. We were taking advantage of the fact that Gwen was out alone."

"Excuse me? What do you mean she was out alone?"

Jess shook her head, wishing Randi would let her move to an at ease position. She was still feeling the effects of her regeneration and collapsing in front of the Commandant was really not something she wanted to add to her agenda for the day.

"She wasnít alone, sir, not really. Reed and all the Amazons and warriors were right behind her when she left the village unexpectedly. Frieda was just trying to take advantage of the situation, sir."

Randi dropped into her chair, absorbing the information. She looked at Jess for a long moment before waving her hand. "Sit, before you fall." Jess took a seat with startling rapidity, glad to be off her feet. Sheíd been close to passing out. Randi regarded Jess a little longer before nodding her head. "All right. Do you know when and where the Fringe Amazons are meeting?"

"Yes, sir. Frieda gave us the information before we moved towards the village. We were supposed to go there as soon as our objective was obtained, sir."

Randi bit her lips, knowing exactly what that objective had been. She knew Jess was trying to keep thing impersonal, but in this instance it was hard to maintain her objectivity. All she wanted to do right now was wreak havoc, cause harm Ė anything, everything Ė whatever it took to make things safe so Gwen could come home where she belonged once and for all.

"All right. Give me your information, then I want you to go back to the medifac and get some rest. Weíre gonna need you when we get ready to go take them out."

"Aye sir."

Randi stood up and took Jess by the arm. "Címon. Iíll walk you down. You can tell me on the way. Then I have plans to make."

 

 

Chapter XX

"In my lifetime, Iíve had the opportunity to visit many of the societies that populate our world and I have always delighted in the stories that the people in those cultures choose to share with me. Some have a lot, and some have only a little, but everyone has something they want to pass on about their people and their traditions. I have been very lucky in the respect that I not only get to hear those stories, but I get to share them with others."

Gwen crossed the stage slowly, connecting with as many Amazons as she could. They had been quite excited when sheíd offered to perform for them, and had been gracious about waiting until theyíd all had some rest. But now, in the light of day, she could see their - not skepticism, but confusion Ė and she wanted to allay their misgivings as much as possible.

"When I first came here, when the Amazons agreed to tutor me in weaponsí training, I asked Regent Lenore if I could learn about your history and culture as well. I canít tell you how excited I was when she agreed. The Amazons have a fantastic history. It goes back not hundreds, but thousands of years, and while I havenít actually seen them, you have actual writings and scrolls that date back that far... to the very beginning of the Amazon Nation."

Gwen took a seat on the stool provided for the purpose and looked over the crowd again carefully. "Iím looking forward to studying about the Amazons. Few cultures have the depth of history youíve been blessed with and your historians have been wonderful caretakers in preserving the written word."

"My own ancestors have also served as historians and record keepers. We have been storytellers and bards for all of our recorded history, and that history goes back to ancient, ancient times. Iíd like to share with you a time when the path of one of my ancestors crossed into the world of the Amazons."

Gwen smiled. She saw her audience physically sit up straighter and lean forward in anticipation. This was something they hadnít expected. Gwen wasnít going to explain how the ancestor was related to her; though the Soulmates were known to the Amazons, how they reincarnated through the karmic cycle wasnít public knowledge. Only Gwenís and Randiís families knew the whole truth, and that was enough.

But the tale Gwen wanted to share was interesting and she didnít have to share the whole truth of the Soulmates Ė just the parts where they had come together within the Amazon Nation, millennia ago.

The Amazons sat rapt, listening to parts of their history that they knew well and yet was somewhat unfamiliar with the telling. Gwen was revealing bits to them that they had never heard and her point of view was refreshing. Those listening would have easily believed she had been there as the outsider accepted the title of Amazon queen for the first time.

They listened as her pain became palpable, more than one wiping away tears surreptitiously. They held their breath through her fear and cheered spontaneously when she experienced unlooked for joy. This was a queen they had known of, but not really known, and Gwen brought a real life dimension to her that made them appreciate her and themselves even more.

She didnít share much about the queenís relationship with her companion, not in this telling, yet it was clear that the two together were separate parts of the same whole. The warmth they shared was something the Amazons could sense just in Gwenís tone of voice, and they found themselves drawn to it, wishing she would share more about the two who were so obviously everything to one another.

But she didnít. Instead, Gwen drew their attention to the one who would be queen simply because of her compassion and a cruel twist of fate. She took her time, weaving their history and hers together, and before they realized it, the morning was gone. Still, no one moved as Gwen took them from the triumphs and tragedies of the old world to their relocation in the new.

When she finally stopped speaking, the Amazons sat stunned. They had been introduced to a part of their history they all knew and yet had no real understanding of, and Gwen, through her words and inflections of tone, had made it come alive for all of them.

The silence was spectacular, and more than a little unnerving for Gwen. She looked back at Tommy with worried green eyes. Surely she hadnít miscalculated that badly. Tommy raised his hands in the universal gesture of non-understanding. He himself had been transfixed during the telling, but having underlying knowledge of who the soulmates in question really were admittedly contributed to his interest. Regardless, though, the story was compelling on its own, and neither of them understood the complete lack of reaction on the part of the Amazons.

Almost as one the Amazons realized that Gwen was finished, and they rose as a single entity, clapping and cheering with enthusiasm. They couldnít see it, but Tommy smiled when he saw Gwen visibly relax. Nothing was worse for an artist than doubt, and the Amazons had managed to create a big one... until Gwen realized they had been completely astounded by what they had heard.

Her smile of comprehension was blinding in its intensity. She had no way of knowing she had cemented the Amazonsí conviction that she was the queen they had waited for.

She stood to accept their applause graciously when a movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Gwen turned her head full to see Lorac approaching her rapidly, upset clear in every line of her body. Gwen held up her hands for quiet and moved to the side of the stage to intercept the weaponsí master.

The exchange was terse and brief, and Gwen covered her mouth with her hand before she stood upright. Then she moved back to the center of the stage, her footsteps making loud noises in the silent hall. The Amazons looked at her expectantly.

Gwen swallowed hard, blinking the tears out of her eyes. The silence became tomblike, thick and palpable. She took a deep breath and then a second, before clearing her throat and beginning to speak, her voice wavering only slightly.

"My sisters," she addressed them without conscious thought. "It is my sad duty to inform you that my friend, your regent Lenore...." A shuddering breath. She bit her lip to try to bring the trembling under control. "Lenore just died." A murmur rose up from the crowd. Gwen waited patiently for it to die down before she resumed speaking. Eventually all eyes turned towards her, waiting expectantly for her to continue.

"We will have a pyre for her at sunset. Please go and make yourselves ready."

Without another word, Gwen turned and left the stage. The Amazons followed her directive without question, filing out with barely a word spoken amongst them. Tommy smiled sadly, wondering if Gwen realized sheíd just accepted the mantle and title of queen.

Then he followed Gwen back to Skyís. He needed to call Ella and he knew Gwen would need his support. This weekend was becoming more convoluted by the minute.

 

 

SLAP!! "Bad choice. Would you like to try again?" Randiís voice was deceptively calm, not belying the underlying fury that pulsed through her veins at the mere sight of this rebel. This one, more than any that had come before her - including Ghost Rider Ė deserved death, and Randi wanted this woman to suffer for what she had done to Gwen. Already they had been at this for a while, and Friedaís face was swollen from the series of buffets Randi had showered her with... and she hadnít even begun to use the torture implements so prominently displayed.

Randi walked around the naked body that was strung up between two polymer posts. Yuri had redesigned the basement at Randi instruction, soundproofing it and turning it into a bona fide, state-of-the-art torture chamber. It had been his top priority upon arrival, knowing it would be put to use sooner rather than later. He just hadnít expected it to be so soon; he was glad heíd been ready. This would be one room Gwen would never be allowed into; the lock on the door assured that.

Randi picked up the cat of nine tails and walked around in front of Frieda, gently caressing the crop in her hands. She turned her attention back to the trussed up woman and arched an eyebrow in question. "Well? Would you like to try again?"

"Fuck you, bitch!"

"Tsk, tsk. Wrong answer. Not even in your dreams, Frieda." Without warning, Randi lashed out and let the cat bite into the womanís back, breaking the skin and causing the blood to weep from the marks. Frieda flinched away from the pain and couldnít stop the whimper that escaped her lips at the unexpected attack.

Unseen in the corner, Ares stood watching the proceedings with perplexed interest. He didnít understand why Randi simply didnít destroy the rebellion. Given the fact that the scar on her face was totally eradicated, she should have been completely under his control. Yet she continued to disregard his instructions, doing what she wanted to do how she wanted to do them. Not that Ares didnít enjoy torture as much as the next dark god, but this wasnít at all the victorious conquering he had envisioned from her when heíd decided to reclaim her warrior soul for his own. He bit his lip and turned his attention back to the drama playing out in front of him.

Randi walked around to stand in front of the Fringe Amazon that had been responsible for the attack on Gwen at their honeymoon cabin. "Youíre obviously not very bright, Frieda," Randi continued almost conversationally. "You see, you are going to die, and youíre going to tell me everything you know before I let that happen. The only control you have here is how much youíre gonna suffer before I grant you the mercy of death."

A second lash caught Frieda in the upper thigh, drawing blood again and she spat at Randi in both pain and anger. The warrior wiped the spittle from her cheek then onto her pants, not sparing Frieda a glance before walking over to a second table. She placed the cat reverently back in its preferred spot and picked up a bottle of clear liquid. Randi pulled the top off and took a sniff then a sip. Satisfied, she turned back to Frieda with a malicious smile on her face.

For her part, Frieda took Randiís lack of reaction as a capitulation of sorts. She figured the warrior was simply going to kill her, realizing that Frieda was not going to betray the Fringe Amazons or Bramble. She idly wondered if Randi even knew about the new rebel and his plans to annihilate the peace and smiled grimly. She would miss being part of the new world order of mayhem and destruction, but at least she hadnít betrayed it. Too bad for Frieda she figured wrong.

"I think you need some time to think about things," Randi said calmly, breaking into Friedaís train of thought. It took her a moment to comprehend what Randiís words meant. Frieda lost her smile as the meaning sunk in. Randiís expression simply grew more deadly.

"But first, let me leave you with something to think about." She took the open bottle and poured its contents on Friedaís open wounds... first on the thigh, then letting the remainder cascade down the renegadeís back. Randi watched dispassionately as the alcohol and the blood co-mingled before dripping onto the floor.

It only took a moment for realization to move from thought to reality as the alcohol that Randi had liberally poured over her body seared into Friedaís conscious understanding. She screamed.

Randi stood and absorbed the sound, licking her lips as the taste of victory washed over her. Frieda was still screaming when she stepped from the room without a backwards glance.

Ares remained a moment longer, enjoying the rebelís pain with a sense of sadistic pleasure. Then he orbed out, intent on searching for a way to resolve what he perceived as Randiís humane weakness. He wanted all of the warriorís soul to be his. He couldnít claim ownership of Ė complete domination over - her until he did, and in all likelihood, given the way things were going, she wouldnít call for him unless she surrendered. Ares wanted insurance that was going to happen, even if it wasnít on his timetable. Heíd never realized winning was going to take so much work after the battle was over.

 

 

Aphrodite watched with tears in her eyes as Randiís soul grew colder. Finally, the goddess couldnít stand it any longer and turned her face into Athenaís shoulder. For once, the goddess of wisdom didnít question or retreat. She simply held on and offered Dite whatever comfort she could. For a long time, they stood locked together. Eventually, Diteís silent sobs slowed and she pulled back from Athenaís embrace just slightly.

"Thanks, The," said with a slight hiccup. "Sorry... I...."

"Shh," Athena replied, covering Diteís lips with two fingers. "Truth be told, I felt like doing the same thing, and I canít actually feel the withdrawal of their souls from one another like you can."

"I didnít expect it to hurt so much."

"I know. Who would? This has already been so much more than we expected it to be. When did we get so bad at this whole god thing?"

Dite gave Athena a watery chuckle and Athena gave her a blinding smile in return, happy to hear the sound. Dite had been entirely too sad and depressed lately and it cast a pall over all of Olympus. Even Ares felt it, though he couldnít put his finger on what was troubling him; he assumed it had something to do with the fact that Randi had yet to call on him. He never considered anything else.

"The, since when do you do valley-speak, babe? Whole god thing?"

Athena shrugged. "Maybe youíre rubbing off on me, Dite. After millennia of trying to understand you, I guess it finally started to sink in."

"Radical, The," Dite said, bumping shoulders with her and smiling. "Iíll make a righteous babe outta ya yet."

Athena chuckled. "Dite, Iím not sure the world is ready for that."

Dite nodded sagely. "Youíre probably right. Thereís plenty enough of me to go around." She grinned up at Athena and smiled shyly. "Thanks, The."

"What for?" though she was fairly confident what Aphrodite was referring to.

"Reminding me... weíre totally gonna win."

"I never doubted it," Athena lied smoothly. "But what makes you say that now?"

"Cause itís so not up to us... itís up to them and theyíre not gonna live with this kind of pain."

"And you think...?"

"I think theyíre gonna fight to be together. They have to be together. And that means... we win."

Athena wrapped an arm around Diteís shoulders, smiling when Aphrodite reciprocate with an arm around her waist. "I like the way you think, sister."

"Me too," with a laugh. Then they walked towards the scrying bowl together, anxious to find out how things were going for Artemis and the Amazons.

 

 

Gwen sat at the desk in her room, undisturbed by the preparations that were going on in the village. She had her diary open and was writing slowly and thoughtfully. She looked up when a knock on the door was followed immediately by Tommyís head peeking around the door looking for her. Gwen placed her pen in the journal to mark her place, then closed the book as a wave of déjà vu swept through her. She motioned him in, and he smiled in relief.

"Hey, T. Whatís up?"

"I came to check on you," he answered frankly.

She smiled and patted his leg closest to her. "Iím all right, Tommy. As all right as I can be for now."

"Thatís actually not all that good, Gwen."

She shrugged. "Sorry. Best I can do for you. Iím not gonna lie about it."

He took the hand she had left on his calf and held it in his. "I donít want you to lie, Gwen. Weíve always had honestly between us. Is there anything I can do for you?"

This time she gave him a real smile. "No, Tommy. I appreciate you asking though."

"Gwen, Iíll tell you like I told Randi. Youíre part of my life, part of my family. And I donít take that lightly. If you need something, I want you to ask. I know this whole situation sucks, and if Ella and I can do something to make things a little better, weíd like to. In fact, she said if youíd like, she and Randall will come stay a while."

"NO!" Her emphatic answer startled him, and he jumped. "No, Tommy. I appreciate the offer, I really do. But I cannot, *will not* put anyone else in danger. No, Tommy," she said, holding up a hand. "I was brought here for my protection, and in doing so have risked the lives of hundreds of people. People have already died Ė both friends and enemies. I donít want any more deaths on my conscience... especially not the deaths of family."

"You donít think that should be our choice?"

"Not this time, Tommy. I know itís selfish, but I wouldnít wanna live with that, and honestly, I couldnít ask Randi to live with that kind of guilt. You know as well as I do she would assume personal responsibility if anything happened to yaíll. Thatís how I ended up here in the first place."

"All right," Tommy agreed, nodding his head and squeezing the fingers he still held lightly. He cleared his throat. "What are you gonna do about this queen thing?" though he was already fairly confident in her answer. She had been born to it, even if she didnít realize it yet.

"I think I am going to accept the position, even if it is only on a temporary basis. It will provide Randi with some peace of mind, I think, after she realizes the full implications behind it. And it will make the Amazons happy without really hurting anyone."

"What about you? Doesnít it mean anything to you?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not really, Tommy. I know I have Amazon roots Ė the Soulmates stories are quite explicit in their telling. But itís not who I am now, and itís not something I have ever looked towards being again. I mean, címon... you know the Amazon legends better than I do, and youíre a man. Doesnít *that* tell you anything? Iím not cut out to be an Amazon queen, but for now, they need something to believe in and it is mutually beneficial to us both."

"It tells me youíre selling yourself short again... something you seem to have developed a real knack for in the past year or so," wisely not mentioning what she had suffered in the last year. He didnít figure reminding her would get him very far. "I want you to promise me something," he added before she could continue.

"Whatís that?"

"You have to promise first."

"Tommy!" she whined. "Thatís not fair."

"Life generally isnít," was the soft retort. He squeezed her fingers again for emphasis. "Promise me."

"All right," she capitulated gracefully. "I promise," trusting him not to ask for the impossible.

"Thank you," he breathed, recognizing her trust for what it was. "I want you to consider you first Ė before you accept this position for everyone else. I want you to do what is right for Gwen."

She smiled sadly and pulled her hand from his as she turned back to her journal. "Sometimes, Tommy... sometimes you have to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs or the desires of the one. I will promise you that I will do my best for me and for them, but I canít not consider them, especially Randi. As angry as I am with her right now, I will not make things worse for her."

Tommy sat a moment, considering her words carefully. "Okay," he finally concurred. "But if you need anything... if there is any way we can help at all, you call us. The Amazons can borrow you for a little while, but they donít get to keep you. Youíre family; you belong to us." His teasing grin didnít distract from the seriousness of his eyes.

"Tommy, even if I wanted to, Randi would never stand for it. Hell, I would never stand for it!" She blew out a breath. "Trust me, Tommy. I will do my best for the Amazons, but when they are taken care of, well... I know where home is."

"All right," he agreed. "Now, let me go get you something to eat. It wouldnít do for the new Amazon Queen to fall over before she even gets sworn in. Back in a few."

Gwen propped her head on her fist and shook her head while chuckling silently as Tommy exited the room. When the door closed, she turned her attention back to her journal, opening the book and rereading her entry up to the point where Tommy had interrupted her. She had just picked up her pen to resume writing, when a new voice caused her to sigh and drop the pen back into the crease of the book before turning around to face....

"Artemis?"

"Youíre wrong, you know." She reached forward and smoothed the lines from Gwenís face with a tender touch. "You are an Amazon, and you are an Amazon queen. You were the best queen the Nation ever had. You did so much...." Artemis stopped speaking when Gwen shook her head, and cocked an eyebrow in question.

"Artemis, I have no memory of that time... only the stories that have been handed down through my family. But I know for certain, even without reading the Amazon histories - just relying on the accountings in my possession - that I was not the kind of committed leader the Amazons deserved Ė not then and certainly not now. My soulmate came first, last, always... just like she does now."

"Gwen, though I would have wished for you to have been a full time queen of my people, when you did serve as their queen, you did so well and with honor. Though they didnít always understand, I knew when I chose you your soulmate would always come first... then and now."

"Artemis, Iím willing to accept the mantle of queen and Iíll do the very best I can for them until they are a strong nation again. It would be mutually beneficial. But they need to understand the reservations and restrictions Iím working under. I know you do." Gwen held up her hands. Artemis clamped her lips together. "I just want them to know exactly what they are going to get from me... to avoid any heartache later when the time comes for me to go home."

"You tell them that, Gwen. Iíll make sure they understand."

"Can you do that?"

Artemis chuckled. "Itís been a while since I had to use the art of persuasion to any good end, but I think I might remember how."

Gwen blushed. "Sorry... I didnít mean...."

"Itís all right, Gwen. It was a fair question. Youíre in a difficult position. Iím glad youíre going to accept the title, Gwen. As youíve pointed out, it will be mutually beneficial, and I think you might even enjoy it. I am fairly certain you will learn a few things about yourself that you never suspected... things you never knew you were capable of."

Gwen smiled nervously. "I hope theyíre good things."

"I think they will be," Artemis smiled gently, reaching out a hand and brushing Gwenís bangs back from her face. "And if not, it wonít be the first challenge you have had to face. Have a little faith in yourself, Gwen. You are going to be fine."

"I hope so, Artemis. I want to do right by these women, but more than anything, I just want this to be over. Iím ready to go home."

"I know, my queen. I have every hope that this will be over soon."

Gwen didnít say anything; there really wasnít anything to say. Instead, she gave the goddess a half-smile. Then she turned back to her diary and picked up her pen once more, ready to resume her writing. She hoped that by putting her thoughts down it writing, it would give her a little more clarity.

Artemis couldnít add anything else, so she brushed a kiss over the top of Gwenís head. Then she patted Gwenís shoulders before she shimmered out of sight and back to Olympus.

 

 

"The next part gets a little muddled," Gwen commented to Randi. "A lot of things happened all at once, and I had trouble pinning people down to get everything straight. And then it just got crazy."

Randi started to chuckle, but the pain in her chest cut the effort short. She lay back against Gwen with a groan, shifting to try and find a comfortable position. She quickly gave it up as a lost cause and tried to catch her breath instead. Gwen cupped Randiís face with one hand, and green eyes met blue in concern.

"Itís getting worse, isnít it?"

Randi closed her eyes against the truth and nodded. Gwen bit her lip in thought. She knew they were stuck here in the darkest part of Randiís subconscious mind until there spirit walk was completed. Though the safe room had been pleasant enough, their one trip into Gwenís mind had been a near disaster, and Gwen wasnít sure she was ready to risk another walk on that particular wild side. She tried wishing for medication or bandages, anything to make Randi more comfortable, but nothing appeared. Apparently, that kind of comfort was to be denied them until this was over, and Gwen was becoming more worried Randi might not survive if they didnít finish soon.

"Iím not sure what I can do to help you, love," wrapping an arm around Randiís neck and shoulders and brushing a light kiss across her temple checking for a fever. Her brow furrowed when she felt the heat. "But I think we need to move things along faster. The sooner we get out of here and back together on a physical plane, the better."

"I couldnít agree more, love. Just your being here helps, but I think we need to get done with this and get out. Can you reach my next book of memories? I think I can fill in all the blanks you have." She waited until Gwen handed her the next locked book, rubbing a hand over the plain leather cover before looking back up at Gwen. "Thanks. I wish I felt well enough to chance a trip to the safe room Reed set up for us. I am so tired of the darkness."

With her words, the inky blackness around them lightened perceptibly, and while not anywhere close to light, it no longer felt thick and heavy. Gwen and Randi looked at one another in amazement.

"Tell me you felt that," Randi whispered, astonishment clearly heard in her voice. "Tell me you see the difference." Despite the pain, she reached up to trace Gwenís lips when they creased into a smile at her question. "You do, donít you?"

"Oh yeah. You bet I do." Gwen leaned down and captured Randiís lips for a long moment, smiling into the embrace. "You know what this means, donít you?" pulling back just far enough to allow them to breathe. Their lips were still touching and the movement of Gwenís lips against hers tickled Randiís. She smiled at the sensation and shook her head, returning the ticklish feeling with abandon. Gwen giggled and brushed another kiss across Randiís lips, reveling in this return of freedom between them.

"This means we are winning. You have more control over what happens here."

"Good," Randi said firmly. "Letís get this done, then. I want control over what is going on out there."

 

 

"Anything?" Lacey said to Reed as the seer opened her eyes slowly.

Reed nodded, shifting but not losing her contact with Rosie. Lacey offered her some liquid nourishment and Reed took it gratefully. Monitoring Gwen and Randi was draining, but at least she finally had something positive to share.

She looked at Gwenís prone body, able to see the difference in her posture. "Can you see it?" glancing to the other two before motioning to Gwen. Lacey and Rosie turned their attention away from their technical observations and actually studied Gwen with the eyes of a concerned friend.

"Sheís relaxed, hasnít she?"

"What happened to them?"

Reed grinned at the enthusiasm both women showed and nodded, shifting again to find a more comfortable position. "They are making progress. I donít know what happened exactly, but I felt a lightening of their burden. It was amazing Ė I felt them...." She scrubbed a hand over her face. "Their aura is changing again; they are becoming who they were before, but more."

"Does this mean weíre winning?" Lacey asked as she checked on Gwenís vitals again. "Whoa!!" scrambling when the monitors screamed briefly before resuming their normal function. "What the hell was that all about??"

Reed winced in tandem with the noise, feeling Gwenís soul shiver in fear before it settled.

"Itís not the equipment," Lacey assured them, having given her gear a cursory glance. "At least it isnít anything I can find without running complete diagnostics on it."

"No," Reed said. "Itís not the equipment. Something happened to Gwen or Randi, and Gwenís body reacted to it. It didnít alter their aura, at least not negatively; that much I can see. Let me get back in there. Maybe I can get a better sense of what just happened. At least I can reaffirm our support. Rosie, are you up to it?"

The shamaness nodded. "Iím fine, Reed. Laceyís been taking good care of me," gesturing to the small pile of wrappers next to her. She didnít figure she needed to explain that there was as much chocolate in the pile as there was protein.

"All right. Thanks, Lacey. Iím glad youíre here keeping an eye out on things."

Lacey grinned. "Well, Iím glad youíre the one keeping an eye on things in there. Now get back to work, so we can get this thing done and go home. Iím ready for a beer."

Reed chuckled even as she resettled herself. "That sounds like a damn fine idea, Lacey. Make sure to put in a couple cold ones for me too." Then she closed her eyes and resumed her monitoring, hoping to find what had made Gwen shudder.

 

 

Chapter XXI

Frieda lasted longer than I expected, but not nearly as long I had hoped she would Ė not given what she had tried to do to Gwen. I didnít even make it to some of the more interesting tools Yuri had collected for my use. A part of me... a very small part tucked deep in the recesses of my mind knew this would make Gwen unhappy if she knew the truth, but a much larger part of me didnít care. Frieda deserved what happened to her... and more.

It wasnít too bad for her at first, though I donít think she expected to be strung up naked in the basement of a modern day torture chamber. The psychological impact that had on her was worth pushing Yuri to get done literally overnight.

I started out buffeting her with my bare hands, slaps and punches meant to show her I meant business. She was defiant to begin with, thinking my humanity would eventually lead me to imprison her for her crimes instead of execute her. I decided to correct that impression and give her something to think about overnight.

I got great pleasure using the cat on her bare skin, especially since I caught her by surprise. I would have left it at that had she not spit at me. But that kind of action deserved a special reaction on my part, and I thought the alcohol in her open wounds was a nice touch. It certainly made her cooperation much easier to obtain when I went back in the room the following morning.

There is something about the smell of blood and fear that wakes up my senses in the morning quite like nothing else, and Frieda gave me both of those in abundance. Nothing like the love I used to get from Gwen, but I donít know if or when I will ever know that feeling again, so Iíll take what I can get.

I didnít bother with preliminaries and speaking. Instead, I went straight to work, alternately breaking bones and using a number of the tools Yuri had provided. I didnít ask any questions, choosing to methodically to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain on her. I relished the sounds of her whimpers as I slowly, surely caused her untold suffering.

Finally, when she had scratches and open wounds covering a majority of her skin, I took the alcohol bottle from the tray and held it up in front of her once more. Then I offered her an option, and she couldnít talk fast enough. I learned everything she knew - who and when and where, and when she was done, true to my word, I put an end to her suffering.

Then I had to move quickly, because Frieda had given me information that meant I had team members in unexpected danger, and I didnít want to lose anyone else to this fight, if I could prevent it.

I had known going in of course that people would die; it is the nature of war. However, what this new leader... this Bramble, son of Ghost Rider... had planned wasnít war, it was carnage. And he didnít care who he hurt or who got in his way. His only objective was winning. Bramble was much worse than his mother had ever been.

"Do you really think so?"

Randi nodded, remembering clearly her thoughts as sheíd written the passage. "Yes," she answered. "Because he was going to wage war on the innocents. Grace, for all her bluster and bravado, had one focus. She wanted to destroy the Sabres and she was using the rebels to do it. She knew the rebels would wipe out one another if they were let loose against each other. The innocents would be safe, relatively speaking. They wouldnít be direct targets at any rate."

"With Bramble, he wanted to destroy everything... the Sabres, the rebels, and anyone else he could take with him. He felt the world owed him something."

"Because of his mother?"

Randi shrugged, stopping the effort mid-motion with a hiss. "I dunno," she mumbled as she shifted in Gwenís arms. "I never asked him, and it wasnít something he volunteered. Finding out wasnít really a top priority for me by the time he was in my custody."

Gwen shivered involuntarily, having witnessed the last moments of Brambleís life in Randiís custody. "So what happened next?" motioning to the book. Randi ran her finger down the page to find her place, then cleared her throat before starting to read again.

I was lucky that all my operatives were in place, though it did make getting any sort of intel to them difficult... especially since they were each moving to their hideaways to await further instruction. On the other hand, since they were still gathering, I might be able to slip someone in to each encampment, if I was careful in my selection. It was something I was going to have to risk to insure our final success.

Even with my foreknowledge, Bramble nearly got the slip on us, because he discovered what he thought was a Sabre in his midst. He guessed wrong about who the Sabre actually was, but in the end that didnít matter. Everyone suffered for his paranoia.

I still donít know what tipped him off, but he managed to wipe out the entire contingent of the Blue rebellion, including Hernandez. And that action threw everything into a tizzy Ė us and them. We were going to have to move faster than we had anticipated if we wanted to round everyone else up. Contrary to popular belief, I didnít want everyone in the rebellion to die... yet. Whether or nor they would later would be strictly up to them. But first we had to contain them.

The Wizards were first by my choice. Selfishly, since I could no longer have Gwen at my side, I wanted Tiny there. He had never failed to watch my back, and that trust, more than anything, was something I needed right now. It felt like it was all I had left.

It wasnít that hard, really... in retrospect. It was a bit anti-climactic, actually, considering what it had taken to get us to that point. Tiny used his position of a High Grande Wizard and was instrumental in not only getting the Wizards to capitulate peacefully, but indicated those in a position of authority without blowing his own cover.

Peaceful capitulation was actually incredibly easy, once the majority watched their leaders die. I made sure it was entirely unpleasant for those watching, though I found a great deal of personal satisfaction from it. I was learning to appreciate disemboweling and beheading as a fine art form... especially as a means of intimidation. So few can withstand the brutality necessary to watch one, much less perform one correctly, and brutal was something I had developed an unlooked-for affinity for. I was glad of that in a far-off, distant kind of way. It made some things easier. The rest I would just have to worry about later.

I knew that bringing in the Wizards would spark terror in the hearts of the remaining half of the rebellion, and that would subsequently make each of the rest of the factions harder to retrieve. But the sooner we got them all to the prison Iíd had specially built for them, the sooner this would all be over. And that I wanted more than anything... except one.

As I expected, the disappearance of the Wizards from the landscape, after the Reds had been rounded-up and the Blues had been destroyed by Bramble, the three remaining factions went into hyper alert status. They were as terrified of him as they were of us, and it was that little fact that broke things in our favor at last.

"Can I ask you a question?" Gwen broke in.

"Sure, love. Anything, you know that. Whatcha wanna know?"

"Well, I noticed this diary is a little... sparse... on detail. Itís almost technical instead of descriptive. Not that I really want to hear about the disemboweling and beheading... please, I really donít," turning a little green at the thought. "But there is no real detail here Ė not about what really happened when yaíll were rounding up each of the rebel groups."

Randi shook her head. "No, there wouldnít be. I wrote out details of the first mission Ė the one you wrote about as well. After that, except for the Blues annihilation, they played out with remarkable similarity, so I didnít see a need to continually repeat myself."

"What about what happened with the Blues? You didnít write much about that either. No regrets?"

Randi bit her lips, considering. "Thatís actually not a fair question for me." She looked up at Gwen. "I was sorry to lose Hernandez. He was a good Sabre and a good friend. But his death was honorable and not entirely my fault. But honestly, there wasnít anything for me to write when I came here to put things down. I wrote all the details I knew."

"And now?"

Randi sighed. "I really donít know much more. Since no one survived Brambleís massacre...." She paused. "Despite the harshness of my actions, I honestly believe I did the best I could with the situation, so I donít have a lot of regret about this part of what happened. I actually remember large chunks of it and there isnít anything about it I would change, as far as the rebels go anyway."

With those words, the volume disappeared, fading into nothingness as though it had never been.

Randi looked at Gwen. "Do you think we could take a short break, love? Iím so tired."

For answer, Gwen tucked her arms more firmly around Randiís body and leaned her head on Randiís dark hair. She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes, allowing the scent surrounding her to relax her into a comfortable state. Then she felt Randi relax against her and closed her eyes, joining her lover in a brief respite.

 

 

"Sky? How are you holding up?" Tiny asked, offering the chieftain a nutritional drink when he opened his eyes. Sky took several large swallows, allowing them to course through his system before he looked up at Tiny with an expression Tiny had learned to read from Reed. It put a knot in his stomach.

"Iím fine," he answered verbally, jutting his chin to Geoff and Jill. "How are they?"

Their voices brought Geoff and Jill back to reality and they opened their eyes together, blinking rapidly to reorient themselves. They exchanged glances with each other and then looked at Sky and Tiny, though none of them lost their tacit connection to one another. "What happened? Are we done here?" Geoff moved his attention to Randi who remained unmoving. "Why isnít she waking up?"

"No, weíre not done," Sky answered honestly, ignoring the last question. "I just needed a bit of sustenance. This is very draining for me, even with the extra help," he said, giving them both a small smile. "How are the two of you doing? Do you need anything?"

"I actually need to move around a little if thatís possible," Geoff said. "My muscles are locking up."

"Absolutely," Tiny replied after seeing Skyís almost invisible nod. "Can I...?" hoping Geoff didnít accept. He could feel Skyís unease coursing through him, and while it wasnít painful, it was a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. But he would have given up their contact briefly to help move Geoff away if it would give Sky the opportunity to explain what was troubling him.

"Let me," Jill said, putting a hand under Geoffís arm like it was the most natural thing in the world. "Itís time for his scheduled rubdown if you donít think it will disturb what youíre doing here."

"Not at all," Sky assured them, his flinch unseen but felt by Tiny who looked at him in concern. "As I said, you have both been an unexpected though very welcome boost for me. You take the time you need. Just let Tiny know if and when you feel ready to come back."

Geoff nodded, allowing Jill to help him slide back into his hover chair and taking the short trip to the couch. There he got out and stood for a moment before his legs collapsed out from under him and he took a swift seat. Jill helped him stretch out and Geoff bit his lips to contain the groan of pain that wanted to escape. Then she settled down beside him and began to loosen his muscles.

Sky and Tiny watched for a moment, making sure the two were totally engrossed in what they were doing before Tiny turned to Sky with a question in his eye.

"Now," he whispered harshly. "Whatís wrong?" Sky motioned with his head to Randiís still body they were protecting. Tiny looked at her, noting nothing amiss. "What, Sky? What are you sensing?"

Sky closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he opened his eyes and Tiny saw a swirl of emotions heíd never expected to see there. "Sheís dying, Tiny, and thereís nothing we can do out here to stop it."

"What do you mean sheís dying, Sky?" Tiny hissed, trying to keep his voice down. "Why canít we do anything to help... to stop it?"

"Tiny, sheís not taking the regen at all. Her body is rejecting the healing we are trying to provide."

"So that means she is dying? Sheís making a decision to just give up?? I donít believe it! Címon, Sky... Randi has survived much worse. Why would she let this defeat her?"

"Thatís all I can sense right now, Tiny. I donít know if it is her decision, but she is dying. Perhaps we should contact Reed and see if she can sense anything more."

Tiny nodded, already keying in the code he needed to reach Reed at the cabin. He only hoped she would have some answers.

 

 

"Gwen? Gwen, itís Reed, can you hear me? Gwen, Iím in the glade. Gwen, if you can hear me, I need to talk to you."

"Iím here, Reed. Whatís wrong?"

"Thatís what I came to ask you. I felt your fear. What happened?"

"Randiís getting worse. Sheís feeling more pain and sheís not healing... at least not here. I donít know if itís because she has to experience everything before she can let it go or if itís something worse. But I donít like it. I canít seem to do anything to fix it and make to better or to make her more comfortable. I think this spirit walk is killing her," Gwen finished in a whisper.

"Oh, Gwen," Reed sighed. "Does she seem to be making progress otherwise?"

Gwen nodded and gave Reed a brief, sad smile. "Oh yes, we are so close. Sheís gotten to the point when the rebels were being rounded up and brought to the capital city. Sheís even managed to lighten the darkness a bit. Iím just afraid weíre running out of time."

Reedís eyes widened. "Wow!" she exclaimed. "You really are close then. Is there anything we can do to help... to make things go faster or easier for either of you?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not that I donít appreciate your concern, and God knows I am glad for the support, but unless you know what is causing the lack of healing or know some way for me to fix it, Iím not sure thereís a whole lot either of us can do. Iím afraid itís up to Randi." She took a deep breath. "I need to get back. Randi needed a break and is resting, but I donít think it can last too long. I donít want her to get too comfortable in the darkness."

"All right. Iím gonna go talk to Sky... see if we can find out what is happening on his end. Maybe he has some answers." Reed cupped Gwenís cheek with one hand. "Meantime, you keep the faith. The hard partís over, Gwen. It should all be downhill from here."

Gwen covered Reedís hand with her own. "I hope so, Reed. I really do." Then she turned and walked out of the glade, disappearing into the darkness beyond.

 

 

"Randi? Címon, love. Time to wake up and get back to work." Randi didnít move, her sleep deep and heavy. Gwen bit her lip, not liking the situation at all. She thought a moment, then let her fingers do the walking, gently tracing the planes and contours of Randiís face. Tears welled in Gwenís eyes. This was something sheíd missed so much and to have it again was a treasure beyond price.

Randi smiled in her sleep, the love and familiarity in Gwenís actions flowing in and around her. Gwen felt Randiís face crease under her fingertips and she smiled in kind. Randi shifted in Gwenís arms and absorbed her touch for several long moments before letting her eyes flutter open.

"Iíve missed that feeling," she whispered.

"So have I, love," Gwen replied, blinking rapidly to stay the tears that had yet to fall, but still welled in her eyes. Randi reached up awkwardly and stroked Gwenís cheek, her own smile returning when Gwen leaned into the touch. "How do you feel? Ready to go on? We donít have much left."

"Iím still so tired, but I want to get this over with already. Can you reach the last journal?"

"Not without moving," Gwen said as she slid from beneath Randiís bulk. The warrior tried not to groan, but Gwen felt the sensation in her own chest, and turned to brush the hair from Randiís face. "Here, hold this," Gwen said as she retrieved the thick book from its resting place. Then she climbed back onto the stone slab and slipped her body carefully behind Randiís.

The light brightened around them just a bit when they came in contact again, and Randi smiled. "You make the light stronger, love. Iíve missed that feeling so much." Gwen smiled, then had to cover her mouth to keep a gasp from escaping. With the added light, Gwen could easily see the exhaustion plainly written across Randiís features. "Sweetheart?"

"Címon, warrior. Time to get back to work. Weíre almost done. Would you like to go first or shall I?"

"You, please. Iíd like to hear about your coronation, since I missed it. Then Iíll read and hopefully we will be at the end of this spirit walk." Gwen nodded and opened the diary she held in her hands. Then she took a deep breath and started to read.

 

 

"Lorac, when we have given Lenore her final rite of passage, I want you to gather together the regents and elders together. I think it is time we set a few ground rules for this whole queen thing."

Loracís eyebrow lifted despite the seriousness of the situation and the sadness in her heart at losing a friend. She had the distinct impression that the Nation was in for quite a bit of a ride where this new, young queen was concerned. Unorthodox seemed to describe Gwen best and that meant to hell with tradition. Lorac was looking forward to that with a perverse bit of pleasure. She figured the elders could do with a bit of shaking up.

"It will be done, my queen. Are you ready?"

Gwen shook her head. "Not really, but Lenore deserves to be sent to her final rest with all the ceremony we can give her. I owe her that much; she gave everything for me."

Lorac didnít answer. There was nothing she could say. Instead, Lorac ushered Gwen out the door, pausing only long enough to slide a memory chip between the marked pages of her diary. Then she followed Gwen down the stairs and led her over to the village square where Lenoreís body rested in preparation for her pyre. Despite Amazon tradition, concern for the environment insured that Lenoreís cremation would be handled in the village facility and the specially prepared polymer funeral casket would not only insure a clean burn, but a rapid one as well.

The gathered crowd parted on either side to allow Gwen to pass through to the podium. Lenoreís body lay in state next to it and she paused a moment to put her hand on the polymer box. Her words werenít audible to anyone, but after a moment, she closed her eyes and kissed the lid before she mounted the steps and turned to face the waiting crowd.

"I didnít know Lenore for very long, but she opened her heart and welcomed me as a friend from the moment we met. While Lorac and her instructors were teaching me self-defense, Lenore was teaching me about what was dearest to her heart Ė her people. I asked to learn about the Amazons and she was so enthusiastic about sharing everything she knew. Not just customs and traditions, but history and stories and life."

"She made the Amazons come alive for me... not just as women of myth, but as strong, independent women of today. Women who were part of the world, but who were also eager to be a united nation once more. Lenore was so excited when she talked of these things to me. I thought she would be a fantastic queen."

Gwen took a deep breath, and blinked back tears. "Her time here was cut short, and I for one am truly sorry about that. She was a good friend for the time I knew her and I am proud to have had the opportunity to know her. And I am honored that she requested that I helped speed her journey to the afterlife."

At her nod, the Amazon musicians started their dirge and Gwen stood solemn and proud until the music was over. Then she stepped forward once more. "Go with our blessing, Lenore, and rest in the knowledge that because of you, the Amazons will be a strong, thriving nation once more. May you find peace and contentment in the arms of Artemis."

She signaled and the bearers slid under the box to lift it onto their shoulders and carry it reverently to the flame. The musicians started chanting, and the Amazons took it up as Lenoreís body passed from their midst. They stood for long moments, watching as the fire rose high enough to consume the box. Then the doors were closed and the women slowly moved back to their places in the village, waiting for the decision that would move them forward into a single nation once more.

Lorac went around to the first tribeís encampment, knowing the word would spread rapidly as soon as her intention was known. Sure enough, before she was able to move to the second camp, Amazons were making their way towards the inn where Gwen was already waiting.

They took seats in the small restaurant noting that it had been set aside for their use. No one besides Amazons was entering the structure, and they all did so with a solemn sense of dignity and purpose.

Gwen watched them file in. Despite her lack of cognizant memory of her first tenure as queen of the Amazons, Lenore had been sure to include many of the more comedic aspects of the Nation, including their love for a good party, practical jokes and competition. She wondered after this meeting was over if they would want to have a party or depose her before this reign even started.

When the last Amazon had entered the room and taken a seat, Lorac closed and locked the doors. This was Amazon business and would remain so. She gave Gwen a nod.

Gwen rose from her place and looked over the assembly. What she saw made her smile in understanding Ė these women, for whatever reason, wanted her to lead them. They had chosen her and though she didnít understand why they had done so, she felt a sudden surge of pride in having been asked. They were ready to protect and defend her, and she in turn was prepared to lead them to the best of her ability.

"Sisters," she addressed them. "You have given me the time I asked for to consider everything and I appreciate that. Lenore...Lenoreís last request of me was that I accept the title and mantle of queen of the Amazons." She paused. "Actually, the last thing she told me to do was to go practice being a queen." Gwen gave a wry smile and caught several in return.

"I didnít understand why she was so sure I was meant to be queen; I still donít, actually. Before we go any further, is there anyone here that knows why I was chosen or who feels I shouldnít be the queen?"

Silence for a very long moment as the Amazons exchanged glances. Then the oldest crone in the room stood up and gave Gwen a slight bow. "My queen, my name is Nebula and I am the eldest of the elders in the Nation." Gwen nodded and gestured for the woman to continue speaking. "My queen... your coming was foretold to us, in great detail. It described you and the circumstances surrounding your return. And it was said that one would die to assure your life and your ascendancy."

Gwen swallowed hard. "So Lenore knew...?"

"Yes, my queen, she did. And she protected you... gave her life to insure the fulfillment of prophesy."

Gwen was quiet a moment, thinking. "What else do the prophecies say?"

"Only that you would reunite the Nation and lead us to great things." Nebula paused to gather her courage, then spoke again. "My queen... Gwen... is there a reason you do not want to lead us? Have we offended you in some way that you find it to be such a distasteful task?"

"Oh, Nebula. Itís nothing like that. It has more to do with the level of commitment I can make to the sisters and the Nation. You see," she continued, looking out over the assembly again before turning her attention back to the elder. "I have been given to understand that if I become queen of the Amazon Nation, everyone from all the tribes will swear allegiance to me... be willing to die for me whether it be in battle or to protect me from some perceived threat."

Nebula nodded her head. "Thatís right. We would swear fealty to you, to follow you in peace and in war. Itís a vow we donít take lightly."

"Thatís my problem, Nebula. I cannot offer the same level of commitment, and I feel thatís unfair to the Amazons. My soulmate will always, *always* come first. I canít... I wonít... put anything in front of her, and I wonít allow anything to come between us Ė not even my duty to the Nation." She looked around again, meeting everyoneís eyes individually before she resumed speaking. "Are you sure this is something you are willing to live with? Because my priorities are not going to change in that regard. I want you to consider that before you make any decisions."

Nebulaís unexpected laughter startled Gwen and swung her focus squarely back to the elder. Nebula put her hand over her mouth to contain her mirth though her eyes still twinkled merrily. The rest of the room twittered. Gwen raised an eyebrow and waited patiently as Nebula brought herself under control. Finally, the elder drew a deep breath to speak.

"My apologies, my queen. I didnít intend any disrespect. Itís just... Gwen, we already knew that. You see, as soon as Lenore let us know the queen had returned we did our homework. We researched who you are... who you were. Donít forget, we have the original Soulmates stories archived as well."

"And youíre willing to accept that... willing to accept second place in my life and in my heart?"

"Weíve had time to discuss this, my queen, both as individual tribes, and since our arrival here. If you are willing to give us the best you have to give, then we are willing to follow where you lead." Nebula dropped her head to study the floor a minute before looking Gwen in the eyes again. "We believe you will follow a path similar to your ancestorís original Ė that you will lead us to new unity and prosperity, but will choose another to lead in your absence."

"And youíre okay with this? All of you?"

"Have some faith in yourself, Gwen. We do."

Gwen smiled. "Whaddya know... and I didnít even have to call on Artemis to vouch for me." She didnít see the startled expressions that went around the room at her casual words. Gwen clapped her hands together. "All right. I will accept the title of queen and help you re-establish the Nation."

A cheer erupted from the gathered regents and elders.

It took a few minutes for them to settle down. After all, this news was huge. Many had harbored doubts that Gwen would actually accept. Given her commitment to Randi, and the history of her ancestors, it wasnít completely unthinkable. However, since she was willing to work with them, they were willing to work with her. She would unite them and bring them to settle in a new land; in return, they would protect her with their lives.

Eventually things settled into an excited murmur that ran around the room. Gwen signaled for attention and eyes turned her way once more as the Amazons quieted down. "Um, not to put a damper on the enthusiasm here, but um... do we need to have some sort of ceremony to make this official or what?"

This time, no one contained their laughter. When the room calmed yet again, Nebula rose to speak once more. "My queen, I can see having you on the throne is a going to something of an experience for all of us. We definitely need to have a coronation, but it will take us a day or two to set up."

"Okay then. Is there anything I need to do to prepare for this?"

Nebula smiled and nodded. "Lorac will give you your instructions." She turned to look to the weapons master. "Lenore shouldíve left...." Lorac nodded. "Good. Everything will be taken care of, my queen. We will let you know as soon as weíre ready."

Gwen smiled at them. "Thank you, ladies. I want you to know I will do my very best for you." Then she turned and went to the door, waiting for Lorac to unlock it before passing through, not at all surprised when Lorac followed her out to accompany her back to Skyís home.

Silence reigned in the room until they were sure Gwen was out of hearing range before the room exploded into chaos. Nebula waited all of ten seconds before she let loose with a whistle so piercing, everyone quieted and covered their ears. "SISTERS!!" she roared, looking around until was confident she had everyoneís attention. "What is the problem? Now is not the time for doubts!"

"There is going to be some serious backlash to this decision, Nebula," one of the regents spoke up. "Despite the fact that we all agree that this is the right thing to do, and she is the chosen one to do it, there are going to be those throughout the Nation who will want to challenge this... especially since this queendom was not earned Ė it was given."

"NO!" Nebula stated emphatically. "The title of queen has been bequeathed to Gwen by Artemis and agreed to by us, and there will be no challenges. Not by anyone."

"Nebula, you canít do that."

"Not alone, no. But together, we can enforce it." Nebula looked around at the disbelieving stares she was receiving and shook her head. "Sisters, think about this for a minute. If we allow Gwen to be challenged, we run the distinct possibility of being destroyed. Regardless of Gwenís prowess at arms, Randi would never allow a challenge to Gwen go unanswered by anyone other than her. Does anyone here really want to deal with the fallout that would result from that?"

The silence that greeted her was profound, as the consequences of allowing such an action to take place sank in.

"Okay, Nebula. Youíve got a good point, but how do we just disregard thousands of years of tradition? You know there are some Amazons who wonít accept Gwenís leadership despite who stands behind her."

"Well, Iíll tell you what, Sherry. Weíll allow any challenges to Gwenís throne as long as all the challengers come forward before Gwenís coronation, and Randi is allowed address the challenges upfront. We are walking a very fine line; given what we know about the state of things where Randi is concerned, it shouldnít take her too long to decimate each and every challenger. We can just hope that she doesnít destroy our core warrior contingent in the process."

Sherry nodded. "All right. Letís send out notices to the tribes and let them know what is going on. It shouldnít take long for any challengers to get here. Then we can schedule the coronation for three days from now. That will be plenty of time."

Nebula agreed. "As it is written...." she proclaimed.

"... so shall it be," the rest intoned. And they moved out to begin the process of anointing a new queen, glad the time for reunification had come at last.

 

 

Chapter XXII

"What happened with your coronation? You didnít tell about that."

"It wasnít anything special. It can wait." A pause. "Do you think we could go visit the Nation, once this is over?" Gwen asked, closing her diary. "I want them to know you like I do and they should be marginally settled by now."

"Do you think theyíd want to challenge you if we were to show up together? Because there were no challengers when you took the throne," Randi stated. "At least I wasnít contacted to answer any."

Gwen shook her head and brushed a kiss over Randiís temple, providing comfort for Randiís ever-worsening pain that Gwen was beginning to feel as her own. "There werenít any... not one. I think Nebula was quite explicit in making everyone understand what the cost could have been... would have been to them personally and to the Nation at large if they had. Not even your friend Corky was willing to risk challenging my position if it meant confronting you, and she was quite vocal about it. Between them, Corky and Nebula painted a very intimidating picture of you. So no... I donít think there would be any challengers regardless."

"Was that a bad thing? Did it make things worse for you?" Randi coughed and then curled up into a fetal position and held onto her head to try to alleviate the pain that followed. "Ow."

"Sweetheart, are you okay? Can I do anything for you?"

Randi took a moment longer to breathe through the pain before answering. "No, love. Thank you, though. So, did it make things worse?"

"Well, it made a little shaky at first, but by and large, I think it has worked in my favor. I had to prove myself... prove I was more than just you at my back, but once I did that, they realized that it was me AND you Ė together. That was a really nice moment for me. In fact, it happened just before you had me brought to the palace in the capital city."

"Really? What happened?"

"You mean you donít know? I thought you were keeping a close eye on me?"

Randi rubbed a hand over her eyes another pain lancing through her head. "I was... wasnít I? I donít... I donít remember... not clearly, at any rate. Bits, impressions... things are jumbled. Iím...Iím not sure how... how things fit... whatís real, and whatís... whatís not."

"Randi, honey? Are these bits you never had clearly or are these things youíre losing now?"

"I donít... Iím not sure." Then she fell silent and Gwen felt Randiís body slump completely into hers.

Gwenís brow furrowed anxiously. "Randi, sweetheart? I need you to stay with me. Címon, baby. We have to finish the final journal so we can get out of here forever." She rubbed Randiís arms, hoping to stir some sort of response. "Címon, warrior. Donít you give up yet! Not now... not when weíre so close."

Randi blinked open groggy eyes. "Can we rest just a little bit, love? Iím so tired." Her words trailed off into silence, and Gwen bit her lip, forcing her tears back thru sheer grit and determination. Then she closed her mind and reached out to Reed with her mind.

 

 

"Gwen, what is it? Your call felt desperate."

"It is, Reed. I need you to move us all back to the palace. Now!"

"Gwen, we canít stop your spirit walk before it is complete. That could kill you. What?" she asked in response to Gwenís rapidly shaking head.

"No, Reed. I need you to move us now... just the way we are. My body needs to be in physical contact with Randiís body, just as our minds are connected on a spiritual plane. Dammit, Reed! Sheís dying on me and I donít know what else to do to stop it!! Move my body back to the palace!! Please!!"

"Gwen, I donít know if we can. Weíve never tried anything like that before." Reed gasped as Gwenís agony rushed over her. "But weíll try. Weíll do our very best to get you there quickly and without incident or damage to either of you. You go back to her and try to keep her with you. Iím not sure what would happen if your spiritual connection is broken before your journey together is finished. Weíre working with so many unknowns here. Let me go and get things started. You hang in there, okay?" She reached out towards Gwen to offer comfort, but Gwen was gone before she could touch her. Just as well... her pain probably would have done serious damage.

Then Reed allowed her mind to return to reality swiftly. They had a lot to do and a very short time to do it in.

 

 

"WHAT?!? Have you lost your mind??? Címon, Reed... do you *KNOW* how dangerous that is right now... for everyone concerned?? God almighty!!! Whose idea was this anyway??"

Reed let Lacey vent, knowing she was simply voicing the same concerns and reservations that Reed herself had. When she finally stopped to breathe, however.... "Lacey, I know. Trust me, I know. But Gwen was adamant. Lacey, sheís losing Randi on the spiritual plane, and Sky said they were losing Randi on the physical plane."

"Did you tell Gwen that?"

"No. I didnít really have time, and frankly, Iím not sure the knowledge would do her any good at this point anyway, Lace. Sheís under enough stress."

"No kidding... Iíve been watching her pressure and breathing spike since you went to check on her a little while ago. All right, Reed. Iíll take care of getting everyone moved back to the palace. You just make sure you keep her alive to get there."

"Doing my best, Lace," Reed growled.

"I know, Reed. Sorry. You know what I mean."

Reed nodded and resumed her monitoring of the situation.

 

 

"Randi? Címon, honey. Wake up for me. We need to finish our spirit walk."

"Gwen? Where are we? Why is it so dark here? Can you turn on the lights a little bit? I canít see anything." Gwen closed her eyes. Randi was getting worse; now she seemed to be completely disoriented, not even recognizing her own safe place.

"Weíre in your safe place, remember, love? Weíre taking our spirit walk, facing the tough stuff and making us a stronger force together. Weíre gonna finish up here and weíll finally be able to defeat Ares. Weíre gonna go kick his ass, remember? That was the deal."

Gwen felt Randi smile. "Oh, yeah. I remember that. We need to make it a really good ass-kicking though; this hurts a lot."

"I know it does, baby. I know it does. Do you think you can focus on your last diary? Weíve got to finish it before our spirit walk is over and we can get out of here and go back to being together in the real world."

"But weíre not together in the real world, Gwen. You left me," misery in her tone.

"Yes, I did, but if you want me to come home, love, you have to make that decision. And we have to finish this first. Once we do that, I can leave here and come home to you, if thatís what you want."

"Thatís what I want, Gwen. Itís what Iíve always wanted. I was so amazed when you came into my life, even when we were only best friends. You brought my life meaning and joy, and when you agreed to marry me, I spent nights trying to figure out what I had done right. I donít want to lose that, Gwen. I donít want to lose you. I canít. Everything I have done worth doing since we met has been for you... because of you."

Gwen leaned forward and brushed another kiss across Randiís temple, feeling the sweat that had gathered there as Randi struggled with the pain that continued to worsen as it coursed through her system. "Then do this for me... for us. Iím ready to come home to you, Randi, so letís focus and get this done. All right?"

"Okay, sweetheart. I love you, you know."

"I know, baby. I love you too. Now, open the journal so we can finish reading and get the hell out of here. I am tired of being in the dark."

"Me too. I miss the sun. It seems like I havenít felt the sunshine in such a long time. So much darkness."

Gwen grit her teeth in frustration. Keeping Randi on track was becoming more and more difficult. She put the diary into Randiís hands, relieved when Randi took it and opened it immediately. Then she started reading silently, before Gwen squeezed her shoulder in silent support and reminder. Randi cleared her throat and started once more, reading aloud this time.

It was all too easy. Within the space of a few weeks we had rounded up the rebel contingents. It made me wonder what we had been doing wrong for so long that victory came at such a negligible cost... though it could have been the new rebel leader as well. He certainly fell from a different tree than Grace Rivers was. He wasnít very bright and he was a prick besides. Being a leader by default didnít make him a leader. Killing him was my pleasure, but weíll get to that.

So now I had ten percent of the planetís population incarcerated in the make-shift prison Iíd had prepared for them. It was a little more than I had expected from the intel my people had collected, but Iíd make due. It wasnít like that prison was meant to hold them for any length of time. I had plans for the rebels, but first, I had to take care of some more pressing business.

It was simple really. The Sabres had more than done their part in assuring the peace for any number of years. It was time that the world knew that, and it was past time for the regular military to assume some real responsibility for it. I was going to insure that happened.

"This is when you became Empress, isnít it?"

"Yes, it is. It seemed like the best solution at the time, but looking at this journal, I have to wonder what in the world I was thinking."

"I wonder why Ares didnít come to you then. Surely that pronouncement was what he was waiting for."

"I donít know... or at least I didnít know then. Truth is, for him to win I had to want him there Ė I had to call for him. And even with everything Iíve done and all the bad decisions Iíve made, including becoming Empress, that was just one thing I never felt compelled to do. His poison didnít work the way he expected it to on me. I think my soul knew better even when my mind was still trying to catch a clue about the internal conflict I was having."

"Well, if it makes you feel better, love, Tiny told me that the world was... is glad for it. For all the problems this whole scenario has caused you and me, it has been wonderful for everyone else."

Randi gripped Gwenís hands so tightly Gwen could feel the bones rubbing together. "I donít care," she answered with stark honesty. "The greater good can go to hell for all I care. I want you Ė I want us. Everything else can just fuck off."

Gwen blinked a little in stunned surprise. She had never expected such a soul-baring response from Randi. She gently returned the clasp on Randiís hands. "Randi, ease up a little, okay? Youíre hurting me," then held on with her own grip when Randi would have snatched hers away. "Uh uh... I didnít say let go. Just loosen a little. You donít get to let me go, remember? You made a vow before the goddesses and our friends. Forever."

"And I meant it, Gwen, with all my heart. I didnít mean to hurt you."

"I know you didnít, love. Why do you think I held on? Címon... letís get back to your journal." Gwen was thrilled that Randiís lucidity had returned and wanted to push forward for as long as it remained. Randi obliged with a nod and turned her head back to her reading.

Talking to the military leaders was fairly simple once they understood that there was no joke and no punch line involved in my assimilation of all military forces into one cohesive unit. It was past time for these troops to begin carrying their own weight and shouldering some of the burden the Sabres had suffered with for years. The best part for me was that very little persuasion was necessary on my part to convince the men and women seated in the conference room, though it helped to have several Sabres as part of the leadership contingent. I had killed enough of my enemies in my past and had even more to look forward to in my future without wanting to resort to killing allies as well.

When an agreement was reached Ė that is to say, when they accepted the terms and conditions I had laid out for them, we decided to enlighten the rest of the planet.

Despite his reservations, Tiny arranged for me to address the world. I should have been nervous about it, given my predilection towards shyness but honestly, by that point, I didnít care. Gwen had been gone forever it seemed like Ė first by my doing and then with becoming the Amazon Queen and getting them resettled in their new home. I was going to have to bring her home soon, queen or no queen Ė this separation was killing me, but I had to take care of a few things first. I didnít want her to see me like this. I didnít like me much Ė how could I expect her to?

So the time came for me to speak, and I kept it short and sweet, knowing Reed could only keep Gwen out of the loop for so long.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, citizens of the world - The time has come for you to be aware of what has been happening for years all around you without your conscious knowledge. Not even a majority of the military has been aware of this, but that is going to change."

"We have compiled years of surveillance and mission footage into a file that has been uploaded for your viewing. I would recommend that each of you take the time to watch it to better understand what I am about to tell you."

""For decades, there has been a rebellion... an insidious underground movement whose sole goal has been the destruction of the peace we have enjoyed. And for all those decades, it has been the responsibility of a small special forces unit known as the Black Sabres to ensure the peace and keep the rebellion in check and under wraps. It is time for that to change."

"I have already assumed command of every military outfit throughout the world. It is going to be their job to maintain the peace. Everyone is going to learn how to safeguard it. For the time being, however, I am in command. And as such, it will be up to me, and me alone to decide how to dispose of the rebel forces we have captured."

"The leaders of each faction have already been executed. Only one, the overall leader, remains and his execution will be public... for the world, but especially his followers to see. I want everyone... *everyone* to understand what the penalty is for inciting rebellion and threatening the peace."

"Once that is taken care of tomorrow, we will begin decimating the rebels. They will be offered a choice Ė intense, structured rehabilitation or execution gladiator style. I will not risk good soldiers and warriors against them. My warriors have earned a chance to rest, and the soldiers have not yet trained to fight in such a manner."

"Until such time as this is settled, and everything is put in place, I am setting myself up as Empress, leader of the free world and all the military thereof. In this way, you well know exactly where the responsibility lies."

"Other than my having a title to insure there is a single leader the people can look to, nothing will change from what you already know. Thank you for your time and attention. Good night."

Randi stopped reading again to try and catch her breath. She turned her head just slightly, catching the scent that was uniquely Gwen and taking slow, deep breaths.

Gwen was lost in thought, but not so deeply she didnít feel the sudden chill that chased up her spine, or the goosebumps that followed in its wake. She turned in Randiís direction, stopping her motion when her chin bumped into Randiís nose.

"That tickles, ya know."

"Yeah, well, you smell good. All comfortable and warm."

"I do?"

"Uh huh. Smells like home and love... and us." Gwen smiled; Randi could feel the shift of her facial muscles with her eyes closed and she smiled in response, knowing Gwen would feel it as well. "What were you thinking about so hard there anyway?"

"You gave them a choice Ė why?"

Randi shrugged gently. "I dunno. There was part of me that just didnít want to kill them all if I didnít have to."

"That was when I was taking the Amazons to the mountain to reestablish the Nation and create a stronghold for them out of that fortress, wasnít it? Is that why you gave Reed the go ahead... to get me out of the way while you assumed control of the entire world?"

"Sorta, but not really. That timing was mostly coincidental, but I did take advantage of it... absolutely. I never wanted you to know about this side of my life... about this part of me."

"Sweetheart, Iíve known since before we were married. Not everything, of course; certainly not the intimate details. But you talk in your sleep to me sometimes, honey. Did you really think you could hide it from me? I love all of you... even the darkest parts of yourself youíve hidden away here. Please donít shut me out." A pause. "When we get done here, Iím going to take you back to my world so you can see just exactly how I see you. I think youíll be pleasantly surprised."

Randi didnít answer; she couldnít actually think of anything to say - about that anyway. Instead she changed the subject. "Why did you choose the mountain fortress, Gwen? You could have chosen anywhere, so why there? You canít possibly have good memories of that place Ė not with that whole situation with Ben and me."

"Thatís actually one reason I chose it. I wanted to purge the bad memories and replace them with some good ones. As for the rest... there were several reasons, most of them logistical. The mountain itself is safe and secure and even though there is a lot of work to do to make the majority of it livable again, at least the basics are in place. That plus the fact that there are already some security measures in place make it an ideal choice."

"They werenít... upset at being forced to... live... indoors like that? Randiís breathing grew rough again and she shifted again, trying to relieve the pain she felt returning with a vengeance.

"Not really," Gwen answered as she allowed her hands to offer soothing comfort. They shifted together until Gwen felt Randiís breathing ease. Then she continued speaking. "We do have a security perimeter set up outside in the trees that surround the meadow, and the meadow is being transformed into a garden. And we still have hunters and trackers and scouts and gatherers, so there is ample opportunity for anyone who wants to be outside to get outside. Right now, a majority of the work is still indoors, but Lorac and the elders have implemented the schedule I drew up, so everyone gets outdoors on a rotating basis."

"Youíre pretty... smart, you... know that? I canít... wait... to see what youíve... done."

"Well, címon and letís finish," riffling through the few pages that remained. "We donít have much left."

 

 

"Weíll have everything as prepared as we can, Lacey," Tiny said into the vid comm. "Are yaíll sure about this?" Around him, Jill was setting up a comfortable space on either side of the bed for them to be able to maintain their connections with Randi and Gwen while continuing to channel strength to them. Geoff, after his initial startled outburst, had gone to round up as many local Sabre and military people as he could muster on short notice. They figured they could use all the reinforcements they could get.

"No, Tiny, weíre not. I certainly am not comfortable moving Gwen at this stage. But she is adamant about it, and I donít know what else we can do. Randi is getting worse on the spiritual plane, and since Sky believes her physical body is dying as well, putting them is the same place on the physical plane can only help at this point. Weíll be there in less than an hour."

"All right, Lace. Weíll be as ready as we can."

 

 

"Master, why are you letting this happen to me? I did everything you asked of me. I thought I was going to rule the world with you."

"Yes, Bramble. You did everything I asked you to, and it achieved exactly what I needed it to. And now the time has come for you to die. Your reward for being a weak leader."

"But Ares... I did what you asked. I did what you asked!!"

 

 

They rebels were surprised that I offered them a choice... especially after what happened to their leader, Bramble. I made sure his death was particularly gruesome though. I wanted them to understand... and I wanted him to suffer.

I wore my working uniform that day. This was personal to me, and I was going to kill him myself.

He was brought before me full of piss and vinegar and strung neatly between two poles set exclusively for that purpose. He didnít deserve the honor of being allowed to fight back. I made a bet with myself how long it would take before he was crying like a baby. I didnít expect him to last as long as some of his lieutenants, nor did I think he would maintain the dignity his mother had possessed. Still, he was defiant at first, and I let him rant so the world could see just what kind of man he really was. Then he crossed a line.

"Shame about your bitch, Valiant. You and your perverted kind deserve to die... just like everyone else whoís different. Youíre responsible for the downfall of the human race. Only by purging the deviants from humanity do we have any hope of surviving."

Whatever else he was going to say was lost in a gurgle when my hand wrapped tightly around his throat. The look of shock on his face would have made me laugh if I hadnít been seething in anger. As it was, I just stopped myself from choking him to death with my bare hands. He gagged and dropped to his knees as far as his restraints allowed when I released him.

"Truth hurt?" he mocked as he struggled to stand once more.

"What truth was that, Bramble? I have yet to hear any real truth come from your mouth." I was under control again. I wanted the world to see this pathetic loser for what he really was. His death would mean more if he wasnít seen as a martyr, but as an infidel. He had no idea the world, and all those who had pledged allegiance to the rebellion, were watching.

"The truth that we are *not* all created equal. The truth that people of color are inferior and should be kept strictly in their own societies. The truth that women have a place, and that place is under a man. The truth that my God is the only God worthy of worship and all others are heretical. The truth that people like you and that slut you call a wife are a perversion of the natural order of life."

I sliced the length of his arm so quickly, his cry was as much shock as it was pain.

"Well, Bramble," I said calmly as I inspected my blade. "It seems you have managed to eliminate the entire rebellion in one fell swoop there. According to you, no one deserves to live. Everyone falls into at least one category youíve named. However," I said as I swung around and drew a bloody line down his other arm. This time he screamed and whimpered. "I want you to understand on thing before you die."

"My wife is not a slut or a pervert or any other ugly name youíd like to call her. What she is is a wonderful, compassionate woman who is so far above your understanding I donít actually expect your two living brain cells to be able comprehend it. I would advise you, though, to keep any more rude thoughts about her between yourself and your god. Because you see," I slid around behind him and sliced the tendons of both knees, reveling in his screams as he crumpled to the ground. "I *am* a pervert... I take great pleasure in your pain. I relish it, in fact."

Bramble was crying now, though to his credit he was trying to hide it. He even tried to spit at me... or would have had I not backhanded him so hard his nose broke. Now his tears fell in earnest.

"The shame of it, Bramble," I drawled as I cut across the tops of both thighs, "is that youíre just not bright enough to actually get it." A slice across his belly, though not deep enough to cause permanent damage... yet. "You see," I jammed my blade into his hand and swiftly withdrew it. "I am a master of torture and interrogation; it is something I am very, very good at." The whip snapped across his back and he wet himself. Things went downhill from there rapidly.

It didnít take long... less than I hoped for but a little longer than I expected. In the end, though, he died crying and blubbering like a two-year-old. I didnít say anything. I figured the silence said it all. Instead I turned my back to what was left of the rebel leader and headed to my chamber. I had never grown accustomed to the smell and feel of blood, and this was no exception. I wanted a shower.

"I think... Ares... tried to contact... me right after that. I had the... oddest sensation before... I made it to the shower Ė like... I should be... reveling in the blood... bath I had just had. It... made me... sick."

"Thatís good, Randi," Gwen commented, feeling the warriorís disbelieving stare even in the darkness. "Not the feeling, love, or even the memory itself. But the fact that you remembered on your own again is. Do you remember anything else?"

"Yes. I... remember that... is when I decided... to... bring you home."

Gwen smiled sadly. "I remember that. I wasnít sure whether I should be furious at your autocratic summons or hurt by your obvious indifference to me by having someone else handle the message."

"What did you... decide on?"

"Furious. It was easier to maintain my distance from you that way... at least til the end. When I left it was pure hurt... soul-breaking agony."

"That... explains a lot. How did... the... Amazons... take it.... You... being summoned by me, I... mean?"

"They never knew. Your message went directly to Reed, remember. I simply let Lorac know that I had to come check on you. Being their queen gave me more latitude than simply being your wife and partner. Lorac wasnít happy about it, but there wasnít a whole lot she could do about it either. Kinda hard to argue about something that isnít a request, but more of a directive. Besides, it wasnít like I was doing a whole hell of a lot. I had already set things up, and then the Amazons were broken into work groups and took over. I think they were anxious to make a good impression on one another."

Gwen reached down and tapped the book. "Címon, love. Just a little more."

 

 

"Howís she doing, Lace?"

"Everything looks good, Rosie," rechecking her readings once more. "Howís Reed?"

"Hanging in there. I think weíre all gonna need a three day nap when this is over. How much longer?"

Lacey looked up at the clock in the shuttle and quickly calculated. "About four minutes. Tiny should have help standing by to get us inside, and the rest of the People should be arriving about the same time. With a little luck, weíll be set up inside in less than ten minutes."

"Will that be soon enough?"

Lacey shrugged. "Only Gwen and Randi know the answer to that question."

 

 

I decided it was time to bring Gwen home. Despite her responsibilities with the Amazons, she had a responsibility to me and to us as well. I knew she was not happy with my decision to send her away for her own safety in the first place. I fully expected her to be ecstatic to be here with me. Imagine my surprise when she wasnít.

 

 

"Why did you bring me here, Randi?" Gwen asked as she stepped from the shuttle. "I was in the middle of resettling the Amazons. Couldnít this summons have waited? What exactly do you expect me to do here?" gesturing to the ornate palace where Randi lived in the capital city. "I heard about your announcement declaring you Empress. Where exactly do I fit in with that scenario, hmm? Because I assure you I will not be referred to as your consort. I donít want any part of this whole set up, if you want to know the truth." She took a deep breath, easily reading the fire burning in those expressive blue eyes. "Randi, let me go home... or back to the Amazons. I donít belong here."

"No," came the flat answer. "I need you here and it is best for the population to see us maintain a united front. I only let you stay away so long because it was easy to explain that the Amazons needed you to get resettled in their new home. However, that is no longer a priority, and your presence here is."

"Oh, I see," was Gwenís cool response. "You *let* me stay with the Amazons because it was convenient for you to do so, and now that itís convenient for me to be here instead... because you feel I can be an asset to you now, you brought me here."

"I brought you here because I missed you."

"Yeah, you missed me so much I didnít rate one vid call from you while I was gone. I didnít get an invitation, personal or otherwise to join you. No, all I rated was an order, like I was one of your minions. Look, Iím tired Ė itís been a long trip. Just have someone show me to my room and Iíll get out of your hair until it is convenient for you to need me again, all right?"

Randi stood stunned for a moment, then waved her hands. "Iíll take you there myself. Címon. Someone will bring your bags later." They walked as far apart as they could manage and still be going to the same place.

This wasnít at all how Randi had pictured their reunion.

 

 

"Oh God, Tiny!" Reed cried. "It hurts so much!" Tiny held on to Reed as tightly as he dared. Her arrival with Gwen from the new Amazon Nation stronghold had been painful in the extreme and he had been with her every moment since. He figured Randi would call for him sooner rather than later if things were so skewed between her and Gwen. His first responsibility was to Reed, though, and he eased them over to the comm unit. They needed Sky, and they needed him now. Heíd be able to move Reed back to the village and give her a continued source of strength and support.

 

 

Randi closed her journal. "I remember... the rest," she said in a bare whisper, the rasp clear in her voice. "The glad... iators, the... coronation, every... thing."

"You do?"

"Uh huh. I... gave the... rebels... a choice."

"Yes, you did. I still cannot believe that forty percent of the rebels chose to die in the gladiator ring instead of turning to peace. But they did have a choice, Randi, and they made that choice. That choice was never your responsibility."

"No, but... your... leaving me... was."

"Randi, it was *our* responsibility, but it was my choice."

"No. I called you... consort, even... knowing... how you felt... about it." She chuckled and clutched her chest immediately. "You... sure chewed... my ass out... for it... before... and after."

Gwen smiled and let her mind go back to the events leading up to that fateful day.

 

 

Chapter XXIII

Gwen looked around the room, wondering who in the hell had decorated the room she was currently standing in. It was... gaudy would have been a polite description. Gwen blinked and swallowed the bile that had risen in her throat, then she turned to find Randiís eyes on her watching her intently.

"You hate it," Randi commented dryly, observing the expression in Gwenís eyes that she couldnít hide fast enough. Gwen shrugged, not seeing a reason to lie at this point. She figured things were about as skewed as they could get. She figured wrong.

"Pretty much," she replied honestly. "But then again, itís not like weíre gonna be here for too long, are we? You have the rebels incarcerated; you won the war."

"Yes, I did. And I still have to deal with the fallout and the repercussions that are left. In addition, at this point in time I am unable to relinquish the responsibility I currently hold. It will be a while before we are able to return home together."

Gwen didnít respond, except to move over to the window, hoping to block out the sight of the garish room behind her. Unfortunately, her only view brought the prison that housed the rebels. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead on the glass.

For the first time, Randi felt the need to fill the silence between them and at the same time, escape the silent accusation she felt emanating from Gwenís slim form. "I have some things to take care of this afternoon, but I will be back around seven-thirty to pick you up."

"Pick me up?"

"Yes. We have a state function to attend. Youíll find appropriate clothing for your attendance already hanging in the closet. Now if youíll excuse me...." Then Randi was gone before Gwen could give voice to the uneasy questions rolling around in her mind.

State function? What does that mean exactly? Gwen thought to herself, hoping beyond hope that it didnít mean what she thought it did.

At precisely seven-thirty, a knock came on the door to the living and Gwen crossed the room to answer it. When she opened it, Randi stood before her, resplendent in her Marine uniform. It was hard to hold onto her anger when so many good memories assailed her. But she knew holding on to her anger would make it that much easier for her to leave when the time came. She just hoped it would be sooner rather than later.

She gave Randi a slight nod and crossed the threshold, following Randiís extended arm as an indication of the direction they were headed in. They walked along without speaking or touching, awkward with one another in a way they had never been before... even when they had first met.

Only when they reached the huge double doors did Randi move close enough to actually touch Gwen and while Gwen didnít recoil from the contact, she made no effort to deepen it. She was still hurt and angry, and the confusing signals she was getting from Randi were only making it worse. Gwen could feel the beginnings of a migraine coming on, and then the doors opened and she didnít have much time to think of anything except the blinding light and the roar of the crowd that greeted them.

What those big, double doors led to was a huge arena and it was filled with cheering, screaming people. Many of them were dignitaries from around the globe that conducted their business in the capital city. There were a few friends and acquaintances; Gwen notice the members of the band Randi had once played with and found herself suddenly longing for another Friday night band practice. Tommy and Ella were noticeably absent as were her parents.

But a majority of the seats were filled with military personal. There was a large contingent of Sabres, but they were liberally interspersed with regular military officers and men. Randi had obviously been serious about breaking down the barriers between the special forces unit and the standard issue military. And for that one small blessing, Gwen was thankful.

Then she was escorted to the box she was to share with Randi. Randi was very solicitous in seeing to her comfort though at no time did she actually touch Gwen. Gwen had made it extremely clear, to Randiís mind anyway, that her touch was unwelcome and her presence only barely tolerable. They would be seen together at State functions for appearanceís sake, but other than that, she would concentrate on finishing up her business here, so the two of them could go home and talk.

Unseen by her or anyone else, Ares hid in the shadows, watching his plan finally come to fruition. He fed on the excited buzz of electric power that Randi wielded so effortlessly, thrilled that she had finally accepted her place as ruler of the world. He knew it would only be a matter of time before she called for him now, and then they would rule together... side by side as it was always meant to be. He would have preferred an all-out slaughter of the rebels, but recognized this as a sound strategic move on her part. Her humanity towards the Ďenemies of all mankindí would only serve to strengthen her powerbase. And that was something he was looking forward to tapping into.

For now, Randi finished getting Gwen settled and raised her hands for silence. The crowd immediately quieted and waited for her to speak. Tiny stepped into the box, and remained at a sentinel position by the door, even when Gwen invited him to sit.

"As you know, the rebels have been defeated, and the peace is secure once more." Loud cheering, silenced only by Randiís signal. "However, since much of our hatred and prejudice is taught, I wanted to offer each member of the rebellion the opportunity for a second chance. A chance for them to see how alike we really are and to appreciate the differences between us as a good thing." More cheering, quickly halted by Randiís upraised hands. She hadnít expected to feel so awkward about the adulation and praise in front of Gwen; instead of gratified, she felt extremely uncomfortable and she attempted to wrap things up rapidly. "Unfortunately, almost half have decided to die instead of trying to learn a different way. So tonight we are here for the first in what will hopefully be a short lived series of gladiatorial fights."

Surprisingly, to Gwenís mind at least, the applause and cheering was rather short-lived, as though the crowd could sense Randiís displeasure at their overwhelming enthusiasm. When quiet fell once more, Randi resumed speaking.

"There are no rules. Lots were chosen to determine when each rebel will become a gladiator. The first group will be brought into the arena and they will battle one another until all but one of them is dead. The person that remains will then have a choice of combat with me or gladiator fighting the following night. Thus it will continue until only one is left. He or she will get to choose their manner of death Ė the choices to be determined at a later date."

"So, without further ado, let the games begin."

More cheering and clapping as the opponents entered the arena, though much more subdued than previously. It was obvious that lots had been drawn randomly as there were people from each faction represented on the floor. Natural enemies gravitated towards each other automatically, wanting to insure an enemyís death with their own. And so the carnage began.

Gwen turned away at first, and Randi grew angry with her inattention. Everyone knew who Gwen was and what she and Randi were to one another. Surely Gwen could understand how important it was for them to be seen by the world as of the same mind about this. So Randi was shocked when without a word, Gwen rose from her place and walked out of the box. She started to follow, but Tiny gestured her back to her chair with a slight shake of his head and she knew that he was right. Instead, Tiny followed Gwen, motioning to another Sabre to take his place guarding the Empress. He knew where his first duty lay and Randi gave him a nod of appreciation.

Gwen wandered out rapidly, not having a clear idea of how to get back to the room she was staying in. She heard footsteps behind her running to catch up, but did not turn around, still appalled by the savagery she had seen in the arena.

She jumped when Tinyís hand landed gently on her shoulder and turned to find his compassionate eyes on hers. "Címon," he said. "Do you wanna go get something to eat? Or perhaps just some company back to your room?" he added quickly when Gwenís skin went green-toned at the mere mention of food.

"Tiny, you donít need to baby sit me. Iíll be fine." The expression in his eyes turned to chagrin, but Gwen didnít see it immediately as she came to a crossroads of hallways and stood looking around trying to figure out where she was and how to get where she wanted to go. "Maybe if you could just point me in the right direction...." Then she caught a glimpse of the look on his face. "You have *got* to be kidding me," she snapped at him.

"Actually, Gwen, I offered. Iíd feel more comfortable if youíd let me kinda keep and eye on you. According to Reed, this is almost over. Iíd hate to have Ares decide to... well, Iíd just prefer you stay safe, all right?"

Her shoulders slumped. She couldnít deny him the right to protect her Ė he had almost as much at stake as she did at this point.

"All right, Tiny. God knows you deserve whatever peace of mind I can offer. I know itís not much, but I really do appreciate everything youíve done for me... and Randi. I know youíve given up a lot to stay by her side through all of this and I am so grateful for your sacrifice."

Tiny blushed unexpectedly, embarrassed by Gwenís profuse gratitude. Then he swallowed hard and gallantly offered her his arm, which she accepted with alacrity.

They turned and walked in silence for several minutes before Gwenís hand tightened on his arm. He looked down at her with a question in his eyes. "Howís Reed?"

Tears welled in his eyes before he could stop them. Gwenís compassion was unanticipated, even knowing her concern for others, given the complicated state of affairs that existed in Gwenís life at present. He gave her a shaky smile. "Sheís all right. I sent her back to the village this afternoon, and Sky is taking care of her right now. Thanks for asking."

"Tiny, Reed is my friend, and sheís taken such good care of me... even when I didnít want her to. Is there anything I can do for her?"

"No, Gwen. Youíre right where you need to be. Sky and the people will look out for Reed and will strengthen and reinforce her barriers. Sheíll be all right; we all will."

Gwen realized that guards had been stationed periodically along the hallways and two seemed to be permanently attached to either side of the doorway. She and Tiny reached the apartment that belonged to Gwen and Randi, and Tiny halted outside the door. The two guards snapped to attention, startling Gwen. A hand signal from Tiny shifted both of them back to a more relaxed, but still alert position beside the door. Gwen looked at Tiny... impressed.

"You have *got* to teach me that, because Iím fairly sure Randi wonít let me get rid of these guys, and they look so uptight, theyíre making me hurt."

Tiny chuckled, and he thought he saw one guard twitch just slightly, though he would certainly never bring attention to it. Randi had implemented strict security measures throughout the palace which had become downright stringent before she brought Gwen in.

"Iíll teach you all the tricks, Gwen. Donít worry. Now would you like me to come in and wait with you until Randi returns?" She shook her head. "Can I get you anything?" Another shake. "All right, then," he said, keying in the code and opening the door. "I will leave you to your solitude. Goodnight, Gwen."

"Goodnight, Tiny," Gwen returned as she crossed the threshold into the living area of their suite. "Oh, Tiny," she said, turning back before she had moved two steps into the room. "Do you know... I understand that some of the rebels chose rehabilitation instead of becoming gladiators. Is that true?" He nodded.

"About sixty percent, yes."

"Do you... can you come by in the morning? I think Iíd like to go see those people."

"Gwen...."

"Tiny, I am trying to make your position here as easy as possible by keeping you in the loop as far as my plans go. If youíd like me to just go ahead and do things on my own, I will, but I am going to go see those people tomorrow. Now, are you going to come with me or am I going alone?"

Tiny sighed and offered a prayer for Reed, knowing she had coped with Gwenís stubborn resistance for several months. "Iíll be here to pick you up... um, what time?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. What time do they start?"

"Seven."

Gwen grimaced. "Ai yi yi. Okay, how about eight? Iíd like to observe the rehabilitation unnoticed if I can and I think that might be more easily achieved if they are already engrossed in... whatever it is that they are doing." She turned and faced him directly. "Please tell me they are learning by doing and not being reprogrammed or some such other psychobabble."

Tiny smiled. "No psychobabble, Gwen, though all of them attend classes to learn about the differences and similarities we all have. No, a lot of this is pure hard work."

"Good, hard work I can be part of. Thanks, Tiny. Goodnight."

"Night, Gwen."

Tiny left with a word to the two guards and headed directly back to the arena. He knew Randi was waiting anxiously for him to report back to her. He slid into the box without a sound, though she was aware the moment the door opened. She signaled him forward without letting her eyes leave the arena for an instant.

"Well?"

"I escorted her back to your apartment, sir. Simmonds and Nickels are on duty. She is safely tucked into your suite and of course you will know if she makes a move to leave before morning."

"And?" She waited and when he didnít respond further, she prompted with a gently teasing tone. "Címon, Tiny. I know Gwen... Iím married to her for Godís sake! Youíre not gonna sit there and think I believe that it was that easy. So what else?"

"She mentioned going to visit the rebels in the morning. She wants to observe their rehabilitation."

Randi waited again, and finally turned to glare at him with baleful blue eyes. "AND??" she said again with much more force. Tiny remained silent, shrugging his shoulders as though he didnít understand exactly what she was getting at. "You mean to tell me she didnít discuss her feelings with you... about being summoned here or the gladiatorial games or anything else?"

"Empress... Commandant Ė I give you my word as both a Sabre and your friend. We did not at any time discuss her feelings on anything nor did we discuss the gladiators. We did talk about the fact that I am her personal escort here and she is trying to íkeep me in the loopí is how she described it. That is why I know about her desire to see the rehabilitation process, sir. I believe she is trying to work within the restrictions she knows are necessary here."

Randi stared hard at him for long moments before nodding her head and turning her attention back to the final five opponents still alive on the floor. "Make sure Simmonds and Nickels know to be extremely vigilant. I have a few things to work on tonight."

"Aye, sir," Tiny replied sharply, taking her words for his dismissal. His shoulders didnít slump until he closed the door behind him. He had hoped that Gwenís return to Randi would have changed that late night practice habit, but apparently not. He spoke to the two guards before heading down the hall to his own room. Tomorrow promised to be a long day.

 

 

Randi got back to the apartment just as the sun touched the edge of the horizon. She glanced towards the bed, noting that Gwen was still peacefully asleep. Randi stood and merely gazed at her for a long moment, only feeling the freedom to take such liberties because Gwen was sleeping so soundly and aching for what they had lost between them. When the feeling began to overwhelm her, Randi spun on her heel and headed directly into the bathroom.

Gwen felt her leave, and only then did she turn to the wall, and let the tears slide down her face. It didnít last long; Gwen didnít allow it. Instead, she slipped from beneath the covers and dressed. Then she grabbed her staff from the corner and headed out the door.

A few questions and answers later and Gwen was headed out to the training area Randi had set up for her personal use. Gwen was unaware that the Sabres and guards who were considered part of Randiís personal staff used it as well. Nor had anyone told her of the recording devises that were maintained on a twenty-four/seven basis so that Randi could review and critique each warriorís performance. That feature was something those under her command had asked for and Randi had been happy enough to comply. She felt, as they did, that there was always room for improvement, and she watched her own workouts with the same intensity and a far more critical eye. Besides, it let the security detail keep an eye on the room at all times as well.

So, Gwen approached the room, lost in thought, remembering when Randi had given her the staff she now carried, and the care she had taken in choosing each of the symbols that adorned it. Gwen pushed open the door to the training room, a little surprised to find it in use. Several Sabres and a few guards were scattered throughout, using the various pieces of equipment. They all turned and looked at her when she stepped into the room, then deliberately went back to their own tasks. No matter what was or was not between Randi and Gwen, the fact remained that everyone... *everyone* saw Gwen as Queen and consort to the Empress herself. That alone entitled her to a modicum of respect and privacy.

Gwen stepped over to the cleared area that seemed to be set aside for sparring. At the moment, she was the only one in it and she went immediately into the warm-up routine Randi had taught her all those months ago. From there, she went into her Amazon exercises, and then she crossed right into fighting technique Ė not expecting an opponent, but reacting just as she should have when one appeared in front of her without warning.

She didnít take note of who her opponent was; simply that she had one and together they went at it seriously and with clear determination. Only when they went into a cool down application did Gwen come out of the haze she had moved into for her combat exercise and realize that Tiny had been her opponent and that every other warrior in the room had stopped to watch them.

He nodded at her, though the twinkle in his eye told a far greater story than his expressionless face did. When they were done, they saluted one another and gave a slight bow before relaxing. Then and only then did Tiny allow a huge grin to cross his face.

"Wow, my lady! That was amazing! Thank you for the workout. I canít recall the last time I have had such a worthy opponent." Actually, he could, but he wasnít about to share how Randi kicked his ass in this room on a regular basis if he could help it. A right hand man had to maintain *some* dignity if he could, and though he knew Gwen wouldnít tease, the rest might be inclined to smirk and snark about it behind his back. Things were treacherous enough without adding anything else to the mix. And while Randi could razz him, she would take exception to anyone else trying it.

Gwen smiled with distinct pleasure. "Thanks, Tiny. The Amazons really pushed me during staff workouts because it is what I have the most experience with."

"Did they, my lady?" he questioned. "What else were they teaching you?" he asked as they made their way to the area that held towels and a refrigerator. He chose water and Gwen selected an orange juice for herself. Then by mutual consent they headed beck towards their residences.

"A little of everything," she replied to his question after a long pull on her juice. "Hand to hand, crossbow, chobos, sword, sais and of course staff work. They were even trying to teach me stealth and tree walking."

"Oh boy."

"No kidding. I have a fear of heights, so that one was not progressing well at all even though my instructor was very patient with me. She swears Iíll get it eventually, but Iím not so sure of that myself. Thereís just something unnerving about the whole idea."

Tiny smiled in agreement. "I know. I try not to think about it and just do it."

Gwen looked at him, eyes wide in amazement. "Youíre afraid of heights?"

He chuckled. "No. I am just not fond of tree walking. As big as I am, the branches tend to fold quite a bit under my weight and that, coupled with the fact that I mostly end up traveling hunched over, makes it less than pleasant for me."

Gwen looked him up and down and nodded. "Oh. Yeah, I could see where that would be a problem." They had reached her apartment and Tiny stopped.

"Iíll be back by to pick you up in, say... half an hour?"

"All right," Gwen replied, opening the door and closing it softly behind her before Tiny moved back towards his own room. She put her staff in its corner, then tiptoed to the bathroom, shutting the door before she stripped off her sweaty clothes. Only when she was standing under the shower did she realize Randi wasnít in the bed.

 

 

The knock came to the door exactly thirty minutes later, and Tiny announced himself before opening it and peeking around. "Queen Gwen?"

"In the bedroom, Tiny. Give me one minute." It was just a minute later when she stepped from the bedroom into the living area where Tiny stood waiting. "Sorry."

"No problem, my lady. Are you ready?" Gwen nodded. "You may want to bring your staff. Trust me," he added at her confused look. She stepped back into the bedroom and grabbed it, then followed him out the door. Then they headed down the hallway side by side.

"Tiny?" Gwen said, breaking the silence only once they were out of the palace. "Why do you keep calling me Ďmy ladyí?

"It is your title here, and youíll find that the Empress is a stickler for protocol." Her shoulders slumped and she looked back at him plaintively. "I am sorry, my lady. Perhaps when we are out of the palace and alone I can call you Gwen if youíd like."

"Iíd like," Gwen answered firmly. "And any other time you think it is safe to do so. I donít want to get you into trouble, but I am so tired of being addressed by a title and not by my name."

"Given the security measures the Empress has in place here, even that is pushing it, but Iíll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Tiny. Is that how you were able to find me this morning? Because of the security measures?"

"Well, I could have, but not this time. I actually use that room every morning. I was surprised to find you there so early, especially after your reaction to the rebelsí early morning hours."

"Yeah, well, I woke up wide awake. I guess I slept out," not mentioning that sheíd been anxious to escape from the suite before Randi got out of the shower. She wondered where Randi was now, and where sheíd spent the night. She didnít think Randi was cheating on her, at least not on a physical level, but given the state of things between them, she had doubts. And that hurt... a lot.

"So why did you want me to bring my staff? Do you think the rebels are going to attack me?"

"No. I thought maybe you might like to have it to show your prowess to the Amazons here. They know about your accepting the title of queen and everyone knows you arrived here yesterday." He smirked at her shocked expression. "Strict security or not, that was huge news."

"And how did Randi take that?"

Tiny shrugged. "She didnít share. Youíre gonna find that the Randi you married is not the Empress that rules. She keeps to herself a lot and she does a lot of sparring and working out - alone as well as with whoever happens to be in the training room at the time. I donít think sheís sleeping much, either." He paused and put a hand on her arm, stopping their progress. "Iím worried about her, Gwen. She is really struggling with this. Itís almost like sheís being pulled apart - in two completely different directions."

"I think she is, Tiny." She tugged on his arm. "Címon. Letís go see how things are going in rehab."

 

 

Surprisingly, to Gwen anyway, no one turned an eye their way as they walked through the various classrooms. They were only separated by ages and abilities, not by race or clan or culture. Some groups were intently focused on what was being taught, while others were engaged in animated discussion. But all of them were deeply involved in learning, and Gwen couldnít help but be impressed.

"How, Tiny? And why?"

"Most of them... Gwen, most of the rebels in rehab are second and third generation legacies. They were rebels because that is all they know; itís all they have ever known. Most of the folks here canít read; they have no mathematics skills. They had no schooling growing up. They were taught to hate and fight and die."

Gwen covered her mouth to hide her horrified gasp, but she couldnít stop the tears from welling in her eyes. Tiny took her hand from her mouth and tucked it into the crook of his arm. "Donít feel sorry for them, Gwen. Theyíre here now by choice, and theyíre learning. Theyíre learning what they need to know to function in the world, and theyíre excited about it. For the first time, they have the chance to learn and choose and make their own decisions. Even with having to suffer with pain of having the tracking implants put in place, this has been very liberating for them."

A bell rang, and the rebels Ė the students Ė Gwen reminded herself, filed out quietly and headed in the same direction. She turned questioning eyes to Tiny. "Lunch," he answered succinctly. "Weíve been here for a while. Would you like to join them?"

"Can we?"

"My lady," emphasizing her title. "You are Queen to the ruler of the world. There is very little you cannot do that you want to."

She glared at him for a moment for the use of the title, then smiled and nodded her head. "Then yes. I would like to if you donít think weíll disrupt things too much. They obviously have a very strict schedule to keep."

"Well," he drawled, turning them to follow the last of the people entering the mess area. "Thatís another cool thing about being the queen. You can occasionally disrupt things and no one will mind... not even the Empress."

The quiet murmur that was running around the room halted abruptly when they crossed the threshold and Gwen looked around. "Do yaíll mind if we join you for lunch?" A place was cleared for them so fast a chair was knocked over and several people scrambled to set it upright. Gwen watched the proceedings with interest, knowing she was being watched in return. For his part, Tiny became an observer who blended in, and when Gwen took her seat, they forgot about him completely in their excitement at having Gwen among them.

"Are you really a bard?"

"Youíre Gwen Goldman?"

"Is it true youíre the queen of the Amazons?"

Are you really married to the Empress?"

"Does that make you queen of the world?"

"Can you fight with that stick?"

"Whatís she like?"

"Can you tell us a story?"

The adults may have been shy about talking, but the kids certainly werenít, and the questions came fast and furious from all corners of the room as soon as Gwen had taken her seat. She smiled at their enthusiasm and looked at Tiny who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He shrugged and nodded at her with a slight smile.

"Well," Gwen said slowly, folding her hands in her lap. "How about if I tell you all a story?" It got quiet so quickly the hiss of steam could be heard rising from the serving line. Gwen looked around a little startled. She didnít know what kind of reaction she expected, but she was gratified by the one she got. "All right, then," she said, standing up. "Letís see what we can come up with."

The room watched silently as her gaze became introspective for several long moments. Then she looked around, meeting as many eyes as she could and giving them a smile. "Iíve got it. Have any of you heard about the day the gods got up to discover they werenít who they thought they were any more?" Negative shakes and blank stares met her question, and Gwen chuckled a little, and turned her talent and her personality over towards telling them a good story.

All the gods of the world she could think of were included Ė even Notta God. That one was a surprise for most; they didnít realize that even non-believers had their own god, and her description of him drew chuckles from the entire room. However, as she got deeper into her story, there was outright laughter coming from everyone. Gwen made hearing about your chosen deity suddenly becoming someone or something else and the trial and error involved in trying to cope with that reality hysterical. And she was equal opportunity Ė she didnít leave out a single god. Everyone was picked on equally and with equally disastrous results.

The bell to return them to class came and went, but no one moved because no one noticed. They were all, students and teachers alike, far too engrossed in Gwenís storytelling.

A sentry was dispatched to find out what the trouble was, and the moment he entered the room, he sent a reply to Randi. And she came down to see for herself.

No one noticed her arrival Ė no one except Tiny, and he certainly wasnít going to call attention to it. She hadnít noticed him standing in the corner; Randiís was totally mesmerized by beautiful woman who held her audience captivated with her words. Randi watched until she could tell Gwenís story was winding down, then she slipped out the door before she was noticed.

Gwen finished her story to shouts of approval and wild cheering. She laughed, it felt so good. Then she looked at the clock, and her eyes widened, realizing they had been in the mess hall for the better part of two hours. "Um... I hate to be an old killjoy, but what time are yaíll suppose to be back in class?"

Then everyoneís eyes went to the clock and the fairly orderly scramble to get out of the mess hall and back to class couldnít cover the simultaneous gasp that everyone released upon seeing the time. In a very few minutes, only Gwen and Tiny were left in the room, and they exchanged amused glances before they headed out the door and back towards the palace.

"I hope I didnít get anyone in trouble."

Tiny chuckled. "I donít think you did, Gwen, but even if you did, I think they all would agree it was worth it. I havenít heard anything that funny in a long time. Where did you come up with that idea?"

Gwen shrugged. "Dunno. Same place as all the others, I suppose. I just figured comedy would be appreciated. Theyíre all still so new to this... so unsure of themselves and their lives and their beliefs." She shrugged again. "It just seemed like the thing to share."

"Well, I donít know where it came from, but it was damned funny," he added with a chuckle. "Iím glad I was there to hear it." He laughed again. "The scariest thing is I could honestly picture it happening. But making them all work together to put things back the way they were supposed to be was a touch of pure genius."

"Tiny?" Gwen said abruptly. "The fighters last night Ė most of them were originally with Ghost Rider or are first generation legacies, arenít they?"

"Yes, my lady," he answered as they crossed the threshold back into the palace.

"Regardless, I canít watch the gladiator tournament. I wonít. I know something has to be done with them, and I suppose having them destroy each other is better than Randi slaughtering them one by one. But I canít watch it happen, Tiny."

"Itís all right, my lady. Iíll make sure the Empress understands."

She looked at him forlornly. "The sad thing is, Tiny... you shouldnít have to."

 

 

Chapter XXIV

"Tiny tells me he's the reason that the school ran over schedule today. Is that true?" Randi and Gwen were sitting alone at dinner. It was the first time that day they had spent any appreciable time together, and their awkwardness was palpable.

"No, and I'm sure you already know that or you wouldn't be asking." Gwen made an effort to swallow both her anger and sarcasm. "Is it a problem?"

Randi chewed slow as she thought about her answer. "Well, as a rule, yes it would be," she replied honestly. "The school is set up on a strict schedule, and it needs to be maintained if we are to maintain discipline."

Gwen nodded, but did not respond otherwise. Randi waited, but Gwen remained silent. Finally, Randi spoke again.

"The games begin at eight o'clock. I will be by at seven-thirty...." stopping when Gwen shook her head negatively and cocking her head in question.

"Don't bother," Gwen said flatly. "I'm not going."

"Gwen, I thought you understood...."

"I understand that I cannot, *will* not sit through that carnage again, Randi. I know that your position of authority requires that you be there. It does not, however, require my presence and I refuse to be forced into it."

"Gwen...."

"Randi, NO!"

Randi clamped her jaw together. "Gwen, I need you to be a visible part of life here. The world should see that we are united in our efforts to bring peace and stability back to the world."

"United in what efforts? Randi, we're not united in anything, and we haven't been since... God, since I can't remember when anymore. Quite frankly, I don't give a good goddamn *what* the world thinks or doesn't think! I am not going to sit through those games just for some sort of appearance's sake."

"Goddamn it, Gwen!! Do you want me to kill them all myself?? Hmm? Is that what you want?? You want me to kill each and every rebel that decided to die as a gladiator? Would that make it easier for you to support this?"

"God, no, Randi!! I don't want to have to see you kill anyone... or worse, to have to watch people who hate you and everything you stand for try to kill you Ė to even be offered the opportunity to do so! There is always the chance, however remote, that someone would get in a lucky shot. You could be hurt... or worse. And I don't want to see that." She drew a shaky breath. "But I have no desire to watch them kill each other either. I can't and I won't," with furious determination.

Randi blew out an exasperated breath; despite everything... despite the fact that Gwen was complicating things immeasurably, she couldn't help but admire the fierce conviction in her tone. And she was more than a little turned on by the passion emanating from her. She blew out another breath and tried to think. She hadn't realized how much she missed this.

"Would you like to be a storyteller?"

Gwen blinked at Randi like she'd lost her mind. "I beg your pardon?? Randi, I *AM* a storyteller. I have *always* been a storyteller... since I first drew breath in this life and in every other life I've ever had. I don't think...."

"Gwen, waitaminute. Just hear me out, please." Holding up a hand and waiting to Gwen to acquiesce. "Thank you. Would you like to tell stories to the rebels who are in rehabilitation school?"

"I thought...."

"In the evenings... during the games. Instead of attending the games with me, would you prefer to tell stories to the people in rehab? Lunch is not a very good venue for it; there's just really not enough time then. But it would be easy to set some time aside in the evening... however much you'd like to schedule."

Gwen thought about it and nodded. "I'd like that, thanks," giving Randi the ghost of a smile.

Randi pushed away from the table and stood. "I'll go make the arrangements."

Gwen was left sitting at the table alone.

 

 

And so it came to pass that while Randi spent her evenings overseeing the gladiatorial games, Gwen spent hers telling stories to people who needed to hear them. Most of the rest of their time was spent apart Ė by choice as much as circumstance.

Gwen got up every morning as soon as she heard Randi step into the bathroom upon her return from wherever it was she spent her nights. All Gwen knew was that Randi's nights were not spent with her or anyone else. Other than that, she had no real clue what Randi did with her time.

As soon as she was up and dressed, Gwen made her way to the training room where she spent the better part of the morning training on the variety of weapons and skills the Amazons had introduced her to. There always seemed to be one sort of master or another who was more than willing to spar and train with her. It was rarely the same discipline two days in a row and she never considered that the instructors were following any kind of schedule to insure she got as much diversity as possible in her training.

Tiny was there every morning without fail, and always the two of them spent time working on staff technique. Always Gwen was able to hold her own and more than once she was able to defeat him. Several times, she even gave a demonstration of a particular move that someone had never seen put into practice before. She never knew how often Randi stood in the security room and simply watched.

Afternoons Gwen spent talking to people, finding out what they did and didn't like about how things were going. Mostly it was good things she heard, but there were always little things that could be improved upon, and Gwen made sure Tiny had a list of all the things she heard.

In the evenings, before her storytelling sessions, she always shared dinner with Randi, unless state business took her away. But mostly Randi did try to be available for dinner, as it was the only time she and Gwen actually shared any time together, though she did wonder why they even made the effort when it was so painful for them to be in each other's presence for any length of time. Silences were long and awkward and only served to remind them both of a time in the not-so-distant past when there was always communication between them... even when it was unspoken.

From dinner, Gwen went to the rebel encampment and told stories until her voice was nearly gone. Then she went back to their shared apartment to go to bed alone and cried herself to sleep.

Randi left dinner and went to the games, overseeing them with a grim sense of satisfaction. When they were over, she went to the training grounds. Sometimes she closed them and worked out alone until she was ready to drop from exhaustion. Others, she welcomed the distraction of other human beings and pushed them to push her. By the time the sun was ready to creep over the horizon, Randi was ready to face another day alone.

She waited for Gwen to leave the apartment before she left the bathroom and went to take care of whatever business was on tap for the morning. Lunch was generally a brief, hurried event and then Randi went to rest for a short while immediately after before rising and attending to more affairs of state. Always she took time to go to the school to check on the progress of each of the rebel students, and she was well-pleased with what she found. Soon, the people here would no longer be known as rebels and would be able to take a productive place in society. Those that didn't... well, she would deal with that if and when the time came. Then it was time for dinner with Gwen and back to the gladiatorial arena for another night of senseless death.

Despite everything, Randi could not understand why these rebels were so determined to die, but by the same token, she almost had to admire their strict devotion to their beliefs Ė twisted as she felt those beliefs to be. She idly wondered how many outside the Sabre unit would be so devoted to their own if push came to shove as it had for these rebels. When it was over, she wandered out of the arena alone and headed for the training grounds for another night of physical work, hoping to erase the image of disgust and disdain she felt emanating from Gwen... whether it was real or imagined.

For his part, Ares was at something of a loss. Everything had been done that should have been done. The rebellion had been destroyed Ė granted, it hadn't happened the way he had envisioned; certainly not the way that he had hoped. But the rebellion had been wiped out. Randi had personally slain each faction's leaders, and made a public example of the overall rebel leader Bramble.

That coupled with the fact that she had declared herself Empress of the world *and* her obvious estrangement from Gwen meant his time had come. And yet she continued to resist the burning in her blood; she continued to refuse to call for him.

However, he had pushed the envelope as far as he dared, and broken as many rules as he could hope to and not get caught. The ball was in her court and it was up to her. Not that he didn't expect to win Ė that outcome was a given as far as he was concerned. He had stacked the odds too heavily in his favor for it to be otherwise. But he still hated waiting... he figured he had been waiting for millennia for this to finally come to fruition. That should be long enough.

So he watched, growing increasingly frustrated by Randi's distinct lack of progress in calling for him to join her as ruler of the world.

 

 

Athena and Artemis sat on either side of Aphrodite as she lay nearly unconscious on her bed. She had become increasingly more despondent and in actual physical pain as Randi and Gwen continued to pull further apart from one another. They hoped that once the rendering actually took place Aphrodite would be able to help focus on the strength needed for healing. But for right now, all she felt was the tearing, and it was ripping her apart as well.

Athena and Artemis took turns watching the scrying bowl while the other maintained the vigil over Aphrodite. It was evident to all of them that the end was very near.

 

 

Finally, on Celebration Eve, the games were over, save the final match between Randi and the rebel champion. For that, Randi had commanded that Gwen be present. Not that Gwen would have been anywhere else, but it would have been nice to have been asked instead of being told. So she started off furious, and things just went downhill from there.

"You can't wear that," Randi said without preamble as she stepped into the room. Gwen looked down at herself. It was much the same as what she had been wearing during her time in this place. She looked up at Randi and waited for an explanation with fire in her eyes. "Go change," was the only directive she got.

Gwen didn't move and Randi looked at her askance. "Hurry up. We don't have a lot of time."

"I'm not going anywhere with you dictating to me. What is wrong with my appearance?" Gwen was nicely dressed but it was comfortable and very casual.

Randi sighed. There would have been a time when Gwen would have been excited about the coming prospect, but no more. "Tonight is a formal occasion. Once I defeat Jared, my title of Empress and yours of Consort will become official and there will be a reception for us immediately following the coronation." She would have continued, but Gwen interrupted her, green eyes flaring hot enough to burn. It was all Randi could do not to flinch.

"NO. I will not be introduced as your consort. That implies I am less than your equal; I don't think so. You can introduce me as your wife, your partner, your best friend and confidante, even as your lover or your queen. But I will not stand for being referred to as your consort, either now or in the future. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Gwen, what have I done to make you so angry with me? Haven't I done good... made the world a better place? Why can't you trust me like you used to?"

"Do I make myself *perfectly* clear?"

"Your feelings on the matter are understood," Randi acknowledged. "Now, go change. We are running late."

Gwen snorted as she walked back into the dressing area to find something more appropriate to wear. "Not like they will start without you." Then she shut the door to stop any further conversation between them.

Randi wore her Sabre armor and Gwen had to suck it up when she stepped from the bedroom a short while later. Despite everything, she still loved Randi Ė still desired her... body, heart and soul. But she could feel the slippery slope they stood upon the precipice of and knew that Randi accepting this position, however innocently her intentions started out, would destroy them. Gwen hoped if she kept pushing Randi, she'd see the truth for herself before it was too late... before Gwen had to leave. But she was losing hope. She felt in her heart that her time to leave - Randi's time to choose between Gwen and Ares - was very nigh to hand.

Randi simply stood and gazed at Gwen, the look of her searing itself into Randi's mind. It was a dress she had never seen before Ė a simple sleeveless, black sheath that shown off the golden tan she had acquire during her hours out on the palace grounds. Her hair was loose around her face and around her neck was a single, teardrop diamond Ė a present from Aphrodite. To all outward appearances, she was a queen... a worthy consort for their Empress. But one look in her eyes made it obvious that there was no happiness in her heart in this place or circumstance.

Randi didn't know what to say that wouldn't sound trite or fake coming from her at this point in time, so she simply nodded her head in approval and extended her arm for Gwen to walk in front of her. By unspoken consensus, they again walked through the corridors without speaking or touching until they reached the entrance to the arena. Then Randi extended her arm, and Gwen placed her hand on top, and they entered their box to the resounding cheers of those in attendance as well as those who were watching around the world. This was something of an event, and everyone everywhere wanted to be a part of history in the making... everyone, it seemed, but those who mattered most to Randi. Neither Geoff and Jill nor Tommy and Ella had deigned to show up at Gwenís request, and Gwen would be forced to sit in the box alone, save for Tiny who would remain as her escort.

It took a little while for the crowd, both live and electronic, to calm down. Once they did, Randi smiled charismatically and began to speak.

"Ladies and Gentlemen Ė Tonight ushers in the beginning of a new era." Loud cheering. "Now, if you'll excuse me...." Then she seated Gwen and jumped from the box onto the floor of the arena with a bit of theatrical acrobatics and another rousing cheer from the onlookers.

Jared stepped from the prep room where he had been ensconced full of bluster and bravado. He had earned his chance to be in this place, and he was the rebellion's last, best hope. And he had come determined to win the day for them.

He took his sword in his hands and swung it experimentally, knowing his best chance was going to come right at the beginning. Randi stood with her hands on her hips and simply waited for him to make the first move.

Jared screamed and lunged, swinging his sword hard enough to decapitate the woman standing in front of him... or the woman who *should* have been standing in front of him at any rate. But she wasn't where she was supposed to be, and a tap on the shoulder told him exactly where she was. He swung again and she ducked, kicking him in the knees and watching him fall to the ground. She stood and waited for him to regain his footing, and this time he was much more cautious when he approached her.

The fight went on like this for several minutes before Randi finally decided to draw steel and get down to business. She let Jared lead the dance for a little while longer, simply deflecting his blows and doing little damage to him while keeping him from doing any to herself. Then suddenly, as though she had been touched by Ares himself, she went on the offensive and it quickly became clear just how out of his league Jared really was.

Nicks and cuts began to appear liberally and randomly all over his body, and maintaining his footing became problematic due to the blood loss he was experiencing. Finally, tired of the whole encounter, Randi swung around and neatly cleaved his head from his shoulders. The crowd went wild, and she raised her bloody sword in victorious salute, grinning from ear to ear...

... until she turned to her box and saw Gwen looking anywhere but at her Ė anywhere but in the arena. Randi compressed her lips together and accepted the accolades she felt she had earned and deserved for finally defeating the last of the rebellion once and for all. But her victory was hollow and her joy in it was gone.

After completing her victory circle, Randi raised her hands again and the crowd quieted. She nodded to Tiny who stood behind Gwen in the box. He touched Gwen's elbow and with a whispered word, led her down into the arena to take her place beside Randi, though Randi noticed Gwen didn't actually get close enough to touch her or be touched by her. The crowd waited for her words with bated breath, hoping it was the pronouncement they were expecting.

"My friends... the rebellion is over and the reign of peace has begun." The people cheered and clapped appropriately, only stopping when Randi held up her hands for quiet. Then they waited expectantly. "I have heard your voices and your desire for a single ruler to reign until the peace is stable and the military is able to quell any uprisings that would threaten it." She paused. "In light of that, and since it is the will of the people, I will accept the responsibility to continue as your Empress until such time as we feel the peace is well established enough to maintain itself without my governing."

Now the crowd cheered and whooped for long, long minutes and Randi let it, basking in the approval and acceptance she could feel prevailing, not only in the arena, but from the world itself.

After a few minutes of adulation, she raised her hands for silence once more and the crowd capitulated to her wishes. "Now," she said, extending her hand to Gwen, who took it gingerly. "I would like to formally present to you someone most of you know. This is of course Gwen Goldman." The crowd shouted its approval. Many of them knew of her work with the rebels in the rehabilitation program, and even more of them knew of her work as a bard.

A priest stepped forward from the shadows bearing two crowns. Randi bent her head to receive hers; Gwen refused, but given her height, the priest simply placed it on top. Then he stepped back a pace and offered a traditional blessing before giving Randi the oath of office. When he was finished, he looked at the expectantly waiting crowd.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the honor and privilege of presenting to you, Empress Miranda Valiant and her consort, Gwenivere Goldman." Randi held tightly to Gwen's hand when she would have jerked it out of Randi's grasp. "The Coronation Ball will be held in this very arena tomorrow night. God save the Empress!" As the music began to play, Randi led Gwen out of the arena. When they were out of sight, Gwen jerked her hand from Randi's, wiping it off on her dress. Randi noticed the action, and realized Gwen was smearing blood onto the black fabric.

An aide handed a towel to Randi, who accepted it and then reached for Gwen. Gwen snatched her hand away from Randi's grasp, instead turning and stalking down the hall. Randi followed her, grabbing her by the shoulders as they reached the apartment. Gwen reached up and removed Randi's fingers from her body, then she snatched the forgotten circlet from her head and slapped it into Randi's hands.

Without a word, Gwen moved into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. She set the shower temperature and stripped off the dress, leaving it in a wad on the floor. When the water came on, Gwen stepped under the water and began to scrub herself clean until her skin was a bright pink color. Only then did she step out of the shower and into the robe that was there for her use.

Randi, meanwhile, watched Gwen enter the bathroom and wondered what she was so angry about. They had just been made rulers of the world Ė didn't she understand what an awesome honor and responsibility they had been given? Didn't Gwen care about the trust that had been placed in them?

Randi removed the circlet from her own head, then realized both now had blood stains on them and would need to be cleaned before the morrow. She called for Tiny, instructing him on what she wanted as far as the crowns went. Just as she was about to dismiss him, Gwen walked out of the bathroom and over to the dressing table to comb out her hair.

"Oh, and have someone take Gwen's dress and have it cleaned," Randi commanded.

"Burn it," Gwen said flatly. Tiny stood still, just looking back and forth between the two of them. "I will never wear that dress again, Tiny. Burn it... or give it away. But don't bring it back here. I don't want to see it ever again and I will certainly never wear it again."

He looked at Randi who nodded silently and went into the bathroom to gather it up before escaping back out the way he came. Then he went to call Reed. He could feel the tension was ready to explode.

"Gwen?" not reaching out, but meeting green eyes with blue in the mirror for a bare moment before looking away. Gwen dropped her gaze from the mirror and focused her attention on the brush in her hands. Then she shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Randi. I really am. This is not how I ever expected our life together to go." She took a deep breath and blew it out to stymie the tears that wanted to fall. She felt Randi take a step towards her and shook her head. "Don't, please. Just go and do whatever it is you do every night."

Randi dropped her hands and realized for the first time she, and they, were still coated with Jared's blood. Disgusted she stomped off, not even bothering to stop for a shower and slamming the door behind her when she left. Gwen watched her in the mirror, not moving from her seat until the door closed. Then she got up and slowly moved to the bed, feeling her age and the weight of the world in a way she never had before. It was a very long time before sleep came to her that night.

 

 

Geoff and Jill arrived at the palace early the next morning. They'd had very little chance to spend time with Gwen since her arrival in the city and Geoff had decided he needed to talk to his daughter face to face. When Gwen had first arrived, Geoff had been undergoing a new surgery procedure the doctor's hoped would help Geoff obtain more mobility, and Geoff had asked her to give him some time to work on things before coming to see him. He wanted to have something new to show her. Then Gwen had asked that they skip the formal activities Randi had scheduled and they had been glad to comply.

With Randi's declaration the previous night, however, all bets were off. Geoff and Jill had both noticed the pained look on Gwen's face and felt Gwen needed their support and had come over immediately.

It hadn't been as difficult as they had anticipated; their names were on short list of people Randi had cleared for admittance into the palace grounds. Finding Gwen was a little more difficult. Fortunately, the guard that passed them through to the palace was able find Tiny who in turn was able to alert Gwen to her visitors.

Gwen ran into her parents' arms and they embraced for long moments before they released one another. Tiny moved to an inconspicuous corner of the room. Jill brushed a hand through Gwen's hair before cupping her face. "How are you doing, little girl? You look so tired." Geoff took her hand and held it, offering Gwen his support.

"I am," Gwen confirmed. "It has been a very long few months."

"You've done a lot of good, Gwen. You both have."

"Maybe," she shrugged.

"But...?"

"But I think the time has come to bring this to an end." She shook her head. "I'm sorry... I know it's not the way any of us wanted to spend Celebration. I certainly had different plans," remembering the same time a mere year ago, when Randi had walked back into her life. How things have changed was her sad thought. "However, the time feels right to do this, but I have a huge favor to ask."

"Anything, Gwen, you know that," from Geoff.

"I want... I'd like you to stay here... to support Randi while I'm gone. I don't know how long it be, but I'd like to know she has you watching out for her until.... well, until this is over. It could be days or weeks or even months Ė it all depends on Randi and how quickly she makes her choice."

"What about you, Gwen? Won't you need us?"

"No, mama... not like Randi will. Please, I need to know you will do this for me... and for her."

Jill stroked Gwen's hair in a comforting manner. "All right, Gwen. If it will give you some peace of mind, we will give you our word. We'll do everything we can for as long as we are able. I just want to make sure you are taken care of as well."

Gwen smiled sadly and opened her arms for another hug which she received with great enthusiasm. "I'll be fine, mama. Reed and the People are preparing for my arrival and Lacey will remain with me until we are done."

"Do you think it will be a long wait or...?"

"I hope not, Daddy. I don't think it will be; I think subconsciously Randi wants this to be over as well. That's the reason all this started... to make it safe for us to be together." She drew a breath and released it. "C'mon. Let me take you to a room and get you settled. If you need anything, let Tiny know. He'll look after you."

Tiny and Geoff exchanged glances and nods. They walked together to the room Gwen had chosen for them to stay in for whatever time they would be in the palace. Then they all separated to prepare for the Coronation Ball.

 

 

Gwen walked with Randi once more in silence towards the arena. They had argued about the circlet crowns. Gwen had refused to wear hers and finally Randi had simply given in so they could make it to the ball. She did have Tiny bring it with him, however, hoping Gwen would see the need to wear it before they were presented to the public once more. Randi was resplendent in her uniform, and the gold circle only added to her image. She really did not understand Gwen's reluctance or refusal to accept the role Fate had thrust upon them. Didn't she understand that Randi was doing all of this for them... to keep them safe from those who wanted to separate them from each other??

Randi extended her hand as they reached the door, and Gwen took it, pulling Randi to a stop before they reached the doors and were forced into a public persona once more. Randi looked at Gwen with a question in her eyes, taking Gwen's other hand in hers as well. "Gwen?"

"Randi, I'm sorry things have been so tough for us lately. So much has happened; it's been a tough adjustment for both of us. I know I haven't made it any easier, and I'm sorry for that. I just want you to know... no matter what happens, no matter what comes next for us Ė I love you, and I'm so very glad you came back to me a year ago today."

Randi smiled, a gentle expression Gwen hadn't seen in far too long reflected in her eyes. She leaned down and brushed a soft kiss across Gwen's lips, hoping this was an indication of better things to come for them. Then Randi nodded her head at the guard, and he opened the door for both of them. The noise that radiated from the arena precluded further conversation, and they stepped into the din.

Without any warning at all, Randi swept Gwen into her arms, and they began to dance around the room as the music started to play. Even without her crown, Gwen was beautiful in the emerald green dress Randi had designed and had made for the occasion, and Randi was overjoyed to have Gwen in her arms once more. And after the brief conversation they had just had outside the door, she had hope for more and better things to come soon. For now, though, she relished having Gwen in her arms again.

When the dance was done, they took the dais and watched as the rest of the room's occupants took to the floor to indulge in the same. Time and again, Gwen was approached by one or another and asked to dance, and time and again she rejected the invitation. Though there were merely sitting together without words, Randi finally grew weary of the interruptions and stood to speak.

"Ladies and gentlemen, though my consort is flattered by the attention, we would both appreciate it if you would kindly enjoy the dancing without us. Thank you."

Subdued, but still thrilled to be part of the inauguration, the room resumed its enjoyment of dancing and eating and drinking. Randi remained standing for a few moments to make sure the people understood she meant business before she turned to smile at and speak to Gwen...

... only to find that Gwen was no longer in the room.

She looked around carefully, noting that only Tiny seemed to be missing otherwise. Without a word, she slipped from the dais and made her way quickly back to the room she had sort of shared with Gwen during their time together her in the capital city palace.

The apartment was empty when she arrived and Randi looked around the room, suddenly despising its harsh, garish design. She left the bedroom and crossed into the living area, wondering why Gwen had left and where she was if she wasn't here. She was glad that Tiny was looking out for Gwen since Randi obviously wasn't going to be allowed to for whatever reason. Randi contemplated returning to the party that was being thrown for them Ė for her Ė but found the whole idea suddenly disgusted her. Randi took off the crown she wore and dropped it carelessly onto the table, turning on the fireplace and flopping into the chair gracelessly.

She heard Gwen come into the apartment bedroom from the outside hall, and heard Tiny's voice as well though she couldn't make out the words that were said. When the bedroom door opened she didnít look up, knowing it could only be one person coming from the direction of the bedchambers. The warrior was a bit surprised when Gwen came around to stand in front of her with an air of resigned determination clear on her face. It was so different from the anger she'd seen the day before when the priest had presented them to the people or the love she had seen mere hours ago.

Now she waited patiently, watching with horrified eyes as Gwen lifted both hands and began removing the ring she had worn in so many lifetimes, but for such a short time in this one. Gwen stared at her hands for long moments before lifting her eyes to meet Randi's. Despite the rending she felt in her soul, she also felt a peace about the timing and rightness of her decision to go. It really was time.

"I never thought I would do this Randi," she said, slipping the platinum band from her finger. "What we had together.... It doesnít seem to mean anything to you anymore." She held up her hand when Randi opened her lips to speak. "Let me finish. I know what this means to me... what it symbolizes for me, for us. However, I donít want to hold you to a promise you are no longer capable of keeping." She took Randiís hand in her own and placed the ring in the center of her palm, closing it gently and watching as the fist clenched reflexively around it. "You decide what it means to you, if anything, and you let me know." Gwen kissed the balled fist then slipped from the room without another word.

The door shut with a distinct snick as it closed and Gwen stood beside it for a long moment regaining her composure. Dead silence was the only sound she heard. She squared her shoulders and walked out to the waiting shuttle, tears sliding easily down her face.

Gwen had done her part. Now it was time to see what path Randi would take.

 

 

Randi and Gwen looked at each other as they finished sharing the events that had brought them to this time and place, and they embraced for a very long time. Gwen tilted her head down and let her lips brush Randi's; Randi barely returned the pressure before Gwen pulled away slightly to speak.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry for my part in causing this whole fiasco. Forgive me?"

Randi shook her head. "Not... your fault," she said with difficulty. "Mine. I... unner...staní everí... thing now. So... so... sorry. Fo'give me?"

Gwen smile with tears in her eyes. "This was us, love... both of us together. I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me." Randi met Gwen's eyes, barely able to see enough to see the truth in them. She nodded and reached up awkwardly to cup the back of Gwen's head with her hand. Then she pulled Gwen down until their lips were touching.

"Always," she managed. I... love... you."

"Forever," Gwen agreed. "I love you too."

They kissed then. It was long and passionate and full of love and promise. Immediately, the journals holding the last of these memories disappeared into nothing, and the room lightened significantly.

"S'now wha...?" Randi asked groggily, as her awareness began to slip from her grasp.

Gwen shrugged, careful not to disturb Randi too much with the motion. "I think that is up to us, love. What do you want to do now?"

"Wanna sleep... need res' fir...." tapering off before she could finish her thought. It was only after a long moment of silence that Gwen noticed Randi's chest had stilled... completely.

 

 

Epilogue

Aphrodite sat up with a gasp, holding her chest as though in acute pain. "It's done," she announced, drawing in deep breaths and trying to push the pain out of her mind. "But we got serious issues. Let's go. They may need our help." Artemis and Athena exchanged glances then stood on either side of Aphrodite before all three of them disappeared in a shimmer of sparkles.

 

 

"Oh no, goddamn it! You're not gonna do this... not now!!" Tiny roared. "C'mon, goddamn you! Work with me here!" Sky had felt Randi's consciousness slipping away as her breathing got slower and slower. Now Tiny was doing his best to force air into her lungs to keep them moving.

Geoff and Jill sprang from the couch as quickly as they could manage to see if they could be of any help whatsoever. But before they could move from their spot, the doors to the bedroom crashed open and Gwen's body was rushed in on a hover bed, accompanied by Reed and Rosie on one side and Lacey on the other. Tiny scrambled out of the way so Gwen could be lowered down next to Randi, and though still unconscious, she curled up into Randi as soon as she was released. Tiny immediately resumed his breathing for Randi from the other side, while Lacey quickly went to work to try to stabilize Randi even as she continued to monitor Gwen.

But everything came to a screeching halt when Gwen sat up in the bed with a single cry....

"RANDI!!!"

Then she collapsed back down onto Randi's body, covering it with her own, her mind still locked into the spirit walk world she and Randi were sharing. Those in the room looked at one another, and settled down to wait. They had done their best and it was all they could do. Everything was now up to Randi and Gwen.

TO BE CONTINUED...

08/05 Ė 03/06


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