THE AMAZON QUEEN
Part III: FAMILY MATTERS
by L. M. Townsend
DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Eve, Argo, Virgil, Ephiny, (and the characterisations of Ares and Aphrodite), et al (meaning anyone else I didn't list and should have.) are the property of MCA, Universal, and Renaissance Pictures and anyone else who has a legal claim, and I thank them for their creation and for allowing me to live in their universe for a little bit.
(Melysë and The Amazons belong to themselves and I dare any man to say different!) The stories are mine, though, and written just for fun, not profit.
Subtext? Subtext? Well, yeah. There is. Some of it obviously implied, some blatant, though nothing graphic, and some of it's in the eye of the reader; WHILE THERE ARE NO SEXUAL SCENES OF ANY KIND, there is kindness, affection, loyalty, mutual respect, friendship, and yes, lots and lots of love, so, if you read anything into any of the words or situations these characters find themselves in, then you have only yourself to thank/blame (depending upon your point of view!) If you have a bug up your butt about people of any persuasion loving each other and sharing their lives, then I pity you. I won't apologise for them, though, so if you have a problem with any of these stories, it's up to you to go and read something else. Remember, no one's holding a sword ( or a chakram) to your throat!
Violence: Oh, yeah - this is a story with Xena in it. Remember, she likes to fight
*Spoiler Alert - several references to various episodes throughout the history of the show, specifically, FINS, FEMMES, AND GEMS, THE WAY, LIVIA, and MOTHERHOOD
Feedback is very welcome. Please let me know if you like my stories. Anything mean or nasty will be ignored. You can e-mail me at QueenLaese@aol.com. Thank-you for reading.
Arynë leaned forward and urged her battle-mare into a gallop with a whistle. Grinning, she felt the wind whip back her long, dark hair, which had escaped from the braids she had tried to plait tightly this morning. Her green eyes shone with the exhilaration of the wild ride and her cheeks were flushed. She turned back to look at her best friend, Tecmessa, struggling to catch up on her own,
slower mount. Arynë slacked off with a slight tug on the reins, then patted her horse gently on the neck, as Tecmessa caught up.
"'Ryn, why do you do that?" she panted. "You know this horse can't keep up with Amnia. Not every one has a daughter of Xena's horse, Argo, you know." Arynë smiled at her friend. Tecmessa was taller than her with blonde curls and bright blue eyes. They had been best friends as long as Arynë could remember. "Where are you headed in such a hurry, anyway?" asked Tecmessa, as the two friends rode at a more leisurely pace.
"To see my mothers," said Arynë.
"The Queen's cottage?" said Tecmessa. Arynë nodded.
"I haven't seen Xena since she got back from routing that warlord from the southern boundary. I heard she took a wound and I just wanted to make sure she was alright," she said.
"Huh," said Tecmessa. "If Xena took a wound, then that means..."
"Gabrielle might be coming, which means I get to see both godsmothers - and maybe she'll bring the new baby," said Arynë, eyes shining. "I haven't seen tanti Gabrielle in six moons - that's the longest she's ever been away. Tandos Virgil must be between epics!"
Virgil was a kind, loving and attentive husband - unless he was working on another epic poem, in which case, he was "absent". When Virgil started an epic, Gabrielle would pack up her girls and head off to Aemetzainê, sending word to his mother to come and care for him and to make sure that he had clean clothes - not that Virgil would notice wearing a dirty shirt. He lived in the world he created on the parchment and Gabrielle knew that her absences were hardly noticed. In fact, Virgil was such a prolific writer, that those who knew the couple wondered how they had become so prolific in other areas.
"Yeah, and maybe your mother baked nutbread?" said Tecmessa, hopefully.
Arynë laughed. "If tanti Gabrielle comes here, count on it - and maybe even wildberry dumplings..." she said, teasing her friend, whose love of food was well-known in the House of Maidens.
Tecmessa sighed. "No one can make wildberry dumplings like Queen Melysë," she said, dreamily.
"Except tanti Gabrielle," said Arynë grinning slyly. "And if Xena was wounded, she might get enough sympathy from Gabrielle that she would make them - they're Xena's favourite"
"Mine, too," sighed Tecmessa.
"Well, what are we dawdling for? Yah!" Arynë urged Amnia faster and pulled her up in front of her mother's cottage, waiting outside for Tecmessa to catch up with a grin.
"Wait, 'Ryn, I have to tie up Haeba," said Tecmessa.
"Just come on in when you're done," said Queen Melysë from the doorway, hugging her daughter as the girl passed.
"Xena," said Arynë, sitting at her godsmother's side, shocked by the large, white bandage. "Is it that bad?"
Xena smiled and leaned in closer, whispering. "Twelve stitches - and your mother made croisus," she said.
Arynë gasped. "Blessèd Goddess, Xena, how'd anyone get a twelve-stitch cut on you?" she said.
"Relax," said her mother, coming up to them and removing the bandage to clean the wound. "It's not as bad as all that. I just put extra stitches in because I know Xena - she'll be up swinging that sword arm before it's ready and popping a few."
Xena made a face. "You see what I have to put up with?" she said.
"You think Mother's bad, wait 'til Gabrielle gets here," said Arynë, smiling.
"Ah, she's not coming - pregnant again," said Xena.
"But the youngest is only a year old," said Arynë, disappointed. "What is she trying to do - give birth to a whole Tribe all by herself?"
"'Ryn!" said her mother, although she and Xena had said much the same themselves moments before the girls arrived. Gabrielle had been Queen of another Tribe of Amazons. After being frozen for twenty-five years, she and Xena had awoken to many changes - one of them being the complete annihilation of Gabrielle's Tribe. Melysë and Xena had wondered themselves if their friend was trying to replace it. She and her husband, Virgil, had three daughters already. "That's Gabrielle's business, not ours. She'll be here for your Initiation ceremony when the time comes and you'll see her then, but it's too much to ask her to make two trips in so short a time."
"Yeah, but it'll be so hectic I'll have hardly any time with her," said Arynë. "And after, I'm off to Ephesus to train in the Temple for three years."
Just then, Arynë's little sister, Selenë came in. "'Ryn, can I ride Amnia?" she asked. Selenë already showed all the signs of being an accomplished priestess and scholar, like her mother. Arynë wanted to be a warrior, like Xena.
Arynë cuddled her little sister, whom she adored. "If it's alright with Mother, I'll take you riding this afternoon, ok?" she said. "Right now I want to visit with Xena."
"Ok," said Selenë, sitting down with a scroll to wait for her big sister.
"So, Xena," said Arynë, popping a croisus into her mouth. "Not like that!" said Xena. "You're supposed to savour croisus - gods know, it's a rare treat."
Melysë playfully swatted her friend and fellow queen with a towel she been using to dry dishes. "As if I have time to make croisus, raise two children, run the Temple - and the Tribe - and nurse back to health a certain warrior princess - excuse me, Warrior Queen - who can't dodge a two-handed sword-- " said Melysë, teasingly.
"Hey, I dodged it - or it would have been my head that - " Melysë cleared her throat meaningfully. "Ah, my head, that needed stitches," finished Xena, grinning.
"Mother," said Arynë, quietly, fingering the quilt on Xena's bed. "What would you say if I told you I didn't want to go to Ephesus?"
Melysë stopped and sat down. "Well, I'd say let's talk about it," she said. "Why don't you want to go?"
Arynë sighed. "I just don't think three years studying in the Temple is for me," she said.
Xena watched the queen listening to her daughter. She smiled to herself. That's 'Lysë, she thought, fondly. No matter what else she's doing, she always has time for the girls when they need her - and for me. She gives her undivided attention no matter what else is happening, and listens. She makes people feel that they're important to her, that they matter, and that their thoughts and their dreams - no matter what those dreams are - matter to her, too. And the thing is, the Amazons do matter to her. She genuinely cares about each and every Amazon and their hopes and dreams and wishes are just as important to her as they are to them. That's what makes her a good queen - she's a mother to the whole Tribe....
"I want to be a warrior - not a priestess. I - I want to stay here and study with ... Xena, will you teach me? If Mother says it's alright? Please, Xena? Please Mother?"
"What?" said Xena, startled out of her reverie at the sound of her name.
"I think that this is something Xena and I need to discuss," said Melysë, amusement with her warrior's daydreaming alternating with concern over daughter's request. "You don't have to go to Ephesus right away. Or even at all, if you really don't want to. You can always go later if you change your mind. Why don't you take Selenë riding now so we can talk about it?"
"You'll think about it then?" said Arynë hopefully.
"Yeah, we'll think about it," said Xena quietly.
"Ok, come on runt," said Arynë, scooping her laughing little sister into her arms and leaving, Tecmessa right behind them.
"Well?" said Melysë, sitting on the edge of Xena's bed.
"We knew this day would come," said Xena, sighing. "She's a born warrior, much as I hate to say it."
"I hate it, too," said Melysë. "I don't want her to be hurt - or to kill, but if she wants to be a warrior, I can think of no one I trust more than you to teach her."
"Yeah, me either," said Xena. "She and Selenë are like my own daughters. Arynë is like me, though. She has that same fire in her eyes, the same passion to fight for a worthy cause, to stand up and take a stand, to fight for those who can't fight for themselves. If I can steer her away from the mistakes I made...." Xena closed her eyes at the painful memories. Melysë put a comforting
hand on her arm. The pain ebbed as Xena remembered how it felt to turn away from her dark side and all the good she had done and could now do. Even her shoulder had stopped throbbing. She opened her eyes and smiled. "Thank-you. I forgot you could do that."
"Anytime, my Love," said the priestess, a little light-headed from the surge of power she'd expended in the healing touch. "Xena, she is good, isn't she?"
"In all my years of leading an army, I have never seen so much raw talent and natural skill," said Xena, smiling proudly.
"Then you'll do it?" said Melysë.
"Yeah," said Xena, closing her eyes again, suddenly exhausted. "Yeah, I'll teach her."
"Thank-you," said Melysë, hugging her friend. The scent of Melysë's long, dark, tresses wafted gently up to her - sandalwood and sage, cedar, patchouli, frankincense, myrrh, and just a hint of lavender and some jasmine - the scent of the Temple incense lingered in her hair, and Xena breathed it in appreciatively. Something about the priestess made Xena forget that she really didn't have much use for gods...well except maybe Hercules and 'Lysë herself. But then again, they were only half-god.
Must be something she put in my tea, thought the warrior, amused. Painkillers, no doubt. Even though I told her it didn't hurt that much, she saw right through my 'tough as old leather' warrior routine...but then, she always sees right through me....can't fool her...good thing I never really want to anyway...
"After her Initiation Ceremony, I'll start her training." Xena murmured sleepily, then groaned - "Gods, Gabrielle is gonna kill us!"
"I know," said Melysë, still holding the warrior as Xena drifted into a healing sleep.
Arynë had placed Selenë in front of her on Amnia's back. They trotted around the village, at a leisurely pace. "Faster, 'Ryn, faster," urged Selenë.
"No, if you fall off, Mother will kill me," said Arynë.
"Mother wouldn't kill you, 'Ryn," scolded Selenë.
"No, but she'd sure be angry," said Arynë. "And I'd feel bad if you got hurt."
"Please, 'Ryn, Amnia won't let me fall," said Selenë.
"Well, ok, but we'll have to go to out to the river - there's no room to gallop in the village," said Arynë, agreeing with her sister about the mare's abilities to protect them - this was Argo's daughter, after all.
"I have to go," said Tecmessa. "My mother wants me home by sunset."
"Ok, Tecmessa, see you tomorrow," said Arynë, waving as she rode out of the village. The sentries knew the queen's daughters and marked their leaving, keeping watch for their return. If the girls were gone too long, the sentries would alert the queen and start out to bring the girls home.
Arynë was now far enough out of the village to urge Amnia into a gallop. Selenë laughed with delight. Pleased that her little sister was having fun, she urged Amnia a little faster. The wind was streaming full in their faces and their hearts were pounding. Suddenly Arynë felt a subtle change in the air around her and wheeled Amnia around, just in time to avoid being thrown when the mare
skidded to a halt in front of a dark-haired, leather-clad man.
"What are you doing here?" Arynë demanded. "These are Amazon lands - no man is allowed this far within the boundary." She pulled her dagger out of its sheath at her belt. Her only thought was of protecting her baby sister.
"Arynë, I'm disappointed you don't recognise your uncle," said the man, smiling.
"Ares? What are you doing here?" asked Arynë, re-sheathing her dagger. Even if her uncle were to mean her or her sister harm, what good could she do with a dagger against the former god of war?
"Why, I came to see you of course," said Ares, grinning widely. "Can't an uncle come and visit?"
"Hm, yeah, you've always been so interested in us," said Arynë, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, now that is so Xena!" said Ares. "Next you'll be telling me she's training you to be a warrior like her."
Arynë looked at Ares. Something told her to be careful. "She is not training me to be a warrior like her," she said.
"Yet," said Ares, cocking an eyebrow.
Arynë remained silent, but Selenë piped up. "'Ryn asked her to, but meia - Mama said they had to discuss it first," she said. "Are you really my uncle?" Arynë shushed her.
Ares threw his head back and laughed "Yeah, Cutie, I am," he said. "And you Arynë, you have incredible potential." Still laughing, the god of war faded out of sight.
"Selenë, don't ever talk to him if Mother or Xena isn't with you," said Arynë.
"How come?" asked Selenë. "Isn't he Mother's brother?"
"Yeah, but he's still a ... well, we can't trust him," said Arynë.
"Ok," said Selenë. "Can we gallop back?"
"Yeah, I think we'd better," said Arynë, heading home, as fast as she and Amnia could.
"Tell me again why you took your little sister to the river when it was near full dark?" asked Melysë, irritation evident in her soft voice.
"Selenë wanted to ride faster, and there's no room in the village," said Arynë, truthfully.
"What did Ares want?" asked Xena.
"He claimed it was just a visit - you know, the concerned uncle bit," said Arynë, cocking one eyebrow in a perfect - but unconscious - portrait of Xena.
"And you didn't believe him?" asked Melysë.
"If he was just visiting, why try to catch us alone? And why now after practically ignoring us all these years?" said Arynë. "Besides, something about him just feels...wrong. I can't explain it, but I sensed him even before I saw him, and it just felt...I don't know, wrong somehow."
"Arynë, you have good instincts," said Melysë with a sigh. "Ares - well, he's family, but I just think our father never taught him right from wrong. He doesn't seem to know the difference."
"Well, I do," said Arynë. "So family or not, I'm not trusting him."
"Go on to bed, now," said Xena. "Your mother and I have to talk."
"Um, ok," said Arynë. "But - well, didn't you guys talk...earlier?"
"Yes, but this sheds new light - " began Melysë.
"Arynë, I will teach you to be the best warrior you can be," said Xena, eyeing the girl intently. "We'll begin your training after your Initiation."
"Oh, tanti - Aunt!" cried the girl flinging her arms around the warrior's neck. "Thank-you!"
"Don't thank me yet," said Xena seriously. "I will be a hard task-mistress and there may be days you hate me - no, listen. There may days you hate me, days when you think I am the meanest human being that ever walked the earth. But remember this - if I'm hard on you it's because I love you so much, I don't want to see you dead because of a stupid mistake. Go to bed, now."
"Xena, what - ?" started Melysë after Arynë left.
"Ares is after her," said Xena, grimly. "I told you she had more raw talent than anyone - recruit or veteran - I have ever seen. And she has a warrior's senses - that must how she can detect Ares' presence. Not every warrior has that sense, but the one's who do, generally live long enough to retire. The sense gives them that much more of an edge. She already walks the Way of the Warrior. If I don't train her, guide her away from Ares' twisted plans, she will end up in his hands. She may not trust him now, but believe me, I know firsthand just how convincing he can be."
Melysë shuddered, and Xena, her shoulder pain free after her afternoon nap under the priestess's healing touch, returned the favour and put her arms around her friend, holding the trembling Amazon, offering what comfort she could. "Goddess, Xena, that's frightening," said Melysë.
"Don't worry - Ares and I are old adversaries," said Xena, quietly. "I know how to handle him. He's not going to get hold of her while I live."
"Arynë, are you worried about...you know, our test?" asked Tecmessa.
"No," replied Arynë, sleepily. Arynë was sleeping over in the House of Maidens since Xena was recuperating in her bed in her mother's cottage, and she would have had to share a bed with her little sister otherwise. Of course the fact that it was always like a slumber party in the House of Maidens hadn't helped her decision any! She had made the decision to remain in her mother's cottage instead of going to live in the House of Maidens - as most girls her age now did, in preparation for their Initiation - because Xena was there and Arynë adored her godsmother.
Each of her age-mates would be issued a test or challenge - to find their totem spirit. Arynë knew, though, that the spirit would find them. Her mother had told her about it - a little - so that she wouldn't be frightened. Actually, Arynë was excited. The girls would be sent into the forest with only a tunic, trousers, and a small knife. They had to stay and to survive on their own until their totem came to help them and lead them out of the woods. Arynë had grown up in the woods, tagging along with her mother and Xena, and had learned from her mother which plants were good for healing certain ailments, which were good for food, and which ones to avoid. She had learned from both her mother and Xena the names of the animals and birds and trees. She had learned which stones contained power. She had learned how travel in the tree-tops like most Amazons did. She had learned how to listen so that she could hear the voices of the plants and the stones and the animals and then she could communicate with all the creatures and spirits of the forest. She
had learned on her own how to hunt respectfully, knowing which creatures were willing to sacrifice their own lives to feed others, hastening their way back to the Womb of the Great Mother to be re-born anew. She had learned from the spirits of the forest where the sacred places of power were and avoided those which were forbidden to her, but to those in which she was permitted, she would go to pray and meditate. The creatures of the forest knew her and trusted her. Arynë loved being in the woods and she knew she would pass the test easily. She wondered which shape her totem would take, but it didn't matter. She counted most, if not all, her friends; all creatures were noble to her, and she loved them all already.
"Your mother," said Tecmessa. "She has the snow leopard, doesn't she?"
"My mother is the snow-leopard," said Arynë. "Go to sleep, Tecmessa."
"Have you ever...seen...?" said Tecmessa, ignoring her friend.
"Yeah, once - when someone was keeping her awake!" said Arynë, tossing a pillow at her best friend, then giggling, she sat up. She sensed Tecmessa's apprehension. "Actually, I have seen her once, but I was pretty little. You remember when those warlords invaded - it was my first Initiation."
"Yeah, that one, Scolopota - he actually grabbed you and rode off," said Tecmessa, shuddering.
"Yeah," said Arynë, Lying on her stomach, remembering. "He was riding through the festival, killing Amazons. I had grabbed a sword - it was way too heavy and I don't know what I thought I was going to do with it, but it seemed right, you know? Did I get scolded for that afterward! Both Xena and Mother laid into me, and I'm not sure which one was worse! Anyway, then I was on that black horse, galloping."
"Were you scared?" asked Tecmessa, breathless.
"Of course!" said Arynë. "I'd have been pretty stupid not to be. I was terrified. But then my mother was galloping behind us, on Argo - "
"Xena let her ride Argo?" said Tecmessa, awed.
"Mother said it was more Argo letting her ride, but yeah," said Arynë. "Anyway, Mother threw a lightning bolt and hit Scolopota. He fell off the horse, and the horse just kept going. I was really scared, then, but I asked the horse to turn around and go back - and it did."
"Your Mother threw a lightening bolt - maybe I should become a priestess," said Tecmessa.
"My Mother's father is - was - Zeus," said Arynë.
"Oh, yeah," said Tecmessa. "Well, then what happened next?"
"Actually, I don't remember anything after that until Gabrielle put me to bed," said Arynë. "I woke up and my mother was asleep next to me. And then Xena took me to the Temple because that other Warlord, Agres, was attacking."
"So when did your Mother become the leopard?" asked Tecmessa, eyes wide.
"You remember when Gabrielle and Mother put us all in that room behind the altar?" asked Arynë
"Well, I peeked through the spyhole," said Arynë, remembering. "Mother and Gabrielle were fighting a bunch of men. I had never seen Mother fight before - I was impressed, I remember - I didn't even think she could fight until then. All of a sudden, she was the snow-leopard, but she was Mother at the same time. The men were scared and ran off. Even Gabrielle looked a little nervous. I was really proud of Mother, though. I knew then that we were all going to be ok. But then, Mother ran out of the Temple. When she came back, all I saw was her falling. Then Xena was there and she was bleeding. I got scared again. But Mother knew what to do. She put me to work and I just forgot about being scared."
"Arynë," whispered Tecmessa. "What do you think your totem will be?"
"I don't know," said Arynë, smiling at her friend. "I wouldn't worry. Mother says a person can have more than one, and whichever one we need at that time will come and help us."
"I just hope mine's not a...a mouse or something," said Tecmessa, yawning.
"Even a mouse can teach you something, Silly," said Arynë laughing, softly and hugging her friend, as both girls went to sleep.
It was the night of the new moon. The woods were dark, and the thirteen Initiates shivered - some with apprehension, some with anticipation. Some just felt the chill through their thin tunics. Melysë and Xena and a group of the other mothers were sending the girls into the forest for their test. The girls were to survive on their own until their totem spirits came to them. The mothers had not told their daughters, but they would also be watching, undetectable to the girls, just in case. It was cold and Queen Melysë passed around a hot brew to warm them before they set off. The brew, unknown to the girls, contained a very mild drug to open them up to the spirits they sought - who were seeking them.
The girls set off in separate directions. Arynë hugged Tecmessa in encouragement before taking to the treetops. She liked to travel in the trees best of all. She would be in the forest for at least a few days, she thought, so she scouted likely branches in which to sleep. She found an old willow tree with sweeping branches and a trunk so large her arms wouldn't reach all the way around. Swinging up on its branches, Arynë found a broad limb. As dark as the night was, Arynë felt all of her senses sharply and she could see as well as if the moon was full. She cut several of the flexible branches with her knife, thanking the tree for its sacrifice and wove them into a mat. She sat up on the limb, wrapping the mat around herself for warmth, and stared out through the leaves at the stars.
The stars seemed to swirl into pictures. Arynë saw the Dragon and Pegasus and the Bear - at least Gabrielle always called it a bear. Xena seemed to think it was a drinking vessel. She saw the Ram, the Bull, Kastor and Pollux, the Crab, the Lion, the Maiden, the Scales, the Scorpion, the Centaur, the Goat, the Waterer, and the Fish. Arynë, daughter of a priestess, knew that she couldn't really be seeing them all at the same time, but she was, and as she watched, they spun around, faster and faster, until they were a blur, then they stopped and the proper constellations were visible in their places, as they should be. Suddenly, Arynë felt a twinge of unease. She looked down and saw Ares, walking through the forest. What's he doing here? she thought, frowning to herself. Looking for me. Silently, Arynë watched her mother's brother look around. She withdrew deeper into the branches, making herself invisible, as Xena had taught her, holding perfectly still until he passed. I should warn Mother, she thought. But how?
Suddenly, Arynë heard the howl of a wolf. Before she could stop, she answered it. Shocked at herself, she leaped down from the tree and ran - on all fours - toward the direction of the other howl. Suddenly, the hooting of an owl interrupted her run. She stopped and stood, then she was soaring high above the treetops, her sharp eyes seeking movement below. She landed in the willow again, then climbed down, her bear-body's claws leaving deep grooves in the trunk. She stood and walked on two legs before running to meet the herd of deer gathering to drink at the river, but before she arrived, she crouched down in the tall grasses, knowing her lion-scent would scatter them before she could pounce. Soon, Arynë noticed the sky lightening to grey in the pre-dawn hour. As a human, she walked to the river. The Deer still there did not run from her as she stooped to drink from her cupped hand.
Arynë sat on the bank of the river, watching the sun rise. She dozed a little and when she awoke, she saw that the deer had gone, but in her lap, asleep, was the head of the lioness, and off a little distance was the rest of the deer she had killed - and left for Arynë. The girl felt no fear. Her totem would not harm her, but she was still careful not to wake the great cat - more out of politeness than anything else, for she knew how she hated to be awakened before she was ready - as she rose and began to gather wood for a fire.
Once she had gathered enough wood, Arynë found the stones with flint and steel and sparked a fire, over which she cooked the meat the lion had brought to her. Her totem awoke and stretched. Just like one of Mother's pet cats! thought Arynë, delighted.
Hardly, came the word in her mind.
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Arynë aloud. "I meant no offence."
None taken, was the reply.
"Thank-you for the food," said Arynë. "I was pretty hungry."
I know. You don't have to speak aloud. I can hear you when you think to me.
"Oh, okay," thought Arynë
"Are you going to eat that or burn it?" said the Lioness.
"I'm going to cook it - then eat it," replied Arynë.
"Ugh," said the Lioness, yawning.
"Yeah, well, I know plenty of people who say the same about the way you eat meat," chuckled Arynë.
"Your mother knows how to eat meat," said the Lioness.
"Yeah, I know," said Arynë wrinkling her nose. "She'll give the outside a token 'browning', but it's still pretty bloody. What do I call you?"
"Your human mouth and throat couldn't say my true name, but I will give it to you, anyway - in perfect love and perfect trust," said the Lioness, and she proceeded to make a series of chuffing noises. "You may call me 'Julitë', though."
"Julitë," said Arynë. "In perfect love and perfect trust - just like in the oath of the Amazons - I give you my true name, known only to my Mother and godsmothers. I am 'Taidialù'. It means 'Moon-Blessed' in the Amazon language."
"It is a good name. Very fitting to you, Princess," said Julitë, laying her massive head between her paws, and dozing off as Arynë sat to eat her meal.
Arynë, after eating the heavy meal, also dozed off. When she awoke, Julitë was gone. Alarmed, Arynë looked around. Be easy, Little Sister, came the words in her mind. Just because you do not see me doesn't mean I'm not with you. I am always with you. When you call upon me, you will have all of my skills and whatever else I can give you, for you have given me the greatest gift of all -
perfect love and perfect trust.
Arynë smiled, and started back to the Amazon village, running through the treetops.
The day of Initiation dawned clear and bright. Gabrielle had arrived the day before, bringing her three little girls. It was a very happy reunion. Gabrielle had composed a scroll of Amazon myths and tales from her lost Tribe in honour of Arynë's Initiation and she promised she would read it at the feast after the ceremony. Melysë, as the Priestess-Queen of the Tribe, was officiating at the ceremonies. She hadn't had much time to spend with her friend yet, but she was hoping to get her to stay until after this baby was born.
Gabrielle was just happy to be with the Amazons. Every Amazon knew that Gabrielle was a queen in her own right, and gave her due respect and deference, but also treated her as a sister Amazon, and as a bard, she was much in demand for her stories. She had ample baby-sitters for her little girls - Arynë being the foremost. She viewed Gabrielle's offspring as more little sisters and Selenë didn't mind sharing her big sister as long as she had so many extra playmates to take Arynë's place. Gabrielle's eldest, Ephiny, was about Selenë's age, and the two little girls shared a room when Gabrielle visited, staying up late, giggling and whispering. Three-year old Terreis and one-year-old Lilia tagged along after the older girls and Arynë drafted Tecmessa to help her entertain them all.
"She's a good girl," Gabrielle commented on Arynë to Xena. "She always has been, though."
"Yeah," agreed Xena, sharpening her sword. "She'll be Warrior Queen after me."
"How do you know that? I thought Melysë was sending her to Ephesus," said Gabrielle.
Xena sighed. "Gabrielle, she's a natural," said Xena. "She has so much talent and natural ability, she's attracted...certain attention."
"What attention?" asked Gabrielle. Xena merely looked at her, grimly. "Not...Ares? I thought he was mortal now."
"Oh, he is," said Xena. "He can be killed in every conventional manner imaginable - and I have imagined them all. But as long as his ambrosia holds out, he retains most - if not all - of his godly powers."
"Xena, what are we going to do?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm going to train her," said Xena. Gabrielle started to protest. "No, Gabrielle, listen. If I can teach Arynë to avoid the mistakes I made, I can keep her out of Ares's hands. She already doesn't trust him - I need to keep her there. Ares can be very persuasive, and no one knows that better than me."
"And Melysë is ok with this?" asked Gabrielle.
"No," said Xena, sharpening. "But she agrees with me, it's the only way to protect her."
"Oh, gods," said Gabrielle, with a sigh.
"Yep," said Xena.
The Initiation ceremony was an Amazon girl's acceptance into the Sisterhood of the Amazon Nation and marked her as an adult. As Arynë stood with the other girls, wearing her lioness mask for the first time, she spoke the words of the Oath. Her heart felt like bursting. Never had the words held so much meaning for her and she now knew why this was so solemn a ceremony, even though she felt joy enough to explode.
"I, Arynë, daughter of Melysë, in perfect love and perfect trust, accept the sisterhood of the Tribe and the Amazon Nation. From this day hence, I accept sole responsibility for my own actions. I pledge myself and all my skills and abilities to the service of the Goddess and my sisters. From this day forward, every Amazon shall be to me a mother, sister, or daughter. I pledge my arms in
defence of my sisters and the Amazon Nation. I pledge my labours to the benefit of the Tribe. I pledge my loyalty and obedience to the Queens and the Elders. I pledge to always act honourably so that the reputation of the Amazons shall not be sullied in the world of men, but I shall show honour most of all in all my dealings with my sisters. I pledge to respect the traditions of the Amazons and to live by the laws of the Nation. Any Amazon may come to me in need and find
succour, and I know that I may turn in need to my sisters and find refuge. I promise that I will never cease to grow, to learn, and to improve, but shall always strive to become my best, and I shall help my sisters to do the same. By the grace and the will of the Goddess, as I do vow, so mote it be."
Melysë held out her hands in blessing over the thirteen Initiates. "I, Queen and Priestess, do accept your vows, and offer the blessings of the Goddess," she said, smiling. "The Tribe and the Amazon Nation accept you as sisters and as women of the Tribe and members of the Amazon Nation. From this day and to Eternity, you will always have the love, the respect, and the sisterhood of the Tribe and the Nation. May you find love and light in the community of Amazon sisterhood. Never will you be bereft of home or family, for any Tribe will accept you as a member of the Nation. You are women now, and Amazons - wear that name with pride and honour. Blessed Be!"
The Amazons cheered for their new sisters, as their mothers kissed them on the cheek and presented them with the traditional gifts. Melysë slipped a silver ring worked to resemble a rose, with a red stone representing the blossom on her daughter's finger and hugged her.
"The rose is an ancient symbol of the Great Goddess," she said. "May you always feel Her Presence within you, my daughter."
"Oh, thank-you, Mother," said Arynë, softly, her eyes shining with unshed tears.
"Arynë, I want you to have this," said Gabrielle, handing her a staff, well-worn, but still oiled and cared for lovingly.
"Oh, tanti," whispered Arynë. "I - I can't believe you would part with this!"
"I want you to have it. Ephiny - not little Ephiny, of course - a very dear friend and my first teacher gave it to me. And she had it from her mother. It's been through a lot, but I think it will serve you well," said Gabrielle, allowing her own tears to fall, grateful that Xena had thought to pull the old
staff out the Ganges, after all.
"For sentimental reasons, Gabrielle," Xena explained, stepping out of the river, holding the dripping staff aloft. Gabrielle had merely nodded and allowed Xena to carry it in the sheath she'd made for it on Argo's saddle until they got to Amphipolis. Cyrenê had kept it for her there, "In case your own daughter wants it someday," Xena's mother had said, kindly.
Well, her daughter had looked at the staff and asked for a pair of chobos instead. It felt right, somehow, to pass the staff on to her godsdaughter. She knew Arynë would use it well and always in the interest of the greater good, even as she had.
"I - thank-you," said Arynë, hugging her.
"Arynë," Xena said, motioning for her to join her, a little away from the others. Arynë walked to her other godsmother. Xena turned her around, and hooked a breastplate on her, then slid a pair of gauntlets over her arms, and kissed her cheek. "You know that you're a daughter to me, as well - the daughter of my heart," she said. "And someday, you will be a mighty Warrior Queen. I am
very proud of you." Arynë couldn't stop the tears from spilling out, but was surprised to see them glistening on Xena's face as well.
"Hey, wait! Like, you can't leave me out of this love-fest!" Arynë and Xena turned to see Aphrodite, goddess of love and Melysë's sister, Arynë's third godsmother. "Aphrodite," said Arynë, hugging her. "Long time no see - but I'm glad you're here."
"Yeah, well, since so few of us gods are left, I have a lot more to do, now," she said. "But I couldn't miss this. Here's 'little' Arynë, all grown up and an Amazon, now. But hey, I have a present for you, too. Here." Aphrodite had handed Arynë a small, pink silk pouch. Arynë started to open it. "No - not here," said Aphrodite, looking around. "Save that for when you, like, really, really need it. And whatever you do, don't let my brother have it - or even, you know, like, know that you have it."
"What is it?" asked Xena.
"Ambrosia," replied Aphrodite. "Got to fly!" Aphrodite winked out before Xena or Arynë could say anything.
The pouch made Arynë's fingers tingle in a way that was somehow ...familiar, but not unpleasant... "Here, Xena," said Arynë, handing her the pouch. "I'm afraid to keep it."
"No," said Xena. "Aphrodite gave that to you for a reason."
"What was that all about?" asked Gabrielle as she and Melysë approached.
"Aphrodite had an Initiation gift for me," said Arynë, handing the pouch to her mother. Melysë opened it and looked inside. "Ambrosia?! What was she thinking?" cried the Queen.
"Shhh," said Xena. "We don't want to attract any unwanted attention."
"You mean Ares," said Arynë, quietly, looking down at the pouch she held gingerly. "He'd do just about anything to get his hands on this - or to get me to eat it; make me into some kind of 'Ultimate Warrior Goddess', or something."
"You are very wise, my daughter," said Melysë, gathering the girl into her arms. "But Ares can't make you do anything you don't want to do."
"Mother, Ares can't come inside the Temple, can he?" asked Arynë.
"No, the Ancient Priestesses set wards about the Temple to keep all males out," replied the Queen. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it's the only place I feel really safe," replied the girl.
"Arynë," said Xena, gently. "Ares may still have god-powers, but he is mortal. He can't harm you - I won't let him."
"Thank-you, tanti," said Arynë, quietly. "I'm glad you're going to train me - then I can be the one to not let him."
"Arynë, you have a feast to attend," said Melysë firmly. "Go on, join your friends. Have fun. And don't worry - Ares wouldn't dare show up here right now."
"Okay, meia - I mean, Mother," said Arynë, smiling, and going off to the feast.
"I have something to do," said Xena, leaving abruptly. Gabrielle sighed.
"She's going to go beat up on Ares, isn't she?" asked Melysë.
"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "Yeah, she is."
"Damn!" said Melysë, grinning. "Wish I could watch!"
The two friends laughed and joined the feast.
Xena rode Argo to the river. She halted and then dismounted before calling out. "Ares," she said. "Ares, you coward, get out here - now!"
"Hey," said Ares, approaching from the trees. "A little harsh, aren't we? I mean, really, 'coward'?"
"Shut up and listen," said Xena, unsheathing her sword.
"Now wait a minute, Xena," said Ares, backing away.
"No you wait a minute," said Xena through clenched teeth. "You leave Arynë alone. She is not going to be my 'successor' to your sick plans for conquering the world."
"Oh really," said Ares, crossing his arms and cocking an eyebrow. "Well, you are training her to be your successor, aren't you?"
"Yeah," said Xena. "To her rightful heritage as Warrior Queen of the Amazons - not your war-queen. I'm going to teach her how to prevent war, not start it."
"Come on, Xena!" said Ares. "I was good to you. Remember how it felt? Remember the music of your army shouting your name as a battle cry? The respect and awe you received from those you conquered? The awesome, godlike feeling when you swept through a village or town and knew that it was yours to do with as you pleased. And wealth? You had it all, Xena, and you could have had more if you'd just stuck it out with me. Just like Arynë could have it all - all the respect, the acclaim, the power, the wealth - everything."
"Don't forget the nightmares, Ares," said Xena. "The echoes of my victims' screams as their blood spilled out around my sword, the smell of their fear as they lost control of their bodily functions - and let's not forget the guilt and the hatred of decent people, people I loved and respected who wouldn't even look at me - my own mother, for one. No, Ares, it wasn't worth it."
"That's Arynë's choice to make," said Ares.
"She's already made it, Ares," said Xena.
"We'll see," said Ares, laughing as he faded.
Xena swore, as she leapt aboard Argo and raced back to the Amazon village. She swept into the feasting area and sought out Melysë and Gabrielle.
"We have to talk - in private. The Temple," said Xena, and they gathered inside the Temple. "He's going after Arynë. We have to change our plans. I think she needs to go to Ephesus after all. She'll be safer there, for now."
"But Xena, she doesn't want to go," said Melysë. "She'll see this as a betrayal of trust. You promised to train her."
"I know," said Xena. "And I will - at Ephesus. I'm going with her. I think the Temple there is the safest place for her while I teach her. He won't ever let up on her while he has access to her."
"How long is she going to have to keep hiding?" asked Melysë. "No, Xena, I won't have her living in fear for the rest of her life. I'm going to talk to Ares - "
"It won't do any good," said Xena. "He's determined to have Arynë become his own personal war queen - my successor. He will keep after her until she turns into what I once was. And if she doesn't turn he'll kill her - to get back at me."
"You gotta love the irony," said Gabrielle.
"No," said Melysë, after a moment. "You're right. Aphrodite is the one I need to talk to. You two go on back and enjoy the feast. Keep an eye on 'Ryn for me, will you?"
"Sure," said Gabrielle, as they rose and left.
"Aphrodite?" Melysë called. "Hey, I know you're busy, but this is really important. Please, 'Big Sister'? I really need you."
"Ok, ok," said the shimmering pink form, materialising into the beautiful blonde goddess. "I can't resist that mushy stuff. What do you need, 'Little Sister'?"
"'Dite, my daughter is in trouble," said Melysë.
"Yeah, I know," said Aphrodite. "Ares has that bug up his butt about replacing Xena again and he sees your little girl as the perfect solution - you know, beautiful, lethal, looks good in leather - and young enough to convince he's right about everything. And she actually has a little god-blood in her, being Zeus' grand-daughter, and all."
"Yes, well, I have a little god-blood in me, too," said Melysë. "And I am one pissed off and protective mother. If Ares so much as - "
"Look," said Aphrodite. "Promise you won't get all mad or anything, but I have to tell you something."
"'Dite, I'm already mad," said Melysë. "But not at you. Tell me."
"Well, you might, like get mad at me when you hear it," said the goddess, trying to charm the Amazon out of any potential anger by smiling. It wasn't working, for once. "Alright, alright, the reason I gave Arynë ambrosia is...well, ok, you know how, like, I told you that , what with so many gods gone, I was getting a little over worked? I mean, gee, I haven't even had my shell out to shoot the curling air currents around Mt. Olympus in about a gazillion years, I never get to have any fun anymore, and there's no one to like, talk to, ya know?"
"'Dite, for the record, you can always come and talk to me - about anything. I mean that," said Melysë, her heart softening - a little. "But what were you going to tell me? About Arynë?"
"Oh, okay," said Aphrodite, stunned by her sister's genuine offer of friendship. "Well, see, when you were having Arynë, I got kinda scared for you. I mean, when Cupid was born, it hurt a lot, yeah, but, like, I thought you were gonna, you know, like die, or something. Even Xena was worried, and I have never seen that before. I figured if Xena was worried, it was, like real important I get some help. So I went and saw my grandma. Only we gods call her 'Mother'."
"The 'Mother of the Gods,"" whispered Melysë, reverently. "The Goddess of the Amazons - you went to Her...for me?"
"Well, yeah, I mean, She's really way cool, you know? And She, like, knows a lotta neat stuff," said Aphrodite. "Anyway, I went and told Her what was happening with you, but She said She already knew and that you were gonna be okay. She really likes you, Little Sister - you're Her Chosen, you know."
"No, I didn't know," said Melysë, softly.
"Yeah, well, She said you were already in the Place of Souls getting your daughter," said Aphrodite. "But then she told me who was being re-born in your daughter. And that's why I gave 'Ryn the ambrosia."
"Aphrodite, who was reborn in Arynë?" asked Melysë, patiently - well, outwardly so, anyway.
"Oh, yeah," grinned Aphrodite. "I almost forgot the most important thing, didn't I? Well, like I said before, I've been kinda over-worked and sorta lonely for another goddess, you know? So when I found out Artemis had been reborn..."
"Artemis?!" cried Melysë. "Are you telling me the soul of the goddess Artemis has been reborn through my daughter?"
"Well, yeah," said Aphrodite, with a pretty shrug. "Art' and I used to get along pretty good, and I thought it would be fun to get with her and chill a little, you know? So I gave the ambrosia to Arynë because if she tastes it, she'll, you know, remember who she was. Now don't be mad at me - I told 'Ryn to only use it if she really needed it - Art' always kicked Ares' butt, and I figured 'Ryn might need to be able to do that, too."
"'Dite, I'm not mad at you," said Melysë, sighing. "It's a lot to take in, though."
"Yeah, I guess," said Aphrodite, sympathetically. "Listen, I got some for you, too."
"Why, who am I supposed to remember to be?" asked Melysë, frowning.
"Oh, I don't know," said Aphrodite. "Mother didn't tell me - you me to go ask? Because if..."
"No, 'Dite, no," said Melysë, quickly before the goddess could disappear. "That's alright - it's probably better I don't know."
"Okay, well, anyway, here," said Aphrodite, handing the pouch to the Amazon. Melysë felt her fingers tingling, anticipation warmed her stomach, and she quickly tucked the pouch into her belt. "Just don't tell that goody-goody hagster, Hestia. I sorta sneaked it from her kitchen."
"Hestia makes the ambrosia?" asked Melysë.
"Yeah, but she won't give any to Ares because he's so - well, he's Ares," said Aphrodite. "He's got a stash of it hoarded, but no one knows where. But you could probably get to it."
"How if you can't?" asked Melysë.
"Well, you're an Amazon," said Aphrodite. "Amazons have their own ways - you know, tracking and hunting and stuff. And with god-powers, you'd be able get to it and get it away from Ares. And you have Xena and Gabrielle. When those two get together, no one can stand in their way. I should know. Like the time I had this diamond? And, well, anyway it's a long story, but they got it away from my guys and put it back."
"Aphrodite, I don't know," said Melysë. "Godhood - that's quite a decision."
"Hey, it's up to you," said Aphrodite. "Take it now and decide later if you want it."
"Thank-you - Sister," said Melysë, smiling. "For everything. Will you join the feast? It's an Amazon tradition - party for every occasion - even if you have to make the occasion up. It could be fun."
"Nah - I gotta go meet Cupid. His little boy, Bliss wandered off again and we gotta find him before - anyway, thanks," said the goddess, sparkling away.
Melysë turned to the altar, her mind and her heart were full. She looked to the Goddess - Who had Chosen her - to ask for guidance.
Hours later, the Queen left the Temple, wandering among the women of the Tribe, greeting them here and there.
"Mother," said Arynë, bringing her a bowl of her favourite roasted meat and some boiled white-root. "Here, you must be hungry."
"Thank-you, Sweet-heart," said Melysë, hugging her and kissing her forehead. "Are you having fun, my love?"
"Oh, yes," said Arynë. "I - I hope you don't mind, but Tecmessa and I were going to - "
"Go on, Darling," laughed Melysë. "Have fun."
Xena approached from behind Melysë. "What happened?" she asked, quietly.
"What do you mean?" asked Melysë, turning to face her.
Xena grabbed her by the shoulders. "You did it, didn't you?" she asked, looking intently into Melysë's eyes.
"Let go of me, Xena," said Melysë, looking away and pulling out of the warrior's grasp. "You of all people should understand that I will do anything to protect my children."
"You ate ambrosia," said Xena, sadly.
"So? What if I did?" said Melysë. "I have the right. I am Zeus' daughter - I knew all it would take was a taste to become a full goddess. Now I have the power to defeat Ares and to protect my daughter."
"Xena, Melysë," said Gabrielle, short of breath. "Ares has Selenë."
"Ares took Selenë?" asked Melysë, calm belying her terror. "When?"
"She and Ephiny were playing near the stables," said Gabrielle. "Ephiny said Selenë's 'uncle' came and said he was taking Selenë for a ride. Selenë went with him and Ephiny came and told me."
"Mother," Arynë said, running up to Melysë. "Is it true? Did Ares take Selenë?"
"Yes," said Melysë, grimly. "But I'm going to get her back."
"I told her not to talk to him unless you or Xena was there," said Arynë. "I'm going with you."
"Yes," said Melysë, resignedly. "I know you will - with or without my permission. So go and gear up. We're riding tonight to the Halls of War."
"Wait!" said Gabrielle. "You can't take Arynë - she's the one he's after - that's why he took Selenë."
"No, Gabrielle," said Xena. "She's right. Arynë would just follow after, anyway. This way we can protect her. I'm going too."
"Gabrielle, I need a huge favour," said Melysë, laying a gentle hand on the bard's shoulder. "The Amazons can't be left without a queen. You're the only who can lead the Tribe in our absence. Will you stay here and take our place till we come back?"
"If you come back," said Gabrielle. "Of course I'll do it. Be safe, Sisters. Bring our little girl home."
"Thank-you," said Melysë, going off to get ready.
"Gabrielle," said Xena.
"Like old times?" said Gabrielle, grinning.
"Won't be the same without you," said Xena, smiling back.
"Yeah, it'll be a lot quieter," said Gabrielle. "Remember how you used to complain about my talking all the time?"
"Yeah, but that talking saved my hide plenty of times," said Xena, hugging her best friend.
The three women set off that night, setting up camp a few hours before dawn. Arynë fell into an exhausted sleep as soon as she hit her bedroll. Melysë and Xena sat up before the campfire for a while longer.
"Xena," began Melysë. "I - "
"Melysë, I'm sorry for what I said - about the ambrosia," said Xena. "You're right - I of all people should know what lengths a mother will go to protect her child."
"Xena I was going to say, I didn't - yet," said Melysë, smiling. "That conversation was for Ares' benefit. I knew he was around, watching and listening."
"So, I apologised for nothing?" said Xena, tossing a blanket at her friend, playfully. Melysë laughed.
"No, I enjoyed it," she said. "It's not often you're wrong. I don't know if I'll use it, but having it is a comfort. You know, Xena, I have been priestess to the Great Goddess for most of my life. In my experience, Aphrodite and Ares are very different from what I have come to know as 'gods'. Aphrodite - I love her - I can't help myself. She acts a little silly, but to me it's charming."
"You've never been at the wrong end of one of her little self-serving plots," said Xena. "Did Gabrielle ever tell you about the time she put a spell on us because we were after a diamond she stole and all I could think about was fishing? And Gabrielle! All she could think about was herself. And Joxer..." Xena told the story only slightly less well than Gabrielle would have and Melysë found herself giggling at the antics of her friends.
"I can't believe I missed that scroll. But Xena," said Melysë. "There was no deliberate cruelty. A little mischief, yes, but certainly no malevolence. Not like Ares. And for your information, we just escaped one of her 'plots'." Melysë relayed her conversation with the goddess to her companion. "Good thing 'Dite had an attack of conscience. I hate to think what 'Ryn would go through, being burdened with the responsibilities of godhood at her age."
"That's the difference between you and the Olympians," said Xena quietly.
"What?" said Melysë. "What do you mean?"
"I was thinking the other day about how I've always resented the Olympians and the way they interfered with our lives," said Xena. "I haven't had much use for gods, as a rule. But with you and Hercules, it's different. I respect you... aw Tartarus, I love you... I forget sometimes you're a goddess...."
"Demi-goddess - only a half-blood," said Melysë, grinning.
"It wouldn't matter," said Xena, seriously. "Even if you used ambrosia to become a full goddess, I would feel the same. Because you see godhood as a responsibility. Not an excuse to play with mortals or use your powers for your own whims. That's the difference."
"Xena, do you know what I see when I look at you?" asked Melysë, smiling fondly at the warrior.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid to ask," she said.
"Silly, I see the Face of the Goddess," said Melysë. "Everything you do - like when I was pregnant with Selenë and I really had to have squid...in the dead of winter, you went out and got some for me. I don't know where or how you did it, but you did. Or when 'Ryn had the high fever and everything I tried didn't work, you climbed that mountain and somehow brought snow without it melting - packing her in that saved her life. Every time I'm overwhelmed - with the girls, with the Tribe, with the neighbouring kingdoms - whatever it is, you're there, ready to listen and help take some of the burden off of me. You remind me every day that I am loved - that I am important, not as a queen or a priestess, or even an Amazon, but just as me, Melysë. That is your gift to me, and you are the Goddess' gift. I don't think I've ever said this before, but it's about time I did, Thank-you, Xena. And thank-you to the Goddess within you."
"If this goddess is inside of me, then how could I...how could I have done all the terrible things I did... before...?" asked Xena, quietly.
"All those things in your past, Xena, as terrible as they may have been, are part of what makes you the great person you have become," said Melysë. "We all have to choose our paths. And each path, no matter where or what it is, leads to the same place - to who we are and who we are to become. Your path was dark for a while. But something, some spark of the Divine, inside of you must have felt that you were going the wrong way, because you chose to stop and make amends, putting you back on the path you were always meant to walk."
"I had help," said Xena.
"Gabrielle," said Melysë, smiling.
"Yeah, Gabrielle kept me on the straight and narrow," said Xena, smiling wistfully. "But it was Lao Ma who planted the seeds - showed me that I didn't have to keep doing what I was doing. She showed me a glimpse of what I could be. But it took many years of that vision clouding and clearing before Hercules finally opened my heart to allow myself to choose what I could become. Gabrielle was the wedge that helped keep that door open over the years, until finally, I came to you. And from you, I learned that I could forgive myself and move on. I never felt I deserved that forgiveness before."
"Xena," said Melysë, softly. "All those people wore the face of the Goddess for you, even if you didn't recognise it at the time. You, too are a part of Her, and She does live within you. I know because when I look at you, I see the face of the Goddess and Her infinite love for all of Her children."
"You know who else wears the face of the Goddess? You do - the Mother, loving, nurturing; and the Warrior, full of honour and integrity, protecting her children; the Wisewoman, revealing wisdom and truth," said Xena. "If anyone I know can handle the power of godhood, you can."
"Thank-you, Xena, but let's hope we don't have to find out for sure," said Melysë, smiling warmly at the compliment. "We should try to sleep now. I'll take first watch, if you like."
"You've been up since dawn, priestessing," said Xena, shaking her head. "And I think you'll have need of rest more than I will when we find Ares. You sleep, I'll watch, and wake you when it's time to go."
Melysë awoke to the sound of swords clashing, and leapt up, alarmed, then relaxed when she saw Xena had started the training sessions with Arynë. She got up and packed up the campsite, while the other two had their morning workout, then she got them back on the road. They arrived at the Halls of War in record time. Melysë banged on the massive iron doors and slowly they swung inward to reveal a dark corridor. Melysë looked at her companions and then dismounted, approaching the corridor. Xena and Arynë followed.
"Where do you suppose he has Selenë?" whispered Arynë.
"I don't know," replied Melysë. "She may not even be here - Ares could have stashed her anywhere, but so help me, I will kick my brother's butt from here to Eternity if he so much as - " Suddenly, torches flared from their sconces along the walls of the corridor, illuminating the way to Ares' Great Hall. On the walls of the Great Hall hung tapestries depicting battles - mostly bloody - and many of them were of Xena in her warlord days. Weapons were also prominently displayed along the walls. At the end of the Hall was a throne, empty now.
"Well, she's not in here," said Xena, eager to get her friends away from the accurate depictions of her earlier - and bloodier - days.
"It's ok, Xena," said Arynë, placing a gentle hand on Xena's arm. "That's not who you are now. And it's not what I want to be, either."
Xena smiled at the girl. "You are your mother's daughter," she said.
"Xena, 'Ryn, come here," said Melysë from an alcove, hidden in shadows. "Bring a torch." Arynë grabbed a torch and she and Xena went towards the sound of Melysë's voice. "Oh, Goddess," whispered Melysë, her voice catching, as the torch illuminated the alcove.
There, tucked behind a tapestry, was a small shrine. Melysë saw the bow and quiver of arrows which had belonged to Olympian Artemis, Athena's flaming sword and Gorgon-headed aegis, Hephaestus' chains, Hades' Helmet of Invisibility, which Haephestus had replaced after Xena had destroyed the first one, Hera's peacock feathers, Poseidon's Trident - all the mementoes of his lost family that Ares could find and collect.
"How sad," said Arynë, absently fingering Artemis' bow as she looked at the shrine. "I never would have thought that Ares - "
"He gave up his immortality to save my daughter and my best friend," said Xena, quietly. "And in so doing, allowed me the power to kill his family. All because he loved me, he said. I should have realised..."
"Xena," said Melysë, gently. "You did what you had to do - and so did Ares. Look - there's the ambrosia."
Melysë reached down and got the food of the gods which was conferring god-powers upon the now-mortal Ares, and placed it into a pouch at her belt.
"Do you think that's all of it?" asked Xena.
"I don't know, but according to Aphrodite, every bit he has is precious to him," replied the Amazon Queen.
"Mother, do you think that - ?" began Arynë, quickly pulling her hand away from the bow, as if just realising she was handling holy relics.
"'Ryn, he has Selenë," said Melysë, firmly. "And until we get her back, we can't afford to be soft-hearted."
"No, not until after you get her back," said Xena, smiling gently, and shaking her head. "But I know you like a scroll, Melysë. You'll not only give it back to him, you'll ensure he has it whenever he needs it."
"I think this shows he's not all evil," said Melysë. "Besides, he is family..."
"And you have a soft heart," said Xena, grinning. "That's ok - it means there's hope for miscreants like me. Come on, let's get out of here - these tapestries are giving me the creeps."
The women left the Halls of War and set up camp a few miles away. None of them slept, though, awaiting Ares. He was not long in coming to them.
"Ares," said Melysë, rising to her feet. "Where is my daughter?"
"Let me guess - you want to trade?" said the god of war, eyes literally flaming. "Did you have a good laugh on the has-been war god? How in Tartarus did you get in there?!"
"No," said Melysë, quietly, looking down. "I - we didn't laugh."
"Don't you dare pity me!" roared Ares.
Melysë looked up at him, her own dark eyes were now green flames. "I don't," she said coolly, belying her carefully controlled rage. "You have my daughter. I want her back - now."
"Well, little Sister, you know the drill," said Ares, oozing sarcasm. "You give me what I want, you get the little one back." Melysë, never taking her eyes off of him, reached into her pouch. "No, you keep the ambrosia," said Ares, chuckling, darkly. "I want her." He pointed at Arynë.
"No," said Xena leaping to her feet, Arynë, rising more slowly behind her.
"You keep out of this, Xena," said Ares. "This is a family matter."
"Xena is family," said Arynë, angrily, approaching her uncle cautiously. "Where is my little sister?"
"I like that fire," said Ares, grinning. "You and I are going to make a great team."
"Not unless you make some major changes - 'Uncle'," said Arynë, fury, barely contained, rising within her. "I will never be your puppet 'War Queen' - your tool for destruction and chaos. I am an Amazon, Ares. I live by my honour."
"Why is it," said Ares, rolling his eyes. "Every time I find a strong woman, she doesn't appreciate the opportunity I'm offering her?"
"Maybe it's because these women's greatest strength is their strength of character," said Melysë. "Give it up Ares. And give up my daughter. Where is Selenë?"
"Oh, no," said Ares, laughing. "One of you is going to have to fight me for that information."
"Fine," said Xena, unsheathing her sword.
"Not you - I'm mortal, now remember?" said Ares, backing away a little. "Arynë, care to test out what Xena's been teaching you against a true master?"
"Fight you?" said Arynë, incredulous, then she smiled, slightly. "You don't know what you're asking, Ares."
"Yeah, yeah - you're an Amazon," said Ares, grinning. "Surely you can defeat a mere man, right?"
"No, Uncle," said Arynë, her eyes meeting his, without wavering. "I won't fight you. Xena says to choose your battles. I know I can't beat you - yet. And I won't have my little sister's life riding on my skills now. Xena or mother should fight you."
"Your mother?" laughed Ares. "Oh, that's a good one."
Melysë walked slowly towards her brother, lowering her snow leopard mask over her face.
"Choose your weapon, Brother," she said, deadly serious.
"Alright!" said Ares, drawing a sword. "This I gotta see!"
The two fought heatedly. Ares backed off a little. "I'm impressed," he said. "You've been hiding your talents, Little Sister. But you're still just...not...quite good...enough..." Ares pressed her back, beating her. Melysë threw her head back and hissed, her rage coming to the surface, now, breaking
free, but still carefully reigned in. She became the snow leopard and leapt upon Ares, mauling the former god, until he begged for mercy. Melysë, once again herself, backed off.
"You've killed me!" yelled Ares.
"Not yet, but keep pissing me off and eventually..." said Melysë, grabbing his hand and pulling him to his feet. "You're wounded - a little. It could have been worse. I'll dress your wounds - and give you the ambrosia - as soon as Selenë is here."
"Alright, you win," said Ares, pointing to the trees. Selenë stumbled out, sleepily rubbing her eyes.
"meia - Mama, 'Ryn, Xena, guess what? Uncle and I were playing hide and go seek and I fell asleep 'cause he took too long," she said, falling into her mother's arms. Melysë held her close, soothing her back to sleep. All of her anger and fear now gone with her daughter, safe asleep in her arms. She handed the little one over to Xena, then turned her attention to Ares' wounds
"You coulda told me, you know," he said.
"Told you, what, Brother?" asked Melysë with a sigh.
"Told me that you could, you know do that," he said.
"Ares, once I killed a man - brutally - as the leopard," said Melysë, quietly. "I vowed never to allow that to happen again. Now I can control it, but when rage overtakes me, it's difficult.
"Hm, maybe I picked the wrong Amazon, after all," said Ares, grinning. "Why control it? Why not just...let go?"
"Come on, Ares. You know better than that," said Melysë, gently but efficiently cleaning and stitching her brother's wounds - wounds which she flinched at, knowing she had inflicted them. "I know killing is your stock in trade, but even you must know it's wrong to take a life unnecessarily."
"Yeah, but how do you decide which lives are necessary - and which aren't?" asked Ares.
"Ares, every life is sacred," said Melysë, patiently, as she bandaged one of his wounds. "And you know it because you know the power you received from each and every life lost on the battlefield. Every one of them was a sacrifice to you and you know it. Most of them went willingly to battle - but not all."
"But now, there are still wars - even though the god of war is...well...you know," said Ares.
"It's true. War is still with us. I'm afraid it always will be. Until mortals can learn to love each other unconditionally - and sometimes, I despair of that day ever dawning. But only sometimes," said Melysë smiling. "There, that should do it. Keep those clean - mortals get infections and that can get nasty and uncomfortable. Oh, and here's your ambrosia. That should help ward off any fevers or festering - just in case.
"'Mortals', huh? So - who am I if not the God of War?" asked Ares, earnestly.
"Why, you're Ares - my brother, and Uncle to my daughters - if you'll have us," said Melysë, smiling, as she bandaged the last wound. "Just - don't try kidnapping them - or making them into warlords - ok?"
"I can't promise anything," Ares growled, then grinned. "It's my nature."
"You know, Ares," said Melysë, gently. "That alcove - there was nothing of Zeus there."
Ares looked Melysë in the eye. "You're not going to tell anyone about that are you?" he asked. "Especially not Aphrodite - she's not good at discretion."
"No, of course not," said Melysë. "But why was there no memento of our father?"
"What? A thunderbolt? Dad never left anything tangible behind, except a bunch of bast- - oh, sorry," said Ares, grinning, sheepishly.
"That's perfectly alright," said Melysë, grinning back. "Amazons don't recognise that particular appellation. We don't care who sires our children."
"Don't I know it," said Ares, grinning. "I love that about Amazons. But seriously, I would like a memento of Zeus. I just couldn't find anything."
"Maybe I can help," said Melyse. "I think I know just the thing."
The women returned to the Amazons with Selenë. Gabrielle was so relieved to see the little girl, she wouldn't let the child out of her sight for three days. Selenë and her daughter, Ephiny had grown as close as true sisters and, watching them together, Gabrielle couldn't help but think of Selenë as another of her own growing brood and wonder to herself if her daughter had found her own malatyr.
Melyse had a promise to keep and within a few days of their return, she met Ares just outside the boundaries of Amazon Lands. "Here," she said, handing him a small packet. "My mother always told me it was a gift to her from my father - who I had always believed to be you until Aphrodite set me straight. She said he told her it would protect her from lightning."
Ares opened the packet and held up an amulet, shaped like a bolt of lightning, and shimmering with magic - a last little bit of their father's power and essence. "Thank-you," he said, gravely. "I know this must mean a lot to you, too."
"I have plenty from my mother," said Melyse, kindly. "I know our father would want you to have this."
"Oh, here, give this to Arynë," said Ares, handing Melysë Artemis' bow, grinning. "After all I put her through, I want her to have it. I've still got her quiver and arrows, but I figured...I owed her. Besides, if memory serves me, I do not want to tweak her off."
"Thank-you, Ares," said Melysë, smiling. "I know how much 'Ryn will appreciate this."
Ares nodded once, then faded, and Melyse ran - as the snow leopard, because it felt good - back to the village.
To be continued (in part IV: BATTLE CRY)
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