Xena stood, blinking a little painfully, in the light near the front entrance of the palace. She was washed, feeling marginally more human than when she had first woken and had clean clothing, thanks to Gabrielle. "I'll be glad when my leathers are finally repaired," she said quietly to herself. However comfortable the Amazon clothing might have been, it wasn't the type of thing she was used to wearing. In a way, she felt a little unprotected by the lighter buckskin and silk, something she rarely felt in her heavier leathers. Half the time she didn't even bother putting her armour on simply because it kept catching in the lightweight material of her wraparound shirt. She was grateful she had thought to put it on the day before. If Kaliope had decided to attack, Xena's armour may have been the only thing to save her from broken ribs, or worse.
The tall warrior glanced back over her shoulder into the confines of the palace itself. She and Gabrielle had stopped by Ephiny's rooms to check on the small scout, only to be asked if Gabrielle would act in the Queen's place during the negotiations with the villagers. Xena had encouraged the bard to make her own decision, and Gabrielle had said yes to the request, though she had thought about it for several long heartbeats first. She was still in there now talking about all the things she would need to know during the meetings. Xena had seen the hesitation in the bard at the thought of dealing with the delegation on her own. "She's stopped trusting herself," Xena muttered a little angrily through her clenched teeth. The warrior had done everything she knew to reassure the bard she had made the right decision, but her words had not given the younger woman any peace at all. Xena wondered how else she could have helped the bard.
Looking across the compound, she spotted the temple and was reminded why she had come out here to begin with. There was a part of her which would have much rather been back in bed sleeping off the effects of all the wine she had drunk the night before. But she was a warrior and shouldn't let a little thing like a hangover keep her from doing the things she had to do. Even from where she stood, she could see her breast dagger and Eponin's knife still firmly lodged between the stonework beside the temple door. Xena also knew she had to apologise to the priestess and see what she could do to repair the damage she and the other warrior had done in their drunken games the night before.
Walking slowly towards the temple, Xena saw one of the Royal guards step from Eponin's hut and empty a bowl of water by the side of the warrior's home. Xena couldn't help smiling to herself. Trust Gabrielle to think of everything, she thought. The bard had been so busy getting me back on my feet again that it would be just like her to arrange for someone to look after Eponin. As the guard turned to re-enter the hut, Xena noticed the look of contentment on the woman's face. Hmmm, something's going on there, she wondered, but right now I have another little job to take care of.
Climbing the low stairs to the temple, Xena could see the gouge marks in the frame she had made the night before. They weren't quite as deep as she thought they might have been but it was bad enough she had used the temple as a practise target. Still wondering what had possessed them the night before, Xena carefully prized both knives from the stonework, trying not to do any more damage than she already had. Stepping inside she went in search of the priestess of the temple.
The sound of her footfall echoed lightly through the marble chamber of the main temple area. Fresh flowers had been spread over the altar and filled the room with their light scent. Through the glass skylight overhead, the afternoon sun lit the broad chamber, light reflecting off the white walls. Xena was almost halfway across the room when the priestess stepped from a small area at the back. She didn't appear to be the least bit surprised at Xena's visit to the temple. In fact, it was as though she had been waiting for the warrior to turn up.
"I came to apologise for the damage we did last night, Priestess," Xena said without any kind of preamble, "and to see if there was anything I could do to repair it."
"Everything has its reason, Xena," the priestess replied.
"Pardon?" Xena said, confused. Why does everyone who works in a temple have to speak as though they had shadows on their tongues, she grumbled to herself.
"Your games last night have brought you to me today," the other woman answered. "Come. Sit with me for a moment. I really would like to speak with you about something."
Xena followed the priestess into a small nook at the back of the room where they would have a little privacy should anyone come into the temple. Sitting next to her on the marble bench, Xena tried to get a feel for the other woman. The tall warrior rarely had time for temples and the people who worked there simply because she didn't have a lot of time for the gods and goddesses they represented. She had only ever met the priestess of this temple to Artemis on one other occasion but had not even spoken to her at the time. She was quite surprised when the priestess gently took both of Xena's hands in her own.
Looking deeply into Xena's sky blue eyes, the priestess began to speak in a low, clear voice. "You know that Artemis quite favours Princess Gabrielle, don't you?" she asked.
"I had sort of assumed that, now that Gabrielle is an Amazon," Xena replied, unsure just where the conversation was leading.
"Oh, it is more than just her being an Amazon that has gifted her with the Goddess' favour, but that is a discussion for another day, Xena. Tell me, how do you think the Princess is at the moment?" the other woman questioned.
"Fine," Xena answered quietly.
"Really? She seems rather unsettled lately. Perhaps she has something on her mind?"
Xena didn't really want to tell the priestess about what the bard had been thinking of late, but it appeared as though the woman knew all about it anyway. "She is just questioning a bit, about a decision she had to make," Xena explained briefly.
"Be honest with me, Xena. Does she trust herself?" the priestess asked, staring hard into the other woman's eyes as though she was reading Xena's soul and the answers she was giving.
The raven-haired woman looked down into her lap for a moment to break the disconcerting eye contact. "No, she doesn't trust herself anymore. She is afraid of making a decision that might mean one of us getting killed," she said.
"One of you?" the priestess asked gently.
"Well, me, actually," the tall woman answered.
"The trade delegation is due to arrive tomorrow. You're going to stand with her?"
What is it with all the questions, Xena thought to herself a little irritably. "Yes, I am going to stand with her."
"Perhaps you should reconsider that decision, Xena. After all, your position in our society is more an honorary one, and not one of adoption or Right of Caste," the priestess said, catching Xena's eyes again.
"She needs someone behind her," Xena stated firmly.
"She'll have Eponin with her and the Royal guards, if there is any trouble. She also has the authority to end a meeting early if she feels she needs more advice from Ephiny about something," the woman said, "And you do have to admit, Child, you are quite an intimidating figure sometimes. Those meetings can get quite heated at times and we don't want to give the delegation the wrong impression, now do we?"
"No," Xena replied a little suspiciously. She could feel the priestess setting her up for something but didn't know what it was yet.
"And there is the small matter of Princess Gabrielle having to trust her decisions. Can you accept that much?"
Shrugging one shoulder, she did have to admit the priestess was making some good points. She wasn't really part of the Amazon Nation in her own right, and the villagers due to arrive the next day might find it a bit intimidating to see her standing with Gabrielle in the meeting hall during the negotiations. And if Gabrielle was put into a position of having to make important choices again, she might just start to trust she could make the right ones.
The priestess could see Xena was willing to accept the ideas she was putting forward, but that was not her only reason for having this chat with the tall, dark-haired warrior. Whatever affected Xena would indirectly or even directly affect the Princess. If something had a negative influence on Princess Gabrielle, it might ultimately have a similar influence on the Amazon Nation itself. "Then there is you, warrior. How have you been feeling lately?" she asked.
Xena looked down into her lap again. She had tried talking to Gabrielle about her feelings, but she was so unsure of them now that she had been avoiding even thinking about them too much, preferring to throw herself into the more physical side of her nature. "I'm all right," she finally said.
The priestess's voice grew hard and cold. "You're lying, warrior."
Xena's head snapped up and she snatched her hands from the gentle grip of the priestess. Ice began to fill her blue eyes and she glared at the other woman seated next to her. "I. Am. Fine," she snarled angrily, spacing out each word.
The woman's expression softened and she slowly took Xena's hands again, grateful the warrior was willing to permit the contact. "Xena, my child. You were insane for some days and you really haven't had much of a chance to think about it or to understand it. I did say all things happen for a reason. Do you know the reasons why you stepped over the edge? Do you know what brought you back to us, back to the Princess?" she asked.
Xena really didn't know, beyond the fact she had somehow lost control of the emotions she had worked so hard to keep locked up inside, and she hadn't wanted to think about it now. All she knew was it had changed her in ways she may never understand. "No, I don't know why it happened or why I returned to sanity. Maybe I don't need to know," she replied.
"Then again, maybe you do. Perhaps to stop it happening again," the priestess offered.
The other woman had touched the one major doubt that had been haunting Xena from the moment she had realised what had occurred. "I don't want it to happen again, Priestess. Eponin said I had punished myself and set my own boundaries. Boundaries I wouldn't step over again but," her voice caught for a moment, "I can't be sure and I think I need to be certain," she admitted in a small voice.
Rising to her feet, the priestess gently pulled Xena with her. "Come with me, Child," she said. Still holding one of Xena's hands, the woman led her through the back of the temple and down a narrow marble stairway, lit with small candles along the walls. Reaching the next level down, she walked along a corridor with solid wood doors on both sides. Finally stopping at one, she opened the door and waved the tall warrior into the room beyond. "Sometimes, when an Amazon has been through an experience they don't understand, they might need to meditate on it for a while in one of these rooms. They are quiet and no one will disturb you here for as long as you stay," the priestess explained. "Why don't you use this room for a few candlemarks today and see how you feel. Maybe you can return again tomorrow after you finish with your training session as well."
Xena looked around the room. The walls were the same white marble as the rest of the temple, but they somehow felt older than the chamber above. On one wall was a small fireplace, burning brightly, with a pile of soft furs in front of it. In the centre of the small room was a low table, also made of white marble. Xena walked towards the fire, her eye caught by a collection of objects spread along the mantle. There were candles, crystals of various sorts, bright metal balls as well as several silver and gold coins from regions Xena could only guess at. Picking up one of the crystals, she turned towards the priestess, still standing at the doorway. "What are these for?" she asked, holding out the crystal in her hand.
"Sometimes, when a person meditates, they like to use an object to help focus their attention. Not all come easily to the techniques, you know," she explained. "I'll leave you for now, Xena. No one else will use this room until you feel you have learned what you need from yourself." The priestess closed the door.
Xena put the crystal on the table and stood wondering what she was supposed to do. She knew several meditation techniques, but she had used them more for things like preparing for battle or to help her ignore pain. She was not used to simply sitting and thinking. Folding her long body down on the furs, Xena muttered to herself, "Sometimes these temple types really have me wondering what they are up to."
Candlemarks later, Xena thumped down the stairs of the temple, feeling as though she had wasted the afternoon. Her time spent in the meditation room had been anything but successful. She had first tried simply sitting and letting her mind wander until it settled. Finding that wasn't working, she had used several of the focus objects with no further luck. She had tried breathing and counting techniques, but on every occasion, she found herself fidgeting and shifting in frustration. Eventually, she had given up, and reminding herself not to slam the door of the room behind her in anger, had left the temple still wondering what the priestess was thinking.
Striding across the compound, enjoying the touch of the cool evening air against her skin, she decided to visit Eponin and see if she was feeling any better after their night with the wine. Changing direction, she was soon walking up the path towards the other warrior's hut. Stopping for a moment outside the door, she took a deep breath to calm herself and then rattled the wooden hanging which acted as a door chime.
"Come in, Xena," Eponin's voice said from the other side of the wall.
"How did you know it was me?" Xena asked as she ducked through the door hanging and into the small front room of the warrior's hut. The tall warrior was used to identifying people from their footfall but didn't realise Eponin knew how to do it as well.
"No one walks in quite the same way as you," the other woman smiled. "Though from the sound of it, you're annoyed about something."
"It's nothing," she said, waving it off. "The priestess had me meditating in the temple. I won't say it is my preferred way of spending an afternoon," Xena answered, a slight grin on her face.
"Mine either, but it sometimes serves a purpose," Eponin said.
Xena simply grunted in response. The only purpose it had served for her was to show, again, just how unsettled her own mind still was. Glancing at the other woman, Xena could see she looked much improved over the description Gabrielle had given her that morning. A heavy scroll was spread out on the table, and the remains of a light meal was sitting to one side. There didn't appear to be any sign of a wine bottle, for which Xena found herself grateful. After last night, she doubted she would ever touch the Amazon wine again. "So what have you been doing since you came back from the dead this morning?" Xena asked as she sat down in a chair on the other side of the table.
"Once I knew for sure I wasn't going to die, I started reading a copy of the trade agreement between us and those villages on the western border. Just wanted to refresh my memory about the terms we had originally set up. Judging from the number of name marks, this agreement seems to just carry from cycle to cycle without too many changes. It's got me wondering why they suddenly want to re-negotiate the whole thing. The only change I can see them asking for this time is passage rights, and there wouldn't be a need to re-do everything if that is the case," Eponin said, tapping her fingertips against the parchment in front of her.
"Anything unusual in it?" Xena asked, turning her head slightly to see the name marks spread over the bottom of the scroll.
Eponin ran her finger down the length of scroll she had in front of her. "Nothing I can see, that's for sure. Limited protection from us, non-aggression from them, some trade between the Nation and the villages, an agreement on our part to accept any woman desiring to be an Amazon, within our own laws of course, and a promise from them about not allowing men to cross the boundary markers unless there is serious trouble coming and we need to be warned or they have been invited in some way to come onto our lands. A fairly standard agreement as far as I can make out."
"How long has this agreement been in force now?" Xena queried. She was just as confused as to why the villages would suddenly feel the need to negotiate it over again.
The other warrior carefully checked the date stamped at the top of the scroll. "Less than five cycles from the look of it. I wonder what is going on?" Eponin said, running her fingers through her hair in frustration.
Xena dropped her head for a moment before speaking again. "Eponin, would you do something for me, please?" she asked.
"Anything. Xena. You know that," the warrior replied.
"Would you stand with Gabrielle tomorrow at the meeting?" Xena flushed a little. She didn't like having to ask others for anything, but the points the priestess had made earlier in the day had hit home, and Xena could see the sense in what the woman had said. The warrior didnt like it, but she could see why it would be better if she wasn't there.
"You don't have to tell me, but can I ask why?" Eponin said quietly. She knew the dark-haired woman sitting across from her would have preferred to have been there in case of trouble, but if she wasn't then the reason must be good one.
"I'm not an Amazon, Eponin. I don't have any real right to be at the negotiations," Xena explained.
"But you're Gabrielle's partner. That gives you all the right you need as far as the Nation is concerned," the other woman answered. "Besides, if you are invited, whos to say you can't be there?"
"And the villagers might feel a little intimidated if I am hovering in the background," the tall woman added. "It's not like I have the best reputation around." Xena wondered if people would ever stop being afraid of her and the past she was still trying to amend.
"Well, there is that. Are you sure about this?" Eponin asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. She needs someone she can trust with her, and I'd rather it be you than anyone else," Xena replied.
Eponin blushed for a moment at the compliment the other woman had just given her. "Okay, Xena. I'll stand with her. Have you told Gabrielle yet?"
"I'll tell her later when I get back to the palace," Xena said, relieved that Eponin had agreed. She knew that Gabrielle trusted the warrior too. It had been Eponin who had given the bard her first lessons with the staff, showing a great deal of patience with the woman until she had caught the knack of using the fighting weapon. Xena also felt it best not to say anything about Gabrielle's self-doubts. She was assuming a day or so at the negotiating table and the bard would be her usual self again, at least in that respect anyway.
Changing the subject quickly, to take the uncomfortable focus off herself, Xena asked, "And who was that I saw coming out of your hut this afternoon?"
Eponin blushed again, a deeper shade of red than before. "Amaran. She's one of the Royal guards."
"Yes, I did see the uniform. Gabrielle sent her over, didn't she," Xena stated.
"Yep. Seems our princess was rather busy with a hungover warrior this morning," the other woman replied.
"Looked like Amaran was busy with one herself," Xena smiled in return. "Like her?"
A slow smile crossed Eponin face. "Maybe. A little, I suppose. I mean I have trained with her some and fought beside her once or twice. I'd just never thought of her in that way before," the warrior ended a little lamely.
Standing up to leave, Xena said, "Don't leave it too long, Eponin. Everyone deserves to be happy."
"Even you?" the other woman asked, lifting one eyebrow.
Xena thought for a moment before answering. "Yes," she said, drawing the word out. "Maybe even me."
"Enjoy your afternoon?" Gabrielle asked a little tiredly, as Xena stepped into their rooms.
"It was okay," she answered, looking at the whirlpool of parchments and scrolls the bard had spread across the bed and surrounded herself with. Some were so old the edges were starting to disintegrate into powder, and Xena could see the dust floating through the candlelight. Taking the sword and sheath from her back and hanging it on the bedhead, Xena slid in behind the other woman, wrapping her strong arms around Gabrielle's body. "Looks like you've been busy," she said, briefly reading the parchment Gabrielle had in her hand over the blonde's shoulder.
"Just trying to make sense of the agreements the Amazons have made with the villagers. Did you know they only starting trading five cycles back?" the bard explained, holding up another scroll for Xena to see.
"Ummm hmmm. Saw a copy over at Eponin's," Xena replied.
"So that's where you spent the afternoon," Gabrielle said, shuffling through several of the scrolls looking for something.
The warrior tightened her arms around the other woman a little to get her attention. "Well, no. I just stopped in for a visit on my way back."
"Back from where?" Gabrielle asked, turning in Xena arms until she was sitting sideways, leaning against her chest, the bard's legs over the other woman's powerful thighs. As usual, Gabrielle was listening for her favourite sound of all, the strong even beat of Xena's heart.
"The temple," Xena replied softly, not letting herself look into the bard's sea-green eyes.
Gabrielle giggled quietly. "I see the priestess had you repairing all those knife marks you and Eponin made last night."
"She didn't seem to care about them, Gabrielle. She was more interested in whether or not I was going to stand with you tomorrow at the meeting," the warrior said.
"You are going to stand with me, aren't you?" the other woman asked, sounding worried.
"No," Xena replied, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.
Gabrielle twisted around further until she could look into Xena's eyes to try to make sense of what the warrior was saying. "But I need you there, Xena. To help me," the bard paused for a moment, "to help me make the right decisions for the Amazon Nation."
"Gabrielle, you've negotiated trade agreements before. You don't need me there for this one. Besides, I asked Eponin to stand with you instead. She is an accepted member of the Nation. I'm not. When you get down to it, I have no right to be there anyway," Xena said.
"But I want you there," Gabrielle said loudly, thumping Xena's shoulder lightly with one fist. "I want you there behind me, you're my partner, my lover."
"Who would be scaring half the delegation spitless every time I looked sideways at them. Not to mention the anger and suspicion the other half would be feeling as they remember the things I did in the past. Everyone would be too terrified to make a strong statement, afraid I might take their heads off or something. And you know how they would be later if that happens. The villagers will think they somehow got the short end of the deal. It'll only make for resentments and misunderstandings further down the track, and no one here needs that," Xena said reasonably.
"But you wouldn't have to wear your weapons and you aren't even dressed in your leathers. You look like most of the other Amazons here. Maybe that would be enough to settle them down. Please, Xena. I need you there tomorrow," Gabrielle said quietly, tears filling her eyes.
Xena felt as though her heart was being slowly crushed, but she had already made her decision. Now she needed to stick to it. Hardening her expression, she said, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I can't be there. Not this time. I promise, I'll make it up to you somehow."
Gabrielle rolled out of Xena's arms and climbed off the bed. Quickly crossing the room, she entered the bathing area, closing the door behind her with a thump. The sound of the bolt being slammed home echoed dully through the warrior's mind. Xena's eyes clouded over with hurt as she heard the sobbing coming through the closed door.
Standing angrily, the warrior grabbed her sword from the bedhead and stalked out of the room, not even bothering to sling the weapon across her back before leaving. The guard outside shoved herself hard against the wall behind to stay out of Xena's hurried way. She couldn't be sure but she thought she saw a tear rolling down the cheek of the Warrior Princess as she had passed.
Gabrielle opened the door of the bathing room carefully, peering through the crack as she did so. She had heard the door to their rooms slam shut violently a candlemark earlier as the warrior had left, but a part of her wished Xena had returned quietly and was waiting there for her to come out again. The bard knew she had hurt the other woman, probably setting off her fiery temper as well, because that was how she felt herself every time Xena would stalk out of an argument in anger. But the room was empty and Xena's sword was gone from its place on the bedhead. Knowing Xena, she has probably gone somewhere to work off her mood, Gabrielle thought. At least, that was what she was hoping.
"By the mother of Zeus," Gabrielle cursed mildly. "I really messed that up, didn't I, Artemis." Ever since that morning in the compound, Gabrielle had found herself speaking to the goddess as though she could really hear the bard. Having no one else around with whom she felt she could discuss her questions and doubts, it was comforting to feel as though there was someone listening. The bard knew it was silly. The goddess was not going to concern herself with the problems of one insignificant mortal, but it did ease her mind a little to speak aloud to her. If the blonde-haired woman had known just how well favoured she was by Artemis, and how hard she listened when Gabrielle spoke, the bard might have thought twice.
Sitting on the side of the bed, she picked up one of the parchments she had been examining earlier but soon tossed it aside when she found herself reading the same line over and over. Pacing back and forth through the length of the room, she tried to settle herself and think logically. "I've made wrong decisions in the past. Why is this one eating at me so much?" she asked herself. The image of Xena, dead in the compound, floated up into her mind's eye again. "Because that decision almost cost Xena her life, and I was the one who nearly killed her, that's why." Gabrielle found herself replaying every moment of that early dawn morning, wondering if there was any other way she could have thought to stop the warrior and her madness. Finding no satisfactory answers, she then started to think through every decision she had ever made which had put her, and especially Xena, into danger.
"There was that time with the Titans, to start with. Both of us were almost killed then. Hmmm, when we met the Horde. Mind you, Xena was almost ready to kill me herself once she knew I was outside the walls of the fort. Oh, and Thessaly. How could I forget Thessaly. Xena was ready to die of grief if I hadn't come back," the bard muttered as she ticked off each time they had been in danger or when Xena had come close to dying from some decision she had made. She slumped down into a chair. "Yes, but this time it was me firing that arrow at her and not some enemy." Moving to clear up the scrolls and parchments spread over the bed, she said to herself, "Xena was right. I don't trust myself anymore. And I have a negotiation to look after tomorrow." Climbing between the covers and staring at the ceiling, she wondered if Xena would return that night.
Xena had set herself a thumping pace as she thudded through the palace, across the compound, past the training grounds and into the forest beyond. She didn't stop until her heartbeat was thundering in her ears and she was having trouble sucking enough air into her labouring lungs. Whether it was emotion or the pace of her walk that made breathing difficult, she no longer cared. Finding herself in a tiny clearing, she flicked the sheath from her sword and began to work through a series of complicated and difficult training patterns. She wanted something very physical to take her mind away from her feelings and the reactions they were having on her body. Using the trees as targets, she gouged huge chips from their trucks until the floor of the little clearing was littered with them. Only when she felt she had worked off the worst of her temper did she slow down and allow herself to relax a little.
Moving through some slow stretches to permit her overworked muscles to cool without cramping, she heard one of the Amazon bird calls floating on the night breeze. Someone was close by and letting her know it was a friend. Digging the point of her sword into the ground, she briefly clasped her hands over her head. If whoever was there was close enough to see her working out then they were close enough to see her signal in reply to the call. A heartbeat later, she spotted a flash of colour in the treetops just before a warrior jumped from the branches. Even in the moonlight, Xena could see the blue uniform of a Royal guard as the woman approached her.
The warrior pulled Xena's sword from the ground and handed it back to her, hilt first. "I saw you training and thought you might like a partner for a while," the woman said. "I don't often get a chance to work out with someone."
"Why not?" she asked, quizzically. Xena had recognised the guard from the moment she had hit the ground as Amaran, the guard who had taken care of Eponin earlier in the day.
"I usually do the dawn to nooning shift with the Royal guard, and then I take care of my daughter in the afternoons. The only time I can really train is at night, so I most often end up training alone," the guard explained.
Xena looked the woman over as she felt her body's responses, wondering if she was up to it. She was a little tired, but this was just a sparing session and not something more deadly. Amaran was taller than most of the other Amazons Xena had met, broader across the shoulders and more muscular. In others words, a typical Royal guard. Her long brown hair was tied back in a neat braid, her brown eyes flashing darkly in the moonlight. Xena whirled her blade by the side of her head and dropped into a fighting stance. The other woman quickly drew her own weapon and mimicked the movements. Within moments, they were sparring back and forth as though they had trained together for moons.
A candlemark later, Amaran jumped back and lowered her sword to her side. She was breathing heavily and covered with sweat but a wide, happy grin split her face. "The others had said you were the best they had ever seen. I don't doubt it now," she gasped, as she tried to bring her breathing back under control again. "Do you often train at night, Xena?" she asked, hoping she could spar with the taller warrior again.
"No. I just needed to get my mind off something," Xena replied, picking up her sheath and starting the long walk back to the palace.
Misunderstanding the meaning behind the dark-haired woman's statement, Amaran said, "Yea, a lot of the women are tense tonight. What with that delegation from the western border due to arrive tomorrow, and not one of us understanding why they are demanding passage rights now, especially after the agreement being in force for so long."
Xena let her mind think about the problem for a moment and she found herself making a tenuous connection almost as though part of her mind had been waiting for her to pay attention to it. "Amaran, is the library still open?" she asked suddenly.
"Not at this time of night. But, as a Royal guard," the other woman said, reaching into her belt pouch and pulling out a ring with several keys on it, "I just happen to have a key. What do you want in the library, anyway?"
"A map," Xena replied, taking off in a fast run back to the village, Amaran trailing along behind her.
At the centre worktable in the middle of the library, Xena and Amaran had spread out the largest and most detailed map of the Amazon hunting grounds and surrounding countryside they could find. In the flickering candlelight, Xena was carefully tracing the western border region, seeing if her theory stood up to the reality of the landscape.
"I don't understand, Xena. What are you looking for?" the Royal guard asked.
Pointing to each feature as she spoke, Xena tried to explain the idea that had floated out of her sub-conscious mind. "Here are the five villages," she said, tapping each one. "Here is the mountain pass lookout and the ravine next to it." Running her finger along the ravine marked on the map, she traced it down until it met with the river. "And here is the river that cuts through the hunting grounds." Still following the river, her finger crossed the boundary of the western border and keep going. "And here is where the river passes by the last village. It is the only way across that part of the border. All the rest of that section, well past the first village, is nothing but cliffs and crags. You couldn't take a mountain goat through there, let alone a mob of sheep. Eponin told me the delegation is asking for passage rights to cut a couple of days travel in their journey from here," tapping the villages marked on the western border, "to here," she said dropping her finger squarely onto the market town a seven-day from the southern border where they would sell their beasts. "But the only village that would benefit from passage rights is this one" she explained, pointing to the little village on the river. "Do you have a map showing just this section of river, from the border to the mountain pass lookout?" Xena asked.
Amaran carefully sorted through the maps until she found the one she was looking for. Spreading it over the top of the main map, she watched as Xena quickly started tracing over it.
"I thought as much," the warrior said. "Amaran, can you take both these maps and explain to Eponin what I just told you?" she asked.
"Sure, but I'm not certain I understand myself," she admitted.
"Doesnt matter. Eponin will understand it. Tell her I am going to have a look at something just outside the hunting grounds," Xena explained quickly, turning towards the door. Turning back for a moment, the warrior said, "Oh, and if Gabrielle asks, tell her not to worry, okay?"
"Okay. When will you be back?" The Royal guard inquired quietly. "She bound to ask, you know."
"She won't, but tell her sometime tomorrow afternoon," Xena replied, just as she stepped through the door.
Gathering up the maps and locking the door of the library behind her, Amaran couldn't help mumbling to herself, "Won't ask indeed. That would be the first thing I would want to know. Maybe the Princess knows something about that warrior woman the rest of us don't."
Gabrielle stared at the two maps spread over most of Jadax's body as she lay stretched out flat on the bed. The little scout had grumbled about being nothing more than a piece of furniture now, but it was the only place where everyone, the forest scout included, could see the maps and listen to the information Eponin was trying to explain.
"I know I am not usually this slow but explain it to me again, Eponin," Gabrielle said. The warrior had already made several attempts to explain the maps to the bard and Amaran had tried as well, using exactly the same words as Xena had the night before, but the confusion of lines, marks, trails, paths, watering places and all the other details on the maps were confusing her eye and making her lose track of what Xena had seen on them the night before. Gabrielle had never seen maps this intricately drawn before. To her eye they looked more like works of art and not a way of representing the landscape of the hunting grounds and the surrounding countryside.
"There are five villages along here," Eponin started to say, pointing to the five marks that represented them.
Jadax rumpled the map from underneath and interrupted. "Eponin, there are just too many details on these maps for Gabrielle to understand them. She has never walked the ground, step by step, the way the rest of us have and doesn't know what is really there," she said. "How about letting me try it. I do understand what is supposed to be there. Most of that area is my patrol circuit anyway."
"Go ahead. I never was very good at explaining things with words. Guess I'll never make a bard," Eponin replied, grinning cheekily at Gabrielle standing next to her. "Your directions to that cavern were spot on. Would never have found it otherwise."
Jadax smiled at the compliment and then thought for a moment before starting to explain why the maps were so important. "The only village to gain any benefit from having passage rights along that river would be the one right next to it. Only problem is, in several places along the river, especially on this side of the border, the walls of the river valley come almost to the waters edge. Someone on foot might be able to move along the banks to cross over into the hunting grounds but there is no way known a mob of mindless sheep could do the same trip. They'd lose more beasts to the water than they have ever lost to the canyons and ravines going the way they usually do."
Suddenly it made sense to the bard. She grinned with understanding. Another thought hit her and set her to frowning again. "If they can't get sheep up the river by moving along the banks, why is any village demanding passage rights?" she asked no one in particular.
"I think that is what Xena has gone to find out," Amaran said quietly from her position behind everyone else.
Xena crouched at the top of the last long, low hill before dropping down to the flood plains. She had crossed the border two candlemarks before dawn at the place where the southern and western boundaries of the Amazon hunting grounds met. The markers had been in plain sight and she had noted them as she had run passed. After seeing the map, she knew the southern route was slightly longer than cutting straight across the western border at least in terms of physical distance, but if she had gone that way, she would still be in the crags now trying to find a way down again. By coming the way she had, she avoided a climb down the cliffs on the other side of the western border.
The warrior breathed deeply as she methodically chewed her way through a scant breakfast of jerked deer meat and mouthfuls of water from the waterbag she had taken from the mess before she had set out. Xena would have preferred to have ridden Argo, but the rugged and sometimes rocky terrain would make any trip for the mare rough going, and she hadn't wanted to risk her horse in the darkness.
In the distance she could just make out the glinting of the river as the first light of dawn reflected off its rippling surface. Visually mapping her route, she estimated it would be another two candlemarks before she reached the point on the river she wanted to see, a point about halfway between the last village she had seen on the map and the boundary of the western border. Tucking the last of the jerky into the pouch at her waist and slinging the waterbag across her back, Xena began the run to the river, using the same moderate but ground eating pace she had used all through the night.
Approaching the river, she could hear the rush of its waters over the sound of her boots thudding onto the ground and the slap of the waterbag against her back. Coming over the bank, she could see the river was quite deep there, but further down it flowed much faster as it ran over a shallow bed of rocks and boulders. Changing direction to walk along the bank, Xena headed for the shallow section of water, carefully moving from boulder to boulder.
Squatting down near the shallow ford, she tossed several handfuls of cool water over her sweating face and arms. Not bothering with the waterbag on her back, she took a long drink before scanning the banks on both sides of the river carefully. It was only a matter of heartbeats before she spotted what she knew would be there. A dozen paces down Xena saw the three-sided box shape of one of the gold sluices Jadax had described to her shortly after she had returned to her senses. Walking down to it, she dragged it from its place between the rocks so she could have a closer look at it.
Xena found the sluice coming apart in her hands as she moved it up onto the drier bank. Between poor construction and moons of sitting in the fast running water, sections of the box were starting to disintegrate. The warrior brushed her fingers through the fine grit and rubble collected in the steps at the bottom but found nothing there other than more grit and dirt. There was no sign of any gold dust or tiny nuggets. Dropping the saturated wood to the ground, she slowly walked along the bank in the direction of the village, looking for more of the boxes.
She had travelled almost a thousand paces down the river, and every few steps she would find another box wedged between the rocks in the water. All seemed to have been abandoned, and none of those she examined had a single flake of gold in them. Rounding a sharp bend, she came across the first sign of genuine mining. Several large sections of the river bank, on both sides, had been dug out and the earth washed in the waters of the river. Walking around the hills of discarded dirt, she saw that this area too had been left, probably because there was no gold to be found in the rich loam of the flood plains.
Deciding she had seen enough there, the tall warrior retraced her steps to follow the river back across the plains. Xena now wanted to know just how far up the river the villagers had been setting their boxes and whether they had been mining the banks closer to the Amazon hunting grounds. Or worst still, in the hunting grounds themselves.
"Remember the first time you help me dress in this?" Gabrielle asked, holding her arms up so Eponin could slide the bodice of her ceremonial costume comfortably over her breasts.
"I remember a young, chatty girl who had absolutely no idea what she had let herself in for," the warrior replied, laughing lightly. "Turn around so I can lace you in, Gabrielle."
Turning her back to the warrior. "Oh gods, I hope I have grown up a little since then," the bard said, blushing redly at the thought of just how young, and hopelessly inexperienced, she must have appeared to these competent Amazon warriors.
"I think you have grown up a lot, Gabrielle, though you still view the world through such fresh eyes, even after everything you have seen. Takes a real talent, that," Eponin remarked.
"Stop it, Eponin, please. I'll be blushing all through the meetings and the villagers will wonder what on earth is wrong with me," Gabrielle said.
"What? You don't think you have a gift for life?" the warrior questioned as she rose from her knees.
"Well yes. I guess I just don't like to be told about it, I suppose. I never was one for accepting compliments gracefully. Just ask Xena what I am like," the bard replied, a little shyly.
A brief knock at the door to Gabrielle and Xena's room was quickly followed by the appearance of Amaran, once the bard had given permission for the guard to enter. "Delegation is here, Princess," the Royal guard said.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Now she knew exactly how Xena felt about the adoration of the younger women in the village. No matter how she tried, the bard simply couldn't get the guard to call her anything else other than princess.
"It looks better than it did last cycle. Almost half of them are women this time," Amaran explained. "Though one of the men " her voice trailed off uncertainly.
"Yes. One of the men, what?" Gabrielle asked. She had no patience for games right now. There was a feeling in the pit of her stomach which had made eating her nooning meal impossible. The bard kept telling herself she was just a little nervous and she would settle down once the greeting and welcoming ceremony was over. Gabrielle was trying to ignore the fact her soul was still chasing itself into ever-tightening spirals over her fears about making the correct decisions for the Amazon Nation.
"To put it bluntly, Princess, he is even bigger than Kaliope," Amaran explained.
"Hera's tits! He must be huge," Eponin exclaimed, dropping the leather gauntlet she was about to slide onto Gabrielle's arm.
"Did you get a good look at him, Amaran?" Gabrielle asked nervously. Really massive men always made the bard a little nervous simply because she found them difficult to knock down with her staff. Any situation where she couldn't defend herself properly made her a little edgy, but she had learned that from Xena. She tried to relax again. Aside from the guards around Ephiny and Jadax, nearly every other Royal guard in the village would be in the meeting hall watching after her safety. She still wished Xena could be there, though.
"No. I just caught a glimpse of the party as they were escorted in. They are being billeted over in the guest huts for the duration of the negotiations," the guard answered.
"See if you can organise, um, guides for all the members of the delegation, and two for the big man. Biggest we've got, they'll probably end up looking like children standing next to him though," Eponin ordered.
The Royal guard gave Eponin a shy smile before nodding. She quickly left the room to set up a roster of guards for the villagers.
"I wonder if he is related to her in any way," the warrior thought aloud as she picked up the gauntlet to continue helping Gabrielle prepare for the meeting ahead.
Gabrielle stood on the low platform at one end of the meeting hall, trying to relax and pay attention to the welcoming ceremony. Eponin was right on her left shoulder, close enough that the bard could hear every squeak of her leather armour. Slightly behind her and to the right was Amaran. The woman had volunteered as Gabrielle's personal bodyguard for the duration of the meetings, even though the blonde-haired storyteller knew she had already been on duty since before dawn that morning. The guard would be with her every minute of every day until the villagers left, including sleeping in her quarters at night, at least until Xena returned from wherever she had gone. Gabrielle wasn't sure she liked that idea very much but could see the sense in it, especially after getting her first good look at the big man she had been told about.
He was every bit as massive as Amaran had told them. With shoulders as wide as he had, he'd been forced to turn sideways and bend his knees to even move through the doorway of the meeting hall. Gabrielle felt sure, if he had raised his arm, Xena could have comfortably walked under it without touching him in any way. The bard found herself smiling under her mask at the idea of asking directions from him. He would probably just pick up the plough, horse and all to point the way, she thought. Looking him over carefully, the resemblance between the man and Kaliope was striking. They have to be related, perhaps brother and sister, she mused.
Glancing over the other members of the delegation, she saw almost half were women, but every one of them had such a sadness in their eyes that Gabrielle was left wondering what had happened to them. Each village had sent several representatives to the meeting. The two villages closest to the Amazons southern border had sent only women for some reason, though the big man was the leader of the entire group. He finally stepped forward and Gabrielle learned his name, Drayton. The bard wished Xena was with her because there was something about this group of people she was having trouble picking up on. She expected a little nervousness from them but every face she looked at was closed, as though there was something to hide. If the warrior woman was there, she would have been able to read the group a lot more successfully than the bard was doing.
Eventually, the welcoming ceremony drew to a close. A break had been scheduled so the Queen's platform could be removed and tables and chairs set up for the meetings ahead. Gabrielle stepped from the platform and quietly left by one of the side entrances, Amaran a bare pace and a half behind her every step of the way.
"I think I'd like to go back to my room, Amaran, until the preliminary meeting starts. If that is okay?" Gabrielle said.
The Royal guard simply nodded, her eyes never stopping their movement around the compound for a moment.
Continued - Part 3