"Think so?" she said quietly. "Wouldnt it be nice if that were true. If we could just pick and choose our memories. I wish mine worked that way."
Keola started to pace again.
"There is one last thing Id like to forget," she said. "But the fates have played one of their jokes on me and there will be no forgetting."
Lila made a questioning face as Keolas eyes again became clouded by memories.
"During the battle," she continued, "we broke the Carthaginian line. They were running away in confusion and we were slaughtering them without mercy, foxes loose among the hens, when a brave office rallied some of them and counterattacked. When I turned from the man I had just killed and saw them coming I recognized the officer leading them immediately. It was the 1st Lt. from Vonitsa." Keola shook her head. "You know, I dont know his name, and he never asked mine. We hardly said a word to each other the whole time we were together. He was the officer and I was the whore. Nothing else needed to be said."
Keola took a harsh gulp of air and her muscles tensed with emotion, her hands clenching into fists.
"But I wasnt a whore anymore. I was a warrior on a battlefield and the greatest enemy of my life was there before me. It was it was incredible, Lila. Ive never felt anything like it. I didnt even know such feeling existed. I was beyond rage. The world seemed to have a red tinge to it. Red like blood. I cant remember thinking anything. All I could do was desire. And I knew what I desired. More than anything, at any cost, I desired that mans life. I didnt just want to kill him. I wanted to cut his heart out and take a bite out of it. I wanted to stuff it down his throat as it still beat in my hand."
Lila shuddered to see the expression on Keolas face.
"Everything, everyone, disappeared but him. I ran straight at him as he waved for his men to follow. We collided shield to shield and I almost knocked him down. But he was strong and tough and came right back at me. I attacked him like a wild animal. I watched his eyes as we fought. At first they were the just the eyes of any warrior, concentrating on survival. But suddenly they went wide," a tiny awful smirk crossed the Amazons face, "and I knew he finally recognized me, his runaway whore. But then his eyes went narrow and black. He understood what had really happened in Vonitsa. How I had used him. Those eyes, they filled with the most violent hatred." The Scout swallowed. "Mine must have looked like that. We both were raging animals then, not caring if we lived or died, as long as we destroyed the other. But I had more hate, Lila. More desire to kill. I used a move only a suicidal fool would use but I made it work. I put my blade through his ribs to the heart. I took his life and heard his last breath escape his lungs. Then I " Keola clinched her jaw shut and her chin quivered as her eyes shifted to the ground as if she were viewing the whole bloody scene again.
Lila found herself so overwrought she had to force herself to take a breath. After a moment that seemed as eternity she reached out and touched the Amazons arm.
"Keola?" she whispered.
The Scout turned her face to Lila, her brown eyes wide and soft, filled with pain and confusion and horror.
"A few moments later," the Amazon said hoarsely, "the arrow went through my leg. The Warleader and the Princess risked their lives to save me. And a brave Amazon died helping me. Me," Keola put her hand on her stomach, "the woman who had just killed the father of her baby."
Keolas face flushed crimson with emotions she could no longer hold back. She began to pant for air.
"Maybe losing my leg is my punishment, Lila," she said. "Maybe the baby is punishing me for what I did." She put her hands over her face and trembled from head to foot. "Oh Lila," she moaned, "how can I ever tell this child the truth of its life? How can I hold it in my arms without being horrified. I I dont know what I should do. I dont know what to do."
Lila jumped up and threw her arms around Keola, trying desperately to find some way to help her carry the burden crushing her heart. She held the trembling Amazon a long time, till the tremors finally ceased.
"Keola," she whispered, easing her hug to look her friend in the face, "you cant be sure the Lt. was the father. Maybe it was the other officer. Youll never know for certain." Lilas eyes narrowed. "Besides, your baby didnt hurt you, whoever the father is. I dont believe that. You musnt believe it either. Whatever tricks the fates have played your baby didnt hurt you."
Keolas shoulders slumped. She pulled out of Lilas arms and collapsed wearily on the bench, leaning back with her head against the plank wall. She closed her eyes and sighed raggedly.
"I know," she said with sad resignation, "I know. But how do you tell your child you dont know if you killed its father, because youre not even sure who the father is. Most of the Carthaginian officers were killed in the battle. My baby is never going to know where it comes from, or why it looks the way it looks. Half its life will be a blank. I know how that feels. I dont know anything about the lives of my parents. Thats not what I wanted for my children."
The Amazon rubbed her eyes with her fists and let out a sad breath. Lila sat down and there was a long silence as each of them was lost in thought. Finally Lila spoke without looking at Keola.
"Theres a woman," she began in a small, earnest voice, "in the village. A woman everyone knows but no one speaks of. She could " Lila took a quick breath, "she could help with this. Id go with you, be with you every moment. And when it was over I would forget everything you just told me. It would never be spoken of again. I swear it on my life. You could let all these memories disappear in the darkness and leave them there forever."
The Amazon said nothing. She stared into space, motionless as a statue. The seconds became minutes. Lila was just as still and silent. Finally Keola stirred a bit and her eyes shifted to Lila. She took a breath and blew it out.
"Im a warrior," she said barely above a whisper. "Ive killed, and if I have to Ill kill again. But I dont like it, Lila. I dont like it." She paused and slowly shook her head. "I dont have to kill this baby. I just have to be strong and do whats right. And thats what Im going to do. Im going to give this child its life and be the mother I should be. Im going to live up to the expectations I have for myself. The way the Queen and the Warleader and the Princess do."
Keola blinked and swallowed.
"At least I have to try. I couldnt live with myself if I didnt try."
Lila put her hand over Keolas and squeezed and nodded once.
For a week there was a strange vibration in the air. Herodotus and Hecuba both felt it. Something in the eyes, demeanor, of Lila and Keola that was different. Usually the two friends were laughing or whispering about something or other when they were together, smiling easily and often. Now they both seemed so subdued.
"What do you think?" Hecuba asked after Lila and Keola disappeared from the kitchen with plates and cups for the table.
"Dont know," he said as he picked up a steaming plate of roast lamb. "Maybe they had a fight. You know how you women are. Always fighting, making up, fighting. Simple tranquillity doesnt seem to be part of your nature."
Hecuba snorted through her nose.
"As if you know anything about a womans nature. Sheep chickens, mules, maybe. Women never."
Herodotus eyes narrowed a bit and his face got that granite look.
"I believe, wife," he rumbled, "after all these years surrounded by females I have learned something about the nature of women."
"I cant say what you think youve learned," Hecuba said quietly in her soft voice, "but what you should have learned is the less you speak the more intelligent youll sound on the subject of women."
With that the old woman swept out of the kitchen, a bowl of fruit in each hand. Herodotus swallowed hard to hold back the laugh that threatened to escape his throat. He did not want to give Hecuba the satisfaction. The he followed his wife a chastened man.
Dinner was very quiet. Keola and Lila did not utter a word. Herodotus notice that his daughter kept glancing at the Amazon with the most serious expression, as if she were about to ask her a question but somehow could not. The old farmer looked at his wife but she was silently watching Keola and Lila, a perplexed, worried look in her eyes.
Finally, as the last of the food was being eaten and Hecuba was about to get up and start gathering plates Keola took a deep breath and cleared her throat. Everyone stopped and looked at the Amazon. She straightened and threw her shoulders back and held her head high. Her jaw was firmly set and her eyes flashed an iron determination as she looked at Herodotus and Hecubas questioning faces.
"You two have been so kind to me," she began, voice steady and controlled. "I think its time I told you something about myself. Something you should know. Things have happened that "
Keola hesitated when she felt Lilas hand squeezing hers hard under the table.
"Mom, daddy," Lila interrupted. "Somethings happened to Keola thats very hard for her to talk about. I dont think she needs to go through it again. Ill just tell you myself," she looked at the Amazon, "if thats all right with you?"
Keola started to speak, then she let out a little sigh and nodded once at her friend.
Lila told the story simply and swiftly, without embellishment or dwelling on unnecessary details. Herodotus watched Keola carefully the entire time, his face hard and still as stone. She looked back unblinking, her expression as controlled and emotionless as his. When the farm girl finished there was a long moment of silence. Then the old farmer turned to his wife and put his hand over hers where it rested on the table.
"It will be wonderful to have a baby in the house again wont it, Hecuba?" he said.
"Oh yes, husband," she answered, putting her other hand over his, "it will be wonderful."
She looked at Keola, eyes glistening with water and compassion.
"To hold a baby in your arms is one of lifes great joys," she said quietly. "Ive missed it very much."
Herodotus took in a sudden breath and let it out.
"So," he said, thinking out loud, his eyes narrow and concentrated, "we need to start getting organized. I hate doing things at the last moment. Well need to find out what things we still have from when Lila and Gabrielle were babies and what things well need. Ill start making an inventory."
His eyes shifted to Hecuba.
"Didnt we put the crib and such in the loft of the barn or was it somewhere else? I cant remember now."
The old woman squeezed her husbands hand but her soft gray eyes never left Keola.
"Yes, theyre in the loft," she said, "I remember."
"Of course," Herodotus huffed absently," must be getting old. I remember now too. A crib, some toys, that rocking horse I made Gabrielle." The old man smiled. "Did she ever hate that horse. Fell off the first time she tried it and would scream bloody murder every time I suggested she try again."
Herodotus chuckled lightly to himself at the memory. Suddenly his attention fixed on the Amazon, who had been watching him with a mixture of wonder and affection and confusion and uncertainty and too many other emotions to name.
"A boy, Keola!" he thundered. "We need a boy in this house! I want you to concentrate on producing a boy. Never underestimate the power of your own will, Amazon. If you apply yourself you can do it."
Lila and Hecuba shared a sly, knowing grin at this outburst. Keola looked stunned, but after a moment the mans brown eyes softened and for an instant Keola could see that deeply caring, compassionate face she saw so often on her Queen.
"But a girl will be all right," he said, looking deep into the Amazons eyes. "A healthy, happy girl. As strong, honorable and beautiful as her mother. She will be welcome in this house too."
Keola looked away and took a deep breath. It trembled as it came out. Hecuba stood up and started gathering plates.
"Sweet bread and strawberry jam for dessert," she said.
When she got close to the Amazon she gently rubbed her arm.
"Keola gets two portions. We have to start feeding our little one."
The Amazon turned her head and sniffed and rubbed her eye because something was in it.
The weather turned colder. A few snow squalls blew over the Potadia valley from the restless Aegean, whitening the ground. Hecuba brought out the extra quilts and spread them on the beds. Lila loved snuggling under her heavy comforter in the chill bedroom. She always slept best in the winter. Her only regret was that Philip was not snuggling with her. She thought about inviting Keola to share her bed. Some of her fondest memories of her sister were the long winter nights spent huddled under the quilts together as Gabrielle spun stories of courage and heroes and romance she had read in her beloved scrolls or that she just pulled out from the fancy of her vivid imagination. But Lila had seen Keola get up restless and disturbed too many times in the middle of the night since the Amazons arrival. And after telling her that she was pregnant the nights seemed worse. Sometimes the Scout left and disappeared into the darkness, only to return just before dawn to slip back into bed as if she had been there all night. One evening the farm girl followed and watched as Keola went into the barn and the light of a torch flared inside. Creeping as silently as she could, Lila approached the partially open door and prepared to peek inside. As her eyes reached the edge of the door two strong arms suddenly encircled her.
"Gotcha!" Keola hissed playfully in her ear.
Lilas whole body jerked violently and her heart nearly escaped her mouth after jumping up her throat. She whirled and punched the Amazon hard in the shoulder.
"Dont do that!!" she yelped.
Keola grimaced and rubbed her shoulder.
"You know that really hurt," she whined.
"Well, what did you expect?" Lila said indignantly. "You cant go sneaking up on people like that and not get a reaction. I almost wet my dress, Keola."
"You were sneaking up on me," the Amazon protested.
"Thats different," Lila huffed.
"Yes different," the farm girl said. "Youre a professional sneaker upper and Im not."
"Right." Keola said derisively, but she could not stop the smile that stole across her face. "That makes lots of sense. Sometimes I wonder about you."
Lila rubbed Keolas shoulder.
"I didnt mean to be so rough," she said.
"Lila please," the Amazon laughed. "You couldnt hurt me if you hit me in the head with a club for a week." Her smile faded a little. "Im sorry if I scared you too much."
Lila took a breath and her face became very serious as her eyes searched Keolas.
"Why are you out here?" she asked. "Its the middle of the night. You should be getting some sleep."
The Amazon shrugged.
"I wasnt sleepy," she said. "I thought Id give Luka a good rub down. Maybe go for a ride. Its a beautiful night."
Lila sighed and looked at her friend for a long moment with sad eyes.
"Is it that hard to sleep, Keola?" she said finally. "Tell me whats wrong. Maybe theres something we can do together."
The Scout shook her head.
"Theres nothing anyone can do. Its my problem. Ill deal with it. Its just that," she blew some air out between her teeth. "Well, the dreams sometimes are hard too " she shook her head and swallowed. "Ill deal with it, Lila. Ill deal with it."
The Scout put a hand on Lilas shoulder.
"You should go back and get some sleep yourself."
Lila reached out and put her hand behind Keolas neck and pulled her close and silently held her for a very long time.
Philip returned on Solstice eve. The next day everyone piled into Herodotus wagon and went into Potadia for the celebration. They returned late, Keola driving because the old farmer was pleasantly drunk and nestled in Hecubas arms in the back of the wagon, along with Lila and Philip, who were huddled under a thick blanket, laughing and whispering and sharing pull from a skin of strawberry brandy Philip had bought in the village. As they pulled up in front of the house the Amazon jumped down and helped Hecuba with her husband. As he collapsed onto his bed he pulled his wife down with him and started sloppily kissing her neck and ear. Hecuba laughed in a way Keola had never heard from her. A laugh of real happiness. She reddened at intruding on this moment. She backed out of the room but as she reached the door Hecuba looked over at her.
"Thank you, Keola. Thank you for everything you did tonight," she said through a giggle as Herodotus ran his tongue in her ear.
"Anytime," the Amazon replied while quickly slipping out and closing the door. She took a quick breath and blew it out while smiling to herself remembering the look on Hecubas face. Be happy tonight old woman, be happy.
Keola looked up across the living area to see Philip carrying Lila into their bedroom. She was in front of him, legs wrapped around his waist, arms around his neck, as they rubbed noses. She looked over his shoulder.
"Could you stay out here tonight," she mouthed silently.
Keola scowled. Lila scowled back. They both grinned. "Thank you," Lila mouthed as she closed the door behind Philip.
At first light Keola was in the barn mucking out the stables. She swept the manure into a pile in the center of the barn then climbed into the loft to throw down hay into the individual stalls. She was pulling down the first bale from the pile against the wall when Philip appeared at the top of the ladder.
"Morning," Keola grunted as she picked up a bale. "Youre up early. I thought youd sleep today."
Philip walked over, gabbed the bale and jerked it from the Amazons grasp.
"Ill do this," he said looking Keola in the eyes.
After a moment of shock her temper rose a bit.
"What do you think youre doing?" she said, an edge to her voice. "I do my own work."
"Not this work," Philip replied as he took the bale to the edge of the loft and threw it down.
Keolas temper rose higher. She took a step toward Philip and was about to say something rather vulgar about his mother when she stopped and her body tensed. Philip turned and looked at her with intense eyes. She gazed back unblinking. After a long moment of silence she let out a small breath.
"I can do my own work," she said defiantly.
Philip shook his head.
"Not this work, not anymore," he said. "Youre body has had enough strain. Youre going to take care of yourself till after." He walked past Keola, grabbed another bale, brought it to the edge of the loft and threw it down. The Scout did not move but stared straight ahead. He came back and stopped beside her, shoulder to shoulder. He let out a harsh breath.
"Im glad the bastards are dead," he said with quiet anger.
Keola took a breath. Her face clouded and her chin trembled for an instant.
"I was too, for a long time," she said. "But now, I dont know. It seems more complicated. Im not sure what I feel anymore"
Philip put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed.
"Anything you need me to do Ill do," he said.
Keola glanced at the man then looked away.
"Thank you," she murmured. She took a breath. "Im going to finish mucking the barn," she said decisively.
She went to the ladder and started down.
"Amazon," Philip called.
Keola stopped and looked.
"When this is done and youre well and strong again, Im still going to kick your ass."
The Scouts face broke into that pleasing, friendly smile that was such a part of her.
"Farmer, Ill turn you upside down and use your head for a rake." Then she winked and laughed and disappeared down the ladder.
Gabrielle padded silently back to the camp from the bushes. She carefully raised the big bearskin and slid her naked body under and snuggled up against Xenas back. The Lion was lying on her side with one arm protectively stretched out across Sulas small chest. Mother and child were sleeping peacefully as the first faint glow of a new day illumined the eastern sky. The bard put her arm around her mates waist and pulled herself against her, feeling from head to foot the delicious warmth of Xenas bare skin after being out in the chill spring air. After enjoying the sensation for a few moments the bard lightly kissed Xenas shoulder. The arm around her waist began to move slowly down until Gabrielles hand was between her mates legs. With exquisite, tantalizing delicacy her fingers started rubbing over the mound of Xenas pubic hair and through her vaginal lips, exploring the perfect smoothness till her forefinger found the raised bump of the clitoris. After a few moments the Lion shifted slightly and opened herself to the Bards touch. With practiced, loving strokes Gabrielle aroused her mate, felt the wet slickness of her pleasure grow, listened to the pattern of her deep, quiet, breathing. After so many years together she was perfectly attuned to every sound, every vibration of Xenas body. After a slow pleasing build up she brought here lover to a deep, satisfying climax that the Lion expressed with a long, heartfelt sigh of air. Gabrielle brought her hand up and pinched a hard nipple between thumb and forefinger and squeezed the breast, just the way Xena liked it, while lightly kissing the back of her neck. Carefully the Warrior Princess took her arm off Sula and grasped the Bards hand and kissed it. She rolled over into her mates welcoming embrace and caressed her lips passionately with her own. Then it was Gabrielles turn to feel the pleasure of her mates love for her. Finally the Bard gazed up into soft, pale azure orbs with a contended grin and adoring emerald eyes.
"Did I remember to say goodmorning?" she whispered as she rubbed her nose on her lovers.
"Nope," Xena whispered back through a slight smile. "I guess you just dont care anymore."
Gabrielle put her hand behind her mates head.
"Guess not." She murmured as she pulled Xenas mouth down to hers.
The mates were lightly dozing as the sun edged its orange disc over the rim of the earth. Suddenly Xena popped open an eye.
"Uh oh," she whispered in Gabrielles ear, "trouble."
The Bard opened her eyes. They both could feel a slight rustling of the bearskin.
"Gotcha Lion!" a high thin voice yelled and Sula landed on Xenas strong, muscled shoulder, her ebony face appearing over Gabrielle.
"Hi mommy," she giggled, her almond eyes sparkling. "I sneaked up on you and gotcha. You didnt know I was here did you?"
The Bard smiled lovingly at her daughter and caressed her cheek.
"No sweetheart," she cooed. "You were a great huntress today. We didnt hear you at all."
Sula smiled her biggest, brightest smile. The one that made her face shine and melted her parents hearts.
"I dont know about mommy," Xena rumbled with narrow eyes," but I dont think the panther has the Lion," with a sudden, powerful motion she rolled Sula over her shoulder pinning her between herself and Gabrielle, "I think the Lion has the panther."
She rubbed her face on her daughters chest and tickled the back of her leg. The child squealed with glee and soon all three of them were laughing and tickling and squirming, enjoying completely the ecstasy of being together.
Finally, after the Bard insisted everyone calm down before someone wet the bed, Sula sat between her mothers, each of them holding a hand, her face glowing with excitement.
"We get to see Grandpa today," she enthused, "you said wed see Grandpa today, you promised."
"Yes, sweetheart," Gabrielle said as she brushed Sulas long kinked hair away from her face. "Well see Grandpa today, and Grandma, and Aunt Lila, wholl all be so glad to see you."
After a moment of silence a slight smile came to Xenas face.
"And maybe Philip will be there," she said pointedly while squeezing Sulas hand. "Aunt Lilas good friend."
Her eyes shifted to her mate.
"A friend mommy is going to be very nice too and not judgmental, or demanding, or overly protective or "
"What the Lion means, sweetheart," Gabrielle said through gritted teeth, "is that we are going to be very happy to see Philip, as long as he lives up to what Aunt Lila said about him in her letter."
"What mommy means," Xena continued, a mischievous glint in her eye, "is that if Philip fails the walk on water test, mommy is going to hold his head under till he drowns."
"Mommy wouldnt do that, would you mommy?"
Gabrielle smiled sweetly at her daughter then shot Xena a look filled with green daggers.
"Of course not dearest. I would never do that to Philip. Thank you for defending me." She caressed the childs cheek. "I would only do that to the Lion."
"Mommy!" Sula scolded.
"Now lets get dressed shall we," Gabrielle said. "We have such an exciting day ahead of us."
After everyone was dressed Gabrielle sent Sula to visit the bushes and began rolling up the blankets and the bearskin. Xena started a fire to cook breakfast.
"Im so curious to see how Keola is doing," the Bard said. "If daddy has it figured out it will be such a boon to the other warriors like her. It will be wonderful to see them throw away their crutches."
"Herodotus will do it." Xena answered as she got some bacon out of a pack. "Hes a master craftsman with those tools of his. My money is on him."
Gabrielle smiled. "He is amazing. I never seemed to appreciate that about him before."
Xena looked up from the bacon and studied her mate for a moment. Her eyes became pale and serious.
"Are you looking forward to going home, beloved?" she asked quietly.
The Bard gazed at Xena, a bit surprised at the question. Then her face became as serious as Xenas.
"You asked me that once before, two years ago, didnt you?" she said.
The Lion nodded. Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out, looking deep into her mates blue eyes. She put down the blankets, walked over and wrapped the Lion in a hug. Xena rested her cheek on the top of her head.
"So much has happened in the last two years. Some of it horrible," Gabrielle sighed, "but having Sula come into our lives and finding peace with my father are the two things that made it bearable."
The Bard squeezed Xena hard.
"I know youve had a lot to do with healing things between daddy and me. I dont know how you did it, beloved, but have I said thank you?"
The Lion stroked Gabrielles fine redblonde hair.
"You are my life," she whispered, "your happiness is mine."
After a moment the Bard looked up with glistening emerald eyes.
"Yes, Xena," she said. "Im looking forward to going home."
The Lion smiled, then brushed her nose on Gabrielles.
"Im so glad, beloved, so very glad." She kissed her mate.
After a moment she pulled back and looked around.
"I better find Sula," she grinned, "before the girl pounces on a porcupine or a skunk."
The Bard laughed. "Yes, you better."
As the mates pulled up in front of the farmhouse, Xena on Argo, Sula perched on the saddle in front of her, Gabrielle on her bay gelding, Lila came bounding out of the house and down the steps, a happy, surprised look on her face.
"Gabby! Xena!" she squealed. "This is wonderful!"
She ran up to Argo.
"Is this beautiful Sula?" she smiled, putting her hand on the childs leg. "Is this the beautiful girl Ive wanted to meet for so long?"
Sula turned her face into her mothers chest and peeked at Lila with one half-opened eye. Xena stroked her hair and laughed.
"This shy act doesnt last long," she said. "And when its over youll find yourself wishing it would come back." Xena looked down at Sula. "This is Aunt Lila. Why dont you give her a hug. Shes a really good hugger."
Sula turned her head back and sized up the grinning young woman below her. Finally she put her arms out and Lila instantly snatched her from the saddle into a great tight hug.
"Gabrielle! Xena!" Hecuba called as she emerged onto the porch. The Bard, who had just dismounted, raced up the few steps and flung herself into her mothers arms. After a long hug Hecuba glanced at Xena waiting quietly at the foot of the stairs. She put out an arm.
"Come child," she said through a great, warm smile. Xena approached.
"Welcome home my girls," the old woman murmured as she squeezed them tight and kissed them lightly on the cheek.
Then she pushed them both away with an exaggerated shove.
"Now out of the way so Grandma can see her precious," she laughed.
She hurried down the steps to Lila who was holding Sula on her hip
"Are you Sulawesi, the bright morning Ive waited so long to see?" Hecuba asked.
Sula giggled and nodded, her shinning almond eyes wide, soaking in everything.
"Im your Grandma," Hecuba cooed as she stroked the childs arm, "and I think youre the most beautiful grandchild any grandma could ever have."
On the porch Gabrielle grinned at Xena.
"I dont seem to be the center of attention I once was," she said. "A four year old has stolen all my thunder."
The Lion shrugged.
"Easy to see why," she said. "Shes prettier and has more personality than you ever did."
Xena grimaced as Gabrielle stepped on her foot while smiling sweetly at her.
"Id say she has it about right," a familiar voice said as a hand was placed on Xenas shoulder.
"Herodotus," the Warrior Princess said as she turned and extended her arm. He took it and they shared a smile that said all that needed to be said about the pleasure they took in seeing each other.
"If it werent true Id kick both of you where it hurt," the Bard laughed.
Then she put her arms around her father and held him tight. "Daddy," she said softly into his chest. The old farmer put his cheek on top of her head and stroked her hair.
"Im glad youre home, sweetheart," he murmured.
After letting them share a few moments Xena looked around smiling.
"So where is the handsome young man that Gabrielle is so anxious to inspec I mean meet?"
Herodotus chuckled in his throat while the Bard gave her mate a nasty look.
"Hes at his Aunts farm preparing for planting," he said. "But hell be here in a week or so to help us get our crop in." He looked at Xena. "Then I promised wed all go to his farm and help him get his fields planted."
Xenas shoulders sagged and a moan escaped her lips. The old man smiled.
"Honest work wont kill you, woman," he snickered.
"No," Xena whined, shaking her head, "honest work doesnt have the decency to kill you. It lets you live till your old and gray so you can suffer."
Gabrielle laughed like her father.
"Why are you here so early," he asked.
The Lion shrugged.
"Its been such a mild spring we werent sure when you would start so we thought we should get here early just in case," she said.
"Also," Gabrielle added. "Sulas been asking us a hundred times a day for the last month when we were coming. We decided we better just come before she drove us crazy."
The Bard looked around.
"And Im curious to see how things have worked out with Keola. We have warriors and their families at home anxious to know the results. Shes around somewhere isnt she?"
Herodotus face darkened. He looked at his wife.
"Hecuba," he said, "Im sure a growing girl like Sula must be hungry. I bet she would love some of that nutbread you just made. Its always been Gabrielles favorite."
Hecuba and Lila had been looking at each other with serious eyes since they heard Gabrielles question. The old woman took Sula from her daughter and hugged her close.
"Come on my little precious," she whispered in the childs ear. "Grandma has something in the kitchen youre going to love."
"Whats in the kitchen Grandma, what?" Sula asked excitedly.
"Youll find out little one, youll find out," Hecuba smiled. She went up the stairs and into the house.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a questioning glance. Herodotus looked at Lila. She nodded. His gaze shifted to his other daughters.
"Im going to go and hug Sula for awhile," he said with a slight smile. "Its a habit I dont want to break."
He disappeared into the house without another word. The mates looked at each other in astonishment.
"Sister, whats happened to Keola?" the Bard asked, concern in her voice.
Lila took a deep breath and let it out.
"She went out to the barn to do some work and brush Luka just before you arrived," Lila said, "so we should have some time. Lets sit down here on the porch. Some things have happened you should know about before you see her."
"Anyway," Lila said, "after she was sure she was pregnant, the dreams nightmares, got really bad. She couldnt sleep at all. It was worrying us to death." Lila looked at the mates and shrugged helplessly. "I mean, how do you stop things that attack you only when youre asleep. Not that Keola ever complained about it. She never complains about anything. Shell only talk about it when you make her. But it was driving daddy crazy. You know how he is when he cant figure out how to solve a problem. And he likes Keola so much. Hed do anything for her. We all would."
Lila took a breath.
"Finally one night, after Keola went out to the barn because shed had another nightmare, daddy came in the bedroom and took her bed apart and moved it into his and moms room." The girl blew some air out in a low whistle. "Wow, did things get ugly in the morning, when Keola found out what daddy had done. Thats the only time Ive ever seen her mad but boy, she can really get mad. Her face got all flushed and her voice had this growl in it like she was about to bite somebody."
"She said, between cuss words, "Lila smiled a bit, "and she sure knows a lot of them, that she wasnt a baby to be put in a crib in her mommy and daddys room and if daddy didnt put the bed back she would sleep in the barn or go home or go somewhere or who knows what. And of course you know daddy. He always had to be the maddest person in the room and her was waving that finger of his in her face like he does, telling her to stop talking stupid and she wasnt going anywhere and she better just get used to the idea and on and on."
Lila shook her head.
"I thought they were actually going to get in a fight, Gabrielle. They got louder and louder, then mom forced herself between them and pulled Keola away and got her calmed down and told her if she would just try it for a few days to humor daddy she would get him to put the bed back. Keola is such a nice polite person she could never say no to mom."
"The first night she didnt sleep a wink just to spite daddy. But the second night she did sleep for awhile before she woke up. And the third night was better still. Shes been sleeping in their room ever since and shes sleeping pretty well now. Most nights anyway."
Lila took a breath and sighed.
"I ask her about the nightmares but she just shrugs and says its nothing I need to know about. But I think theyre about what happened at Vonitsa. People were hurting her and she was so alone. There was no one to call to. No one to help." Lila paused, her eyes dark, a quiver in her chin. "That must be the most awful feeling. I think thats why she sleeps better in mom and daddys room. She has two strong people close by that she trusts. That she knows will help her. Just hearing them snore must be a comfort to her mind. Shes not alone anymore when those evil men come to hurt her while shes sleeping."
Lila looked at the mates, her eyes stern.
"But dont you guys mention where shes sleeping, okay. It embarrasses her. Well get a bed made up for you and Sula."
Lila looked away.
"She knows your coming. Shes asked me a couple of times when you would be here. She always has such a tense serious look on her face when she asks."
"Shes such a nice person. Its been like having a new sister this winter. She loves to laugh and joke and play. And shes always working. Philip gets really upset sometimes about her working so hard and they fight about it. Theyre like brother and sister." Lilas face darkened. Suddenly she took a gulp of air and water burst from her eyes. "Gabrielle, she hurts too much. Good people shouldnt have to hurt so much. I wish I knew how to help her. But I dont. Im not as smart as you are." Lila looked at her sister. "Help her Gabby. Help her not hurt so much. She doesnt deserve all this pain."
The Amazon Queen, whose face had grown inexpressibly sad as she sat next to Lila, caressed her face and wiped away a tear with her thumb.
"Im not smarter than you, Lila," she said. "If I was Keola wouldnt be suffering. Im responsible for whats happened to her. I sent her to Vonitsa."
"Thats a lie," the Lion growled. "Im responsible for the warriors of the Nation. I sent Keola on that mission."
"Because I ordered you not to go, Xena," Gabrielle said evenly. "The Queen is responsible for the Nation. No one else. Her burden is my doing."
The Bard looked into Lilas watery eyes and slowly brought her head down till their foreheads touched.
"But Ill need both of you to help me," she whispered, shoulders slumping, voice thick with emotion, "help me make things right again for our friend."
The gentle noon breeze brought the sound of a spirited horse nickering and snorting. Lilas eyebrows knitted together.
"That sounds like Luka," she said.
She jumped up and hurried to the side of the house where she could see the barn, the mates close behind. She turned the corner just in time to see Keola pull herself up into the saddle. The Amazon turned Luka south and snapped the reins hard on her flanks. The horse bolted at a gallop toward the Athens road.
"Keola!!" Lila screamed.
She started to run after her but Xena caught her shoulder.
"Dont Lila," she said quietly. "Ill get her. Argo!" the Lion called without turning. Instantly the great warhorse was at her mistresses side. Xena rubbed her friends muzzle and patted her neck.
"Come on girl," she whispered in the horses ear, "lets go have a talk with Keola."
After two leagues at a hard gallop Keola turned in the saddle to look. Argo was neither gaining nor losing ground, a quarter of a league behind. The Scout scanned the landscape desperately for an opportunity to get off the road and evade Xenas pursuit. But the land to the east was open fields. No cover. To the west the earth sloped up to a high, forested ridge. But the ground was broken and rocky. Keola knew she would have to go up the slope at a gallop to keep her lead on the Lion. The chance of Luka taking a false step and breaking a leg was too much to risk. There was more than two lives at stake.
At three leagues Luka was covered with a lather of sweat and her breathing was starting to labor. But she refused to slacken her pace, as stubborn as her owner. Keola peeked over her shoulder. Argo was still there, a quarter league back, her powerful form running easily. The Scout let out a frustrated oath. She settled back in the saddle and reined Luka in, slowing her to a walk. She patted the animals wet neck.
"Thank you, Luka," she said softly, "thank you for trying so hard. But Argos lungs are too big and her legs are too long. We never really had a chance did we."
After a few moments the Amazon heard the pounding of the warhorses hooves rapidly approaching. She straightened in the saddle, shoulders back, head up, face set like granite, eyes forward. The Lion slowed Argo and pulled up beside Luka. She looked over at the Scout but Keola ignored her, staring straight ahead. She noticed however when after a few moments Keola grimaced and put her hand on her swollen belly. She reached over and grabbed Lukas bridle and brought both horses to a halt. The Scout still refused to acknowledge her presence. Xenas cold blue eyes hardened.
"I never thought I would see this day," she rumbled. "When an Amazon warrior would treat the Quee " Xena paused a moment. "our family so rudely, leaving without any expression of respect or appreciation, or even the courtesy of a goodbye. Were they mistreating you?"
Keolas shoulders slumped a bit and her face reddened, but then they came up again and her expression became defiant.
"The Warleaders family treated me like a daughter. They are wonderful people," she said evenly. "I meant them no disrespect. I just felt that my presence there was no longer I just I " Keolas voice faded away. She grimaced again and instinctively touched her belly.
"Youre having contractions arent you?" Xena asked.
Keola said nothing. A thunderstorm gathered in the Lions eyes.
"I am Warleader of the Nation, warrior," she roared. "When I ask a question I get an answer!"
The Scouts jaw tightened and her body tensed. But finally discipline prevailed over stubbornness.
"Yes, I think I think Im having contractions," she said quietly.
Xena nodded, her face still dark. With one hand still holding Lukas bridle she used the other to untie the leather strap holding the rolled up bearskin laid across Argos rump. She threw it over her shoulder and dismounted between the two horses, never loosening her grip on Luka.
"Get down," she commanded.
"Stay Argo," Xena said quietly.
She released Luka, knowing the animals herd instinct would keep her close to the big palimino. She went around and firmly grasped Keolas arm. "Come on," she ordered and she took them off the road and over to a small clump of towering oaks whose shade offered some relief from the afternoon sun. She spread out the bearskin and helped Keola lay down. Kneeling beside her she pulled back the ankle length brown maternity dress Hecuba had made, till the Scouts white swollen, oblong belly was fully exposed. She ran her hand gently over it till she felt a sudden bunching of the muscles. A slight grunt escaped the Scouts throat.
"How many does that make?" she asked.
"Four," the Amazon answered.
"When do you expect it?" Xena said evenly.
Keola hesitated and let out a slight rush of air through her teeth.
"Four or five weeks," she replied in a whisper.
Xena pulled the dress back down.
"It wasnt a strong contraction," she said. "Its probably just a false labor caused by the bouncing. Well rest here a while till Im sure."
Keola nodded but said nothing. Xena eyed the scout sternly. The Amazon gazed back, her face an iron mask, but the short deep breaths she took betrayed the emotions that roiled behind her brown eyes.
"Have you been taking care of this baby?" the Lion asked finally.
Keola bit her lip.
"Yes," she said. "Hecuba has a diet she says is good for babies. I eat that and try not to do to much."
The Lion nodded. Her eyes narrowed.
"Im not used to the sight of an Amazon warrior running away. Its an ugly thing to see. Why were you running?"
Keolas face reddened. Her hands clenched the bearskin till the knuckles were white.
"I dont I I dont know," she whispered.
Xenas blue eyes burned into the Scout.
"A liar too," she said coldly. "Is the story you told Lila of how this child was conceived a lie as well?"
Fire erupted from the Amazons eyes. Xenas body tensed, her reflexes ready for anything.
"Im not a liar!" Keola shouted.
"Then why were you running?" the Lion asked again, her voice controlled and emotionless.
Some of the fire drained from Keola.
"Because I uh I " her voice cracked, "feel ashamed. I I must look a coward and a whore. Im carrying the child of an enemy of our people." Keola let out a short harsh breath. "What warrior wouldnt have killed herself first," she whispered.
Xena gazed a long time at the Scout. She put her hand on her ripe belly.
"If you dont want this child," she said slowly, "the Queen and I will adopt it the moment it is born. You never have to see it."
Keola let out a shocked breath, eyes wide. The look she saw in the Lions eyes told her she was in earnest. The Amazon took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself. Then her face hardened, her eyes became angry and defiant.
"I dont need pity, Warleader. I was given a mission. I made my own decisions. Im responsible for the results." She put her hand on her stomach. "Im responsible for this child. I dont need anyone else to carry my load. Ill fulfill my responsibilities. Ill find a place for us somewhere. I wont fail this baby."
Xena took a slow breath. Her cold eyes softened and became almost gentle.
"You are responsible for this child," she said. "But you dont need to look for a place. Your place is with the Nation. That child has no enemies there. And neither does its mother. But youre wrong about not needing someone to carry your load." Xenas hand went up and gripped the emblem of her mate on her right bicep. "We all need help with our burdens. I found that a very difficult lesson to learn. But I had a teacher even more stubborn than me."
The Lions face darkened, eyes intense.
"I am Warleader of the Amazon Nation. I sent you on that mission." She said. "I am responsible for the warriors under my command. Ill live up to my responsibilities too, Keola. I wont fail you. The Nation takes care of its own."
There was a moment of emotional silence, then the two warriors heard a heavy legged clop, clop, clop of shod hooves. They looked down the road to see Herodotus approaching on the back of one of his draft horses. When he reached Argo and Luka grazing at the side of the road he dismounted and walked quickly over to Keola, worry obvious on his face.
"Is she all right?" he asked Xena.
"The ride caused her to start contractions. I think its just false labor but well wait and be sure," the Lion answered.
The old farmer nodded. Without another word he lowered himself with a crackle of knees and a grunt beside Keola, sitting cross legged he took her hand and put it in his lap. Two, three, four candlemarks burned past. Not a word was spoken. Finally Xena put her hand on Keolas belly.
"You havent had any contractions for a while have you?" she asked.
The Scout shook her head no.
The Lion looked at Herodotus.
"I think its safe to go," she said quietly.
The farmer shifted his gaze to Keola and she felt her hand being squeezed hard.
"I lost a daughter once," he said slowly, his eyes focused intensely on the young Amazon, "only a miracle brought her back to me. But you cant depend on miracles. Im not going too take any chances with you." He put his other hand over hers. "Its time to come home, Keola."
The Amazon swallowed. Herodotus could feel the tension in her hand. She stared up into the arching branches above, so many thoughts and emotions flooding over her, it was difficult to think, to sort them out. But finally that firm grip on her hand seemed more important than anything else. It felt so good to know this old man was not going to let go. Perhaps the Warleader is right. Maybe I need someone to help me carry this load. Just for a little while, anyway.
The Scout tightened her hand on Herodotus. "Okay" she whispered.
A slight smile came to the mans face. He brought Keolas hand up and kissed it. Then his eyes found Xenas and they shared a very pleased, and relieved, nod.
A half league from the farmhouse Lila sat on a large rock by the side of the road, her chin in her hands, waiting. That nervous, hollow feeling in her stomach had been growing all afternoon and now she was nearing real fear and panic. Finally from behind the stand of maples the road curved around she heard a familiar nickering. Instantly she was on her feet running. Herodotus and Xena were walking side by side quietly talking, the Lion leading Luka and Argo while the old farmer led his workhorse. Keola sat on Luka, her back killing her, although you could never tell it from her face. Lila rushed up and grabbed her hand.
"Are you all right?" she gasped, breathless, eyes wide in her upturned face.
Keola leaned down.
"Im all right," she said, then as she looked in those black caring eyes emotion welled up into her face and a lump came to her throat. "Im sorry," she whispered.
Lilas face darkened with righteous indignation.
"You should be," she said sharply. "You really scared me. I wish Philip was here. Hes much better at yelling at you than I am."
Lila squeezed her friends hand.
"Dont do this again," she said, as much anger in her voice as she could manage, which was not much.
"Well, if youre going to threaten to sic Philip on me," her voice had some of its normal laughing lilt back, "I promise to behave. I certainly wouldnt want him," she emphasized the word, "mad at me. He might get so mad Id have to put him out of his misery."
For the first time all day a slight smile raced across her face. Then a tired sigh came out. I wish he were here too.
When they all entered the house after stabling the horses the table was set for dinner. Sula came bounding into the front room from the kitchen and straight into her mothers arms, who picked her up for a hug.
"Somethings wrong with mommy and grandma," the child said very seriously. "Theyre sad but they wont tell me why. Why are they sad, Lion?"
Xena paused and brushed the hair back from her daughters forehead. Keolas face colored with embarrassment. She instinctively edged for the door till Lila put her arm around her.
"Theyre sad," Xena said, "because someone they like is hurting and they dont want her to hurt. What do you think we should do to help?
Sulas little face scrunched up in concentration then burst open in a brilliant smile. She threw her arms around Xenas neck.
"We should give her a hug," she said, "and have her come play with us."
"Exactly right, little Panther," Xena smiled and she gave the girl a kiss.
Hecuba came in the room carrying a plate piled high with chicken, followed by Gabrielle with bowls of fruit and vegetables.
"Sit, sit," the old woman ordered in her soft voice, "the foods getting cold. Ill get the bread and well eat."
She disappeared as everyone found their place and sat, Sula in Xenas lap.
Hecuba reappeared with a basket of fresh baked rye bread and leaned between Keola and Lila to place it on the table. As she drew back her hand touched the Scouts shoulder. Suddenly her arm was around Keolas neck and she held her in a long tight embrace, her cheek pressed against the Amazons.
Keola rubbed her arm.
"Ill be all right," she said in a thick voice, "please dont worry. "
She wiped her nose with the back of her hand as the old woman released her grip and wiped her own nose. Hecuba went and took her seat beside her husband. Herodotus looked around the table at all the women in his life, and his heart swelled at the sight. He cleared his throat as his gaze fixed on the youngest of his girls. He smiled at Xena and Sula.
"Would our honored guest, our beautiful little Panther, please begin," he said.
Philip arrived a few days latter. He had hardly reached the porch before Lila was dragging him by the arm to the barn to meet Xena and Gabrielle, who were helping Herodotus get his plow and harness ready for plowing. At the door he took a deep breath and put on his most confident face, although inside he quailed a bit at the prospect of meeting two people whose names had become legend in Greece. As they entered Keola looked up from where she was sweeping out a stall with Sulas help. She leaned on her broom.
"You can take that stupid look off your face," she grinned at Philip. "If Queen Gabrielle doesnt like you the Lion will pull you apart and put you back together wrong. Theres nothing you can do about it. If I was you, Id go for more of a Im too weak and helpless to bother with look."
"Keola, quiet!" Lila demanded.
She looked at Philip.
"Dont listen to her," she said. "Xena and my sister are nice people. Just be yourself and theyll love you like I do."
She pulled Philip along toward he back of the barn but as they passed Keola she looked at the Amazon and winked.
"And dont worry, sweetheart," she said. "If Xena puts you together wrong I remember how things are supposed to go. Ill get you straightened out again."
The Amazon burst out with a long loud laugh.
"When this is over," Philip said through gritted teeth, "Im going to throw you both off the barn and count how many times you bounce."
The farmer need not have worried. The Queen and her mate liked immediately the young man who looked everyone in the eye and was always open, honest, good natured and intelligent. They liked the way Lilas eyes sparkled when she was with him. And Gabrielle liked how much fun he and Sula had together. It was obvious he genuinely enjoyed children. She looked forward to many nieces and nephews.
Plowing and planting began with the warming late spring weather. Xena, Herodotus and Philip each handled a plow. Lila, Gabrielle and Hecuba came behind sowing seed. The first day Keola put on a sling of seeds with the other women, despite their urgings that she should take it easy. She did not get far however before Philip came up with a red tinge to his face and demanded to know what the dumb Amazon was doing. A loud argument erupted about the relative intelligence of Amazons and farmers. Finally, their noses only an inch apart, Philip said if Keola did not want her leg turned into a pile of ash she would go back to the house. The Scout answered she would insert the leg up Philips ass first, then he could light it. The women snickered at each other and Philip was wise enough to let Keola have the last word. Reluctantly she took off the sling and gathered up Sula and headed back to the house.
After that every day at noon the Amazon would come out to the fields with a huge lunch perched on Lukas back, along with Sula. Blankets and the bearskin would be laid out and everyone would settle in for a long lunch, since with so many people the work was going very quickly. Lila would sit behind Keola, her legs stretched out on either side of her, massaging her sore tight back and neck as the baby became huge in her womb. Philip would chase Sula around, the both of them laughing and tickling. Herodotus and Xena settled in for chess. Playing on the board the old farmer had carved over the winter. Gabrielle and Hecuba would pass out the Keolas lunch, and quietly cluck at each other that one of them needed to teach the Amazon how to cook.
One warm, sunny afternoon, with only a few days of work left, Gabrielle came back to the house early from the fields. Keola sat on the porch sewing a rip in one of Lilas skirts. Sula chased a scrawny black rooster around the yard. The Bard stopped at the trough and splashed some water in her face to get the dust out of her eyes. She dried her face with her sleeve. She went and plopped down beside the Scout, who greeted her with a smile.
"Sula has such amazing energy, my Queen," she said. "Shes almost caught that rooster a couple of times."
The Bard looked out at her daughter.
"Yes, shes something. She reminds me of Xena sometimes with her stamina. And she loves to run and jump and play. At home, in the mornings, she goes out with the Lion and mimics her training routine. Xena wants to make her a little wooden sword to use but," Gabrielle looked at Keola and smiled wanly, "Im just not ready for her to know the way of the warrior. Not yet anyway. I want her to be a child for awhile longer."
Keola nodded, her face serious as she thought of the person growing inside her. For a few moments the two mothers sat quietly watching Sula play. Then the Bard shifted and straightened.
"Keola," she began, "I came back early for a reason. I wanted to talk to you."
The Scout sucked in a slightly nervous breath and straightened her own posture.
"Yes, my Queen?"
The bard let out a sigh.
"Keola, whats happened to you, the things youve had to experience, endure. I want to tell you that "
"My Queen," the Amazon interrupted forcefully," whats happened to me is my own responsibility. I was given a mission. I did " Keola paused and took a gulp of air, "I did the best I could. The Lion says shes responsible because she sent me but "
"No Keola!" Gabrielle said so sharply it startled the Amazon. "The Warleader didnt send you. Shes trying to protect me when she shouldnt. She wanted to go herself, but I ordered her to find someone else. I felt " the Bard swallowed, "I decided that her life was too valuable to risk. So you were sent instead."
"It was the right decision, my Queen," Keola said quietly, her eyes intense as she looked at Gabrielle. "We could never have won at the Zama Ridge without her."
"Yes," the Bard whispered shaking her head sadly, "but its cost you so much."
Keola took a long breath and her eyes became distant. "Not as much as some, my Queen," she said. Her eyes suddenly focused on Gabrielle. "But its a price Im willing to pay for out people. You almost died yourself, my Queen. But your leadership brought us through. The people are safe on their own land. Free to follow their way of life. I went on that mission to serve them, not you. Dont you serve them as well?"
The Bard nodded slowly.
"Yes, I try my best to serve them, but Im Queen and Im responsible for them as well." The Bards emerald eyes became focused and intense as she gazed at Keola. "Princess Ephiny wants to offer you the post of 2nd Lt. in the troop. If youre fit with your new leg. From what Ive seen you are. Take the job, Keola. Youll have to move to Farsala because were going to headquarter the cavalry there. Ill find you a hut somewhere close to the Residence." She put her hand on the Scouts ripe stomach. "Sula could use a playmate." The Bard took a breath. "I wont fail you, warrior." She said in a husky whisper.
"The Warleader said that too. That she wouldnt fail me. I I havent asked for anyones help. A warrior should be strong enough too "
"Everyone needs help, Keola," the Bard interrupted. "We cant make it without each other. Its too hard, too lonely without help. One of the things I love most about my mate is shes always there to help." Gabrielle smiled slightly. "Sometimes more than she should. I hope I help her as much. I try."
Keola bit her lip and looked over at Sula crawling under a fence after the elusive rooster.
"Sula will need some help catching that damn bird," she smiled.
After a long pause she looked at Gabrielle.
"If the Princess offers me the job, I think Ill take it," she said quietly.
Her green eyes soft and watery, Gabrielle gently rubbed Keolas leg. Then she got up and chased after Sula, to help her catch the rooster. The Amazon watched her go. I would go to Vonitsa again for you, Gabrielle. Ill go anywhere you send me.
The day before heading to Philips farm was a day of rest. Herodotus fields were plowed and planted. Only Hecuba would stay behind to care for the animals. In the afternoon Philip came in the house to find Keola sitting alone in the main room sewing.
"Hello grandma," he called cheerfully.
The Scout made a face that got a smile in return. Then the mans face became serious.
"Can I ask you a question?" he said.
"Philip," Keola answered. "Im so fat right now I cant even get out of this stupid chair, so you can ask anything you want. I cant stop you."
"Well, Ive kind of wondered," he said. "What if its a boy? I mean, there arent any allowed in the Amazon valley right?"
Keola put down her sewing and let out a short sigh.
"Youre right," she said. "No man is allowed to live in our valley. Its one of the oldest laws of our society, and its unbreakable. Even the Queen is bound by it." She bit her lip. "Of course Amazons have babies and sometimes they are male. If this," she put her hand on her belly, "is a boy I can keep him in the valley till hes ten. But on his tenth birthday he must leave. Through bitter experience the Amazon have learned that nothing is more destructive to a society of females than a male coming into heat.
"Some send their sons to live with relatives. Some apprentice them to tradesmen outside the valley. Some cant bear the separation and move out of the valley to find a new life. I " Keola sighed, "I dont know what Ill do."
Philip shrugged nonchalantly.
"Youll come live with Lila and me of course," he said in a voice that implied the matter was settled. He grinned wickedly. "In a month Ill have the little man on my side and well both be kicking his mothers butt."
Before Keola could say anything he shouted, "Sula!" The little girl came racing in from her mothers bedroom where she was helping the Bard and Lila pack. She leaped at Philip and he caught her under the arms and in one practiced motion flung her up on his shoulders.
"Come on, Panther," he said, "we have chores to do in the barn. Then well play some king of the mountain in the hayloft."
The child clapped her hands with delight. Philip looked at Keola.
"Why dont you bring your lazy butt in a while too? And Lila. You could certainly use some exercise. Youre as fat as an old sow."
"Yes come and play with us Keola," Sula said with a big smile. "Its fun pushing Philip off the mountain."
The Scout laughed. "Im sure it is. And not hard either. Ill be there Sula. As soon as I can get out of this chair."
"So much for her," Philip chuckled. "Looks like its just you and me, Sula."
After they disappeared out the door Keola looked down and rubbed her stomach. A boy. What would I do if youre a boy? I dont know anything about raising a boy. How can I help you become a man? A man like Philip and Herodotus.
As Xena entered the barn she could hear laughter and squeals from her daughter. She listened a moment, then leapt up and did a tight somersault before landing in the loft. Scattered about in the hay, Philip, Lila, Keola and Sula looked up.
"Hi mommy," the child smiled.
The Lion put her hands on her hips, her warlord mask on.
"Hecubas been calling you for dinner," she rumbled. "And where is Gabrielle? I cant find her anywhere."
The Bard sat up from beneath a pile of hay and spit out some straw. Xena shook her head.
"I thought the Queen of the Amazon Nation had a little more dignity than this."
The Bard smiled her brightest smile and shrugged.
"Apparently not," she laughed.
The corner of the Lions mouth twitched up. As everyone watched uncertainly she unhooked the chakram that she always wore on her belt and let fly. It imbedded in a support post well out of the way. She took a deep breath and erupted into her wildest warcry as she launched herself into the air. She did an amazing double flip that had even the Bard aaahhing and landed precisely on top of the pile of hay bales. She looked down with a smirk.
"Theres only one Queen of this hill," she rumbled.
The Bard scrambled to her feet.
"You know what," she grinned. "I think its time someone knocked that smirk off her face. Are you with me?"
The others gathered around the Amazon Queen, Philip picking up Sula and tucking her under his arm like a loaf of bread. They all smiled and nodded.
"Then charge!!" Gabrielle screamed.
The plowing and planting at Philips farm went smoothly and easily, the weather mild and dry. With Philips Aunt Sara to help Keola with the cooking the lunches were much better, to everyones intestinal relief. In seven days they were done and headed home. It was obvious Keola was never to bursting. Philip had intended to stay at his farm for a few weeks catching up on work but the look on the Amazons face as he told everyone changed his mind on the spot.
The ride home was a glorious day. Puffy cotton balls floated high in a deep azure sky. A warm gentle breeze flowed steadily from the south. Lila, Philip and Keola rode in the back of Herodotus wagon as he drove. Xena and Gabrielle went before on Argo and the Bards gelding, Sula perched in front of the Lion. Everyone was tired but in high spirits. The hard work of spring was done, and it was shaping up to be a successful growing season. Full barns and dinars extra for the pleasant things in life.
Two leagues from home Keola reached up and touched Herodotus elbow.
"I think we should hurry, sir," she said with wide eyes.
The old man smiled and nodded.
"Daughters," he called. "Keola says we should hurry."
Xena and Gabrielle shared a grin.
"Ill go ahead and help mom get things ready," the Bard said and she put her heels to her mount, taking off at a gallop. The Lion pulled Argo up and let the wagon pass then fell in behind where she could keep an eye on Keola. The Amazon was taking long, slow, deep breaths, holding her stomach. Xena could pain, excitement and also a touch of fear in her face. Lila had her arms firmly around her friend speaking soothing words of encouragement. The Lion chuckled to see the slightly ashen look that had come to Philips face.
"Lion, whats wrong with Keola?" Sula asked, looking up at her mother. "Shes acting funny."
"Keolas about to bring us a new friend to hold," she said, rubbing her daughters chest. "Wont that be wonderful?"
The child smiled brightly. "Yep."
"Push, Keola, push!" Xena demanded.
The Amazon took a gulp of air and pushed with all her strength till her sweat soaked face was red with the effort. Finally she let out a yell of frustrated exhaustion and collapsed back into Gabrielles waiting arms.
"Come on, warrior," the Lion demanded again. "I know youre tired but its almost here. One more push will do it. Now push, damn it, push!"
The Scout took two big gulps of air this time and with the Bard supporting her back she put all her remaining strength into pushing.
"Thats a girl," Xena said absently as she focused on the baby. Steadily it emerged, head, shoulders, body. Carefully she guided it out from between Keolas legs. As the last of the Amazons strength disappeared Xena pulled the baby free of its mother. She fell back with a loud grunt and was gently lowered to the bed by Gabrielle. Xena quickly cleared the babies throat with her finger then held it up by the ankles and softly patted its back. There was a brief moment of suspense, then the child gasped, took a breath, and let out a healthy yell of displeasure at being thrust into this new unfamiliar world.
The Lion laid the baby on Keolas stomach.
"Its a girl, sweetheart," Hecuba whispered in the Amazons ear as she wiped her face with a wet cloth. "A beautiful, healthy girl."
Xena expertly tied the umbilical and cut it. Gabrielle picked up the tiny girl in a blanket and started cleaning and massaging the little arms and legs while cooing words of welcome in a delicate ear. Lila handed Xena an old horse cloth. She tucked it under Keolas buttocks and started rubbing her heaving belly.
"Come on, Amazon," she said. "One last thing to do. One more push."
Keola took a ragged breath and pushed one last painful time. The Lion pulled on the umbilical and the afterbirth slide out and onto the cloth. She quickly wrapped it into a bundle and gave it back to Lila who disappeared to bury it in a hole already dug back of the house. She then helped Hecuba give the exhausted Scout a cool rubdown with soaked cloths till she was clean and comfortable. Lastly she picked the young Amazon up in her arms while Hecuba yanked the soiled bedding off Keolas bed and replaced it with fresh sheets.
As Xena laid the new mother down Gabrielle brought her daughter to her wrapped carefully in swaddling clothes and placed her on her chest. Keola put her arm around the infant and hugged her close and kissed the top of her head. It was after moonrise and a dozen flickering candles lighted the bedroom. Herodotus, who had been leaning against the doorpost of the room watching everything from the beginning, came in, followed by Philip, who had been entertaining Sula in the front room and now had her on his shoulders. Lila quickly returned from her task and joined the rest as they gathered around Keolas bed.
The old farmer took one of the Amazons hands in both of his.
"Whats her name?" he asked.
Keola looked at the circle of faces around her and then kissed her daughter again.
"Her name is Daria," she said. "The name of a proud, strong Amazon warrior I once knew."
"My mommy thats gone," Sula said, "her name was Daria too."
Gabrielle, who was standing by Philip, rubbed the childs leg.
"Yes," she said through a thick knot in her throat, "and now Daria is reborn. Shes come back to us with this child, so we will never forget her. Shes come back to her people, and were so grateful she has, arent we?"
"Yes," Sula answered, her little face serious.
Herodotus leaned down to gaze at Keola.
"I thought we agreed," he smiled, "a boy."
"Im sorry, sir," she grinned back, "I tried."
The man shrugged.
"I probably couldnt handle a boy anyway," he said. "Im too used to girls."
He leaned all the way down and kissed the Amazons forehead and touched the babys head.
"Okay, okay," Hecuba clucked, "its time to clear the room. Keola needs to nurse and they both need some sleep. Everybody out now," she waved her hands, "out, out."
Lila came and kissed Keola and they shared an excited smile. Philip tenderly let the back of his hand caress the Amazons cheek as he looked into her brown eyes. Then he smiled and bounced Sula on his shoulders.
"Come on," he said, "shes no fun. Well let lazy butt get some sleep. She seems to think she worked hard or something tonight."
The Bard kissed the baby, then Keola on both cheeks.
"And I will teach her the ways of her people and the future of the Nation shall be secure," she whispered.
The Lion gazed down at the warrior and nodded her approval, her stern blue eyes softer than Keola had ever seen them. She nodded back once. Then everyone was gone but Hecuba.
The old woman helped the Amazon settle the infant and get her nursing on a full, swollen tit. She had to laugh at the peculiar sensation of it. Hecuba smiled too. She kissed Keola and caressed her cheek.
"Im so happy for you, sweetheart," she whispered. "Im going to lay down now and rest but Ill be right her if you need anything."
"Thank you, maam, thank you for everything," Keola answered emotionaly
The old woman crawled into her bed next to Keolas, with the intention of staying awake in case she was needed, but her youth was gone and she was tired. Almost immediately she was sound asleep. Keola listened to her quiet snoring, and the sounds of voices and celebration coming from the next room. Daria finally stopped sucking and settled between her mothers warm soft breasts. The Amazon caressed her head and rubbed her back. She watched her daughter a long time, a thousand thoughts crowding her mind. She put both arms around the sleeping babe.
"Ive been very frightened, Daria," she whispered, "frightened that when I held you in my arms for the first time I would hate you." The Amazon swallowed the lump in her throat. "But I can never hate you. Im your mom, and Im going to be the best one I can be. Half of you is me. The other half, well," she sighed, "Ive been thinking a lot about that and Ive decided Im not going to hate him, and youre not either. I know who he is." She stroked the babys head. "I see him in your eyes, the shape of your face. I know hes there and Im going to tell you about him. He was the 1st Lt. of the Third Phalanx of Carthage. I think he was a good officer. I know he was a brave man and a tough warrior. And when he was a thousand leagues from home he liked to sleep with whores." She paused and caressed Darias head with her lips. "But sweetheart, I think thats something you can say about most warriors, and " Keolas eyes became distant, remembering, "and he drank far to much. Maybe there were things he didnt want to remember anymore. I know how that feels." The Amazon bit her lip. "Anyway, hes a part of you, of us, and were not going to let hate be any part of us. Hate kills things, and I I dont like killing."
Keolas eyes drifted to the closed door of the bedroom. She could see the sliver of light coming under the space at the bottom and hear familiar voices talking and laughing. Lilas high-pitched giggle and Philips hearty laugh. Her chin started to quiver.
"And we have friends, Daria. Friends that love us and will help us. Friends who wont fail us. And we wont fail them. Well let them help us, for a little while anyway."
She kissed her daughter as water welled up and flowed from her eyes. She lay back and wept silently, till no more tears would come. And she felt better. Better than she had in a very long time. Longer than she could remember. And then she fell asleep. A dreamless, exhausted sleep that lasted undisturbed till morning.
The End of Keolas Story.