Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Centaur's Tail, Part Two
They were noisy. More than anything, they were making a terrible racket. Artemis set aside her axe, and pulled off her boots. She darted across the forest floor, barely disturbing the leaf litter, although she knocked over a snail. This she noticed, because having a snail stuck to a bare foot was a bit uncomfortable. Grabbing two branches in a tree, she scrambled easily up the trunk until she had a free view of the forest as it sloped toward the river. A group of men in armour marked with Ares' sigil milled around a man wearing a plumed helmet, holding a map.
"So," Artemis murmured, chewing at a bit of leather strap. "You're trying to get somewhere by reading a map upside down."
"Look, all we gotta do is get to the inn," he pointed at the map. "And grab the innkeeper, see?"
"Now, that has to be up there in the top hundred rotten idea list." Artemis' eyes went cold with anger. "Never mind that Amphipolis is mine – that innkeeper is my wife, and messing with her is something that I take personally." She slid down the tree again, and circled the men until she was downhill from them.
"Would you look at that? An entire posse of ugly guys. Good job you're all innocent, kindly types, huh?" Artemis grinned, having decided to have fun with these guys after all. Standing cheerfully in her green and brown leathers, barefoot, fists planted on her hips.
"Who are you?" sneered the man with the tallest helmet.
"Your funny aunt Sue your parents wouldn't let you visit." A feral smile belied the words.
"Oh yeah. You're a comedian. Get him!" Artemis raised an eyebrow.
"Now there's something that doesn't happen to me every day." She let them get close enough to snatch at her, then took off like the wind for the river. The sounds of pounding feet and heavy breathing came from behind her, punctuated by clanking noises.
"Look! He's blocked off by the river! Go on!"
Artemis never paused but leapt onto the water, then onto the first of a mass of logs floating near the shore. She dashed across them with ease,and now her pursuers were following suit. And discovering that it wasn't nearly as easy as Artemis made it look, especially in armour. Pausing on a log, spinning it deftly with her feet, she watched the men struggle towards her. "Points for persistence until you get about – a leg's reach away." One of the men managed it. "Then I take all your points away and kick you in the head." Matching action to words, the man reeled back again.
"Be on your way, boys. There'll be no innkeeper snatching today." Artemis corralled another log and proceeded to bounce between the two.
"Why? You gonna dance on logs for ever?" sneered the man who had been wearing the tallest helmet, and now proved to have the least hair.
"No, I suppose not." Artemis turned towards the woods, pale eyes turning strange. A few moments later, a tawny coloured wolf padded out of the trees. Artemis stepped onto the river bank and dropped to one knee beside it, slinging an arm around its neck. "Go get 'em boy." she whispered in its ear. Releasing it, she watched as it bounded forward.
"What's one little wolf gonna do?" The rest of the of wolf's pack emerged from the trees. "Oh shit!"
Artemis watched in idle fascination as the wolves alternately chased and dragged Ares' men away. "See if you try to mess with my innkeeper again."
The innkeeper in question was perched precariously on a stool, struggling to coax a squirrel out of the small space between the thatched roof and the ceiling of the kitchen. Cyrene kept dried herbs and such in it herself, and had been surprised by a deluge of acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts when she pulled out an intransigent bundle of thyme. The squirrel had been terrified up into the thatch at first. Now it was seated just beyond reach, scolding her as it nibbled at a nutmeat.
Cyrene stopped and folding her arms on the edge of the opening, leaned her chin on them. "And just how am I going to get you out of there?" The squirrel shook its nutmeat at her and chittered vociferously. Cyrene tipped her head to one side. What else was that she could hear? "How long have you been standing there?"
Artemis chuckled. "Not nearly long enough." she replied, running an appreciative eye over her lover, then a very jaundiced one over the stool. "At the rate it's going, I'm going to have to build you a decent ladder...maybe scaffolding – or climbing tackle – no scaffolding and climbing tackle."
The innkeeper turned and glared at her. "Artie, I am a grown woman. I am not made of glass! Scaffolding and tackle indeed." she huffed, and returned her attention to the squirrel.
Artemis gazed at her a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. Slipping forward, she allowed herself to float off the floor, gently snugging an arm around Cyrene's waist. The innkeeper uttered a shocked squawk as her weight came off of her feet. "I feel better now." declared her partner. Reaching out one hand she made soft clucking noises with her tongue. The squirrel finished its meal, and shuffled forward hesitantly. After a few moments, the squirrel crawled onto Artemis' palm. It sat up, gazing intently at the night haired woman with its beady eyes.
"Now I can put the little beastie outside, and patch the hole he got in by while you," Artemis gave her lover a squeeze. "can collect all those fine nuts. I haven't had acorn flour pancakes in ages."
"Have fun mashing them up, because I won't." Cyrene replied, turning to put her arms around Artemis in turn, smiling.
"Okay," her lover replied cheerfully, setting them both on the ground.
A candlemark later, the hole in the roof was plugged, all nuts removed and sorted, and more bundles of herbs tucked in.
A candlemark and a quarter later silence reigned in Cyrene's kitchen, until it was shattered by a resounding bang. A few chattering noises, and then, bang! Rattling the pots and ladles hanging on the walls. Bang – followed by the sound of a ricochet, and an 'oops!' The banging resumed, until Cyrene, driven nearly to distraction, burst into the kitchen.
Finding her partner, who had arranged a sort of rim around her main cutting board, which had suffered a scrubbing so vigourous even the stains from the green onions had gone – and in the centre, a sizeable pile of mashed acorns. Beside it was a new pile of whole acorns, which Artemis clobbered with a frying pan, thus producing the bang. One of the nuts took only a glancing hit and shot off, bouncing off the cupboard behind her and a couple of pots before Artemis caught it in her mouth. She was winding up for another swing when Cyrene called hurriedly, "Artie!"
Artemis stopped, blinking, and then squinting as she took in Cyrene's expression. "What is it?"
"You're – smashing – those nuts."
"Yeah, I'm a real nut buster." chuckled Artemis. Her lover groaned.
"That was awful – almost as awful as the noise you were making. Artie, everyone else uses a quern and basin or a mortar and pestle."
"What?" Artemis clapped her hand to her chest. "I am NOT just everyone!" She blew her hair out of her eyes and struck a pose. "I am unique – spectacular – colossal!"
"An egomaniac." put in Cyrene.
"Hey!" Artemis looked a bit crestfallen. A laugh answered her.
"All right, all right, so you're not that bad – how about I help you with your acorn flour? Hmmm?"
A person who happened to see the two women a few moments later might have laughed, but no one did, and so they missed the sight of the smaller innkeeper setting Artemis in front of a stone basin. Then standing behind her and putting her arms around so that her hands rested on top of Artemis', Cyrene showed her how to use the quern. After adding the stool to kneel on, which didn't work too well, because she was forced to crouch on it and contort her body nearly into a knot, which did place her hands where she wanted, and her mouth at Artemis' ear.
"You mean I'm going to have to go into the bush for three days, sweat, starve, and get stoned to show Artemis I'll be a good mother?!" Tharjon winced. Thraso wasn't taking this quite as well as she hoped.
"Come on, Thraso! It won't be that bad, really. You've had to do worse."
"Not on purpose!"
"Oh." Tharjon frowned. "I have." this in a rather small voice.
"Ah, Rio, don't do that." Thraso sighed. "I'm not a priestess, never was cut out for it." Tharjon could be so damnably literal minded, and discomforted when you happened to be more gauche than you intended to boot. "I'm not saying it's bad in general to do this stuff on purpose. I'm just saying it's generally bad for me." She slid the last piece of greased cloth into place in the window frame, then nailed it in place. "I've never been comfortable with that sort of thing."
Her friend continued adding roof shingles, which was her assigned task for the afternoon, and shrugged. "Compared to some of the stuff I've seen, this is minor. Where does the chimney go?"
"Other side, in the back room. You can't have an open fire in the baby's room." Thraso slotted in the inner side of the window frame. "Did Queen Prothoë put you up to this?"
Tharjon uttered a heartfelt snort. "She dropped her sense of propriety in my lap and told me to soothe it, yes. I'm beginning to think she doesn't like me."
Thraso dropped a hammer on her foot. Rubbing the offended appendage, she asked, "Why?"
Sprawling on her belly in order to take the stress off her back, Tharjon fought with the ceiling studs a bit. "She always drops awkward or difficult stuff on me. I'm too old for her to be grooming me to be anything but what I am, so she must be mad at me."
"I think she's got the hots for you." grinned Thraso.
Two green eyes fixed on her. "Don't be ridiculous. You've gone soft Thraso, you see love everywhere."
"Love IS everywhere – no I'm not soft!" Thraso rolled her eyes and began stuffing more moss into the openings in the walls. "And I just mean I think she finds you attractive. That can't surprise you, after all, you've been having your fun lately." Almost too much. The incident at the temple of Hestia had nearly caused a diplomatic debacle.
A shingle fell to the floor. "Queen Prothoë is such a stuffed mattress – and one thing I've learned. The woman who is inhibited is the woman who gets hives and chases me away with a broom."
Thraso stared at her. Stuffed mattress? Was Aphrodite's diction getting around, or barring that – hopefully – her vocabulary? Were they the same thing? "I can't quite see Queen Prothoë going after you with a broom. Maybe a rake, never a broom." Thraso winked and Tharjon rolled her eyes.
"Very funny. There's nothing happening there, Thraso. Forget about it."
"She's only four winters older than you – twelve older than me."
"You trying to imply I'm old?" shot back Tharjon, setting the final shingle on the side of the roof she was working on.
"No, I'm implying that you're venerable." several shingles fell around her, and Thraso laughed. "And your eyes are going bad! Missed me completely." She looked up in time to see Tharjon clambering over the roof frame, and vaulting off. "Eeeek!"
Eumache walked around the corner, hearing shouting and laughing. She chuckled softly, wondering just what she was hearing had to do with the addition. Leaning on a tree, she watched her partner and her friend roughhouse and roll around in the grass. Try as she might, Thraso couldn't get a grip on the solidly built priestess, who also worked as a smith. She was only a part time smith for the most part, filling in when the carpenter and the elder blacksmith went into all out warfare mode.
The most recent volley had left the smith's fire and bellows emitting clouds of heavy black smoke and dust. The smith had been unable to work for nearly half a moon while the stuff was cleaned out. Queen Prothoë had asked the carpenter and elder blacksmith if going back to being lovers wouldn't be easier than this incessant chicanery. Both women and three quarters of the bystanders had been forced to run off to the Library, and look the word 'chicanery' up. They were duly disappointed when the definition failed to be spicy and exotic.
Tharjon was a fine smith, and curtailed her absentmindedness in regards to the forge fire. She was justly famous for the jewellery and sculptures she made, which were coveted as far away as east of Chin. Tharjon was infamous for her swords, also of excellent make, finely decorated – and made and given when and to only whom she saw fit. It was a mark of prestige to receive one of these objects, that would be sold for no price if she had determined not to give one up. Most of her infamy came from the belief, right or wrong, that she had made the sword carried by the Warrior Princess herself.
"Ha ha ha! I've got you now!" an evil note in the priestess' voice.
"What? No! No – not the thumbs, not the thumbs! Aaaack!" bellowed Thraso, wriggling in desperation. Tharjon had her pinned on her stomach, both hands twisted back by the thumbs, which were being bent slowly backwards.
Whap! Eumache smacked Tharjon in the back of the head, since Thraso's was more of a reach, then gave her a shove that the other woman allowed to knock her over.
"So, what's the news?"
"Maybe we should go away for a bit, after our ceremony." Cyrene suggested, running her hands up and down Artemis' sides, eliciting a purr. The Goddess tucked her head into Cyrene's shoulder and sighed blissfully when the innkeeper then proceeded to play with her hair, which was finally long enough for it.
"Sure. We'll go to some shoreline near enough to a town we could stop in and far enough out we could make out on the beach."
"Hah – of course, all this means is that we're incorrigible."
"Would anyone else wind up considering grinding acorn flour foreplay?"
"That was an incredibly fortuitous accident."
"I see – when will our daughters get here, do you think?" Who was she to question fortuitous accidents? Cyrene decided. And if they were going away for some time alone together soon, those daughters would be needed to run the inn.
Artemis snuggled up and mumbled, "Day – three the most."
"I think she really likes me."
"I think you should leave her alone!"
"Why? What harm am I doing?" Artemis' voice rose, and her face darkened, eyes paling with anger.
"Artemis, she is mortal, you are not – she is my Chosen, not yours!" Unusually, Athena was sounding petulant as opposed to rational.
"Xenoklea knows these things too."
"You're not listening!"
"I don't care for what you say! Do this, do that – no rhyme, no reason – have you forgotten that you are attempting to order the lives of two grown people?"
"Don't you understand..."
"Obviously not." cut in Artemis.
Athena dragged her hands through her hair, cursing in frustration. "I see doom around the two of you, something amiss."
"It is from the outside, it has nothing to do with us. This 'doom' as you call it will not touch your Chosen. I have seen to that. I wish you would trust me as you did before." Artemis rose to her feet, shoving away her goblet of wine, which sat on the table between them. "I have better things to concern myself with than arguing with you, Athena. I will remember this conversation at a later time." She stepped into the shadows in a corner of the turret room they were in, and stepped out of another such inky pool in her own study.
Striding to the desk, she dropped into the heavy chair behind it, already thinking too hard about her frustrating sister. Spinning the chair about, Artemis gazed out the window, watching the Evening Star waver toward the horizon in a sky of rainbowed colours like the belly of a fish – the wavering implying that Aphrodite was tipsy. The woman had no head for drink, Artemis reflected. Pulling a sheet of parchment from the small pile on the desk, she chewed at the end of a piece of charcoal, oblivious until too late of its effectiveness at staining her lips and teeth. Scowling in irritation, Artemis returned to an elusive phrase that had made its way about her consciousness for most of the day.
A silver coin in the midst of
an obsidian plain.
That unexpected, that rare...
A knock on the door interrupted her line of thought, and inspired her to hurl a candle holder at it. The unfortunate object bounced wildly off the door and rolled under a work table. Artemis listened a moment, and smiled when she heard the unwanted visitor hurry away. Her gaze returned to the parchment, until another unexpected sound broke her attention.
"Ooof – damn, it's only easy to climb this vine stuff in stories!" With that, a long leg hooked itself over the window sill, followed by an arm, and then the rest of Xenoklea, Queen of the Sirens. Albeit rumpled, dirty, and a little tired. Standing triumphantly by the window, she pulled a package out of a pouch at her waist. "Got something for you." Handing it over.
Artemis blinked a couple of times, then took the package. Turning it over and around, it was surprisingly heavy. "Go on." Xenoklea prompted. Artemis grinned now, and opened the package – to reveal a roast beef sandwich and several delicate looking pastries.
"I thought of the pastries first, but then I couldn't abide by the idea of you not eating properly, so I made you the sandwich too."
Artemis laughed. "You're wonderful, you know that?" Xenoklea blushed to the tips of her ears.
"Thank you..." Feeling bold and a bit outrageous – queens don't get to be flamboyant in public until their old age usually, after all – she gave Artemis a nudge at which the Goddess moved over, and plopped down beside her. "I don't want to be a queen you know."
"I know." Artemis replied softly, putting an arm around her shoulders.
"Nope. I wanna be an innkeeper when I grow up." Xenoklea declared determinedly.
"Sure – then I could cook and brew all the time. I'm really good at those things, and they don't make me bored." Xenoklea settled her head on Artemis' shoulder. "And I can slake my desire for unlimited power by arbitrarily throwing people out of my kitchen." She rubbed her hands together in a mock wicked gesture, eyes dancing as her friend giggled silently behind her. "Maybe I should abdicate – can you abdicate?"
"Well, I'm sure you could abdicate from being a queen, if being queen wasn't predicated on being Athena's Chosen to begin with."
"Damn. I was hoping I could start playing marbles in council meetings and otherwise setting folks up for my leaving – see, after a few rounds, I could start shouting, 'Oh no! My marbles, my marbles, pick 'em up before I lose 'em!' and flee during the scramble."
"Is it that bad?" Artemis neatly cut the sandwich in half and handed one section to Xenoklea.
"Hey! This is yours!"
"But it'll taste so much better if I share with you." Artemis batted her eyelashes. Xenoklea raised an eyebrow. Well, she had started it, hadn't she?
"Okay." she took a bite. "Your turn." she held the half sandwich up to Artemis' lips. The Goddess raised both her eyebrows. "We're sharing."
Somehow between finishing the sandwich and drinking the mug of water sitting on Artemis' desk, they wound up kissing. This wasn't a bad thing, Artemis reflected muzzily, enjoying the riot her body was indulging in. Then Xenoklea had her fingers in her hair and they had fallen unceremoniously onto the floor.
"It's a little cold down here." Xenoklea said. Then a devilish grin."Oh well." Flipping them over and giving the other woman her complete attention.
"Artemis?" the voice was right outside the door, and belonged to Athena.
"Wh – wha – what do you want?" Artemis called, finding herself distracted by the relative positions of her face and the queen's cleavage. "I'm bi...eeeesy." Xenoklea had just found out where a strategic buckle was, and worked a hand under Artemis' clothing. Her hands were cold.
"Busy? How can you be busy? Artemis, listen, we have to clear this up. It's not right for us to fight all the time like this. I wanted to have a chat with my Chosen and clear the air, but would you believe, I can't find her?" Artemis remained absolutely silent except for her breathing, which was getting much heavier. "Artemis?"
"Do you have a woman in there with you?" The Goddess closed her eyes,and seriously considered whisking herself and Xenoklea out of there. "I don't know her, do I?"
"Maybe – ooooohhhh – do that again."
"Of course you know me." Xenoklea piped up, gently covering Artemis' mouth with one hand. "We can all discuss this and make nice later." her tone was conversational and reasonable, even as she pulled open Artemis' tunic and gazed intently at her breasts. "I think I like these." she said, startling a laugh out of her. A rare, clear, happy laugh that Athena hadn't heard since her sister was a child.
"Sounds great." Athena hesitated, momentarily unsure whether to vocalize what she was feeling. 'Thank you for making my sister happy. Sure wish it was me being made happy instead. She does melancholy so much better than I do.' She reflected on that. 'Nah,' she decided. Saying that would require her basically to be an utter fool. Perhaps she was a fool, Athena chuckled to herself, but certainly not an utter fool. 'Now, dancing fool might just work – maybe I had better get Euphrosyne to teach me how to dance after all.' she chuckled softly, an almost bittersweet sound, and walked away.
In the room, Xenoklea grinned. "Some things are non-negotiable."
"I completely understand." Artemis replied gravely.
"Good." growled the queen.
Gabrielle frowned and wrote a few more words. She was trying her hand at writing an epic poem, and the effort was a little rough. 'Then again,'she thought. 'I've never heard of anyone being perfect the first time at pretty much anything.' A pause during which the quill twirled briefly.' That idea has really scary implications for pretty much everything: 'By that logic, this entire world could be a rough draft.' Shaking herself to lose the thought, which was a little too much so early in the morning, Gabrielle returned to the page. A steady thumping indicated Xena's arrival on Argo, and she smiled.
Being back on the road had done wonders for the warrior, who had perked up at the prospect of fishing and travelling – and outright glowed at the prospect of escaping Amazon protocols. "You'd think they'd take a hint when Artemis makes a point of ignoring or trampling them every time she shows up." Xena had commented unhappily as one such protocol forced her to help move another newly completed statue of her mother, this one painted white marble.
Unusually, the warrior had insisted on going to the market in a nearby town on her own, to meet 'an old acquaintance' who was 'helping her clear up a loose end' according to Xena's mysterious prose. Gabrielle wondered about that a little, and had indulged in a few moments of imagining a one-eyed, limping character, a craggy, world worn soul from Xena's younger days. Then she had tried out a younger image with both eyes, no limp, but one arm, and finally tossed the whole thing aside. The reality was always more interesting than what she could come up with.
Gabrielle patiently stopped for a moment, searching for a word to go with 'enjoy' in the stanza she was disputing with. Holding up the parchment and gazing at it with a biassed although practised eye, Gabrielle murmured, "Just a little rough..." A rather jangling half rhyme between 'fair' and 'pier' drew a wince. Metaphors between the ocean and facial features were plain awkward. "Okay..." a gusty sigh. "A lot rough. A word that rhymes with enjoy..."
Xena deftly removed Argo's tack and rubbed her down briskly with a blanket before settling herself on the ground nearby. "Annoy," she suggested. Gabrielle scowled at her. "Employ?" Gabrielle's eyes nearly disappeared. "I was only trying to help."
"No you weren't. You were just trying to annoy me."
"Who me? Annoy you?" pointing at her chest, then reaching for a piece of tack that needed repairing.
"Yes you were. You know as well as I do that you enjoy annoying me."
"Keeps me harmlessly employed."
"This is not something you should enjoy!"
"Actually, I am, much to my relief and joy." Xena's eyes twinkled. This game wasn't so bad – as long as Gabrielle didn't catch on. Then the bard was liable to go off in a fit of 'hardcore barding' in order to return herself to a state of 'bard equilibrium.' This always happened when Xena picked up on a vaguely bard sort of thing quicker than Gabrielle did. Sometimes Gabrielle was in such a hurry to re-establish bard equilibrium she got tongue tied, which generally reduced Xena to turning purple trying not to laugh. Then patiently finding a rose or a daisy to assuage the bard's feelings.
"Xena." Uh oh. Bard equilibrium re-establishment time. "I am working on a complex iambic hexameter with periodic seven syllable interpolations divided into five acts with four accompaniments – this is not some game." Silence, while two chips straight from the firmament blinked at her.
"Damn. And all I was doing was getting stuff ready to do this." With that, Xena caught hold of the hand Gabrielle was holding her quill in, and dropped something over the end of the quill which slid down and settled against the bard's fingers. "It seemed like a good idea to give this to you now, just in case you were starting to think this whole wooing thing is actually necessary."
Shifting her fingers, Gabrielle sucked in an astonished exclamation, finding the first words that came to mind simply too small for what she was looking at. Settled along her hand was a long silver chain, finely decorated with green stones and set with a larger one at the centre. Rather than a necklace, which it had seemed to be at first glance, Gabrielle could see that it was worn about the waist, with the larger stone sitting where a belt buckle would.
"I'm not sure what exactly it's called – I mean, yes, it's a sort of belt, but I think there is a real name for it – it has been in my family for years, broken into about a hundred pieces – passed along by the women in the family. My grandmother passed it on to Mom instead of Mom's older sister, although no one ever understood just why. Last time I stopped in Amphipolis, while you were struggling with those negotiations, she gave it to me, and said that she had never bothered to fix it because there was no smith able to deal with it, and she had no one to give it to. But I sure did." Xena smiled. "It doesn't suit Mets at all."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "It's gorgeous – thank you." It was eerie to be holding what felt like a thousand years in her two hands. They felt so small, dwarfed by what the remarkable piece represented. More than that, though – the touch of the metal made her hands tingle, the way they had the time she had firmly wrapped a hand around the hilt of Xena's sword. The way her fingers had the time she touched Thraso's mysterious blue-silver birthmark, which the half-Goddess would give no further information on. "Only Queens have worn this – even the Goddesses were never touched by this." her voice was soft, abstracted. Xena had heard the tone before, when Gabrielle had popped out with a prophecy in the midst of a storm battered village that had been faced with a warlord's newly arrived army.
Damn good thing she had prophesied victory.
"Does she know you call her that?" Gabrielle asked abruptly, giving herself a shake and rubbing at her temples, which were sore with an impending headache. Gods, sometimes having this prophetic ability was nothing more than a pain.
"Hmmm?" Xena looked up from mixing a tea that had proved especially effective for the sort of headache her partner was just getting started on. Chances were good it would be headed off at the pass, since no muddy villagers in need were going to demand their attention. "Call who what?"
"Sort of." Xena ducked her head, clearly a bit uncomfortable.
"Ah." time for a subject change. "I have another question."
"Another question?" Xena replied, settling her breastplate across her knees and examining it for weak sections in the spiralling metal.
"Mmmhmmm – a priestess can perform our joining – a priestess can perform Thraso and Eumache's joining. A priestess even managed to perform Ephiny and Callisto's joining..." bard and warrior shared a grimace. The whole ceremony had nearly become a disaster in spite of everything. "Who performs your parents' joining?"
Xena shook her head. "I'm not the one you should ask. I'm sure they have something worked out. I do know it won't be a village joining. Mets won't become a citizen of Amphipolis." She pulled out a polishing cloth and worked some oil into her breastplate, using the stuff that added a dull sheen rather than a shine.
"She won't?" Gabrielle shook her head in confusion. "Does it matter?"
"In her mind it does. Amphipolis belongs to her, not the other way around." Oiling the leather straps now. "She's wild, Gabrielle. She goes where she does and stays where she does because it suits her – and I think she considers 'signing up for citizenship' the same as sticking herself in cage." Xena looked up. "Artemis belongs only to herself – I can see what she's saying, even though I'm not always sure I agree with it." She grinned and turned to dig something else out of her saddlebag.
Gabrielle tipped her head to one side. It put her in mind of an ancient poem she had found, tucked into a crevice in the wall of the Library at Arboria.
A silver coin in the midst of
an obsidian plain.
That unexpected, that rare...
See how the wind blows
Chasing about the salt and the surf.
It goes where it pleases,
there, in, out. Elsewhere.
In the midst of a field of wizards,
Some trying to catch it with rope,
Others with leather bags...
or bronze bottles.
And unexpectedly, a diamond in
the midst of a vein of salt...
A queen who builds castles
in the sand.
The wind goes where she wishes,
yet she throws no coils of golden rope,
holds open no leather mouth
or bronze cap.
What manner of strange
The poem was unsigned, written in bold charcoal strokes on parchment saved from collapse only by how thick it was, and the relatively dry place it had been placed in. Gabrielle had copied it onto another sheet and sent it off to Thraso for her to look at. The young weaponmaster had been stymied until she showed it to Tharjon, who had been astonished, and nearly shaken her friend's arm off in her excitement. After the priestess had retrieved her coherence, she managed to explain.
The original parchment in Gabrielle's possession was a second, translated, copy of another page sitting in the Library at Themiskyra. Various priestesses of Artemis had knocked their heads against it, trying to understand why they couldn't make sense of a language that was obviously nearly the same as the thick, burring dialect used by Amazons native to the area. Tharjon had apparently picked up the translation bug herself, and had been fiddling with it – resulting in a thick scroll arriving at Gabrielle's hut a moon later with a copy of the mysterious, untranslatable version, and a little table of pronunciation notes. She had had no idea what to do with those, until she realized those had been included by accident, and Tharjon had terrible handwriting. The notes described Artemis' accent perfectly. Odd.
Grumbling and muttering trailed Tharjon all the way up the mountain. Thraso was miserable with the whole arrangement, and it looked like Eumache would never forgive her. Watching her reflection in a tiny pool halfway to the sacred cave, she unconsciously riffled her hair, and blinked in surprise when she saw that at her forehead and along her temples, it was becoming shot through with white. She smiled at herself, and shook her head wryly. Well, the fair haired members of her family always had gone white headed early. No reason for her to be different.
Thraso was sitting on a log, digging rocks out of the heels of her boots. The effort seemed silly, after all, they were climbing a mountain, and mountains tend to have lots of rocks on them. Tharjon chose to make no comment, and adjusted the armbands that curled snugly around her biceps, then her sleeveless tunic. Unlike Thraso, who was dressed in her usual trews, Tharjon had opted for a baggier version with extra pockets sewn on wherever they wouldn't hinder movement. They were thoroughly odd looking compared to anything else an Emetchi might be seen wearing and numbered among Tharjon's collection of strange, but surprisingly useful inventions.
The tall priestess sighed. She had a headache. The sort of headache that can drop a charging ox in mid-stride. Tharjon hadn't had one of those since her last serious hangover, and that had been so long ago she could almost drink raspberry wine again. Leaning back against a tree, she considered which path to take next. One was much steeper than the other. Her thoughts ground to a halt as her stomach let her know in no uncertain terms: this headache is a very bad thing. Reaching into a pouch on her belt, which was laughingly referred to as chronic overkill in the village when she came out in the particular trews she was wearing, she drew out a few mint leaves and some others that were good for headaches. The second kind she swallowed right away. The first she chewed hurriedly and gulped down with some water. Thankfully her stomach subsided with some grace, and Tharjon continued with what she had been trying to think about in the first place.
The steep path would cut out some time, with the downside of making them both damnably tired, and there was camp to set up yet. Tharjon rubbed at her eyes. Sure, she decided. Take the shallower path. Decision made, she turned to speak with Thraso, who was now standing near a drop off, watching high flying birds spiral in the updrafts. When she turned around,the weaponmaster looked resigned rather than pissed off. Which made Tharjon feel a little lousy. A sigh escaped the priestess. This wasn't working out well, and she felt terrible. Stepping away from the tree, she swayed a little. Damn, she really did feel like she had a hangover. Ah well. A good excuse to go back.
"Let's go." Tharjon said a little sharply, turning on her heel and stomping down the path in the opposite direction. Her companion blinked in surprise, and sighed shamefacedly as she realized that she had pushed the usually sunny natured priestess beyond the limits of her patience.
"Rio," Thraso called hurrying after her.
"No, no – forget it. We'll think of something else." Tharjon stopped short a moment, coughing dryly. "Stuff like this is pointless if you're going to spend the whole time miserable about it." Mopping at her forehead with one sleeve, the priestess hurried on, determinedly ignoring her head, which felt like it was spinning. Thraso stood still a moment, uncomfortable and unhappy. Okay, she had been an utter ass the past few days, but there had to be some way to settle Tharjon's temper again. Her friend had gone around a bend in the path, and she couldn't see her. Taking a breath and hitching up her trews, Thraso marched around it as well – and broke into a run when she found Tharjon sprawled on her face in the middle of the path.
Turning Tharjon over, Thraso was shocked at her clammy skin and too rapid heart beat. To make matters worse, her breathing was laboured, which meant what looked like mountain climber's sickness had already gone too far. Kicking into weaponmaster mode, Thraso looked around to find her bearings. A cave set up for climbers was almost a candlemark hike away, and there was nothing closer – but the trip was also mostly down, which was absolutely necessary. Heaving a bit, she picked up her friend and got started, firmly shutting out the question of how she was going to successfully haul someone nearly as big as herself part way down a mountain in less than a candlemark.
Snickering greeted her as she returned from fetching some of the hard won acorn flour pancakes. "What?" Artemis asked in confusion. Cyrene just laughed harder for a few moments then explained.
"Honey, you should see your hair. It looks like you've been struck by lightning. It sticks up most of the day anyway even if it gets combed, but this is beyond the usual." She handed Artemis a mirror – a bronze, well polished mirror from Lesbos, and waited.
Artemis rarely looked at herself in any reflective surface. She trusted that her appearance remained constant beyond her hair and barring when she wore disguises. And since Cyrene apparently considered her just wonderful to look at, it never occurred to her to examine things all that closely. The slightly well worn countenance looking back at her seemed almost, but not quite a stranger. True, she was well used to her pale, silvery green eyes and dark, dark hair, which was indeed sticking up mostly on the top and sticking mostly out on the sides – but the rest. Well, so often and for so long she had covered it with helmets and paint and the grim masks that inspired even Zeus with fear. The clown get up at Arboria had been a welcome change she hadn't allowed herself often enough. And what she had seen she had shut her eyes to. She didn't need to see how haunted and pale she looked, forever on a fruitless search. A search that only gave way to the Wild Hunt. Best not to think of the Hunt, she decided. Such grim topics weren't meant for sunlight.
No, now the face seemed different. The same high cheekbones and solid square jaw with a sort of divet in it that Cyrene liked very much. The same high forehead and strong widow's peak which led to Athena teasing her that it was a good thing Thraso had her eyes, or there'd be some questions demanding answers. It was the lines that were gone. The lines corresponding to pain and the furious gaze which could clear a battlefield inside a quarter candlemark. The bleak look of sorrow she had worn so long the lands around her towers in the mountains had become wasted and bleak to match them. How could such a change have happened so quickly? Artemis wondered, jumping a little as Cyrene carefully pulled the mirror from her hands.
"You have no idea how ill you looked when we first found each other again, do you? Artie, why do you think I've been so stubborn about feeding you – and making you rest – and cuddling you in the middle of a bustling common room if I have to. You looked like a ghost – I couldn't believe how white you were, even after you washed off the clown make up." She clasped Artemis' hands, now a sturdy brown like the rest of her skin again, except where her rings and one bracelet sat, because she never took them off. Cyrene swallowed and took a deep breath. "So different from the way you look in some of my dreams. But not anymore." she smiled. "You're looking as hale and hearty now as you do in any of them. You can explain those to me later. For now," she tugged Artemis into a sitting position on the bed and caressed her face until the frown lines faded away again. "We put a dent in a certain pile of pancakes."
The play had gone on for over two candlemarks. The heat in the theatre was stifling, and the roiling smoke from the many torches assaulted her nose. Artemis shifted in her seat, flashing a look over at Ares, who was watching Athena. He had schemed and blackmailed his way into forcing them to watch – a play. Now it looked as if Artemis was incidental to the main action. Ares was staring at Athena like he was afraid to blink. He insisted on bothering her over Xena. Xena was Athena's Chosen to start with, and she was still fighting hard to get her out from Ares' influence. He wanted to know why, why Athena didn't just cut her losses and pick someone else. Now he thought he knew, and the play was supposed to confirm it in some way. Artemis gritted her teeth and returned her attention to it.
It was a tragedy. It told of the great wise and honourable Queen of the Sirens, and how by cruelty and treachery her lover had been killed in a plot meant to assassinate her. How she had led anyway, because her Goddess, Athena had asked her to, until her daughter could take her place. So Ares had said. The premise had made Artemis feel physically ill. For a few moments even Ares had gone still in alarm as it seemed for a moment like she'd smash aside him and his goons and leave. Athena's desperate eyes, and the knowledge that the god of war held Thraso, then barely three winters old hostage had been enough to still what had bordered on a berserker's desperation.
Now she was sitting through a tormenting play, sweating blood and looking more and more crazed by the moment. Ares was oblivious. Athena was oblivious. The actors were oblivious. She needed them to give her lessons in obliviousness, Artemis reflected with black humour. And then the action on the stage caught her eyes, and she couldn't look away. The end of a climactic battle, and the Amazons were cheering. An Amazon perched on the back of a reasonably well done wooden horse rode up and down the ranks, calling them to order for the arrival of their queen. It was eerily accurate, how she was costumed, and threw Artemis' mind back to memories, when she had taken that fateful and fatal ride.
The plotters had hired three women, three of the finest archers sadly come down from their places of honour. They were from Anatolia, and had spent many grim years fighting in and out of Greek colonies. Forgotten was most of what they knew of their own people, and the strangeness of the Sirens kept their recollections silent. To their eyes, the woman being cheered by an army of Amazons must be their Queen. Waiting until clasping hands of well wishers blocked her arms, the archers fired from three different directions, and thought they had succeeded when she fell from her horse, pierced unerringly by all three arrows. They were tainted with a poison capable of felling even a deity for awhile.
Artemis remembered toppling off her horse, furious that action which would have stopped them from hitting her would kill at least three of the mortals around her. Angrier still when she realized something else was on those arrows, and her eyes were falling shut against her will. She had never seen what happened afterwards, and woke three hundred long years later in a cold stone tomb.
This play was going to give her an idea of it. She watched in horror as the Queen finally arrived, and hurled aside Amazons in desperation and fear before getting to her lover. The actor was going to deliver some sort of speech. Artemis jerked to her feet. She didn't need any idea.
"Torches – put them out!" she bellowed at Ares' retainers, who were so terrified by her expression they did as they were bid. Diving through the stunned people around her, she vanished into the shadows, and before even her sister could call out, she was well and truly gone.
Ares had been so stunned at what had happened, he handed over Athena's little girl without question or hesitation. And Artemis, the first deity who had ever held the reins of war and still did, called a warrior named Xena who had done no more than take control of a little area around Amphipolis. By the time Xena had unwittingly ferreted out every Amazon queen who had gained her position by ancient connections to the plot to remove the Queen of the Sirens, which had somehow turned out so much better than that for them, as if Artemis herself was somehow prevented from stopping their crueller plans – the Nation had not only been purged. She had lost the army she had built up from what had happened to her village years before.
Athena had furiously stopped her sister then, unaware that she was stopping the person who could have prevented the birth of the Destroyer of Nations. Never knowing until far too late that Artemis never forgot her Amazons, and fully intended to reward Xena for doing an unpleasant job without understanding why she was driven to do it. How was she supposed to know why Artemis was keeping an eye on a naive young woman who wanted to be a bard in an obscure Greek port town.
Her lover's violent tossing and turning jerked Cyrene awake. 'What the Tartarus was wrong with Artie?' she wondered in alarm. The Goddess was thrashing around like she was fighting an army. Or trying to wake herself up. Moving quickly, Cyrene caught one of her partner's flailing arms. "Artie! Artie! Artemis! Hey!" The movement abruptly stopped. A rather wild expression greeted her.
"I hate remembering that. I hate it."
"I know." Reaching out, Cyrene pulled Artemis into her arms, heedless of the bloody sweat on her face that Cyrene would have to ask about later."I know." Artemis gripped her partner's arms and sat silently for a few moments, struggling against tears.
"It's a curse, sometimes."
"I've thought about that." Cyrene said gently.
"I don't know if I could handle it, if you were taken from me again." Artemis' tone was almost distant. She didn't realize she had spoken out loud.
"Then let's do something about it." Cyrene replied briskly, wrapping herself more tightly around the Goddess, who was actually chill to the touch, a curious indication of just how upset she was.
"Let's do something about it. I know you would become a mortal, if you could, for me. It works both ways, or have you forgotten?" Cyrene looked her lover in the eyes, willing her not to argue, or hesitate. This was an issue that left Artemis with a continuous, whip tight razor edge of tension. It gave her no relief, and tended to manifest in the periodic overgrown argument. "This part of our coming together – it is not for others to see. It's just between us."
Artemis stared at her for a long moment. "I need to ready the place – we can't do it here. To make you immortal, I myself become defenceless for a time."
"Works for me. How long does it take?"
"Only one night. But we can stay there as long as you care to."
"Good. Let's get started." And Artemis didn't argue with that either. A testament to just how awful those dreams must have been.
Both women rose to change clothes. It was barely dawn, and Cyrene chuckled a little as she realized that Lisana was probably going to have a panic attack when she got into the kitchen and found things well under way – and her mind automatically tracked to homey, gentle things. 'Ah well,' Cyrene thought to herself. 'If I can calm a panicking Goddess, I should be able to deal with her.' Her eyes tracked to the Goddess in question, and she couldn't repress a smile as she watched her lover splash cold water on her face, rinsing away the sweat, then shaking herself a little before digging out some clothes, all while standing there stark naked. Glad of the lighter train of thought the sight encouraged, Cyrene ran with it.
There were many people who would consider her partner – hirsute. Which, to a degree, was true. Artemis was blessed with her fair share of body hair, most of it associated with puberty. Cyrene knew of women who shaved off – everything. It just about put her into an imitation corkscrew position merely approaching the idea with her imagination. Some things were meant to be avoided at all costs.
Even Artemis' lower back was hairy, which was a bit unusual. Cyrene had never seen that before, even in her husband. – she was dignifying him with the term in recognition of the fact he had started out as a kindly enough person, before he took to drink. Not nasty hair – nice stuff, that highlighted pleasing aspects of her lover's figure. She smiled a little, her gaze now tracing to the faint, silvery mark where Aphrodite had stuck Artemis with the infamous special edition love arrow. And blinked in surprise when she saw the mark was gone. One thing she did know, it had been there the night before. Which probably meant...
"You can stop worrying about the bad memories tormenting you so much now, now that Aphrodite's stuff has done its thing." she said, smiling a little as Artemis pulled on some trousers.
"I can?" Artemis frowned a little, unsure how a ringing case of bad memories led to worrying about whatever bizarre love formula her sister was throwing around. The one using garlic and onions had been scary enough.
"I think so. Your sister's arrows can go about their work in cruel ways." 'Which I will speak to her about in future – especially when I asked her specifically to leave the damn things at home.'
"Oh." Artemis' tone was actually subdued.
"I asked her – and told her – not to bring those things. I knew you didn't need any inducements, only a chance to remember."
A sigh of relief. "Okay."
"Now we can go back to producing comic relief for our guests." A startled expression from Artemis, then she burst out laughing, the sound like a river of relief.
"I like it. No more grim nasty stuff."
"Nope. I think we've cleared up what we have to." Cyrene grinned. Damn, there was one more thing, though – "What are we going to do about the person who actually caused the mess?" A feral smile answered her.
"I have the perfect idea."
She woke up before her eyes opened, which sometimes happened, and sometimes didn't seem to. Tharjon kept still, figuring out her surroundings. A soft blanket and a heavy sleeping fur covered her, and she was laying on top of a bedroll she recognized as her own, since, after all, she had stuffed it herself, and knew every lump intimately. Turning her attention to other details, she soon realized that she had only a pair of breeches on, which was faintly surprising. She was in a cave, with a nice fire keeping vigil near her bare feet, which were covered by the fur and blanket. Finally Tharjon peeled her eyes open, and looked over at Thraso, who was writing quietly on the other side of the cave. Thraso looked up.
"I'm glad you're awake. I was worried – if we had climbed this mountain a little faster, you'd really be feeling lousy." Thraso picked up a waterskin and quietly handed it to the priestess. "As to going home – moot point. It started snowing last night, bizarrely enough. It's not too cold, and most of it will be gone in a day or so. Might as well sit out here for the required three days and have a nice walk back." Not exactly an 'I'm sorry' sort of apology, but an apology all the same.
"Okay." Tharjon blew the hair out of her eyes. "I don't usually get sick like this." Her companion coughed uncomfortably.
"You don't usually have to brood about how the Queen's gonna react when she finds out we didn't manage to do what we were supposed to, either. I noticed you never had anything to eat this morning, and you weren't drinking on the way up either."
"Too true." Tharjon stretched her arms and legs, then eased herself up a little. "The fast isn't supposed to start until you're on the mountain."
"Well – I haven't eaten anything, being as I was worried about you." Closing her book, Thraso stowed her writing materials.
"Oh – completely salvageable, then."
"Yup. Do your stuff."
"Hah!" Tharjon chuckled. "Okay. Do you know why exactly, so many rituals like this seem to involve, 'sweating, starving, stinking, and getting stoned' as you put it?"
"No – listen, Rio, I was just upset because leaving Eumache on her own right now bothers me a lot."
"Thraso, if it didn't, there would be no purpose to doing this at all. This has nothing to do with proving you'll be a good mother – and everything to do with protecting Eumache and your baby."
"Oh yeah? Fill me in."
"I was trying to do that before – now where was I..."
Artemis strode quietly through the forest, glad of the clean smelling air pushing ill dreams and ill memories away. Cyrene had already done most of the work, but somehow it always meant something to walk among the trees. She paused and leaned against one, remembering older, pleasant memories. As a child she had found the forest a calming place, a good thing since she had been an active, wild little kid. Now she often wondered how her mothers had managed to teach her anything at all. Between being chased off by swarms of bees and the running to wear boots or not to wear boots conflict, Themis and Selene had certainly had their hands full. The bees had been incited to riot by a daughter who was just big enough to get to the hive but too small to actually get the honeycomb. Artemis grinned. Her first nickname had come from that incident. 'Little Bear' her mother had taken to calling her.
Moving on again, she traced a barely visible path, picking out the little signs of a once well groomed trail. Several branches cut level with each other near the ground. A tree root that stopped abruptly and started again an arms length away. Wild poppies scattered through the underbrush, suggesting very subtly their original planting as trail markers. Hidden behind a bunch of tangled gorse, a tiny pool with a matching stone tablet, once the resting place of a wooden cup, lost long ago to wind, weather, and the creeping things all dead wood is in danger of.
Stopping, Artemis pulled out her boot dagger and carefully cleared away the gorse and the soft, dark loam intruding on the neatly shaped stones around the pool. A little more work, and then she reached into the pool, groping with her fingers until she found the irregular lump that blocked up its outlet, making it the source of a creek and finally a little swamp further along the path. The stuff squished in her fingers, and Artemis made a face. "Why have I got a bad feeling that some amphibious beastie laid its eggs here?" Bearing down, she hauled out the stuff, drawing out a bundle of tangled branches and moss, stones and algae. Thankfully, no eggs seemed to be present, and Artemis tucked the stuff into a hollow log rather than toss it someplace. Reaching in again she cleared more algae and junk, until finally a faint trickling sound came to her ears, and the musty brownish water ran out to be replaced by clear, good smelling liquid.
Finished with the first difficulty, Artemis pulled a chunk of oak out of her pocket and proceeded to carve. First removing the corners and edges, then rounding it. Soon she had a fine cup with a handle shaped like a running horse at full extension. Cutting a little groove in the centre of its top, she cast around until she found some dry old man's beard and set about the smelly, warm work of burning out the inside of the receptacle.
Thraso blinked muzzily. After the initial tough bits, the retreat – ritual – whatever it was had gone well. Tonight was the culminating night, and accordingly she had been given some stuff so potent her eyes had teared when Tharjon had measured the herbs into her palm. It had been interesting getting the things down. Now she was laying outside, staring at the stars which looked all different colours for some reason, in trousers and a heavier tunic and her winter boots. The boots were a bit much, but her usual boots for cold without appreciable amounts of snow had given up their lives to repair Eumache's pack when she discovered holes in both their soles. Anyway, according to Tharjon, she was supposed to lay there and wait for some sort of vision.
The priestess was watching her from where she was sitting on a tree branch. Thraso was a little uncomfortable with that, because Tharjon had taken the herbs too, and tree climbing seemed unwise under the circumstances. She was watching the sky too, and Thraso wondered what she saw there. The weaponmaster tended to look at it as a bunch of stars. Tharjon saw other worlds, places no one had ever been to. Strange glowing things brighter than fire and twice as strange. Great dark things that ate everything, even light, and gave it off as light and stuff somewhere else. She saw wonders everywhere, almost like a child.
A child. The weaponmaster blew out a breath. The question was, could she take care of one properly. A worrisome question, because being able to make children and taking care of them were two very different things in her experience. Sitting up and wrapping her arms around her knees, she struggled with the concept. Luckily, she never noticed when her inebriated state resulted in her falling off topic and into a hazy half dream with centaurs running around in it. Lots of them, and not just any centaurs either, female centaurs.
Two trotted back and forth in front of her, helping a little centaur with her first steps. Centaurs were like horses, of course, they started walking right away. It was still a startling revelation. One of the centaurs was tall and dark, with eyes of a silvery green hue Thraso had only seen in two legged individuals before. The other was red haired on her head and roan where she was a horse. The dark centaur eventually trotted over to her, and then past her, apparently never noticing her.
"Gee. I would be a nonentity in my own hallucination."
"Don't be daft. This place is a world – a dream world, made mostly of old memories, but a world all the same. If it isn't your memory, or a message from the Holy One, you won't be able to interact with it." Thraso jumped in surprise. The person who had replied was Tharjon. A much different Tharjon, wearing gorgeous red leathers, her golden hair brushed until it shone. Her eyes, usually just a pale greyish green were dancing and bright with silver. Thraso couldn't explain it, yet somehow Tharjon seemed more herself here – more like she belonged, instead of eccentric and ill fitted to a rough little village in Northern Thrake.
The dark centaur returned, carrying a bag, and watched the little centaur caper around the red haired centaur on wobbly but determined legs. "Manto," she called. "I have lunch."
"Why am I not surprised? You're always hungry." Manto called back.
"No, not hungry – just a little peckish." the dark centaur cantered up to her compatriots.
"Alright. So you're always a little peckish." teased Manto.
"Do you talk to my mother the way you talk to me?" the little centaur had tucked herself into the darker centaur's flank now that she was seated on the turf.
"No – I couldn't possibly. I'm too busy trying to keep up with what she's saying to speak myself most of the time." Manto settled herself on the ground as well, idly flicking her tail. "You're not quite as inclined to cloak what you mean in riddles as she is. Yet."
"Why would I do that?" was the bewildered reply.
A gentle tap broke Thraso's dazed attention. "Come on kid, this part will make more sense later."
"But it doesn't make sense now!" Thraso burst out unhappily.
"Just think, then your understanding of it can only improve."
Artemis wormed her way into the cave, struggling over and around the rocks that had fallen across its entrance. Once inside, she looked around, sniffing slightly. It was cool but dry, and things were in reasonably good shape. Walking forward, she allowed old memory to guide her, and soon pressed a callused palm against a heavy metal door, one of her second eldest daughter's more interesting projects. It went together like a giant puzzle, and if you knew where to pull, could be reduced to a pile of clanking blocks and bolts inside a moment. The idea of demolishing a door without demolishing it had appealed to Artemis' sense of the bizarre, and she asked her daughter about using it as the entrance to this strange hide away. Half expecting the answer to be no, and being a little surprised when the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Artemis shrugged her shoulders slightly. The door was like a paradox, an enigma – two words frequently used in reference to herself. Funny, that.
Satisfied that the door hadn't been disturbed, she returned to the blocked up entrance. A few moments of stillness, while she pondered how best to move the stones. And then a smile and a shrug Cyrene would have recognized immediately as the prelude to an application of divine might, clenched her hands into fists, took a great breath, and literally shouted at the rocks – which did what many frustrated mortals had wished before in similar situations, and flew outside, landing in a fan of debris stretching several body lengths into the forest. The lack of fallen trees was due to the fact the rocks had shattered in the process.
Dusting her hands and buffing her nails on her tunic, Artemis pulled open the metal door, revealing a winding staircase. Unconsciously hitching up her trousers, she padded swiftly up the steps, flicking a restless gaze over the shelves and hooks covering the walls. Jars, books, and boxes lined the shelves, overflowing with writing utensils and herbs and the odd pair of boots tied together by their laces or a threadbare cloak. A pair of hose stopped Artemis in mid-stride. According to Aphrodite, they would be all the rage soon, just wait. To Artemis they looked like a tighter, colder version of a pair of leggings – and she found those constricting, although Cyrene loved to see her in them.
Of course, Cyrene also loved her in nothing at all, which wasn't quite practical, Artemis reflected regretfully.
Continuing upwards, the stairs flattened into a sloping passage ending at an opening in the rock, hollowed out by centuries of patiently dripping water. Fine cracks ran along the right side of the opening, and Artemis ran her fingers over them, eyes growing sad as she remembered the quakes which had caused them. Finally she stepped out into the sunlight.
She stood now on the crest of a hill, which had been encircled with walls, themselves skilfully adorned with ivy and laurel, which climbed and clung along the many stones. The empty doorway ahead of her was matched by a second behind, the Sun shining boldly from it, throwing her shadow across the ground and over the simple altar, which looked like little more than a mound. A closer look revealed it was a stone, smoothed by the touch of many hands. The sky stretched like a flawless tapestry overhead, no sign of a cloud or a bird anywhere.
Artemis grinned broadly. No birds meant no Athena – which meant no long awkward conversations about the small matter of how a bucket of water had been strategically positioned over Athena's door on her birthday a few Moons ago. Athena was a Sun Goddess after all, and loved the Libyan desert in particular where she could chase after her own Amazons and get toasted. She disliked water, and tended to react with comical outrage to having it on her person. Very like a wet cat. Artemis snickered. Very much so.
Running a hand over the stone, she walked out of the temple and across a clearing, onto a rolling field. No birds or clouds here either – but there was an unmistakable scent of burning hemp leaves. No matter how hard she tried, Artemis could not find a way to find that smell other than disgusting. It was no consolation that the smoke was intoxicating.
Then her tranquility was further spoiled by a voice she knew all too well. "Damn – what does he want?"
A few more strides revealed Ares, hollering in outrage at his soaked and bruised minions. The fellow with the least hair was trying desperately to tell how some river god or something had beat them up, but this just seemed to make inspire Ares to go where no curser had gone before.
"Piss and whine, piss and whine." Artemis called, feeling completely unimpressed when Ares delivered a particularly ripe curse she had come up with herself centuries ago.
Ares spun around. "Artemis!" he shouted angrily.
"Wipe your beard, dear." the Goddess replied airily.
Pulling himself together with an effort, Ares tried a slightly different tack. "Well, well, well – if it isn't my favourite relative who is sometimes my enemy."
"No, I wouldn't call myself that. We're not really related, after all." Artemis replied softly. "And I can't be bothered to be your enemy. Too much wasted energy. It's much more fun showing how inept your goons are and periodically inquiring as to when you'll disentangle yourself from Zeus."
Ares sneered. "Semantics."
"New word of the day!" Artemis made a clicking noise with her tongue and winked at him. Several of the soggy minion-types behind him started to laugh.
"Shut up!" Ares shouted at them. "Don't try to deny how it really is between us, Artemis!"
"The truth about that is..." Artemis folded her arms and watched him. "Nah. You can't handle the truth." Damn, that smell really was him.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ares ordered his minions to go find something better to do, then turned and glared at her. "Well?"
"Well what? Why are you here?"
"It won't work, Artemis."
"What won't work?" her tone was uninterested. Ares tended to think no one's plans could possibly work but his. A harmless self deception before he had developed an interest in warfare, Artemis reflected wryly.
"Your scheme to put Xena back under Athena's thumb, and convince me that she's your daughter."
"I have a scheme?" Artemis was well and truly baffled. She made it a point never to scheme. It was so much more fun to fly by the seat of her pants.
"Don't try to play dumb with me!" spat Ares. "I know everything!"
"How can a man who knows everything know so little?" replied Artemis, conjuring a chair out of nowhere and seating herself on it. "Insofar as I have any interest or intention of dealing with you Ares, you know nothing of it."
He scowled. Artemis' gaze sharpened. He was fishing – somehow he had picked up on the shifting currents of energy around her, and was trying to see what was happening. A personal run in like this was unprecedented, however. "I wonder what inspired this little tirade." She wasn't too proud to admit she didn't know – just not in so many words.
"Do you seriously expect me to believe Xena decided to start acting like an Amazon on her own? Your irritating little blonde must have something to do with it – and she speaks for you. And don't try to deny Athena herself has been trying to mess with me."
"Oh, I hope not." Wouldn't that result in problems for her high priestess, Artemis chuckled to herself. "Xena – decides these things for herself." She picked up a green tinted bronze bottle someone had left behind.
"She's your Chosen!"
"Does your Chosen speak for you? And truth be told Ares, Gabrielle isn't quite the sort of Chosen you think she is – for that, I have another more suited to the task." The stopper came out of the bottle easily enough. An idea had begun to form in the tall Goddess' mind, and the more she considered it, the more she liked it.
"This isn't about my Chosen!" shouted Ares. He stopped abruptly, realizing his mistake a little too late.
"Hmmm." chuckled Artemis. "Save that line for Hercules. Or for the North Wind, when you go hang out with him."
"You must have me mixed up with someone else. I am not a wind god." sneered Ares.
"Could have fooled me, you blow so much hot air." Artemis muttered. Out loud she said, "My mistake. You used to work with storms when you were a boy, after all. They were quite impressive."
"I know you're trying to change the subject, Artemis. It won't work."
"I suppose not – but you know, I'm not really interested, and this bottle reminded me of a curious story I heard awhile back. Did you know that the Boeotians are claiming that they have you trapped in a bronze bottle similar to this one in a temple of their Goddess?"
"Obviously you've been spending too much time listening to drunkards' tales in Cyrene's inn."
"Oh, I don't know – it sounds, interesting." Artemis smiled. "You know, once my older sister turned my hair purple, even though I was busy making like a tree and leaving at the time."
"You're wasting my time Artemis! I have better things to do." He was about to leave when he paused. "Maybe I'll add an innkeeper to my list." Ares' signature blue flash filled the air, only to be followed by a sharp 'thwop' sound.
"Gotcha." Artemis grinned ferally. "I think the purple hair thing constitutes fair warning." Screwing the lid of the vessel down tight, she tipped her head to one side, considering. "Ah, now she's the ticket! Iris! Iris!"
A wind blew around her a few times, then settled into the sound of running feet. A moment later, a woman with wings on her heels coalesced and dropped to the ground in front of her. "You hollered?" she asked drily.
"Yes I did – will you be passing over the Mediterranean shortly?"
"Undoubtedly – nobody is faster than me."
"Excellent, excellent. I'd rather you did the job than Nobody anyway. Toss this in, will you, on your way over?"
Iris looked at the bronze bottle doubtfully. "I'm not allowed to litter."
"Trust me, this isn't litter." Artemis replied. "Consider it – an unexpected note for Poseidon."
"Ohhh...." Iris shook her head a little. "You're up to something, I can tell by that Cheshire cat grin of yours. Whatever it is, I'm just the messenger."
"I have nothing to do with anything you're doing, nothing."
"Absolutely nothing cross my heart and hope to..."
"Don't be ridiculous. Say something like that, and if it ever happens that innkeeper will have my feathers. Just keep me out of it." Iris rose into the air and was gone, and if a person could have accompanied her out to sea, they would have seen her drop the bottle into the midst of a craggy reef. After all, Artemis never said anything about making it easy for Poseidon to get the message, did she?