Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Centaur's Tail, Part Four
"I've been waiting."
"I know, I'm sorry." Ares' tone had little grace in it, but if Xena had seen him just then, she would have rubbed her eyes in confusion and disbelief. He was standing quietly, staring at his boots, his expression shamefaced.
"So, what happened? Why is it that your men are neither forming a protective cordon around Amphipolis, nor escorting the innkeeper to a trustworthy village of Emetchi?"
Ares squirmed. "I..."
"I got there late, three spies are already at the inn. I was going to have my men just grab her."
"Oh for the love of Gaea – can you never do as you're told?" a pair of black leather gloves landed angrily on the floor. The throne Ares usually occupied was currently the seat of a tall woman, her face hidden by a dark cowl attached to long dark robes hiding most of her body. "You come to me and say you have changed, then ignore all that I say?"
"It wasn't my fault!" snapped Ares. "How was I to know grandmother was there?"
"She's there! She drove my men off. I had to make all kinds of stupid noises to avert her gaze, and I don't think I really succeeded."
"Of course you didn't – and now I understand which grandmother you mean. Is there some reason you refuse to speak your own language? She'll be hauling in Athena and Aphrodite then, good. We've all been working at cross purposes for a long time. It's no wonder this problem has never been solved." The woman rose to her feet restlessly, turning Ares' favourite silver skull over and over in her hands. "I've changed my mind."
"What do you mean?" Ares asked, hurrying up to her. "Why don't you tell me what's going on?"
"Why don't you go learn the history of your own clan?" the woman snapped. She sighed. "How is it that these people even know to go to Amphipolis, this is something I don't understand at all. I don't understand why I never recognized Xena, either. Your men are still camped near the village?"
"Yes." Ares replied sullenly. He hated sometimes that she was in charge now, and not him. But he admired her. There was no way to deny that.
"Remove them." the cold, imperious order stung, and they both knew it. "I will ride the Dark Paths, since drawing Zeus' wandering eye is the last sort of complication anyone needs and explain matters to mother myself. This changes everything. The resemblance can't be coincidental." she strode across the room, to a large tapestry hanging across its back wall. "The tapestry has become far more tangled than I had foreseen. It is Athena's involvement that tangles it. And yours." Ares scowled. "Enough. For now you have no choice but to do as you're told, and I like it as little as you do."
Artemis sat quietly, pondering the first message that had arrived today, carried in by the hapless Kirke. She ran her fingers over the bold letters, scribed by her daughter in Borysthemis. She had expected just this situation. When Athena had stopped her influence over Xena, all of the various threads she had been carefully tucking away had come loose and become great miserable knots. The worst of them had been Xena herself, in the end. Artemis had understood all too well the battlelust Xena had lost herself in. It was callous, if you had no idea what was going on, to direct it to her own ends. But it had seemed less ill then simply letting Xena run rampant across Greece, becoming a powerful warlord Ares considered his Chosen. Ares, who didn't even understand why he was so drawn to the warrior princess, blind to their likenesses. Utterly blind. And so, Artemis had realized from her daughter's words in the message, was Erith. She had touched both of them, Ares the last time she had spoken to him, and Erith ever so carefully, last night. Both had one of Athena's patented glamours on them, and now Artemis was sure her own sister was the source of their inability to see who Xena was to them.
Artemis stuck out her tongue in disgust. Originally, the most complicated part of her week was supposed to have been wedding plans. Now it looked like she'd have to finish the longstanding feud with an old enemy Cyrene had been so sure she had taken care of, long ago.
And it hadn't been so foolish to think so. After all, Axeo was a mere mortal, and Xenoklea had stripped her of her rank and sent her packing. Artemis frowned uncomfortably, sitting at her favourite spot in the queen's room, the little table they often ate dinner at together by the window. Pushing her rings up on her fingers, her frown deepened. Six council members had resigned and left with Axeo, furious, all making angry comments about how it was time Xenoklea decided just which Goddess she would serve, the one she loved, or the one who had Chosen her. They couldn't understand she loved them both, just differently. Maybe it was hard, and unfair, to put her in such a position, and now it was too late. Putting her head in her hands, Artemis bit her lip miserably, feeling a flair of anger when hot tears tracked down her face.
"Stop it." jumping slightly, Artemis looked up. "You heard me, stop it." Xenoklea said angrily. "The thinking of those council members is wrong, and I won't have you buying into it." she walked up, and kneeling quietly in front of her lover, gently brushed the tears off of her face. "You have never, at any time directed my actions as a queen. That's what they are suggesting you do, and even they don't believe it. Politics and powerplay, that's what their talk is. Axeo wants the throne. They think she should have it." standing up she slipped an arm around the Goddess' shoulders. "It's true, my heart calls for me to do other than stay here. I've found a way to arrange that." Now the queen strode across the room to pick up several parchments she had been poring over for the past several days. "It will be fourteen turns of the seasons I've been queen, in two moons. A Chosen Queen can choose to serve longer, or to move on. Nebula will make a fine queen." Artemis stared in astonishment at the pages she held in her hands.
"Athena herself put that together. She knows what grim work being a Chosen Queen is. In two moons, if you'll have me, we can take the first ship to your beloved Anatolian shores and the ways to your sorely missed Themiskyra."
"If I'll have you indeed! Can you doubt it?" a delighted laugh escaped the Goddess. "Wait, what am I saying, of course you could – I've never given you this. Dammit, I'm so absentminded, forgive me." With that, Artemis dug a small something from a pouch on her belt. "Hera is an amazing smith, which isn't so surprising, being as her mother is so darned impressive at it." she winked, and Xenoklea chuckled. Her own mother had been a priestess of Hera, so she had heard tales of the Goddess from before she understood them. "So, I asked her very nicely to make something for me." The small something was now disentangled from the pouch, and was pressed carefully into Xenoklea's palm.
A tiny blue sapphire Sun gleamed from a silvery matrix. A wondering look passed over the queen's face. "It's gorgeous – it's..." a quick look at Artemis' ring to examine it against its counterpart. She sat down with a shocked thump.
"Xe?" Artemis blurted in alarm. This was not the reaction she had expected.
"The same smith made both of these rings." A few moments of astonished silence.
"Wow." it was well and truly impressing. Certainly this was a good explanation for Hera's enigmatic smile when Artemis had popped in to ask about making the ring.
"I had no idea who she was. Maybe that's why when I left money for her, it turned up in my money pouch again the next day – and three times more until I gave up trying to leave it for her."
"She wouldn't let me give her anything either. 'I can't explain it,' Hera said. 'I just couldn't possibly take anything for it.' Strange." They were sitting together on the floor now, arms draped around each other, watching the Sun set. "Usually when Hera says something like that, it's something she's Seen. Being a prophet will do that to you."
"Not this time?" Xenoklea asked, teasing Artemis' hair into semi neatness behind her ears.
"Like a vision, she said it was, but not a vision she Saw." A short, pause. "Well, then it isn't a vision at all, of course. But anyway, she said it was more a rightness that she felt."
"I like that." Xenoklea laughed gently as the hair she had just gotten to lay down neatly promptly began to stick up again.
"It's a pointless effort."
"You think?" Cyrene replied, laughing again. She had found her partner dozing lightly on the back porch, and coaxed Artemis into lying down with her head in her lap with little effort.
"Know what I think?"
"I could, but I'm not peeking."
"I just really like playing with your hair." both women laughed, unaware of the angry eyes watching them from an upstairs window.
"Many years ago, you swore to me that every last member of that clan had been wiped from the face of this Earth." the woman strode around the small room, angrily throwing the neatly arranged furniture into disorder. "I ruled for centuries, moulding the Nation into greatness, knowing that my great work would never be ruined by the meddling of Xenoklea's unnatural brood. And then who should become queen in one of the renegade provinces, but one of them. Explain how it can be that after kicking the last one to be sure she was dead, so many could be in existence." Axeo glared furiously at the other two women, one of whom was cringing, but the other was glaring at her defiantly.
"I told you, I don't know." the defiant one rolled her eyes in irritation. After living for so long, she had come to the conclusion that in her youth she had been all but terminally stupid. Agave watched Axeo storm angrily around the room again, and shook her head. Immortality had definitely been a mistake. The small, dusty bottle she had stolen from Artemis' room after she was immobilized and safely entombed behind solid rock and locked doors, had been meant to give Xenoklea immortality. Then Agave had believed Axeo actually had the needs of the Nation at heart – tartarus, she had even believed the woman had a heart. Still, she had gulped down half the flask without hesitation, and when she had informed the other Amazon what it was, the excitement kept her from noticing. Turning half an ear back to Axeo's rantings, and determining they were the same as usual, she wandered over to the window, and watched the blissful couple on the back porch.
In some ways, Axeo had it the best of all. Axeo cared only for power. She wanted to gather up the Nation under the grip of one iron hand, then curl it into a fist and take over the world. Libyan Amazonia had never been a realistic target. Burgeoning Southern Amazonia had simply gone on, mostly unconcerned when Northern Amazonia dissolved into chaos after the loss of Xenoklea's second eldest daughter, who had drowned in a boating accident. Axeo's tribe and a few allied to her had formed a little outpost opposed to the rest of Northern Amazonia, struggling to raid members and supplies, only to see it right itself under the sobre direction of the regent Hippolyta. All of these things occupied Axeo's mind, except for the part of it devoted to demanding the extermination of Xenoklea's clan, which was impossible.
Agave had come to a simple, inevitable conclusion. They were indestructible.
Her mind was usually taken up with quite constructive things, nowadays. And one niggling, discomforting fear. The 'immortal's complaint' she mockingly called it when she wanted to incense Axeo.
She was afraid of loneliness.
It was unnerving. Agave had spent much of her life telling herself she didn't need anyone. If there was no one to smile happily just because she was there at the end of the day, what did it matter? Now she knew, the other half of the thought. What did it matter? It was only temporary, better luck next life.
Axeo's angry ranting interrupted her musings. "Are you listening to me?"
"No." Agave shrugged aside the mug Axeo angrily threw at her. "There's no point. The game is up. Our allies are in retreat. Do you seriously think one last desperate attempt to destroy Artemis herself will change anything? You can't stop the wind from blowing."
"Are you saying you won't work for me any longer?" Axeo snarled dangerously. Hopefully it sounded dangerous. It was admittedly difficult to threaten someone who was as immortal as yourself.
"That's right. You can't pay me what I want, so I am moving on to greener pastures." Agave smiled unpleasantly. "Unless you have a mortality causing potion you've been holding back."
"Are you mad?" spat Axeo. "Who would ever want to give up immortality?" the question was meant to be rhetorical, but Agave answered it anyway.
"No. Me. Do you seriously intend to try this thing?"
"Oh yes. Either I will succeed and lead the Nation to glory..." Axeo shoved aside the small table by the window. "Or I'll destroy it."
"You're nothing if not consistent. I have a little score to settle with the warrior princess. Then I'm leaving."
Thraso smiled happily, and finished the beginnings of the frame to the addition to the inn. She was getting quite good at that sort of thing, she figured, even if she was the only one who thought so. She paused and gazed at the size of the addition, and the close proximity of trees and bushes. "Either this addition has to get smaller, or the forest is going to need trimming." the weaponmaster muttered. Looking around and seeing no one coming to look for her, nobody just sort of hanging around, and when it came down to it, nobody at all, pulled her book and writing utensils out. She had been struggling with a story the last day or so, and she was finally starting to hit her stride in it. Fiction was quite different from reciting what had already happened to you, of course – then again, there were those who firmly believed that when Thraso told about what happened to her, it was all fiction.
"Who." an owl declared with authority from a nearby tree. The Emetchi blinked at it in surprise, looking automatically upward, gauging the time of day as little more than early afternoon. Weird. Something must have made the owl change its perch, Thraso decided, and returned to the story.
"Who." the owl declared again, turning its head sideways.
"Cut that out," Thraso growled irritably. "I'm writing."
"Who." the owl turned its head the other way, then walked carefully along the branch. "Who." she said. Thraso looked up at the bird, wondering in bewilderment what was up with the little thing.
"Who." the owl repeated, fluffing her feathers in irritation.
"Gee Thraso, way to hurt your mother's feelings." drawled Athena from where she stood, almost hidden in the shadows by the side of the inn. Stepping up to the tree, she clicked her tongue and the owl promptly dropped onto her shoulder, stepping carefully from side to side and settling her feet before relaxing a bit and fixing her wide eyed gaze on Thraso again.
"Who." the owl declared disapprovingly.
"One word vocabulary, huh?" Thraso commented, smiling a little. "I just wasn't really paying attention Mom. My arm did that itchy, squirmy thing and everything. I was just writing, that's all."
"I see." replied Athena, sitting down and pulling her cloak a bit more tightly about her shoulders. "Thraso, you're wearing trews."
"Yes I am." Thraso declared, a bit unsure of where this was going.
"Thraso, it's cold out here!" Athena declared in an outraged tone, fluffing her cloak in a manner reminiscent of her owl.
"Well Mom, I guess I'm just used to it." the weaponmaster smiled, finished the sentence in her book, then tucked things away again. Maybe she'd have a chance to write tonight. "What's up?"
"Old business to finish, unfortunately. I need to talk to my sister, but I figured I'd chat with you first, being as you're my kid and all." Athena smiled, her teeth startling white against her ebony skin. The contrast popped a question into Thraso's mind.
"Hey Mom? How come my skin is so much lighter than yours?" she was much darker than most, even most Anatolian Amazons, who tended to be swarthier skinned than the Greeks or Thrakians.
"Because your other mama was white." Athena replied simply. "I guess you don't actually remember her."
"No. Just – I know she had pretty eyes." Thraso's tone turned dreamy. "And she liked to sing." Athena smiled gently.
"Very true – I've ah..." she coughed a little, looking fascinatingly like Artemis for a moment. "Artemis has a thing for women with blue eyes – I have a thing for women with nice, warm, dark, caramel brown eyes." A pause. "And nice b – err, you get the point."
"Uh huh – Mom, have you met someone?" Thraso asked guilelessly. She couldn't think of a single time her mother had spoken with almost no reserve, and a tone bordering on – lascivious seemed like the right idea, but Thraso wasn't sure. She was sure she had never heard Athena speak her words as if tasting and savouring each one. Who was she thinking of?
"No, no. I mean, I don't think so. Yes. Maybe. Ummm." uncharacteristically flustered, Athena cleared her throat again. "To be honest, I'm not sure. She's gorgeous with beautiful eyes and nice b – she's very beautiful." Athena sighed faintly. "She has no idea I exist. I'm just a nice, sort of goofy person. It's terrible," another sigh. "As soon as we're any place at the same time I trip over things, can't speak and generally look like a clown. I'm the Goddess of Wisdom, for Gaea's sake!" she exploded in outrage.
"Ahhh." Thraso replied, nodding sagely. "I may know a little something about that." Mother and daughter made their way around the inn, nodding politely to the various Amphipolitans going by, hardly aware of the open stares they were garnering.
"So, anyway, I can't make head nor tail of what's happening, and I really need to talk to Artemis. Especially because Develas is making restless movements in Northern Amazonia and Ares is wandering around like he's actually trying to do something constructive." The conversation had shifted away from Athena's woman troubles rather quickly, since she found it a bit embarrassing. Her daughter had gracefully let the topic float away. "That pain in the ass queen in that renegade Northern Amazon province has been stirring trouble well South. Had one of her groupies tossing money around council chambers in hope of messing up trade relations. I get the distinct impression she's trying to distract people."
"Hmm. Yeah, and destabilize as much of the Nation as possible. That stream I was telling you about that suddenly has fouled water – the mixed village near Ankitheas uses it too, excepting of course, they get the water from further downstream. If they figured we Emetchi had poisoned the water, they could be incited to some nasty stuff." Thraso's eyes flicked to the left, where she noticed Artemis coming out of the inn. She was about to call her when the Goddess held up a finger and motioned for quiet. Puzzled, Thraso returned her attention to her mother, who had had her head down in thought and hadn't noticed.
"You know what I think? I think it's long past time my sisters explained what the tartarus they're up to. I mean, we're all related, and never tell each other what's going on anyway..." Athena was really building up a frustrated head of steam when Thraso glanced behind her, and saw Artemis coming towards them, a wild grin on her face.
"Uh oh." breathed Thraso. "Mom?"
"...is it that hard to communicate a little?" Athena ignored Thraso's words, although she did frown a little in puzzlement when the young weaponmaster stepped hurriedly to one side.
Behind her, Artemis stopped about four body lengths away, a bucket brimming with cold water from the well nearby gripped in both hands. Quickly plunging one hand into it to chill the water some more, she got a good grip on the bucket and bounded forward beginning to laugh when she saw Thraso get out of the line of fire and struggle to catch her mother's attention. No good, Athena was in full rant mode.
"Trust me, this is very frustra – eeeeearrrrrgg!" howled the dark skinned Goddess, as she was drenched from behind with a bucket of ice cold water. Her sister dropped the bucket and proceeded to laugh herself nearly sick, gasping for breath and clutching her sides. "You," gasped Athena, shivering convulsively. "You!" Her sister merely laughed harder, which was a feat in itself. "I'm gonna make you pay for that!"
"Fast as you can be, you'll never catch me!" sang out Artemis, taking off like a shot.
"You get back here so I can pound on you, you jerk!" Athena bawled after her, before shrugging off her drenched cloak and following. Thraso tipped her head to one side.
"If this is any indication, all sibling rivalry does is make you act silly."
The Dark Paths were misnamed, if the name was interpreted literally. They were a strange, oddly lit version of the usual world, or at least, so it seemed. There was never any wind. The grass stood straight and unbending, never bowed or swayed by breezes. Leaves piled haphazardly around trees, moved only if they were near one of the many narrow tracks winding everywhere as far as the eye could see. Travellers on the Dark Paths always travelled in single file, if there was more than one of them. Such a thing almost almost never happened. It took an iron self discipline, to travel the Dark Paths if you were a mortal, and that discipline was almost impossible to maintain with others nearby to distract you. Immortals always travelled alone on the Dark Paths. The Sun looked strange, bloated and red, its light oddly muted. Athena's power was minimal here. It belonged to the Night Goddesses, like Selene and Artemis. Where the Paths were – that was harder to define, if it could be defined at all.
The single rider currently visible on them pondered these things as she rode, turning over each question and description in her mind. As occasional proxy to at least two Goddesses who dealt with their various workings in the world when they couldn't, Erithakos of Borysthemis was all too aware of how great her responsibilities often were. As the eldest of her mother's daughters still walking in the Middle World, she patiently wrote down her clan's history, from the ignominious exploits of Zerynthia the Great, who had been a terrible parlour magician who loved performing in front of huge crowds anyway, to the infamous exploits of her half-nephew Ares. Erith bit her lip, wondering if she wasn't partially to blame for his obsession with the 'Warrior Princess' there had been a time when he frequented her house, playing with Aster. For many long seasons she had written down Xena's exploits too, hardly understanding why. But she never spoke of that to him, or showed them to him. No, there had to be some other explanation.
Chewing on a thumbnail, Erith turned over another intransigent problem. Why hadn't she recognized Xena? Apparently the woman was a child of her mother's and the mysterious Cyrene, whom Erith had been carefully protecting for her own reasons. Xena – she ground her teeth together. The woman frustrated her no end. The one person in existence who had literally fought her to a standstill. It was intolerable. Erith pulled herself upright in the saddle. She was a Goddess. Such a thing shouldn't have been possible, even for a demi-Goddess. So how had Xena managed it? Her horse, its golden mane neatly arranged along its neck neighed irritably.
"No, no – we can't stop old friend. It's just a little further." Erith patted the horse's neck, and winced when the mare made her feelings known by beginning to plod gracelessly in a manner sure to leave Erith with a sore behind by trip's end. "Sure. Love you too, hairball."
Cyrene watched from behind the bar as Artemis and Athena sat over a back table, conferring. They kept arguing, their voices occasionally rising until the curious stares of customers reminded them to lower their voices. Athena kept glancing back at Cyrene, and gesturing, until Artemis angrily grabbed her by the collar at one point, and began furiously shouting at her in the Anatolian dialect she preferred over Greek. Deciding things had gotten just a wee bit out of hand, because a vein was standing out in her lover's forehead, Cyrene set down the mug she had been drying and walked over to her partner, resting a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Her touch got the Goddess to at least stop yelling, breath coming uncharacteristically fast. "Hey," Cyrene gave her lover's hands a tug, forcing Artemis to look at her. "What's going on? Maybe if I actually was part of this discussion instead of being pointed at during it, things would settle down easier?" squeezing the startlingly cool hands in hers.
"As per usual, Athena believes I am ruthlessly using you." spat Artemis, still angry.
"No – no – this time I'm worried that you're letting what you wish was true influence your judgement." Athena corrected, her own voice taut and frustrated.
"Let me guess," Cyrene interrupted. "This is yet another version of you," she pointed at Athena, "assuming I don't know my own mind. And you," she pointed at Artemis, "ignoring the fact I am the person best equipped to deal with questions concerning what I decide!" The anger in her voice subdued both Goddesses. "If you want to be convinced by someone other than Artemis that I am the selfsame woman you picked to run your part of the Amazon Nation so long ago, then go through the struggle and effort she went through to be sure of it – haul your butt down to chat with Persephone, and do odd, exhausting jobs for Gaea to earn the right to ask." Putting Athena out of her mind, she turned back to her lover. "Couldn't you call in some help for once, before trying to scream yourself into a nosebleed?" Shifting her grip subtly, Cyrene had been keeping track of the pulse in Artemis' thumb, still stubbornly rapid with upset.
"Ah Reenie, it's not like that..." Artemis freed one hand to rub at a pounding temple. "It's just an old, miserable argument, all because Athena refuses to ever trust me." A glare at her sister. "Understandable if I had done something to deserve it." Athena's eyes dropped, and she fiddled with a spoon someone had forgotten to clear away.
"All right. Come on into the kitchen. You can stir things and lug pots and pans while trying to have a civilized conversation. That should keep you from starting to yell at each other."
The striking roan horse with an unusual golden mane and tail pranced into Amphipolis proper, carrying a rider swathed in dark robes. Erith tugged her cowl further down. Ares bore a strong resemblance to Lachesis, and Erith looked more like Artemis than Lachesis, but somehow people never failed to make the connection between Erith's dark, square jawed good looks and his anyway. She had been pelted with rocks in several Greek villages, by people who had decided she must be a witch or Ares' harbinger. Little did they realize he wasn't the being in charge of war anymore. No, she was, and if war was coming chasing her away was of little help. All the same, being thumped with rocks or stared at with expressions of slack jawed fear wasn't much fun, so Erith kept her cowl low, shadowing her face. Emetchi never reacted the way these rather parochial villagers did. Funny.
Leaning back in the saddle and wincing at the state of her tailbone, she stopped her horse in front of the somewhat blocky looking inn. "Only two floors," Erith murmured. "Clearly my mother had nothing to do with the building of this place." Which wasn't true, although she didn't know it yet.
A youngish man strode up to the strange, dark figure hesitantly. "Can take care of yer horse, curry and feed. Part of the service at the inn." The dark figure turned towards him.
"Where is the stable?" the syllables were startling, reverberating and musical. The man blinked at her in bemusement.
"Right over there." he pointed. Erith gazed at the building for a moment.
"I must know this, else I wouldn't know where my horse was." she pointed out reasonably.
"Oh, right, right." the man squinted at her. He could get just a glimpse of silvery eyes, and what seemed to be a scar near the right one. Maybe the reason for the cowl was scars then? he wondered.
"Curry and feed. Good. Go one better and give her a good rub down. Long trip." Taking one of the man's hands, she carefully stacked two dinars in his palm. "Spoil my horse."
"Yes ma'am!" blurted the man, struck by the weird, tingling warmth from the woman's fingers. She took the saddlebags off the horse's back and slung them over her shoulder.
"Don't even think of trying to ride her. She'll throw you into next week." with those words Erith walked up to the inn door, pausing to gaze curiously at the signs carved above the doorway. Hestia and Artemis – interesting. But sort of wrong. She should leave it alone, she thought to herself. Her eyes unfocussed, then she reached up and ran her thumb over the invocation of Hestia, and replaced it with a different one. Erith smiled a little. Much better. Then she opened the door and stepped inside, stooping to avoid knocking her forehead in.
The noise and chatter stopped abruptly. "Shit." Erith cursed under her breath. She would manage to forget to use the back door in this get up. Lovely. Moving swiftly across the room, she found herself face to face with a small, fierce eyed blonde. "Excuse me, do you need something?" she challenged. Well wasn't this comical. Erith smiled inside her cowl. A pint sized Emetchi with no sense of danger.
"Nothing you'd be able to provide." Stepping around the bard, moving impressively fast for someone so tall and solidly built, Erith started toward the kitchen. Her mother's presence was clearly discernible, as was that of the newly divine innkeeper, and – aunt Athena. Well, well.
Gabrielle was neither impressed nor cowed, and moved quickly to stop the thoroughly threatening individual from getting too far by attempting to knock her feet out from under her with her staff. Getting for her trouble, stinging hands as the swing met solidly muscled legs as immovable as tree trunks.
"That hurt." Erith declared in a cold, angry voice, and turned just in time to fix gazes with Xena. "Xena." she breathed the name with delight. Now, now a certain matter would be settled. This puny little blonde was quite unimportant. "I have been waiting patiently for our next meeting." she swept her cloak out of the way of her sword hilt.
"Fine." Xena replied calmly. 'Figures,' she thought to herself in disgust. 'The Queen of the damned Northern Amazon Nation.' "Let's take this outside."
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked in an alarmed tone, not even remotely sure what was going on.
"Old score to settle, Gabrielle. I'll be fine." Xena drew her sword as she spoke, watching as her opponent drew her own sword, but did nothing to remove her cowl. The same black leathers and solid boots, set off by midnight blue armour – or, more probably, a new set made to the same pattern. It had been over twelve winters now, after all.
The two warriors circled each other. Erith was left handed, with a huge reach and quick hands she used to overcome a lame right leg. They exchanged three or four blows. In a way it was too bad, Xena reflected. Here was the perfect sparring partner. Then they began to exchange blows in earnest, and worried Amphipolitans began to gather around them, soon backing up a bit when the warriors began dancing skilfully around each other, weaving far reaching patterns of steel. Xena saw an opening and took advantage of her opponent's game leg, kicking her feet out from under her and moving to disarm her, only to be surprised by Erith quickly spinning onto her stomach, trapping Xena's ankles between her own and hauling her down.
Both were on their feet in a moment, and indulged for a bit in broad, roaring swings. Beyond making a lot of noise and sparks, they seemed to do little good. Then their swords caught and Erith responded by hurling herself forward, nailing Xena solidly in the chest and knocking her wind out, driving her back and almost into the crowd before the warrior planted her feet and shoved back. The other woman seemed as immovable as stone, and Xena shoved uselessly once more before jerking them sideways and solving the impasse with rounding kick that threw Erith back into the dirt. To her surprise, Erith simply threw herself onto her feet, a move Xena knew from personal experience was incredibly hard to find your balance from if your legs didn't work properly. But her opponent managed it, and they began circling each other again, Erith's cowl knocked askew enough to reveal her feral smile, a mirror to Xena's own. They had begun banging furiously on each other when a commotion started in the back of the crowd.
"Dammit, get out of my way! What is she doing?" someone burst out of the crowd. "No!" and before anyone else could move, Ares had launched himself into Erith, barrelling her back down into the dirt before an attack that would have done some real damage could land. They landed hard enough to rattle even the demoted god, but not hard enough to prevent his aunt's angry reaction.
"Get off of me..."
"Stay still!" this came from Artemis, who was pale with a combination of alarm and fury. "Ares, get up." Ares hurriedly did as he was told and got out of the way. He knew better than to tangle with his grandmother directly. She bent down and grabbed Erith angrily by one arm, jerking her onto her feet. "What the tartarus are you thinking? Have you lost your mind? Have I not already told you she is your sister?" Now without her cowl in place, the silvery green eyes that mirrored her own were as clearly visible as the distinctive widow's peak and harsh scar running down the right side of Erith's face. "Enough of this, both of you! Neither of you can defeat the other, it's as simple as that. Give me this." Artemis pointed at Erith's sword. Erith hesitated. "Do it!" Artemis shouted at her, starting to lose her temper again. Hastily her daughter handed the weapon over. "You too, Xena." Turning to the crowd. "Show is over, folks." The crowd dispersed hurriedly, townspeople already talking excitedly amongst themselves. Watching until what she was going to do next would no longer be a spectacle, Artemis turned to her daughters, eyes still pale and furious.
"The first time I understood. This time was just boneheadedness. There's such a thing as a bearable level of arrogance, and while I understand how hard it can be to stay there, having to work at it myself, I want you two to do much better in future. So, I'm doing this." With that, Artemis stepped over to a large rock sitting by the hitching post in front of the porch, and smashed both swords to pieces on it. Gazing at her daughters, who looked suitably shocked, she took a deep breath. Unfortunately, some of this was sort of her fault – she had forgotten to explain to Erith who Gabrielle was, hence Xena's immediate 'Sure, I'll happily pound on you.' reaction. Probably she would have reacted much the same way herself, Artemis reflected wryly.
"Erithakos, Gabrielle is my Chosen to rule this part of the Nation. You will treat her accordingly." Artemis rubbed at her forehead, suddenly feeling tired. "And Erith, next time put on some friendlier clothes or use the back door – and pay more attention to the energy you're giving off, you're this close to setting off brawls inside the inn." It was all very well being Goddess of War, but it was important to remember most mortals couldn't shrug off the energy she gave off. And if all the damned furniture in the common room got broken – again – Artemis was quite sure she was going to lose it.
Cyrene had joined them now, and was watching Erithakos, her expression unreadable. Reconciling this tall, aloof woman to the gawkish teenager in her memories was difficult. All those years Artemis had wandered the world, trying to find the lover she lost by mischance, Erith had taken up the slack, and on top of all else had found herself a constant target for Zeus' bullying tactics and the anger and contempt of those who suffered the miseries resulting from Ares' handiwork, and the connected belief that anyone who looked similar to him must also be evil. And like Xena before she had met Gabrielle, she was solidly encased in an armour of cold arrogance. Lovely. Cyrene grimaced. Erith's pale eyes had fixed on the innkeeper, and her expression had gone quite strange.
"Who – who..." Erith struggled for a moment. Her protection of the innkeeper had never actually extended to finding out who she actually was. Each member of her clan had a distinct aura. She made sure each one of them who lived outside of the Nation was left uninterfered with by Axeo's allies as a matter of course. "Mother?" she looked at Artemis in confusion. Looking over at Cyrene again, the pieces finally fell into place. "Never mind." Erith disappeared so abruptly even Artemis was a bit stunned.
"It's never easy with any of you, is it?" Cyrene asked Artemis with a sad little smile.
Pale silvery slivers watched the Moon rise, occasionally looking away to count stars. One, two, three, four – five, six – and the air was really good tonight, because there was the seventh Pleiade, shimmering back and forth almost like a mirage. Her planet was glowing low in the sky, and Antares glowed a little further up, a stubborn red star amongst so many white and yellow ones. Another few moments to look at the Moon, then a constellation caught her eye. It had several names, but she still knew it's oldest one, 'Hera's Throne.' A scowl. Looking at it made her feel homesick. What made the north her home more than anything else was the warmth she was spoiled with by her half sister and Hera. Wrapping her arms around her legs a bit more tightly, Erith returned her attention to the rising Moon.
"You and your trees – if I'm not chasing around finding Artie in one, or wishing she'd found a nice, low one for a change, I'm chasing around after you." Undaunted despite her complaints, Cyrene decided to put her new youth to the test and climbed, hesitating at only one or two spots. Finally she perched carefully on a branch just lower and to the left of Erith's and watched her. The younger – older – gods it was weird trying to get her head around that, Cyrene reflected – woman was staring stubbornly upward, her jaw working. "You're not glad to see me?"
"No." Erith's tone was grumpy.
"All right – let's see, what else can I guess – you're upset about what happened with Xena?" Cyrene had a sneaking suspicion Erith felt she had seriously lost face during the whole thing.
"No." Ah hah, Cyrene reflected. An untruth.
"You didn't recognize me? I can certainly understand being upset about that."
"She never told me anything." Erith threw a few bark bits away from herself, watching them flutter to the ground without straining in the half light.
"Ah, good point." Oh, Artie.
"Everyone knew but me. Even aunt Athena knew. You'd think after going on with most of everything on my damned back for centuries I'd least get to hear when everyone else does. No need to tell me first or anything."
"All I can say is, I think she's been awfully distracted the past while – the others were people she had to bump into, setting up the things she was. You have to remember, your Mom thinks you're the most together of your siblings – well of your siblings that she actually knows." Cyrene amended. One of the things that had come out when discussing Artemis' relationship to Lachesis was that the latter Goddess had other children of her own that Artemis didn't know. "Must be why you're the great Omicron, right?" Cyrene continued as she frantically poking at every memory she could find. She hadn't been able to put it all together yet, but she knew that after coming to Anatolia, and having children – she had agreed with Artemis about choosing Erith as the next queen there. Then Erith hadn't been a Goddess – had never even considered such a thing. She hadn't been a permanent denizen of the Nation, either. How she came to change her mind on both these things was probably quite a story.
"Great good it does me." Erith replied in a disgusted tone.
"Well, it is better than the alternatives." Those pale eyes finally left off looking at the sky and fixed on her. "I hear being the head scrollwriter really sucks." And got a startled laugh for the comment. "So why don't you tell me what you've been up to, hmmm?" Sure it would be nice to find a place to chat closer to the ground, but – Cyrene grinned to herself. Artie would never believe it. It would be fun convincing her.
Gabrielle frowned, wondering who the three strange, rude Amazons were. They weren't from Arboria, or she would have recognized their sigils, at least. Uncomfortably reminiscent of Thraso's comments about mysterious Amazons showing up near Ankitheas, but never actually entering the village. Putting the thought to one side for the moment, she returned her attention to the weaver, who was holding up a gorgeous bolt of forest green cloth. "Perfect!" Gabrielle declared with a bright smile. "How many dinars?"
"Actually," the weaver replied with a gentle smile. "could we trade instead? My kids love your stories – maybe two or three on a scroll I could read to them before bed?"
"Great idea – I'll need a week or so, though."
"Not a problem." the weaver beamed, and carefully wrapped the cloth in a bit of clean sacking. Taking her package, Gabrielle settled her staff in one hand and the package under one arm, moving towards the inn. Raised voices caused her to change course and stand quietly by another stall, this one rather close to the town's main temple. Well, it's official main temple, put up by the Athenians and later redone by the Spartans. According to the inscriptions, it was dedicated to Artemis. Gabrielle peered at the carvings of a smallish woman in girlish clothes with unmistakably blonde hair and frowned. No, those carvings just didn't look like her, or how she looked at the moment. The voices rose again, and Gabrielle slipped forward to see who the problem was.
Ah, one of the rude Amazons. Gabrielle had watched their interactions with a practised bard's eye, and noted immediately that one was some sort of leader, one a very subordinate follower of the leader, and the other a definite rebel. The rude Amazon in question was the definite rebel. She was arguing loudly with the quiet young man who often cared for traveller's horses at the inn. He was a nice fellow, and it took some talent to get someone so even tempered yelling.
"No I'll do no such thing!" he blurted in outrage. "What do you take me for? My parents raised me right!"
"Look, it's just a little thing – how hard is it? And everybody could use a little extra." the Amazon shook a pouch of dinars.
"Then why aren't you going round giving it away, you're so generous." he snorted, and Gabrielle grinned a little. 'Good one.' she praised him before taking a firm grip on her staff again and marching into the fray.
"Come, come now – you can tell me the truth. Xena obviously has some sort of hold over you people. I'm offering to set you free." Agave smiled winningly. Inwardly she was cursing. Why was it always more complicated than she expected?
"Nope. Folks just plain like her. And I just plain don't like you." Gabrielle said bluntly, placing herself between the two people. "Now, you can come quietly, or..." Agave pre-empted the rest of the bard's speech by taking a swing at her with one fist that turned out to have a rather hideous dagger clenched in it. A solid smash with the bard's staff removed the obvious weapon, and the Amazon turned to more hands on methods. This was of little help against a six foot, solid piece of wood, and even less help against the resounding blow to her skull from an infuriated Xena's fist.
"Trouble magnet, Gabrielle, trouble magnet." she muttered, stooping to take a better look at the Amazon. "Well, I don't know you. Oh goody. I always feel fewer qualms about it when I don't know who I'm pulverizing personally."
"No, don't." Startled, warrior and bard spun to stare at Erith, who had appeared, apparently from nowhere again. She was gazing at the Amazon with such an unnervingly predatory expression Gabrielle wondered if maybe it wouldn't be better from a humanitarian perspective to let Xena deal with the unconscious Amazon. "I know who this is." Snatching the Amazon off the ground like a ragdoll, she gave her a vicious shake. "Wakey, wakey, traitor." Agave peeled open one eye.
"Oh." she said weakly. "It's you. Somehow I knew it would be."
"What brings you here, Agave?" the Amazon knew there was no point in trying to lie. Erithakos was one of the more uniquely tormented immortals out there, always able to see the truth, even when she would rather have seen anything else.
"Xena – messed up one of my schemes awhile back – broke one of my legs while breaking up a group of my hirelings. Those take time to heal, even for me. Very inconveniencing." Agave wondered if the strange being holding her with no effort a foot and a half off the ground was even listening.
"Inconveniencing. Yes. I know all about inconvenience." Erith's tone was detached. This was a bad sign. Very bad. Agave swallowed nervously. The eery, detached tone after Erith had made an unpleasant but necessary decision. She had listened to Erith order the execution of a murderer with that tone.
"Ah, listen, I..."
"What do you want, Agave?" the question threw the Amazon into total confusion.
"Quickly or slowly?" Oh, that.
"Quickly, of course. Been trying to arrange it for centuries." a weak laugh.
"Fine." Erith set her on her feet.
"Will your mother actually do it?" Agave asked with real curiosity.
"I don't know. She doesn't need to." Erith straightened her deep blue tunic. "I just did it myself." then she turned and walked away, not bothering to turn and look as the astonished Agave's knees buckled, and she slid bonelessly to the ground. Erith heard the scrambling of feet as the other two women struggled to figure out what happened. A single, furious voice shouted after her.
"What have you done?" the bard, Erith reflected. Somehow she didn't think the little blonde was ever going to like her. Pausing, she replied calmly,
"I was told, long before you ever came into the picture, that responsibility for Agave's fate was mine. All I just did, was take back what she stole. Now if you'll excuse me, regardless of my immortality and how much I really do like Cyrene's cooking, I'm feeling very upset and am going to be sick." Erith walked calmly away, refusing to run, because she remembered from old experience running tended to accelerate things, and the Great Gaea knew, acceleration was not necessary.
"Before we condemn Erith as a ruthless person, maybe we had better find out more about what she's talking about." Xena suggested quietly, motioning for a couple of the locals to help her move the now very dead Amazon lying at her feet. The woman's expression was weirdly peaceful, a little smile on her lips. "Somehow I think what she did may have been a mercy."
"Oooohhhhhhh – Erithakos, you are giving me a headache!" moaned Artemis, gripping her temples. Her daughter shrugged her shoulders a little, and considered drinking some of the water in the mug in front of her. "Couldn't you have at least – I don't know – gotten out of sight?"
"There was no one else there. The potential bystanders had made themselves scarce, believing Xena was about to do something nasty." Running a coin across and between her knuckles, Erith scowled. The answer was another groan.
"I don't understand it. You didn't used to be quite this much like me." this with a wry little smile, an old signal calling for truce.
"I didn't used to be nearly nine hundred winters old either. Things happen." Erith fiddled with the coin again, feeling a truce wasn't terribly attractive. "You could have told me."
"Mmmm." Artemis settled her chin on top of her crossed forearms on the table with a thump. "Would you believe, I forgot all about it?"
"Yes. You always forget. Everything."
"Errr – well, I was hoping to avoid huge, whacking generalities and go sort of a few things at a time."
"You always forget to tell me important things, like when you finally found Xenoklea's most recent incarnation. You always forget not so obviously important things. You forgot my birthday. Again. You missed my wedding."
"I would have been an alarmingly effective wet blanket to have at the wedding." Artemis said softly. She had been busy tearing apart the major structures on Mount Olympus in a display of hurting rage even Zeus had been fearful of only the day before. Why had she gone on that particular nasty rampage? Oh, yes. Zeus' attempt at wiping out several tribes of Amazons by sending along his son Belleropheron with an army. A bit of feminine magic from her Amazons had dealt with him handily, but the provocation after the first three hundred winters of desperate and increasingly hopeless looking search had been more than too much. During one stone smashing moment, Artemis had put her fist most of the way through a rather large slab, and managed to get her arm out but not her gauntlet. After inducing plenty of smoke and alarm, she had gone by to pull it out. It had proved irretrievably stuck at that moment, so she had broken loose the part of the slab around it and carried it away with her. Needless to say, she had been in a miserable mood, and full of rock dust and junk. Come on Erith, don't hold a grudge on me.
"Maybe." The coin stilled and fell flat on the table, where Erith fixed her gaze on it. A gusty sigh came from across the table.
"Erith, I can't change the stuff I've done already. And I know my record on letting you know how important you are to me or how much I appreciate the work you've done, or how great a job you've done, is really poor. And I know how much you've missed me, especially on the one day of the year when you ask me to maybe turn up for a few minutes." Artemis smiled sadly. "It's a pretty lousy change from how things used to be. Trust me, things will be different now, really." a pause. "One way or the other, I've got no choice, you know. I have to get things going better with you, or Cyrene's gonna kick my butt. I let slip you have kids yesterday. – she's completely outraged at being a grandmother and not knowing it." Artemis gave her daughter a poke, hoping for a smile, which she got.
"Uh huh. And you wouldn't believe who else is an offender in the making Cyrene an unwitting grandmother department." Erith replied wryly, thinking on a certain fair haired, blue eyed boy in a centaur village. Artemis gazed at her for a moment, looking a little puzzled.
"You'll have to share on the subject."
"In front of all of your various family members at one time." interjected Cyrene, who had been listening just outside the kitchen, waiting patiently for an appropriate gap in the conversation before poking her head in.
"All of them?" the other two women managed to blurt in unison, identical expressions of horror on their faces.
"This has long day written all over it." Cyrene muttered wryly.
Barring the Agave incident, Xena decided, it had been a rather nice day. No fighting. Erith seemed almost friendly. Xena paused as she drew her battered old practise sword, and scowled. Hard as she tried, she just couldn't read the strange woman. As a rule, she could get a handle on motivations, things a person considered important. Not this time, except for the one obvious thing. Erithakos of Borysthemis loved Hera beyond anything remotely resembling commonsense.
A few practise twirls, and she had started one of her favourite routines. The old sword definitely wasn't the same, and to get the best results Xena knew she'd have to weight it to match the solid weapons she preferred nowadays. A blurring silvery pattern of sword strokes, dealing with imaginary enemies followed, along with some of the acrobatics that looked cool and were fun even though they were a lot of work. Planting her feet again, Xena turned towards the inn, and considered which set of moves to run through next. As she thought, two people walked out of the inn, towards the field she was practising in.
Both tall, the taller one with a slightly halting limp, the other gesturing animatedly with both hands. Erith was dark like Thraso, rendering her features unreadable because they were walking in the shadow of the inn. Only her eerie eyes were visible, and they were flicking slightly as she took in the various daylight details around her. Aster was awkwardly waving his practise sword now, suggesting his animated comments were about his impromptu lessons in how to fake being the god of war convincingly. About two bodylengths away from the practising warrior princess, Erith stopped and laughed, a big, booming, guffawing laugh. "You're being taught to what?" she laughed harder. "Well, I say, if you are going to be masquerading as the ruler of war, you should do what comes naturally, and dress in some sort of drag." Erith drew a vicious, curved scimitar from a roughed leather scabbard hooked to her belt. "After all, I am the ruler of war."
"Oh yeah? How did you arrange that?" asked Xena, eying the scimitar.
"A gift from my niece Eris – she likes it in Arabia." Choosing to ignore the question asked, and pretend Xena had really wanted to know about the weapon she was eyeing. A time honoured tradition in her clan. After all, even Xena was skilled in such evasions.
"And how you became the 'Goddess of War'?" Xena asked again, suitably exaggerating the description.
"Ares got himself demoted by Zeus after the his last attempt to interfere with your Fate and separate you from the bard." Erith shrugged her shoulders. "Only to discover, most of the powers he wielded were not his own, but a little bit of what Zeus chose to give him. He is like an adolescent again, learning what he can and cannot do." Her eyes turned distant. "Wasteful. Aster, why don't you do those warm up moves Thraso showed you, and we'll practise?"
"Okay." Aster replied, with surprising enthusiasm. Talk about his cousin made him uncomfortable. It always made him feel oddly powerless, like he should have been able to change what happened with him, what with them being so nearly inseparable as children. Practising was better than thinking about those things.
"Xena, you must have a few interesting powers. What are they?" Erith watched her son loosen his muscles with sturdy, if not artful competence.
"Powers?" Xena laughed in her turn. "Rii-iight. I think the list of deeds I've got under my belt is enough."
"So you don't know. Interesting – well, there's one you have for sure. If you and Gabrielle are thinking of having children, don't worry, you don't need any men in the picture."
"Actually, I knew about that." Xena watched now as Erith put her son through his paces, automatically correcting the things he was doing wrong, tapping him with the flat of her weapon any time she could have hurt him. "I can't do anything fancy. Fine with me." Gods, this guarded, try very hard to sound friendly type conversation was hard on her nerves.
"How do you know? Have you ever tried? For all you know, you can fly." a grin as Aster jumped forward and scored a point. "Good – might be able to make you into at least a recreational warrior yet."
"Nah, this is good." Aster replied, shaking out his sword hand. He was all grown up, and any type of smacking into his mother still felt like slamming into a thick wall.
"I don't think so." Xena replied, turning her attention back to her own routine.
"Prove it. Try." Erith challenged.
Aster watched the interaction in fascination, wondering just what his mother was up to. A very distinct gleam was in her eyes, and she was grinning a little, enjoying herself.
"Go on. Try it. Try and fly. I already know you can father children and are stronger than ten men – I'm curious. Consider it my crass attempt to recruit you, if you like."
The comment stopped Xena short. "Don't start with me." she warned. Her sister laughed, a sound that should have had more mirth in it. But it didn't. The problem with the situation, Xena began to realize, was both she and Erith tended to be the ringleaders, and they were trying to work out some way to coexist, without beating each other senseless on a regular basis and satisfying the whole ringleader urge thing. 'Great,' Xena thought to herself in disgust. 'Now I'm overanalysing things like Gabrielle does and giving myself a headache.'
"Of course not – I already have my Chosen. She's enjoying herself in Arabia. So can you fly or not?"
"You're not going to let up about this, are you?"
"Nope, I'm insatiably curious." A snicker from Aster. "You be quiet. My satiability or lack thereof has nothing to do with you."
"Oh no, I couldn't agree with that." Aster grinned. "Otherwise I would be snubbing the very thing that led to my conception."
"Ah, shut up you." Erith ruffled his hair affectionately, then turned back to Xena. "Come on."
Aster looked over to where Gabrielle was standing by the inn, watching them. With any luck, he could get her to see his mother as the rather nice person she actually was. Sometimes she was nasty and mean, but only for very good reasons. He understood how stung Gabrielle must feel, having been sized up and dismissed completely by the tall War Goddess. During one of his rebellious times, he had foolishly tried to prove himself to his mother by picking a fight with her. One swing had been deftly caught, and been just hard enough to sting Erith's palm. She had been irritated more than angry. It had been awfully hard on his teenage ego, to be given the sort of look a stubborn mosquito gets. Aster smiled ruefully. Luckily, things had turned out for the best, and they were good friends again.
Xena was getting more and more irritated. Of course she couldn't fly. What a dumb idea. She had caught sight of Gabrielle, and wanted to get back to her usual routine. After all, Gabrielle liked to watch, and she sort of liked showing off for her partner. The tall Goddess beside her was blithely explaining how you determined if you had a certain power or not, if it hadn't up and manifested itself already.
"You see, what you have to do, is envision yourself doing it, really doing it, in every detail. Every realistic bit – like how the wind would mess up your hair, and the way you'd have to learn pretty quick how to steer so as not to collide with things – then you put your will into making the image real, the same way you do when you're learning some new trick with your sword." Erith's tone had grown warmer with enthusiasm. In her youth, she had actually enjoyed figuring out what she could do – especially the day she found out she could fly.
The flight question was put firmly aside when the cowering Amazon Gabrielle had pointed out to Xena earlier that day turned up behind the bard, an aimed crossbow in hand. Two salient points came to Xena's mind immediately. She was too far away to go running and manage to catch any crossbow bolts. Not finding some way to stop those crossbow bolts was simply unacceptable. Her hand dropped to her chakram even as she started moving. Maybe it would have been a bit easier on her nerves if she had simply poked Erith into doing something. As it was, the chakram smashed the crossbow to pieces and Xena smashed the Amazon flat before she thought of anything else. The stunned Amazon was lying at her feet, and a stunned bard was staring at her openmouthed.
"Well, apparently that's one power you've got. And lucky you, it doesn't make you nauseous the first time." Erith grinned, warming up just a bit to Xena in spite of herself. The bard had never been in danger – Artemis had been about to zap the ridiculous Amazon from one side, and Erith had focussed her attention on the crossbow on the other. They had been neatly pre-empted, however. "You need a hobby." she told the Amazon sprawled on the ground. "They're good for keeping you out of trouble."