Xena left the dining hall angry. 'Eponin probably hasn't recovered, so no sparring,' she thought generously considering her mood. 'Maybe Ephiny ? Nah.' Xena's footsteps unconsciously led her towards the Queen's hut as she wracked her brain trying to think of anyone else in this village who would pose a challenge.
" Lorien " Xena heard, catching the word she had been listening for ever since hearing of the existence of this possible threat to Gabrielle. She slowed her steps and cocked her head and focused her hearing, finally discerning the direction from which the word came.
Xena came to a stop and with the ease of long practice, moved towards the voices, her feet making no sound against the packed earth of the village. She ducked behind a hut and crept closer to the conversation, hoping to pick up some useful information. There was obviously something going on here, and it was just as obvious that the Amazons in charge were out of touch and had not idea what it was.
" in just one weeks time," Thelestris said, grinning with satisfaction at the look of understanding that finally dawned on her companions' faces.
"But how does she know she's needed?" one amazon Xena didn't recognize asked.
"You heard what Soria said," Thelestris responded, gesturing to one of the women in the group. Soria was dressed in the robes of a priestess, and Xena could only guess she lived and worked in the Temple of Artemis under Kahlia. "There are bad omens. Signs! It is clear that it is time for Lorien's return," she insisted.
'Not Good,' Xena though grimly, her mouth tightening into a frown. She thought for a moment she should just give the young women a good thrashing and put the fear of the Warrior Princess in them, but shook her head in disgust as she dismissed the idea. Most were little more than children, and though they had elevated Lorien into some legendary figure, they were harmless in the grand scheme of things. Thelestris was another story. Still, it didn't hurt to be prepared, so Xena stayed and listened, unwilling to take chances with the bard's safety.
"How do we contact her?" Soria asked, brow furrowed.
"She's already contacted me," Thelestris lied, smirking. "She's staying about four days from here in the northern hunting grounds. Why do you think game has been disappearing so fast? She's there and she's building up a group of Amazons from other tribes who believe as she does that it is time we unite with all of our sisters as one great nation," Thelestris continued. She had seen Xena enter the dining hall and knew she would have to pass this way to get back to the Queen's hut. All she needed to do now was go over the same information long enough for the warrior princess to overhear her. As she spoke, Thelestris warmed to her subject and her voice held a passion and fervor that had alarm bells going off in Xena's head. Her first instinct was to immediately go to Gabrielle and make sure she was still safe, but Xena knew she had to hear the rest of this conversation.
'Obviously,' Xena thought, 'everyone I've spoken to has underestimated this Lorien woman.' Xena cursed herself silently for not paying more attention to the uneasiness that had settled in her gut when Lorien had been mentioned. The whole idea of someone having a valid claim to the mask and being totally unaccounted for hadn't set well with the warrior, and she wished now she had pushed the issue. At least that way she would have a day's start on finding her.
At the confused looks all around her, Thelestris went on. "Lorien and her followers picked this tribe because Lorien has a claim here and because our Queen is weak. She's not a warrior, and her overgrown watch dog can't help her in a challenge of honor. See?" she asked pointedly, pausing a moment to let the information sink in then nodding.
Xena bristled at the insult to Gabrielle and herself but stayed where she was. As much as she wanted to storm off and hit something, she needed a plan. And she didn't have a chance of coming up with a satisfactory plan until she knew how many loyal Lorien followers there were or what their orders consisted of.
"So what are we supposed to do?" the first amazon asked, joining the conversation again.
"We're supposed to wait until Lorien gets here. She was very specific and said we're to play nice with the Queen and everybody. She wants her arrival to be a surprise."
'There,' Xena said to herself, sneaking away. 'That's the part I needed to know. If they're supposed to play nice, then I can go take care of Lorien and leave Gabrielle here. If I can't fight as Gabrielle's champion, and I can't interfere with a challenge of honor without killing the whole village, I'm just going to have to take out Lorien before the challenge is issued,' she thought soberly. Xena stood and picked up the path to her original destination of the Queen's hut, walking normally once again, but lost in thought, only her sharp senses keeping her aware peripherally of her surroundings.
'Gabrielle isn't going to like this,' she thought, arriving at the door to the hut and stopping short. 'Son of a Bachae! I can't let her get killed, but she's never going to understand what pretty much consists of cold-blooded murder. Damn, damn, damn, damn!'
Slowly, Xena lifted her hand and opened the latch on the door, pushing it inward just a little and peering inside. The bard lay on her left side, one arm tucked under her head and the other draped along her midriff, her right hand resting lightly on the sheets. Her sleep seemed uneasy to Xena's sharp gaze, her brow furrowed and her face tense.
'I'm so sorry, my bard?' Xena apologized silently. She knew she had hurt the younger woman, and the knowledge tore at her. She had just planned on looking in on Gabrielle to make sure she was sleeping, but the tension she saw in the sleeping form called to her and she quietly made her way into the hut.
Smoothing away the furrows with her fingers, Xena smiled reflexively at Gabrielle's soft sigh. Xena traced the features of the younger woman's face until the look of unease was gone and replaced by a small little smile.
A flood of tenderness washed over Xena, and she knew she would protect the bard at all costs. Unbidden, thoughts of a faceless Amazon fighting Gabrielle to the death arose in her mind, and a wave of pain ran through her body. 'Could Gabrielle kill someone to defend herself? Do I want her to have to make that choice?' Xena closed her eyes and grimaced. 'Can I murder someone in cold blood - not kill on the battle field, but murder - to protect her life and innocence?'
Mind racing, Xena continued to watch Gabrielle sleep, the slow, steady rise and fall of her chest a peaceful counterpoint to Xena's whirlwind of thoughts. 'What have I got to lose? It's nothing worse than what I did as a warlord, but for selfless reasons.'
'But are they really selfless? Am I saving her because I can't bear the thought of losing her?'
'What if I lose her anyway? Would she ever understand and forgive me for interfering? She's a good fighter, but she still needs me.'
' If I knew I would definitely lose her because of it, would I still save her?'
Xena stroked Gabrielle's cheek lightly with the backs of her fingers, the bard turning in her sleep to nuzzle her hand before snuggling back into the bed.
Turning from the bard, Xena quickly found a scrap of parchment and a quill. She left a quick note explaining her absence before setting out to keep Gabrielle safe.
Gabrielle awoke to an empty room. She stretched in her horizontal position, arching her back then moving her arms out to the sides and yawning loudly. She sat up, her hair in disarray all around her head and peered blearily out the window. 'Not quite noon, so I have a bit of time before lunch,' she thought wearily
The nap had done her good, but now she was awake and her mind started whirling again with thoughts of Xena. Still not ready to talk to the warrior some more, her gaze wandered over the room before falling on the scrolls. She reached over to the side of the bed and pulled out the next one, not noticing the slip of parchment that fell to the floor beside it, and began to read.
I had lost count of the days of my new life, for the fever raged within me and I spent most of my time sleeping on a cot in the Amazon Village. I say I spent most of my time there, for in my mind I was many other places.
The first place I journeyed was my master's tent. On one level I knew I would never have to return, but on another I was inextricably drawn to it as if it were my home. Aside from my forest glade, it was my home; I did not recall, except in bits and pieces, the farm where I was raised, and these memory fragments held no power in warding off the vivid nightmare of my existence with the warlord.
Somewhere in this nightmarish world as I lay bare-breasted and shackled to a bed, I saw a pair of warm brown eyes and heard a soft melodic voice beckoning me. They begged me to free myself and to stand, tall and proud.
I could not resist. I knew it was wrong to steal myself from my master, but the voice disagreed. I could not argue. I knew I could never stand on my own, but the voice told me I could. I could not disbelieve. I knew I was a worthless object, but the voice said I was a beautiful woman who belonged to no one but herself. These things it told me, fighting the sickness in my mind as the Amazon Healers fought the fever raging through my body.
Finally, I broke free from the tent and came to my glade. I had survived without my master, and I had lived to see someone look upon me, not as an object, but as a human being again. My fever broke.
When I first became truly cognizant of my surroundings, I saw Terreis. When I opened my eyes and looked at her, she squeezed my hand and smiled. For a moment I wondered why I didn't find the gesture cold and chilling as I usually reacted to smiles, but then I became aware of another feeling from Before. I felt safe.
It was a strange feeling, this certainty that no harm would come to me when I could look upon her face. When everything about my existence had been uncertain, this knowledge struck me to the core, yet at the same time I heard myself say, "Of course," as I returned her smile.
"Of course, what?" she asked softly, and these were the first words she spoke to me.
"I am safe here," I said simply, my voice hoarse from lack of use. And yet, from the brilliant smile she graced me with, I could have sworn she had just heard the most delightful of birds singing just for her.
My own smile grew and through great effort I lifted my other hand and moved it until both my hands held hers. "Thank you," I said simply, and there was an answering gleam in her eyes that told me she understood all that I was thanking her for.
I drifted back to sleep and learned later that she did not leave my side.
"How is she?" I heard as a drifted back towards wakefulness. I recognized the voice, but it took me a moment to remember the name that accompanied it. Melosa.
"She's resting," Terreis said, and her voice sounded weary. "Her fever broke. She's going to be all right."
"Then do you think you can rejoin the village?" Melosa asked dryly.
"I'd rather stay," Terreis responded softly.
"Terreis," Melosa said, her tone affectionate yet scolding. "You're exhausted and you need your rest, too. Have you at least been eating?"
"Yes. The healer's have been bringing me food," she said.
"But you haven't been sleeping," Melosa stated, her tone making the words not a question.
"A little, here and there."
"I'm worried about you. You need to sleep. It's been days, and you haven't moved from her bedside. Do you even know her name?"
"No, I don't. And the healer's forced me into a cot across the room a few days ago, but she started thrashing about. She needs me."
And I knew it to be true. Even in my sleep, I could feel Terreis' hand on mine, and the simple knowledge of her presence comforted me. I knew the Amazon Village was mostly safe, but that there were those like Velaska who could not be trusted. But Terreis had earned my trust, and in my weakened state, I felt vulnerable without her near.
Even so, the weary tone of her voice pulled at me, and I knew she needed to rest before she, too, fell ill. I struggled that last bit towards wakefulness and my eyes fluttered open.
"Sleep," I managed to say, looking at the woman holding my hand. "You need to sleep."
"I'm not leaving you," she said simply, and I found I could not argue with those words spoken with such quiet conviction even if I had wanted to.
"Then sleep here," I said, scooting my body to one side of the cot.
She looked surprised for a moment, then she nodded her head and joined me in the cot, curled up at my side with her arms holding me protectively. In that moment, I knew what it was to love another person and to be loved in return.
Gabrielle looked up from the finished scroll , tears in her eyes, and cursed as her gaze fell on the noonday sun. 'At least I'm not late this time,' she told herself, taking little comfort from the sentiment, as she wished to keep reading. 'I know that feeling, Lorien. It's what I feel when I sleep in her arms,' Gabrielle said silently to the absent author. 'I just hope for your sake that it's actually real.'
She returned the scroll to the pile by the bed, noticing a scrap of parchment on the floor. Bending over to retrieve it, she nearly lost her balance and had to grab the table by the bed to keep from tumbling from her perch.
She opened the folded parchment and her heart lurched when she recognized Xena's handwriting.
I'm not running away, so don't panic. It's just that there's been a very urgent matter come to my attention and I have to take care of it right away. I'll be back as soon as I can, but be careful and safe while I am gone.
Gabrielle nearly screamed in frustration as she stood from the bed and crumpled the parchment in both hands. Her anger welled up, overtaking the sting she felt from Xena's earlier rejection.
"Dammit, Xena," she yelled to the empty hut. She was tired of being left behind and treated like a child. "'Very urgent matter,'" she muttered, arranging her hair quickly and storming out of the hut to the Dining Hall. "As if she can't trust me enough to just tell me what she's doing!" The Amazons also heading for the Dining Hall gave their obviously agitated Queen a wide berth, not sure what she was muttering about, but sure they didn't want to know. "Of all the inconsiderate, thoughtless, pig-headed - " she said before running out of steam.
'On the other hand,' she thought, coming up short a few feet from the Dining Hall and causing a near collision as the Amazons who had been following her had to side-step her suddenly still form, 'at least she told me she was going to be gone. Maybe it's not that she doesn't trust me, but that she was worried someone else might see the note. Can't I trust her enough to take her word for it that it is an urgent matter? It wouldn't be like her to lie to me, and last time I saw her, we were all right.'
Gabrielle's active mind started working out what Xena could possibly be up to as she strolled into the Dining Hall and took her place in the Queen's chair. The idea that Xena didn't trust her hurt, but she knew Xena wouldn't hurt her on purpose. She had seen the look of pain on Xena's face when she had tried her best to let the bard down easily. Though Gabrielle had thought for a moment that Xena might have left their friendship behind when she saw the note, she knew after thinking about it that that wasn't the case. If Xena had just run away, she either wouldn't have left a note at all, or she would have left the truth.
'But if she was worried about the note being intercepted, that means she doesn't trust the Amazons,' her thoughts continued as she started eating automatically, not really noticing what was placed in front of her. Ephiny and Solari exchanged worried glances as their Queen ate absent-mindedly and silently with a pensive look on her face.
"Ahem," Solari said, clearing her throat slightly. "Is, uh, something wrong, Gabrielle?" she asked, keeping her voice low. Ephiny held her tongue, knowing it was not her place to confide in Solari about Gabrielle's troubles.
"Huh?" Gabrielle said, startled out of her thoughts. "Oh, uh, no," she said, trying to sound casual. "Nothing's wrong."
"Oh," Solari said. "Because you seem kind of, um, quiet."
"What? You think I can't spend a whole meal without talking?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Well, yeah," Solari said, exchanging looks with Ephiny. Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond, then realized she normally couldn't and that she couldn't very well yell at her friends for making a fair assumption.
"I guess you're right," she said, shaking her head. "So, who are we inspecting today?" she asked.
The inspection of the younger Amazons had gone rather well, though Gabrielle was a little hurt Xena had not been back in time to be there. Though she knew enough about the Amazon troops to make a fairly decent inspection, she did not have the eye for military detail that Xena did. 'No one has the eye for military detail that Xena does,' she told herself ruefully, returning to her hut, eager to return to her reading since it did a good job distracting her from thoughts of Xena.
Gabrielle got into bed, sitting with her back against the headboard and the covers pulled up to her waist and retrieved the next scroll from the pile. She moved a bit, getting comfortable, before opening the scroll, but then her mind wandered back to the puzzle of why Xena had left so abruptly.
'She hasn't decided to leave me here for my own good?' came the panicked though. 'No,' she told herself silently. 'Xena said she'd be back, so she'd be back. But she didn't tell me where she was going, and if she didn't trust the Amazons, why would she leave me with the Amazons?' Gabrielle's brow furrowed and her mind raced, but she couldn't come up with a logical reason for Xena's strange behavior. 'Patience, Gabrielle,' she told herself, shaking her head ruefully. 'She'll come back. She can explain then. And she's got a whole lot of explaining to do!'
With that final thought, Gabrielle opened the scroll and began to read.
My convalescence was long and arduous, but Terreis was at my side and with her faith in me I began to have faith in myself. But first, I had to have a 'self.' There was no name I could recall that my master gave me, unless 'slave' 'bitch' and 'whore' were to be counted. Terreis did not find the thought amusing, nor did I, but a few of the other Amazons in the healer's hut apparently did when I made this revelation.
Terreis named me 'Lorien,' and it is this name I will go by. A name is a wonderful, terrible thing. It gave me an identity and a sense of myself, but with this awareness also came responsibility. I was now my own master, and I did not quite know what to do with myself.
Unthinkably, Terreis offered to take me from Amazon lands that I might rejoin my people. My feelings must have shown on my face, for she immediately reassured me that I would always be welcome and that I could join the Amazon sisterhood if I so chose.
Did she really believe I would wish to leave her? And yet the knowledge that I had a choice, and she would respect that choice, set her apart from any other person I had known. Comfortable with my new self and my right to choose my own path, I chose to stay.
My training as an Amazon began, and my mind and body were like a sponge, absorbing knowledge from every available source. As I was born to the forest, tracking, hunting and feats of arms came naturally to me. With time came increased speed and strength, and eventually I surpassed even my teacher, Terreis.
Though these things came easily to me, physically, they took their toll mentally. It was many moons before I could raise a sword against another person in practice. Standing side by side with Terreis practicing motions was more of a dance than a violent act. The violence I had exhibited thus far worried me, for was sure it was another mark my master left upon my soul. The first time I was told to spar, my hands shook and my sword dropped. I was physically ill.
I did not fear the sword, nor did I fear my opponent. It was myself I feared. I feared I would go too far and hurt these women I came to care for. It wasn't until Terreis made me really believe the sparring was necessary so that I could defend my sisters that I was able to participate.
I was initiated into the Amazon Sisterhood, and it was as though a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. At this time I not only had an identity, but a place where I belonged. Though I trusted none other as completely as I trusted Terreis, I soon learned to care for and respect my sisters. I broke my bread and drank my wine in their company, always with Terreis nearby.
Eventually I was sent out on patrols and hunting expeditions, and duty being what it is, Terreis could not accompany me. I soon learned, however, that she was always with me.
I learned many things from Terreis over the seasons. Not only feats of arms, but history and philosophy. It was when I had mastered reading and writing that I spent much of my time in the libraries, learning all that I could of the people I had chosen as my own and how they fit into the world.
Terreis' most important lesson came, however, when I had been with the Amazons for two cycles of the seasons. She taught me in word and deed that pleasure could be given in love and not just taken with force. Thinking back, I marvel at how patient she was with me to have waited as long as she did. But she constantly amazes me with her wisdom, for she knew I could not truly give myself to another until I knew what it was I was giving. So, quietly, gently, after far too long, we became lovers.
I remember I was reading Plato. I adored Plato. The attack was sudden and fierce, but it took me a mere moment to be armed and at the door. The banner flying caused the blood to drain from my face. My master had finally come for me, and I could feel the identity stripped from me as though a bright light were cast into the darkest shadows of my heart, revealing every fear.
And then I saw her, that familiar fighting stance, engaging the soldiers who swarmed into the village. I hesitated a moment until I heard her call my name, and I was Lorien again. Lifting my sword, I joined the fray.
"Aw, Hades. Now what?" Gabrielle said, blowing out a breath and laying the scroll on the bed, quickly finding two decorative stones on the table and placing them on the scroll to save her place. "Yes?" she said, rising from the bed and going to the door.
"Um, hi Gabrielle," Eponin said when the door opened. "We, uh, just noticed, that, umm," she started to say, unable to meet her queen's gaze.
"What is it Eponin?" Gabrielle asked looking at her curiously. Gabrielle looked around and saw the other Amazons heading towards the dining hall and realized it was dinner time. "You came to get me for dinner?" she hazarded a guess.
"No, well, yes, but that's not what I - " Eponin started again before finally blurting out, "We lost Xena!"
Gabrielle burst out laughing, finally understanding Eponin's discomfort, and had to grab the door jam to support herself as her legs threatened to give out under her. Though a part of her winced at the mention of the warrior's name, the sight of her weapons master at her door looking like a child expecting a scolding was too much. She just had to laugh.
"Um, Gabrielle? Did you hear me?" Eponin asked, looking at Gabrielle for all the world like she'd just grown a second head.
"Did you draw the short straw?" Gabrielle managed to wheeze out, still laughing.
"Well, yes," Eponin said, narrowing her eyes suspiciously and peering around the bard to see if the warrior were hidden somewhere in the room. "What's so funny?" she finally asked bluntly.
"The look on your f-f-face," Gabrielle said before eventually composing herself to the point where only a stray chuckle broke through once in awhile. "The look on your face," she started again, calmer this time, "when you knew you had to tell me you lost Xena. It was priceless," she said, smiling at the Amazon. "So I suppose you don't know where she went, either?" she asked calmly.
"You knew she was gone?" Eponin asked. "Why didn't you tell anybody?"
"I really didn't think of it. Besides, Xena didn't tell me where she was going. She just left a note saying she had to do something 'very urgent,'" Gabrielle said, sighing and heading out of the hut and towards the Dining Hall.
Gabrielle nearly lost it again when she stepped to the doorway and saw Solari and Ephiny talking to each other with wary and guilty looks on their faces. Composing herself completely, she called upon her bardic training and the pointers she had gotten from Xena and glared. 'I can be heart-broken later,' she told herself firmly, her natural good humor asserting itself. 'But I'll never forgive myself if I pass up this opportunity.'
Striding briskly into the hall, she stood behind Ephiny and had to bite her inner cheek as Solari looked up at her from across the table wide-eyed and panicky.
"Where's Xena?" she asked coldly, raising one eyebrow. She considered sneering, but thought she'd just bust up laughing if she tried, so contented herself with the expression she had on her face. 'Besides,' she thought to herself, 'it looks like it's working.'
"Now, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, turning her head to look at her Queen. "We can't keep track of her all the time, and if she wants to sneak away, we really can't stop her."
Gabrielle decided to take pity on her scoutmaster and regent, so she grinned. "It's okay," she said. "I knew she was gone, I just forgot to tell you."
"You knew she was gone and you didn't tell anybody?" Ephiny asked incredulously.
"Exactly. That a problem?" Gabrielle asked, taking her seat and assuming her 'regal bearing.'
"Um. No. No problem," Ephiny muttered, grumbling good-naturedly when she caught the laughing gleam in Gabrielle's eyes.
"I really just forgot, Eph," Gabrielle said sincerely. "I'm sorry. I know I read you all the riot act when you lost her the first time, and you were probably worried thinking you'd lost her again," she said, the last bit in a teasing voice that got a smile out of Ephiny.
"Well, if I want my Queen yelling at me, I'd like it to be for something I actually did," Ephiny pointed out, piling food onto her plate. The meal progressed and Gabrielle confided in Ephiny, Solari and Eponin about the mysterious note, but they could not come up with a logical explanation, either.
When the meal was finished, Gabrielle stood and made her way from the Dining Hall, followed by a procession of drummers and the rest of the Amazons to the yard where the Amazon Throne stood. Head held high, Gabrielle walked onto the dais then turned to face the assembled nation.
"Hear me, Amazons," Gabrielle said. Her voice was slightly lower-pitched than usual and easily carried over the crowd. "I, Queen Gabrielle by Right of Caste, will hear your grievances and pass judgement as I see fit. By coming before me tonight, you are accepting this judgment."
Ephiny stood at her side and handed her the Queen's Mask. Taking it in her hands, Gabrielle sat upon the throne with the mask in her lap as a symbol of her rank.
"My Queen," a voice called from the back, and a figure moved rapidly forward as the crowd parted for her. "My Queen," she said again when she had come to the front of the crowd and kneeled before the dais. Her body shook with anger as she rose to air her grievance.
At a glance, Gabrielle took in the strong features and build of the young Amazon before her. The woman stood tall and tilted her head back to look her Queen straight in the eye before speaking. "I am Eurybia, and I wish to call forth Othalia," she said formally.
There was a murmuring in the crowd as Othalia stepped forward, a haughty look on her face. She knelt before her Queen upon arriving at the dais, then stood, her head bowed in respect and her eyes on the floor. "I am Othalia," she said, answering the summons.
"What is your grievance?" Gabrielle asked, looking between the two Amazons. Othalia was several seasons older than Eurybia and seemed insincere in her overdone respect for the Throne.
"Through false promises and lies, Othalia has coerced Clymene into a joining contract that is not of her choosing. I would have the contract broken to leave Clymene free to join with me as was our understanding before Othalia's interference," Eurybia said, ignoring the gasps of shock around her, a suspicious glint in her eye speaking of unshed tears.
"How do you answer, Othalia?" Gabrielle asked, sitting up straighter and leaning towards the Amazons before her. Breaking a joining contract was an extremely serious matter, and not one to be taken lightly. As such, it was very rare for anyone to request it, and it was rarer still that a third party would make the grievance.
"I made no false promises or lies, My Queen," Othalia said, raising her head now to glare at Eurybia. "Clymene is mine by right. She was given to me by her mother, Queen Marpesia of the Eastern Tribe," she said loudly, smirking as Eurybia flinched at every word.
Gabrielle stood at these words and walked to the edge of the dais, her eyes flashing and her lips pressed together in anger. "No one owns another person. People are not given to each other like cattle," she said coldly, but loud enough for the whole assemblage to hear. A murmur went through the crowd as their Queen's words sunk in. The feud between Eurybia and Othalia over Clymene was well-known to them all, and the law was on Othalia's side.
"I call Clymene," Gabrielle declared, and the crowd came alive again at this unorthodox turn of events. A young, pretty woman stepped forward slowly, and she shyly kneeled before her Queen then rose to stand by her partner.
"I am Clymene," she said softly.
"Othalia," Gabrielle said. "What were the terms of the joining contract?"
"Clymene and I would join and she would become a member of our tribe," she stated. Eurybia opened her mouth to object, only to be stopped by one cold look from her Queen.
"Clymene is Queen Marpesia's daughter?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes, she is, and she chose me to join with her daughter," Othalia answered. Eurybia fidgeted where she stood, desperately wanting to state her case, but knowing it would not be wise to interrupt her Queen in the midst of questioning.
"Why you?" Gabrielle asked.
"I am originally of her tribe and she wished for Clymene and I to rejoin her after a few seasons of studying here."
"But you were initiated into this tribe, and so you will bow to my judgement?" Gabrielle asked, wondering if she even had the authority to hear this case.
"Yes, I have and I will," Othalia said, bowing before her Queen.
"Eurybia," Gabrielle said, turning to the other Amazon. "Explain your charges of false promises and lies against Othalia," Gabrielle commanded.
"Yes, My Queen," Eurybia said, a gleam of hope entering her eyes. "Othalia promised Clymene that she would be apprenticed to the Loremaster. Clymene has been apprenticed to the Music Master here," Eurybia stated.
"Music Master, Lore Master," Othalia objected. "What's the difference?"
"Othalia!" Gabrielle said sharply. "You will have another turn to speak. For now, hold your tongue," she commanded.
"The difference is, My Queen," Eurybia said quietly, her eyes softening as she gazed at the young woman in question, "is that Clymene tells beautiful stories. She truly wishes to pass on the knowledge and history of the Amazons to future generations."
"You've covered the false promises then. And the lies?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"Othalia told Clymene after Clymene was already initiated into this tribe that she still had to bend to the will of Queen Marpesia. After she was initiated, Clymene was under your rule, and Queen Marpesia held no authority over her," Eurybia stated firmly.
Othalia's face grew red and the crowd spoke quietly to one another at this revelation.
"We haven't heard from the most important person on this matter," Gabrielle declared over the noise. "Clymene," she said softly, finally turning to the girl. "Do you wish to be joined to Othalia?" she asked.
"That doesn't matter!" Othalia declared. "Her mother is a Queen and ordered her to join with me!"
"If Clymene was a member of my tribe at the time of the order, I will not honor it!" Gabrielle shot back.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said quietly into her ear. "This could mean war with Queen Marpesia."
Gabrielle turned her hard stare on her friend and whispered back, "I will not have people treated like property. The girl has a choice." Gabrielle's mind couldn't help turning to Lorien and the scrolls she had read and the dehumanizing effect of being treated like she was less than human. If she could stop something similar from happening to anyone else, she would do so.
Ephiny smiles softly. "I'd have done the same thing. I just wanted you to know all of it," Ephiny whispered. Gabrielle smiled back and with that look, they both understood they were thinking of the same person.
"Clymene. Answer my question," she said.
"No. I do not wish to be joined with Othalia," she said softly.
"Othalia," Gabrielle said, glaring at the Amazon. "I find Eurybia's accusations founded and true. Your joining contract is broken and Clymene is free as a member of my tribe to choose her own path. Let it be known," Gabrielle said, addressing the whole crowd, "that Clymene, as a member of our tribe and one of our Amazon Sisters, is free to choose her own path."
A roar went up among the crowd, as a stunned Clymene stood and was embraced by an ecstatic Eurybia.
"As Amazons," Gabrielle continued, "we are all expected to treat any Amazon Queen with the respect and deference her title deserves. However, if any Queen of the Nation should issue an order that strips you of your dignity and freedom as Amazons, I will defend the rights of my tribe with a Challenge of Honor," she declared.
The crowd roared again, signaling their approval of their Queen's bold stand. When the crowd quieted down, Gabrielle resumed her seat and tried to settle her heart and breathing as Ephiny moved to stand once again at her side.
"Are we really going to end up going to war?" she asked Ephiny quietly as she waited for the next petitioner to come forward.
"It's highly unlikely. I think Marpesia tried to use Othalia to get Clymene to come home. But Marpesia is a good and fair woman, and she will recognize you had the right to make the decision that you did," Ephiny said reassuringly.
"Good," Gabrielle breathed. "I'd hate to challenge her and get knocked silly."
"A Challenge of Honor means the challenger gets to choose a champion," Ephiny said with a sly gleam in her eye. "And since your champion could knock her silly, I don't think she'll try anything."
"Even better," Gabrielle said, grinning at her Regent.
"What - ?" Ephiny said, looking up sharply at the form in front of the dais.
"My Queen," Thelestris said, smiling broadly, holding a bag in one hand.
"What is your grievance, Thelestris?" Gabrielle asked, recognizing the troublemaker Xena had to take down a few pegs the day before.
"I challenge your throne," Thelestris stated in a clear voice. The crowd went silent with shock as Ephiny spoke into the void.
"By what right?" she asked scornfully.
"By Right of Caste," Thelestris said, removing the bag with a flourish and presenting Lorien's Mask.
"Dammit, Ephiny," Gabrielle said, pacing throughout the Queen's Hut. "You've said Lorien would make a fine Queen. Why can't I just give her the mask? Why did you stop me?"
"Because I knew Lorien, and she wouldn't do this. I don't believe for a moment that Lorien chose Thelestris as her champion," Ephiny stated vehemently. "First off, she was offered the Right of Caste several times in my presence and she turned it down every single time. Every time! If Terreis had ever successfully given her the Right of Caste, why would she then turn around and give it to you?"
"Does it matter? Her very relationship with Terreis gives her the Right as far as I'm concerned," Gabrielle argued back. "And the offer still gives her the right to challenge."
"That doesn't matter. Lorien is too to send someone in her stead, and she's too honorable to displace a Queen who does a damn fine job! This whole thing is a trick. I just don't believe it," Ephiny finished, trying to keep her voice low enough that she wouldn't be heard clear across the village.
"So if the mask is a fake, what does Thelestris want? Other than the obvious," Gabrielle said, gesturing towards the Queen's Mask.
"She wants what we all want. For the separated Amazon Tribes to come together as one Nation," Ephiny said, looking down at the floor.
"If that's what everyone wants, why doesn't it?"
"Because every Queen of a Tribe wants to be the High Queen. No one is willing to give over the power to anyone else," Ephiny explained, shaking her head sadly. "Thelestris is one of the newer Amazons here who doesn't remember what happened to this village during the last civil war. Periodically, a Queen is made in a tribe and she decides to unite the Amazons by force. That's what Thelestris wants, and that's another reason why I don't think this challenge is lawful. Lorien wouldn't want to unite the Amazons that way. Hades! She doesn't even want to come back to this village, let alone take over all the other ones!"
"How do you know that? I've been reading her scrolls, and this village was her home," Gabrielle said softly. "I would do anything to get that back if I were in her place."
"Then keep reading," Ephiny said, tears brimming in her eyes. "Terreis was her home, and without her here, Lorien has no reason to return." With that, Ephiny left the hut, closing the door silently behind her.
Gabrielle sat heavily on the bed and put her head in her hands. 'Gods, I wish Xena were here,' she thought helplessly. 'Why the hell isn't Xena here?' she wondered, her anger rising.
'Okay,' she told herself, taking deep breaths to calm down. 'Xena isn't here and there's been a challenge. Even if Xena were here, she couldn't champion for you.' Gabrielle groaned and fell back on the bed, her hands once again covering her face. 'All right, Ephiny bought you some time pointing out that Thelestris never met Lorien and could possibly be tricked. So she got around the fact that she can't call official doubt on Thelestris' word without proof. The Council of Elders is examining the mask to figure out if it's real, so that should keep for about a day.'
'Ephiny thinks there's a trick in here somewhere, but she can't prove it. That means if the Council decides the mask is real, the challenge stands. Unless we can find Lorien and prove she didn't name Thelestris her champion.'
Gabrielle sat bolt upright. 'That's it! Xena found out about this and went to find Lorien!' Gabrielle smiled, feeling a little easier. If it were possible to find Lorien, she knew Xena could do it. 'Xena must have found out about the challenge and known she couldn't champion for me. That means Xena knows that finding Lorien will fix this, which means Thelestris wasn't named Lorien's champion, and this challenge is unlawful.'
The corners of Gabrielle's mouth pulled into a frown as she started to ponder other possibilities. 'Unless Xena knows it's real and wanted to go take out Lorien. But if she knew there was a challenge, why would she leave me here to face it?' Suddenly, Gabrielle smiled again, sure that if Xena had left her to face a challenge, she had faith in Gabrielle's ability to meet it. 'Xena has fought Thelestris, so she knows how good she is. She must think I'm better and be confident enough in my abilities that she felt safe leaving me here.'
'That's it then,' Gabrielle thought, reaching for the scroll she had left open on the bed. 'I can do this. And maybe, just maybe, there's proof in these scrolls if Ephiny is right.'
Gabrielle settled herself comfortably, much more confident than she had been just a candlemark before, and began to read.
"Now. Where was I?" she asked aloud. "Ah. Right here."
And then I saw her, that familiar fighting stance, engaging the soldiers who swarmed into the village. I hesitated a moment until I heard her call my name, and I was Lorien again. Lifting my sword, I joined the fray.
I fought my way to Terreis' side, and there we stood, cutting a swathe through the mercenaries. I searched the faces of my opponents, half expecting to see recognition in their eyes. There was none. Instead, there was only fear and pain as they fell to my sword. It was not until Terreis and I were separated by the flow of battle that I found one who really looked at me, as if my features sparked some memory.
Then the look of total recognition came over my master's face, and I averted my eyes automatically as he had taught me, unable to meet his gaze. The seasons of freedom were lost and could see the look of anger in his eyes when he saw his property holding a sword and killing his men.
I was too far beneath him to be worthy of his sword, so he grabbed my hair in his free hand and pulled me roughly to him.
"Drop the sword, Bitch," he growled. As he twisted my hair again and pulled my head back painfully, I remember thinking idly that this hurt far worse than the cuts and bruises I had received in the course of the battle.
I dropped the sword.
"Let her go," I heard behind me, and though the voice is as familiar to me as my own, I did not recognize it at the time.
"You want the bitch?" he asked, laughing. "Come and get her," he finished, throwing me to the ground and standing between me and the woman I did not recognize in the haze of confusion brought on by seeing my master.
The fighting was furious, and through the fog in my mind, I realized they were fighting for ownership. Of me. I did not realize until my master had knocked the woman to the ground that she was Terreis, and I did not realize until he had his sword at her throat that she had been fighting on my behalf: that she fought so that I could truly own myself. It was what she had been fighting for these past seasons.
I did not realize until her eyes met mine without reproach or accusation that it was a cause she was both willing to kill and to die for. This was the time when I was Lorien once again, and I lifted the sword my master had bid me drop, and with a sweep of my hand the blade was no longer at her throat.
He looked shocked. I remember thinking irreverently at the time that he must not be used to his table removing its leg and hitting him with it. Then he snarled.
"Get out of my way, whore."
I attacked. Years of drunkenness and debauchery had not helped his martial skills, and though he had been the victor in his fight against Terreis, he was tired. As we fought, it was as if I could sense his thoughts as his body language gave away each move.
There were opening where I could have killed him, but I did not. I bruised him with the flat of my blade or cut him with the edge, wearing him down. He overextended a lunge, and I stepped around and behind him, bringing the hilt of my sword down sharply on the back of his skull. Dizzy, he fell to the ground, and he was on his knees at my feet.
One kick to the back and he was on all fours, still dazed, but making incoherent groveling noises. Is that what I sounded like? Are those the sort of things I said while completely at his mercy? Any sense of elation was lost at this thought and I felt sick.
"Get up," I said, and he stood, turning to face me, his sword gone from his grasp, but some of his superior manner returned.
He spat in my face.
"Her name is Lorien," was the last thing he heard as Terreis came up beside me and drove her sword into his heart.
The battle was won.
Gabrielle glanced at the candle she had been reading by as she finished the scroll in her lap, seeing that many marks had gone past. Sighing, she stowed the scroll with the others and fell to sleep.
Slipping past the sentries was no problem as Xena slunk through the forest before coming to the spot where Terreis had breathed her last. It was in the northern woods where game had recently been scarce, and Xena thought it to be as good a place to start as any.
'Gods, that seems like so long ago,' Xena thought, remembering that day when one princess had died and another was born. Gabrielle had changed so much in the eyes of the world, and yet she hadn't in Xena's. There was still that spirit and fire that had caused her to offer herself up to slavers so that the other women could go free.
Xena shook her head and scanned the area. 'I don't have time to walk down memory lane. Her penchant for trouble is as real as ever, and she's in some serious trouble right now.' With a practiced eye, Xena discarded the signs of natural wear and tear. A twig broken where a bird had stolen a berry, or a bit of trampled brush where a rabbit had sat were noted, but looked past as Xena searched for some sign of Lorien.
A slight scuff mark on a rock. A fallen, dried leaf that was cracked as though it bore the weight of a human. These small signs and others were detected by the searching warrior, and then she had the trail. She moved through the forest, keeping to the shadows, following the footsteps of a phantom: a woman who had not been seen or heard from by her people since the day Terreis died.
Xena was hard-pressed to follow the trail, for it was subtle and twice she followed a false trail that she soon learned was deliberately set. 'This has to be her,' Xena thought. 'I know all the usual Amazon tricks and they wouldn't have fooled me.'
The trail led around and around the forest, making broader circles, but centering on the spot where Terreis had been felled by mercenary arrows. Xena read the story of this trail as easily as her bard read a scroll, seeing a woman who moved with skill and surety through the forest, hunting and trapping with ease. She stopped and slept where Lorien had laid in wait near a pond when it was too dark to continue, making note of the spot where a deer had been slain. She climbed hills and descended into valleys before she found where the circle broke.
At what seemed to be the widest circle, the trail broke to the north, and Xena climbed the ridge at the border of Amazon lands as the sun climbed through the sky.
Gabrielle awoke to a knocking at the door. Her eyes opened as Ephiny poked her head into the room.
"Hey Gabrielle. They haven't determined the authenticity of the mask yet," she said as she entered, closing the door behind her. Gabrielle sat up, rubbing her eyes and then blinked at her regent.
"Good," she said, standing up and stretching. "Look, I want to finish up these scrolls, so I'm not going to get into the dining hall today," Gabrielle said, looking at the remaining writings.
"Look, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, moving to stand by her friend and laying one hand on her arm. "If you just wanted to go, I'd understand. If you took off, the challenge would fall to me."
"I can't do that, Eph," Gabrielle said, smiling affectionately at the woman. "I'm the Queen, and I have a challenge to answer. I may spend most of my time gone, but while I'm here I'm going to live up to my responsibilities, not pawn them off on you."
"Gabrielle, I can't ask you to do this," Ephiny said, her voice low.
"Look," Gabrielle said, placing her own hand over Ephiny's. "It's a First-Blood Challenge of Honor. I can handle that. And it might not even go that far if the council decides the mask is a fake or if I can find something in these scrolls." Gabrielle gestured at the scrolls at her feet, grimacing slightly and hoping she'd get through them in time.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny said, grasping her by the shoulders and turning her to look into her face. "This is not a first-blood challenge," she said seriously, looking her friend in the eyes and trying not to wince at the shock she saw there.
"But I thought - "
"Not this time. A Challenge of Honor is usually to first blood, but this is also a challenge for the Queen's Mask. That's to the death."
Gabrielle sat heavily on the edge of the bed, the enormity of the situation finally hitting her. "But I can't - " she said as Ephiny knelt in front of her.
"That's why I think you should go," Ephiny said gently, taking her hands. "Is this really something you're willing to die for?" she asked seriously. "Or kill for?" she continued after a pause.
'Most people have trouble dying. It's the killing I have a problem with,' Gabrielle thought numbly, thinking of Terreis and her willingness to put everything on the line for Lorien. 'Can I do that? Do I even deserve to have this mask?'
"I need to think this over, Ephiny," Gabrielle said quietly. Knowing she had been dismissed, but wanting to help her friend, Ephiny waited a moment before bowing to duty and her Queen before leaving the hut and closing the door behind her.
'A cause I am willing to kill or die for? Do I honestly feel that passionately about anything? I'd die for Xena or my family or any of the Amazons, but would I kill for them? Do I ever want to have to find out? There will be a civil war among Amazons if Thelestris wins this.'
These thoughts running through her head, Gabrielle picked up the next scroll and began to read.
For the first time, our lovemaking was not tender, but fierce. After the battle, I took her to our hut and bathed her before taking her in every way I knew. Greedily, I drank in the sight of her, using her face alight with passion to dispel the images of a sword at her throat and her imminent death from my mind. She seemed to know I needed this, or perhaps she needed it as much as I, and she encouraged me with her lusty moans and cries.
Eventually, exhaustion took hold and we fell into slumber, wrapped together. When I awoke, it was to the feel of a gentle hand tracing the features of my face. My eyes opened.
"Good morning," Terreis said, smiling down at me. She was lying on her side, propped up on one elbow and watching me as she stroked me eyebrows.
"Good morning," I returned, unable to keep a smile from my face.
"Now," she said, taking on a thoughtful expression. "I know fighting doesn't do that to you. So what were you doing before the battle?" she asked, and I blushed at the reference to my uncharacteristic aggressiveness.
"I was reading Plato," I mumbled, no longer able to look her in the eye.
"Lorien? Is something wrong?" she asked, ducking her head to reestablish eye contact.
I considered lying or being evasive, but I had long since passed the point where I was willing to lie to this woman. "I, uh," I started, but she gently hushed me and took me into her arms as she saw the tears pool in my eyes. I had not, in fact, cried since the day she took me to the Amazons, and that I was doing so now worried her.
She rocked me gently, making soothing noises and rubbing my back. "It's all right, love," she said simply, and I took in one last shuddering breath before composing myself.
"I am so sorry," I whispered, touching my forehead to hers and stroking that face that was so very dear to me, knowing that the words could never be enough to erase what I had done. "I'm no better than he is," I said. I was unable to stop the tears that came again, streaming down my cheeks. I had taken this woman - used her in ways I once had nightmares about - after she had been nothing but good to me. She was, in fact, everything that was good in the world, and did not deserve to be tarnished by the horrors of my past.
I gathered my strength and pulled away, the comfort she was offering suddenly abhorrent to me in the face of what I had done. She held on.
"Stop it," she whispered fiercely, refusing to let go. My body tensed in her arms and I struggled, but she held on. "You are nothing like him," she said, but I was not listening. She turned my face to hers and looked into my eyes and I calmed in her grasp. "You are nothing like him," she said again, sadly, quietly. Her own tears fell and I could not stop myself from raising my head to kiss them away.
"I am," I said, trying to convince her before I did irreparable harm to her.
"No," she said, burying her face in my neck and shaking her head. "Nothing like him. You did nothing I didn't want you to do."
"Terreis," I said, stroking her hair softly. "I love you, but he taught me violence all too well. After this morning, how can you say I'm nothing like him?"
She smiled. I could actually feel her smile into my neck.
"Because I feel safe - and loved," she told me. "If I had actually asked you to stop, would you have?" she asked.
Would I have stopped? Could I have stopped? I looked at down at our entwined bodies and saw how trustingly she was nestled against me. "Yes," I said, knowing it to be the truth, and in that knowing, letting go of the fear that the man who had called himself my master had made me a monster like him. For this woman, for this feeling of peace I had in her arms, I could do anything.
She felt me relax and I wrapped my arms around her, causing her to smile again. "Now," she said, "let's talk about Plato."
"Plato?" I asked, thoroughly confused by the change of subject.
"Mmm-hmm," she said, planting a kiss on my collarbone. "Since when does Plato turn you on so much?" she asked, and when I looked into her face, her eyes were laughing. I couldn't help but share in her laughter, and a warm feeling came over me. It felt so good to just hold her and laugh like that after the emotional wringer of the morning. It made me a little giddy.
"Seriously," she said after our laughter had died down, her face taking on that cute little look she has when she's intensely curious about something. "Why do you read so much Plato?" My face flushed as she watched me closely, and I shifted uncomfortably.
"It, uh, reminds me of you," I said.
"Plato reminds you of me?" she asked, her eyebrows raising.
"Well, yeah," I said, keenly aware of the rising color that spoke of my embarrassment at the topic. "He talks about the three kinds of people society has to have: the bronze people, the silver people, and the gold people. I think he's wrong."
"Explain," Terreis said, crossing her arms on my chest and resting her chin there.
"Well, according to Plato, the bronze people are like the arms and legs of a society. They do the work that keeps society going. The silver people are the torso, and they protect the bronze people so they are safe to do their work. The gold people are the head, and they create policy and pass down laws and judgements on the people."
"So far so good," Terreis said, looking at me quizzically and waiting for me to continue.
"There are many different kinds of strength," I said, looking at my lover who was, in my eyes, the embodiment of them all. "Strength of arms, strength of heart, and strength of mind. The gold people, by definition, must have strength of mind. They are what Plato calls 'Philosopher Kings.' It just seems to me that in order to really lead a people, you have to understand and possess the same strengths that they do. Plato says the gold people are the most important, but I disagree. Strength of arms and strength of mind can be learned. You have to be born with strength of heart."
"So you feel a leader should be able to be gold, silver, or bronze?" Terreis asked.
"Yes. If you've never lived the lives of the people - never worked a day of back-breaking labor, how can you rule them? What gives you the right to pass judgement on them if you don't understand them? A leader should lead by example. A leader should never ask anyone else to do something they themselves would not. If a gold person wouldn't sow a field, how can he ask the bronze people to do it? If a gold person wouldn't lay down their life for the good of the whole, how can he ask a silver person to do it? A leader must have strength of heart. A leader must be willing to die for the good of the people."
"I want you to have my Right of Caste if anything should happen to me," she said seriously.
Gabrielle stopped reading, staring at the far wall of the Queen's Hut, unsure as to whether or not she wanted to continue. She sat and thought for a minute, her mind drifting back to the day Terreis had given her the Right of Caste. Something about the conversation chronicled in Lorien's scroll struck a chord in her memory, and the phrase, 'you have the heart of an Amazon' ran through her mind.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Gabrielle continued reading.
"No. I can't accept it," I said, shaking my head against the pillow.
"Why not?" Terreis asked, raising her head and frowning down at me. "You know what being a leader is, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather have take the Right."
"I just can't. You don't understand," I said, smoothing the furrow in Terreis' brow with my fingers.
"You're right. I don't understand. You have the strength of heart - the heart of a true Amazon - you have to be born with, the strength of arms and the strength of mind that you've learned. Who would be better?"
"Don't you see?" I asked quietly. "If anything happened to you and I came to rule the Amazons, it would be through violence, right?"
"Yes, it would," Terreis said simply. We both knew that if she lived as long as I hoped, we would have daughters to take up the Right of Caste, and it would not fall to me unless she was killed in battle before her time.
"You don't understand what I would do to your Amazons," I said simply.
"I can't accept that unless you explain. And they're your Amazons, too."
"Not without you they're not," I said. "I love this nation's Princess. I respect this nation's Queen. If anything happened to you, and I ruled this nation, I would abuse that power. I'd use this tribe as a tool to exact my revenge and I would kill anyone and everyone that played even the remotest part in your death," I said, my voice flat, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew I spoke the truth.
"Promise me that if anything happens, you'll let me go. That you'll live in peace," she asked of me. I knew there was only one way I could keep that promise. If anything happened to Terreis, I would leave the tribe and live alone where the vengeful horror I would become could not harm another soul.
"I promise," I said, kissing her gently, and praying she would never know what she had asked of me. I made the promise willingly and gladly, but I knew she would want me to remain with the Amazons in the event of her death. I knew deep in my heart that I could not. She said I had the heart of an Amazon. She didn't realize that she was my heart.
With a sigh, Gabrielle closed the scroll, realizing that Ephiny had been right: Lorien would not have returned. Thelestris was trying to wrest control of the Amazons from her unlawfully. As the thought settled in, Gabrielle got mad.