Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Centaur's Tail, Part Five
Tharjon sat quietly in a tree, watching the sky lighten. Of course, it would be foolish to literally watch the Sun, so she was watching it paint the clouds and the sky all sorts of colours. Her eyes were still miserable, but what she was doing now didn't require close focussing, so it was marginally better. Fingering the longbow Artemis had asked her to bring along, Tharjon wondered morosely how was she supposed to aim and fire it accurately the way things were. The bow was skilfully assembled from horn and wood, fitted together with fine, almost invisible joins. The ends were stylized lion's feet. Overall, it was a gorgeous piece of work. Tharjon was a spectacular shot, appropriate for a priestess of the Goddess of the Hunt and the Bow. Unbeknownst to her, she had competed against the Arborian regent several times. They were at a roughly fifty-fifty split in wins. She had noticed the Amazon's curly headed good looks, and had watched somewhat wistfully as she and the daughter of one of the judges had become very interested in each other at one contest. 'Ah well,' she had decided at the time. 'Not my chance to chat her up today.' Instead she had taken to doing what she cheerfully referred to as 'stupid priestess tricks' which they weren't really. They were just juggling and such. Crowds always liked them.
The sky was a gentle golden colour now, and Tharjon found her mind wandering to her vision of not so long ago.
One moment she had been sitting peacefully in a tree, gazing at a red leaf, thinking about queen Prothoë and vaguely wondering how a red leaf could be in a summer forest – the next she was standing in a clearing. Okay. Vision quest type things tended to be like that. And then she had heard it. The steady pounding of feet, and the baying of hounds. Before the sky had been light, it had been broad daylight. Now the sky was an inky blue-black, not even the Moon to relieve it, and the stars seemed curiously few and far between. The sound of running feet and the hounds got louder. Tharjon swallowed uncomfortably. They were getting closer. A lot closer. Some distance away, a figure became visible.
Inhumanly tall, gripping a silver bow as tall as she was – Tharjon could see from the figure's silhouette it was a woman – in the other, a long, silver arrow. She was running straight towards the blonde priestess. Closer, and now Tharjon expected to get a look at the runner's face, and figure out who she was watching. Instead, nine hounds, no, wolves with deep black fur grizzled with silver burst out of the forest, running in a wedge ahead of the mysterious woman. A mysterious woman who was now near enough Tharjon should have been able to make out details on her clothing, and the features of her face from her glowing bow and arrow. But there was nothing. Nothing but pitch black darkness, like the running woman was a hole in reality. Even more than the wolves, and the fact that the terrifying group was heading right for her, Tharjon found that unnatural sight absolutely terrifying.
Racing pellmell through the forest, hoping desperately to elude her pursuers, who really did seem to be after her, because no amount of twisting and turning, doubling back and going forward, even the old run through a stream to break her scent trail trick threw them off. All useless. The hunter and her wolves were inexorably behind, and Tharjon began to understand the hunter was merely allowing her to be as far ahead as she was. Capture was inevitable. Who and what she was made no difference. The pursuit and capture were inexorable.
So, by that logic, it was dumb to run, right? Maybe. But not running didn't feel like much of an option.
Tharjon had taken a wide, galloping turn around a bunch of grumpy ferns when something hit her solidly in the back of her right shoulder, and threw her into the debris strewn all over the forest floor. For a few moments she lay there, trying to catch her breath and gather up her scattered wits, that she half fancied she could see tossed about among the wood bits and leaves. Shaking her head to clear the idea, Tharjon struggled into a sitting position, uttering a startled exclamation of pain when her right arm informed her that no, using it would not be a good idea. Bracing her back against a fallen tree trunk, Tharjon turned her gaze to the injured shoulder.
Only to see the first fingerwidth or so of the silver arrow's barbed end sticking out of it.
Later. The time had to be later, Tharjon thought in confusion, struggling to orient herself. Eyes opening, she stared around herself in shock. The sky was as inky blue as before, with its strangely sparse compliment of stars. Ranged around her were nine wolves. Standing in front of her was the inhuman figure, still detailless and black. "Oh shit." breathed Tharjon. None of the lessons ever approached this situation.
"Went for a long run." a curious, whispery voice. Tharjon swallowed.
"Instinct, I guess." a weak smile. The side of Tharjon's tunic was very dark now, and her head was spinning.
"You can't escape me."
"I know that. You're pretty scary. If you were just kind of, bland and nice, I probably never would have noticed you until things were already over with."
"I have shot you. You belong with me, now."
Tharjon blinked, and grimaced. Having a very painful shoulder, a dizzy head, and complete confusion sucked. "Beg your pardon? Sorry, I'm not quite up to par." a weak joke. Oh well.
"This time as a rough country priestess is over, Tharjon. I have new tasks for you now. I have shot you with my bow. You belong with me, now."
Ah, now the pieces were starting to fall together, even if only in a mixed up heap with her wits. "But I thought I did already? You know the whole, train and swear to serve in the temple sort of thing."
"No – only a very few do I choose out to join my hunters. You are the first I have Chosen in a long while."
"Okay, well, considering I'm bleeding to death here, does this mean I should expect to see Persephone next?" Tharjon struggled to focus her eyes, and treat the whole situation as if it happened every day. Which it did, actually. People died everyday. Excepting, death was usually a once per lifetime thing, unless you were Xena, or Gabrielle, or –
"Persephone may not have you. You belong with me."
Tharjon went utterly still, feeling what little blood wasn't all over her tunic run cold. This was an honour. All of the scrolls said so. But to be rendered one of Artemis' undead hunters didn't seem much like an honour, even if it was only for the duration of one lifetime. Actually, it seemed awfully nasty. "But – but – I haven't finished anything – and Thraso and Eumache..."
"You will join the hunters fully after your natural death. By then you will understand more, and it will not seem like such a punishment. It is for the best. This will enable you to act as Protector while you still live."
And as suddenly as it had begun, the vision was over, and Tharjon was completely confused in her waking life, and not a little frightened. Then Artemis had shown up, and Tharjon had simply obeyed, and hidden her discomfort. After all, it had to be Artemis Herself in the vision. She had been wracking her brains over it ever since, to no avail. Then she'd wrack her brains for awhile trying to figure out what was going on, and why Artemis wanted an Ares look alike. Finally, Tharjon resorted to wracking her brains over when she was going to go attend the mysterious meeting her Goddess had called for the morning, liking at least one brain wracking session to have a positive outcome.
Xena pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and bent over again, carefully slotting the slats into the wall. The window was nearly finished, and the common room of the inn was bright with sunshine. Her role in Artemis' plan had been revealed to her the night before, along with a fascinating glimpse into her mother's planning process. It involved an alarming amount of vague outlining combined with three or four specific goals, and the rest flying by the seat of her pants. The warrior smiled to herself as she began cleaning up the work debris. Quite similar to her own planning style, really.
The window done, she went to the room she shared with Gabrielle. It was clean, and fairly spartan. The wood had been bleached to a pale gold by years of Sun and age, and the bed creaked a lot more than she remembered. A wardrobe hunkered in a corner, one side of it taken over by Gabrielle's latest pile of parchment projects – it was a source of neverending wonder to the warrior the bard had room in her pack for it all. Of course, a stash in one of Argo's saddlebags could never be ruled out. The other side was hung with two sets of leathers, her armour, and a few tunics and trousers. A new bundle of things had been plopped on top of them, which Xena now pulled out and set on the bed.
Drawing out the bundle's contents, she undressed rapidly, then wetted down her hair. Within a quarter candlemark, in place of a definitely female person was a striking, slender man with a bit of beard on his chin and a scar under one eye. Satisfied with the results, Xena took a careful breath, buckled on a sizeable dagger, and left for a small clearing in the woods not far from the inn, where Artemis had called a strategy meeting.
She arrived to find Thraso sitting on a log, scribbling vigourously in her leatherbound book. Aster was standing across the clearing from her, squirming in his leather finery and scratching at his stubbornly itchy beard. Gabrielle and Eumache were standing towards the centre of the clearing, discussing – names. Seemed a bit early for that. Eumache was hardly showing. Cyrene was seated on the other end of Thraso's log, her expression bemused. The strange priestess Tharjon was sitting on the ground, holding her head in her hands. Xena bit her lip in sympathy. The woman had almost begged her for something to relieve her eyes the night before, and the best Xena had been able to do was cold compresses. Athena was standing a little away from everyone else, glowering like a thunderstorm. Finally, Xena strode into the clearing.
"A scar?" Gabrielle said in an outraged tone. "What's the scar for?"
"Colour." Xena replied, sitting down between Thraso and her mother.
"You'd look better without it."
"How did you..." Gabrielle made a suggestive gesture with one hand.
"I'm not telling you. Last time I did you almost killed me trying to get it." Xena unconsciously crossed her legs. No other experience had taught her more quickly not to explain such things to a bard than the last time she had had to disguise herself as a man – and she had mentioned to the bard how the whole matter of the appropriately positioned groin bulge was arranged. Admittedly, it would have been a great way to go.
"I don't understand why you didn't use a disguise like Xena's." Cyrene commented.
"This is a disguise – just a more – detailed one." the voice was deep, yet only marginally deeper than Artemis' usually was. The person standing in the clearing now defied any attempts made by the others to say anything for a few moments.
Being a shape shifter among other things, and this situation demanding a few more men than was typical, Artemis had simply taken the form of one for the time being. The result rendered her only a little taller – since she was tall anyway – with a neat goatee which hid the divet in her chin, and noticeably bulgier muscles. And more hair. The other results were commented on by Aster.
"Holy crap, Gramma! You're a hunk – and you're hung like a centaur!"
Which reduced everyone else to paroxysms, and the Goddess herself to a deep red blush. "Do men have to look there first?" she muttered, shuffling a little. Just because she was given to such outbursts herself didn't make it any easier to field them. Waiting for the riot to die down, she strode over to the spot Gabrielle and Eumache had been standing in before, bracing her foot on a rock. More helpless giggles.
"I'm sorry, I can't stop..." Gabrielle gasped helplessly. Once somebody drew attention to something like a person's physical attributes, it was so hard not to look. It was like bumping into someone whose eyes were permanently crossed. Politeness, and the determination to show them the same respect as anybody else demanded no staring. But damn, it was hard.
After the giggling had faded to tittering and some soundless gasping from Tharjon, who was still prostrate and weeping from laughing so hard, Artemis started speaking.
"The plan is very simple – follow my lead." flat stares. "Okay, okay – I need three things. I need Ares to be in two places at once. I need a special sort of hunter for a very nasty sort of quarry. And I need Xena and Erith to get along at least long enough to get the plan carried out." A significant glare at Xena. "Erith is currently bullying Ares into position. He wasn't actually trying to be a nuisance earlier. He's had quite a change of circumstances, and was under orders to protect Cyrene. He buggered up. My original plan has changed utterly, mainly, I am glad to say, because I misjudged Ares." Now Artemis turned her gaze to Athena. "My sisters and I have been working at cross purposes for quite awhile. We may all send a respectful thank you to the Fates, because Aphrodite has a situation she must deal with directly, and can't join in today's little escapade." Pushing her hair out of her eyes. "Thraso, you must have noticed how many Emetchi you don't recognize keep turning up around Ankitheas." Thraso blinked in surprise, having not really expected to be spoken to, and so still writing in her book.
"Yeah, tons of them. It's been really strange. And they don't stop into my village at all. They stay in the mixed village an afternoon's walk away."
"Just so." Artemis conjured a chair out of thin air and sat in it. "Three such Amazons came to the inn last night. They are the reason we're out here." Her eyes went distant. "More of their compatriots are at the village downriver. They are allied to – a traitor whom I thought to deal with long ago, but Athena unwittingly prevented me from doing so. I don't know why she has her people floating around here. I do know she's been playing games with water supplies and treaty negotiations lately. Erith has been complaining vigourously." She spread her hands across her knees. "Both the traitor and her allies must be drawn out and dealt with. Aster, you and your brother will draw out those allies, while I draw out the traitor so she may be dealt with."
"I'm supposed to 'draw them out'? What then? Grandmother, I'm not a warrior, I can't deal with these people!" Aster blurted in alarm.
"You don't have to. That's what your aunt is going to do. Isn't it?" Tharjon interrupted, from her seat on the ground.
"Precisely." Artemis tipped her head to one side, gazing at the tall priestess for a moment. Then she knelt down, and placed a hand over the bewildered priestess' eyes. "Periodically I must promote an Omicron. You're it. But I suspect you already knew that, being as I've already hunted you down."
For a moment after Artemis pulled her hand away, Tharjon expected to see nothing. Instead, everything seemed to be more vividly coloured, and things popped out at her which she could have barely seen standing close. "Oh." blurted Tharjon, uncharacteristically speechless.
"Right, enough of me. I'm hogging the page. Let's go, Xena. Back before bedtime, I promise." declared Artemis enigmatically. Gabrielle, Cyrene, and Eumache had their heads together as they walked out of the clearing, discussing vigourously. Under the circumstances, Gabrielle couldn't watch Xena's back as she usually would, and so was to help poor Aster, who looked absolutely overwhelmed. Cyrene and Eumache had been asked, very nicely, based on all sorts of good reasons, to please hang out at the inn until it was all over. Needless to say, all three of them were finding the plan eminently unsatisfactory. Thraso and Athena had their heads together too, discussing something apparently involving water, from Athena's horrified reaction.
Tharjon stumbled out of the clearing after the others, struggling to adjust to things. Her Goddess had done something else, she was sure, because she felt – odd, as if she were floating. A hand dropped on her shoulder, turning her around. "Rio, what – son of a bacchae." hissed Thraso. She was looking into eyes of the same silvered green as Artemis' now, the pupils tiny like pinpricks in the bright sun. "Rio?"
"I know where I came from." a peaceful declaration. This had always been problematic for Tharjon, since she had been adopted as a baby by her mothers. No one had known what happened to her biological parents. But she tended to think of them as her biological family anyway.
"You do?" Thraso stepped a little closer to her friend.
"Let me tell you some of the history of my clan – which the Holy One and Cyrene started long ago."
Aster took a long, deep breath. He did it again. Nope, still felt like screaming his fool head off. Great, just great. The entire plan was madness. He was sure of it, but he was going along anyway. What did that say about him? The idea was sort of creepy, so he got away from it, and swaggered as ordered into the midst of Ares' second camp of goons. Why he had two of them wasn't quite clear to Aster. Nobody looked at him, just hurried a little faster, and stood a little straighter. A pause at a horse paddock, to rub the ears of a fierce looking stallion. Luckily it tolerated him anyway. A voice called behind him, and Aster took a long breath. Time to get to work.
"What do you want?" yes, his grandmother had said speak as rudely as possible, but – well, easier said than done.
"We've been ready to wipe Amphipolis off the map for nearly a week, what are we waiting for?" Ah, so that was why two groups. That dork, whom Aster was accustomed to referring to as his brother, had apparently told his goons they were there to raze Amphipolis. Presumably as a reward for getting Cyrene out of town. Old, nasty habits died hard.
"We are waiting," Aster spun around and grabbed the hapless man, who had almost no hair, by the collar and dragged him almost off his feet. All told, he was quite proud of the little manoeuvre. Artemis had forced him to practise it on weighted hay bail until he was sure his arms were going to drop off. "for when I decide it's time to destroy Amphipolis, or not – then again, maybe I should just destroy you."
Make a huge diversion. Okay. Aster drew his sword, and prayed desperately this wasn't going to be something incredibly ugly. He looked at the sword, and realized he had grabbed his blunted practise weapon by mistake, instead of the real sword his grandmother had provided. All told, the situation was now in the category of real ugly – outstandingly so.
Still, Aster was finding it easy, almost uncomfortably so, to parry the other man's blows. Compared to Thraso he swung like a creaky door, and he used one pattern of blows, repeatedly. All told, it was cloaking Aster's practise sword quite well, as far as it went, but he could see the bystanders getting restless. Not a good thing. Went quite well with the ugly situation. Which called for ugly solutions. Watching for the little gap his opponent's pattern gave him, Aster stepped around his guard and punched him solidly in the stomach. Then he whacked him over the head and flattened him. While it was true Aster wasn't a trained warrior, and disliked the profession for himself, being a gay carpenter did sometimes force you to deal with somebody who wanted to swing their fists instead of just taking their business elsewhere. They were just about as ugly as the bald guy.
Said bald guy was sprawled on the ground, looking pathetically scared, and now half the camp was hanging on Aster like flies on – he stopped the thought. 'Be nice,' he chided himself. 'It's not entirely their fault they act like this.' Turning slowly around, making sure he had the major fellows all staring at him, he took a deep breath.
"So you're getting impatient. Fine. I have a little job for you." Groans went up. Several men growled angrily at the bald guy, for whining at the boss one too many times and getting them in trouble. "You two, take your groups and start up the hill. I want a catapult station set up, to throw burning pitch." A rotten, smelly job, Aster knew, having been trapped in Corinth when Xena seiged it. He had been careful not to mention that. "Send the others back here. You three, get the rest of this camp moving. We're going to move right onto Artemis' doorstep – as for my personal guard, as you were – for the rest of the day." Having doomed a bunch of guys to a long, long, sweaty march in the hot Sun, a bunch of other guys to hours of work in it and beyond, and the honour guard to stand there and swelter around the command tent, Aster sheathed his sword with a flourish and stepped inside.
It was a really nice tent. All furs and a nice, cushy cot. Even a table with wine on it. No food, Aster realized, regretfully. Now the guys who liked to chase after his brother were making an obvious commotion and running around like they were actually going to do something. Apparently the nasty Amazons were expecting the nasty Amazon who ordered around the woman who had tried to shoot Gabrielle the day before was expected to have bribed half of Amphipolis into helping her destroy Xena and her partner. And a certain innkeeper and her lover, whose identity she didn't really know. Aster had dashed out to see which direction the catapults were getting pointed in, realizing if they were actually pointing at Amphipolis, the nasty Amazons would never fall for it. Seeing the men had dutifully set them up pointing the wrong way, it took all his willpower to bite his lip and not burst into very unAreslike giggles. This was so cool. He could almost, almost see why his grandmother liked this stuff.
The tent, luxurious as it was, was quite dim. Maybe Ares didn't need light to see, and maybe he was supposed to keep the men convinced he was Ares, but what would a candle hurt. If someone called him on it, he'd deal with it then. Aster had just finished lighting the taper when someone said, "Hello?" from almost under his feet. Stumbling backwards and falling over a chair Aster struggled to see who had spoken.
"Now I'm sure you're not Ares." the person speaking was a brown haired, hunky fellow sitting quietly to one side of the tent. He had a big goose egg on one temple, and looked a little dazed.
"Oh, well..." Aster stared at the man in bewilderment. "Gosh, I didn't know Ares and I had the same – err – interests."
"He doesn't. This tent is weirdly cool even during the heat of the day. Artemis just about knocked my head in a day or so ago, so I get to relax in the weirdly cool tent, healer's orders." a smile.
"Nice healer. You're right about the tent, of course. I hardly noticed, with all this heavy leather on. You're not planning on screaming at your buddies about me, are you?" Aster really hoped not. This guy was sort of cute, and whacking him over the head again would be so lousy.
"Nah. I'm quitting this gig. All I want to do is go home." a sad smile.
"I'm sure that can be arranged." Aster replied kindly. He eyed the wineskin speculatively. "Is this actual wine, do you know?" he was sort of thirsty.
"Dunnow. You'll probably have to smell it or something to find out. If it's some kind of Thrakian port, it should put hair on your chest."
Aster's expression was horrified. "But I already look like a rug!" he stopped short. "You never heard me say that."
"Of course not." the other man agreed gravely.
"Mother." Thraso said succinctly.
"What are you doing?"
"I am thinking many happy thoughts. I am thinking about anything but where we're going." Athena declared, with vigour.
Her daughter nodded soberly, and considered how best to reply to that. "It's not that bad."
"Thraso, we're going to have to get in a boat!" Athena shouted, waving her hands in disgust. "If we had been meant to run around in the water, we would grow gills like my sister does as soon she steps into a living body of water. Or we'd be born knowing how to swim."
"Actually," Thraso began.
"Don't say it." groaned Athena, having already seen where her daughter's thoughts were going.
The boat proved to be a sturdy canoe, equipped with two paddles. Okay, it was a canoe made of bark, and wasn't very sturdy at all. Just because bark canoes weren't known for standing up to wear all that well, didn't change the fact that getting Athena to swim was an absolute impossibility. The bottom seemed rather damp, but Thraso ignored that as she jumped in, then looked impatiently up at her mother.
"I hate water, I hate water, I hate water..." Athena chanted vigourously as she got into the canoe. The weight of the two women caused the hole in the bottom of the canoe to begin spouting water, spattering over the Goddess' feet and ankles. "Oh furkin' Tartarus!" she cursed, shaking each foot to no avail as the water soaked into her boots. The canoe was moving about wildly, first one side, then one end, then the other half dipping into the current.
"Mom! Mom! For Gaea's sake, cut it out!" shouted Thraso as she was nearly pitched out headfirst.
"Sorry." Athena replied a bit sheepishly, sitting down uncomfortably. "I can't help it – this is unnatural."
"Only to a desert deity." sighed Thraso. "Which way?"
"Downstream." A moment's pause. "Thraso, this river flows backwards – it flows upstream in going downstream." Her daughter gaped at her. "Stop looking at me like that. The main river in my personal experience is the Nile." Which explained a lot, since the Nile flowed in the opposite direction of most rivers in that general area of the world. Athena finally grabbed a paddle, and soon they were skimming along with the current, Thraso's expert steering keeping them out of harm's way.
"Son of a bacchae!" Thraso cursed. Dropping her paddle to the bottom of the canoe, she quickly pulled off her breastplate, thanked her parents for ensuring that she had some cleavage, and began vigourously bailing.
"What's the matter?"
"Please forget about it and keep paddling." panted Thraso, still hurling water out of the canoe as fast as she could, pausing only to try jamming a piece of her shirt into the hole which she had pulled off for the purpose. It helped a little, allowing her to catch up to the mess. "We have to hurry up and get to that spring – the sooner we wash out that camp of traitors, the better."
"True, true." agreed Athena. "One way or the other they are getting flushed out. Literally, in a manner of speaking."
The spring was pleasantly situated, displaced several bodylengths from the river itself, spilling down a craggy shoulder to a pool that eventually emptied into the larger stream. Mother and daughter worked quickly and silently, climbing up the dry side of the rocks after beaching the canoe. With a Goddess there to help, moving the large stones to get the flow redirected was almost ludicrously easy. A bridge stretched across the river a short distance away, and Athena frowned at it. "Why do I get the feeling that bridge should be labelled trouble?" They soon had a good, strong blast of water running at an angle into a camp they could just see through the trees. It was rough and dirty looking, hallmark of Emetchi who had strayed far from their ways. "I'll get the canoe in the water." Thraso whispered. Athena nodded, and continued watching, grinning a little as women began to realize the camp was washing away. A bunch of gear was already gone, and apparently someone's leathers, because one woman was running around naked except for a loincloth, shouting orders. It was all quite entertaining, in a sort of nasty way. Athena stood up to follow her daughter when a ringing shout came from her right.
By the best of luck, a foraging party had spotted her. Athena sighed. Using her powers wasn't really an option right now. Probably the sudden manifestation of a Goddess would actually throw a huge kink into the peacefully ravelling threads of the web she and her sister were carefully drawing shut around Axeo, who had to be stopped. Options – she cursed softly. The bridge, of course.
"Stop her! Stop her before she gets across the damned bridge!" screamed the naked Emetchi, who had retrieved a breastplate to cover up her chest with before clambering up the hill to see what the commotion was about. Chances were she'd scream too, if she had just slapped on a bunch of cold, wet, heavy metal over her frontal assets, Athena decided as she skidded to a halt halfway across the bridge. The foraging party had weapons drawn and were shouting at her now.
The Sun Goddess glared at them. "Couldn't you have stopped and had a beer, or something?" she shouted at them crossly. There was only one thing left to do now. "Thraso, I hope you have that thing in the water!" she shouted. The weaponmaster was already moving into position by the bridge and had grabbed about twenty sizeable stones from the river bank, all shiny and smooth from years of running water and sharp grit. The first of the foragers made it onto the bridge, and Thraso nailed her squarely on the chest with one of her stones. A second was felled by a blow to the temple.
Athena skidded to a stop in the centre of the bridge, spared a quick glance to the people struggling to climb over their fallen comrades, then looked down at the water. To her eyes it looked dark and brown-green, just waiting for the chance to swallow a good hearted desert dweller at the first opportunity. Forcing her eyes upward, Athena cut through one rope railing, then the support rope at the bottom of the bridge itself. Immediately that side of the bridge dropped away beneath her feet, almost depositing her into the river before she was ready. A reach and a swing did in the rest of the railing. She had time to hear the thudding wunk noises as Thraso nailed two more women, then the last rope separated and Athena plummeted down into the river – only to be hauled out by the hair, sputtering and gasping.
"Mom, you can't go running around on the river if you can't swim." gasped Thraso, who found herself tossed headfirst into the bottom of the canoe as her mother threw her down and grabbed an arrow out of the air.
"Hey!" Athena shouted angrily, and without thinking she sent the archer flying. "Aack – dammit." seizing a paddle, she got the canoe moving. They were in the swift current now, however, and soon the problem ceased to be the infuriated Emetchi who were heading straight toward the field the river careened by in hopes of cutting them off, and became preventing the canoe from sinking. Both women were bailing desperately as angry shouting followed them downstream.
It was wrong, Cyrene knew, to lie. And damned near impossible at any time, with her partner. But there was something bothering her, something discomforting. Artemis was distracted, and had admitted she wasn't up to par herself. The last time Artemis had said such a thing was before a climactic battle in the desert near a Libyan Amazon city. Three arrows had turned all celebration to mourning, and somehow, somehow Cyrene had a bad feeling something similar was in the wind again. But this time, those arrows were never going to meet their mark.
The two younger women moved along silently ahead of her, Gabrielle armed with her everpresent staff, Eumache gripping a sword. The innkeeper was carrying a staff herself. At first her compatriots had looked a little doubtful, regardless of her fancy broomwork the night before. So she gave a bit of a clinic, and on seeing the appropriately astounded looks on Gabrielle and Eumache's faces, drawled, "I have many skills." Not knowing this was one of her daughter's favourite lines.
There, just ahead of her, was Argo, and tied up beside her the horse Artemis had taken to some time before. It had to be one of the ugliest horses she had ever seen, with a Roman nose, a duff coat, and a look when standing still only its mother could love. But, Gantry, as Artemis had taken to calling her, was a fabulously even tempered, smart horse who could run like the very wind. True to her temperament, Gantry snuffed at the innkeeper and butted her solidly in the direction of the inn.
"Stop it! I know I'm supposed to be back at the inn. But I have to write Artie a note or something, and warn her." Digging in a saddlebag, Cyrene's hands tangled in her partner's heavy cloak. For a moment she held it close, wishing her partner could sweep it around herself, and it would repel arrows like a wall of iron. And then her eyes got wide, and she went very still. Suddenly, it was all laid out before her, like a grand picture, and she could see where each detail came from, and what it led to. It was frightening and exhilarating at the same time. For a few moments the innkeeper stood there, breathing slowly and deeply, because the sudden sense of power was nearly overwhelming. Because she knew, she knew, she could change – everything.
Moving quickly, she rounded up the bard and the warrior. "Come with me." she whispered. The very place to wait wasn't far away. A field, with a curious series of lumpy hillocks on its edges. Hotsprings were not too far from it, so it seemed likely it was an old, old lava flow. Tucking Gabrielle into one side of the hillock and Eumache into the other, Cyrene settled herself perched inside a solid, nasty blackberry bush. Thorns as thick around as the end of a quill were alarmingly close to her face, but Cyrene ignored them. Now she had purpose. Her younger compatriots had been a little bewildered, and then unnerved, but had gone along. A solemn promise to explain everything had just had to be satisfactory.
Ringing shouts were coming from the direction of the river now, and the beginnings of a ragtag collection of Amazons began to appear, and a catapult, pointing in the wrong direction, if it was supposed to be attacking Amphipolis was being rolled into place by a ragtag group of men. Before long, someone else arrived, who seemed to be Ares yet couldn't be, hollering unhelpfully at the catapult team.
"What are we doing again?" hissed Xena, shifting uncomfortably. Unfortunately her artificial groin bulge had a large wooden button in it, and when she leapt into the saddle she had nearly hurt something important. She had had no idea the damned button was there. Just like she had no real idea what her mother was up to.
Artemis sighed in irritation. The plan was spectacular, but Xena didn't think so, and couldn't believe they were trying something like it. "We are going to go into the camp – we're going to watch Erith do her bit, then we are going to do some misguiding of the Amazons these nasty characters draw out. And among those should be Axeo, who will finally be taken care of for good." A pause as they worked their way to the edge of the camp, and soon picked out Erith, where she stood, towering over Ares. Her posture and gestures screamed 'I am absolutely furious!' and her sister and mother winced.
"Misguiding the Amazons demands we be disguised as men." Xena muttered.
"Well Xena, if Axeo and her people could actually tell precisely where we are, this whole thing would be a lot more difficult." Artemis grimaced and squirmed a bit. Noticing Xena's curious expression, she coughed uncomfortably. "I itch." The warrior choked back a burst of laughter. "Yes, yes, it is funny. What a dumb set up this is – if I was a male, I would be heading on up to Zeus and saying, 'Hey, are you sure about this whole thing with my genitalia? I mean, they aren't very well protected, are they? These are delicate, highly sensitive parts, and they just hang around. And a codpiece, a codpiece just doesn't quite cut it – maybe you weren't quite finished with the design?' " Artemis waved one hand in the air. "It really does seem a strange set up. Why aren't they fully retractable or something?" she peered at the now arguing war duo. "And, unfortunately, to deal with these guys quickly and effectively, we need to be ready to take over after these two goofs are out of commission."
"Out of commission?" Xena was liking this less and less.
"Athena has to take the glamour she placed on them to keep them from recognizing you off, and that's liable to knock them half senseless. I had a bit of a conference with the Fates and the others in the non Olympian council who ultimately keep things running properly. All the tangles in the tapestry must be undone, or none." Xena's hand locked around her forearm.
"Or they separate you from mother. Am I right?"
An uncomfortable silence. "Basically. Xena, you know the Fates don't literally choose what any person does – they only determine when a soul is embodied, and when a life is over. The rest is up to the person. After all, there are many souls to attend to, and many new worlds to create."
"The reason they believe they need to threaten you with tearing your soul apart again is?" Xena's voice shook with anger.
"My – behaviour – was a bit – Destroyer of Nationsish for awhile. I think they feel every effort must be made to insure I keep my head together. They nailed Athena with something too, and told Aphrodite quite bluntly she had best stick to her side of the fence for the moment. It will all be settled up, and the air will get cleared out again."
"Oh, and that makes it right." the younger woman glared at the argument, a short distance away. Would it never end? "It's cruel."
"And I can understand why they want it that way. Xena, Athena and I nearly made a tartarus of a mess with our scrapping. They can't afford any bugger ups this time. No one can. There are bigger, darker fish to fry soon, and we can't be caught up in this." Artemis tossed an arm roughly around Xena's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "For the record, I appreciate your anger on my behalf. Truth be told, I never expected it."
"You want me to what?"
"I want you to take your band of smelly goons, and run them right down the middle of that field. They must act as a diversion. It won't do them any harm. And you, you my nephew, will lead them, even if I have to chain you to your horse and wallop it on the ass and send the lot of them chasing after you!" Erith had completely lost patience several moments ago. Ares was balking. He didn't want to be helpful.
"Since when should I descend to the point of actually leading a battle?" sneered Ares.
"Since your choices were to lead or to spend your time on probation in Tartarus." A long finger tapped him on the chest. "I don't like that idea. But I like the stranger you have become under Zeus' tutelage even less. You don't realize what your mother and I want out of this. We want the nephew and son who existed before, do you understand me? Barring that, we want you to become a responsible member of our society again. This can be done the easier way. Or it can be done the hard way." she stepped back, and turned Ares to look towards the trees.
Just visible at the edges were four dark warriors. Like Erith, they were all black leather and blue armour. Unlike Erith, they had none of her insignia or the distinctive heavy labrys hooked to the left side of her belt. "They're waiting. It takes only one word."
"You're threatening me with a few of great grandmother's trackers? How convincing." snapped Ares.
"They are my trackers." Erith said, chillingly. "I am the Goddess of War. They serve me. And for now, you are under my jurisdiction. But of course, if you would prefer to refuse, and to call upon the Fates, and avoid also any time in Tartarus, be my guest."
"Maybe I will." Ares said defiantly.
"Bear in mind that they will punish you to the fullest extent of their law. And that they imprisoned Apollo in stone for crimes similar to yours."
"What?" grated Ares. His mother stared at him, unblinking. "They were going to imprison me like that?"
"So they were. It is effective. Being as it isn't really all that uncomfortable, just quiet and isolated, it gives a being considerable time to think. And prevents them from interfering with any mortals. Of course, it also prevents you from receiving any mortal offerings, as well." Erith knew she had him. Ares had a love of being 'adored.'
"Alright. Alright. What am I supposed to do?"
Seeing the contest of wills finally end, Artemis straightened. "Ready?" she asked her daughter.
"Let's go." They mounted their horses and followed the group of men out at a discrete distance. Once Ares was well on his way, leading his whooping and hollering men on to what they believed would be a violent raid of Amphipolis, Erith peeled off and made her way back to the two followers.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in puzzlement.
"Keeping an eye on things." Artemis replied. "Must keep close track of all events."
"Hmmph." snorted Erith. "I don't like it. What else haven't you told me?"
"Nothing that there's time to explain to you just..." Artemis stopped abruptly, her pale gaze snapping to and her entire body stiffening to a crackling alertness. "A sound." she turned, her eyes becoming almost pupiless, her gaze straying upward. "Did you hear it? A sound."
"Yess." hissed Erith, her voice sibilant.
Unnerved, Xena replied uncomfortably, "What sound?"
"The sound using inhuman power makes." Artemis rubbed uncomfortably at her arms, casting about with her senses, trying to understand what had started happening that she hadn't predicted. "Wrongness," she burst out unhappily. "I sense wrongness – who is interfering?" Her gaze fixed in the direction of the river. "No!" she wailed. "What is she doing? What is she doing?" And then there was a tremendous bang.
Thraso sighed with relief. They had gotten out of the way of the screaming, furious Emetchi, who were now running as fast as their feet could carry them towards what they thought was a battle to destroy the Warrior Princess and the last of Axeo's enemies. Her mother's mind was already on something else, thankfully, because she was still drenched. Stopping abruptly, she turned to her daughter. "Thraso, I have a couple of things to do. Thanks to the cheerful machinations of my sister, and some less cheerful ones by myself, I need to produce a nasty diversion and undo something else I did." A pause. "Yeah, I think that made sense. Look, you just, please, keep this awful, disgusting watercraft from sinking, and I'll take care of things."
"All right." Thraso agreed reluctantly. "I don't like to be merely reacting to things, Mom."
"Yeah. Sorry about that." Pulling a hooded cloak out of midair, Athena threw it around her shoulders. "It's just – word came from the Fates, and from the council of deities I'm a member of. They changed the rules – this is a zero sum game. I have to help undo the mess, or I will have to stay permanently on the immortal plane. That would be lousy. I'd like to meet my granddaughter when she gets here." Having given that piece of information, Athena leapt onto shore and hurried off.
"Zero sum." Thraso muttered, as she lightly beached the canoe, fearful of tearing apart its bottom.
"Well, look who's here." a voice sneered to her left. Thraso turned. There were a few of the nasty Emetchi, armed to the teeth.
"Commonsense dictates, I should be alarmed and unhappy about this situation." Thraso commented mildly as she climbed out of the canoe and drew her sword. "But in fact, I am so happy for a fight!" with that she dove bodily into the fracas. Luckily Eumache's attention was engaged elsewhere, or she might have had a strong opinion about her lover's actions.
Athena peered out of her cowl, and crept past the two drunken warriors who were supposed to be watching Ares' temple. A careful step over the threshold, and her flesh promptly began to crawl, and her stomach attempted to do likewise. It wasn't comfortable for any deity to go where they weren't welcome. This however, was a very special event, demanded by intense provocation and just plain disrespect. Finding the windows high in the wall behind the altar as expected, Athena drew a bucket with a tight lid on the top from under her robes. Gazing at the angle of the Sun, and noting the already high temperature in the room, she careful settled the bucket right beneath a patch of powerfully hot light. For a moment, she leaned into the patch of light herself, and breathed deeply. A passerby would have gotten the uncomfortable impression the tall Goddess was sucking up the light. Then, in the same way Artemis melded into shadows and was gone, Athena vanished into the shaft of light and was gone, leaving only the mysterious bucket behind her.
And stepped back into ordinary form to find her daughter in the midst of a huge brawl. Three Amazons were trying to drag her down by holding onto her back. Four others were in front of her, being held off with impressive of effectiveness by her regular sword in one hand, a shorter, more vicious looking weapon taken from a fallen opponent in the other. A kick and a solid jab with one elbow dislodged the three women on her back, and Thraso then spent a few moments neatly disposing of her other opponents. One of the women stood up slowly, dagger gripped in one hand, eyes focussed with lethal intent on the chink in Thraso's back armour.
"Today is not your day." a soft, silky voice hissed in the woman's ear. Athena grimaced in distaste as the woman fell at her feet. She disliked doing that sort of thing. But in the matter of protecting her children, she and Artemis had the same philosophy. It really didn't matter what it took, as long as her child was safe at the end of it.
Thraso knocked the last Emetchi unconscious, and threw aside the nasty little short sword. The action was welcome, and made her feel a bit less lost. Turning, she saw her mother, eyes set and grim. "We'd better be going, kiddo." Nodding, Thraso soon had them moving swiftly along the back of the river again, only to discover the hole in the bottom of the canoe was worse than ever. Pulling off her breastplate again, she went back to bailing, and prayed her mother's paddling and rowing skills were up to the task of dealing with an unfamiliar craft on her least favourite element.
And then there was a resounding bang.
The sound nearly got Thraso out of her skin, it was so unexpected. Smoke and flame was visible some distance away on Ares' side of the river. "Coool!" Athena crowed in delight. The weaponmaster sighed and went back to bailing. She had forgotten her mother's penchant for explosions and flames. The Goddess had a second home in Chin, all because she loved the fireworks. It was the one thing that could get her gushing with enthusiasm the way Aphrodite did over love stories or Artemis did over hunting.
"I can't believe how well that turned out."
"What?!" Thraso blurted, dropping her breastplate in surprise.
"Well, you see kiddo – I had a bucket of the rankest, nastiest crap – real crap, not figurative crap, this side of Tartarus, and I heated it up – then I took it and stuck it in Ares' temple, right in the Sun." Athena was waving her hands a bit as she spoke, eyes glowing with enthusiasm. "You see, he levelled my temple in Plataea and humiliated my priestesses there a few days ago, and I couldn't let that go. The crap, gives off flammable gas, lots of it, more so when it's hot. And when it gets hot enough, it explodes. Being as I can't just waltz into Ares' temple and knock it down..."
"You blew it up?!"
"Yeah – why?" Just then the lip of the canoe dropped under the water's surface, and it began to fill with cold, sluggish water. "Oh, this is so gross."
The smell was – there were no words for the smell, at least not in Xena's vocabulary, and it was extensive. Several stragglers had come running from Ares' now flattened temple, covered in dust and brown stuff that Xena shuddered to think any living creature had produced. She and her mother, plans apparently in disarray, were riding Tartarus for leather after Erith, who looked as confused as they were. Xena paused long enough to toss the bundle with its wooden button into the bushes. Artemis had already returned to her own form, and now the renegade Amazons were mustering on the plain, ready to put up a serious fight. Quickly tossing her bindings so she'd be able to breathe and swing properly, Xena dropped behind Artemis to ride alongside Erith, who had already drawn her wicked looking scimitar, her eyes beginning to glow with the wild joy in battle Xena knew must be lighting her own as well. Glancing at her mother as she tucked in her shirt and cinched up her belt, Xena wondered what she was thinking.
For her part, Artemis was infuriated. After everything, everything she had gone through, Athena had completely buggered everything. Everything. It was all she could think of, and she found herself wildly desperate. It had all gone perfectly, until Athena had decided to blow up Ares' temple. Now, the way things stood, a huge damned battle was in the works, and she was as mortal for the moment, as Cyrene. The innkeeper wouldn't become completely immortal until the Moon rose, and Artemis would become immortal again at the same time. The situation was so damned ugly even Charon would look handsome next to it. Leaning forward to get Gantry to run a bit faster, Artemis felt her eyes begin to burn with tears of anger and despair.
"No," she breathed aloud. "Not this time. I won't have it." It got uglier when the first of the renegade Amazons arrived, and Artemis found herself fighting three with her sword while two tried to jump on her back.
Someone had finally dragged Artemis from her horse, and two more Amazons had leapt on top of her before anyone could help her. The entire struggling mass veered around, one of the women howling in pain when sharp teeth clamped down on her wrist. Then bodies were flying everywhere as Artemis tossed them off, roaring angrily. Getting both feet under her, she was soon knocking heads together with a vengeance. Half of the Amazons, finding this roaring, furious, beyond bitch from Tartarus apparition a bit much to handle, ran as fast as their legs would carry them. The rest were foolish enough to think that against these three women they had more than a chance of winning, and that the screaming, yelling men were allies, not enemies.
Erith and Xena were in the thick of a mass of horses and veering people. At some point Ares had clawed his way back to them, and was struggling to get through a knot of struggling Amazons who had realized he had no intention of helping their cause. He could sense Athena's presence, and he couldn't understand what she was up to. All he knew was, Athena and he were no allies, and she and Erith didn't get along either. Something seemed to be going wrong too, because as he understood it, obvious demonstrations of divine power were off limits, yet he had distinctly heard the sound of such a demonstration.
Erith threw an Amazon bodily from her horse. She had maintained enough presence of mind to try not to injure anyone too badly. As a de facto Goddess of so many Amazons, she found herself unable to simply hurt them. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Ares struggling towards her, shouting something she couldn't quite make out. Damn it, why did he insist on shouting in Greek – it wasn't her first language, and during stressful times it was far easier for her to understand almost anything other than the curious, sing song rhythms of the language. The sensation of electricity in the air raised the hairs on her arms, and she looked uncomfortably at the sky. The sky was clear, and when she stretched out her senses to locate the energy's source, she found that she had pinpointed Athena's location. 'On the river?' she wondered in bafflement.
Then multicoloured lights flashed before her eyes, her ears filled with a roaring noise, and before Erith could even comprehend what was happening she had fallen from her mount, tumbling down among stomping feet and hooves, senseless onto the torn grass. Not far away, Ares had fallen prey to the same fate, but unlike his aunt he hadn't collapsed in the midst of a melee.
Xena saw Erith fall, but found herself too hard pressed to help. The Amazons had picked up on Artemis' presence now, and were focussing on them where mother and daughter had put themselves back to back. Thankfully, this drew the commotion away from Erith's flattened form.
The canoe had sunk. When push came to shove, it seemed almost anticlimactic after everything else. Thraso scrambled onto the shore, pausing long enough to be sure her mother was hurrying after her. Pulling the water logged straps tight on her breastplate, she drew her sword and dove into the fray surrounding her relatives. Someone tried to knock her senseless with a mace, and Thraso took the blow on one shoulder, rolling underneath his extended arms and smashing the hilts of her sword into his chin. Apparently Ares' goons had taken to just beating on anyone who wasn't wearing his sigil. Spinning smoothly on one heel, she swiftly disarmed several men, then hacked apart a crossbow aimed at her aunt's back. For her part, Athena had grabbed a sturdy branch and was batting men around like hapless dolls. Later they would give confused accounts of a female Hercules.
At some point, Gabrielle and Eumache had turned up from somewhere, and were battling fiercely over Erith where she lay. A number of renegades and goons alike had already come by with plans for finishing off the apparently wounded woman and stealing her armour. Something had obviously gone seriously wrong. Gabrielle was sure, because somehow she just couldn't believe the original plan involved Erith being facedown and defenceless in the dirt. Knocking her current opponent senseless, Gabrielle had just started dealing with another when she saw a man coming at her with a pike, and realized she couldn't defend herself from both. Somehow, she couldn't find any thoughts about death or serious injury. All that would come to mind was, 'It just has to be one of those days, doesn't it?' Which was just as well, as the pikeman fell under the hooves of a familiar golden horse, and her other opponent was knocked flying by a tree limb.
"Are you all right?" Xena shouted at her partner as they stood back to back and returned to the business of fighting far too many people who no longer seemed to have any clear objective.
"Oh sure, considering I just about became an hors d'ouerve, I'm great." shot back Gabrielle, knocking a bald man's feet out from under him.
"Hey, I got here as fast as I could." Xena sighed in irritation as yet another man made a snarky comment about cutting her off at the knees before she sent him to see Charon.
"Was this part of the plan, oh sister dearest?" spat Artemis as she temporarily cleared some space around herself.
"No!" the branch swept in a short, sharp arc, keeping the soldiers just out of reach. "Things got ahead of me."
"No doubt." leaping back into Gantry's saddle, Artemis deftly drew off a good number of the struggling warriors, and soon had them chasing after her, some trying to get ahead and separate her from her horse. One of them succeeded in grabbing her left arm, and another got hold of a saddlebag, nearly getting away with her cloak by mistake, when he really wanted to grab Gantry's bridle. Artemis snatched the cloak back from him and shrugged off the man attached to her arm much as she would a mosquito.
Gantry galloped between two copses of trees, and it was then Artemis saw them. Archers, some in the trees, a few others on the ground, aiming deadly arrows at her. There was no way to catch them all, no way to duck or leap so as to avoid them.
"Shit." she said flatly. Later, she would say only that she just felt as if someone had all but screamed at her to do it. This was true, in a manner of speaking. Twitching herself into action, she swung her cloak around, sweeping it about her body so quickly it nearly tangled her arms. One of the closer archers started laughing coarsely. The sound of bow strings twanging and crossbow mechanisms snapping to seemed to be all there was.
Until the darts began bouncing off of Artemis' cloak like it was made of iron, and the shocked archers were temporarily frozen with disbelief.
Tharjon moved swiftly through the woods, distantly aware of the fight going on not far away. She had heard the explosion, and smelt it – how could a person not? Even Athena's actions had registered on her newly attuned senses. But these things were irrelevant. They did not involve her purpose. For the moment, her purpose was paramount. There was nothing but the hunt. A set of footprints in the loam caught her eye. Running parallel to the edge of the trees, alongside the field of battle. Archers and crossbow wielders she had seen heading somewhere else. These too she had ignored. She wasn't hunting them.
The smooth surface of her bow fitted easily in her hand. An arrow was clasped in the other, and now she was following the trail, ever faster. It was clearer and clearer. Apparently her quarry had become desperate. The battle didn't seem to be going as expected. Tharjon looked up, pale eyes gleaming in the lowering sunlight. The tracks left the forest, and now she paused to gauge the position of the fighters, and match the trail of her quarry to its continuance on the field. She saw the Goddess of War and the former god of war fall, and her eyes widened in alarm. What grim magic was this, that divinities were falling like mortals?
There was the trail, and nocking the arrow, she began to run along it, struck by a sudden sense of urgency.
"How charming. How quaint. It hardly matters. You have escaped them. You will not escape me." declared Axeo. She was standing in Artemis' way now, a crossbow gripped in sweaty, shaking hands. "Nothing can prevent me from bringing glory to the Nation. I bargained and fought many centuries for the hind's blood that coats the tip of this bolt. No tricks can save you now."
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "You've gone quite mad."
"A sad waste of your last words." spat Axeo, and began to pull the trigger. She saw, lined up to Artemis' left, a mysterious fair haired woman. She had a bow in her hand, and a nocked arrow. "What is this? Some pitiful attempt to distract me? Only I have the hind's blood. Only I may win."
Perhaps she might have, if she had said a little less. As it was, Tharjon's arrow was unerring, and it was as carefully coated with hind's blood as Axeo's crossbow bolts.
"Easy, easy – don't twist her back, and stretch out her legs." After Axeo's demise, the renegade Amazons had lost heart and dispersed. Ares' followers didn't take long to follow them after picking up their fallen leader. Now Artemis was struggling to wake up Erith, who had been stomped on by horses and people alike. Cyrene had promptly surrendered her staff, and between hers and Gabrielle's the Goddess' painfully twisted right leg had been straightened. Apparently it had taken the worst of her fall. Of course all the bruises and scrapes were healing almost immediately, but it was better to set things right than leave them.
"Erith," Artemis slapped her daughter's face gently. "Come on now, Kyklonis, this isn't funny."
"Kyklonis?" Eumache asked in bewilderment. How many names did these Goddess types have?
"Erith is short for Erithakos, which is a nickname. It means 'red breasted' like the robin, because in general she prefers red tunics." Artemis growled, shaking her daughter's shoulder. Finally, the younger Goddess groaned.
Sighs of relief sounded all around the little group, especially from Athena, who had been feeling steadily more worried.
"M goin' home and I'm not comin' back." Erith mumbled crossly. "Deal with all your damned Emetchi by yourself."
"Come on Rio, let's get a litter together." Thraso said softly.
"That won't be necessary." a crisp voice interrupted. "We will take her home now." Erith's four hunters already had a litter ready, and they deftly placed Erith on it. "A new sword will be sent to you in good time, Xena."
"Don't be such a baby – I though you had this all worked out so you wouldn't have to fight." Cyrene chided gently, swabbing the gash in her lover's shoulder again.
"I did! It's all Athena's fault. Ow!"
"Her fault, huh?" Cyrene continued stitching, producing a neat row which would hardly leave a scar.
"Yeah, without what she was doing, my plan would have gone perfectly." Artemis stared determinedly at the opposite wall. She wasn't the biggest fan of needles.
"I suppose. Did you hear me?"
Artemis smiled. "Yes." More a feeling than a sound. "Impressive. Not many people get the hang of the telepathy thing so quickly. Or getting my cloak to act like a shield, for that matter."
"I had intense motivations."
"Okay. I won't argue with that."
"Only because you are."
"Is that what it is?" Cyrene replied, smiling and slipping both arms around the tall Goddess.
"You always were a good maiden." chuckled Artemis. "Or a Britomartis, as we would have said then."
"I like it, but I won't take it."
"That name, Britomartis. I like my own. So regardless of the life passage thing, you're just going to have to get used to the fact that I don't want a scroll's worth of names. Unlike someone I know."
Which had given them both a welcome laugh.
Athena leaned back on the stone platform, absorbing sunlight with a happy sigh. Water was overrated, she had decided long ago. Rolling over to let her back get some Sun, she shut her eyes and was soon dozing. She was having a pleasant dream about flying over miles of red desert, periodically swooping into updrafts and riding them nearly to the Sun when a gentle throat clearing interrupted it.
"Not to say you aren't fabulous looking naked, Bright One, you are – but the other Amazons are panicking." Xenoklea leaned against the wall, gazing unabashedly at the expanse of the Goddess' dark brown back down to her hips.
"They're always panicking. They should know better." growled Athena, sitting up and turning to face her Chosen, entirely unconcerned with whether she had clothes on or not.
"True, very true. So, about the other thing I asked you about. What do you say?" Xenoklea took a deep breath, hoping for an answer which wouldn't force her to openly defy her Goddess.
The Goddess rose gracefully to her feet, pushing her dreadlocks out of her eyes. "Xenoklea, you know I don't approve of this – relationship you have with my sister."
The queen scowled back at her, folding her arms in an unconsciously defiant gesture. Athena threw up a hand. "But I have spoken to my mother on the subject, and she has suggested that perhaps my gaze is not clear in this case." Dropping her hand again. "And I fear she may be right. You and my sister make each other happy – she had taken to referring to you by as many versions of the word 'beautiful' as she can think of. It isn't like her to go on in such a way about a person. Artemis is devoted to you, and powerful beyond what you can imagine." Inclining her head slightly, Athena admitted quietly, "And in truth, I don't think I could successfully oppose her. Especially not now, when you and she are in agreement." She stepped to the edge of the stone platform, heedless of the effects on the Amazons below, some of whom passed out, and most others simply gaped. "So I won't." She turned back to Xenoklea. "You have my word."
"Thank you, Bright One. You'll fall in love yourself one day, and then it will all be easy to understand. Love is one of those things – you have to be there."
"I will keep that in mind." the tall Goddess replied with a smile. "Hand me my cloth, would you?"
Picking up the red and yellow garment, Xenoklea passed it over, then watched in silence as her Goddess wound it expertly around her body, then stepped into a light pair of sandals that she tied around her fine ankles. Pushing her dreadlocks out of her eyes, Athena smiled. "Yes, Artemis and I really are related."
A few candlemarks later, Xenoklea worked her way up a long, gently sloping path. At its end she could see the reddish sandstone carved and set together to form one of Artemis' roofless temples in the openness of the desert. It had been built in the traditional way, with only long, narrow windows, and no doors, just open doorways. The floor had been gently hollowed out into a basin which was deep enough at the centre for Xenoklea's view of the desert to be blocked by the walls when she stood there. Rain had fallen that day, and Xenoklea knew the centre of the floor would have been rendered into a pool, reflecting the clear, indigo sky and its scattering of stars back upwards.
She arrived to find it just as she expected. Pausing in the doorway, she tried to imagine her lover's soaring temples further North, where a great tree was at the centre instead of a sometime pool. It was hard though, because the trees were big and bushy, full of many branches and hundreds, if not thousands of leaves. They dropped almost as many nuts to the grass beneath. All Xenoklea could come up with that even approached the image was a giant palm tree dropping coconuts. She grinned, unable to keep herself from giggling at the rather silly image.
Now at the edge of the impromptu pool, she gazed at the smooth, round stone in its centre. Manto had referred to it as an omphalos, then blushed vigourously when Xenoklea had asked archly just what worshippers thought they were doing when they went up and kissed it – after all, here in Southern Amazonia, the word omphalos did not mean navel. She smiled, remembering her partner's struggles not to blow good wine out of her nose as she started laughing in mid-drink during that conversation.
Tonight, however, with the sky full of stars and Selene riding her chariot at a leisurely pace across the sky, Xenoklea fully intended to use the omphalos as a pedestal. Selene was Artemis' other mother apparently, so she figured doing what she was going to here, where the omphalos represented not only Artemis, but her birth mother Themis, below Selene's silvery gaze, would make her intentions quite clear. So she hoped anyway. Otherwise Xenoklea wasn't too sure how to come up with a convoluted enough means to express it.
Carefully, quietly, she pulled off her boots and her light cloak, and stepped toward the edge of the pool, wearing only a simple skirt and top. Beyond a pair of bracelets, feather earrings, and the silver and blue ring Artemis had given her, she wore no jewellery. Nowhere was there any sign of her rank, her wealth, or her power. Those were all temporary things, and Xenoklea wasn't here to talk about temporary things. Breathing deep of the cool night air, she stepped into the water, then up onto the omphalos. It felt cool and clammy against her damp feet. Looking around, gently struck by the silvery sheen over everything, she settled her feet again, clasped her hands behind her back, and began to sing.