Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
And it Continued With a Skunk
I should know better by now. I mean, when weird stuff starts happening, I should know that I'm going to wind up in trouble, or mud, up to my eyeballs. But nooooo. I figured, no, that doesn't happen, not even to half-Goddess types. No trouble for me. None. Let me tell ya, SOMEBODY ignored that belief big time – and it sure wasn't ME.
In fact, the whole situation wasn't my idea from the first moment somebody dozed off in a council meeting, woke up suddenly when asked a question they had no idea of the answer to, and said the first thing that came to mind. If it had been me, the whole thing would be harmless, ordinary, and easily forgettable. I would have said, 'Fish.' Everyone else would have said, 'Yeah, figures you'd say that. How long have you been napping?' But no, it was someone else and they blurted, 'Reciprocity!' What the Tartarus is that, you wonder. Furk, I don't know. What it came down to was Queen Prothoë ordering me to pick one person to go with me and pay a visit to the Amazons in Arboria. Fine.
So, I went to my girlfriend Eumache and putting on my best charming crooked grin – which is crooked because I'm missing a tooth (which has more benefits when you have a girlfriend then you'd think) and started to ask her. Thing is, she didn't let me say anything. "What kind of trouble are you in now?" she asked.
"It isn't another challenge from Eriphyle, is it?"
"You didn't knock the Queen into that mud pit AGAIN?"
"No!! That was an accident. Tharjon pushed me. I fell in too, remember, and the Queen fell on my stomach, so she wasn't hurt a bit and she hardly got any mud on her."
"Uh-huh. I'm still sure that has to do with you needing your appendix out a week later. So what is it?"
At which point, I finally got to explain. I have no idea why, but every time I walk in our hut with a grin on, Eumache assumes the worst. I mean, I'm sure she realizes that the exploding cook pot incident was entirely coincidental with such an entrance? And I did tell the kids taking wood for the fire not to take the pitch soaked ones. Really. And besides, far better everybody wore that disgusting porridge instead of having to eat it.
Three days later, we were deep in the forests of Northern Thrake, approaching Drama. I was hunting down some small furry animal to cook for dinner. Something had spooked away everything, however, and it was looking like I was going to have to resort to fish. And Eumache would never believe I couldn't catch something else. She never does. So, I supposed, I'd just have to scare the little buggers back out again.
I sniffed the air. Something was out when it shouldn't have been, I figured. It was in the middle of the winter, and more than anything else, it smelt like bear spoor. I looked down. Ah, shit – it was on my boot – just goes to show, worrying about what your girlfriend will say if you bring home fish for dinner will distract you. I looked around carefully. Nobody around, except a bear. Happy sigh. There is no better time to do something embarrassing than when there is no one else around to see you do it. Bear?!
Spinning around, I found myself looking right into the beady eyes of a black bear who should have been hibernating. A quick look around revealed no cubs. Well, for what it was worth, that was good news. Looking back to the bear, I realized that the likelihood of it just sitting there was small. The likelihood of me killing the bear for dinner was also small. Emetchi almost never eat bear meat, unless a priestess is being initiated into the highest rank a healing priestess can have. And thank Artemis, because bear meat is awful.
Apparently sick of watching this dumb human stand there with rather glazed eyes and no sense of danger, the bear lunged at me. Oops, time to move. I ran a few bodylengths, only to remember, bears, bears can run real fast too. Fine, time for the old stand by, I hauled ass up a tree. Yeah, yeah, some bears can climb trees. Like this bear. No problem, I said to myself, and jumped into the next tree, and beyond. I stopped after five or six, and turned to see what the bear was doing. It was back at the tree I had first climbed in, looking around with a faintly disgusted air. Then, acting quite admirably, I feel, it noticed some nut clusters and started chowing down. Poor beastie probably hadn't fattened up enough to hibernate yet. Don't you think that would suck? You're just bushed, all you want to do is go to sleep for the winter, but you have to gain a whole bunch more weight so that you don't waste away while you sleep. Takes all the fun out of a nice nap, doesn't it?
No matter, I decided grandiosely. What? I can decide grandiosely if I like! Oh, you think I might mean magnanimously. Hey! Who's telling the story? Point is, I was feeling kindly toward the bear even though he might have eaten me if he had the chance 'cause he was feeling desperate, since after all, he didn't. I turned on the tree branch, feeling rather good after all, and stepped off of it. And fell, pack and all, into the river. It wouldn't have been quite so obnoxious if my pack hadn't come along.
Two and a half candlemarks later, I stomped back to camp. I was soaked. Who knew what shape my hunting pack was in – but, I had caught two rabbits and a nice salmon. Why, I even found some nice berries, which was really lucky since the first real snow had fallen two days before. Too bad I hadn't found some luck before I fell in the river. Oh well.
Between the squelching, squeaking, stomping, and muttered curses, Eumache knew I was on my way long before I got there. She even had tea and a blanket. "I thought as much," she sighed when she saw me. I sulked. "Oh, stop that. I heard you scream from here when you fell. I figured you had either a sprained ankle or you had fallen in the river." She helped me get my wet stuff off and replace it with a long tunic and the blanket. "You're terribly goofy most of the time, but I know that you're quite capable." then she kissed me on the nose. Sigh. I still felt like sulking. Eumache laughed helplessly. "Would you stop that! I can hardly get anything done when you pout like that!" My head popped up.
"Really? What about when I do this?"
"That's not pouting. And there's only one thing to be done about it." Oooooh. I love how effective that look is.
"Go jump in the river again, I'm not in the mood."
Urk. What? Hang on, wait a second, that wasn't the plan. "What? I mean – wait – look, hey, actually, did you know that cold water only makes you hor..." At which point she tackled me. Yup, good thing we were in the woods. You certainly can't do that sort of thing in public.
We were camped about about half a day from Amphipolis, when Eumache and I had the misfortune to encounter a group of fools. No, seriously, they were fools. You know, clowns. And dumb, dumb, dumb. Dumb. So they were fools in more ways than one. Being continuously subjected to bad comedy routines that would have made Thaleia take up Melpomene's mask of tragedy was terrible enough. It was nothing compared to what happened the next morning.
"Hey, look, it's some kind of weird looking cat. Set the dog on it!"
"Those idiots are still way too close," I growled, paying close attention to Eumache's neck.
"Ignore them," she advised happily. It was wonderful advice. It was inspired advice. I followed it to the letter, until –
"There it goes! Get him, Bowser! Sheesh, what's up with this cat? It doesn't even hiss! I was hoping for a real show!" Cruel clowns are not funny. "Whoops, hey, Bowser, get him, boy, go on!"
A wild barking began to approach Eumache and I very rapidly. I've never been fond of dogs. I was near to really despising this one, except he was just doing as he was told. Little did I know I was going to despise the dog and all his buddies soon.
More barking, and a shout of, 'Sic 'im!' jerked me into an upright position. I looked up in time to see a terrified skunk, a stupid dog, and a group of fools. I have no doubt the screaming was heard in Amphipolis proper. The only consolation was that those damn fools got nailed, too.
We scrubbed, and scrubbed, but we had no damned tomatoes. Which meant walking into Amphipolis. stinking like this, to buy tomatoes. Prior to setting out, we tied up the fools and hung them upside down from trees at the side of the road. Finished that part, I stepped up to the leader, and carefully set the point of my dagger at the exact middle of his forehead. He went cross eyed, then his beady eyes almost rolled out of sight. "What are you going to say to every passerby who comes by?"
"Help, I've been assaulted by a premenstrual Amazon?" Okay folks, who in their right mind says something like that in the position he was in? I smacked him upside the head, half expecting to hear echoes.
"Try again." Don't worry, I moved the dagger before I hit him. Then I put it back.
"Help, I've been assaulted by an Amazon?"
This guy's intelligence was fading by the breath. "Actually, you are going to say, 'I have no idea what a skunk is, and the rest will go without saying. If you don't..." Anyone who has listened to me tell stories before knows the next bit – I smiled my I am a weaponmaster, I am huge, and I am about to eat you for breakfast along with my daily portion of rocks smile, and finished, "I will find you, wherever you are, and after I'm finished with you the poets won't be sure whether to make you the subject of a comedy or a tragedy!" Apparently the guy still had some brains left, because he promptly started agreeing to everything, and anything. He even offered his troop as – get this – concubators – for me and Eumache. I laughed so hard I made where my appendix came out hurt, and Eumache wasn't in much better shape. It was the only funny thing he'd said in a day and a half of trying.
Love must be the most powerful thing out there. I can't think of any other way to overcome the fact you and your lover smell so strongly of skunk that your eyes tear up, yet you walk along with your arms about each other's waists anyway. That and the contents of the wineskin we were drinking. That stuff was terrible. I actually kept it for cleaning wounds and helping unavoidably damp fuel burn – but it'll do just as well for helping you ignore the worst smell there is. Well, okay, second worst after rotten eggs.
When we entered Amphipolis, we were too damn drunk to be embarrassed, but not so drunk that we had forgotten the need for tomatoes. It was impossible to be that drunk. We tried reeeaal hard, but we had to conclude that it was impossible. The smell was one reason. The wide space around us given by the Amphipolitans was another. The woman running towards us with a bushel of ripe, red tomatoes was another. "Here, go wash, please!"
Remembering my manners from somewhere I slurred, "Abshulootly. Thanks for the – tom – toma – tom – these thingsh." Tired of my attempts at conversation, Eumache made sure I had a good grip on the bushel and dragged me off to the Strymon.
"How do de skunsh live with thish shmell anywayzzzz?" It occurred to me that I was sounding progressively worse. I was seeing at least two of everything, and about all I was capable of was crushing the tomatoes, since I seemed to be clueless about my own strength. Eumache sighed, and blinked a couple of times to focus.
"They don't – they spray it all over other things and run away."
I frowned. "But sssssumtimes it smells like 'em – I mean – they just walk by, aand thatsh how they shmell." I was starting to feel really dizzy.
"Then I don't know. Maybe they walk so the wind always blows in their faces." I don't know what's more amazing, the sense Eumache was talking or the fact I remember this conversation. "Stand up." I did, swaying dangerously between the current and the liquor fumes. "Shut your eyes."
"No you won't, I won't give you the chance. Honestly, Thraso, I thought you had a better head for liquor than this."
"I had my – pendix out two weeks ago."
"Oh, that's a thought."
"I doa-oan't think I was supposhed to drink for a Moon."
"Too late now. Shut your eyes." I did as I was told, and Eumache popped me in the face with a mushy tomato. I was so surprised I fell over and then came up spluttering with tomato bits and seeds sticking in my hair and my eyebrows.
"Hey!" Eumache was sitting on the bank, rolling back and forth and laughing. That sounds sort of wrong. Can you sit and roll at the same time? Somebody buy me an ale and maybe I'll remember. Come on, it was worth a try.
"What'd you do that for?"
"Because I could. Help me out, now?"
Cyrene's Inn is a very nice place. She is also a very responsible innkeeper. She flat out refused to sell me any ale (I wasn't going to ask for any), told Eumache not to ask (I don't think she was going to ask for any, either), and then asked what we had had for breakfast. I still felt like throwing up, so I didn't dare say a word because I was afraid to think about it. Truth be told, I couldn't think because the room kept spinning.
"Oh, Hera's tits!" sighed Cyrene. "You're lucky my daughters are here right now. You're Thraso and Eumache, aren't you?" I turned slowly toward the inn door. If I ran, and didn't hit anything on the way out, I wouldn't leave anything nasty on anyone. I'm really against leaving nasty things on people. It strikes me as rude, somehow. And then my stomach complained in a way that could not be ignored. I got out the door somehow, and lost whatever alcohol hadn't taken residence in my brain a decent distance from the inn.
Keeling over in the snow, which I breathed silent apologies to – I wished fervently that I could shut my eyes without feeling worse. Of course, it remains to be debated whether I could have felt much worse. I pondered this fuzzily. Did I feel this bad when my appendix had to come out? Hmmm. Couldn't remember. The healer put me out almost right away. Maybe that time I got food poisoning. No.
I was nearly unconscious and dreaming that I was tormenting the leader of the group of fools, 'So tell me which was worse!' I'd ask him that, then tell him a terrible joke. You know, like: What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? A stick. Actually, I think that one is just a little funny.
"Thraso, Thraso, come on honey, we can't get you to bed if you don't help."
Hey, I knew that voice. This dream kept getting better and better. I was giving those fools some proper payback, and Eumache had showed up. I heard someone take a deep breath. I heard someone else struggling to stifle laughter.
"Thraso, you're scaring me just a bit, because you – are basically dead to the world."
Eumache's voice scaled upward slightly, and the laughter stopped. The sound of running feet followed, and then I felt hands grab me and carry me off. Usually I don't allow that sort of thing, what, me being a weaponmaster and an Emetchi and all, but I couldn't even think straight. You know, I heard someone define being straight as preferring to sleep with people of the opposite sex once. Well, I guess in that case I can't think straight at all.
Now, you folks are going to have to bear with me, because things got really bizarre after that (in case they weren't already), but it actually matters to everything else that happens.
I eventually woke up, or so I thought, laying in a field of grass. This was surprising because, it was winter. There wasn't much snow yet, but there was some where I fell down, I was sure. Sitting up very carefully, because my head felt like a road after an army finishes using it, and tried to get my bearings. A half body length away, laying on the ground, hinges askew, and a chunk of the lintel still attached, was the door of Cyrene's Inn. I giggled rather hysterically. It must have been hysteria, because warriors and weaponmasters don't giggle.
"That's the inn door." I said aloud. "What's it doing in the middle of a field? It should be attached to the inn." I looked at the offending structure severely. "Hear that? You should be attached to the inn you came from!" I didn't really expect anything to happen. It just made me feel better to say it.
Standing up very carefully, I even made it into a vertical position. Then I started floating away. When you are already dizzy and drunk, floating is a disconcerting and alarming experience. Otherwise it would be scary. I couldn't seem to stop myself from floating, so I gave up and stretched out, put my hands behind my head, and began to doze again. This went well until I collided with the branches of a tree, waking up a bunch of sleeping nightingales and earning a sharp "Hoo!" from an owl.
Completely entangled, I struggled to get my arms loose at least, my plan being to then disentangle my legs.
My efforts were ended by the tree which snapped irritably, "Would you cut that out already! Amazons." The tree waved its branches a bit, reminding me of nothing so much as someone shaking their head.
"How do you get yourself into this kind of trouble, anyway?" The tree asked. "Excuse me? I did not start myself floating!" The tree seemed quite nonplussed by this reply.
"Thraso, I think maybe you should just stay still and let the rest of the alcohol leave your system." By this time the tree had set me gently on the ground. It was a sturdy oak, and an aspen grew so close to it that their branches were intertwined. I had never seen that before, but it seemed familiar anyway.
Some time later, I woke up again, but the trees were gone. Instead, I was sitting at the edge of a clearing. In the centre of it was a fountain. A harried looking woman was pacing around it, muttering. Every now and again she would tug ferociously at her hair and say out loud, "What have I got to do to get a vacation? You think comedy is easy? Why do you people take so much trouble over Melpomene anyway? And don't even start with me about Erato – she has Sappho to pick up the slack once in awhile. But not me, no..."
She waved her hands, and stopped, giving me a good look at her half untucked tunic, poorly fitting trousers and unlaced boots. If I had been wearing those boots, I reflected, I would have fallen on my face by now. She promptly stepped on her own laces and fell down. Looking glumly off into the distance, she pulled desperately at her hair again and cried out, "And Aristophanes – he was so promising – but now his material has become so misogynistic – he isn't funny at all! It's breaking my heart, it is. He should dedicate his works to – to – Melpomene, because they are tragic!" Waving her hands, she struggled to her feet, stomped on a lace and fell on her face. Undaunted, she bounced up. "And no kind words from any other Muses! No, not even the ones who are my sisters by blood! I'm overworked I tell you!"
Another tug at her brown hair, and her brown eyes filled with tears. "And not a single applicant. At the rate it's going, I'll have to go on strike. Look at this, I'm crying with frustration. The Muse of comedy isn't supposed to cry!" I was feeling pretty rotten for the poor woman by now, who must be Thaleia. Clambering carefully to my feet, and experiencing no more floating, I walked up to her awkwardly.
"Um, hi." Maybe I wasn't that funny, but I could at least listen to her or take her mind off things. Hey, what's up with you people? What's funny about me saying I'm not funny? Eumache, what's up with these people? Okay, okay, but it's uncomfortable for a bard when people laugh where they aren't supposed to.
Thaleia stared at me. "What are you doing here? Aren't you Athena's kid?" Well, she looked totally astonished, so presumably that was better than distraught. Mission accomplished.
"Oh, I don't know. I just – woke up under the tree over there," I pointed. "And I could see you were unhappy, so I thought I'd come over and try to help out. You know – because – you were sad." Yup, that sentence died in a gory manner as I beat it to death. But what do you say to a Muse whose every other word is probably worth writing down? Thaleia grinned from ear to ear. Her eyes got really bright, and she clapped her hands together.
"Do you really want to help?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, yeah." Yep, great articulation here.
"Excellent!" With that she dashed off a little ways into the woods, falling over once as she went. I heard her fall again while she did whatever she was doing. Then she came rushing back, but she was busy looking at a sheet of parchment and bounced off a tree on the way. Staggering back two steps, she started talking. "I just have a little parchment work for you to fill out – no big deal. Easy questions, just write as clearly as you can..." at this point she stomped on a bootlace and fell over. The fall didn't even give her pause as she continued, "And try not to leave any blank. If all else fails, just leave an ink blotch. That's what I usually do." Handing me a quill and ink she explained, "The others will just fill it in with something. You know: can't write properly – prefers to leave fingerprints – sneezed – threw the inkwell." Thaleia waved one hand in the air. Unfortunately, she had another bottle of ink in her hand, and it was open. Ink splattered all over her, and made a total mess of her hand. "Oh." she murmured. "I forgot I was holding that. Don't mind me." Then she put down the ink and pulled her fingers through her hair. I winced.
Looking at the sheet of parchment, I found myself with the strangest series of questions to answer I had ever seen –
- Do you have accidents frequently that leave you relatively unharmed but quite embarrassed?
- Do people around you frequently have similar accidents?
- Is the following phrase funny? "That snake in the grass is barking up the wrong tree."
- Can you make sense of this:
'When he went, had you gone and had she, if she wanted to and were able, for the time being, excluding all restraints on her not to go also, would he have brought you, meaning you and she, with him to the station?' If you can, explain it to me. If you can't, make something up.
- Have you ever found yourself to be in flames unexpectedly?
- When are your pick up lines most effective?
A) When you use them.
B) When you don't.
- Does bad comedy eventually force you to silence the comic?
- Have you ever stuck a bug in someone's ear?
- I didn't want to have nine questions, but my sisters made me. Make one up, and if it's good I'll use it on the next application.
Are those weird, or what? I answered them anyway, though, because it made Thaleia much happier, and I figured the questions were harmless.
After I was done, I looked up at Thaleia, whose hair was now streaked with black and had some leopard-like spots. She had also left a hand print on the side of her face, which suggested she had sat on the ground and leaned her head on her hand while I wrote. Taking the sheet of parchment back, Thaleia read through it carefully, chortling merrily the whole time.
"Marvelous! Marvelous! You've got the job! Two weeks each year, and the occasional extra day or project. Maybe more, but I'm trying to get a few mortals to help me out. Kalliope pointed out that I didn't want to overwork my helpers. What sort of wages were you expecting?"
"Wages?" I squeaked, understanding beginning to smack me upside the brain.
"Yes. Gold, silver, feathers – weapons, maybe?" Thaleia paused for a moment. "Fishing gear?"
"Um – no – books – could I have books?"
Thaleia blinked. "Is that all? Well, I will throw in some other stuff when I find things that suit you, then – perhaps some stuff for Eumache, hmmm?" I couldn't repress a grin at that. Thaleia laughed again. "Aphrodite has been jawing off about you two for days. She is far more insufferable than usual. Even Artemis, who usually has the most patience with her, finally fled a few days ago. Mind you, it could also be because Aphrodite has gotten it into her head that Artemis needs a girlfriend." Tucking the parchment into her tunic, which I thought had to be uncomfortable, because you wear a tunic over your skin, right? she started to walk away, and fell over again.
"You know, that reminds me. I should really do this – you don't need much help, but it would be good anyway, I think. As far as I know, it isn't like what happens if 'Dite tries to push along people who are already in love. At least I don't think so. Oh," at this point, Thaleia's bootlaces became entangled with each other, and she fell into the fountain. "...if you have any trouble, just let me know. I'll straighten it out right away. Ready?" Not waiting for my answer, she swept her arms through the water and drenched me.
"Oooof!" I spluttered and coughed. What the Tartarus – and who was standing to one side of me but Xena. "There," she said in a pleased tone. "About time you woke up." I was too stunned to say anything, so I opened and shut my mouth like a big old guppy. All I ask, just once, is that the first time I see that woman I'm not in a totally embarrassed position. It's only a little thing which would mean a lot, MOM. Heh heh. Sorry.
"So, what possessed you to get pissed to the gills so soon after major surgery, huh?" Xena asked.
"Well, there was this group of fools, and..." One eyebrow traveled upward. Oh, come on, don't make this any harder than it already is! I was reprieved by Cyrene's appearance with Eumache and Gabrielle in tow.
"Don't worry about it, Xena. I just heard the whole story. It's a doozy." Gabrielle laughed softly. Eumache slipped past her and unabashedly chucked herself on the bed and threw her arms around my neck. My body got confused between me feeling embarrassed and pleased at the same time, so I blushed all over. I didn't used to think you could do that, but you can.
"Don't you ever do that again!" Eumache ordered.
Do what, I wondered. 'Just agree.' Xena mouthed at me. I stared at her. 'Do it!'
"Okay." I managed, rather weakly. Eumache relaxed, sighing with utter relief.
"You big oaf. I was worried that the crap we were drinking had poisoned you." Oh, that was why she was worried.
"You know," I said thoughtfully, "I've never had that happen. I just get sick and pass out."
Cyrene sighed in the doorway. "Then I hope you don't drink that much often." she said dryly.
I blinked. "No, no, because I don't like the throwing up part."
Cyrene covered her mouth carefully with one hand. Her shoulders sort of shook for a few breaths, and then she murmured, "You have more sense than most." Clearing her throat and raising her voice she added, "Is your arm all right? I've been wondering, especially considering the condition of the door."
"Yes, you knocked it off its hinges on the way out this afternoon."
In the end, I put the door back on and rebuilt the lintel myself. It wasn't that hard, and I felt really bad about tearing it off, even though it was an accident. Cyrene tried to make me feel better by saying that having no door for a few candlemarks was much easier to deal with than the alternatives, and she appreciated that. I still felt bad, though. So I carved in some neat signs around the doorway. They invoke blessings from Artemis and Hestia. I thought that was a good combination, since Artemis always helps out women, and Hestia was in charge of hospitality. Besides, they were pretty. The glyphs, I mean. I've never seen Artemis or Hestia, but they are Goddesses, so they're probably beautiful – and if they aren't, I'm not going to tell them otherwise.
Walking back inside the inn, for a change I didn't have to deal with any men with wandering hands or the stubborn belief that I simply HAD to accept a few moments of their pleasure. It was quite astonishing. Finding Eumache sitting with Xena, Gabrielle, and Cyrene at a table towards the back of the inn, I made my way over. I had to squeeze between two people, and they both turned around, stared at me, and hauled their chairs out of the way. Wow. People were incredibly respectful here. Sitting down beside Eumache, I said as much.
"Ripping the inn door off pretty much convinced them not to mess with you." Xena commented dryly. I blinked. Not much I could say to that.
"So, what brings you and Eumache here?" Gabrielle asked, elbowing Xena in the side for making me uncomfortable.
"Well, since your visit turned out to be such a hit, we got sent to visit you..."
"'No," interrupted Eumache. "You got sent. The Queen said you could take someone with you."
"Ahem. Right – so we came here. It was a nice trip. Except for the fools."
"Just the fools?" Eumache asked with a shudder.
"Fools?" Cyrene repeated. "The leader of a trade caravan that came in while you were unconscious upstairs said he encountered a whole troop of fools, tied up and hanging upside down from trees on the side of the road. All their leader would say was that he had no idea what a skunk was, which was more than apparent some distance away."
"Good." I declared, cracking my knuckles with satisfaction. Cyrene raised an eyebrow in a familiar gesture, since Xena tended to do it a lot. We got on to other topics, thankfully, and dinner came and went. Gabrielle was happily creating an itinerary for us when a commotion started outside.
"Careful there! Look out! Why aren't your boots tied, woman!" A splash as someone fell in the horse trough outside.
"No, no, don't worry, this sort of thing happens to me all the time. I'm not hurt at all. Tying them makes it worse." Thump. "Dear me, what is that doing there. Well, I can see it's a rain barrel, but it's not as if it's raining, is it?" A series of clatters as she made her way up the inn steps. And then another series of clatters followed by a thud. "No, no, I'm all right," she sang out gaily. "I never make it up a flight of stairs on the first try." At last, and by now, you already know who it was, Thaleia lurched through the inn door. Stepping on her own toes, she fell headlong onto a table, smashing it flat and spilling drinks everywhere. "Ooops. Sorry. Will this cover those? Where's the innkeeper? I'll pay for the table, too." Thaleia had tossed ten dinars among the stunned occupants of the table.
"Over here," Cyrene called, a bit hesitantly. She was probably afraid for the rest of the furniture in the inn.
"Oh, wonderful." Thaleia chortled. All around her, people were laughing in spite of themselves. Between her disheveled clothes, inky hair and face, and overall clumsiness, it was no wonder. It wasn't mean spirited laughter, though.
Managing to make it all the way to our table without falling, Thaleia lost her footing and fell into Gabrielle's lap. Poor woman looked caught between dumping Thaleia on the floor and screaming. I tried not to laugh. I tried really hard. Have you ever noticed that the harder you try not to laugh, the louder and longer you do? I nearly had tears running down my cheeks, and Gabrielle was giving me an absolutely deadly look. Oops. And I was going to be on her turf in a few days. No problem. Weaponmasters are trained to face danger. Maybe not the danger of angry bards, but we're pretty flexible, as a rule. Or as a reed. Reeds and rules are both flexible. Hush now, no heckling.
Back to the point – ahem – Thaleia hauled herself off of Gabrielle's lap and nearly deposited herself in mine, but managed to sit in a chair instead. "Ah, excellent. Thraso, how are you feeling? I understand you were quite ill this morning."
"Oh, I'm fine now."
"Good, good," Thaleia beamed. "I've brought along a list for you to go through. I'll want the two weeks at the beginning of next summer. I'd like to take them over Solstice, but there's too much to do." Blowing her hair out of her eyes, she sighed. "Artemis might help, though. She loves Solstice, even though she doesn't like to admit it. It's because of the children, I think. She loves children. Spoils every child she meets." Thaleia stopped short. "Actually, she's so very old that everyone is like a child to her, in a way. And three of my sister Muses are her children. Oh, and you won't believe whose kid Sappho is..." As she spoke, Thaleia was pulling things from her pockets, apparently searching for the list. The things she had in those pockets – they must have been bigger on the inside than normal pockets.
Scrolls, string, rocks, a half eaten sandwich, ("I wondered what I did with that," she murmured) a book, quills, several bottles of ink, some withered flowers – and that was the ordinary stuff! Then there were a lizard, a gadget that seemed to be made of metal and had a sort of string that split in two and had little buttons on its ends, a ball with a string attached and a groove around its middle ("Any day now, I'll get that thing to work. The groove is only a half a finger width deep. Maybe deeper will do the trick...") a little figurine which looked startlingly like Xena which Thaleia hurriedly returned to her pocket again ("Terrible anachronism, that. The Fates would never forgive me if word of that got around."), several teeth, and, a chunk of ice. I couldn't believe that one. I even touched it just to see if it was real. It was.
Having piled half the table with an impossibly big pile of junk, Thaleia finally came up with the list. "Ah. Just help me put this stuff back will you?" Pretty soon we had a bit of a relay, with whoever was sitting closest to something handing it to her or passing it to someone closer to do it. By the end of that process, the ice had melted into a puddle on the table. Thaleia glared at it in disgust. "Really, ice has a really terrible habit of melting as soon as you leave it to its own devices." If that remark had been a person, I would have run away screaming.
The list proved as outrageous as Thaleia –
- Paint the ceiling of the new temple of Artemis in Colchis.
- Figure out who this is:
As inconstant as the ocean,
as constant as the tide,
Lawless as the wind,
Keeper of the harshest law,
yet never seen.
Most powerful of all,
The oldest of old,
yet youngest of the young.
- Give away a great treasure while keeping it for yourself.
- Colour the Moon red. (Don't worry, Artemis won't mind.)
- Carry three things without holding any of them in your hands for more than a moment, without using a bag.
- Find a labyrinth that you can't get lost in.
- Walk through a door that is not a door. (Careful, this one isn't as easy as it sounds.)
"I'm in charge of puzzles and games too, you see. Euterpe dropped this list in my lap – said she hadn't a clue what to do with it – and I haven't had a moment to spare to look at it!" Punctuating the statement with a fierce tug on her hair, Thaleia stood up. "I really must be going. You may think that those cuckoos look and sound funny naturally, but no. Someone has to take care of that. I've almost got it so that it takes care of itself now, which should please Hera no end. She gets a bit put out when I mess with her birds too much." Making it back across the inn with astonishing success, she turned around again. "I'll have more substantial things for you to do in summer, remember. Or, did I say spring? Never mind, never mind. After Solstice, anyway." With that she tumbled out the door, down the steps of the inn, and into the street. The last anyone heard from her was a cheery, "No, no, I'm quite all right – this sort of thing happens to me all the time!"
Now, you can understand I was in an awkward spot. How was I supposed to explain this? 'Oh, well, I filled out an application in a dream while I was passed out and now I'm an assistant Muse.' That may be the truth, but who would believe it? It's like when I accidentally knocked Eriphyle into the tanning vat at home. It was an accident. I would never knock someone into something that disgusting on purpose. A lake, sure. A river, sure. The ocean, sure. A tanning vat? No. Eriphyle didn't believe that for a minute and insisted on a challenge. It was the silliest actual challenge I ever fought. She insisted we fight bare handed. She has a glass jaw. One punch and the challenge was over. And I skinned a knuckle because she left her mouth open.
"Well, Thraso, you certainly do lead an exciting life." Cyrene commented blandly, and called for dessert. There's an ability I'd love to have, except it seems to come with having children, and I'm not interested in that. Mothers can always do that. It doesn't matter if it's your mother or not. They can accept the most incredible things and then smoothly change the subject. At dinner at a friend's house during which she declared she was going to dye her hair blue and become a priestess of Mnemosyne, that's just what her mother did. I'm not sure it was for the same reason as when Cyrene did it, though. Of course, this ignores the fact that Xena has had to deal with Ares, Aphrodite, Hades, and Poseidon. Maybe Cyrene wasn't surprised after all. As you can tell by my rambling, I have absolutely no idea.
The next morning, which came rather early, but it has to, being as it's morning and all – I got up to go practice. Trust me on this one, if you don't practice with your weapons on a regular basis, your enemies will plead with you to demonstrate your prowess, then laugh their guts out when you do yourself in. Or cut your nose off, whichever happens first. So, I pulled on some clothes, because even if you know what you're doing, practicing naked is like asking to cut off something you really want for later. I ran into a fellow who declared practicing naked was best for your health. I asked him if that related to the remarkably high pitch of his voice. Really, it's too bad that he was the son of the reeve, or I probably wouldn't have been run out of town for asking.
I actually debated about what to practice with. Then I debated whether the fact I could seriously consider four choices meant I had packed too much for this trip. Then I decided I was wasting the morning and grabbed my sword.
Now, the next logical step, when going to practice, is picking a spot to practice at. Indoors is obviously out, what with the risk of decapitating innocent strangers and all, so it would have to be outside somewhere. You'd think anywhere outdoors would simply have to be free of trees. Actually, there again, things are more complicated than that. Make sure there aren't any holes in the ground, either. The time I got my foot caught in one while practicing did give me the chance to learn a new sort of flip, but I would have preferred to learn it in a less – surprising fashion. I hate surprises. I never expect them.
I found a nice meadow not too far from the inn, not too close to the river, and not too close to the forest. Altogether an excellent spot. Then I finally got to the fun part, which was weaving patterns in the air with my sword, and doing moves and stuff. I don't do too many warcries, because I'm too concentrated. Hmmmm. Oh, hey, I can explain this to you folks who don't use swords – it's like that state you get into when you're painting or ploughing or something that, once you've learnt how, you just do it pretty well automatically. As soon as you have a conscious thought, it's gone. Poof. Pop. Pow. I don't know, you pick one.
So, you start slow, do hard stuff and stuff that's really fast, then you slow down again. At the end I had actually shut my eyes, and was trying to repeat a pattern I had learnt a half Moon ago from memory, when I felt a resounding slap on my ass. Xena leaned back on her own sword, which she had just used to whack me on the ass, and burst out laughing. I have been told that she doesn't laugh much, so I suppose I could have felt pleased at being a source of mirth. Right. In reality, steam was leaking out my ears. I was mad, mad, mad, and somebody was gonna get kicked. Yeah, yeah, probably me, but never mind that for now.
Turning around I snapped, "Get that furkin' sword out of the dirt and start parrying!" Xena looked just a little surprised at how pissed off I was – betcha she doesn't like surprises either – and pretty quick we were busy having a nice little duel. Why, I was even starting to forget to be mad, which was good, because if you fight with someone too long angry, well, you lose. Or, you get belted upside the head.
At some point, Xena whacked me with the flat of her sword across the wrist of my sword hand. "Don't do that again," I warned her. She flashed me a grin and did it again. And I flashed one of my better moves by catching my sword up in my left hand and continuing on as if nothing particularly unusual had happened. Yup, I got to outdo the warrior princess, even if I was the only person who thought so, and the only person who saw it.
Then, our swords got locked together. She'd yank one way, I'd yank the other, I planted my feet, she planted hers, and it was starting to look like there was no way out of this ludicrous tug of war which was starting to make my teeth rattle. We paused for a bit, huffing and puffing – maybe Xena was huffing and puffing, maybe she wasn't, I was sort of preoccupied at the time – and Xena flashed another one of those damned grins and heaved back, hard. Uh-uh. No way. I was not letting go. So we smacked bodily into each other and fell over in opposite directions.
Being as I was sort of tired, and my wind had been knocked out, I just laid there, watching little wispy clouds wander unhurriedly across the sky. I wondered idly if any deities were meandering about the clouds, and if one of them would help me get up so that when somebody came by I'd be standing up and Xena wouldn't. A person can only keep trying, after all. No deities came along to help me up, so it was obviously up to me. I was just trying to roll over when I heard a breathless voice saying some distance away, "And it were like they been done struck with ta lightnin' ma'am, and no mistake!" Lightning? I'm sure the clouds aren't right for that, I thought.
"What do you mean, lightning? What happened? Did you see?" Uh-oh. Cyrene. If I started running now, I might escape Gabrielle, but probably not Cyrene. Mothers can run incredibly fast. So can grandmothers. A nasty priest from the temple of Apollo was nuisancing me while I was picking up stuff for my Mother in the Thrakian village near ours. My grandmother was over sixty winters old, and eight shops away. She came running down that road so fast that she gained an audience and outstripped a kid who figured they'd be funny and get where she wanted to go first. Then she hauled that priest around by one of his arms, told him he ought to be ashamed of himself for bullying kids, and threw him in a horse trough. You never forget something like that.
Nevertheless, I was determined to try to stay ahead of Xena's mother, so I struggled to my feet and started hunting for my sword. Best not to leave the irate mother a weapon – in that case, I had better take Xena's too, if she wasn't already on her own feet. After a few moments of failing to find my sword, I found Xena, patiently wiping blood off of her forehead.
"Well Thraso, looks like another tie. Come on back to the inn and I'll stitch up over your eye. If we're lucky Gabrielle hasn't rolled out of bed yet and I can get you to stitch up my forehead." Then she clapped me on the shoulder and handed me my sword. Blood was running down the side of my face and it felt like my eyebrow was taking up half of it. No problem. Xena still hadn't beat me. Of course, I hadn't beat her either, but that hardly counts.
"Can't you two play nice, safe, sensible games? Like – pitch and toss? That way you can use the chakram without hurting each other." Cyrene put her hands on her hips. "Just look at you two. Come on. I'll stitch you both up."
"Mom!" blurted Xena.
One eyebrow twitched upward and Cyrene's voice took on a very familiar tone. "And you intend to do it with your ears still ringing? Or Thraso, who can barely see properly?" Which was true, because blood was running into my eye. Shaking her head in disgust, Cyrene growled, "Well, I've heard enough of that."
"But..." protested Xena.
"Don't you give me any buts. I'm still your mother, and unless you've forgotten, I was the one who stitched you up after that urn got broken over your head when you were fourteen."
"I've been trying to forget." Xena muttered.
Cyrene rolled her eyes and grabbed each of us by one ear and hauled us back to the inn. That's another ability mothers have. Effortlessly making you feel about eight winters old, especially when you're bent nearly double wondering how it can possibly work so well when it's not your mother.
On the plus side, Cyrene gave us a huge breakfast. By the time Gabrielle and Eumache had each arrived, Gabrielle apparently from a parchment buying expedition and Eumache from running, you could almost think nothing had happened that morning. Except that Cyrene had made a point of stitching Xena and I up with black thread, and neither of us had long enough bangs to cover it up. I've got a strong widow's peak, so I had it even harder than Xena. If I had had long enough bangs I would have been blinded. That makes me wonder – why is it called a widow's peak anyway? Then again, the bruising probably didn't make things any easier to ignore either. Point is – I do have one – to what I'm saying, not in my hair – despite all attempts to make it seem like practice had been incident free, they were foiled by Xena's mother – and bruises.
Gabrielle sat down beside Xena and commented, "You just had to, didn't you? You couldn't just – ignore whatever Thraso was doing and behave."
Xena rolled her eyes. Gabrielle, you're making this sound so – so..."
"Childish? Isn't that what this stubborn attempt to get one up is?"
"What? Who's trying to get one up?"
"Admit it, Xena. You haven't been able to out and out beat Thraso and it's killing you."
"Hey, that has nothing to do with it. Does it, Thraso?"
She would bring me in right after I had stuffed my mouth. Beautiful. I was struggling to choke down far too much in one swallow, nearly forcing tears out of the corners of my eyes, when Eumache whispered in my ear, "Careful not to call the kettle black, dear." Aargh. At the moment, this pot was turning purple. Managing to swallow some cider and part of my mouthful, I tried to speak, producing a croak like a frog, and after downing some more cider, I finally managed to make a sound intelligible to human beings.
"Course not. Have to practice hard. Life and death, all that." My voice sounded like I had suddenly become fifty years older and asthmatic, but I figured I had successfully walked the line. Nothing about competition or winning or losing in that.
"Hmmph. I suppose, if pride is what you're talking about." Cyrene drawled, sitting down with her own breakfast. It was at that point that I began to wonder when we were leaving for Arboria and hoping it was soon. I needed recovery time after meeting this woman. And I needed to measure my ears to see if they were now as lopsided as they felt. I wonder if you could tell something like that by listening. Say, if you heard a sound in front of you best by tipping your head, then one ear has to be a different shape – I can't help but notice that no one else seems to find that idea intriguing. I'm sure it should be.
Xena gave up on the argument with Gabrielle, since it had somehow begun to include her mother, and breakfast continued for some time in relative silence. This gave me time to think. Not necessarily a good thing, but this time I think I did quite well. Having considered previous experiences, and seeing the dust raised by the morning's debacle had mostly settled, I asked, "So, Gabrielle – does your tribe have any peculiar customs which might be good for a visitor to brace for?" Notice I took care not to suggest Eumache and I might not participate in said peculiar customs. I sure did, because Eumache, who had until this time been playing footsie with me, stomped on my foot. Up to then, I thought the game had been reasonably – reasonably – subtle. When my eyes went buggy from a well placed heel, however, Xena snickered (mean woman), Cyrene pretended to cough (nice woman), and Gabrielle almost blew cider out of her nose (I'm not sure).
"Well," Gabrielle replied slowly, having recovered from the cider snorting. "I hope not. We will get some warning, though. Your timing is great – my regent, Ephiny will arrive in a few candlemarks, on her way back from a vacation. She'll be able to explain." A thoughtful frown. "Maybe she'll know why we use masks here, and your tribe doesn't."
Truth be told, I do know why my tribe doesn't use masks. It's embarrassing. I might as well tell you though, because now Gabrielle knows, and it's part of the story, so it'll get around.
My tribe split off from another one to the East of us, because there were too many Emetchi for the land to support. They wandered around for awhile, looking for a spot that wasn't occupied and was habitable. Unlike quite a few of our neighbours, most Emetchi avoid forcibly taking land. After all, if you go punch a person in the nose and take their lunch, eventually they're going to come back, punch you in the nose, and take your lunch and your dinner. Same principle works for big stuff, except the bigger it is the nastier the punch will probably be. Who needs that? Erm. Yeeeah.
Anyway, my tribe eventually succeeded in finding a place to live, obviously, so after that there was a big meeting or argument depending how you looked at it, and it was decided that the woman who successfully led the tribe to the spot should be the first queen. Queens are given ceremonial masks when they take power. This woman had never worn a warrior's mask except at her investiture and no one knew why. It turned out that she had lost it playing dice to an Emetchi from another village. The next one she had had come from storage, and was full of bugs. Bugs crawling on you will put you off, and she absolutely refused to wear another mask. There was no persuading her.
Meanwhile, the craftswomen had been cheerfully making fancy leathers, and new masks, and the required party stuff, completely oblivious to the arguments in council. The whole tribe had masks that needed to refurbished, even if only to hang on a wall and gather dust and bugs, so finally the mask makers and fixers – whatever you want to call them – put up a separate tent to work in. They finished for the day, and came out to sing and party with everyone else the night before the crowning of the queen. We Emetchi party very hard. I tell ya, you should see the bruises next morning.
A group of drunk, singing warriors staggered away from one group in order to start another drinking party elsewhere. They were trying to sing dirty songs, but they couldn't find one they all knew words to, so they started singing 'This Old Man' instead. You must know it? You don't. Oh. Well, it's – a nursery rhyme – you must know – "This old man, he played one..." Don't make me sing it, you don't want that much realism.
On their way past the tent the masks were in, they noticed it was getting dark. A quick foray back to the party yielded a torch. But it was still pretty dark, so they got together a few more. Trouble was, they didn't burn very well. A brilliant woman in the group said, "Throw some wine on 'em." They did, got just a bit carried away, and had soon set the tent the masks were in on fire. Feathers burn pretty fast, as does canvas and rope. The masks were nearly gone in less than a half candlemark. Unfortunately, the flames spread faster than our drunken warrior friends could get help, and pretty soon all of the tents containing extras, and nearly some tents with essential stuff, were so much smoke on the breeze.
This meant no masks. No fancy robes. And, it was soon discovered, no clothes. Apparently one tent of essential stuff had burnt. All anyone had was what she was wearing and what she happened to have at whatever spot she had picked to sleep on. Needless to say, this was a terrible blow to the plan of having a big fancy dress ceremony for the queen's coronation.
Anaxilea, an old priestess with only one eye, got up on a tree stump and hollered, "S'matter with you, anyway? We can still have a coronation. We'll just be missing some stuff. Artemis won't mind. If she did, then the damn stuff wouldn't have burnt up to begin with." There's a flaw in her logic somewhere, I think, but no one can find it.
And that's why we don't wear masks in my tribe. A group of drunken warriors accidentally burnt up the lot, and we never bothered with them again. It's for that reason or because of the bugs. Or maybe they just itch, or something.
I didn't say anything at the table then because I was hoping Gabrielle would forget about it. I forget all sorts of stuff if I don't write it down. I wrote a list of weapons to pick up at from a visiting trade caravan on my arm once in order to be sure I didn't forget the list. You certainly can't forget your arm, right? The method worked excellently, since when I waved at a friend I saw the list. Perfect. Until I had finished with the list, and got involved in some impromptu games. The list was long. It ran right around my arm – like a gauntlet does, but higher obviously, or my gauntlet would have covered it up and spoiled the whole point of writing it there in the first place. So I participated in the games. And got sweaty. And used my arm to wipe sweat off my forehead. And painted my forehead and the bridge of my nose a nice shade of purplish black. This did eventually prove advantageous, since my opponent in the wrestling ring thought I was already beat up because the ink looked sort of like a bruise.
Gabrielle does not need a written list to remember anything, except dates, I'm told. Fat lot of good that did me – but now I'm actually getting ahead of myself, which took great skill.
Seeing as we had a few candlemarks anyway, we all went off to do whatever stuff we needed to do. Eumache and I spent the first candlemark washing our bedroll, which still smelled like the results of our encounter with the skunk. Then we took a nap.
Yeah, well, 'sleep with someone' is a silly expression for it, too.
Have you ever seen regent Ephiny of Arboria? She's fairly tall – not as tall as me, but few people are – and has nice curly blond hair. Along with flashing eyes and a really quick temper. Her temper wasn't quite as quick as her companion's, whom I accidently tripped, causing her to try to glare me into a smoking spot on the ground. It was hardly my fault she didn't notice the sawhorse, which I hadn't put away yet. Okay, okay, so I had left it there for nearly a day. The companion's name was Eponin, and she was the weaponmaster in Gabrielle's village. The whole smoking spot thing had me a little tetchy, since it wasn't doing anything for my hangover. To make my mood even worse, Xena and I had been forbidden to spar – wait – forbidden, sparring, stop, don't – our girlfriends told us not to spar or suffer the consequences. There. Just because I have done my share of sleeping on the ground doesn't mean the floor of an inn is better.
Since I couldn't start anything with Xena, I was bothering Eponin instead. Things were developing quite nicely, and I was fingering my chobos when Eumache walked by, and slapped me upside the head. I get slapped upside the head a lot, actually. By Eumache.
Just a little bit naughtier sounding than I meant it to be, that statement was.
Over dinner, Gabrielle cheerfully outlined an alarmingly busy three days which included no fishing at all. I had been hinting, suggesting, and finally pleading for time to fish, but all was to no avail. Come on, folks, say that with me, sigh tragically, and drape a forearm across your eyes. I firmly believe in audience participation that doesn't include rotten fruit and vegetables or heckling. Cheering and swooning at my feet will be graciously accepted. No flowers though, they make me sneeze.
I am sensing an extreme lack of wry disbelief in the audience. Wry disbelief is good for you, you know. It exercises your eyebrows.
Ephiny listened to the whole thing very patiently, watching in fascination as Gabrielle idly took a piece of bread off of Xena's plate. "Sounds quite – exhaustive." she commented mildly. She watched as Xena turned her plate so Gabrielle could use up the rest of her gravy. The whole thing was quite fascinating. Eumache and I usually just cut to the chase and share a plate.
"Why not just have them live as part of the village for awhile, like you did? Then you'd have time to help draft the treaty I was telling you about before Pony and I got here."
Oh wow! time for fishing suddenly flashes into existence! Eyes slid very carefully in Gabrielle's direction. Xena was being careful because she wanted out of ceremonies and stuff like that, I was being careful because I wanted to fish, and I'm not sure what Eponin was being careful about, but, if you like, I'll make something up for next time.
"Keep the itinerary but spread it out?" suggested Gabrielle.
"One point every seven days or so?"
Then they shook forearms. At that moment, Eumache and I became huge fans of Gabrielle's regent. She seemed to realize Gabrielle could get a little overenthusiastic. Sometimes I do too, but after bouncing off the first tree or two I usually settle right down.
Stretching her legs, Xena carefully examined the level of port in her mug, and then excused herself to get more.
"Don't start thinking you can get out of the greeting ceremonies that easily, Xena!" Gabrielle hollered after her. Yet another, 'keep your mouth shut' moment.
Turning back to Ephiny, Gabrielle asked, "I know you were on vacation Eph, but I'm sure you didn't take Pony with you." Eponin snickered, and Ephiny flushed slightly.
"Go on, tell 'em, or I will." drawled Eponin. Ephiny's eyebrows nearly jumped off of her forehead.
"And since when are you a storyteller?"
"Since I had to bail you out of a village jail for..."
"Stop, stop, stop!" Ephiny said quickly, face flushing to the roots of her hair. "I will make you pay for that." Eponin just snickered some more.
Well, it turns out that Ephiny was vacationing in a nice little sea side town where some archery competitions were going on. She competed in a few, and won them all. While she was at it, she caught the eye of one of the arbitrator's daughters. What an expression, eh? 'Caught the eye of' sounds like when one person gets interested in another, they pull out an eyeball and toss it to them. Can you imagine that? 'Hey, babe, catch!' Yeah.
Anyway, Ephiny and this beautiful lady found themselves to be equally lust stricken about each other, and did something about it. The father was not amused. He had the village guard chuck Ephiny in jail for, get this – wearing hawk feathers and vulture feathers together. Some kind of obscure religious law, supposedly. Poor Ephiny had to send a runner to Arboria to get somebody to come and bail her out. The bail was three hundred dinars or twelve chickens. Obscure religious laws call for strange bail demands, I guess. Eponin had to cart twelve clucking, squawking, occasionally even laying chickens to this lovely seaside village. Just imagining it makes my ears hurt. And so, that's how Ephiny and Eponin wound up travelling to Amphipolis together.
"Oh, hey, I've got something for Cyrene." Ephiny said suddenly. "Some friend of hers was at the archery contest, and was on her way to the village, to stay. She wants Cyrene to come over for a visit, or something." Drawing a scroll from her beltpouch, Ephiny looked around for Cyrene. The scroll was very ordinary looking, although it turned out to be anything but. For the moment, it looked bland and uninteresting, tied shut with a bit of twine and marked on the outside with a crescent Moon. Cyrene looked astonished and delighted when she saw it, and sat down to read it immediately. Next thing you know, the expedition to Arboria had grown by one more person. Xena took the news well. She managed not to put a protective hand over the ear her mother liked to grab until she was almost outside of the inn.
The next morning we set out for Arboria. The snow was half way up my boots in the field where I practiced, so the roads were probably going to be interesting. Tightening the laces on my outer tunic, I followed Eumache to the front of inn, where presumably Argo would be waiting. Xena felt Argo should act as a pack horse and we'd all walk, since no one wanted to ride but her anyway, and since the idea of her mother carrying a pack nettled her sensibilities. They had started the to-carry-a-pack or not-to-carry-a-pack debate the night before, and as we rounded the corner, the debate was still going on. Clearly an impasse had happened, because Xena and Cyrene were standing by Argo, glaring at each other, unconsciously using the same, 'Why don't you just agree with me?' posture. Xena motioned for Eumache and I to lash our stuff on Argo's back, so we got to work. We certainly didn't mind carrying less instead of more.
While we engaged in a battle of buckles and straps, I got to listen to various attempts to wheedle and cajole, and that all purpose word no. Concentrating, I made sure everything was snug and wouldn't shift. Just one more thing, the all important bedroll. I shuffled back and forth, trying to find a natural gap among the bundles and saddlebags to strap it into. Slipping a bit because the packed snow had developed an icy shell, a suitable spot proved to be on the side farthest from the arguing women. Two straps. Which one? I wondered. Tugging on the first one revealed it belonged to a case that looked like it wasn't meant to be where it was at all. Shrugging my shoulders, I waited for Eumache, then asked her to hold down the bedroll while I drew the strap tight. Nodding, she moved around until she was across from me and shoved the bedroll down a bit. Some choreography is easy. Lending an ear to the argument, I heard the telltale, 'Mo-om!" which meant Xena was fighting a rearguard action.
"Hey, Thraso!" Gabrielle called from behind me. I turned to see her standing in the door of the inn. "Is my scroll case there? Xena may have wound the carrying strap around Argo's saddlehorn." Ah, so that was the alien case.
"Yeah, it's here," I replied, wrapping my hand around the strap I was tightening and pulling. Only to find myself flying backwards. Wrong strap – I waved my arms as my feet slid all over the ice, trying to catch myself before I fell. For a change. I nearly pitched onto Argo's back, and finally lost my balance entirely. Sliding right under Argo, knocking Eumache down on top of me, and depositing us both between the arguing mother and daughter. They looked at us. We looked back. We looked at each other.
"Surely you two did enough of that upstairs?" Cyrene said archly. Eumache's eyes widened in embarrassment and surprise.
"I told you we shouldn't have tried that here!" she hissed furiously. All of a sudden it was really hot, and I began to wonder if there would be a me-shaped hollow in the ice when I finally managed to get up. I hadn't thought too much about the notoriously thin walls of inns the night before. Walls of any kind were the farthest thing from my mind. When it comes to stuff like that, Eumache is actually far more practical than I am. Luckily, she is also very even tempered, so she was only seriously mad for a moment. Then she sighed and raising herself up on her forearms on my chest, she asked, "Thraso, do you ever get the feeling that you have a special Fate assigned just to you, and that she spends endless candlemarks thinking of outrageous situations for you to fall into?"
Such an idea had never occurred to me, and let's face it, some strange stuff has occurred to me before.
"No, no. It's coincidence. Must be."
A pair of red boots stopped by my head. "You could have left my scroll case where it was, Thraso. I was in no hurry." Gabrielle smiled. She tends to keep scrupulously kind about the predicaments I seem to find myself in around her or Xena. Eumache was soon on her feet, then she and Gabrielle each took an arm and helped me up. At last, all safe and secure.
"Great," Gabrielle sighed happily. Retrieving her staff from where it leaned against the ever patient Argo, who was also the only unflappable character present, she settled her scroll case over her shoulder and ran her hands happily over the wood. "The trip to Arboria is a good two days walk through beautiful country." Another big breath. "Maybe I'll arrange a little staff competition while we're there..." she winked at me. "We can each kick Eponin's butt." Eyes twinkling she did a quick, swirling move with her staff. The weaponmaster in me was suitably impressed, yet, my memory was nagging. I sensed trouble in the near distance.
"Ah, Gabrielle, maybe..."
"Pretty good, huh? Take a look at this one..." A neat flick and then a sweep which neither I, nor Xena expected. One moment the four of us were bemusedly taking in some showing off by the bard, next my feet were in the air, and I fell into Eumache – who fell into Cyrene – who bumped into Gabrielle – who flailed about with her staff in one hand before falling down, succeeding in upending Xena into the horse trough in the process.
Snorting irritably at being splashed with cold water, Argo blew a mouthful of water at Xena and shook her head vigorously. A short distance away two Emetchi leaned heavily on each other, laughing at the whole silly business. Setting her head on one hand, Xena growled, "Obviously your personal Fate is spreading the joy today, Thraso." Lifting herself out of the horse trough, she muttered, "Be right back." Grabbing the saddlebag Gabrielle had removed from Argo's back, she shook her head in a disbelieving manner and walked back into the inn. A growly muttering floated back to us. "Any other day she'd go where she had some room. Any other hot, dry, summer day when I might possibly enjoy cooling off. Not today, no..."
Having satisfied the silly and embarrassing incident quota for the morning at least, we set off. Xena was stomping along ahead, sulking. It wasn't long before Cyrene couldn't just walk along watching Gabrielle's contrite expression and grumpy offspring any longer. "You know," she stated, keeping her face and tone absolutely serious. "There's a package of those pastries Xena likes in that bag by your hand there, Gabrielle. You know the ones – coated in honey and nuts." Well, Gabrielle's face lit up like the great tree we hang coloured lanterns and decorations in at Solstice. Hurriedly fishing out the package, she bounded through the brownish grey slush which marked the road to Xena. After another completely sulky moment, Xena accepted the peace offering, and soon they were strolling contentedly along arm in arm, sharing the pastries in a way that was outrageously cute. I can't believe I just used the word 'cute' to describe something Xena was doing. Ah – don't tell her, okay? I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with what she'll try to do to me yet if she hears about it.
Maybe in a thousand years. Mmmmm – probably never.
Cyrene chuckled softly and began to whistle one of the asymmetric, odd little dance tunes the Thrakians like to play at parties. I like Thrakian music, but it leaves a much different feeling than other music does. Most music, you can tap or hum away for a bit afterwards, because the rhythm and beat is steady. Thrakian music starts, continues until the musicians feel like playing something else, and then changes. Trying to follow it as you would anyone else's music is like trying to go exactly where a gust of wind will be in a few minutes time. How did I get onto this topic? Don't tell me. If I know I'm more likely to do it again.
After a few minutes of walking, Eumache gave my arm a squeeze and whispered, "I'm going to have a chat with Eponin. I'd rather you didn't get into anymore trouble until we get to Arboria, love. I'll try and settle things up." Eponin had tried to sneak up on me, and I had automatically flipped her over my shoulder and into a snow bank. She was still feeling pretty steamed. However, people who love you and are willing to help ease sticky situations you accidently create for yourself are wonderful. Once Eumache managed to convince the elder priestess of Artemis at home not to order me to do five days solitary watch over the inner temple for knocking over an amphora of oil in it. I still had to mop it up, which took five days anyway, and I had to scrub in the bathing hut for a candlemark at the end of each day to get all of the gunk off – it was all worth it when I got to enjoy my usual sleeping arrangements. In so far as I was sleeping.
Working with her usual aplomb, Eumache soon had drawn a grudging smile from the Arborian weaponmaster, and even started an actual conversation with her. Eponin seems to be about as talkative as Xena, so I was really impressed. To this day, I can't imagine what they could have found to talk about, especially something which made them both laugh so much.
"Gabrielle tells me you're the weaponmaster at your village?" Ephiny asked.
"Yeah," a quick mental count. "Six years, now." Ephiny's eyes widened in startlement.
"How did you manage that? You're not that old."
The next few candlemarks flew by. It turns out that while Ephiny is older than Gabrielle, she's still young for a queen, so we had some problems in common.
"Okay, how do you stay awake in council meetings? You're the regent, so you can't get away with dozing off. I try – I really try. It's hopeless, though. Old Leukophone gets started on the importance of recodifying the rules for running a council meeting and after the first word my eyes are glazed, the second they're shut, and on a bad day I slide underneath the table." Ephiny laughed out loud.
"Great Artemis – you realize Leukophone is the perfect weapon? As soon as someone threatens to sack the village, wait for them to line up in front of the village and demand tribute bearers. Then send her out to start talking. You'll be able to disarm and tie up your enemies without striking a blow."
"Damn. The scariest part of that idea is that it might just work." we both laughed there.
"Okay," Ephiny lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Here's the secret. Don't tell Gabrielle, though. She'd kill me, because she's too polite to do it."
"Right – I've been regent long enough, I know exactly who talks the longest and yet says the least. I just figure out how many of them plan to try talking their feathers off that day, and save up a list of supply lists and treaty quibbles to figure out. Once they get going, I just slip a sheet out and start working. Nobody knows I'm not listening to a word, and it looks just like I'm taking notes." Ephiny laughed ruefully. "Of course, most of the council thinks I actually pay attention to what they say – they're terrified one day I'm going to make someone do a task the talkers go on about." I tipped my head to one side.
"Well, that has secret weapon potential too, you know. Any time somebody was arguing with me over nothing – hey, you know, Leukophone has some good points. I've been looking around for someone to take care of it. I'd do it but I'm so busy – you probably wouldn't even get to the second sentence before they found some reason, any reason to leave."
"Yeah," Ephiny drawled with a sly grin. "Used correctly, no one will ever want to come near my office let alone into it – except a select few, of course." By now we were both grinning evilly. Our happy thoughts of ignoring boring speeches and scaring away irritating people were interrupted by Xena, who was leading off the road and into the forest. It looked like we were stopping for the night.
The next day, we made good time and had passed the first boundary markers by midafternoon. The night before, Ephiny and Eponin had had a short, heated conversation which involved a lot of pointing in my direction, and a few direct references. I was having an awful time, because my hearing is acute, and even sharpening my sword couldn't drown them out. I had finally given up and fled into the relative safety of the woods, where I fell into the first available, partially frozen mudhole. The results of the conversation were that Eponin made a rather ungainly effort to talk to me without puffing out her chest or brandishing a weapon. The results of the fall were a set of leathers able to stand up by themselves. And the laces were frozen into their knots. It took candlemarks to work them apart, since Eumache was afraid to use a dagger so close to me.
Well, I can be pretty ungainly in the conversation department too, so I used a skill learned over six years of teaching children of all levels of ability how to use various weapons. Nothing will teach you tact and diplomacy better than trying to find honest, pleasant ways to say, 'I'm afraid your daughter should actually be a weaver,' to a doting parent convinced she is all but the next Xena. 'Your daughter has a great work ethic and fine powers of concentration,' in twenty seven variations.
When Eponin realized maybe I wasn't just out to make her look bad, we eventually began to talk weapons, battle stories, and so on. This was a mistake, of course, since it undid most of Eumache's hard work. The stories kept getting bigger and bigger, at a faster and faster pace. Once you run out of stories, you have to have a scrap. I hadn't blurted out my parentage – but I have enough self confidence (Eumache says it's a bearable level of arrogance) to consider myself mostly unbeatable. After all, Xena had only gotten the jump on me once. In other words, I was feeling bored and careless, so I didn't bother to avoid needling Eponin into a little impromptu sparring. I was more than willing to demonstrate the superiority of a Northern Emetchi over a Southern one. More than ready. No stopping us now – We had all but started whaling on each other when Eumache grabbed me by the back of my tunic and hauled me out of striking range.
"Would you stop it! You're here on a diplomatic visit, not to start a war!"
"No, no, no – don't start with the 'it's just what weaponmasters do' speech. It starts with you and spreads. It's like a head cold near Solstice." Eumache gave my arm a good shake for emphasis. My head dropped. She did have a point. About the diplomatic thing, which I kept forgetting. The cold analogy was totally false. She got the idea from the unplanned games and parties we often have at home when visitors come by. It's like the Fate idea though, blatantly false.
Things settled for a half candlemark or so, and we took a final break before heading into the village. The trees were laden with heavy, damp snow which had fallen the night before, and everybody was tired from ploughing through it. On top of tired I felt cold and headachey, and rubbed at my burning eyes, wondering what was up with me. Dismissing it as needing a full night's sleep, I sat down under a tree, and found myself cuddled up with Eumache, who was looking at me in some concern.
"You're all flushed, Thraso."
"It's because you're so close." I batted my eyelashes at her. She laughed.
"Oh stop! Seriously though – are you feeling okay?" I considered the possible answers. One was, no I'm fine, and try to ignore it. Two was, I'm just tired. Two seemed better, since Eumache already figured I felt lousy, and it allowed me to unashamedly ask her to coddle me. Everyone loves being coddled. If people didn't, they'd complain like they meant it, instead of making up lame excuses. I figure, why make lame excuses? I manage to say and do goofy things unconsciously all the time, why would I start doing it on purpose?
"Time's up. You obviously feel lousy." Eumache declared triumphantly. She snuggled into my chest, and I was actually beginning to doze off when I caught sight of our five traveling companions grinning at us. Definitely flushed now.
After awhile, Eponin strode over. "Come on, cuddlebunnies. Time to go to the village," she snickered. Don't ever let me catch you cuddling with anybody, I thought to myself irritably. I clapped a hand on the trunk of the tree to push myself upright, and felt a tremor run through the trunk. A quivering ran through the branches. Eumache straightened my cloak and I gave her a kiss on the cheek, just to show Eponin I wasn't going to let her teasing get to me. I guess Eumache thought the same thing, because she caught me by the collar and made sure I had only one tooth missing. Staggering back a bit afterwards, I bumped the tree again. A breath later, there was a gentle piff.
The load of snow in the tree's branches had collapsed all over Eponin. I sent a delighted "Thanks, Mom." to her wherever she was at the moment, and joined the others in about busting a gut. Eponin listened to everybody else laugh, dark eyes smoldering out of a mask of snow. She turned to look at Ephiny, who only laughed harder, and the snowball fight was on.
We were still hucking snow at each other when a search party arrived. It seems they figured our being late meant we were in trouble. I guess so, if being engaged in a no holds barred snowball war counts. Rather than stop the fun, we just started throwing snowballs at the search party. In for a dinar, I say.
Eventually sanity had to begin to prevail again, and Xena stood up to shout down the combatants. As she opened her mouth to do so, a snowball smacked her square in the face. People dropped snowballs and hurriedly scrubbed their hands on any leathers or cloaks within reach, whether they belonged to them or not. Nobody wanted to be caught red handed on this one. Xena glared right at me.
"I didn't do it!" I squeaked in alarm, nightmare visions of a flying trout dancing before my eyes. Probably the only time I have ever squeaked in my entire life. Gales of laughter came from behind a snow encrusted elm, and Cyrene staggered into sight, bent nearly double. "It would be my mother!" Xena exploded in some disgust.
Of course. Xena's mother is the only one who could have gotten away with it.
The first week or so at the village flew by, probably because the first day took up most of it. And I thought we had long greeting ceremonies. Yeesh. Cyrene's friend turned out to be a bowyer. Bet there's a quite a story behind that friendship. After I had dumped Eponin on her butt a few more times, she started getting a bit sneakier. Xena explained that Eponin had done this when she had first come to the village, too. "She won't give up until she's used every type of ambush she can think of." Thanks, Xena. There's hundreds, maybe thousands of things she could do before then.
The real excitement started after the tenth day, because then there was a full Moon. It was a particularly special full Moon, because a full eclipse was supposed to occur, during which the Moon would turn blood red. The event is rare enough in early winter that every time it happens, it is commemorated by a huge festival in honour of Artemis especially, but also Athena and Aphrodite. I didn't know why this was the case at that time. It never even occurred to me to ask my mother, and she might even have told me.
The festival, true to any event dedicated to a Great Goddess has three major stages. First, the villagers make a Tartarus of a racket, beating drums, stomping their feet, blowing on horns, and smudging everything in the village with smoke. The noise and smoke was meant to drive away evil spirits, bad luck, and any bad feeling among the Emetchi. A good idea really, especially once a Moon when everyone is feeling just a bit – a bit – sensitive.
Second, a ceremonial clown goes from warrior to warrior, trying to make them laugh. Whoever laughs gets to hold the scrolls for the high priestess of Artemis in the next part of the festival. Gives new meaning to 'she who laughs last, laughs best' huh?
Finally, the high priestess of Artemis performs an incredibly long ritual of invocation. The invocation is of Artemis, Aphrodite, and Athena, in that order. It's almost funny. Almost funny because it required a priestess to holler "Artemis! Artemis! Artemis!" and then, of course, 'Aphrodite! Aphrodite! Aphrodite!" and on and on, until something happened. And nothing ever happens.
A stubbornly persistent legend claims that a particularly determined priestess yelled herself hoarse in this way, trying to summon Artemis. At last Artemis showed up, saying, "All right already, woman! Spare the ears of your fellow Emetchi! I'm here!" The priestess was dumbstruck. She could hardly believe the invocation had worked. When she proved unable to put together a coherent sentence, Artemis went into the crowd to talk to the women. She listened to problems, healed injuries, and eventually climbed up on the priestess' dais. Emetchi held their breath, wondering what their Great Goddess had to say.
"So, did you hear the one about the streaker on the Acropolis?"
A comedy routine. She did a comedy routine. The Emetchi were flabbergasted. Then they laughed, because she was actually quite good. During the final moments of the eclipse, Artemis wound things down and declared, "I'm very proud of you, but honestly, try to lighten up a little." and then she faded away with the last shadows on the Moon.
I love that story. You can tell, because I stuck to the point the whole way through.
Unless you believe the legend, not one of the Goddesses called upon have ever shown up. You can sort of see why. "Oh, hi. We could use a few hot, torrid love affairs, Aphrodite," or, "Yup, lemme tell ya, Artemis, this thing about the feathers – they are a bit overrated, you know..." or, "We know you're mainly concerned with the Libyan Emetchi, Athena, but we thought we'd invite you to dinner." Right. End result, the ceremony tends to cause a bit of tittering at the end, because it seems so anticlimactic and pointless. So we have a big party afterwards, and usually games the next day. Artemis probably has told Emetchi to lighten up at some time or other – we can get over serious. Except in my village, where people seem to laugh all the time.
Okay, now you need to know how things were set up, so that all the Emetchi could be together after the purification of the village.
The temple of Artemis in the village has a great semicircle cleared in front of it. The temple itself, unlike Greek ones, has no forbidding steps in front of it, and no roof. Instead, it has a wide open archway, reminiscent of one of the first portals you see in this world, through which you can see right into the main temple. In the centre of it grows a great oak tree – take note here, everybody, only one tree. A big oak.
Stone benches and segments of tree trunks were scattered about the temple floor for worshippers to sit on when a village wide ceremony wasn't being held like this one.
All Emetchi were seated on little folding stools in the semicircle. The stools were surprisingly comfortable, and two people could sit on each one. Most of the time two people could sit on each one. Eumache and I tried, but I guess I'm just too big, and the thing collapsed, depositing us both in the snow. The laughing was actually getting to me a bit, since I was a visiting dignitary – maybe just a tary, since I had dropped my dignity in the snow and lost it – when Eumache saved the day by giving me a big hug and warbling, "I just keep falling for you, you know that?" Finally everyone was seated, with the original group from Amphipolis now including Solari, the captain of the Queen's Guard, and the mysterious bowyer, who as a newcomer to the tribe got to sit with us as a special welcome honour – whoa – sentence got too long – sat at the front and centre of the semicircle. Er, all those people I said, were seated together, at the front and centre of the semicircle. Sorry, folks, I had myself confused for a bit there.
The ceremony ran as expected all the way up to the ceremonial clown part. Then, ever so slowly, but ever so steadily, weirdness began to break loose. I half expected to see Cerberus chasing rabbits, since that's about the weirdest thing I've ever seen.
The clown was expected to come from within the temple, probably nipping out from behind the oak tree. Instead, she bounced cheerfully out of the forest, singing merrily and tossing handfuls of dead, slightly soggy leaves over anyone she could reach. She did backflips, and frontflips, and somersaults, and drew little toys endlessly from her baggy trouser pockets until every child had one. Then she stopped, and pulled a rattle out of a scabbard strapped on her back instead of a sword. The rattle was carved in the shape of a snake, and its sound came from a series of little metal plates strung together and held apart loosely by beads. Shaking it vigourously, she began to prowl around the semicircle, glaring through the eyeholes of her mask, poking Emetchi with the snake's head, and occasionally goosing someone.
Returning to the front of the semicircle, she slowly drew off her mask, revealing raven dark hair that stuck out in all directions, startling pale, green grey eyes, and a face painted all over with white gypsum, a broad smile painted in red around her mouth. The tip of her nose was painted red too, so after she tossed aside her bedraggled mask, she went up to the kids again and convinced a few of them to poke it. A few squeaks, squawks, and meeping noises later, every kid wanted a chance to poke the clown on the tip of her nose.
However, the clown couldn't spend all night playing with the kids, which was made clear by the priestess, who finally stomped over and smacked the clown in the back of the head. The clown pouted, and walked slowly away from the kids, dragging the head of the rattle in the snow. All the kids and not a few adults made sympathetic noises, at which the clown promptly turned around, winked one bright eye at the crowd, then turned back to the priestess and stuck her tongue out at her.
Point made, the clown went on to the next part of her job. She worked her way through the Queen's Guard, and although several of them turned purple, none of them laughed. Next the regular guard. They managed not to laugh, too. Outraged, the clown threw handfuls of snow at them. Winking at the crowd again, she tried to get the high priestess to laugh. The old woman's face got a look on it like someone had jammed her mouth full of crab apples. Finally, at her wit's end because someone had to hold the scrolls for the priestess and she couldn't trick the priestess into doing it for herself, the clown dragged her hand down her face, smearing her face paint, hitched up her mismatched leathers, and marched towards the hapless occupiers of the semicircle's front and centre.
The clown started at Eponin. She told lewd jokes. She made faces. She made lewd gestures. She did a very naughty dance. Eponin kept an absolutely straight face through the whole thing. Then, the clown skipped down to me, where I was sniffling a little beside Eumache. I was completely horrified, which my expression must have said quite clearly, because tittering ran through the rest of the assembled Emetchi in response.
The clown started again. She told lewd jokes. She made faces. She made lewd gestures. She did a very naughty dance. At the naughty dance, Eumache's hands disappeared under the table and became verrry distracting. So I didn't laugh at the naughty dance. Then, like Iambe, or Baubo depending on whose story you listen to, when she tried to make Demeter laugh, she flashed us.
Now, like I said, I was really distracted. Incredibly distracted. In fact, if I had gotten anymore distracted, the chances of the other Emetchi getting a huge eyefull was very high. I barely noticed the flash. Eponin nearly swallowed her tongue trying to muffle her laughter, even though the clown was no longer concerned with her and she didn't have to worry. Most folks at that table were just plain surprised. It was Xena who burst out laughing. It was the only humour she found in having to hold the scrolls for the old dragon of a high priestess.
The preliminaries to the invocation took forever, and I had begun to doze off on Eumache's shoulder – since she had helped me become relaxed rather than distracted. You know, she really is amazingly talented. I didn't think you could get away with that in public. The priestess had a nice rhythm, and did nothing to keep me awake. I was muzzily thinking maybe she wasn't such a dragon after all when Eumache finally threw her cloak around my shoulders and snugged an arm around my waist.
"So you won't fall over. Go ahead and sleep." she whispered. Isn't she just wonderful? Erm –
Who knows how long the priestess went on. A quarter candlemark, candlemarks? I was mostly asleep with the chanting invading my dreams when the priestess stopped cold. Lifting my head a bit, I looked around muzzily. Looking into Eumache's face, I saw she was confused too. Oh good, I thought. Nine times out of ten, if I'm not the only confused person I can go back to sleep. I was all but gone to dreamland when the following conversation assaulted my ears.
"You are so deadly seri-uss! It's just a little thing, sis. Do it for me?"
"No, no, a thousand times no! I will not let you try such a thing on me! Mama said you couldn't mess around in my love life for a very good reason."
"What? Like what reason could that be? I am the luuuv expert, babe."
"You make a mess!"
"Ah, come on Artie – if these arrows work on you, they'll work on anybody! And besides, as if you can really be serious in that boffo clown get up! As if!!"
"Like, yeah, you wouldn't catch me dead in that stuff!"
"Aphrodite, for the last time, no! I do not need a love charm! What do you think 'frolicking' is? Do you seriously think it means dancing?"
"Ohhh – Artie, that's not love! Dude, and mortals say I'm dense!"
"Doh – 'Dite, why don't you go bother Athena, huh? She wouldn't listen to you brag about setting her kid up. Go torment her."
"Like, why would I do that? That's so lame! She and Pallas are totally gone on each other! Why would I mess up something that works?"
"Gee, I don't know. Same reason you messed me up last time." This was muttered through audibly grinding teeth.
"What is this place, anyway? This isn't one of your sweat-lodge thingies, is it? Those are so grody to the max!"
"No – no – not a sweat-lodge. They were due for a visit, and I never asked you to come! Wait a minute, what are you up to? This isn't the village I meant to stop in! No wonder I wound up in the woods instead of the temple."
"Okay, like so I brought us here – like, that does not mean I know where here is." A low, unhappy groan, obviously not from Aphrodite, followed this.
"Dite, I'll beg you, okay? I'm begging you – go away!"
By now, the entire village was gaping at the clown, and the bowyer, who were arguing vociferously to one side of the temple doorway. I guess Aphrodite has a hard time arguing and wearing normal clothes at the same time, so she was soon in a veritable orgy of pink, while Artemis stuck to her clown get up. Artemis is a proud Goddess, but in her position, I'd be desperate, too. Once Aphrodite gets in there and starts messing around – the only time I did all right was the time I had no clue what was going on anyway.
"Oh – you are such a stuffed mattress!" Aphrodite squawked in disgust. She stomped one foot and disappeared in an angry pink flurry. Oh, I love that phrase. Doesn't it just work?
Artemis just stared at where her sister had been, and shook her head in disbelief. "Mattress?!" Dragging her fingers through her hair in a gesture irresistibly reminiscent of Thaleia, she added, "It's blatantly obvious that Athena, Aphrodite, and I have nothing to do with Zeus. But it's almost impossible to believe we're all related!" Another pull of her fingers through her hair, which left it sticking mostly straight up, instead of just in all directions. Rubbing her chin she muttered, "Where I am is a good question, though." For the first time, she looked toward the crowd of gaping Emetchi.
"Ho!" she jumped backwards in shock, pale green grey eyes growing very wide. "Not what I expected. This is..." She looked around, sniffed at the air, and declared, "Arboria, isn't it?" Nobody was too eager to answer that, since the sniffing thing had everyone sniffing uncomfortably at their feathers and their armpits. Except me. I was sniffling because my nose was running.
"Yes, definitely Arboria. I don't know what it is, but there are always rotten onions somewhere when I stop in here – I can't stand the smell, but it's always around, stinking up a storage cellar somewhere." Artemis scratched at the back of her neck, then strode carefully into the area all of us gaping Emetchi were sitting in. She looked around carefully. She sniffed again. A frown crinkled her forehead. A slow turn on one heel. Then the wind shifted.
Uttering an alarmed curse, Artemis started hurrying through the crowd. "I have GOT to get out of here! I knew Aphrodite gave up the argument too easy, I knew it! The only smell worse than the damn onions is her perfume. I think she bathes in it." Pushing impatiently through the crowd, periodically peering into somebody's face with almost alarming intensity, she finally stopped in the midst of a group of girls of about fourteen winters. They all screamed, and three fainted. "Oh dear," sighed Artemis. Dashing through the crowd, looking for someone, or – trying to think of a subtle way to disappear, I guess. Disappearing is pretty unsubtle by nature, but if anyone could do it subtly she could. "Damn it already, where IS she? She said she'd keep 'Dite from bothering me because I listened to hours of, 'Aren't they cute,' from her!" By now, Artemis had arrived back at the illustrious group I was part of – yeah, yeah, go ahead, laugh, get it out of your system.
The first person she looked at in the group was Xena. Gazing at her intently, Artemis said, "I always have thought you looked terribly familiar. Do you have any idea why? I'm fresh out." Oh – there were no more scrolls to hold after the high priestess started chanting Goddess names, so Xena had been able to sit down. Xena wasn't feeling too forthcoming on why she should look familiar to Artemis, so the Goddess shrugged her shoulders and murmured, "No, I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that my Chosen insists on keeping you around." Skipping over Cyrene, she stopped in front of me. "There you are!" she bellowed, seizing me by the leathers and hauling me off my stool.
"Why I oughta..." she stopped. "Oh, sorry old thing. You look way too much like your mother." Artemis was actually taller than me by at least a head, and she was holding me so high above the ground, my toes were brushing the stool I had just been forced to vacate. A scheming gleam entered her eyes. "Wanna do me a favour, old thing?" Old thing? Old thing? What's up with that? If somebody isn't calling me kid, this is the alternative? What about my NAME?
Sigh. Oh well. Needless to say, I just nodded, because I didn't trust my voice, and I wasn't sure of Artemis' temper. I really didn't want to find out how far she could throw me.
"Good, good. Call your mother." If I hadn't been looking right at Artemis talking, I would have thought Xena had just hissed advice at me. "Go on, call your mother." I wasn't thinking what you might expect. Nope. I was trying to think of how to get out of Artemis' grip, since there was no bloody way I was going to scream, "Mama!" in front of an entire damned village of Emetchi. No way.
Looking over at Cyrene, Artemis said matter of factly, "I seem to have created an impasse. Usually when this happens, I just knock heads together until something gives. I don't think I should do that here, though." It was all too much for Eumache, who had recovered from her shock and surprise, and was now so angry steam was threatening to come out of her ears. Standing up, she looked Artemis over, noted a rather conspicuous hole in the back of her tunic, and quicker than the eye could follow, Eumache had snaked a hand out, tickled Artemis in the middle of the back through that hole, and caught me when I got dropped, all in one smooth movement.
Come on, admit it. Isn't she just amazing – wonderful – perfect – yeah, yeah. I've got it bad. It's kind of a nice feeling, though.
Artemis was having a great chuckle out of the whole thing. Obviously she let Eumache do it, but I couldn't see what was funny about that. "Sorry, old thing. Forgot you had someone to haul your feathers out of trouble." A pause. "Can I borrow her to haul ME out of trouble?" Now, that one I could answer.
"I don't think she'd go for it."
All of this stuff happened in far less time than it takes to tell it, and the end result was that my mother was nowhere to be found, and Artemis was getting antsy again. "Why not just – disappear, you wonder?" she addressed the Emetchi suddenly. "You can't stop your sisters messing with you when you disappear. I found that out when I was young. I had an argument with my older sister, Athena. She said she was going to turn my hair purple. I figured, hey, gone in a flash, no purple hair here. Well, I wound up with purple hair anyway. It was a tragedy, an absolute tragedy. Can you imagine? I mean, there is no way to match purple hair to any set of leathers." Artemis waited a beat. "Believe it or not, that was a joke. Tough crowd." A slight shake of her head followed.
"When she was young?" someone whispered faintly.
"Older sister?" someone else blurted.
Tugging distractedly at a strand of leather which was slowly separating from the rest of her tunic, Artemis sighed, "Only one thing for it, then. Seeya!" With that, she spun around and started to move past me. Right in synch with her pacing, I felt a sharp pinch to the skin on the back of my left knee. My leg snapped straight out, and I became the only mortal to accidentally trip a Goddess and live.
Bouncing upright again, Artemis glared at me. "You are not helping me!" Yet another attempt to out and out run, only to have a certain Amphipolitan innkeeper take her feet out from under her, depositing her in the snow again. I couldn't believe it. Xena couldn't believe it, and neither Gabrielle or Eumache had actually seen it, since I was between Eumache and Cyrene, and Xena was between Cyrene and Gabrielle, so they couldn't believe it, either. Sort of. Whatever.
Climbing patiently upright once again, Artemis wound up eyeball to eyeball with Cyrene. "I usually never fall for the same person twice." A moment of silence, during which she glared at Cyrene significantly. Cyrene was laughing helplessly, along with quite a few Emetchi. "What?" Artemis turned around. "What's with you people? All I said was – oooooh." She scowled irritably and wagged a finger at the crowd. "That's not what I meant."
Looking Cyrene straight in the eye – it was hard not to, because for some reason she had leaned rather close. "Personally, I think the Fate responsible for this mess is Lachesis – she was a bit put out when I broke up with her."
Rising to the occasion, Cyrene managed, "Maybe you had better apologize for hurting her feelings."
"Oh, but I did, I did!" Artemis replied earnestly. She put a hand to her head. "I can't move. Help?!"
"Nope, no dude, I've got you now!" Aphrodite crowed triumphantly. Drawing a pink – pink?! bow, she fired an arrow, nailing Artemis squarely in the butt. Now, we all know what Aphrodite's arrows do, don't we? And we all know who was eyeball to eyeball with who.
"Urg." Artemis had a look of complete, befuddled shock on her face. Waving a hand around her posterior, she tried to find the arrow. It was gone, however. "This isn't allowed, and it shouldn't work. I'm sure it shouldn't..." She blinked dazedly, and struggled to regain her equilibrium. Eyes sharpening, she sniffed at the air. "Hey," she grinned cheekily, and plunked herself into Cyrene's lap. "You smell mmmmarvelous." It was all too much for Cyrene, who dissolved in helpless giggles. And a good thing, too. If she was going to have to put up with a lovestruck Goddess, at least she was going to enjoy herself.
"Familiar – and mmmmarvelous." And then, Artemis' predicament seemed to really hit her for the first time. "You'd better run far, far away, 'Dite, because I – will – get – even!" You can imagine how completely unthreatening this sounded to the rest of us. I mean, she was in goofy clown get-up, hair looking like she'd been struck by a lightning bolt, perched on a giggling woman's lap, pronouncing threats.
"Uh-oh," Aphrodite's giggles faltered a bit. "I didn't want to hear that. Toodles!"
Artemis stuck her fingers in her hair and shook it violently. "Oh, well. Nothing I can do except wait, I suppose. I can't believe this." She looked at Cyrene again. "Hey, aren't you..." her eyes popped. "Well why didn't you say something? I mean, I'll torment 'Dite anyway – I'm the youngest, you know." Here Artemis gave Cyrene a look of doe eyed admiration that caused several people to make mock gagging noises. Her head shot up. "Who did that? Who? Come on! I may be – addled, but I can figure it out!" Stumbling to her feet, she glared around the assembled Emetchi.
"You!" she exploded. "Get out here!" A member of the regular guard slowly emerged from the crowd, cringing. "You do realize what I'm going to have to do to you, since I've got such a rotten temper?" The Emetchi's eyes widened in horror. She waved one hand in the air, speechless with terror. Artemis pointed a finger at her and hollered, "Zap!" at which the woman fainted away.
"Whoa," Artemis said in an astonished tone. "It never works that well when I do it for real." A look up revealed quite a few shocked faces. "Well, what did you think I was gonna do? Look at all the kids!" Said kids were giggling merrily and playing games, not at all disturbed by what was going on around them.
"Anyway, where was I? Oh yes! And now we do the dance of joy!" Artemis crowed delightedly. I'm starting to think the whole Emetchi-dancing-party thing is because of her. Grabbing Cyrene by the hand, she hauled her onto a table that formed part of the high priestess' stuff, and proceeded to do the dance of joy. Brings new meaning to tabletop dancing, doesn't it?
For those of you who are wondering, the dance of joy seemed to involve throwing your arms around your partner's waist, and jumping up and down. It sounds silly, but I can relate to the concept. Being joyful does make you feel bouncy, and Artemis was smarter about it than I ever am. I always seem to get joyful in the woods, and that leads to the tree bouncing thing.
Unfortunately, the table wasn't really meant to hold up under the assault. The last thing Artemis said that night was, "You catch me next time?" Then the table collapsed, and they toppled over, flattening the dragon priestess and knocking the love doped Goddess of the Emetchi senseless. Actually, I guess she was already senseless, so, unconscious.
"Oh, certainly." laughed Cyrene. Let me tell ya, she was having a great time. Otherwise that big, panther swallowed the nightingale grin on her face wouldn't have been there. She's actually a great deal more adventurous, determined, and smart, then most folks realize.
The next day seemed to start normally. The games were being set up all over the village, and the Emetchi in charge of food and drink were solemnly sworn not to open up any ale kegs until all of the events were over. A few were unhappy about this, feeling that with a Goddess around to heal any injuries, as long as the first keg wasn't opened until early afternoon, who cared? Luckily this was not a generally held opinion, especially since it was a lot like a piece of parchment with 'trouble' written all over it. Anyway you looked at it, trouble was what you saw.
Those of you who are Greek may be surprised at some of the events we Emetchi participate in, although most Thrakians won't be. Greek men especially seem to have funny ideas about women. You see no contradiction between claiming women are weak and can't handle pain, while leaving them to haul loads of wet laundry that would stagger an ox, and bear as many children as can be fathered on them. I freely admit to being an outsider, and confused to begin with, but doesn't that sound just a little weird to you guys?
Let's see, events. Well, we had sparring with staves, swords, chobos, glaives, and bean bags. Yes, bean bags. It isn't as easy to huck those little buggers at somebody effectively as you might think. Then there was long jump, wrestling, punching each other senseless (boxing, for those of you who seriously think it's a sport), throwing the discus, the javelin, and the shot put, and of course, archery contests. The very last events were the various footraces. A fun way to spend three days. The season was no barrier. The stuff that had to be thrown was painted bright colours like green or pink so they'd stand out against the snow, the wrestling and punching were being done indoors, and the participants in the footraces were allowed to wear boots. Of course, everyone was allowed to wear clothes.
What can I say? Artemis was there. If you think there's a better excuse for going all out than having your deity show up, I'm all ears. She is my aunt, so I don't get excited in quite the same way, but any excuse to show off for Eumache is fine with me. She won't admit it, but she likes to show off, too. The first day had gone by fairly smoothly. Only one punching match had become an outright brawl, and the sides of the tent the wrestling was going on in had been rolled up. This was mostly due to the fact that Xena was participating in everything too, and any time she was up most of the village wanted to watch her. I managed to drop only one shot on my foot, a great improvement over my previous total of three, and I got to watch Eumache dump Eponin in the staff matches. Artemis judged mostly that day, but she had a gleam in her eye that suggested that she was up to something. And was she ever.
The next day, there was some kind of hold up. Artemis hadn't shown up to judge, although Cyrene was in the stands watching, so one possibility was ruled out. Ephiny, Eponin, and some other member of the council were arguing vociferously, eventually forcing Gabrielle to intervene before things got too heated. Except, Gabrielle got embroiled in the argument herself, and pretty soon it looked like we were going to have to add wargames to what was already set up. A possibility which was annihilated by Artemis finally arriving, with my mother in tow.
"You said you'd deal with 'Dite for awhile! You said..." she dragged a hand down her face. "I didn't want her to have anything to do with this! It's not her business, and I can do it myself!" Artemis was stomping angrily, clearly unimpressed with Mom. I could see that Artemis was the baby of her family, because Mom looked desperate to assuage her injured feelings.
"I swear – I was – distracted."
"I'll bet you were distracted! I had a hard enough time thinking around Cyrene before – now I'm damn near incapacitated!"
"Okay, okay, what do you want?" Oh boy. Mom, you just stepped right into knee deep cow presents. Artemis rubbed her chin. "Well, if we were at home, I'd participate in games, raaaather like these, in accordance with the tradition of showing off." The hand shifted to allow her to gently stroke one temple. "But go figure, we are among mortals, and since I am, after all, a Goddess..." a pause to buff the fingernails here. "NO ONE will compete against me."
"Oh, oh, no – Artie, that's no good. I can't just let you win! You know I'm better at a lot of this stuff than you are!" I was watching in shear wonder. My mother was pleading. I do resemble her rather strongly, and she and Artemis were about the same height. Artemis was wearing sleek black leathers and gauntlets, all trimmed with gold. For whatever reason, she was really going all out. Mom was dressed the way I remember her before she finished living with my tribe. Just plain brown leathers and a pair of scuffed up beige coloured boots. And Gaea, did she need a haircut.
"I'm not asking you to let me win. I have been practicing. I think you will find that you have underestimated me." Another fingernail buff. Mom rolled her eyes, and frowned. Her eyes brightened.
"A condition." Artemis sounded a combination of suspicious and sulky. Mom sighed.
"Yes. The condition is, our daughters must be our seconds." Oh, no, don't do this to me, Mom! I never had any blood sisters! I don't know how to survive sibling rivalry!
Artemis went from ever so slightly arrogant and absolutely determined to completely pissed off almost instantly. Whoa! Several Emetchi dove for the undergrowth, expecting fireworks. After a moment though, Artemis' face cleared. Her expression became, beatific.
"All right. The condition is acceptable. Come and help me out, Xena."
Not quite the explanation you expected, huh? Makes sense, really. Xena is pretty much the ultimate Emetchi, and she has gotten out of some nasty spots. Tartarus comes to mind. And then there's the fact that every Emetchi village she goes to treats her like a queen, and sometimes have to be reminded by a quick dunk in a horsetrough that Gabrielle is the queen of the Nation, and should be treated like one. In any event, I was now stuck helping Mom get into decent leathers, and help her loosen up for the first event she and Artemis were going to go head to head in. The event was archery, and Mom had this completely long suffering look on.
"Artie may be the Goddess of the hunt, but I shoot way better than her." I rubbed my nose and sighed. This had long day written all over it.
Across from us, Xena was spitting fire. She was mad, mad, mad, not just because she had found out who her other parent was in a fairly lousy way – I don't think Mom seriously believed Artemis would go for it – well, let's face it. Half Goddess types live much longer than typical mortals, and they get immortality wherever they wind up after they die. I got really depressed about that myself after I got serious with Eumache. After all, I'm pretty attached to her – NO ONE jump into that outrageously huge gap. NO ONE.
Then Eumache explained to me that her mother was Thetis, the deity who rules all of the oceans. (Poseidon sticks to the Aegean. He's a homebody.) It turns out she first saw me on one of my many fishing trips. I was bouncy for a whole Moon after I was told that. I don't think my feet touched the ground for more than a breath at a time for the whole thing.
Ah, ah, ah – slipped right into it with me that time, didn't you?
Xena was stomping around, pretty much ignoring what she was supposed to be doing. Artemis still wasn't thinking straight, but she realized she'd practically swallowed her entire leg along with her foot. To her credit, she was trying to scheme a way of repairing matters while changing into a tunic that didn't limit the movement of her shoulders. Eventually she caught Xena by the arm, gave Cyrene an, 'I'm really sorry' look, because she looked awfully cross too, and took Xena off somewhere to talk. They talked so long, Mom had fired twelve arrows into various spots on the target called by a trembling Emetchi warrior who took a long drink from a wineskin after each call. After twelve calls, she was sloshed, and happy as a jaybird in spring.
At last, Artemis dashed back, Xena in tow. Xena seemed to be in a better temper, so apparently the conversation had gone well. Now that Artemis was present and accounted for, Mom drawled, "Nice of you to turn up. I'm afraid that you've missed the master at work."
"I should think so. I had to run home and get my bow, and I've only just arrived." Artemis examined the target, with its twelve protruding arrows. "Not one bull's eye?" Mom's lips thinned.
"I simply shot for the calls. No point humiliating anyone. After all, to do better, you'd have to hit the same spots blindfolded."
Arrrrgh! Don't say it, don't say it! Oh – too late. Xena and I walked away from our parents and sat down in the stands with everyone else. Egos were a bruisin' here.
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "Why, certainly. You had best tie my eyes then, old thing, just to be sure of me."
After having her eyes tied, Artemis picked up her bow, which she hadn't even bothered to string yet. Bracing it entirely the wrong way against one foot, she hammed it up, making her face turn purple, and grunting and gasping, and finally flipping herself over with a thud. Most Emetchi present were laughing at this display, which in my case would have been the real thing except I would have been trying to string the bow properly, and even Mom had to give up her grumpiness. For all her stubbornness and arrogance, Artemis seemed to be a cheerful clown type at heart. And, I suspect being the littlest sister was nudging my mother into feeling indulgent again. She's just a big softy if you behave yourself, you know.
Artemis finally settled the bow properly and settled the string to her satisfaction. Then she nocked an arrow, and stood up straight.
'Time to aim, I think," she shouted gaily, spinning on one foot. A relay of Emetchi ducked down hurriedly in the stands as she swung in front of them. This led to the spontaneous creation of a sort of wave – people would raise their hands in synch, so the crowd looked a bit like seaweed waving around in the shallows near the seashore. It has already spread through the entire Nation – people find it fun, I guess.
Eventually settling in front of the target, Artemis coolly shot twelve arrows, splitting each of Mom's in half. Then she fired a thirteenth right into the centre of the bull's eye. The cheering nearly deafened me, and Xena sighed.
Mom shook her head in disbelief. Artemis had made herself a crowd favourite, and pulled off something ridiculous. "Why couldn't she pull off something else? Like a boot?" Mom muttered at me crossly. Next, they started sparring with swords. They were pretty even there, but Artemis seemed to have problems from an old shoulder injury. The longer they sparred, the harder she had to work to close a gap over her upper chest, because her arm was obviously tired. How a Goddess can end up having such problems – I have absolutely no idea. Won't even guess.
And then Artemis left her chest just about wide open, and the tip of her sword dipped. Mom had all but pounced for the point when Artemis dove between her legs, and walloped her on the butt with the flat of her sword. The startled caterwaul my mother let out brought back memories, and as if activated by them, the stitches in my eyebrow started to itch.
"If they do the same thing we did, I'm gonna cry." I muttered.
"Yeah? Well, I'd pay to see that." chortled Xena, who seemed to have warmed up to her other mother considerably.
"You could never pay enough." I shot back. I know, I know, throwing myself into trouble with gusto. Somebody besides my mother has to do it.
"We'll see." Trouble up to my eyeballs. More cow presents, for sure.
Another flurry of blows, and Artemis gave up on her right arm and switched to her left. They danced around and started sparring on the run. A quick change in direction and Mom had bounced off a tree and into another whack on the butt. A few moments more, and Artemis had Mom's sword and her own propped up in front of her.
"Give?" she asked sweetly.
"Oh yeah." growled Mom, rubbing her butt. She strolled over to me. "See, you're not the only one who runs into trees."
Meanwhile, Artemis was waving to the crowd, doing acrobatic tricks, and telling silly jokes, a few of them at her own expense. "Did ya hear the one about the streaker in the Acropolis?" she asked, getting a little further into her routine.
"YES!" came back from the crowd. Everybody knows that joke, since everyone knows the legend.
"Whoa." Artemis looked a little surprised. "No worries," she hollered cheerfully. "I have a better idea." Running into the various seats, which ranged from people who had parked their leathers on blankets in the snow to people who had brought out chairs, she stopped in front of Cyrene, who was sitting in a chair beside Gabrielle's throne.
"Oh fair lady, may I put my head in your lap?" Artemis sang out cheerfully to Cyrene. "It's a line I mangled from someone else's play." she added.
A line raunchy enough when delivered by a man. If you look carefully, you'll see it is even raunchier when delivered by a woman.
"No, not here," Cyrene replied archly, drawing catcalls and whistles. "But I'll give you a token, and perhaps you may later." Then she pulled a small red cloth from one of her sleeves, and fastened it around Artemis's bracer. Any time you're in Amphipolis, pay homage to that woman, because she dropped a Goddess to her knees with that piece of cloth.
Artemis and Athena had agreed to compete in four events, but hadn't picked any beyond the first two. In a long series of, "After yous," and "No, after yous," Ephiny called a stop.
"I have a better idea. Xena, Thraso, you each pick one." And here I thought I had gotten out of trouble.
That was how the infamous javelin contest began. The first round was that day, because I picked javelin, and Xena picked wrestling. Artemis won the javelin throw, much to Mom's chagrin, because that, more than anything, was her speciality. She had knocked Ares down a peg or two with her skill with the javelin. However, the javelin contest is a whole other story. If you want that one, you'll have to pester me another day. Oh, and buy me more ale.
For the wrestling, Mom and Artemis of course shed their armour, although Artemis kept her gauntlets and her bracers. I was really surprised, because they're like ready made hold spots in wrestling, but she wouldn't hear of taking them off.
"I won't take off one of them, and if I take off the rest, I'll be lopsided." Whatever.
The whole village wanted to see this wrestling match, so the wrestling ring was reset in front of the temple. The ground gave way steeply to the right of the crowd, ending in a large patch of mud and slush churned up by carts and many feet over the last few days of excitement.
It was the wildest wrestling match I ever saw. I think Artemis must have observed the misery fishers get from wriggly, determined trout, because Mom just couldn't get a hand on her for love nor money for the first few moments. And then she literally jumped on top of Artemis and came close to a pin, but as you know, Artemis was way too stubborn, and way too motivated to give up anything easy. So she flipped Mom over herself and onto her back, nearly producing a counter pin, only to send them both sliding down that slope, with my poor mother as an impromptu sled.
Just goes to show, deities are slightly nuts, because be damned if Mom didn't try to flip them over again, end result being they careened down there like a couple of stuck together snowballs. Until the bottom, where they arrived with a monster splat, revealing Artemis sitting on my Mom's back, both completely black with mud but for their eyes.
"Gotcha!" Artemis crowed in delight.
"You were just lucky." scowled Mom.
"Hush." replied Artemis, whacking her in the back of the head and knocking her face back into the mud.
Once the two Goddesses had removed the mud, most Emetchi figured it was time to party.
"No, no, not yet," shouted Xena. "We've got one event left to go, and only Artemis plays." She turned to me and said, "If you would please assist me, Thraso?" I almost forgot to say something. The warrior princess said please – to me?
Any of you who have listened to me wander through a story before may recognize this 'event.' First we exacted a public promise that Artemis wouldn't use her powers to undo what we were up to. Then, we tied her hand and foot to a big ol' post in front of the temple. A large pot was carried out by two of the village cooks, steaming ever so slightly in the now chilling evening air. My mom realized what was up and promptly dashed up to me.
"Pike her a good one in the nose for me, kiddo."
"Careful, old thing. Don't set up anything you don't want me to take revenge for later." called Artemis. Old thing. What is up with that?
Everything was set. Xena turned to the assembled Emetchi, and declared with an absolutely straight face –
"As you all heard, Artemis here is one of my parents. She has serious intentions of sticking with my birth mother, Cyrene. Apparently she didn't know she could get a woman pregnant." Xena paused, lips twitching. "I guess I can let that go." Some tittering ran through the crowd. "So she had no idea about me for awhile. It was an honest mistake – if you go by logic." Uh oh. "But, I don't feel much like going by logic." She wagged a finger at Artemis. "So I decided I needed to express my unhappiness with some of the results of her being an absentee parent." Motioning for the lid of the pot to be removed. "And Thraso must have a few issues, especially after seeing her mother knocked all over the place today." Reaching, she pulled out a handful of mucky dough. "So I told Artemis, I'll be convinced you're serious about Mom, if you let me express how VERY disappointed I am about her absence." She grinned wickedly. "And now Thraso and I are going to pelt her with dough until we feel better." And did we ever. After awhile, Artemis' eyes had completely disappeared. It was incredibly funny – which is probably why she agreed to it.
I had all but forgotten my little verbal scuffle with Xena during this process. I shouldn't have. Most of the dough had been used up when Xena said, "And just one more thing." Then she grabbed me by the back of my tunic and the seat of my trews, and dumped me headfirst into the pot. I was flailing helplessly because my shoulders were wedged into the curve at the base of the pot and couldn't right myself, when I heard Xena add,
"And now, I'm going to make you cry." Be damned if she didn't haul off my boots and start tickling my feet. For the record, I screamed a lot, but I did NOT cry.
Sports related excitement over, we all adjourned to the serious business of eating until we could hardly move, drinking until we could hardly see, and dancing anyway. The party ran until nearly dawn, when finally enough people had fallen asleep or passed out to force a temporary adjournment.
I was all snuggled up with Eumache, feeling not a bit embarrassed about falling through the roof of Ephiny's hut, which I had been clearing the snow off of with a broom on a dare, when I heard someone singing goopy love songs over the sound of the early rising birds and slowly retreating crickets.
Probably one of the most tiring visits to another tribe in the Nation's history, I think. Artemis explained to Gabrielle that she had tweaked things a little, so that she had half Goddess status, too. It turns out her maternal grandmother is Kalliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Sort of fitting. Being as Cyrene had gone so far as to get Aphrodite to help her catch my aunt, it was clear they had some sort of arrangement. Some Emetchi were pretty weirded out by the idea that Artemis might have agreed to become a mortal. Somehow, I think the sturdy elm with its branches tangled with those of the oak tree in the temple says otherwise.
- The End