Xena, Gabrielle, Autolycus, Ephiny and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are our own.
Story Blurb: While on the way to the Amazon village for the sacred festival of Brauronia, Xena and Gabrielle encounter several bizarre (and seemingly unrelated) occurrences drawing them into a series of events and comedies of error that may spell the doom of the Amazon Nation and possibly the world.
The goddess Artemis has had the source of her divine powers stolen and, without it, the laws of Nature are spiraling out of control. To make matters worse, the thief is nowhere to be found and time is running out. As they struggle to solve the deepening mystery, Gabrielle and Xena must face armies of slavers, in-fighting Amazons, crazed animals, and most importantly their own divisive struggle when deepening passions and suspicions threaten to tear their friendship apart.
Set in the second season between The Execution and Blind Faith, the story is both a comedic and dramatic race against time, as Gabrielle and Xena struggle to discover the identity of the thief and restore Artemis? belt before the Nation and its goddess are destroyed.
Violence Disclaimer: This story depicts scenes of violence, and its aftermath. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
Sexual Content Disclaimer: This is an ALT story, which implies, on occasion, adult sexual behavior between members of the same sex. Readers who are disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story—or watch Fox News.
Timeline and Continuity: This story takes place during Season 2, between the episodes The Execution and Blind Faith. Given that the series has been over for some time, no disclaimers will be made regarding any references made to events having taken place in the series to this point.
Sequel Disclaimer: As per JLynn’s request, I, B. M. Morgan, do hereby swear that I will not now, nor ever suggest, conceive, or pester about a sequel (or prequel) to this story. Nor will I create a fake identity/email address/fan club/forum/blog etc. from which to do so.
Bard Challenge by DJWP: She who is awesomely talented recently posted this at the end of her lovely story The Irresistible Flame – “And last but not least, to the rest of the Bards out there – X&G classic fan fiction is in danger of extinction. I challenge each of you out there who are pounding out the Ubers – write a classic. If you all wrote one classic and posted it, we would be inundated with new X&G stories to read. For every X&G classic you write and reference this challenge, then I’ll write another, too!”
To DJWP: Consider Artemis Complex a bit of bardly ‘backatcha!’ :). We also encourage any of our fellow bards to consider taking up the challenge.
Brigit would like to thank everyone on the Tavern Wall who helped egg us on with sweet comments, gentle prodding and bribes dipped in chocolate. Also, I would especially like to thank JLynn, who has listened to me rant and rave and rapture about all things XWP and writing and has never once told me to shut the BEEP up—I love you, kitten, THANKS!
JLynn would also like to thank everyone on the Tavern Wall, but is suspiciously curious about the gentle proddings part since I was usually the recipient of threats and violence. Regardless, the denizens of the Wall have often been instrumental in rah-rahing me to the end of stories and I’m forever in their debt. The cheques are in the mail. I would also like to profusely thank my partner in crime, Brigit, for a mind-altering, alien-probing, X-Files-ish experience of working with someone of her incredible talent and caliber. For all the creativity and fun, my dear Bri -- *mwah!*
Special Beta Thanks: to AngelRad for scouring through the story for anything offensive or suspect. The extra set of eyes is very much appreciated!
Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org (for JLynn) or email@example.com (for Brigit M. Morgan).
Last, but not least: Artemis Complex is complete, but will be posted serially for your prolonged entertainment.
Copyright © 2003-2005. All Rights Reserved
Prologue—Chastely Though I Lay…
She bathed amongst the stars. The twinkling points of light floated
upon the river’s surface and across her glistening skin as she swept
a handful of moon-drenched water over her youthful form, rinsing away the
of the hunt. Artemis sighed in pleasure and the overhanging boughs of the
trees rustled in quiet echo. The grasses whispered, and the cattails and
water reeds drew closer, jealously guarding the privacy of their mistress.
The daughter of Zeus and Leto appeared lithe and young; a warrior-child on the cusp of womanhood with only the wisps of adolescence clinging to her small, firm breasts, narrow hips, and slender limbs. Artemis ducked beneath the surface and stood again a moment later, the cascades of water silvering her form in the faint moonlight. She scrubbed at her short-cropped hair, running her fingers through the fine, chestnut strands until they stood up like small, sharp quills in bristled warning. It framed a piquant and serious face, buttressed by a stubborn chin. Her fingers flicked the single, long braid trailing from her right temple back over her tanned shoulder, and then she turned and eased herself into the water with the grace of an otter, cleaving the surface and disappearing into the river’s dark, mysterious embrace.
The eyes that watched the goddess unawares from the far bank took in the pale ripple of bare flesh beneath the water. The watcher, though affected, was not deceived by the veneer of natural beauty and innocence the youth exuded. Deftly, silently, the intricately designed belt was lifted from the pile of clothes tumbled at the water’s edge, and quickly hidden from sight. A moment later, Artemis’ visitor stepped between the shadows and slipped away entirely.
Refreshed and clean, Artemis exited the water, her fingertips trailing along its surface until she ascended to the pebbly shoreline. Untroubled by the rocks, she approached her belongings and dropped to her haunches. She reached out for her boots and paused, disturbed. Her top had been moved. Her nostrils flared delicately, catching something faint upon the night air, something out of place, and in an instant she pulled her bow into her fist and notched an arrow to the string. Mindful of her modesty, Artemis crouched behind the foliage, the silvery blue-grey of her eyes roving quickly over the landscape, unimpeded by the darkness.
Nothing stirred. The night continued on around her, unaware.
Warily, she lowered her bow and reached for her clothing. The buck had put up a considerable chase through most of the afternoon, but she still had energy to spare. The bath had invigorated her; a night hunt would be exciting. Top, skirt, boots… Artemis’ brow furrowed. Where was it? Her eyes searched the bank only to find it empty and pristine. Gone? How could it be gone? Distress was an alien emotion, one that rendered her heart quick and fluttery, like that of the deer she had pursued through the day.
“ Where is it…?” She prowled the water’s edge with quickening steps. Prints caught her gaze. Immediately she dropped to one knee, her eyes probing the near invisible tracks left upon the earth. A bent blade of grass. A small rock’s long buried side exposed.
No god would have been so careless. Indeed, no prints would have been left at all had one of her brethren thought to play games with her.
Stolen then! Artemis’ breath froze in her chest.
Without the belt… without it…
She lifted panicked eyes to the heavy crescent of moon visible through the
treetops. There would not be much time. How dare he? How dare he?! It was an
outrage! For a mortal to defile something so sacred to her deserved no less
punishment than death. Frightened and angry, Artemis picked up her bow and
quiver and followed the tracks deeper into the woods, her aspect turning resolute
and feral as she gave herself to the hunt.
* * *
I. Let Them Eat Crow (or Getting Here was Murder)
One of the things you learn as a warrior is that cutting through the woods is rarely a good idea.
Not even counting ambushes and traps, forests are just full of little “surprises.” You can end up wasting a lot of precious time sitting around picking burs out of your nether regions or limping around on a sprained ankle all because you wanted to take the “scenic route.” When all is said and done, the short cut winds up being the long way around. Give me a nice, straight dusty road stretching flat and boring into the horizon any day.
Apparently this doesn’t make the curriculum for things they teach a bard.
Maybe she was just cranky about not having her usual three-course breakfast. I apologized, eventually. Fishing is an art, not a science, but try and tell her that. Besides, olives and dried fruit and day old bread are the staples that made Greece what it is today.
Maybe she got up on the wrong side of the bedroll. She’s always moaning and groaning and grinding her teeth through most nights so I never know what she’s dreaming about or what to expect in the morning.
Sometimes after a night of gnashing and growling and sweating to all Tartarus she skips out of bed with a chirpy ‘Good morning, Xe-na!’ You can imagine my delight.
Then there are the other times—the “quiet” times. She usually starts with a long, drawn out sigh as she wakes. Then she slowly rises to a sitting position. Another sigh, quick this time, and sadder sounding and then she pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. It’s almost impossible not to ask her what’s on her mind.
“Nothing, Xena. Nothing…” she says. Although, it sounds like: “Nothing, Xena. Noth…” because she turns away disconsolately halfway through the sentence. Then she gets up, stretches—once to get the kinks out and then again for sheer pleasure. Here she returns to her melancholy, the stretch not quite placing her firmly in a better mood.
It’s usually here that I’m hit with several “options” that might lift her spirits. She pretends not to like my pranks, but I think the attention and humor make her feel better. I know it does wonders for me.
That day, it was hard to tell what was going on with her.
In hindsight, maybe I should have trusted my gut instead of giving in to body parts of less-steely resolve.
I can’t remember what side of the bed she woke up on that morning. I had been busy fishing and whatnot, so I wasn’t sure. She was silent through breakfast and as we broke camp—not that I’m complaining.
I knew something was bothering her because she started to straggle after about an hour on the road. Argo was getting frustrated at the inconsistent pace, so I decided to see what was up—knowing full well that I was staring a four candle-mark conversation straight in the face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her, bringing Argo to a halt in the road.
She squinted up at me, the sun igniting the green of her eyes in a flash before she brought a tanned forearm up to shade her face. “What?”
She shook her head unconvincingly, sliding a lock of hair behind her ear. “Nothing, Xena. Nothi…”
I sighed. She feebly brushed sweat from her brow. I looked off into the horizon. I turned back to face her. “Look, Gabrielle, if there’s something you want to say or ask just do it, because we still have a bit of a ride to the Amazon lands and I want to get there by sunset.” Harsh, but sensitive enough, I thought.
She sighed. “I…Xena, I had a…I had a bad night and…well…would it be possible to maybe get out of the sun for some of this trip?”
I was about to explain the merits of a nice, straight dusty road stretching flat and boring into the horizon to her, when she bit her lip out of frustration. Right there in the road she nibbled down on her pouty little lips. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t say ‘no’ to an Amazon Queen biting her lip out of frustration—at least, I didn’t think so at the time.
She rolled her bottom lip absently along her front teeth. It was truly amazing how smooth Gabrielle’s lips stayed, keeping such a wonderful sheen across their plump shape.
I blinked. “I’m thinking.”
Pausing for an extra moment on her lips, I took a look around the surrounding landscape for prospective short cuts. We needed to head in a northeast direction but I had been moving us along a stiletto-straight road leading north into Macedonia before hitting one of the eastern trade routes into Thrace and eventually the woods that bordered the Amazon lands.
To the northeast of us was a dense forest. I sighed: the ole short cut through the woods…
I turned back ready to tell her all the reasons why I thought it was a bad idea, to tell her why, in the end, it wouldn’t save us time. I turned to see her face had been transformed by hope into a heart-melting, almost-cheerful expression.
I grinned dumbly. “We can cut through those woods right there.” What was I thinking?
I told myself heading in a straight line toward our destination wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe we could get to where we needed to be faster. Forests don’t always have to be a mistake.
People often accuse me of being a pessimist, or a cynic, or at the very least “dark,” to those detractors I submit this last bit of fancy as a counterargument.
Gabrielle’s disposition improved drastically with shade and a slower pace. I had to walk, so mine didn’t. The forest was pretty thick but had a few somewhat-traveled paths we were able to use. I had to admit, being out of the sun was kind of nice.
Soon the bard’s lips were loosened and she was going on about some-such-thing. I was almost getting to the point where I was relaxed enough to start to listen, when something made me stop.
She kept talking. “…and so I was thinking that maybe by appointing a Royal scribe we could change the oral tradition of the Amazons to a written one…and…hey…what is it?”
“Oh, good ‘cause I thought…”
“No. Nothing. There’s no sound. There’s nothing.”
Gabrielle moved close and scrunched up her nose in that way she does. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? Is it, Xena? Xena?”
Kneeling, I stretched out my hearing. Nothing seemed to be moving out there, which was unsettling to say the least. When you take these short cuts through the woods, you learn that sound is a good thing. It’s when the background noise disappears that you have a problem.
A more distressing problem is when noise suddenly returns—and especially when in abundance.
“Gabrielle.” I stood. “Run.”
I led her and Argo away from the sound, crashing through the underbrush and avoiding the low hanging boughs of trees. We needed a hiding spot and fast. I wasn’t sure what would work exactly but I knew I couldn’t be choosy. The sound grew, swelling through the woods behind us.
“What is it?” Gabrielle asked breathlessly.
I kept running as the answer soon became obvious: movement—the sound of thousands of angry black wings cutting through the labyrinth of trees. The canopy of the woods became engorged with the madness of crow’s cackles. Argo whinnied in fear and I decided to let her go. We were just holding her back and her own instincts would serve her better than mine, given our predicament. She was soon out of our sight, swallowed by the tangle of forest ahead.
We kept sprinting through the woods. It was beginning to look bleak.
Then I saw it, the shelter. Two large trees lay rotting, supported on each other’s shoulders above the forest floor. There was just enough room for a bard and a warrior to hide.
I wasn’t sure she could hear me over the noise that was surrounding us; I just hoped she could follow my lead. We scampered for the low opening beneath the trees. Jagged black shapes were entering my periphery as I helped her slide into the shelter. I crawled inside and settled down in the musty leaves beside Gabrielle. She was trembling. Our hiding spot didn’t drown out the sound.
Soon the forest around us was spiny with crows, their sly black eyes all peering down at us. Some tried to bounce along the ground and get at us through the opening, but a quick backhand had them thinking better of it. It looked like we were in a waiting game.
Gabrielle turned to me. “What are we going to do now?”
“Wait and see.”
“You have a plan?”
“Yup.” I stared out at the black spattered woods. “The plan is: wait and see.”
She nodded then bit her lip. “Sorry about this,” she said.
I tried to focus on the situation at hand. “Y’know, Gabrielle, one of the things you learn as a warrior is that cutting through the woods is rarely a good idea…”
* * *
II. Something Fishy Going On
One of the things you learn as a bard is that “waiting and seeing” makes for very poor story material.
Though, after seeing how softly the masters live at the Academy, I was beginning to think they could shove their lesson up their scroll case. There’s something to be said for being stuck in a place; it gives you time to catch your breath, for one, and in a case like this, it also gives you time to think. It appeared we were safe for the moment so I didn’t mind, but glancing over at Xena I could readily see she didn’t feel the same. She crouched morosely in front of the opening, her chakram dangling from her left hand, and her pale eyes relentlessly tracking the danger outside while muttering under her breath the whole time about plain, boring, dusty roads. Xena didn’t look at me, but I somehow felt as though, once again, I was entirely responsible for this newest mess.
Jammed in beside her, I still had a decent view of the situation. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even on my uncle’s farm where clouds of crows would show up by the dozens to steal feed corn or seed from the fields. The sheer number here formed a black wall, nearly obliterating what sunlight had managed to wend its way through the heavy canopy of leaves and leaving us in muted shadows. Being stared at by that many eyes was unnerving to say the least. The fact they had all suddenly fallen silent was making it worse. I figured this was probably bad.
I couldn’t take it any more. “This is bad, right?”
“Shh.” Xena continued to stare back at the feathered congregation, but otherwise remained still.
“Are we still waiting and seeing? Is there more to the plan?”
I think I heard a sigh. “We need Argo if we’re going to get out of here,” she murmured.
Well, I could see the sense in that. If we had any hope of a fighting retreat, we’d need her speed and stamina to make it possible. There was only one problem with the plan. “Do you see her anywhere?”
“No. I’ll have to get out there and call for her. I don’t want to bring her to us only to leave her undefended.”
My eyes lifted and took in what seemed like hundreds of sharp beaks and even sharper talons. Trepidation filled me. “But, Xena, you’ll—”
“Stay here,” she ordered and bolted from our shelter, giving her war cry at the top of her lungs.
“— be shredded,” I finished belatedly, even as I forced myself to halt my forward momentum right at the shelter’s threshold, wanting to follow, but if I were honest, I’m more afraid of her losing her temper with me than what might happen if I stayed where I was.
Xena putting herself in the way of danger scared me, I think it always had. But it thrilled me, too. She is so superb a warrior that she makes art of violence, making each move a thing of beauty and grace. She transcends physical limitations in situations that would otherwise doom anyone else. At least that’s how it usually worked. Today, however; Xena appeared to be having an off day.
I think it was the trip that probably saved her life. To give her credit, she avoided the holes, the tree roots and all of the loose rocks, but the one, lone twig took her down like she’d been clubbed by a Cyclops, and laid her out flat on her back, the smooth, aged wood having obligingly rolled her right off her feet. If not for that, the funnel cloud of crows stooping on her might have taken her head off.
Even in the gloom, I could see her eyes widen as the crows, like a long, black arm paused in the air above her and suddenly changed course. In a second, Xena was back on her feet, her sword swinging in a wide and lethal arc. The caws and shrieks of sound cut my hearing, and beneath it all I could hear Xena shouting and cursing back. They enveloped her, their eyes gleaming, more and more of them until I couldn’t even see her. Ebony wings rippled the air and I screamed her name, preparing to join her even though I imagined I could already feel their beaks piercing my skin.
The dark curtain ripped and tore, and Xena heaved herself free, throwing crows every which way. She cleaved a deadly pattern with her sword and chakram, forming a tight net of protection around herself from the whirlwind of pecking, screeching bodies as she moved step by agonizing step back towards our shelter. Uncertain what to do, I crouched there, gripping my staff.
Her progress picked up speed, and she forced her way through the maelstrom, the sword flashing in the uncertain light, her muscles flexing and taut. She broke from the attack and ran, and I could see the flutter of wings on her back, against her dark hair. I threw myself back from the entrance just as she dove into the small enclosure and slammed hard against the back of our hole beneath the fallen trees.
Xena grunted and, with hardly a pause, spun, pressed me into the dirt and whipped her chakram around. She slashed repeatedly as dark wings beat at the opening, spilling the messy remains of dive-bombing crows into our hiding place.
Filleted innards splattered across my hand and I jerked in disgust, shaking it off. “Oh yuck!” I hoped the smell would come off. “Xena!” She pressed even harder on my head, keeping me pinned in place. Gore sprayed everywhere.
Every effort and movement was telegraphed through her hand on me, and I could feel it—the adrenaline, the phenomenal energy that fueled her speed as it traveled right down into my bones. I squeezed my eyes shut against the attack, which only intensified the odd feeling of connection. It made my heart pound and my insides tighten. Unable to move or help, I laid as flat as I could until, at last, I felt her slow, pause and then finally relax. Unsure what to do, I waited, the smell of blood and leaf mold thick in my nose. The scuffling sound of her moving seemed a kind of signal, but I didn’t move until the pressure against my hair changed to a lighter touch, and I felt her pat my head.
“You okay?” she asked me. I could hear her breathing hard.
Immediately, I sat up and turned to her, aghast at what I saw. She was a mess. Scratches and pecks liberally scored her skin and trickles of blood flowed in squiggled lines from all her intense efforts to defend herself. Black feathers stuck to the smears of blood coating her armor and her hair was scattered and sweaty. Amidst all this, she fingered the small gash that had been opened along her jaw.
“I’m fine. None of it’s as bad as it looks.”
“Yeah? Well, it looks pretty bad.”
I watched her grimace and rub at her nose with the back of her arm, her hands too gory to do the job. “Stings,” she conceded, then nodded towards the wall of black, baleful eyes outside. “We’ll have to sit them out.” Xena looked so annoyed.
“Maybe they’ll get bored and fly away?” I suggested, hoping to inject some optimism into what was likely going to be another of our harrowing, life-threatening experiences. I’ve always felt that a little hope and optimism go a long way.
I should have known better: Xena’s probably the least optimistic person I know. “I guess we’re still waiting and seeing, huh?” She glowered at me, and repositioned herself to continue her vigil.
Within minutes they tried another flurry of attacks, which Xena vigorously defended against. As a parting shot, one of them pooped from above and colorfully redecorated the toe of her right boot. Even from where I sat, pressed against the back of the enclosure, I could hear the powerful grind of her teeth.
This had definitely not been one of Xena’s better days. Come to think of it, this had been a fairly strange day, period. Especially considering what happened that morning. “Do you think the fish have anything to do with this?”
She shot me a dirty look and I saw the corners of her lips tighten before she turned her attention outside again.
I had been ready to chalk it up to it being summer and the spawning season, but maybe it wasn’t.
The dreams had been wild and consuming, full of the heated feel of skin against skin all colored by the sensual movement of firelight. I had awoken disoriented and confused, and unaccountably shy in the pearly grey dawn. Xena, already awake, had kept looking at me, first in curiosity, then worry, and then annoyance when I couldn’t provide anything more convincing than, “Nothing, Xena, nothing.” I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth. To cover for myself and to deflect attention elsewhere, I complained about having to eat olives again for breakfast.
Without a sound, Xena stopped dressing, pulled off her boots and headed straight into the river. “Perch or trout,” she asked me, wading hip deep in the water in only her shift.
“Xena, you don’t—”
“Whatever you get your hands on first,” I mumbled. “I’m starving.”
“When aren’t you?” Xena muttered.
“Choose, or I’ll give you the crayfish that thinks it can eat my toe.”
So she set to it in that unusual way she has, bundling up her hair and leaning over the water to hear the fish beneath the surface. With her eyes half-closed and unfocused, I’m sure she couldn’t see behind her, so it wasn’t a surprise that I saw it first. But in hindsight, that’s probably when I should have mentioned it.
A small ripple disturbed the slow moving river behind her and I didn’t think anything of it. Water bugs. Fish feeding.
I definitely should have said something.
Another ripple appeared off to the right of her. And then another. More and more of them until I looked up into the still cloudy sky and held out my hand, wondering if it was starting to rain. Nothing. I didn’t get it. I opened my mouth to say something and that’s when Xena’s hands plunged into the water and pulled out a large, plump fish. It heaved and squirmed in her grasp, its tail flashing in the first rays of morning.
And that’s when the river erupted.
The multitude of ripples churned the water into whitecaps and Xena, out near the middle of the river, took one look, tossed the fish behind her and started for shore. Fish leapt from the water, clubbing her, and she batted them away. They must have been attacking from below, as well, because she lost her footing and splashed into the water, disappearing from my sight.
I leapt to my feet and hurried to the edge of the water, my staff in hand.
She reappeared almost immediately, the oddest look on her dripping face. She tugged at the water’s surface, trying to pull herself forward faster. The water around her bubbled and roiled, and I heard her give the most…well, girlish noise I think I’ve ever heard come out of her mouth.
Xena, obviously angry now, surged toward shore, and it’s then that I saw the fish rubbing and squirming against her. Reaching the shallows at last, Xena stalked past me, dropping a fish at my feet she had just pulled from the neckline of her shift. Watching her awkward gait, I was shocked to see a second one drop from beneath her hem.
The fish at my feet flopped miserably and, too aware of where it had been, I nudged it towards the water with my foot where it joined its fellows who seemed almost disappointed that Xena was gone.
“Amorous fish… murderous crows…” I left my deeply sensual dreams off the list. “What if there’s a connection?”
“It’s odd, I’ll grant you. Have you noticed anything else unusual lately?”
Thankfully, she didn’t notice my blush in the darkness of the shelter. “Not that I can come up with.” I looked behind us, into the loamy darkness where the trees pressed into the earth, and that’s when I noticed it. “Xena!”
She had the chakram ready and her sword halfway unsheathed before I could calm her down. “No, look!” I pointed to the edge of the tree trunk where the dirt from Xena’s collision with it had been dislodged, revealing a small, gapping hole. “It’s a way out!”
I could see her mind moving behind her eyes, always examining, analyzing. She glanced from the hole, to the birds outside, to me. “Start digging. But quietly.”
I knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. The earth was damp, but not too hard packed, and I scrabbled at the opening to enlarge it. From the corner of my eye, I could see her scraping at the litter of feathers and carcasses in the dirt, the look of distaste for what she was doing to her chakram very plain. And three weeks ago she’d thought fish guts were bad.
In minutes I was sweating heavily, but I had made enough of an opening that I thought even Xena’s shoulders, armor and all, would fit through.
I looked back and saw her use her chakram like a shovel to flip the offal out into the clearing. In seconds they descended on it, the noise level raucous as they vied for a piece.
“Go, go!” Xena urged me, pushing me towards the hole. I slid my way through and heard Xena breathing behind me as we pressed close to the ground and slithered away on our bellies.
“Number three,” I breathed, “if you’re outnumbered, let them fight each other, while you run.”
Despite her bad mood, I heard Xena give a near-silent snort of amusement.
* * *
III. Spatters, Clatters and Idle Chatters
Even from where our search for Argo began, I could still hear the crows. I cursed under my breath.
“What?” Gabrielle poked her head up from where she was crouched, looking for hoof-prints.
She rubbed her chin, scrutinizing me. I pretended not to notice and whistled again for my missing horse. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end under her continued gaze. I crossed my arms. “What?”
“Uh… you’ve got…” Gabrielle indicated her chin with a wiping motion. “You missed a bit of…”
“Oh.” I wiped at a piece of crow gore. “Did I get it?”
“Uh…no…no it’s still there.”
She smiled. “Nope.”
I wiped again. “Okay?”
I sighed. “Get over here and wipe this piece of crow offa me.” There was a slight hesitation and she looked at her feet. I guess I was a bit harsh. I smiled, mixing in just the right amount of a pout. “Please?”
She walked over, stepping into the gentle showers of light falling through the hood of leaves above our heads. I bit my lip. There was crow on it. I spat. She stopped. I smiled. “Sorry,” I said. “Crow.” She grinned widely, her nose crinkling. She stepped in close and chuckled.
“What?” I asked.
I crossed my arms. “It’s been a rough morning.”
She pulled out that piece of cloth she’s been carrying around and washing for the last two years. Luckily, I knew she had washed it the night before. “Bend down,” she asked. I leaned in. Her breathing quickened as she brought the cloth to her lips, I could see that her fingers trembled. After all we had been through, I wasn’t surprised.
She swallowed visibly. Her lips opened and she brought the soft cloth close, her tongue parting them to moisten it. I closed my mouth and our eyes met. “Hold still,” she said. As her hand neared, golden heat rippled from her fingers, her forearms, trickling upon my cheeks and collarbone. The cloth hovered just above my chin.
There was a snort from nearby—a horse’s snort. I opened my eyes. “Argo?”
Gabrielle turned, squinting off into the trees. “I think it came from over that way.”
We jogged through the brush as quiet as we could. I whistled, hoping the crows would think we were other forest birds and stay where they were. There was another snort. We stopped. I could hear breathing—Argo’s breathing coming from a tightly laced group of trees.
I squinted into the shade. “Argo? Is that you, girl?”
A rumble of warning came from the shade at the center of the brush. I stepped forward. Gabrielle shifted uncomfortably. “Uh…Xena…”
“It’s okay,” I smiled reassuringly. I turned back to the bush wrapped around my horse. “Hey, girl. C’mon. It’s me.”
A loud neigh. Another snort. Suddenly, Argo burst from the trees heading straight for me. Her eyes were wild with fear, with confusion—with something else. I cart-wheeled out of danger, landing on my feet. “That’s enough, Argo.”
She was out of control, swinging at Gabrielle with her front hooves. The poor bard dodged to the side and quickly scrambled up a tree. I lunged for Argo’s bridle, managing to grip the leather and pull hard. “Easy, girl. Easy,” I whispered into the horse’s ear. “What’s wrong with you? Huh?” I pat her trembling haunches. The vein that coiled through her neck pulsed heavily. Her eyes rolled, the whites visible. Something had her spooked.
After a bit of sweet talk and some oats, I was able to have Argo trust me. She was still very jittery, but she would let me lead her. It would have to be good enough.
“Ahem.” It was Gabrielle from up in the tree.
“Quit clowning around, Gabrielle. We’ve got to get moving.”
She dropped from the branch she had been clinging to. Dusting herself off, she stuck her nose haughtily into the air. “I can’t imagine what those fish ever saw in you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you just didn’t have the same vantage point.”
Gabrielle scrunched up her face. “Yeah? Well maybe:” She stuck her tongue out as an ending to her statement.
“As much as I’d like to continue this eloquent and stimulating verbal sparring, we’ve got a festival to attend.” I smiled. “Right, your Majesty?”
Growling, the bard and her staff walked away in a huff. Chuckling, I prepared to jump up on Argo. She stepped to the side, away from me.
“Hey. C’mon, girl.”
I tried again and Argo side-stepped with a snort and shake of her head.
“Hey. Quit fooling.”
Gabrielle appeared at my side, grinning. She sniffed at me. “I guess Argo smells trouble, hmm?”
“Start walking, Gabrielle, or I’ll introduce you to some of my more ripe bits.”
Soon, we had reached the road and made our way along it. To say things progressed smoothly would be a lie. Oxen lowed oddly at us from across fields. Snakes lunged from their sun-drenched rocks at our feet. When Gabrielle had stood too long near an anthill, crimson ants poured from its mouth and up her leg. (I knew a way to reduce the itching, but the swelling—Gods I had never seen swelling like that.)
And the birds—swooping from out of the sky, from out of branches, temple rooftops clawing, nipping at our heads and then floating away. I was really learning to hate them. I would fantasize about a chicken deciding to take its chances with us, running up in the dust—straight into the ole chakram.
The sun was pretty ruthless. Yes, it’s Greece, it’s summer, you sort of expect this kind of thing, but it was really showing us something that day. We kept moving as best as we could, taking the western road into the Amazon lands.
My scalp was itchy. So was my skin. I scratched when I could.
Beside me, Argo snorted every once in awhile, fighting the reins. Gabrielle also kept her distance. I assumed it was because she was still a little put off by my “clowning around” comments.
The forest was silent. It was like entering a crypt.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I said.
Nothing happened. We began slowly, silently, stepping with care through the underbrush, past the ancient trees. Still nothing happened, not an insect or animal out of place. We moved quickly, with caution.
We reached a point in the woods and I stopped. Gabrielle looked around. “The outer sentries should have met us by now,” she whispered.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Let’s go.”
Leading Argo, we moved at a steady jog toward the Amazon village. It was still several miles off, but in a candle-mark we had reached the outskirts, the huts peaking up out of them unruly grass. There was still no sign of sentries. I tethered Argo to a tree and we crouched in the underbrush.
“What do you think?” Gabrielle asked, moving away, for a better view.
I blinked at the village. Amazons could be seen walking about. Fires cooked. Decorations adorned. Drums could be heard, albeit faintly. Barring the unprotected perimeter, things seemed normal. I scratched at my scalp. “It seems okay.”
“Let’s go then.” Gabrielle rose and strode into the village.
Shrugging, I followed her, my hand near my chakram. “At the risk of repeating myself: I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
* * *
IV. Don’t Do Me Any Party Favors
With Argo, Xena, and her smell in tow, I led us into the village. The last of the sunlight was gilding the trees in rosy gold and the heat was beginning to dissipate at last, making me all too aware of the film of dirt, sweat and other things even less pleasant coating my skin. Given the way Xena was scratching at herself, I could only imagine how much worse it was for her. I hadn’t been close enough to her the last two candle-marks to be sure, but Argo’s continuous efforts to break free and run away said a lot.
The bustle of activity was more than enough to distract me for a moment, especially considering the number of women and young girls moving every which way, talking excitedly while they made their preparations. It looked as though most of the Nation had shown up for the Brauronia Festival. A group of children we passed were industriously sewing leaf crowns, while an older set of girls were putting the finishing touches on buttercup-yellow tunics made of what looked like the softest suede.
Excited and relieved to have finally arrived, I searched amongst the faces for Ephiny. The village, looking prosperous and peaceful, appeared to have benefited from her appointment as Regent; definitely one of my better decisions. “Excuse me,” I interrupted a chatting group of older women engaged in fletching bundles of arrows, “would any of you happen to know where I might find Ephiny?”
“ Queen Gabrielle!” one woman responded with surprised pleasure. “We didn’t expect you yet.” Behind her I could see two other elders exchange some odd look. “Ephiny is…” She looked from one hut to another, and then pointed towards the barracks. “…over there, with the guard.”
“ Thanks.” I ran my fingers through my hair, wondering just how bad I looked when another thought occurred to me. “Do you know where the sentries have gone? No one met us in the woods.”
The gray-haired woman’s expression rippled into smoothness. “That’s very odd. I hadn’t heard of anything planned, but this place is a menagerie lately, what, with other villages arriving for the ceremony. Like as much, Ephiny will know, your majesty.”
“ Thanks,” I said again, trying to discreetly wave the fly off Xena’s shoulder armor as I turned us towards the barracks. “Maybe it’s just the excitement of the Festival,” I murmured to Xena when we were out of earshot. “Maybe they met another group coming in.”
“Maybe pigs will fly,” Xena added, her fingers still staying in the vicinity of her chakram despite the friendliness of our surroundings. “Bad feeling. Told you.”
We were almost upon Ephiny and the warrior she was speaking to when she caught
sight of us. She made some parting comment to the other woman and turned our
way, wearing less than the happy smile I’d expected at seeing us again. “Ephiny,” I
called out, lifting my hand in a wave.
Her curly hair bouncing around her shoulders, Ephiny shot a glance back towards the barrack’s darkened open door and hurried to meet us. “Gabrielle, we weren’t expecting you yet.”
I resisted the urge to look at Xena. “We, um, took a short-cut.”
“ It’s great to see you,” she said, closing the distance between us, and then stopped abruptly short. Her eyes widened ever so slightly and I almost missed the nose wrinkle that she hid in a low bow before me. “My queen, we are honored by your presence and celebrate your return. The Nation stands in readiness and eagerly awaits the moment you will lead us through the Brauronia ceremony.” I was taken aback by her overly formal behavior until I realized she was maintaining the position of obedience in order to properly fortify her expression against our stench. Losing one’s dinner at the Queen’s feet is probably a serious breech of protocol.
Feeling the weight of eyes on me, I settled for a nod, saying, “It’s our pleasure to be here.” She still wasn’t moving. Too tired for this any longer, I moved closer and put my hand on her shoulder. “When did I become such a tyrant that my Regent can’t greet me like a friend?”
She straightened up, a wry smile on her face as she stepped closer and embraced me. “Have you two been wading through a midden heap?” she whispered in my ear as she hugged me. “My eyes are watering. What in Hades happened to you? You look awful.”
“We… had a few encounters,” Xena grumbled.
Ephiny reached out to shake Xena’s arm, but stopped in mid-motion and waved instead. “So I smell,” she replied, appearing to wish, very dearly, that she could plug her nose.
“Is everything okay here?” I asked.
The Regent broke eye contact with me and looked around the village. “Oh, we’re right on schedule.”
“No, I mean—”
“The sentries didn’t stop us at the border,” Xena stepped in. Basting in her own juices as she was, I suspect Xena was impatient with the pace of the conversation. “What’s going on?”
There was just enough hesitation before Ephiny answered to make me suspicious. “We had slavers bothering us on the east side by the river. A group went out to harass them and drive them off, and the rest of the sentries were spread out more to meet incoming groups for the Festival. I didn’t want visitors getting snatched and sold, not now.”
I knew what she meant. Hosting the Brauronia was a huge honor for the village, seeing as it’s only held once every four years. Falling victim to an incursion would not only endanger lives, but bring dishonor to the village, showing them to be weak and bringing ill luck to the entire Nation for the next four years. Knowing now the reason, I felt a little silly for thinking suspicious thoughts. After recent events, paranoia doesn’t seem entirely out of place. “Great work. Is everyone okay?”
Ephiny nodded, glancing towards the barracks again. “They got back a little while ago.”
“Maybe I should speak with them and say thanks,” I said, thinking about the pressure the warriors would be under to protect not only the village, but the added number of sisters visiting from the outside. I glanced at Xena and saw the subtle nod of approval.
I jerked my head back around at Ephiny’s vehement response.
“No,” she said again, more calmly this time. “They just got back, you just arrived. You must be starved. And, really, you probably would like to get—” She sniffed. “—cleaned up a bit?” She had such a look of hope in her eyes.
Argo snorted and nodded her head, pulling on the reins.
“Hey, I don’t complain when you stink,” I heard Xena whisper to her mare behind me.
“That’s probably a good idea,” I said. “I think after all this time, I’ve just gotten used to her.” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder at Xena.
“You’re no field of flowers either, your majesty,” Xena reminded me. “Don’t make me explain the hole in your skirt.”
I glared at her and fingered the edge of the ragged, dinar-sized hole in the material covering my thigh, thinking of the innocent little fawn that had tried to devour me. “Fine. You’ve still got fish scales on your neck, by the way.” I turned back to Ephiny. “I think you’re right; we need to freshen up. We could probably use a bite to eat, too.”
Ephiny gave us her first full smile yet. “Good. We’ve got your quarters all set up.”
“I’ll meet you two over there,” Xena offered. “I want to get Argo settled.” She turned towards the barracks with its adjoining stable, and Ephiny immediately put out a hand to stop her.
I watched Xena’s brows draw together in confused impatience.
“You can’t…” She seemed to struggle. “You… you’re honored guests! We can’t have the Queen’s champion scrubbing down a horse.”
“This isn’t a horse,” Xena argued. “This is Argo.”
“I’ll have someone take care of her for you. You’ve had a long trip. You should relax.”
One lone, dark brow slowly hiked upwards.
I glanced between the two women, feeling suspicious all over again, but Xena beat me to it.
“Ephiny, what’s going on?” Xena asked, her voice smooth and her lips smiling, but her eyes piercing and serious. “You might as well tell us now because neither Argo nor I are moving from this spot until you do. And tomorrow is going to be at least as hot as today was.” Xena took a very deep sniff to underline her point.
Tan shoulders slumped and Ephiny put her face in her hands. “We have a problem.”
Alarmed, I stepped closer, putting my hand on her arm. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“We have a prisoner.”
Well, that didn’t sound like a bad thing. “Who? A slaver?”
“No. Worse.” Ephiny sighed. “It’s Autolycus.”
“Autolycus!” Xena exclaimed. “Why?”
“He was caught stealing.”
Out here? What on earth could there be to steal out here? “What did he take?”
Ephiny looked aggrieved. “It’s not just what he took. It’s who he took it from.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Okay, so just who did he take whatever from?”
“Artemis. And she’s gonna kill him.”
* * *
To be continued in Part 2
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