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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 43: There Is No Remedy For Love But To Love More…Thrump…thrump…thrump.
I slammed my hand down over Ephiny's hand, giving her my most withering gaze. She had been sitting at the table, nervously drumming her fingers against the wooden top.
"If you do that one more time, you lose this limb," I said.
She managed to look affronted and embarrassed at the same time. Ephiny and I had been waiting in the small room for some time, and my last nerve had finally blown. Satena, the Amazon Priestess, was to alert us when everything outside was ready for us to enter the glade where the ceremony was to take place.
"Rather testy for it being the happiest day of your life."
"If I wasn't getting the girl at the end of this thing, I would never have agreed to this coliseum show. There must be a thousand people out there."
"A marriage ceremony doesn't really bring out your best side. You are aware of that, aren't you?"
"Very amusing. You know as well as I do that a marriage ceremony just happens to include just about everything we warriors detest, being the center of attention, having to wear fancy clothes, and being in a crowd when it doesn't have anything at all to do with battle. And, did I mention being the center of attention? Besides, I noticed that you've managed to stay single all these seasons," I pointed out. "So, until you've done it, no judging."
"Okay, okay, point taken," she said, followed by light laughter. We looked at one another, but neither of us said another word. As far as I could tell, we were both thinking of Selene.
We each looked up at the sound of the door and rose as my mother entered the room. Cyrene crossed the small room and took my hands in each of her own. She stood there, silently looking up at me.
"You look quite fetching," she said.
We continued to stand there like that. It was apparent that we wanted to say so much more, but neither of us knew exactly where to start. Ephiny finally cut into the silence.
"I think maybe I'll—uh, go for—maybe I'll just get some fresh air. See if they're almost ready for us," she said before heading out of the door.
Cyrene chuckled and shook her head. "She's just like you. Not one for emotions or small talk."
"I guess Ephiny and I are pretty much alike when it comes to that."
"You're quite a different woman these days, Xena. I hope you see that in yourself."
"I have Gabrielle to thank for that."
"She is a treasure, little one. I best never hear of you mistreating her."
"Not a chance, Mother," I answered with a smile. I knew she wasn't merely teasing. Cyrene loved Gabrielle as her own, and I was certain that if I was ever stupid enough to hurt Gabrielle in any way, my mother would hunt me down.
"You don't have to say anything, mother. It's in the past…for us both."
"But it needs said…the air cleared at last, so to speak."
I stood there feeling uncomfortable, knowing what my mother was about to bring up.
"Xena, your brothers…what happened to them—it was never your fault…any of it."
"Please, let me."
I realized then that her apology was as much for her as it was for me. In a millennium, I never would have thought that my mother and I would be standing there like that. Gods, I never even thought we would meet again. I fought back the tears that threatened and nodded my head.
She licked her lips and took in a deep breath. "I missed so much of your life. I tried to recreate that with Selene. I went overboard protecting her because, deep down, I think it was a way of making up…for my failure with you." She raised her hand to silence me before I could get any words out.
"And don't bother saying that it was you and not me. We both know what set you on the path you took. If I could go back to that day, little one, I would. I would do it all so differently. I've never really forgiven myself for allowing you to fall prey to Ares's charms." Tears fell from her eyes and she found herself unable to continue.
My eyes filled with tears, as well, but I tried my hardest to control them. I didn't want to go out to my wedding looking as though I'd cried my eyes out. I engulfed her in a tight hug and whispered my own apology. At last, when we could both speak normally again, I told her my greatest secret.
"I blamed you for so many of the ills of my life. Time and again, I told myself that if only we hadn't fought, that if I had a mother, it would have all been different. I don't believe that anymore, Mother. I used that as an excuse to justify my actions. I think all along, I knew what I did was wrong. I was insensitive, hurtful, and evil, and I think I acted that way as some sort of…I don't know." I couldn't finish, finding it hard to put my feelings into words.
"I like the daughter you've become, Xena. I love you, and I've never been more proud of you. Proud of you as a daughter, as a woman, and as a leader."
How odd, the strength of words. This one uttered phrase possessed the power to cleanse away the hurt of nearly an entire lifetime, instantly washing away the pain of so many seasons. For her, I believe the might of redemption lay in one, single word. "Mother," I said before embracing her once more.
We eventually separated from one another, and she laughed at herself, drying her tears. "Gods only know why I waited until your wedding to get so emotional."
"It was perfect timing. Have you seen Gabrielle?" I asked, changing the subject.
"She is a vision, and Amira is adorable. In fact, the girl looks like a tiny version of you with that dark hair, but those eyes…quite apparent that Gabrielle is her mother."
"I can't believe Athena has blessed me like this. I'm a lucky woman," I said, more to myself than her.
A light rap on the door, and Ephiny opened it a small way to peek in. Seeing us laughing and talking, she entered the room.
"Looks like it's time," she said.
"I better run and get into place then," Cyrene said. She kissed me and whispered in my ear before rushing out of the room. I smiled and nodded my head.
"Ready?" Ephiny asked.
"As I'll ever be, I suppose."
"And your sword—all…you know…ready?"
I slapped her on the back and laughed. "Gee, I hope so or we're both gonna look pretty silly today, aren't we?"
"Oh, I feel much better, thank you."
"I'm just kidding. I have it on good authority that it will go without a hitch."
"Really? One of the Gods told you? Athena…Artemis?" Suddenly excited, she had a gleam of hope in her eye.
"Well, no actually, but Gabrielle dreamed it happened perfectly."
"She—she what?" She groaned, and I slapped her on the back, laughing. Suddenly, I felt much better. It's funny how making Ephiny crazy can do that for me.
Ephiny and I stepped outside, and Atrius, along with two-dozen of the Empire's finest, greeted us. The room we had waited in existed within one of the many massive tree trunks surrounding the glade. I hadn't yet been this far into the Amazon woods. In fact, Ephiny had explained that the actual reason they had me sequestered in the tree's room was to keep me from wandering. The Amazons hadn't allowed outsiders into the depths of their woods for nearly eighty seasons, the last time an Amazon Queen was wed. To foreigners, it was simply one more notion that added to the mystery of the Amazon people.
Atrius took his place on my right, Ephiny on my left. The soldiers arranged themselves in front of and behind us. Part of the ceremony entailed my soldiers and my witnesses, Ephiny and Atrius, marching toward the stage at the center of the woods. Meanwhile, Gabrielle and her Amazon Guard were to enter the clearing from the path on the opposite side of the stage. Meeting in front of the stage, Gabrielle and I would then climb the stairs to the dais alone.
The dais, as I referred to it, was in truth what the Amazons called the Sacred Center of their woods. Sketchy stories were all that existed of the Amazon creation, at least to those outside the Amazon nation, myself included. Many tales told of the day Artemis fashioned this very forest, shooting an arrow into the heart of the largest tree on earth. The tree surrendered to the Goddess, promising every one of her future saplings to Artemis's service should the Goddess allow them to live their days in the peaceful land. It was also told that Artemis created the Amazons for the sole purpose of the forest's protection. The first Amazons were actually stewards of the land, making their beginnings right here. Many tribes, and thousands of clans, existed throughout the known world, but they all started here.
Little had changed in all these countless seasons. The Amazons still cared for the land, allowing no outsiders free reign. A Queen's wedding was reason enough to show off, however. Those of us fortunate enough to see the Sacred Center on this day would tell our children of the impressive sight, and their children would pass on the tale until it sounded more like a bard's tale than reality.
Once they were in place around us, my soldiers snapped to attention, and the sound that action caused, as metal met metal, was so loud it caused Ephiny to jump, very nearly drawing her sword.
"Sweet Artemis, where did that come from?"
I placed a hand on her arm and she looked at me for explanation. "Metal plates on the inside of their boots. Makes a Hades of a racket, but the crowds love it." I grinned and watched as she craned her neck to examine the closest soldier's footwear. Their silver armor gleamed and the bits of sunlight that filtered through the trees caused everything metal to sparkle, including the metal plates on the instep portion and the heel of every soldier's boots.
My lion's head sword hung on my hip, swaying as I walked. Its head had been lovingly polished the evening before, and the blue sapphire eyes gazed out on an azure world. I wore black leather trousers and the black boots I chose came all the way up to my knees. My new tunic was black with deep purple trim, the royal crest embroidered onto each sleeve. It was much shorter than my more traditional jackets, its length falling to just above my waist and belt. The heavy gold belt hung low on my hips, pulled even lower with the additional weight of my sword on my left and a short sword on my right. The short Amazon sword had been a gift from Ephiny. A wedding gift, she had called it. I was honored to receive such a present not to mention surprised.
We marched slowly, and in synchronized step, down the path into the forest. People along the way bowed, curtsied, and fell to one knee in respect. The guests had come from all across the Empire. Queens from other Amazon tribes and leaders, some of whom I had appointed, from lands outside the Amazon territory sat in seats before the stage. As with any official ceremony, the higher a person's rank, the closer they sat to the action. So, the lesser guests, or those who decided to attend at the last minute, lined the paths that Gabrielle and I traveled on our way to the stage.
When Gabrielle's group and mine drew closer, I noticed that the Royal Amazon Guard surrounded her in much the same way that my soldiers encircled us. Anya and Scylla stood with Gabrielle as her witnesses. Gabrielle had actually wanted Ephiny to stand with her, but I had already asked the Amazon. Of all things, Gabrielle and I finally ended up throwing a pair of ivory dice to see who would actually win Ephiny. It worked out in the end, for Anya and Scylla had become good friends to Gabrielle. I was simply thankful that we threw dice as opposed to a game of king's men.
We slowed, and with a precision they had acquired from repeated practice over the past fortnight, the two groups of soldiers merged into one. Ephiny and Atrius took a step backward, as did Anya and Scylla, leaving me standing beside Gabrielle.
I hadn't yet had a look at Gabrielle in her wedding attire, giving in to the demands of Amazon custom. She, too, had given in to the Amazon culture, dressing in the more traditional manner of her adopted people. Gabrielle's seamstress was to be commended. Gabrielle looked regal, and yet somehow primitive at the same time, an extremely alluring combination. She wore a separate blouse and skirt of fawn colored leather, but they had been rubbed or pounded against stone until they appeared as soft as her velvety skin. The blouse was unique in that only one sleeve was long, reaching Gabrielle's wrist, but the other was missing completely. The top came across her chest at an angle, exposing her left shoulder and arm. The skirt was so long it touched the ground, but a slit on the left side ran all the way to her hip. It offered quite a revealing view.
She wore jewelry and accessories of typical Amazon fashion with a great deal of leather, decorative beads, and feathers. A large pendant hung from her neck. Made of ivory, it was one of a kind and had been passed on from Queen to Queen within this tribe. Ephiny said that legend had it the Queen's necklace went all the way back to Nyalda, the tribe's first Queen appointed by Artemis so many generations ago. Quite simply, Gabrielle was breathtaking, and I felt as though there was nothing life had to offer me that could possibly compete with how I felt at that moment.
Satena appeared to be blessing the items on the dais. The entire area had a sort of temple-like appearance. Perhaps it was simply the reverent way the Priestess acted as she moved and spoke. Much to my liking, it reminded me of a temple without all the trappings of such a sanctuary. The dais looked as though at one point in time, it had been a massive tree. I say that as a guess, for it was not easily apparent, To my eyes, it could have been a fallen log, albeit from a tree that must have reached all the way up to Olympus. If it had been a tree, it was only one small section of log.
Most of the wood had been planed flat to resemble a stage, but the entire back wall looked as though it had been carved from the same wood that connected the floor, even the stairs looked to be carved from the one, enormous section of wood. The back wall was an extremely detailed relief carving of particular scenes in Amazon history. Even the altar-like table was carved from the one piece of wood and not added on or attached in any way.
Satena burned incense and began a chant, or perhaps it was a prayer, in Kindari, the Amazon language. In fact, it was a language that few present, beyond the Amazons, had ever heard, let alone understood. I remembered it from days long ago, and Gabrielle was just beginning to learn it. The language of the Amazons was not taught to any but Amazon girls. Even the male children of Amazon women were not instructed in the language. Of course, Amazon mothers who gave birth to boys, and wished to raise their sons themselves, had homes just outside Amazon land. These women were still a part of the tribe, but the rule of no men unescorted in the village had always held fast and also applied to little boys.
All of Satena's preparation left Gabrielle and I standing there patiently. Well, as patient as either of us could have been at that particular moment. I felt a trickle of sweat roll down the middle of my back. Actually, I felt a strange mixture of emotions. Fear, love, amazement, and an even odder sensation of detachment, as if I stood outside myself watching the proceedings.
All of this waiting did allow me to notice more about the area surrounding us. Up until now, I had only been watching my steps as we walked, careful not to trip or look a fool. For the first time, I looked around and took in the absolute beauty of the place. I can honestly say that I had never seen trees so large before. Even the smallest among them had a girth that was easily twice the size of any ordinary home in Greece. Being the end of summer as it was, the trees were still in full leaf, but their colors had begun to turn spectacular shades of red and gold. The slight breeze carried the smell of pine from the tree covered slopes of the mountains to the north. The air was comfortable with no hint of chill to it as it sometimes had this time of year. The breeze was only strong enough to gently flutter the leaves on the trees, as well as the banners that lined the paths leading to the stage.
Satena had told us that the apex of the ceremony had to take place at exactly midday. Much like the ceremony we had in Corinth, I expected her words meant that some natural phenomenon was to occur at that point in the day. I suppose I should have been more nervous about exactly what was going to happen, but frankly, my mind was simply too preoccupied. All of this waiting had also given my brain time to race franticly from one thought to another. Ephiny had hounded me so much over that stupid toss that now it was all I could focus on. I knew one thing for certain. If I didn't clear the "I can't miss--I can't miss" mantra from my head, I would indeed miss.
I shook my head, bringing myself back to the present just in time to hear Satena's words. The Priestess of Artemis blessed two wine chalices sitting upon the altar, far back on the dais. Gabrielle and I were to stand where we were until the stroke of midday. After which Satena would bid us climb the four stairs to the top of the dais and drink from the cups. Right about then, I dearly hoped there was a good Ambracian port in those wine cups.
"Your Highnesses," Satena said. She looked, not at us, but her eyes traveled upward. "Please, step forward."
Gabrielle and I looked at one another and side-by-side, we took the narrow steps to the top of the dais. We looked at each other again, anticipating something, but uncertain as to what that something would be. Our wondering soon ended, as Satena prepared us for the midday event.
"Behold, the Sacred Center of Amazonia!" She cried out, raising her arms and spreading them wide.
I felt a sudden heat envelope me and when I looked around, I discovered that Gabrielle and I were bathed in a circle of bright light, a brilliance that caused the entire crowd behind us to collectively gasp. Gabrielle and I shaded our eyes from the radiance. As people are prone to do, we couldn't help but look upward, trying to focus on the source. We discovered our mistake, along with the source, immediately. Momentarily blinded, Gabrielle and I lowered our heads, trying to blink away the spots of floating color that appeared before our eyes.
I don't know if the forest had grown that way or if it had been the result of hard work. A circle, free of branches and leaves, existed in the canopy of the forest high above us. Each day when Apollo reached the midway point of pulling the sun across the sky, he paused for a number of heartbeats, and that time allowed for the phenomenon we now experienced. The brilliant sunlight flowed through the opening in the trees, making a perfect circle of light around the entire dais.
Now, I cannot be certain of this next part. Either Gabrielle and I had both experienced the same illusion, or our sight had simply been affected by the brilliant sunlight. I question what I did see because no one else we later questioned saw it. Upon the altar, one golden feathered arrow appeared sunk into the wood as if shot by someone with incredible strength. The arrow appeared, shimmered as though an illusion appearing over the hot desert sands, and disappeared. Gabrielle and I looked at one another with astonishment clearly written across our faces.
"Amazing," Gabrielle said under her breath.
"Did you just see what I saw?" I whispered.
"If what you saw was an arrow, I did."
"You're right…absolutely amazing."
Satena smiled, and the light moved forward at a crawl. She spoke in Kindari, as if reciting a prayer that the Amazons were familiar with. Satena occasionally paused and the Amazons finished her sentence by reciting one word. Gabrielle surprised me by chiming in with the others. She had obviously learned a great deal in the last few moons. The Royal Guard punctuated their part in the recitation by striking their swords against the small shields they carried on one arm. The sound added to nature's orchestra of singing birds and screeching parrots high up in the trees.
Just as the light neared the altar, Satena blessed the two wine cups. She handed one to me and then to Gabrielle.
"A toast to the Goddess Artemis," Satena said. We took a drink as we had earlier been instructed. "Queen Gabrielle and Xena the Conqueror, drink to the Goddess in petition that she might show us a sign, proof of her blessing upon this union."
Again, we drank. Thankfully, the cups had indeed been filled with a very good wine. I downed the remaining in two large gulps. It burned my throat, but the warmth ran through me quickly, easing my nerves somewhat. Satena reached for our cups, and I looked up guiltily as she took mine, drained completely dry. That didn't stop me, however, from looking longingly at Gabrielle's cup and wishing I could finish off the large amount that she had left behind.
The ceremony began in earnest once Satena turned back to face us. "Who stands as family for Queen Gabrielle?" she called out.
"Me." Amira's voice rang out loudly. It was much easier to hear her than to see her. Amira stood next to Cyrene, and my mother had been right. The youngster looked like a tiny version of me. Anya had done an incredible job creating my outfit in much smaller dimensions, complete with wooden sword belted around Amira's hips. She seemed to be having the time of her life. I winked at the girl as Gabrielle did the same. To us, protocol took second place to seeing our daughter have a good time. Amira did her best, but I had known all along that asking her to remember the exact words to say would be impossible for her excited, five-summer-old brain. Being Amira, she must have decided that the words she spoke were indeed the ones she had been asked to memorize.
"And who are you?" Satena prompted the youngster for her name and title. The guests loved it and they chuckled.
Amira concentrated for a moment. "Huh?" she asked. Cyrene bent down and whispered into Amira's ear.
"But, she knows who I am," Amira said to Cyrene. My mother whispered something back.
"Oh," Amira said, followed by a sheepish expression. "She's my mom, and um…it's me…Amira. That means princess, ya know."
Most of the guests at least made a good-mannered attempt to cover their laughter. The centaurs stamped their large, front hooves at the humor of the situation. Unbeknownst to most people, the centaurs had a great sense of humor and they were partial to children's laughter. Perhaps that's what made them such good parents. I suspect that was why I had left Solan with them all those seasons ago. Amira had become a particular favorite in the centaur camp over the last fortnight.
"Indeed it does," Satena said, smiling. "And, Amira, do you know who your mother is to marry?"
I turned around again to get a look at Amira and she grinned at me, waving her fingers and jumping up and down a few times.
"Do you give your blessing to this union, approving of Xena as your mother's mate?"
Amira had to think about that one. "Um…" My mother bent down to translate once more.
"Oh. Yes, yes, yes." She punctuated each word by hopping up and down.
More laughter from the guests, but it was all good natured.
"And who stands for Xena the Conqueror?"
"I do," Cyrene said clearly. "I am Cyrene, mother to Xena, the Lion of Amphipolis."
I smiled back at my mother. She wore a satisfied expression as she used my title from long ago instead of Conqueror. For the first time in a long while, I enjoyed hearing it, especially coming from her. Even more, I enjoyed seeing the look on her face that I would have thought impossible for me to ever put there again. Love and pride radiated from her features.
"Cyrene, do you know the woman Xena would take as a mate?"
"I do. Queen Gabrielle."
"Do you give your blessing to this union, approving of Gabrielle as your daughter's mate?"
"I most certainly do."
Cyrene took Amira's hand, and they sat down in the front row, their part in the ceremony complete.
Satena took a long strip of decorated and beaded leather from the altar. "Will you join hands?"
We held hands, lifting them up toward Satena. She lightly wrapped the strip around our hands and wrists, binding them together. I noticed that the sunlight had passed the altar and hit the back of the dais. Another interesting effect was the way the carvings had been imbedded onto the back wall. The pictures were in layers from the bottom to the top of the wooden wall. The light hit each layer and illuminated the story told through the carvings, one layer at a time.
"Queen Gabrielle, do you stand by your decision to take Xena the Conqueror as your mate?"
"Yes, I do."
"And, has she proved to your satisfaction that she will be a worthy spouse?"
Gabrielle smiled at me and gave my hand a squeeze underneath the leather binding. "In every possible way," she replied.
"Has she ever given any indication that she would do anything other than revere, love, and protect you, being faithful to you alone?"
I immediately thought of the times when I had discounted Gabrielle's opinion, perhaps even hurt her feelings. Most prominent in my mind had been when I once struck her in anger. That time felt as though it had been an age ago. Even now, the incident had the ability to haunt my trips to Morpheus's nighttime realm. What would I have answered had I been Gabrielle?
Proving to be the enigma I had always thought her, Gabrielle never hesitated in her response. "Never once," she said loudly. She even convinced me.
"Do you know of any reason that you two should not be wed?"
"I can think of no reason."
"Lord Conqueror," Satena then called upon me. "Do you stand by your decision to take Queen Gabrielle as your mate?"
"Yes, I do."
"And, has she proved to your satisfaction that she will be a worthy spouse?"
I looked into Gabrielle's eyes. So much I would liked to have said, but there was not the private place I would need, even if I could have brought myself to voice such emotion. "She proves it every day in every way," I responded.
"Has she ever given any indication that she would do anything other than revere, love, and protect you, being faithful to you alone?"
"And do you know of any reason that you two should not be wed?"
"Well, there is one thing…" Gabrielle's eyes went wide, but I winked at her and she relaxed, wondering what I was up to.
"Yes?" Satena asked. She didn't look overly thrilled at my impromptu response.
"What if I think she's just too good for me?" I couldn't help voicing the unplanned remark. Gabrielle chuckled, as did many of the guests close enough to hear what I said.
Satena surprised me by looking as though she, too, enjoyed the humor.
"Well, Lord Conqueror, I suggest that you either get better or convince the Queen to lower her expectations."
The guests burst into laughter at Satena's whimsical reply. I felt properly bested by the Priestess's quick wit.
"Xena and Gabrielle," Satena spoke using our given names. "To wed is an easy task. To create a life-long marriage requires hard work. You will cultivate a successful marriage if you let love and understanding be your mentors. Marriage among royalty, those who lead, can be a difficult prospect. Look to one another for esteem and devotion and not to your people. Stay to the path that keeps you beside each other, and your life together will be one of growth and harmony."
Satena stepped closer and put her hands on top of our bound hands. "Xena and Gabrielle, do you both wish for this marriage to take place?"
"Yes," we answered in unison.
She removed the binding strip from around our hands, and Gabrielle and I embraced, followed by a quick kiss. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, but I knew it wasn't quite over. Ephiny stepped forward, climbing the stairs to stand beside me. Satena gave the captain Gabrielle's Queen's mask from the altar.
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. "Am I supposed to know what we're doing?" She asked in a low tone.
"Actually, no, love, but if Artemis owes you any favors, now might be the time to call those markers in."
She looked from Ephiny to me to Satena, then back at me. Shrugging her shoulders, she answered. "Have at it, ladies."
I drew my sword. I could hear the audible sound of hundreds of Amazons holding their breath. In fact, it became so quiet that the tinny sound my blade made as I drew it from its scabbard echoed across the open space in the forest.
Ephiny took a few steps away from us and held the mask up over her head in both hands, looking across the small space at Satena.
"The marriage between Queen Gabrielle and Xena the Conqueror is not yet official. We wait for a sign and the blessing of Artemis." Satena nodded to Ephiny to continue.
"Ready?" Ephiny whispered.
I nodded in response.
The rest of this scenario I debated putting into the official archives. After all, the more information an enemy has, the easier it might be for he or she to defeat me. I thought about it for some time and finally decided to enter the action, along with my thoughts, just as they happened on that day. There is no other record in the history of Greece to account for my abilities, and this one may just answer a few questions.
The moment I nodded, time slowed for me. It wasn't that it stopped, by any means, but time definitely slowed. It had always been thus for me when fighting. I know that many people have told a story about something traumatic happening to them and relating all about how time stood still during the event. This wasn't like that, and it only happened when I fought.
I had always assumed it was a gift from the Gods. I actually wondered if all great warriors hadn't been born with such a gift, but I never asked any of them. If they didn't have it, I would have ended up looking like a crazy woman. For me, time slowed so much so that for every one motion by those around me, I ended up moving five or six times. It certainly wasn't that I was without skill and only relied on this subtle trick of time to defeat my enemies. Perhaps this time trick existed only in my head. Perhaps it only felt as though it happened in tsuch a manner. Whatever the answer, it gave me the edge I needed to be the best.
I watched the breath Ephiny took, rather, I heard the breath as she expelled the air. Just as her arm swung into motion, I lifted my sword into the air, tossing it up and catching it by the hilt. I held it much like a spear. The mask left Ephiny's hand with great speed. I knew that I wouldn't be able to catch it as it went up. My eyes followed the mask as it sped upward, eventually slowing. That was the moment I had to time exactly right. The object slowed until it reached its peak. Arriving at that point, the mask appeared to float in mid air for a single heartbeat. Then, the mask rolled over and began its return trip to the ground.
There it was. The perfect moment. To me, the mask looked as though it was fluttering softly to the ground. To those around me, I'm sure it appeared to fall to the ground at a much faster speed. I pulled my arm back and took aim. Just as the mask rolled over once more, I threw my sword as though tossing a javelin. Not a sound could be heard beyond the gasps from the guests and my blade, which whistled thinly through the air.
The mask floated over in mid air once more. The front faced toward me for only the tic of an eye, but it was enough time for my blade to meet it there. The metal sliced through the wooden mask right between the eyes. The momentum of the sword carried the mask and the weapon along until my blade sank into a nearby tree some thirty or forty feet in the air. The lion's head trembled fiercely from the center of the mask. A pause long enough to be called the blink of an eye existed before I heard the thundering applause behind me. I looked at a much relieved Ephiny and winked.
"As Priestess of our patron Goddess, Artemis, and caretaker of her temple, I declare your union official and blessed by Artemis. Let no man, nor any God attempt to tear it asunder. Let your hearts be one forever."
More shouts, cheers, and applause. I tried to explain to Gabrielle about keeping her in the dark so she wouldn't worry, but I think she was only able to hear about half of what I said. Guests came forward to congratulate us, but in the meantime, there was a lot of jostling and pushing going on under the tree my sword had impaled.
"I'm going to need that back, you know," I said to Ephiny as we gazed up at the tree.
"No need to worry about that."
"What are they doing over there?" Gabrielle asked. She had just finished embracing Yu Pan, who had Amira at his side.
"That's the rest of the blessing," Adara said, stepping up to the dais to congratulate us.
"There's more to it?" I asked. I glared at Ephiny. "Why is it I only ever get half the story from you?"
She shrugged. "This is the fun part for the young ones. It hasn't been done in my lifetime, we've only heard about the tradition. When the Queen's consort receives Artemis's blessing by piercing the mask with a sword, it allows Amazons over fifteen summers to take part in the climb."
"The climb?" Gabrielle repeated. "Are they actually going to climb all the way up there?" She craned her neck to see the spot.
"Not only are there bragging rights at stake, but the first person to reach the mask wins a boon from the Queen. No reasonable request can be refused," Addie went on to explain.
There were about twenty young women who wished to test their skills in the trees. Everyone had a fair chance, jockeying for position at the base of the tree.
"Guess I better get over there and supervise or there's liable to be a few black eyes," Addie said. "All right, all right," she called out loudly, walking over to the tree. "Is everyone here who wants to take part?"
"Wait! One more, if you please, Elder."
I turned toward the familiar voice. Gabrielle and I exchanged a glance, and I wondered if my expression was as full of amazement as hers was.
Prax bowed in front the dais before joining the others under the tree. She looked amazing. Her face was still bruised, of course, but she walked without a hint of the stiffness and pain she had initially experienced. I had watched her workout on the training fields for candlemarks every day. I commended her dedication to regaining her former strength and agility.
"Is this safe?" Gabrielle turned and asked Yu Pan.
"Hhmm, it does look very high," he answered. "I would not try it."
"Master, I mean for Prax."
"Ohh," he answered. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he knew exactly what Gabrielle had meant.
"If you ask me, is she fit for such a task? I would say yes. I believe, physically and mentally, Táifeng has become quite the changed young woman."
I looked on as some of the Amazons under the tree gave Prax a rather wide berth. Still others looked angered when they saw her, and two women dropped out of the competition altogether.
"Now!" Addie shouted.
The scrambling began. Gabrielle came to stand beside me and we put our arms around one another.
"Thanks for telling me that my dream was nonsense," she whispered in my ear.
I tried to look properly chastised. "I'm sorry, love, but you were such a mass of nerves that I couldn't bear giving you one more thing to worry about. The good news is that your dream was quite accurate."
"Very funny. Good shot, by the way. I could have practiced for a lifetime and never hit that thing. You'll have to tell me how you did it."
I chuckled, knowing that someday, when our lives grew somewhat calmer, I would tell Gabrielle all my secrets. "I'll tell you all about it someday."
I suppose I should not have doubted who would win the competition. Prax wore a determined expression that differed pleasantly from the scowl we had become accustomed to. She scampered from branch to branch, and even Gabrielle squeezed me tighter when Prax slipped and saved herself quite a fall by catching onto another branch at the last moment. A great deal of applause met her at the base of the tree, sword and mask in hand.
The sun had moved lower in the sky and it almost looked like night in the forest. The lamps had been lit and hung in the trees, so that all about us glittered, as the flickering lamplight in the trees reflected the multicolored leaves of the beautiful and massive trees that surrounded us. Gabrielle and I decided to meet Prax halfway.
Gabrielle and Prax had not suddenly become the best of friends. In fact, they tried to avoid one another, or as much as two individuals could given the size of the main village. When they did occasionally meet, they were each civil, which was something considering Prax's emotions only a short time ago.
We had received information regarding Prax's progress from Yu Pan. He had explained that Prax indeed decided to begin her tutelage of the way from Master Yu Pan. He told her that even though he would not be in the village long enough to complete her study, he promised that if she was serious, he would manage it somehow. I had no earthly idea how he intended to do that, but that was his bother and not ours. He often met with Gabrielle and I, telling of Prax's amazing physical progress. He spoke little of her mental healing, but we knew that was a private matter between Prax and her mentor.
At first, Gabrielle acted strangely when Yu Pan told us that Prax had expressed a wish to follow the way. If Gabrielle had been anyone else, I would have said that she actually bristled. Given to fits of intense self examination, Gabrielle came to me one evening and confessed that she had actually been jealous of the new relationship between Yu Pan and Prax. Once she scolded herself, and moved past that unwanted emotion, she became much more open to Yu Pan's discussions involving Prax. She was even able to offer her old master some hints at dealing with a female student again.
So, Prax had progressed to the point where the others in her tribe had begun to recognize her willingness to change. Still, she and Gabrielle had not yet spoken, even to offer the most meager of apologies. When I asked Yu Pan in private about that very subject, he told me that Prax was in the process of an extreme change to her mindset, her way of thinking. He could only add that the talk between the two women would indeed happen, but he could not say when. As Gabrielle was fond of saying, it would happen in its own time. That's what Yu Pan reiterated to me.
Gabrielle and I separated and joined hands. It was as if we needed to continue the physical connection.
"This is it, isn't it?" Gabrielle said to me, as we watched Prax approach us.
"I guess so. Are you ready for this?"
"I guess that all depends on if she's going to ask for my head as her one request."
"I'm right here, love."
"Thanks," she said, as she squeezed my hand.
Prax walked directly up to Gabrielle and I, stopping a foot or two away. Most of the guests remained in their seats for this latter event. The Amazons couldn't have been pried away, wondering what this meeting would bring. Even the guests who hadn't any idea about the past that existed between Prax and Gabrielle wanted to see what sort of a boon the young Amazon would request from the new Queen.
Prax dropped to one knee before Gabrielle, holding the sword and mask in her outstretched hands. "My Queen," she said, her eyes focused on the ground.
Gabrielle accepted the mask and sword from Prax. "Guess I'm going to need a new one of these, aren't I?" she asked of Ephiny, holding the destroyed mask in one hand. Her captain looked guilty and apologetic at the same time.
I slid my blade from the mask and handed it back to Gabrielle. She tossed another jest in Ephiny's direction. I knew she was nervous. Wisecracks were a sort of defense for her when she felt extremely uncomfortable. I placed a hand on her back and she stopped talking. I could feel her take a deep breath before speaking again.
That was some amazing climbing, Prax. I envy you your ability."
"Artemis blessed me, my Queen. I wouldn't have been able to do it on my own."
Even her manner of speaking had changed. The tone of arrogance had all but disappeared. Now, there was an almost meek quality to the way she spoke, even the way she held her body. Prax looked downward; she had yet to meet Gabrielle's eyes. I could only wonder at the power necessary to invoke such a dramatic change. Surely it was true that Artemis had made a personal visit to the girl.
"I see," Gabrielle began.
Her own surprise at the young woman kneeling before her was quite evident, even though she hid it well. I knew Gabrielle too well to be deceived by the façade she showed others, however.
"Well…I understand that tradition gives you the right to make a request of me, Prax.
"It's the reason why I've worked so hard to regain my strength, to ask this of you."
"I once told you that if you needed anything and if it was in my power, I would make it happen. I don't think either of us ever dreamed it would be in this manner, but here we are. What can I offer you, Prax, as winner of the climb?"
"Before I ask my favor, my Queen, I would like to say something to you, if you approve?"
"Very well," Gabrielle replied. If she was as astounded by Prax's polite, almost submissive, behavior as the rest of the Amazon tribe was, she gave no indication.
"I know there's no apology I can offer that will make what's come between us as though it never happened, even though that would be my wish. If I had that power, I'd wish that much of the unhappiness I so recently experienced could be reversed. I've learned recently that the things I do and say have a pretty strong affect on the people around me, as well as myself. I've done things…said things, especially to you that I would take back if I could."
"I think we both would. Prax, this really isn't necessary—"
"But it is—to me, anyway. Please, may I continue?" She looked up at Gabrielle with a pleading expression.
Gabrielle hadn't the heart to refuse the girl. She expelled a tired breath and nodded. "Of course."
"You were nothing but kind to me and I repaid you with actions that shamed my tribe and my family. I'm sorry for the pain I caused you and your family. I fell into a black pit and couldn't gain release. I think what caused me even more anger was that when I did try to climb out, I just slipped back in even further. I just couldn't get free—not alone, anyway. I say all of this, not as an excuse, but in explanation. I don't want you to feel pressured to forgive me, but perhaps someday, we can come to terms with it all."
"Prax," Gabrielle said gently. Gabrielle reached for Prax's hand, covering their clasped hands with her free hand. "I don't know what to say. You've completely turned your life around in so short a time. That shows me how dedicated you are to changing. I can't tell you how proud I am of you for that. As to what went on between us…well, let's just agree to keep the past in its place, eh?"
The smile that appeared on Prax's face suddenly made her look much younger than her fifteen summers. Relief flowed from her with the brilliance of a dazzling light.
"Thank you so much," Prax said quietly, breathing a sigh of relief.
They smiled at one another and I saw gratitude in their eyes, each woman for her own reason.
"Now, about that request," Gabrielle said.
Surprising everyone, myself included, Prax put both knees on the ground. Drawing her sword and laying it across the palms of both hands, she extended her arms toward Gabrielle. "With my body and sword, I swear fealty to my Queen. I vow to protect her with all my powers, willingly trading my life for hers if the need should arise. I swear this before all of my people, to place my life in the Queen’s service as her personal guard until my death or the day she release me from my bond."
Gabrielle's face took on the oddest expression. She turned to me, to Ephiny, then to me again. "I—I don't think I understand." She looked down at Prax. "You want to be a member of the Royal Guard?"
"No, my Queen, your personal guard. I wish to stand between you and any harm that might come your way."
"But—Prax, if you're doing this out of some need to apologize further, it's misguided."
"I respectfully disagree, my Queen. It's not misguided, but necessary…for me. You've given me my life back and something in me tells me that this is the best way that I can serve you."
Gabrielle looked at those of us around her, as if seeking some sort of backup. I had no idea what to say. This was completely unexpected. I also didn't think it was a spur of the moment decision on Prax's part, not by the look on her face. She held an expression that looked intense, wholly dedicated to her purpose.
"I don't need a personal guard. I can't have you doing this, Prax."
Ephiny reached over and laid her and upon Gabrielle's arm. "You can't—well, you can't really refuse her request, Gabrielle," Ephiny whispered.
Gabrielle turned to me.
"I don't think there's anything I can say. Actually…" I paused.
"Actually, you won't like what I have to say."
"Which is?" I could tell that Gabrielle's temper was about to flare.
"I figured you wouldn't want to hear that it's not really an altogether unreasonable request, and that you don't have much choice than to grant her wish."
The guests around us began to murmur. They couldn't hear what we had been saying in low tones, and couldn't understand what the delay was about.
Gabrielle tried the calm approach. "Prax, I understand that you feel some need to—let's just call it guilt, okay? You don't have to do it, though. There are other ways to—"
"I'm aware of that, my Queen. I have thought a great deal about this. I've discussed it with my mother. I don't do this out of misplaced guilt. I do this because I want to, because it's my way of honoring my tribe."
"Do you realize what it means, what you want to do? In a few more days, I'll return to Corinth. You'll have to leave your home, your family. What does your mother say to this?"
Gabrielle looked up and searched the faces of the Amazons around us until she found the one she sought. "Lexa, what do you say about your daughter's wish?"
"I can't exactly say that I am happy, but I won't say that I'm sad, either, Your Highness. I think that…perhaps…it might do my daughter well to be away from her home for a time."
"Am I the only one who thinks this is a very, very bad idea?" Gabrielle asked of no one in particular. She looked back at Prax. "I think what you're doing is a mistake, Prax, but it's looking as though I can't fight tradition. Ephiny, as my captain, what do you advise?"
"As much as it pains me to say it, I suppose you can't really refuse her this request. However, personal guard to the Queen is not an honorary position. I expect it should require the same skills that any member of the Royal Guard must possess."
"Good point. You've suffered some extreme injuries, Prax. Do you think you can meet the physical demands this would require?"
Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and the Amazon nodded.
"All right, Prax," Gabrielle said. "Tomorrow morning Ephiny will meet you on the training field. If you can pass the tests the Royal Guard are put through, then I'll keep my part of your request, but I want you to promise me something first."
"Just ask, my Queen."
"I want you to talk this over again with your mother this evening, and I want you to think about what you're doing. Really think about it. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Prax answered, followed by a large smile.
"Then I can do no more than grant your request, pending the qualifications we spoke of. Welcome…uh, to…the Queen's staff, I suppose."
Ephiny quickly whispered a few words to Gabrielle, who then nodded and took the sword Prax offered. Gabrielle held the blade up for all to see. She then held it out to Prax once more.
"I return your weapon so that you may use it to defend the throne until your death or the day I release you from my service."
Seeing that some sort of decision had been made, the guests applauded and began to move on, escorted by the Amazons to the village area of the forest. I heard music begin from that direction of the woods, as a banquet had been planned there. In fact, we had watched them carry all manner of foods to and from the kitchens on a near constant basis for the past 2 days. Many of the Amazons held back, remaining where they were and wearing amazed expressions. Some had only heard of Prax's change in behavior and were only just witnessing it in person for the first time.
Prax looked happy for the first time since we'd met the young woman. She accepted congratulations, perhaps prematurely, from many of the Royal Guard, most of whom were considerably older than Prax.
And, then there was me, standing there noticeably quiet throughout the entire event. Something that Gabrielle hadn't overlooked.
"Thanks for all the backup," she said, followed by a wry smile.
I knew she wasn't completely serious, but I didn't know what to say to her, just as I was uncertain as to how to respond to the whole affair. It took me by complete surprise. "I'm sorry love, but I honestly didn't know what to say," I admitted.
"Do you agree with this nonsense?"
Did I agree? I certainly couldn't be angry over Prax's request. The girl just offered to lay down her life for my wife.
"How can I be cross at such devotion? Does it make me happy? Well, I don't necessarily feel unhappy," I answered.
"That seems extraordinarily evasive, my Conqueror."
She smiled and nudged me in the ribs. She had obviously found a way to deal with the curious incident and rather quickly, I might add. Gabrielle then turned away from me to greet someone. Adara introduced Gabrielle and I to a long list of emissaries who would not be attending the banquet. Shaking hands with a lengthy line of people I barely remembered ever having placed in their position of power, I took the time during the rather mindless task to look into my heart.
Why was it that I said nothing when Prax came forward earlier? It really was a little over the top for her to make such a request. I suppose part of it had been that I hadn't wanted to overshadow Gabrielle at all. She was the leader in Amazonia, and I was tolerated for no other reason than because I was her spouse.
I actually wondered why Prax's actions hadn't caused me any anger or petulance, which would have been my usual response to such a thing. Letting my mind wander as Gabrielle and I walked hand in hand to our wedding banquet, I came to only one conclusion. The course Prax had elected to follow may have been needless, outlandish, even a bit foolhardy, but there was one thing I couldn't deny. Having such a warrior, albeit a rather young warrior, as personal guard to my wife gave me a certain amount of comfort. I couldn't lie to myself about that. Knowing that there was at least one other person in the world who would step in front of an oncoming arrow to save Gabrielle's life was very comforting indeed.
The banquet hadn't been nearly as uncomfortable as I thought it might. In fact, it had been quite pleasant. The wine and the dance both had been provided in abundance. Even Gabrielle and I danced a few times, although she had to furnish me with an abundance of port to accomplish it.
My mother had taken Amira for the evening and even though I didn't really feel comfortable leaving the banquet with Selene surrounded by single Amazon women, Gabrielle and I finally took our leave, anyway. The one bright spot had been that Ephiny had stayed with Selene. The Amazon captain's glares to the others who tried to dance with Selene rivaled my own possessive looks when protecting my sister.
"I want to make love to you in the worst way," Gabrielle suddenly said.
"I'd prefer it was in the best way, but..."
"You know what I mean." She nudged me with her elbow.
"I do, love, and I feel the same way."
How could I tell my wife, especially on her Amazon wedding day, that I would have a hard time gathering the energy for such a feat? We laid there in bed so comfortablyIt was as if the whole day had come crashing in on me. The nerves, drink, music, and dancing had left me quite fatigued.
"It's just that I'm so exhausted," Gabrielle said.
I wasn't sure I heard her right. "What did you say?"
"I know it's supposed to be our big night and all, but I'm just so tired."
"You don't have to say that just to be nice, Xena."
"Trust me, being nice is the last thing on my mind. Oh, you know what I mean," I said to the arched eyebrow she cast at me.
"I've just been wondering how to tell you the same thing."
We both laughed and Gabrielle snuggled against my chest, her head tucked under my chin.
"I hope it can always be like this for us, Xena."
"Well, I hope not. We better not be too tired to make love until we're so old we can hear our bones creak."
"I didn't mean that. I meant I hope this will always be the same. That we'll always be able to laugh at ourselves."
"I think if we work at it, we have a good chance, little one. I was never able to do that before you."
"That's just because you had no sense of humor back then. You're a changed woman."
I smiled at the sheer trust and adoration she showed me. "Look who's talking about being a changed woman."
"Who? What do you mean? I'm really just the same as I've always been."
"Oh, love, I fear you can't see the situation because you're too close. Do you really think you are still that timid young thing that used to hide apples from my table in her pocket?"
She chuckled and the sound gave me some comfort. She had taken the jest as I had meant it.
"Okay, perhaps I have changed a bit, too." She laughed when she looked up at my skeptical expression. "Okay, changed a lot."
"The key is that our changes have been for the better. We'll grow old together, as well as grow together."
"Well, one of us will grow old, anyway," she said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I've been watching something happen to you for the last whole season. Xena, you've been getting younger."
"I wondered if you'd noticed. Actually, for quite some time I wondered if it wasn't just inside my own head."
"It's definitely not just your own thinking. The gray in your hair is nearly completely gone."
"My hair was never gray," I added in an affronted tone.
"Right. Well, how do you explain the fact that some of those lines on your face have all but disappeared?"
"I still have lines on my face."
"Yes, but those are called laugh lines, not age lines. You definitely hadn't acquired those when you and I first met."
"Perhaps you just weren't looking close enough," I teased.
"Mm Hm, and do you think that I would have overlooked the...let's call it stamina you've developed in the bedroom? Besides, remember that scar you had on your left shoulder?"
"I got that in Chin. Damned barbarian almost took my whole arm clean off. And, what do you mean had?"
"What I mean is that the scar that ran around the back of your entire shoulder is almost gone. It's nothing more than a faint line."
"Really?" I questioned, craning my head to see the mark in question.
"Your head's going to pop off if you try to twist your neck that far. You're just going to have to take my word for it."
"I think it was Athena," I finally admitted.
"I'm not positive because I really haven't had a chance to question her about it. I think it might have been after I fought with Ares. Remember when Athena told us about what had been meant to be for us?"
"Since then? Amazing. I should have known."
"It doesn't bother you, does it?" I asked, my own personal paranoia settling in around me.
"Hhmm, let's see...does it bother me that my normally beautiful, strong, older spouse has become younger, stronger, and more beautiful? I'm just not sure..." she trailed off and then broke up into a fit of laughter.
"Point taken," I said.
She settled against me once more, and we relaxed.
"And about not making love tonight," I started. "It doesn't really bother you?"
She covered her mouth as she yawned, which I took to be my answer.
"I'll want a marker from you to make sure you make good on it."
"Just add it to my tab," I answered in a sleepy voice.
"I don't know, your tab is getting awfully full. You'll have to work rather hard to pay it off."
"Oh, I intend to, love, tomorrow night."
Gabrielle made an unintelligible noise that sounded like delight, but then there was only silence, as she had fallen asleep. It would only be moments before I followed her, but something my mother said earlier in the day suddenly popped into my head.
When my mother had stopped in to see me before the wedding, she whispered
into my ear just before leaving the room. “There is no remedy for love
but to love more,” she had said. Her words made so much sense to me after
a day such as today.
To be continued in : Chapter 44: A Mighty Flame Follows A Tiny Spark...
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