Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Centaur's Tail, Part Three
Xena leaned against Argo, expression a little bored. She had been ready to leave nearly half a candlemark ago, but Gabrielle had seen something she was determined to buy before they had made it out of the village. The owner had proved intransigent, and the haggling had reached epic proportions before Xena had given up and led Argo out of town, hoping the stroll would give the bard enough time to finish. No doubt someone would write an appropriate lengthy poem in honour of her partner's skill and determination. Until then, Xena was seriously considering just grabbing her and tossing her over Argo's back next time. They'd be leagues away before Gabrielle had a chance to finish sputtering. Sleeping on the other side of the fire and eating cold jerky for dinner was very nearly worth it, Xena reflected.
The sound of running feet slapping on the dirt road snapped Xena to attention, and she turned to see an Amazon, hauling full tilt towards her, gripping a wooden scroll tube in one hand. The woman had a solid, stocky build and a pugnacious jaw. First glances suggested she should have been a poor choice for a messenger, but her steady gait belied them. She was pushing faster than her regular pace, which gave Xena a niggling sense of worry. The Amazon was close enough now for Xena to tell her pack from the rest of her, and note the unusual strips of red leather marking the sleeves of her long sleeved leather jerkin, each marked with an alpha and omega.
"Message for Xena of Amphipolis, daughter of Admetus of Borysthemis." gasped the Amazon as soon as she was an arms-length away. Xena frowned in confusion. Borysthemis? What the furk was that?
"A message? From who?" Xena asked, watching as the Amazon pulled off the top of the wooden tube and shook out the scroll.
"No idea, ma'am. I just run around like some freaked out chicken, handing them to whoever they're for." responded the Amazon.
"Ah hah." Xena smiled. "What are the letters for?"
"Hmm? Oh – I'm a member of the Queen's Own Messengers of Borysthemis. Those letters are part of her arms."
"Everybody else calls it Themiskyra." the Amazon grinned cheerfully, pulling a water bottle out of her pack. "That's just our capital though, not the whole region."
The warrior popped the seal on the scroll and began to unroll it. "What's your name?"
Xena tipped her head to one side. "What has my mother to do with the Queen of all Northern Amazonia?" It had been quite awhile since Xena had encountered her – and she had barely survived the experience. She had gotten into a fight with the ferocious Queen, and it had gone on until a bolt of lightning had whalloped the ground in between them and knocked them both senseless.
"Why, I'm surprised you don't know, ma'am – I mean, your mother, she's the Queen's mother, too – and the Queen has some pretty crazy connections to Ares to boot – Admetus of Borysthemis – she is your mother, right? You look quite a lot like her, and the fruit falls right under the tree in her clan."
Xena stopped short in the act of bracing the scroll against Argo's saddle. "It's complicated – Kirke, right?"
"Right." Kirke beamed and took a long pull from the water bottle.
Turning her attention to the scroll, Xena found herself gazing at a sheet full of bold, capital letters written determinedly in blue-black ink.
I'm up to no good, and I need you to help me out.
On your way to Amphipolis, could you stop for a candlemark or so at the trade post upriver? A boat should have come and gone from there already, and left a fellow named Aster – like the Morning Star, to some folks, even though you and I both know it's just my sister wandering home – he's waiting for an escort to Amphipolis. I meant to do it myself, but something has come up.
Don't worry, you'll like him, and he's not the leering or rude type. – he's not a bozo either.
Right. Need to run by my own house up North. I finally get to pull out those two joining bands I've had locked away these past few centuries.
Stay out of trouble.
"Up to no good." Xena mumbled. "Damn, damn, damn – there's gonna be a riot." Looking over at Kirke. "Did you see a blonde woman, about so high, wearing a set of nice blue leathers on your way through the village?"
"Yes ma'am I did – arguing something fierce with some fellow with a ring in his nose."
Sounded like Gabrielle, all right. "Well, sounds like there's no end in sight yet – let's go back. The least I can do is buy you a good meal."
Kirke's eyes brightened. "Far be it from me to turn down such a generous offer."
"No, no, no – a thousand times no! What do I look like? A maniac? A lunatic? Nope, no Moon worshipping happening here. You cannot have this all but priceless thing for a price like that."
"Alright – if it's priceless, just give it to me!"
"Priceless – having no price..."
"No, no – what are you, some kind of bard? Get out of here, you can't have it!"
Gabrielle scowled in frustration. The tunic they were arguing over was perfect for Xena, a beautiful crimson number with silver buckles and points on the laces. Amazingly, it was nearly identical in cut although not decoration to Artemis' 'Sun tunic' as Cyrene had taken to calling it, it being the Goddess' red and gold number. Giving up on the tunic was not an option.
"Thirty dinars is a ridiculous price."
"This thing is unique!" the merchant snapped back, wriggling the tunic on the counter. The action began to draw the attention of bystanders.
"I'm not contesting that. Your problem is, do you see anyone else willing to buy it?" Gabrielle grinned triumphantly. She had him. The tunic had garnered curious looks, and that was all. Articles in red leather were not considered appropriate for regular wear in this part of the world – unless you planned on shocking the older inhabitants.
The merchant glared at her. "Twenty dinars."
"Ten! Why I ought to call the guards! I..."
"Guards? What's going on?" Xena stepped out of the crowd, glaring at the merchant.
"Should take your ten dinars. Here." Thankfully a bystander bumped into Xena leading to a short scuffle, allowing Gabrielle to hand over the money and corral the tunic before Xena actually saw it.
"One garment down, two to go." the bard chortled happily. Catching up to the tall warrior, she asked,
"What are you doing here? I thought you were waiting out of town?"
"I got a message and we have to take a little side trip on the way home. Nothing major, just something Mets won't be able to do. The messenger looked starved so I bought her lunch."
"Really? Is she still there? I'd like to talk to her."
"Yup. I had a few questions for her myself."
Kirke leaned back in her seat, and allowed the two bowls of stew and three slices of bread settle comfortably. It had been a long run to catch Xena of Amphipolis, including a dash through the heavy forests to the North. A short cut, but a punishing one. She ran a fingertip along a wicked scratch from a wild rose bush she had collided with halfway though the trees, heavy with moss and vines as well as leaves and cones. Pulling over a pitcher of water, she debated with herself about having a mug of ale. Ale wasn't good for running, but...
A bag and parcel landed with a dull thwap on the table beside the pitcher, jerking Kirke's eyes upwards. Gabrielle and Xena sat down, leaving the Amazon only a moment to take in their presence before they began to debate the contents of Xena's message.
"Kirke, right?" Gabrielle asked, smiling at the Amazon.
"Okay – what does Admetus mean, she's up to no good?"
"No idea ma'am, I just hand these things out." Kirke took a pull from her water mug. "I'm not allowed to read 'em."
Gabrielle sighed irritably. "Figures. Borysthemis?"
"Yes." Kirke turned her attention to a block of smooth, soft cheese. It looked imminently transportable, which meant the potential for something beyond berries and nuts for breakfast next morning.
"Am I queen there?"
The messenger's reply was an expression of utter bafflement. "You? Queen at Borysthemis? No." Kirke laughed softly. "No, no, no. Trust me, you're best suited for where you are."
Gabrielle's eyes blazed angrily. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you a priestess of Artemis? Or Hekate?"
"You willing to drink blood at every full Moon ceremony?"
"Walk along the dark paths of Artemis' Forest in the darkest part of the night?"
"What?" Gabrielle and Xena asked in unison.
"Trust me, you got picked for the right job. Artemis herself lives openly among us. In fact, so does Hekate, most of the year. Makes life a bit more hair raising. One likes excitement, the other deals with the dead all the time."
The door shifted with a heavy squeal, and Artemis winced. The place was definitely needing some tender loving care. Cobwebs graced every corner and doorway, and the dust was so thick, Artemis left behind deep footprints in it. Someone, she wasn't sure who, had thrown several heavy blankets over a table, chair, and chest sitting in the hallway. Walking past them, she came to the bottom of a twisting stairway. Memories of her two eldest daughters running down the stairwell or sliding along its bannisters kept her there a moment. Then Artemis gave her head a shake, and continued up the stairs.
Curiously, her bow was exactly where she had left it all those years ago. Leaning against the wall, right by the door to her room. A quick stop at her own digs she had decided, after climbing out of the tomb, and waking up a little. Other questions had come up, and somehow Artemis had avoided going back to her house, leaving the bow where it was. Even the archery contest with Athena hadn't convinced her to go and get it. She had borrowed one from Aphrodite instead.
Pushing open the door to her room, Artemis walked past the desk, still cluttered with books and papers, the couch draped in dust and old pillows. Into a small inner room, with a wardrobe, a bunch of shelves, and a large bed made up with covers that were just identifiable as black through the dust. The Goddess sat on the bed a moment, gazing abstractedly out the window through a broken slat in the shutters. Standing up again, she opened the chest sitting by the end of the bed, and began rummaging through it.
"Gauntlets – no..." plunk.
"Gimpy crown I have to wear sometimes and now need to conveniently lose again – no..." clank.
"Old shirt, nasty green colour – nope. Ewww." stuffing it hurriedly into a gauntlet.
"Book on..." Artemis turned it around so she could read the spine. "Nuthatches. Wonder if Athena wants that back." she set it aside.
A pile of old clothes and tattered boots followed by various nick nacks and finished or broken puzzles tumbled onto the floor, along with several poorly fletched arrows. Finally Artemis' fingers collided with a smooth wooden box, which she pulled out hurriedly, shaking off dust and a bunch of tangled up twine. Hands actually shaking a little, she opened it.
Two rings the colour Moonlight and night sky winked out at her from a clean piece of battered linen. The larger one was plain at first glance, but actually etched with a swirling pattern like the turbulence in a stream. A deep blue sapphire had been carved flush to the ring's surface, marked with an alpha and an omega. It's smaller companion wasn't etched. Instead a tiny sun with rays racing out from all around it had been inlaid by steady, stubborn hands, also in dark blue sapphire. Artemis knew this, because she had watched the smith do the work, peering at the band in waning sunlight and full.
Pushing the pile of junk out of the way, Artemis stretched out on the bed, settling the box on its edge on her belly. She smiled happily, glad that finally, things were going to go as they should have, so long ago. Hard to believe it had been centuries, and it had all started with a tunic. A red leather tunic, with golden trim, of all things.
Deciding what to wear to the banquet was proving to be a serious problem. Xenoklea had proved to be a very inventive lover, and a determined one. More than a few of Artemis' tunics were suffering from bitten through laces or broken buckles. She had other tunics, but they were mostly the sort she wore around her workshop, or out sparring, or hunting. All a bit too rough for a big, fancy banquet. Admittedly, as a Goddess and the Queen's main squeeze, she could ignore all such considerations and wear an old fishing tunic. Artemis allowed herself to seriously consider the idea, then gave herself a mental slap. With her luck, she'd start a damn fashion trend.
Another option was to will up a tunic. Perching on the edge of the desk across from the clothes cabinet, she considered that. She began to chew on her fingernails as inspiration failed her, and a moment later she added pacing to her repertoire. A quarter candlemark of brain racking was no help at all, until a memory finally percolated to the surface. Dashing forward, she all but dove into the clothes cabinet, tossing aside tunics and trousers, leggings and miffed looking boots – until her hands bumped into a bundle wrapped in a rough chunk of hide. Flipping it over, she unwrapped the hide to reveal a gorgeous crimson tunic, trimmed in gold. Artemis gazed at it pensively as she smoothed it across her legs. Verdict?
"Perfect." she crooned in delight.
Knee length black suede boots and black trousers in place, the tunic snugged neatly across her shoulders and around her waist, Artemis strode up to Xenoklea's bedroom door. A few moments listening yielded the sound of whispering cloth and the jingling of one of the belt like pieces of jewellery the Queen was fond of. After a moment more, her voice drifted to the other side of the door as well, singing an old courting song.
Her voice faded out only to be replaced by a brassy declaration of, "Mushball!" Artemis jumped in surprise, straightening up hurriedly and fighting a blush back under her collar.
"Are you kidding? You should have seen your face when I opened the door!" Xenoklea laughed merrily.
"Ohhhh." scowled Artemis, scuffing the toe of her boot on the ground.
"Hush, don't pout." Xenoklea kissed her lover soundly on her now protruding lower lip and pulled her into the room. "I love this tunic – red looks marvellous on you."
Artemis grinned. "Thank you. Good thing I look fine in red – somehow I think it's too late to change clothes."
Xenoklea hesitated by the small table they had eaten dinner together at nearly fourteen moons ago. She had something on it, and was clearly arguing with herself concerning it. At last she picked it up and turned to face Artemis. "It's been almost fourteen moons." she commented.
"Yes, it has." Artemis agreed, smiling. It was strange, but she had hardly noticed the time. So much of her restlessness and frustration had dissipated. Even her struggles with her sister had settled into a sort of low level refusal to give in.
"So I found a little something to show how I'm looking at this really cool thing we've put together." with that, Xenoklea pressed something into the palm of Artemis' hand, and stepped back, swallowing hard. She had no idea how Artemis would react to it, whether the Goddess would consider it a shackle or a gift.
The tall Goddess blinked in surprise, and then slowly opened her palm. A ring nestled in it, the deep blue sapphire winking just a little in the fading sunlight, which turned the silver of the band into a burnished gold. Her hand trembled.
"You – you..." her voice stayed stubbornly at a whisper, so she gave up trying to get it working properly and went on. "You want to be with me?" Just to spite her it seemed, her voice jumped up into a squeak on the last word.
"I want to stay with you." Xenoklea replied gently.
Artemis had been struck completely speechless, and for a few candlemarks, they forgot the banquet.
Actually, they didn't entirely forget the banquet. Artemis remembered it, and asked distractedly as she stroked Xenoklea's skin, "What are we gonna tell them when we get downstairs?"
"Nothin'..." drawled Xenoklea. "That's what I have a stoic, stubborn, kick ass weaponmaster turned castellan for. She'll make them start the toasts and speeches even if she has to at sword point – and she'll make 'em like it." Rolling over she growled, "Now stop distracting yourself with them. Think about me instead."
And when push came to shove, such a directive was impossible to disobey, Artemis decided.
The last rays of slanting evening sunlight warmed the back of Artemis' neck, and she curled up more tightly, curling a hand loosely around one of Xenoklea's thighs.
But somehow, her lover's skin didn't feel right, forcing Artemis to swim up into wakefulness, and realize she was clasping part of the sun warmed, dusty coverlet in one hand, the box settled neatly in front of her chest. "Oh, son of a bacchae!" Artemis burst out in disgust, as she realized it was late, she was full of dust from head to toe, and she had a kink in her neck. "I've gotta go, things to do." Grabbing the box and making a mental note to come back and clean up the rather nasty mess her house was in, she disappeared into the shadows, never noticing the small owl sitting on the windowsill, her quiet watchful companion during her impromptu nap on the bed.
It blurred and shifted after a few moments into Artemis' silvery eyed sister. "This time, my sister, all will go as it should have done so long ago. I too have plans for the traitor. A plan including many things." She lifted an ancient dagger out of the dust on Artemis' desk, tapping its hilt against her chin.
A gangly young Emetchi of fourteen winters or so stumbled over her own feet and tumbled to the turf, her expression a study in misery. Sitting up required disentangling her limbs, a difficult task at the best of times. She couldn't fathom what had happened. It was as if one moment, she had been able to walk without tripping, talk without stuttering, reach for a hunk of bread without knocking over five different things – and the next her body was a skinny, lanky strange thing. Like a glove or a boot that didn't fit. Despite her size, the other Emetchi her age were making things harder still. In fact, the latest of their tricks had forced her to flee to the empty field, sprinkled with wild flowers and tall plants the healer liked to collect.
Someone – someone she had considered a good friend had taken advantage of her struggles with her work out tunic, jammed her head up in it, and shoved her out of the changing hut. Which had resulted in her flashing her newly budding frontal assets to the entire staff class. Before that moment, she had never believed in a burning blush.
Thraso bit her lip, and squirmed. It was almost fifteen winters later, and seeing herself curled up in a humiliated ball in the middle of that field knotted up her stomach and stung her eyes all the same. "Rio, what's going on? I don't like to remember this."
The older woman squeezed her shoulder. "Trust Artemis, kid. She knows what she's doing."
A few moments passed by, and then a tall woman strode quietly up to Thraso's younger self, and plopped down beside her. She didn't say anything at first, just leaned back on her hands, gazing out and over the edge of the meadow. Watching the cloud shadows chase each other just in front of the edges of the forest. Tracing the thin lines marked in the turf by various Emetchi walking from place to place. Then counting the wagon trails. But there were only two of those. Finally, she spoke.
Thraso blinked in confusion. "Y- y – y-you're s-sorry?"
"Yes, I am." Athena nodded quietly, still gazing toward the edge of the forest. "I don't seem to be much help just now. Mothers are supposed to be helpful type folks."
"You are a h-h-helpful type folks – folk – er, whate-e-ever." Thraso grimaced and gritted her teeth.
"Don't grit your teeth, just makes it worse. I never stuttered, but my younger sister did, and that's what she told me." Athena sighed a little, and wrapped an arm around her daughter's thin shoulders. "I just feel lousy, and helpless. Today I really felt like putting each one of those damn kids over my knee." Thraso giggled helplessly at the mental image of several of her classmates being forced to assume such a position. "Not quite the thing to do, however. And if I feel lousy and helpless – well, you've had a pretty lousy day yourself." A deep sigh from Thraso. "Still, I think I may just have a cure for this trouble."
With that, Athena gave Thraso a tug to get her on her feet, and pulled six pieces of wood from a pouch at her side. Deftly assembling them into two staves she declared, "And now, we dance."
Tharjon moved quietly away, and removing her boots, shimmied up a tree. The next thing was Thraso's alone. Probably she wasn't even supposed to watch, but it wasn't clear what she was supposed to do instead. She frowned, and leaned back against the trunk, unwittingly mimicking Xena's posture on a dusty road earlier the same day. A reddish orange leaf dropped slowly by her, buoyed up by a breeze now wending its way around, ruffling what it could. Tharjon gazed at it, and found herself drawing comparisons between its colour, and the tint if the Queen's hair. Nine times out of ten, she would have quashed the impulse – but this was the tenth time, after all.
In the meantime, the weaponmaster had struggled to her feet, and was wandering somewhat tipsily among the flowers, trying to piece together the route back to wherever her body was. The whole train of thought was a little disturbing, because losing one's body was a rather serious problem. Thraso was mentally reflecting on just why it had never occurred to her to tie one end of a ball of string to her body in a steadily more confused fashion when a small body collided solidly with her, dropping her flat in a patch of anemones.
"Ma'am? Ma'am?" a piping voice called worriedly above her, in time with a small hand patting her shoulder.
"Ungggh." croaked Thraso, struggling to retrieve her wind, and wondering how she could possibly have lost it when she had just been confused about the location of her body.
"Kay – kay, everything's fine, just a little airless." sitting up carefully, the weaponmaster found herself eye to eye with the little centaur of the very start of the trip, albeit about six winters old now.
"Are you sure? Your face is a funny colour."
Thraso grinned. "Yeah, I'm sure. How come you're playing at being a battering ram anyway?" A throat cleared above her. Raising her eyes, she found herself looking at a pair of black forelegs. To an untrained eye, they would look like ordinary horse's forelegs. Centaur's forelegs, however, tended to be thicker and more solidly muscled, because they carried more weight over them. To Thraso's trained eye, those legs were definitely centaur legs. "Uh oh." she breathed.
"What are you doing, puny human? Synope, come away from that strange woman."
"I'm not puny!" Thraso blurted in outrage. "And I wasn't doing anything, except assuring Synope I was none the worse for wear." By now she had looked up and found, sure enough, this was the dark centaur of earlier.
"For all I know, you were going to carry her off." the centaur shot back.
Bouncing onto her feet, Thraso felt her face flush with anger. She opened her mouth to give this damned centaur a piece of her mind, and then some. Then her eyes fell on Synope who was watching the exchange with an expression of alarm. She had one of her mother's big hands gripped in her own, and was shaking it, trying to catch her attention.
'Well,' Thraso sighed inwardly. 'I can't go yelling and hollering in front of Synope, it'll scare the crap out of her. That and its just plain rotten to act like a jerk in front of a little kid – well, okay, so it's always rotten to act like a jerk.' So she swallowed her temper and said stiffly, "Only if I wasn't Emetchi. It was nice meeting you Synope." Straightening her tunic, she turned to walk away, still unsure of the correct direction, but now thoroughly disenchanted with the whole business.
"Come now Thraso, no sulking. I just needed to see who's welfare you'd think about first when provoked. A run of the mill sort of test, actually." Artemis tapped the fingers of her left hand on the arm of the chair she was sitting in. It was a fairly ordinary chair, barring the richly carved panels on the back and placed between the legs. Of course, it was also in the midst of a meadow, which was certainly not usual. Noticing Thraso's unimpressed look at her reply and the chair, Artemis shrugged her shoulders.
"I didn't feel like sitting on the ground. Anyway, I can't make things sound any better. What I can do, is request your assistance."
"My assistance?" Thraso blurted.
"Yes." Artemis rubbed her hands together vigourously. "I need you to give someone a few sword lessons – just enough so he doesn't gut himself and can play the part of a warrior convincingly. A few day's work. Consider it a bit of a getaway from Ankitheas. I'll just whisk you and Eumache over – you get to spend a week or so away from Akantha, all the good stuff."
"Depends how Mache feels about it."
"She's going to ask me why Xena doesn't have to do it."
"Xena is already doing something for me."
"She's going to ask me why you don't do it."
"I have some other tasks of my own."
"She's going to wonder what trouble you're stirring up now."
"Hush, I never stir up trouble – I am trouble." and with a wink and a smile, Artemis vanished.
"Cow presents." Thraso grimaced, then turned and walked to the tree she had seen Tharjon in before her encounter with the centaurs.
It took a few moments before she found the tall priestess, curled up in the branches of the tree, asleep with a large reddish orange leaf clasped in one hand. Finding her own eyelids were dropping heavily, Thraso sat down at the foot of the tree and allowed herself to doze off, only to wake again to a misty rain dampening her clothes and exposed skin. The cool ground had stiffened her limbs and sent tendrils of chill into her bones now the herbs had worn off, leaving Thraso cold and a little nauseous. The stars glittered above her, and the Moon was out of her range of sight. It was incredibly peaceful, until –
"Why do Goddesses always seem to ask me to do things when I'm unconscious?"
The scent of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the air and tantalized the guests as Cyrene patiently removed the cooled muffins from the tin and settled them onto a cloth on the counter. She pushed around the utensils and bowls scattered on the rest of it until she found the cloth she had been using to grease the now empty tin. A few deft swipes readied it for batter again, and within a few moments more she was tucking it back in the oven. The innkeeper then ladled up several bowls of stew and handed them to a harried looking server, who smiled at her thankfully. Lunch was unusually busy – it seemed like everyone in Amphipolis had made a point of finding a spot to park themselves at Cyrene's Inn.
Lisana burst into the kitchen, carrying a pile of bowls and plates balanced against her aproned chest. "You're making life difficult for us, ma'am, making those things. 'Can we get whatever she's cooking?' They keep asking..." The dishes made it into a sink and she turned to begin drawing water to clean them.
"Can't be helped, Lisana." chuckled Cyrene. "Heard any ideas about why everyone is here?"
"No ma'am." Lisana's expression stayed bland, but her eyes twinkled merrily. "Just a little something about once in a lifetime things."
"Hmmpf." Cyrene finished cleaning the counter, peeked out the door to see what the servers were up to, and satisfied they could handle things, sat down with a bowl of stew of her own. "Xena and Gabrielle will be in early tomorrow. Artie and I are going to take off for the night..."
"Again." teased Lisana.
The innkeeper laughed out loud. "Yes, again. There's a few things we need to clear up." She paused. "I know I've been preoccupied and leaving you in charge on your own a lot lately, Lisana."
"Quite alright, ma'am – everyone has to take their times to relax – and being in love does tend to distract you." the cook cheerfully plopped a second bowl of stew in front of her employer.
"Oh, I wouldn't..." Cyrene's voice quieted. "Well, I guess that's what this is, huh?"
The cook laughed fondly, and handed her a mug of water. "I'm no expert, never having been there, but I've seen it. Looks like love to me." Waiting for Cyrene to take a drink, she added another ladleful of stew to the other woman's bowl and pushed a loaf of bread at her. "And the way you two go on, you need to eat better and keep your strength up."
"Stop!" laughed Cyrene. Her eyes shifted to the door, and Artemis breezed cheerfully through it, a box of dried meat under one arm, and a good sized chunk of it tucked into the corner of her mouth.
"Hoi hun m home." she swallowed, squeezing one eye shut in concentration as she did so. "All sthet."
"Lovely," Cyrene replied, wincing as her lover swallowed again with obvious effort. "Here, before you choke yourself." Passing over her mug of water. The Goddess took a few noisy swallows before speaking again.
"Got everything – including some stuff I forgot I had. Oh, and this – recognize it?" Artemis handed over a finely worked bracelet, and watched her partner's face. It had required checking some other things, and needling both Persephone and Gaea on the subject, but she was all but certain. All but certain she had finally found her Xenoklea after a thousand winters – it made her feel sheepish to realize it had never really occurred to her to search out the female innkeepers of the world, and check to see if her lover had been reborn as one of them. This after being told that was Xenoklea's career of choice, no less. But grief and anger both could make you blind and cloud your memory.
Turning the bracelet around in the light, Cyrene had the unnerving sense it was hers, from long ago. It had a notch broken off one end, which somehow she knew would be there, and a worn patch from being twisted about her wrist during boring council meetings. A collection of tiny teethmarks from a fiercely teething child. One tiny gem missing because of a glancing blow from a staff. Her fingertips tingled. "Artie?"
"Feels familiar, doesn't it?"
"Yes, but how?"
"It was yours, before."
"So long ago – a thousand winters, across the Cyrenian Sea." Artemis leaned closer.
"This is where you explain some dream related things, I'll bet." Cyrene commented, smiling at Lisana as she pushed the second bowl of stew at her partner.
"Oh yes." Artemis ate a spoonful or two. "It all starts with a centaur – well, a centaur's tail, actually..."
"I need a way to blow it up." Athena paced back and forth, chewing on a fingernail. "Or at least, make it smell really bad." Her eyes flicked to the chair in the corner, where Pallas used to sit. Things with Pallas just hadn't worked out. The lust was fun, but in the end – it had seemed workable, but they were just too different. It had been a long while ago now, yet every now and again her eyes would track to the chair, and Athena could almost hear the words...
"Are you nuts? You can't go around blowing up other deities' temples! What is with you anyway – if it's not burning glasses it's explosions..." Pallas just hadn't understood. It was tough explaining Sun Goddess type things to a Wind Goddess.
An injudicious step tangled her left foot with a footstool and dumped her on the floor. 'I begin to seriously worry about the fact that as Thraso gets less clumsy I get more clumsy.' she thought wryly, setting the stool upright again. A knock on the door interrupted any further thought.
"Someone to see you, Bright One."
"Who?" the Goddess asked promptly, and followed the word with a few clicks of her tongue, causing the little owl dozing in a dim corner of the room to ruffle her feathers in irritation.
"Ummm...a centaur, ma'am."
"A centaur? What colour is she?"
"Ummm..." the other woman's voice rose into a squeak, since the centaur in question was standing right behind her. "R-r – red, sort of, ma'am."
"Excellent." With that, Athena threw open the door and hauled in the hapless Manto, who was a little grizzled, but otherwise looked no older than she did in Artemis' memories. The centaur stood still after Athena shut the door again, clearly discomforted. "Any idea why I asked you to come round?" Athena asked her.
"No, none." Manto replied rather crisply. She was unhappy about being summoned by a Goddess she had little to do with directly – it made her nervous.
"All right." Athena sat down by the fire, which was giving off what felt like waves of heat to the centaur. It was a pleasant early spring day to someone used to living further North, but the tall Goddess' desert roots were definitely showing. "I need to know what my sister is doing."
Manto blinked. 'She thinks I know?' she wondered in bewilderment.
"I can't ask her because she won't tell me – now, I bet if you needled your significant other, she might just give up a little information."
The roan centaur raised both eyebrows. "Are you so sure she knows? She's not the one who takes care of the Amazons when the Holy One becomes preoccupied." Her eyes drifted to the window, where both could see Hera's Snake Mountain, and just beyond it, a truncated mountain giving off streams of smoke and steam. "Plutos knows. Develas knows."
Athena scowled. "It smells there, and around Plutos I get self conscious about my teeth – Develas is just like Artemis, be damned if she'll give a straight answer – when she was a child she was never like that, she was more like Xenoklea. No go, then?"
"I really don't think so – you may just have to talk to her." Manto tucked her hands behind her back as she spoke. The Goddess sighed. As far as she was concerned, this was all getting far too complicated. Which invariably meant both of her sisters were deliriously happy.
A small pebble arced through the air, and fell into a small puddle, producing a suitably tiny splash. The man who had thrown it sighed. He'd been waiting in this rather nasty, smelly little outpost for a two days now, and had come to the conclusion he had been forgotten. It really was a crying shame, forgetting a gorgeous, hunky guy like him in the middle of nowhere. Especially when there was nothing even remotely resembling other hunky guys to look at. Aster sighed. Sometimes his life simply sucked.
As if to accent the point, the beard his grandmother had asked him to grow proceeded to itch until his eyes watered. He didn't mind having a moustache – but a beard – just because a man could grow hair all over most of his face didn't necessarily mean that he should! And he wanted a haircut. Having his hair grown out was not an experience he relished, also asked for by his grandmother. But then again, the earring was definitely cool, and the arm bands showed off his biceps – and he could even see some more life involving things being reasonably good. Like getting to eat at Cyrene's Inn for awhile – the stories of that woman's cooking rendered her nearly Goddesslike.
Hitching one boot up the railing on the edge of the dock, he considered going over to some of the men who were drooling all over some unhappy looking women and and pretending to drool over them to show what it was like. But, that whole scene was disgusting on a lot of levels, and the women finally resolved the situation themselves with a few well-placed kicks and punches. "Oooh – coolest thing I've seen since I got here." One of the women was quite tall, and had taken to whacking one of the men solidly over the head with one fist while backhanding another. Unable to resist, because it was so terribly cliché, Aster hollered gaily, "You go girl!"
The woman's eyes snapped around and fixed on him. They were bright, bright blue, and put him in mind of lightning bolts. "Eeek." he hurriedly got to his feet and began retreating as fast as they'd go.
"Bad Aster, bad – no shouting such naughty things in the street anymore." A glance behind revealed the tall woman, a big horse, and a little blonde heading straight for him. "How do I get myself into these things?! I know, it runs in the family..." Bang – he ran face first into a plank being carried off of a ship, knocking its carrier into the sea and himself into the dirt.
"This certainly isn't what I expected." Xena commented mildly, as she stood over the man, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Ares. It wasn't perfect, but if you had never seen the god up close, or not at all, it would all be the same difference to you. "Your name is Aster, isn't it?"
"Maybe." It was only possible to catch him being incautious once.
"My mother asked us to pick you up on the way to Amphipolis – I'm Xena, this is Gabrielle." Argo butted her in the head, and Xena rolled her eyes. "Attitude lately, or what?" she asked the horse. "And my horse, Argo."
"You're – you're..." Aster's face was completely aghast. "Oh no!" he scrambled to his feet. "Now I know what's going on – she never said anything about this, I'm leaving for home now, good bye." No way, nohow, nobody, nothing was going to get him tangled in one of his grandmother's crazy schemes. They were always confusing, scary, and included at least one tattoo.
"Oh no you don't." Xena deftly caught him by the back of his tunic. "If we're gonna be stuck in the middle of this damned mess, so are you."
"Except, I had no idea about the mess – I thought she needed me to help her in her shop for awhile – I'm a carpenter."
Gabrielle bit her lip. In spite of herself she had been pegging him for something to do with theatre. He was so melodramatic, but endearingly so, the way Artemis was. "If we're going to get to Amphipolis before the morning is over, we should probably pick up your things and get going."
"You're not gonna let me go."
"Nope." Xena said mercilesslessly. "Where's your junk?"
"It's not junk!" It was one good sized pack and a set of saddlebags, both of which Aster swung over his broad shoulders, making a slightly curious sight as he walked with them up the road to Amphipolis. Now he was committed, so he never thought to look behind him. If he had, he would have seen Athena, staring after them with an expression of utter confusion on her face.
Against Thraso's expectations, Eumache had leapt at the chance to get away from Ankitheas for awhile. The attentions of some of the Emetchi were becoming a little stifling, and she was glad for the break. Thraso became glad of it too, when she walked into their hut to find Eumache twirling her heaviest set of chobos, which had nearly given her a panic attack, which had resulted in a faint, since she still hadn't eaten anything yet. The fall had crowned her with a few more stitches above her right eyebrow, which went nearly unnoticed since then she had a remorse stricken lover to calm down.
Unbeknownst to either of them, sequestered in the healer's hut, Prothoë and Tharjon were deep in discussion a few huts away. Sort of.
"I dislike the idea of those two leaving without some kind of escort." the Queen said gravely.
"The Holy One is making all the arrangements, Majesty, I'm sure everything will be fine." Tharjon fiddled with a leaf, her expression distracted. Prothoë frowned. This preoccupation was different from any she had seen in the priestess before.
"Is there something wrong, Omicron?"
The title snapped Tharjon to. "No, no – Artemis granted me a vision, which I never expected, since the ritual was Thraso's. I have yet to find its meaning." The Queen blinked in surprise. All sobre, to the point words. Tharjon was well and truly worried. She hesitated. In things like this, she was far at sea, and a follower of Athena to boot, but she couldn't leave one of the priestesses in so discomforted a state.
"Surely meaning comes with time and patience?"
Greenish grey eyes gazed at her worriedly. "I don't think I have time to wait." She sighed. "Really, this shouldn't bother me so much. Half of my training involved facing death, and endings. All very blah and blech. No big deal." The priestess turned the leaf over a few times. "There were endings in my vision, but no death. And yet my life was over."
Protho¨ stared at the other woman in shock, her normally brisk demeanour brushed away together with Tharjon's usual banter and absent mindedness. "Don't speak of such things." The words were out before she thought.
"You see why I don't understand the meaning?" Tharjon sighed, and rubbed her eyes. "And my eyes plague me. The healer gave me some drops but I might as well fend off thirst by sucking on a piece of pumice." Both women winced at the image, not least because neither had seen a piece of pumice smaller than a brick.
"Perhaps what I was thinking might be for the best, then." Prothoë said slowly, her tone unfathomably regretful. The priestess gazed at her curiously. "You're Artemis' priestess, surely if you go along with them, she won't mind. Once they are in Amphipolis, she can send you back – after easing your mind, and your eyes."
Tharjon frowned unhappily. Her lack of understanding was deeply upsetting, and unsettling. All of her life, she had been granted clarity in what she sensed and what she saw. This confusion ruined her self confidence. Rubbing at her eyes again, she said quietly, "I will take time in the temple to commune with the Holy One. They really don't need an escort your majesty."
A slow nod met her answer. "All right." she rubbed her own eyes. "Let's see them off, shall we?"
They walked to the edge of the compound, where Thraso and Eumache were standing, fending off Akantha with gentle refusals and attempted redirections. Akantha's enthusiastic voice faded a bit when she saw Tharjon. When push came to shove, she was not overfond of her fellow priestess, finding the woman's authority to be greater than hers in practise, although they were equal in rank. The two priestesses nodded to each other stiffly, Akantha remaining stubbornly silent, while Tharjon squinted at her.
"Akantha," Tharjon said quietly, leaning closer. "Are you wearing a snake?!"
"I never thought otherwise."
"What's that supposed to mean you..."
"Now then ladies, no sibling rivalry between the people who aren't the directly involved parties." Artemis stepped smoothly between them and nodded a greeting to the others. "We have work to do – Tharjon, you're coming too. I have some things for you to attend to as well."
The goodbyes were brisk after that, but Prothoë did something unusual as Tharjon came back from grabbing a few clothes and other necessities. She caught the priestess by the arm and forced her to look at her. "Come back." was all she said, leaving the priestess with a look of surprise which seemed to hang in the air behind her after she was gone.
Cyrene sat quietly, and just enjoyed the smell of her spicy tea, and the few quiet moments before her inn went crazy with people again. And her memories, which were richer and fuller than before. Last night alone would have achieved those wonders, let alone the other things that came with it. Artie had always been a big softy, as far as she was concerned, with a lovely romantic streak. The Goddess' figurative waters were deep, she well knew, but to know that as a concept versus developing a real sense of it – the scale of it all was inhuman – which was, after all, appropriate, because in a real sense, her lover was certainly not human.
After bedding down the inn for the night, the couple had passed out the back door, silent as shadows to Artemis' strange sanctuary. The door had baffled her – why would someone spend time building such a thing? And then a trip up the steps. Halfway up, and suddenly Artemis stopped. "In here." she opened a door, which was nearly invisible because it had shelves and hooks full of things on it too, and they stepped inside.
"Why Artie, all this time, and you never told me you had a place for hideaway seductions?" Cyrene laughed. The room was a cosy size, lit with candles with a table full of wine and food. A smaller table held two dark, dusty looking bottles, and a curious goblet. A large bed full of cushions and downy covers took up most of the back wall, and a steaming tub for two finished the ensemble. The Goddess grinned.
"I figured we should have fun." For a moment, she stood still, considering. "What do you want to do first?"
"I want to get rid of this first." Cyrene replied simply, running her hands over the tensed muscles of her partner's shoulders and neck. "Then we can really enjoy ourselves."
So Artemis had retrieved the smaller of the two dusty bottles, and poured some of its contents into a small glass, then finished by handing it to Cyrene.
"What is this?"
"Memory. Power. Immortality." Artemis cupped her hands over her lover's. "Time." A pause. "It smells like water – my mother gave it to me when I asked, for you."
"Did you ask for me?"
Artemis raised an eyebrow. A many sided question. "I asked for the chance to convince you – to choose me again, the way you did when I won that bet – by a centaur's tail."
"And you were told..."
"If I could find you, I could try to convince you. But the choice was always yours."
The stuff hadn't tasted like anything. It hadn't even gone down like water. Instead it seemed to dissipate almost as soon as it entered her mouth. And it had left her dizzy. Cyrene hardly felt Artemis carry her gently to the bed, stroking her hair and holding her close. The wonder of the whole thing was when memories she had never known she had unfolded themselves again, and found herself in the strange, trancelike state her lover entered each night. The bracelet on her arm caught her attention, and it brought to mind a gaggle of council meetings, all unending until the last moment.
This particular meeting was a real nuisance. She was completely bored. The argument had gone on in circles for candlemarks, until her own head had spun. Artemis had been watching the whole thing, at first looking amused, then bored, then fed up.
"May I venture a question?" all eyes were on her.
"The whole problem here, is it the question of whether to have another long, loud, pointless, obnoxious argument tomorrow?" The resultant uproar had forced the dissolution of the meeting, at least.
Now she settled herself into the saddle, and grinned recklessly when her two everpresent guards fell in on either side of her. They passed through the laneway like usual, onto the golden sands. Just out of sight of the palace, she gave the horse its head and they shot off like an arrow, leaving her guards stunned and bewildered behind her. Funny, she reflected how guards who kept you safe and guards who kept you prisoner were called the same thing.
Some time later, Cyrene looked across abroad, flat basin, scoured white by wind and sand. It looked like it had once been a lake of some kind, now vapourized by Athena's nearly baleful gaze. On the other side, three different people were standing, apparently arguing vociferously. One of them was the centaur Manto, whose powerful bass voice rumbled along the flats. Another was a member of the council who had pretensions to horse breeding and training. The third was Artemis, who looked ready to punch the woman senseless, a truly impressive feat over such a distance. Wondering what could possibly get her lover so worked up, she and her horse, whose name she now remembered was Aura, made for the bickering little group.
They quieted as she arrived, and the council member made a half hearted attempt at being polite. "What's happening?" Cyrene asked. "It's empty out here, but everyone is excited." Her own voice astonished her – it was deep and rather husky, more like Xena's than what Cyrene usually expected from herself.
"This – ruffian, has the nerve to call me a vicious and cruel person for the way I treat my horses. Furthermore, she claims breaking horses is a waste of energy, and there is no need for it. You should no more break a horse she says, than you should try to break a centaur. Here I thought you had civilized her, Majesty, since now she uses utensils like the rest of us." The woman tipped her head back pompously, and Cyrene could actually see a vein bulging dangerously in her lover's neck.
"Insults are uncalled for, Axeo. Instead, why don't we ask Anaetis politely to show us what she means." Her partner always took care not to spread who and what she was too widely. It started to cause serious, unpleasant complications otherwise.
"Oh, all right." Axeo growled irritably.
A short trip had brought them to Axeo's horse paddocks and pastures, such as they were. It had been just long enough for her to get ideas. "I'm willing to bet these twenty dinars you won't be able to prove a word of what you say." she sneered at Artemis, knowing full well the other woman had nothing to bet with her. She dropped the dinars into a bucket with a clank. The Queen couldn't ante up without crowning her lover with embarrassment.
"The usual, I think, for such a situation, Holy One?" Manto suggested mildly, while pointedly flicking her tail. "Hair worth hundreds of dinars on the markets, in truth, what with it being the best thing for bow and lyre strings."
For a moment, Artemis looked like she was going to ignore the centaur and do something else. Then, they gazed each other for a moment, passing a slight nod between them. Turning she said calmly, "And Manto agrees to allow me to bet her tail. Shall we?" A number of horses had been blocked into the corral, all mostly wild, none ever knowing what it was like to have a human on their backs. "No tricks." This was for Cyrene, who knew the words to be her lover's code for, 'I don't use my powers for this.' One bounding vault into the corral, and a leap into the centre.
Artemis watched the horses, which were beginning to settle a little. Her scent was strange, and several of them were almost stotting with discomfort from noticing it. She began walking patiently around the corral, murmuring softly to one horse, then another, until she found the one who seemed to guide the others, a tall, stately mare. That struck her as a little curious, but the mare was venerable, and most herding animals were led by older females. Letting the thought pass by, Artemis murmured gently to her, walking her around the corral. Eerily, the other horses were soon following them, apparently placid and unconcerned. A few more circuits, and Artemis climbed nimbly onto the mare's back, who instead of bucking like a wild thing as Axeo expected, continued peaceably along. After a few moments with her, the Goddess made her way to several other horses, riding each in turn for awhile. Always speaking to them, never shouting or striking them or using an ropes to hobble their feet.
Dropping to the ground by her audience, she commented quietly, "There's no need to break a horse."
"How'd you do that?" blurted Cyrene, astounded in spite of herself.
"I can't say exactly – I learned it from an old horse trainer where I come from, and it took years. The first time I tried it on my own, I actually made a mistake and got stomped on." A hoof shaped scar across the ribs on her left side was an old reminder.
Axeo was fuming. Hope against hope had been that she would finally undo the strange hold this stranger had on the Queen. her ambitions didn't allow the interference of foreigners, or heirs – and the more committed Xenoklea was to this Northern stranger, the more likely those heirs would be.
"Witchcraft, your Majesty."
"I could care less if it was." Cyrene clasped one of Artemis' hands in her own, struck by the feeling of calluses on her palms from work, and on the tips of her fingers from playing the lyre. "I am no fool, and I can see you intended to humiliate Anaetis, and hopefully begin the process of discrediting her. You have spent council meeting after council meeting whipping up trouble. I have had enough. Your seat on the council is forfeited, Axeo. Furthermore, you may go where you please, but you may not stay here."
And two problems were dealt with at once – one the dangerously ambitious council member. Two, the need for a certain Goddess to know where she stood.
All quite gratifying, in the best of ways.
Thraso watched Artemis as she walked ahead and pulled open the inn door. All was quiet inside, few people were awake. She ran her fingers through her hair, recently trimmed, and shifted the bulky pack she had slung over her opposite shoulder. There was a crackling energy around the Goddess, a sense of impending action and intensity that raised the hairs on her arms and made her feel skittish and nervous. Eumache had sensed it too, and had actually begun avoiding Artemis' gaze, confiding that it made her feel naked. The comment had set Thraso to wondering what was different about her aunt, because something definitely was. Walking into the inn, she finally saw with her eyes what had already impressed itself on her subconscious, she supposed – or her other senses, but they weren't as word connected –
Every move the Goddess made was fluid, graceful. Feral. Before, there had been a continuous tension, a control, as if Artemis had given a moment's thought to each twitch and shift. All gone now. Even her voice seemed different, given back to the deep, burring, almost humming tones which rendered her normal speech into something that approached singing. The words she chose were fuller, not so clipped. Less Xena's stoicism, and more of the flowery, riddling stuff Athena spoke of her sister as preferring in her younger days.
These were big changes. Thraso couldn't think of a single explanation for any one of them, or many explanations either. So she sat back and let it bedazzle her. If her aunt suddenly started prophesying doomsday, then she'd worry.
And then, after they were seated at a table with breakfast, and Artemis had cheerfully insisted on putting their bags in their room for them, the explanation walked out of the kitchen, dropping the jaws of the few common room's occupants onto the tables in surprise.
Cyrene had always been a beautiful woman, with a fondness for scoop necked bodices and a mischievous knowledge of just what affect they had on people with eyes to notice. Artemis' arrival had coincided with the innkeeper becoming several winters younger, but now she was younger still, a few winters older than Xena now, no more. Her pale blue eyes gleamed with a background of silver, telltale sign of an immortal being. She was wearing a different style of dress than was typical too, a blue homespun looking gown that still somehow seemed like it had no earthly relation to the sturdy garments of other days.
"Tch, you're drooling, Thraso." Cyrene teased, and the mortified weaponmaster hurriedly clapped a hand over her mouth and struggled to get her eyes back into her head. She hadn't been drooling, of course, but better safe than sorry. The innkeeper chuckled and turned her attention to Eumache. "Are you all right, dear? You look just a little peaked."
"Oh, still fighting this whole morning sickness thing, I'm afraid." Eumache replied ruefully. "I'm certain it serves a fine purpose, I just wish there was some less uncomfortable way to do it – if it's to get rid of stuff that's no good for the baby, wouldn't it make more sense to make the stuff that's no good smell lousy or something? Then I'd know not to eat it." The young woman's rather plaintive tone drew an expression of gentle sympathy.
"I had the same trouble with Xena – give me a moment, I may just have something helpful." the innkeeper gave the curly haired woman's hand a squeeze, then left for the kitchen again.
Thraso had been poking at the contents of her plate while her partner spoke, and grimaced a little. "I don't know Mache – maybe you've picked up whatever I managed to – my stomach is gonna leave me all together, I think." She carefully pushed the plate away and sighed. "Figures Rio and I would find out about new invisible nasties in that stream by filling our water bottles from it." Xena, Gabrielle, and Aster found Thraso just walking slowly back from the outhouse after stabling Argo. Thraso stopped and leaned on the side of the inn, and sighed. This would all be gone by tomorrow, luckily. Why, she wondered, was the water suddenly no good? A troupe of kids had gone by that stream and used the water themselves before she and Tharjon had gone out, with no ill effects. Her knees got very wobbly, and she sat down carefully, concentrating too hard to notice the three people hurrying towards her.
Xena had quickly pulled several herbs from her pack to give to the ill weaponmaster, and gotten Aster to help Gabrielle flatten her out in the grass, then hold up her feet. This helped clear the woman's head, which had been buzzing busily while her vision tunnelled. "If this is how Mache feels in the morning, I am SO sorry." were the first words out of her mouth.
"No, not this bad – morning sickness is a natural part of being pregnant, and generally doesn't result in passing out." Xena looked at Thraso's eyes, then pulled down each of her eyelids and looked there too. "How long have you been feeling like this?"
"Just a couple of days – who is that man?" Thraso asked suddenly, both eyebrows jumping upward. Aster dropped her feet in alarm.
"A nice man, a nice man who minds his own business and always helps out people who aren't feeling well if he can." he declared hurriedly.
"His name is Aster, Thraso." the bard hurriedly got the situation in hand. Northern Amazons seemed just a bit more touchy about having men in their personal space than Southern Amazons, she reflected. Why that was – another question to confer with her fellow bard about when her stomach was a bit better.
"If it wasn't for how white faced you are, I'd say this a garden variety stomach bug." Xena commented. "Anything unusual you've been doing lately?"
"No, no, I just went out on a ritual. I know what this is, I was actually trying to figure out how things could have changed." Noting the three confused faces she got in response, she explained.
"You're right." Xena said thoughtfully. "That is strange. Quite a bit by way of strange things have been happening lately."
Things had then finally settled into a normal seeming breakfast, since Eumache was feeling most relieved by a cup of Cyrene's special stomach settling tea for expectant mothers, and everyone had gotten used enough to Aster's eerie resemblance to Ares to stop staring at him.
Half way through a pleasant cup of tea, the kitchen door had banged open. "Put it out! Put it out!" it turned out to be an obnoxious guest, who, notwithstanding a previous incident involving oatmeal and his boots, had returned to the inn again. Yellow flames were chewing diligently on the seat of his pants and the bottom of his tunic, and he was running back and forth in near hysterics. The innkeeper had barrelled back into the inn from outside, apparently from collecting eggs given the number of chicken feathers and bits of hay caught in her hair – or maybe not, since she had a few stuck in her cleavage. Sizing up the situation in a moment, and developing a decidedly evil glint in her eye, she dashed behind the bar and grabbed a broom.
"Stop running around and roll on the floor, you great ninny!" she hollered at the screaming man. He dropped to the floor easily enough, but failed to roll. Seeing the opportunity was still there, Cyrene gave him a push onto his stomach, then gave him several whacks with the broom, deftly knocking the flames out. "All right then?" she asked, after giving him a couple more whacks just to make sure he wasn't smouldering. He was irritating her, but she still felt it important to be sure he wasn't too badly hurt or anything.
"Yes..." he struggled to his feet, pulling at the tatters of his dignity. The clothes on his back and his butt were in poor shape, but he was all right. "That kitchen fire is a hazard!" he declared arrogantly. "Something should be done about it at once."
"What were you doing at it, I wonder?" Cyrene asked.
"I was warming my tunic before putting it on. I can't abide cold leather on my skin in the early morning."
"How?" she was going to regret asking, she was sure of it, but –
"I held it over the flames, of course."
The innkeeper pressed a hand to her mouth, caught between a guffaw and an exclamation of, "You're not quite in this world here with the rest of us, are you?"
"You – you – and you had no idea to just..." it would have been funny if she hadn't had to leave Artemis in a state of half disrobed distress in the chicken coop. Cyrene squeezed her eyes shut, and counted very carefully to twenty. Then thirty, then fifty. She examined her feelings. Nope, still absolutely furious.
"It's intolerable! Whoever heard of such an unsafe set up! I could have been killed..."
"Oh, I think I can arrange something in that area..." growled the innkeeper, taking a better grip on the broom handle.
"Excuse me." Tharjon deftly slipped herself in between them "You must be the lovely Cyrene." the priestess beamed at the innkeeper, blasting her with every ounce of her considerable charm, and the full force of her faintly cock eyed grin. "I was just wandering by the chicken coop, and Admetus says not only is she having severe difficulty finding her shirt, but in her haste to buckle things up and respond to the emergency, she has become hopelessly attached to a post in the chicken coop. In short version, she says: help!" Turning to the irate, obnoxious guest, she said, "You have no time to deal with any of us. You have to leave, you have important business."
He stared at her. "Yeah," he said slowly. "What she said." and he left to pack his bags.
By now Tharjon had been left in custody of the broom, and setting it carefully by the bar, she made her way over to the table where her friends and various strangers were sitting, blinking and squinting from the discomfort in her eyes. Settling herself neatly on an empty chair, she commented in a very gentle voice, "Always something happening here, isn't there?"
"Okay, tell me what you know about the weapon you're holding."
"It makes me very nervous, and I am very glad I just about dropped it and got it stuck in the turf."
Thraso rubbed at her temples. "It can't be stuck." She hauled it up and swung it upwards to force Aster to hold it up properly. "I know damned well you're strong enough to hold this up."
"Yes, but I don't want to hurt anyone."
"You're not gonna hurt anyone – this is a blunted practice sword!"
"Still looks dangerous to me." A pair of pale, extremely frustrated eyes glared at him, and Aster got the distinct impression damage control would be wise. "Of course, I could just shut up and try, because we're all pretty much stuck with this situation."
"Very good." Thraso said crisply. "First, we start with a few basic parries. Those are easy, I'm just going to teach you to guide your instinctive responses."
"Oh – hey, that's a good idea!" Aster felt himself being withered again, and sighed. This woman was in a terrible mood, apparently because of his resistance to the sword fighting lessons. His comments had been a wee bit tactless on the subject to her when they were heading to the practice field, being as he had no idea she was going to be teaching him until they got there. Probably the comment about only the old, ugly, and illiterate becoming teachers in things like sword fighting had been a moodkiller from word one.
Artemis watched her grandson struggle to keep Thraso from beating him up. He was a good boy, and she was very fond of him. But, he had a complete lack of interest in weaponry or defence techniques even. It bothered her that he had so few means of defending himself if he found himself in trouble. The Goddess sat down quietly, and winced as Thraso finally let loose and knocked Aster on his butt. Maybe, just maybe, she was going to have to change the plan after all. Her head tipped to the side.
"Why didn't you just pop over instead of walking?"
"It makes me nauseous." Cyrene replied bluntly.
"You get used to it."
"Hmmmph." the innkeeper sat down behind her lover and smiled when Artemis leaned back until she was reclining on her legs. "Aster is your grandson?"
"Yes – my second eldest daughter, one of the few members of the family who was originally neither immortal nor gay had him a few centuries back. Now she's immortal and a bit disgusted about it. Aster is her son, takes very strongly after his grandmother, actually, except around the eyes and the lovely widow's peak. Ares is actually his – his, cousin, I guess is the word in your language that you'd use for it. Hera is married to one of Lachesis' other kids – I think they're actually married – and it's their misfortune to have Ares as one of their children."
"Poor woman, to have a child who won't stop doing terrible things." Cyrene sighed a little. If Ares' activities hadn't been so unpleasant, he could be referred to as a problem child. As it was, 'jerk' would just have to do, most times.
"I know Hera gets a very wistful look in her eye when she sees Xena on her way here. So many ifs and maybes." Artemis went silent for several long moments, noting Aster was learning rapidly, despite his discomfort.
"Not trying to be awful, but why is it Hera has such a rotten reputation?"
"Because she won't knuckle under to Zeus, and she's stronger than he is. He thinks if he gets enough people believing she's evil, he can convince his allies on Olympus to lock her up."
"It hasn't worked."
"Nope. Hera can hold up her end just fine – and Erith gets in their way every chance she gets on principle because they're friends, and then there's her – somehow I'm almost sure they're actually married – her wife. She and Xena have an identical philosophy when it comes to protecting their wives."
"Ah hah – oh dear, Thraso is going to beat him into the ground."
"Nah – she's got her temper in hand now. She's getting him mad. Aster has to swing harder than that to be convincing."
"I see." Cyrene smiled, unable to help feeling just a little smug now she could read her lover's mind as easily as her lover could read hers.
"No taunting the kids with what you know, love of mine." Artemis gave Cyrene's foot a shake.
"No, of course not."
"Have you picked a new name yet?"
"Why do I need yet another one, again?"
A moment of silence. "I don't know, I guess. Usually my followers pick new names when they experience a major life passage. Same thing living at home for me. You don't have to, I suppose."
"I didn't say I wouldn't, I just wanted to make sure I knew why I was doing it – oh, now there was a fine swing."
"Finally!" Thraso boomed, startling Aster into jumping back a bit. "Now swing as hard as that every time – three main rules of fighting with any pointy weapon, as you call 'em?"
Standing up straight, Aster repeated dutifully, "One, always hold your sword up – Two, never drop your sword – Three, if I hold it with the flat side towards my face, you knock me on my ass."
"Good – I think you've got just enough respect to keep from doing yourself in."
"Heh – thanks, I think."